OK, this is me biting the bullet.
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet seen Jackie, or 20th Century Women, or Silence, or Elle, all films that might show up on this list. They were all officially released in North America in 2016 but won’t be in cinemas in Halifax for a few weeks yet. However, I want to get this done, and have had no trouble choosing 10 to stand by. If those other pictures are good enough to bully their way onto this list, I’m OK with asterisks and addenda.
For notes on my process, and other end-of-2016 nods, keep reading at the bottom of this post.
Here’s the list, from 10-to-1, which will be followed by a collection of films that could have shouldered their way onto my Top 10 list on a different day.
10. For sheer audio-visual excitement, The Neon Demon was the film to see this year. It was also madder than a football bat and completely fell apart in the final 15 minutes, which I understand is at least partly due to director Nicolas Winding Refn rewriting the script as he shot it. Why was Keanu Reeves even in this picture? No idea, nor do I know what the mountain lion in the motel room was supposed to signify. But I was totally gripped by all of it from start to end. It feels like the unnatural conclusion to a culture of narcissism.
9. After more than 30 years of feature filmmaking serving up a body of work unparalleled in American filmmaking, people have maybe become a little inured to the Coen Brothers’ casual genius. Hail Caesar! is a frothy joy that stands, if not amongst, then only slightly behind their best comedies. It’s a passionate recreation of a bygone era, peopled with the vainglorious and idiotic. It’s packed with Hollywood in-jokes that enrich the experience, but you don’t need to get them to appreciate the picture. Not to bash La La Land, which I liked some of, but this is the year’s best throwback musical celebrating the dream factory. Not that Hail Caesar! is in the Oscar conversation. Would that it were so simple!
8. It’s unusual to see a director get two quality major motion pictures into a calendar year, but huge props to Jeff Nichols, one of my favourite new-ish filmmakers, for Midnight Special and Loving, the latter a moving and romantic true story of commitment that only just slipped off my list. Midnight Special is here because it has a wonderful combination of elements: a genuine reverence for the soft touch Steven Spielberg brought to his first decade of directing, a gorgeous mystery, and a sharp combination of realism and fantasy. Also big props go to Michael Shannon, who with this, Elvis & Nixon, Loving, Nocturnal Animals, and raging at Trump, had a career year. I’ll be first in line for whatever Shannon and Nichols do next, though they’ve both earned some time off.
7. “I cannot control their fear, only my own,” is one of the better lines in Captain America: Civil War, as spoken by Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. The 13th Marvel Cinematic Universe feature is one I liked but also felt a little ambivalent about the first time I saw it—a bit pummelled by the action and maybe the diminishing novelty in these films—but subsequent viewings revealed that if you take out all the (terrific/noisy) action sequences, you get a superior meditation on the cost of power, on accountability, and how passion and politics separate us as much as bring us together.
As a cultural representation of what went on in the United States in 2016, this film delivered the single best relevant example, one that became ever more prescient at the year went on. It also nicely dovetailed all the thematic threads that’ve concerned the key parties: the idealist from an earlier time who prioritizes freedom over security versus the realist who looks to the future and sees the writing on the wall. Sure, cracks are starting to show in the Marvel machine—Doctor Strange wasn’t nearly strange enough—but in years hence all the kids who came of age in the past eight will be talking about these movies as their defining myths, the way the earlier generation does about Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It’s an astonishing achievement in world-building, making superheroes the dominant genre in movies today, and Marvel made this entry much better than it needed to be.
6. Moonlight was the film almost everyone I polled for their #Bestof2016 film list had in contention, with only one cinephile actively critical of it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I can’t deny the film’s gentle power, or the achievement of director Barry Jenkins in managing continuity in a vivid triptych, a coming-of-age story with three actors playing the same role. It feels like the film everyone should be seeing right now, plugged right into the Zeitgeist, and I love when that happens with an independent film coming out of nowhere.
5. Hell Or High Water is a terrific modern western, one that you can take based solely on its genre thrills—two brothers rob branches of a West Texas bank in order to pay off a property debt to that same bank while trailed by a mismatched pair of grizzled cops—or you can consider it a creative commentary on where so many people are at in the wake of eight years of economic recession. Either way, one of the year’s genuine cinematic pleasures.
4. This might seem like an odd framing for a Colombian/Venezuelan/Argentinian film set in the Amazon, but Embrace Of The Serpent spoke to me the way 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now do. The scale of the film is off the chart, proposing a world of psychedelic wonders and human horrors, while also being a clear-eyed consideration of the legacy of colonialism. There’s something profoundly moving and universal about it. It’s also spiked with the odd chuckle. In a film with a lot of heavy themes, I love that it manages to muster some humour, too.
