The Best Films of 2016

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1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR
I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady from over a decade ago, but none have stayed with me like this one has since first seeing it last spring. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. This time, he draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this year.

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2. AQUARIUS
Retired music critic Clara (Sonia Braga) has lived in the two-story Recife, Brazil apartment building that gives this film its title for most of her life after inheriting it from her aunt; currently its sole tenant, she’s pressured by developers trying to force her out so they can replace it with a commercial high rise structure. While Aquarius is yet another story of one person determinedly holding on to a way of life in the face of change and gentrification, it’s more elegiac than nostalgic and driven by mystique instead of melodrama. It’s no overstatement to say Braga delivers a monumental, career-best performance, but the rest of the film is very much up to her level, from its diverse, playful soundtrack to how masterfully it builds up to its shocking, gloriously cathartic finale.

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3. OUR LITTLE SISTER
The latest from longtime favorite director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows) is a Japanese manga adaptation about three grown sisters who take in their teenage half-sister after meeting her at their shared father’s funeral. One of the most admirable things about the film is how naturally compassionate the women are towards their newly discovered sibling, not seeing her as a rival or an unwanted surprise, but simply as family. Like all of Kore-eda’s best work, it focuses on our capacity to be humane, on how well we treat each other. The charming, unfussy narrative that unfolds rises to the same level as Yasujiro Ozu’s great mid-century domestic dramas; it’s all enough to make one wish a major American filmmaker could achieve something both so simple and profound (leading us to…)

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4. MOONLIGHT
Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) almost wholly unexpected second feature has garnered the acclaim and the audience you wish most films of its ilk could achieve. In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps. However, what’s most admirable is the rare intimacy it achieves—particularly in those wonderfully observed and executed scenes at the neighborhood park, the beach at night, and the diner.

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5. THE LOBSTER
When news surfaced of the premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth) first English language film, I thought it sounded nothing less absolutely crazy and thank god, he didn’t disappoint. In fact, as English language debuts go, nothing about The Lobster feels compromised or diluted. A pitch-dark satire about the necessity to find one’s “soulmate” (or be turned into the animal of your choosing), it features an unrecognizable Colin Farrell (playing a schlub so convincingly that it’s revelatory) and a typically terrific Rachel Weisz, plus an inspired cast of weirdoes populating a narrative that sharply critiques two worlds that would seem to be wildly at odds but actually end up mirroring each other in their enforcement of conformity. And that ending is more brilliant (if not more grotesque) than anything Kubrick could’ve come up with.

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6. FREE IN DEED
Abe, a minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Memphis attempts to help out recent convert and single mother Melva, whose mentally ill young child Benny is subject to terrifying fits of rage. It doesn’t go all that well as his attempts to spiritually heal the child test not only the mother’s faith but also his own. Exploring the controversial subject of faith healing without judgement, Jake Mahaffay’s film enables the worshippers’ actions and their consequences to speak for themselves. Featuring a trio of excellent performances (David Harewood, Edwina Findley and RaJay Chandler (a real find as Benny), Free In Deed is intense and unforgettable—it shook me to the core. Here’s hoping that it finds distribution beyond the festival circuit.

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7. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
Unless I missed something by not seeing A Touch of Sin, this feels like a considerable leap forward for Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. Set over three time periods (the third one is too good to give away), it follows Shen Tao (his longtime muse Zhao Tao in perhaps her best role to date), a woman coming of age at the end of the 20th century whose choices create consequences both good and bad for those closest to her. A character-driven epic that’s more confident and efficient than Zhangke’s earlier work, it recalls the Zhang Yimou of To Live, while also coming off as more subtle and poignant; it also makes inspired use of a certain Pet Shop Boys song, of all things.

8. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is one of the more honest filmmakers working today, both in the natural dialogue he writes and in his tendency not to sugarcoat absolutely anything. I’ve been telling people that this coastal Massachusetts-set drama is a tough watch, because it doesn’t shy away from the horrible thing that forever alters his protagonist’s (a never-better Casey Affleck) life, and even worse, reveals what happened when you least expect it. But I’m just as comfortable relaying how funny parts of this film are. Mournful, sweet, a little acerbic and moving without being outwardly manipulative, Manchester By The Sea both soothes and stings because it is so close to life as we recognize it. All I could ask for from this near-perfect picture is a less bombastic musical score.

