I’m the damned fool who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of… list every year, and that’s because I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last few weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or things that simply never came out locally. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in that timeframe, mostly in an effort to solidify my top 10.
As of this writing, I saw 483 films in 2016 (a personal best!), either in a theater or via screener—from DIRTY GRANDPA to TRAIN TO BUSAN. This number does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as a restored print, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the list. As I do every year, I’ve separated the documentaries in its own list because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on my main list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and features; the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.
I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I was assembling this list. I often feel that after the first 10, the numbers don’t mean much, and that’s certainly true this year. Of my top 15, I saw 12 of them more than once.
I say this every year, but I’ll say it yet again: If you think a list of 60 films is an annoyingly huge, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 20, or 10. Of course 60 titles is indulgent; you’ll find ways of dealing with it, I have faith. I’ve included sections of my original reviews of my Top 10 films. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, streaming, rentals, going to the theater and actually checking them out the old-school way. Quite a few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that’s where you should view them. A couple of them will make their way to you in January.
Alright, enough preamble. Here is my humbly submitted Top 60 best features and Top 20 best documentaries of 2016. Please enjoy, discuss, debate…
BEST FILMS OF 2016
1. SWISS ARMY MAN The first film by Daniels (the collective banner under which acclaimed music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan work) almost feels like a dare. In the beginning, it’s daring us to like it at all. And by the end, it’s daring us not to get emotional about its endearing characters and their newfound joy about living. SWISS ARMY MAN is a collection of things we don’t talk about or do in polite company—farting, vomiting (mostly water, but still), masturbating, suicide, falling in love with a stranger, things we dispose of (like garbage or people who don’t have a place in the world)—thrown together into a story about two men who must relearn what it’s like to be alive. One of them is a corpse; the other has just given up on life.
But by the end, it made me feel better than I’ve felt in ages after a movie, and it’s a feeling that stayed with me for the entire year after I saw it in January at the Sundance Film Festival. SWISS ARMY MAN is the work of visionaries who possess both a sense of humor and a profoundly clear sense of what makes us function as feeling creatures, influenced by those who raised us and often in desperate need of course correction, inspiration, and a soul mate, even a dead one.
2. MOONLIGHT “Who is you, man?” It’s a question that comes late in the new film from writer-director Barry Jenkins’s hypnotic and emotionally exposed Moonlight, but it’s also the question at the core of the entire three-act tale of a man named Chiron, growing up black, gay and largely abandoned by his drug-addicted mother in Miami. For all the right reasons, MOONLIGHT is a tough film to categorize. It’s more about expression, identity, those who influence us (for better and worse) as we grow older, and ultimately it transforms—almost without us realizing it—into a deeply moving love story. The fact that MOONLIGHT as a film exists at all is impressive; but that it’s as near-perfect a film as you’ll see all year is miraculous. It’s a true tale of awakening that isn’t about celebrating who you really are; it’s more about accepting it, letting it sink in, and living with it, perhaps for the first time in your life.
3. THE HANDMAIDEN From director Chan-wook Park, THE HANDMAIDEN is ambitious, hypnotic and elegantly constructed, even with its countless twists and misdirections. And as much as the film is about good people attempting to exit a dangerous, scary scenario intact, the greater pleasure from watching this comes from seeing those that would harm slowly lose their power over others until they are empty husks that were once human beings. It’s an astonishing achievement that should not only been seen, but viewed on the biggest screen you can find.
4. LA LA LAND There’s a musical number in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND set five years in the future from the rest of the story that takes the film from “great” to “into the stratosphere.” I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s the most old-school Hollywood musical moment of the entire film, taking on elements of fantasy and spectacle that isn’t in any other part of the film. And in those few closing moments, we learn more about dreams—the kinds that come true and ones that remain unfulfilled—than I have from any film in quite some time. The sequence comments on the road not taken, and asks us to consider which path was the right one for these two. It’s exquisite, unforgettable, and utterly heartbreaking. But it also gives us hope for both of our heroes. This and all the rest make LA LA LAND one of the finest films of the year.