3. John Carney’s Once beguiled the world, and if there was any justice, so would Sing Street. It has an undeniable autobiographical tang to it, a story of group of misfits at a Dublin high school in the 1980s looking for love and attention through their passion for music. Unabashedly nostalgic for both the ’80s and the romantic idealism of being a teen, it manages to still deliver a story that feels fresh and entirely lived-in.
2. A French film shot in Turkish, Mustang on the face of it might seem an odd and perhaps obscure pick, but Mustang and Embrace of the Serpent were both among the runners-up for Best Foreign Language Oscars in 2016. Though Son of Saul got the golden statuette, and I can understand why, these two films on this list I expect to watch again many more times than the claustrophobic Holocaust drama. Mustang tells the story of five sisters living under the oppressive yoke of their aunt and uncle, waiting to be married off, and their efforts to find freedom. It’s a wonderfully shot and edited film, a thriller as much as a family drama that, despite its setting half a world away, is edifying and universal.
1. Searching for cultural relevance is a game we film writers like to play, and I’ve found satisfaction in a number of my picks for this year’s list. Another, perhaps even more important priority is sheer, visceral impact, the kind of emotional gut reaction that takes you by surprise and dekes past any kind of learned, cerebral assessment. That’s what Green Room did.
I’ve seen it three times since I first sat white-knuckled through it as the final film of the 2015 Atlantic Film Festival, and I’ve loved it more each time. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was an important film for my 2014, but his follow-up had an added impact. It was one I spoke of in hushed tones when I mentioned it to friends. It isn’t for everyone: the violence is gruesome and vivid, crossing the film over from gritty thriller into horror territory. I managed to convince a couple of non-horror-watching cinepanions to watch it based on the presence of Patrick Stewart in the cast. They weren’t scarred by the experience, but definitely shaken up.
Green Room is a clinic of low-budget suspense: our heroes (The Ain’t Rights, a punk band on tour in an old van) are holed up in a bunker-like venue in the Oregon woods. They’ve seen something the Neo-Nazi owners of the place don’t want getting out. Bad things happen. That’s the whole of it, simple and intense. I loved it unreservedly.
Other fine films this year include, in alphabetical order, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Arrival, Demolition, The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some!!, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Knight Of Cups, Love & Friendship, Lion, Miss Sloane, The Nice Guys, Paterson, Shin Godzilla, Toni Erdmann, and The Witch.
Special recognition must go to The Lobster and Swiss Army Man, both films I had problems with but they delivered genuine narrative originality, something we rarely see in this age of audience-tested entertainment product. Also, from a local perspective, props to Floyd Kane and Director X with their Dartmouth race tension and family drama Across The Line (aka Undone), and Ashley McKenzie’s story of love and addiction, Werewolf.
I know someone will ask, so just in case you wanted to know:
The worst movies I saw came out in the summer, and while there were more than a few that stunk up the joint, the bottom of the barrel was The Legend of Tarzan. To his credit, director David Yates bounced back with the charming Fantastic Beasts, but perhaps, unlike Jeff Nichols, he shouldn’t be spending his time directing two big features in a single year.
Check back soon and I’ll offer a list of under-the-radar films from 2016 you may have missed.
Notes on the Year (and on the Process)
This was also a year that served up a lot of terrific serial content on television. I’ve fully admitted Stranger Things was the best thing I saw on any screen through the summer months, and I was as engaged by Game of Thrones, The Crown, and OJ: Made In America (which some consider a feature film though I found it on TV) as I was by most of the features I saw. What this means for the future of my viewing habits or this blog has yet to be determined.
In December it was also the first time I was barred from seeing a new film with my media pass. (Thanks Disney!) If this keeps happening I’ll be giving more attention to smaller, independent films, which is probably fine. Blockbusters are often less needy of critical attention, and frequently less deserving.
Last month I also connected with a few good people to get their 2016 lists, and wanted to take a moment to thank them all for sharing their picks for the best films of past year: Stephen Cooke, James Covey, Nick Malbeuf, Zack Miller, Mark Palermo, Tara Thorne, and Hillary West: I can’t deny that your picks made me think longer and harder about my own, and I found that most of you prominent cinephiles weren’t nearly as precious as I am about release dates or film festivals. I think next year I’ll be looser with my choices, but this year I stuck to the plan: Considering feature films that came out in 2016 in North America while trying not to choose a film fest release if it hasn’t found any kind of distribution on the continent before the end of the year.
For example: Paterson, which I saw at The Atlantic Film Festival and has been released in some places, but not yet in Halifax. It’s in play. And so is Mustang, officially released elsewhere in 2015 in order to qualify for the 2016 Oscar nominations, but not here in Canada until the spring of 2016.
But Personal Shopper, which I really liked at its festival screening, will be in contention for this list at the end of 2017 because, best I can tell, it’s officially a 2017 release.
Thanks for reading! I want to also send out a special thanks to Kate and Michael at Halifax Bloggers for all the great work you do.
See you all at the movies in 2017!