Films of 2016, Ranked

All told, I’ve seen 31 of the movies given a non-festival release in 2016, 21 of them in the theatre. It was a wretched year for blockbusters, but full of wonderful indie films. A24 in particular dominated the field, with The Witch, Moonlight, Green Room, and The Lobster all flying under their banner. It is a reflection of the general mood of 2016 that the best of these releases tend to be far more dour than those of 2015; my top ten in particular aren’t exactly a bastion of cheerfulness. Capsule reviews for each film are below.

The Great

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THE WITCH – An overwhelming air of perversion pervades a movie that’s simultaneously one of the most unnerving horror films ever made, an incredibly well-researched period piece, and a scathing indictment of the truly evil Puritan God as well as his occult counterparts. I woke up screaming the night after I first saw it, and its unholy power hasn’t faded much with time. It feels deeply, viscerally *wrong* in the act of watching, an experience I’ve never quite had with any other representative of its genre. (★★★★½)

JACKIE – String ostinatos yawn steadily downward in the sonic equivalent of Dali’s clocks, ushering in a bottomless nightmare. The feverish vertigo of loss, the panic-stricken numbness of grief and displacement, swirl around and around with no sign of dissipation. Portman’s performance and Mica Levi’s hellish score are the twin pillars that hold this moldering dream upright, and neither a framing device too many nor a bum line here and there can even think of weakening that support. The ending shows superficial signs of resolution, but the audience knows the deeper truth. There’s no escape from this, and there never will be. (★★★★½)

MOONLIGHT – An indigo-tinged odyssey of pain, identity, and the possibility of healing set to hypnotic strings, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film is a titanic achievement for both black and LGBT cinema and a highlight of A24’s already towering filmography. Every single performer in it deserves a nomination, and Jenkins is the natural frontrunner for Best Director—this had better be the year that #OscarsSoWhite is broken. (★★★★½)

13TH – Absolutely required viewing. A more accessible version of Michelle Alexander’s monumental book THE NEW JIM CROW, this documentary calmly and devastatingly deconstructs the war on drugs and exposes the United States penal system for what it really is: a new form of slavery and disenfranchisement for the black population. (★★★★★)

LEMONADE – If the universe were just, this thing would be in the running for about half a dozen different Oscars. The best album of the year by a country mile is equaled by a film that’s at once a hell of a lot of fun and a stunning meditation on grief in the black community. Never knew I’d be counting an extended Beyonce music video as one of the greatest movies of the decade, but here we are. (★★★★½)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – I spent the first twenty minutes of my viewing wondering what the fuss was about and the next two hours absolutely riveted. A raw, aching portrait of the spiral of grief that’s made all the more wrenching by the contrast its frequent moments of humor provide. Casey Affleck is a rightful lock for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars—his performance is at once subdued and titanic in its effect. (★★★★½)

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – A fount of constant visual imagination and emotional power. My issues with its mostly whitewashed voice cast aside, there’s no arguing with either the spectacle and beauty of Laika’s stop-motion or the poignancy that pervades the movie’s thematic and human core. (★★★★½)

GREEN ROOM – Almost like a snuff film in its incredibly disquieting sense of realism—nothing in this film is predictable, and yet things play out exactly the way we know they would in real life. Probably *the* exploitation thriller for our times, what with its exploration of the banality of evil and the seething mass of ugliness that lies beneath neo-fascism’s veneer of respectability. (★★★★½)

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – What begins as a Twilight Zone-esque look at the irony of a doomsday prepper who could in fact be right in his paranoia ultimately transforms into a remarkable parable of escaping abuse and empowering oneself to fight monsters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ripley and MacGyver in one. Give John Goodman a statue. (★★★★½)