5. THE LOBSTER Like most of the films from Greek director Yorgos (ALPS, DOGTOOTH) Lanthimos, his latest work, THE LOBSTER, makes more sense watching it than it does explaining it. If it sounds absurd, congratulations, you figured that out. But it’s also darkly funny in its messages about societal pressures to couple up and have children. Staying in line with the director’s previous films, the movie can also get quite cruel. Most of the film exists on dual (almost opposing) planes, and as such, it almost demands multiple viewings. The Lobster is an exercise in patience, weirdness, anarchy and ultimately compassion. It’s a film that demands that you don’t think too hard about what is unfolding, while at the same time asking you to contemplate some very weighty subjects.
6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s newest excursion, an exploration into the many ways we deal (or don’t deal) with loss and grief, and digging back out of such experiences so that we can carry on with our lives. What we often forget is that the way grief is portrayed in movies, usually the story being told is about how a character makes the journey—or even just the first step—to find a better place, and by the end of the film, the character has hope or some kind of redemption or forgiveness, whatever that person needs to exit the pit of despair. But in the real world, things don’t work out nearly as well for us mere mortals, and Manchester by the Sea is a tough, thoughtful and perfect reminder of that.
The film manages not only to capture a place and its people, but it also makes it clear that the two are undeniably linked. Some people break free and start anew, others live and die right where they started, while others suffer no matter where they go. The film’s only downside is that it reminds us how damn long it takes Lonergan to write and direct a movie. But if the results are this extraordinary, we’ll somehow find a way to fill the gaps.
7. THE WITCH The debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, THE WITCH, is a horror film rarely concerned with having things pop out at you from the dark; the film is about sustained dread, occasionally punctuated with hints of an evil force that might be a witch. Or it might be something far more human, emanating from within. Or it might be both. Like all great horror stories, THE WITCH operates at numerous levels, some quite grounded in reality (21st century style) and some supernatural—both interpretations of events work equally well, and one is no less terrifying than the other.
Everything about THE WITCH works to the common goal of moving us deeper and deeper into the dark corners of our hearts and minds and beliefs. What the film does not attempt to do is make you pee your pants in fear with cheap tricks and jump scares. This film is about the long game—sustained, drawn-out, ever-building fear. And by the time you get to the final 15 minutes or so and Eggers reveals the truth of the situation and source of all torment to this family, you’re already long gone in your terror-filled brain. The film feels personal, genuine, as much a statement about the dangers of religious fervor as it is about those who don’t believe enough. It’s a stone-cold scare film with art-house aspirations, and it all somehow works beautifully. So go in without expectations and just let it happen to you.
8. ARRIVAL Above all else, ARRIVAL is a beautifully human science-fiction story that allows unfiltered emotion to come into play in a big way. I’ve actually seen the film twice so far, and I can attest that watching it a second time, knowing all of its secrets, is an even more enriching experience than the first. ARRIVAL is easily one of my favorite films of the year. I’m not sure if Paramount deliberately set the release date for ARRIVAL for the Friday after Election Day, but in so many ways, it makes sense. What happens in the film is that 12 enormous spaceships perilously hover over various locations around the planet, and it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that one of the primary concerns of the plot is pushing the world toward a place where all nations must cooperate in order to solve a potentially life-threatening mystery. There’s a great deal more to the film than that, but the idea that we must all work together to survive is one that stands out right now.
9. GREEN ROOM Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has literally made a follow up to his acclaimed previous film, Blue Ruin, that is so punk rock that it’s actually set in the world of punk rock. Opting not to follow in the footsteps of many of his contemporaries and go from micro-budget films to some of the biggest franchises in existence, Saulnier went with yet another low-fi, low-budget thriller—granted, with a bit more star power—GREEN ROOM. It’s is a grubby, messy, gory, gritty little piece of perfection from one of the most skillful young directors working right now.
