By plenty of measures, 2016 was a pretty crummy year. 2017 probably isn’t going to be much better, to be honest. But we keep going. We may need to lean on family and friends to get us through, but we keep going. And like any year, we’ll go to movies and books and music to bring us closer together and remind us why our persistence is worthwhile and that we’re not alone.
Roger Ebert thought of movies as empathy-generating machines, these little inventions that help us understand the aspirations and anxieties of other people. It’s a beautiful, hopeful sentiment I keep coming back to since it suggests how art can function beyond mere amusement. It can, maybe, make us better people. We need a bit more of that beauty and hope these days.
While compiling this list of 15 movies, there was a certain throughline of beauty and hope in most of them, especially my top three. The rest of the list is rounded out by ambition (both good and bad), complication, dick jokes, trauma, absurdity, grief, and violence. Maybe that’s 2016 in a nutshell.
Man, what a crummy year.
15. The Lobster
I’m not in love with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, but I like it a whole lot. Its first half is a brilliantly awkward send up of modern love. People pick their mates for the most superficial reasons, single people are pathetic sport for hunting, adults forced to be genuine are reduced to gawky teens unsure of what they feel. Yet I go back and forth about the second half of the film, which is so one-note. So much going on in the first half, and a kind of sparseness there in the second. And yet there’s a lot to love about what’s there. So maybe I do love The Lobster--love is strange.
14. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The mismatched buddy comedy is like the platonic version of the misfit romance--two weird people come together trying to escape the awfulness of their lives. Kindness and generosity ensues. I liked Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople when I initially saw it, but my fondness for the movie has grown in the months after. It’s a throwback to an 80s comic adventure with touches of Edgar Wright and Pixar’s Up. Sam Neil is his Sam-Neil-iest, and I really want to see star Julian Dennison in more stuff. Waititi is a Kiwi filmmaker I’ll keep my eyes on, and his work has gotten me excited for the next Thor movie of all things.
13. Toni Erdmann
On the note of movies that have grown on me, my appreciation for Toni Erdmann has increased the further I get away from the hype. Maren Ade’s nearly three-hour film is not as hilarious or bonkers as some make it out to be. It’s funny, sure, and there’s some unexpected kink involving petit fours, but as a whole the film plays out like a long episode of The Office--a grounded silliness. Toni Erdmann offers a thoughtful and occasionally sad look at the love/hate relationship that grows between children and parents as they get older, and why family is so difficult and yet ultimately worthwhile. Lately I’ve been thinking about me and my father in terms of Toni Erdmann, and it helps me understand why I love my dad.
If The War Room was the political documentary of the 1990s and Street Fight was the political documentary of the 2000s, I think Weiner may be the political doc of the 2010s. Behold the demise of a well-intentioned man driven by hubris and his need to get off on the web. And yet, there’s a admirable spunkiness to him. And yet, Christ, what an asshole. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have (perhaps unintentionally) given people an inside look at a campaign in crisis, and by extension the dissolution of a political marriage. This is the cringe-comedy that our politics have become.
11. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that captures the feeling of playing Star Wars as a kid--let’s do cool stuff in this universe we love. It also gets at the feeling of playing Star Wars as an adult--let’s throw in our big ideas about resistance and conflict. A little bit suicide mission, a little bit WWII movie, Rogue One surpasses The Force Awakens on so many levels. Even though its story is entirely contingent on the first Star Wars film and I have qualms with its CG performances, there’s something refreshing and lively about Rogue One. It’s enjoyable for what it is, just like playing with action figures in a sandbox.
10. The Witch
The bleakness and isolation of Robert Eggers’ The Witch lingered with me a long while after seeing it. Whenever I think about The Witch, I keep going back to the note it strikes at the end. Those closing moments can be read in different ways, and I enjoy that delicious ambiguity. All that repression throughout, and just outside the confines of that home is the threat of nature, free and amok. Teasing it out, the film may be offering a rebuke of American puritanism or the rigid structures of religion and fundamentalism. Like the family in the film, such structures might all be teetering at the brink. The thing is, the big tip over might not be so bad.
9. Green Room
Whenever I talk about Green Room with friends, I usually prefer to it as Punk Rock Die Hard or Punk Rock Straw Dogs. Jeremy Saulnier’s made such a compelling thriller where every one of our protagonists feels like they’re in mortal danger. While we’re just given the barest sense of their backstories, I felt a connection to all of the young punks, and was continually surprised by the mayhem they endure. Saulnier and his cast imbue the film with primal, squirming dread, from Patrick Stewart’s “been there, done that” attitude about extermination to the late Anton Yelchin’s wounded, desperate acts of retaliation. This is a great action film and a great horror film, and it’s also punk as fuck.
Tower took me by surprise, and it’s one of the most gripping documentaries of 2016. The film recreates the events of the 1966 UT Austin tower shooting, one of America’s most infamous yet least talked-about mass shootings. Director Keith Maitland combines rotocope animation with interviews/transcripts from actual witnesses/survivors to restage the horror of that day. The results are beyond moving. I think the animation removes the pressures of filming the period in real life (i.e., fashion and hairstyles, minute period detail, film grain/quality), allowing the witnesses to tell their stories in an abstract yet hyperreal emotional space. Tower is such an intense visual oral history, and what stands out most are the little moments of heroism and humanity that emerge in the face of such troubling times.
Denis Villeneuve’s made a mournful, contemplative, and yet hopeful science fiction film in Arrival. Adapted from a story by Ted Chiang, the film feels so grey and foggy much of the time, as if we’re watching the moods brought on by a drizzly day. Amy Adams’ performance and Johann Johannsson’s score have a similar overcast quality. At the heart of Arrival is this longing for utopian understanding, as well as a meditation on free will and how we deal with unavoidable and inevitable heartbreak. I’m reminded of how the science fiction and fantasy that sticks with me most tend to be existential stories in which human dilemmas get to play out using elaborate toys and toy sets.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is brimming with life. I could have watched a feature film version of its three different sections. Each stage in Chiron’s maturation has its own tone and color and weight to it. I still marvel at how Jenkins built a continuity between these sections, one that works both because of and in spite of the lacunae between chapters. What happened in those intervening years? Where did this character go? Did they lose touch? The fact I’m left wondering what happened to certain characters and what events may have transpired speaks to the life--the lives--going on off the screen. There’s so much to to process about sexuality and blackness and family and the connections we make; the fact it’s such a gorgeously lensed film is a gift.
5. Manchester by the Sea
There are plenty of emotional highs and lows in Kenneth Longergan’s Manchester by the Sea, but they work as parts of a whole. This is largely thanks to Lonergan’s writing, which bravely and recklessly acknowledges that while someone may be in the throes of unremitting despair, another person is doing their own thing in their own way that isn’t necessarily complementary or parallel. Hence the grief-stricken man forced to look after a horndog teenager. Ditto the tearful attempts at reconciliation with a self-flagellating so-and-so who finds his actions irredeemable.
The performances help sell the ups and downs, with everyone their own island attempting to reach out and not feel quite so alone anymore. If these people are Venn diagrams, there’s just a sliver between circles that keeps them together. But what a sliver.
4. O.J.: Made in America
Just in terms of scope, no film this year can match Ezra Edelman’s five-part, seven-and-a-half-hour documentary epic O.J.: Made in America. Each of the five sections exists as its own cinematic essay, covering O.J. Simpson as a sports icon and celebrity, race in America, police violence against the black community, the tragedy of Nicole Brown’s life, the circus of the criminal trial, and Simpson’s sordid days in Miami. It’s such a compelling watch, and I mainlined all five parts over the course of a night and a morning. It’s the rise and fall of a one-time hero, and also the irresolvable difficulties of a divided United States.
By the end, I was left speechless and numb. I was astonished by what Edelman had achieved, obviously, but more so by what he expressed about about America using Simpson as a symbol and a pretext.
3. Sing Street
I watched John Carney’s Sing Street on a whim one day last spring, and it immediately became one of my favorite movies of the year. There’s no other film I can think of that captures the initial exhilaration of learning to play music, writing your own songs, and believing, even briefly, in the redemptive power of making your own art. It’s such a teenage feeling, but one that resonates with adults who feel like they’re no longer allowed those kinds of delightful indulgences. I keep listening to the Sing Street soundtrack, particularly “Drive It Like You Stole It”, “Brown Shoes”, and “Up”, which are some of the best songs in any move last year.
Maybe what speaks to me most in Sing Street is its blend of the misfit romance and the mismatched buddy comedy. These kids may or may not make it--real life favors the latter, sadly--but it’s beautiful that they believed something together, anything together, was possible.
2. The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agassi)
Thematically, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden might be 2016’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Here are two women oppressed by a toxic patriarchy, relegated to servitude or providing some kind of sexual pleasure. Now watch them try to fight the forces of the citadel. Okay, that’s an oversimplification of what Park has crafted here.
The Handmaiden is a sexy, sumptuous, audacious, twisty thriller that had me in its grips from the beginning. So much of the movie is artfully composed, from its seductions to its violence to its sex scenes. Yet Park uses painterly restraint when it comes to way he shoots the sex (i.e., this is not Blue Is the Warmest Color all over again), and emphasizes character and emotion to make these expressions of passion come alive. The Handmaiden might have dethroned Old Boy as my favorite Park movie--time and multiple watches will tell.
Paterson isn’t just the movie I needed in the darkness of 2016. It’s the movie that I need as a writer. Here’s a fount of optimism and contentment, even when all hope seems lost. I likened the movie to Jim Jarmusch giving people a reassuring push on a swing. Rather than succumb to the dumb cliches of writing life--depression, substance abuse, obsession with notoriety--Paterson presents a working artist who is content with what he’s been able to build. Regardless its size, it is something, and that something is worthwhile because it exists. Adam Driver exudes kindness just as much as co-star Golshifteh Farahani; she’s not a manic pixie dream girl, but just one of two dreamers each trying to live a modest dream.
I’m reminded of that final chord struck by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: “No man is a failure who has friends.” Paterson the man also has writing to fill the time alone. What a wonderful world.
There are few noteworthy movies that fell outside of this list of 15 that need some special recognition.
The backlash to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has been loud and extreme, especially now that it’s awards season. While the movie’s thrall has precipitously worn off on me, I found La La Land technically proficient and generally charming. Gosh, that sounds like faint praise, doesn’t it? But I did like the movie quite a bit. Also, “Someone in the Crowd” is a far better song than La La Land‘s Oscar-nominated duo of “City of Stars” and “Audition”. But all the moxie and pizzazz of “Someone in the Crowd” is still not as good as Sing Street‘s “Drive It Like You Stole It”.
Ava Duvernay’s 13TH is another great doc from last year that will stick with me, and in retrospect offers a chilling snapshot of the current political moment we’re living in. For a double feature, it could easily be paired with Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, a chilling doc about the current state of police militirization in America.
Lightening the mood, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was unjustly ignored. It’s a much better music mockumentary than it has any right to be. I also have to give a nod to Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a Pynchon-esque period romp by way of a bumbling PI comedy. Kubo and the Two Strings was gorgeous and magical and the sort of kids movie I’d have loved growing up, and it makes me wonder what Laika will do next.
I also really admired Swiss Army Man (aka Art House Fart Corpse) for sticking with its bizarre premise as a way to critique the toxic masculinity of indie movie protagonists. And a shout out to Bill Morrisson’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, which is a hypnotic documentary on lost fragments of films as well as the history of a lost time and place.
And, dammit, I kind of love Ip Man 3. It’s my favorite entry in the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip wing chun trilogy since it’s such an odd duck. More than that, Ip Man 3 is a great Ip Man movie about Ip Man movies.