The Very Good

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THE LOBSTER – A near-perfect and shockingly cruel first half gives way to an overlong and thematically muddled second half that’s redeemed by Lea Seydoux’s imperious presence—as a satire on relationships in the internet age it’s sharp, mean-spirited, and hysterical, but when it turns to skewering loners as if to grant both sides equal time, its target becomes ill-defined and its goals unclear. Nonetheless, its twisted humor, nerve-rattling score, and anxious performances gel to form the closest we’re likely to come to Wes Anderson on a Schopenhauer kick. (★★★★)

FENCES – It’s essentially a film-of-the-play rather than a piece of cinema in its own right, and it stretches things out a good twenty minutes longer than it should. But hoo boy, the performances. Washington and Davis deliver absolutely titanic renditions of their Tony-award winning characters, spouting August Wilson’s dialogue in a rapid-fire vernacular poetry that’s dense and exhilarating. The longer the film runs, the more both characters simultaneously stretch to larger-than-life proportions and collapse in on themselves. (★★★★)

LA LA LAND – Damien Chazelle, you crazy bastard, you somehow got a studio to hand you $30 million to make this. (It’s not the life-changing musical of our time everyone says it is—Chazelle is misguided in his villainization of new art forms over the old, and there are startlingly few songs, of which only “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is truly memorable. But good God is it pretty. Especially the ending, which is just *unreal*.) (★★★★)

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – In an inversion of THE LOBSTER, two relatively lackluster if moderately enjoyable acts give way to one of the greatest sequences of sustained action in recent memory, replete with some of the most beautiful digital imagery ever to hit the big screen. Riz Ahmed is the best of us. CG Tarkin is and will always be an aesthetic and ethical abomination of the highest order. (★★★★)

ARRIVAL – Ted Chiang is one of the masters of his field, but I was worried that a big-screen adaptation of a short story that features linguistics as a key element would be impossible to render cinematic. I needn’t have worried. Amy Adams continues to turn in excellent, understated work, while the cinematography, sound design, and score are at once chilly and intimate. Would that this were the baseline for popcorn SF movies. (★★★★½)

THE REVENANT – There is no way in hell Alejandro Inarritu should have gotten a second Best Director Oscar for this over George Miller and MAD MAX. No way. I am still bitter. (It’s quite good, though, up until the non sequitur of an ending, even if its director is disturbingly fixated on brutalizing his characters at the expense of all else. Certainly the handsomest movie on this list, thanks to Lubezki salvaging Inarritu’s movie from his more ignoble impulses.) (★★★★)

VOYAGE OF TIME: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE – Maybe Terrence has decided to stop embarrassing his fans and make good movies again. This cut, at forty minutes compared to the 90-minute 35mm cut that will eventually be released, inevitably feels truncated, but is a welcome return to the well of nature-as-divinity that produced such breathtaking results in THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE. (★★★★)

The Good

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DON’T BREATHE – The screenplay is clumsy, there’s no greater thematic depth to be had, and there are couple of (fortunately brief) moments where the film crosses the line from enjoyably creepy to repugnantly exploitative. But the cumulative effect of these things can’t outweigh the sheer *fun* to be had as Fede Alvarez gleefully explores the premise of a home invasion whose perpetrators quickly realize they’re in over their heads. (★★★★)

HAIL, CAESAR! – Second-tier Coen Brothers, to be sure, but as a love letter to Old Hollywood it’s a delight, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and Carter Burwell’s gloriously pompous score anchoring a whirlwind of famous faces doing their best to out-ham each other (first place goes to Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners who’s forced to work with a cowboy song-and-dance man). (★★★½)

THE INVITATION – If one holds to the Hitchcockian tenet that suspense is not the bang but the anticipation of the bang, this film is somewhat of a masterclass. (★★★½)

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT – This one wants to be profound but winds up merely intriguing. No more white Jesuses, please, but Ewan MacGregor does a great job in his dual role as the Savior and his tempter. Stop comparing this to Malick just because Lubezki’s the DP. (★★★½)