10. CHRISTINE Based on the life of newscaster Christine Chubbuck and directed by Antonio Campos, CHRISTINE is the devastatingly detailed account of a person in the quiet throes of depression, trying with all her might to hold it back by throwing herself into the work she cared so much about. The movie captures the period and the mood of the country quite faithfully, without getting lost in ’70s kitsch. But nothing about the film quite prepared me for the depth of the compassion and pain that Rebecca Hall brings to her role. Even when she was trying to relax and be social, she never truly dropped her reporter’s voice and sense of professionalism, which may have been a source of her downfall. Christine is as revealing as it is tragic, and Campos and his team turn her story into a symptom of greater issues in the country than simply a singular event. This is a truly magnificent work.
11. JACKIE 12. DON’T THINK TWICE 13. ELLE 14. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL 15. FENCES 16. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY 17. TRAIN TO BUSAN 18. THE WAILING 19. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! 20. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
21. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE 22. I, DANIEL BLAKE 23. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS 24. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN 25. PATERSON 26. PETE’S DRAGON 27. IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE 28. CERTAIN WOMEN 29. LOVING 30. SING STREET
31. A BIGGER SPLASH 32. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 33. THE NEON DEMON 34. HELL OR HIGH WATER 35. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR 36. A MONSTER CALLS 37. DEADPOOL 38. DON’T BREATHE 39. THE NICE GUYS 40. BLUE JAY
41. HAIL, CAESAR! 42. THE INVITATION 43. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER 44. MISS HOKUSAI 45. SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU 46. AMERICAN HONEY 47. INTO THE FOREST 48. CREEPY 49. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE 50. EVOLUTION
51. TONI ERDMANN 52. THE LOVE WITCH 53. A MAN CALLED OVE 54. QUEEN OF KATWE 55. BORN TO BE BLUE 56. THE CONJURING 2 57. UNDER THE SHADOW 58. DOCTOR STRANGE 59. ZOOTOPIA 60. EYE IN THE SKY
BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2016 As I do every year, I separate out documentaries, not because I feel they should be judged differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great doc titles in front of you as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 50 films is an impossibility. I get such a wonderfully unique charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know something about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or sources of outrage.
Sometimes, the sheer beauty of a subject moves me to tears; other times, it’s something quite ugly and worth despising that gets under the skin, takes root, and refuses to let go until I take action (often times, that action is the simple act of sharing the film with others). But the experience I treasure the most when it comes to a documentary is when a genuinely well-made work doesn’t just examine a subject, but it also allows me to consider a way of thinking on one that I’d never considered.
It seems that the most difficult thing for a human being to say is “I’m wrong” or otherwise admit a mistake, when it comes to one’s point of view. If we’re not grown up and wise enough to reevaluate our thinking from time to time, then we’re basically just waiting to die. Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking human being is to take in new things, take part in new experience, and allow this newness to infect us with fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some small way. Here are 20 titles I think do that…
1. TOWER One of the most harrowing films at the SXSW Film Festival this year was this work about America’s first experience with a random mass shooting, which took place in August 1966 from atop the landmark clock tower on the University of Texas in Austin. Director Keith Maitland doesn’t feel the need to verbally tie these events to more modern tragedies, but I doubt there’s a person who sees this movie that wouldn’t do that themselves. Maitland sticks to the facts without giving up his creative expression, and the result is the most poignant and unforgettable documentary of the year.
2. OJ: MADE IN AMERICA 3. CAMERAPERSON 4. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO 5. NEWTOWN 6. WEINER 7. UNDER THE SUN 8. MISS SHARON JONES! 9. GLEASON 10. LIFE, ANIMATED
11. 13TH 12. TRAPPED 13. AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY 14. TICKLED 15. ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING 16. ZERO DAYS 17. LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD 18. NUTS! 19. KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE 20. MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER