With each new year emerges a bevy of top 10 lists from every possible subject of interest, and film is no different. Most critics, both amateur and professional, would write and publish these lists in time for the new year. Some, on the other hand, prefer to wait an additional month to ensure a thorough consideration of all those potential list entries deemed essential.
I am one such critic. For those who preferred a proper, New Year’s list, I apologize for the inconvenience.
Cinema in 2016, much like the world events that surrounded it, was a most divisive landscape. Never before have I seen a year in which the ideological gap between professional critics and mainstream moviegoers (comic book fans in particular) widen—the established notion of the word “critic” challenged. Superhero cinema saw seven individual releases—six if you only count those that saw international box office success—and none of them were universally adored. (My favorite of the six—Captain America: Civil War—barely lies within my top 50 for 2016.) The deluge of derivative works that inhabited the rest of 2016 underwhelmed an average moviegoer population conditioned by hype, while others turned forlorn as original works failed to make a splash.With the convenient assistance of MoviePass, I managed to watch just over 150 new releases, without the benefit or the luxury of attending any high-profile film festivals. Ranking them involved enforcing a game of War between each new release just seen versus all those other films already seen, over the course of 2016. There remains, as such, a marginal conflict over the rankings for now. I intend with this list to cement the films that I will regard as 2016’s best—the ones that will withstand any changing tastes, not to mention the test of time (i.e. the ultimate judge of art)—today as well as a decade from now.
So, without further ado, here are my top 10 best films of 2016, starting with…
Up until a few days after the new year—when I saw the eventual #10 entry—the Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard-starring World War II romance Allied occupied this spot. In the end, however, the undeniably-passionate Allied does not compare to the simplicity of the setting of Fences as an arena for its raw and impactful drama centering on race relations.
Denzel Washington, transitioning smoothly from starring in the 2010 Broadway revival to directing himself and the cast, masterfully supervised the few changes from the already-existing screenplay written by the play’s original author, August Wilson. Washington transforms the theatrical openness into cinematic intimacy, delivering a film that addresses not just race relations, but about familial connections, spousal responsibilities, the duties of manhood, and eventual reconciliation with a seemingly-oppressive world. Those blown away by the meek and anguished performance of Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea will at the same time marvel at the hard punches of Denzel Washington’s conviction and towering monologues. Pound for pound, the pure acting of Fences will live beyond 2016 for generations of filmgoers.
French-Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite directors of the past few years. His first English-language offering, Prisoners, blew me away back in 2013, his follow-up Enemy ran spider webs throughout my mind, and his 2015 crime thriller Sicario ended up becoming my favorite film of that year. Admittedly, I do not love Arrival as much as those other films, for I could not help but question throughout its runtime whether Arrival ever managed to sustain a long grip on its bar of ambition, further prodded by its sometimes serviceable dialogue and seemingly-convenient conclusion. In the end, Amy Adams’ committed performance, a technical craft assembly meticulous in their individual efforts, and the story’s firm dedication to demanding reflection in each of its emotional highs and lows all collectively won me over. Arrival is beautiful and it will always beckon me to examine it, trace it, meditate upon it, and embrace it, again and again.
What a film. Barring the two brief but strong sexual moments that both disturb and catch the viewer—not to mention the characters—by surprise, there were few films in 2016 that were as personal, intimate, and visually-numbing as writer-director Barry Jenkins’ spotlight of three chapters in a young African-American boy’s life. The acting, from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris’ heralded performances to the three actors portraying the protagonist in each chapter, is remarkable. The cinematography by James Laxton flows and captures vivid color, while the score by Nicholas Britell nails the story’s weary, cerebral tone. From start to finish, Moonlight’s power will leave a lasting impression on its viewers.
7) The Edge of Seventeen
Writer Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut was, for lack of a more nuanced phrase, made for me. Never before have I related to a fictional character than with the precocious and socially-handicapped Nadine Franklin, who was brought to life by Hailee Steinfeld in a tour-de-force youth performance that was regrettably put aside in favor of Lucas Hedges’ supporting turn in Manchester by the Sea. The supporting cast all carried their weight beyond what was required of them—especially Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s sarcastic history teacher Mr. Bruner. An energetic and endearing dramedy perfect for this teen generation, The Edge of Seventeen proves that a great script, a great cast, and a sure directorial hand is all you need for great cinema.
Most Rewatchable Film (with (5) separate viewings in the theater—the most for any new release in 2016)
You should always give credit to Disney when they not only stray from their trademark princess stories and extend their reach into a different genre, but when they possess a message deeply relevant and timely. Zootopia never fails to dazzle me with its imaginative display of ideas, fusing inquisitiveness with hopeful perseverance. I can just feel the potential for future stories in its expansive and vibrant metropolis setting. And yes, I cannot deny the infectious, arguably destined chemistry of its lead duo. As my pick for the “Most Rewatchable Film of 2016”, Zootopia remains a most delightful and insightful animated package and the gold standard of family entertainment from 2016.
However, I cannot commit to calling it the best animated film of 2016. That title, after weeks of deliberation, belongs to…
5) Your Name
Sublime beyond words. Before Your Name., I would have described anime director Makoto Shinkai’s storytelling as “emotionally deep, but lacking in substance” (yes, even his highly-acclaimed 2007 film 5 Centimeters Per Second). With this film, that is no longer the case; Shinkai has finally matched his knack for generating rich, absorbing, and marrow-deep emotion with a script (adapted from his own 2016 novel) that gives the space for the lead male and female to grow accustomed to their peculiar, body-swapping connection, before executing perhaps one of 2016’s most audacious narrative pivots, transforming a quirky, romantic story into a dire race against the clock that will leave you exhausted after the film has finished. When the film receives a limited release in North America in April of 2017, I urge everyone to attend the nearest screening—you won’t regret it.
(P.S. The Academy had no excuse to snub this film from the Best Animated Feature category. No excuse.)
4) Hell or High Water
I first saw this neo-western crime thriller after conducting my final script-reading session last August—the JP Catholic students and I read and sang The Lion King—and I was anticipating a small film to end a great evening. I did not anticipate that I would encounter one of my favorite films of the year. As a major fan of The Big Short and 99 Homes, Hell or High Water proved to me that the decade-old financial recession has become the de-facto object of contemporary cynicism in modern cinema and that evoking the western genre was as perfect a way to bottle that cynicism as film noir did in the period during and after World War II. The acting ensemble of Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham fully cover the different shades of masculinity, while the minor characters encountered in the beautiful but desolate west Texan landscape and run-down small towns enhance the film beyond just being a mere thriller. Released at the end of a disappointing summer blockbuster season, director David Mackenzie and Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s little film deservedly towered above everyone else.
This is a film. From the very first note of Mica Levi’s paranoid and haunting score (my favorite of 2016), I recognized that director Pablo Larraín’s biographical drama/character study (with a tightly-focused original screenplay by Noah Oppenheim) of arguably America’s most iconic First Lady would be anything but conventional. This film devotes loving attention to every craft, from husband Stéphane Fontaine’s ghost-like cinematography to wife Madeline Fontaine’s period-accurate costumes to inhabit, among other gorgeous sets, a recreation of the White House interior. All these elements are topped, with utter grace, by Natalie Portman’s accent-accurate take on Jackie Kennedy—a performance that deserves the Best Actress Oscar. This and 2015’s Steve Jobs (another towering achievement in nearly every craft) will go down as two of the most unheralded and underrated films of the past few years, and audiences who happen upon them will always be in for a spellbinding experience.
In this culture so fixated by hype and movie trailers, no trailer for a 2016 film stopped me in my tracks like this one: https://youtu.be/pZTXv5NpgaI
2) Eye in the Sky
Director Gavin Hood’s war thriller is the type of dependable and rewatchable adult drama that’s rarely seen nowadays. Guy Hibbert’s engrossing original screenplay set the stage for a powerhouse acting ensemble that includes Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, the late Alan Rickman (in his final live-action role), and anchored by the ever-sturdy Helen Mirren. What keeps you in your seat, however, is the emotionally-arresting moral dilemma at its center that grabs you from the opening shot, proceeds at an almost real-time pace, and never lets go until the final shot fades to black. No tricks, no CGI-saturated set pieces, just the moral dilemma, and it is that cinematic simplicity that will always blow me away.
This was my favorite film of 2016 for the longest time, from when I first saw it in late March. No film could top it…that is, until mid-December, when I finally saw…
…my number one favorite film of 2016…
…Should we even be surprised?
1) La La Land
Big, bold, colorful, romantic, passionate, audacious, spellbinding, a masterpiece—these are how I would describe writer-director Damien Chazelle’s original musical. Out of the 150 or so new releases that I saw in 2016, none were as demanding of my attention, my appreciation, and my love of cinema as La La Land.
This film, to put it simply, is nothing short of an artistic miracle.
God bless Damien Chazelle for his talent, his vision, and his desire to ensure that those who encounter his films will never give up chasing their dreams.
Godspeed and Farewell, Cinema in 2016!
Greetings, Cinema in 2017!