THE NEON DEMON – Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but what entrancing sound and fury. Worth picking up on Blu-Ray just for the pretty colors, ice-cold synth score, and pederast Keanu Reeves. (★★★)

ZOOTOPIA – Predictable and somewhat stale, but this gets *huge* points for a surprisingly (for a billion-dollar kids’ flick, anyway) well-executed exploration of culturally-ingrained racism and white privilege, even if the metaphor of predators and prey falls apart once looked at too closely. (★★★½)

PATTON OSWALT: TALKING FOR CLAPPING – The hilarity is dampened somewhat by the viewer’s knowledge that Michelle McNamara died on the day of its release, but Oswalt’s melange of pop culture riffs and relationship stories remains a welcome break from the outside world for an hour. (★★★★)

STAR TREK BEYOND – Diverting fun, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses that brings—a welcome return to form after the cynical nadir that was INTO DARKNESS, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of Abrams’ original reboot. Definite plusses include McCoy’s finally being reinstated to the main-character status he held in the Original Series and the introduction of Jayleh to the crew. RIP, Anton. (★★★)

The Mixed

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AUDRIE & DAISY – This doc’s narrow focus is to its detriment—its subject, the sexual assault of the titular girls, is horrifying, but it doesn’t build enough of a case for such events’ everyday occurrence for the sheer scale of the problem to truly hit home. (★★★)

KNIGHT OF CUPS – Malick’s latest narrative movies are everything that people wrongly complain THE TREE OF LIFE is—absent of characters and emotion, full of buzzword-laden narration that tries to generate meaning out of endless banalities, concerned almost entirely with author rather than audience. I would say at least watch it for Imogen Poots, but we have GREEN ROOM for that. (★★½)

SECRETS OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – As a peek into the pre-production of the biggest cinematic event of our generation, it’s interesting enough. As a documentary on how the film was actually made, it’s an abject failure. (★★★)

The Godawful

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DEADPOOL – About 30% of the jokes are funny, but these land amidst a morass of middle-school level humor that’s even more teeth-gritting due to how “edgy” it thinks it is. What’s most annoying is the way it follows the Marvel formula to the letter while trying to distract the viewer from this by mocking itself; rather than actually trying to be genuinely subversive or innovative, it relies on misdirection to convince you that it is those things. (★★)

BLAIR WITCH – One of those sequels that not only spectacularly ignores all that was effective about its predecessor but actually manages to damage the original with its incredibly stupid storytelling choices. Useful as a means of illustrating by contrast just how ingenious THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT truly is. (★½)

RISEN – I don’t know what I expected, really. The one emotion I felt other than overwhelming annoyance at the level of condescension being thrown my way was a fair bit of sympathy for Tom Felton, who’s been reduced from one of the highest-grossing film series of all time to this. (★)

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – At once overstuffed and empty, full to bursting with plotlines but never endeavoring to *mean* anything substantial. Even Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell can’t rescue what’s at once the ugliest and the worst-structured movie of the year, a drab, dim slog that’s near-completely void of humanity and succeeds in sucking almost all the emotional and visual magic out of a film universe that was already a mere shadow of its source material. And we have four more of these to look forward to? (★)

BEST PICTURE: Robert Eggers and A24, The Witch

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Travis Knight and Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Ava Duvernay and Netflix, 13th

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, Jackie/Viola Davis, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: August Wilson, Fences

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: James Laxton, Moonlight/Linus Sandgren, La La Land

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Mark Korven, The Witch/Mica Levi, Jackie

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Beyonce, “All Night”, Lemonade

BEST EDITING: Stefan Grube, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Industrial Light and Magic, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND DESIGN/MIXING/EDITING: Sylvain Bellemare and Pierre-Jules Audet, Arrival

BEST ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Wasco and Austin Gorg, La La Land

BEST MAKEUP/HAIRSTYLING/COSTUMING: Erin Benach, Erin Ayanian, and Shandra Page-Edwars, The Neon Demon

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