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9. AMERICAN HONEY
A two-and-a-half-hour-plus road movie about teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door (in 2016?), with a first-time actress (Sasha Lane, another real find) expected to carry almost every scene and a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf (of all people) credibly playing the romantic lead? Only Andrea Arnold, the great British director behind Red Road and Fish Tank could have pulled this off. That she did gives American Honey some novelty, but its continuous momentum lends it its spirit and spark. You watch this film just waiting for it to take a wrong turn and go off the rails, but it doesn’t and you’re left with a rare, illuminating view about what a huge mid-section of this country really looks and feels like at the present moment.

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10. DEMON
It seems the simplest way to describe this film is “unclassifiable”, but let me try a little harder. Demon is about a wedding between a Polish woman and an Israeli man in the former’s home village; it is also about ghosts and an exorcism, with ties to Catholicism, World War II and the Jewish dybbuk legend. The tone wavers between kitchen sink realism, slapstick-like hilarity and all-out horror. It’s close to the best-looking film I’ve seen this year, but it’s not like anything else I’ve ever seen, or possibly ever will see again—its director, 32-year-old Marcin Wrona committed suicide days after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

11. WEINER
Immensely entertained by this, Schadenfreude!: The Motion Picture when I saw it last summer; would probably have a more complicated, possibly chilling response revisiting it post-election. Either way, fascinating for its very New York political point-of-view and unfiltered access, even in the social media age.

12. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Whit Stillman was made to adapt Jane Austen. Sticking to one her less overly familiar works was a smart choice, as was realizing Tom Bennett’s comic potential by casting him as Sir James Martin (Kate, Chloe, Stephen, etc. are also very welcome); it’s all much to do about nothing, of course, but splendidly executed.

13. MISS SHARON JONES!
As essential as director Barbara Kopple’s Dixie Chicks doc from a decade ago. With a personality as massive as her talent, charismatic soul singer Jones and her struggle with pancreatic cancer was genuinely inspirational when this premiered at TIFF over a year ago. Now, following her death last November, it’s also a joyous tribute to an exceptional life.

14. BEING 17
Just when you thought the gay coming-of-age genre was dead, Andre Techine, whom arguably perfected it two decades ago with Wild Reeds, breathes new life into it by relegating it to the film’s subtext for its first half, all the while establishing a lived-in environment full of equally compelling stories to tell.

15. KRISHA
It goes somewhat bonkers at the end, but Trey Edward Shults’ film is still one of the year’s best and most original debuts—especially in its claustrophobic sound and production design, but also for the great lead performance from his own aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who has the unhinged yet oddly relatable intensity of a boomer Gena Rowlands.

16. THE SAVER
Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Montreal microindie is nearly the gem her earlier picture, Marion Bridge was, with good work from Imajyn Cardinal as its teen protagonist, an indigent orphan forced to crafty measures in order to care for herself. While it scrapes away at the miserablism of a Dardennes Brothers picture, it ultimately comes off as more hopeful than that.

17. CAMERAPERSON
Kirsten Johnson has worked as a cinematographer on documentaries for 25 years; in this experimental essay piece, she assembles footage she’s shot for these works along with that of her family and friends. More stream of consciousness than linear, it nonetheless sings due to her eye as a photographer and, almost more importantly, as an editor.

18. CERTAIN WOMEN
Not all parts of Kelly Reichardt’s Montana triptych work as beautifully as say, Meek’s Cutoff does as a whole (I thought the midsection with Michele Williams was a little slight). But the first third with Laura Dern and Jared Harris scans like a nifty true crime short story, and the last part soars thanks to Lily Gladstone’s unadorned and eventually heartbreaking sincerity.

19. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
If anything, Mike Mills honors his mother more fruitfully here than Beginners did his dad. Anchored by another expansive Annette Bening performance, this is an affable character study set in 1979 whose structure and purpose resembles an indie film from 1999 but feels thrillingly relevant. I haven’t liked Greta Gerwig so much since Frances Ha, or Billy Crudup since… 1999?

20. LOVING
Jeff Nichols’ film proves too subtle for awards-bait as it focuses on the character’s ordinariness just as much as the social issues. However, there’s often beauty in subtlety and Joel Edgerton’s underrated work here clinches it—as do the conclusions one comes to draw between interracial marriage in the ‘60s and same-sex marriage in the past decade.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Chevalier, Chicken People, City of Gold, The Club, The Dying of the Light, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, Life Animated, Little Men, Morris From America, Neon Bull, Nuts!, Rams, Sing Street, Tickled

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