2016 was a fantastic year for movies, I don’t care what anybody says.
I’ll concede that is was a below-average year for Hollywood blockbusters, with many disappointments and not a whole lot to get excited about while sitting in an air conditioned cinema on a hot summer evening. But if you found yourself seeking solace on some of the roads less travelled, there was treasure to find.
One reason 2016 was such an exciting year for film: women. Now, I recognize there’s still a long way to go in terms of equality in the film industry, and that coming from a straight, white dude this might not mean a whole lot to some, but from my perspective this was a benchmark year for women in film. This was the first year I can remember where I saw a load of fantastic, relevant movies from incredibly talented women without having to make a point of seeking them out. This talent, these exciting and vital perspectives, have always been there, but this year it really seemed like they were starting to get their due in the mainstream.
At one point I realized in the span of a couple weeks I had seen new movies by Mia Hansen-Love, Ava DuVernay, Andrea Arnold, Anna Biller, Maren Ade, Karyn Kusama and Anna Rose Holmer. All without trying. These were just the movies worth seeing and the filmmakers making an impact, these and so many more. And I didn’t even get the chance to see Certain Women, by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favourite directors.
Speaking of movies I didn’t get to see, it’s worth mentioning that I haven’t seen even close to everything worth seeing, despite having watched over 100 2016 releases. At the time of writing I still haven’t had the opportunity to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, or Martin Scorsese’s Silence, or Denzel Washington’s Fences etc. etc. Some movies just take a little longer to make their way to old YYJ.
But with what I have seen I had a heck of a hard time whittling them down to ten titles, as you’ll see at the end of the list. But, faithful readers, it’s all for you. Without further ado, the best movies of 2016:
10. Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie
Lord help me, I do love a tightly wound Western, and Hell or High Water sure scratched my itch for slow strolls, hip holsters and long shadows. Starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a pair of bank-robbing brothers, and a never-better Jeff Bridges as the lawman on their trail, this dusty neo-Western manages to be a tense action-packed thriller, a character-driven drama and relevant slice of social commentary all at once.
9. Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven
Elle is a hard one to describe, and perhaps an even harder one to sell. It’s about the aftermath of a rape, but not with any approach you’re likely to imagine. Isabelle Huppert delivers a knockout performance as a woman not unfamiliar with evil, who refuses to be a victim and goes about getting on with her life in surprising, disturbing, compelling ways. Verhoeven subverts the near-cliché hyperrealism now dominating European cinema to create a wholly uncomfortable viewing experience, one I’m still reckoning with but feel richer for having seen.
8. Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Travis Knight
In terms of pure moviemaking magic, I don’t think I saw a better film this year than Kubo and the Two Strings, an unbelievably beautiful stop-motion movie from Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman). It’s a classic quest tale, with a young one-eyed boy on the search for his famous Samurai father’s armour, but ultimately the film forgoes the quest to explore family, grief and the power of storytelling. Often dark, frequently thrilling and constantly gorgeous, Kubo and the Two Strings is a feast for the eyes and the heart.
7. The Fits, directed by Anna Rose Holmer
This surprisingly deft and touching little film is another hard one to describe. A young tomboyish girl (played with amazing talent by the 11-year-old Royalty Hightower) abandons boxing to join the girls dance team. She’s not a natural but seems fascinated with finding her place among the others as they develop into womanhood. And then people start randomly having seizures. Is it the water? A disease? Nobody knows, but it’s not long before each girl starts wondering when she will be next. An allegory for the terrifying and mysterious process known as “growing up,” The Fits is a fun, captivating movie with pitch perfect tone.
6. Lemonade, directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and others
Is Lemonade technically a movie, in the strictest, released-to-cinemas sense? No. It didn’t go to the theatres, it’s not eligible for film awards. Do I care? No no hell nah. For two reasons: 1) how we watch and release movies is changing so rapidly, perhaps it’s time to start shedding traditional definitions of “movies,” and 2) was there anything more vital, thrilling, beautiful and challenging released in 2016? It’s not for me to speak to Lemonade as an empowering piece of musical cinema, but I will say its anger, its inventiveness, its vibrancy is truly powerful. Oh and the music ain’t bad either; in fact I’d also vote for Lemonade as the best album of the year. All hail Queen Bey.
5. Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Grief can be a hard thing to do justice on screen. It’s far too easy to fall into clichés or drown viewers in unearned sentimentality. But there is one key to making it work: honesty. And Kenneth Lonergan’s third masterful feature is not short on it. Casey Affleck plays a loner whose brother dies, forcing him to return to his demon-filled past to look after his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges, going full Bahston accent). Not a film of easy resolutions or big breakthrough moments, Manchester by the Sea instead earns its emotions through compelling characters, well-earned tears and a refusal to take the easy road.
4. Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch
I described Paterson as a great American folk song when I first reviewed it, and that still rings true to me. There’s something in its simplicity, in its variations on a theme approach that soothes viewers into a place of comfort and openness. To not just entertain or thrill, but to change an audience’s state of mind, is one of the most powerful achievements a film can have. This calm telling of the day-to-day life of a bus driver/poet played by Adam Driver, is often funny, frequently sweet, occasionally twee, but overall warm and embracing.
3. Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade
About two thirds of the way through any film festival, you can find me declaring “My kingdom for a comedy!” This year’s Vancouver International Film Festival was no exception, but thank the Film Gods there was Toni Erdmann to make me laugh so hard I at times wasn’t sure I could take it anymore. The set-up is simple: a workaholic daughter is visited by her free-spirit father, who strives to remind her to slow down and enjoy life from time to time. It sounds hokey, and maybe even problematic, but its execution, full of both the driest wit and wettest slapstick, is hilarious, affirming and sweet.
2. Sunset Song, directed by Terrence Davies
I can’t understand why Sunset Song is not getting more attention this awards season. Maybe it’s the thick Scottish accents, the deliberate and lyrical approach to its often depressing material, its poetic vision of a lost, hard rural lifestyle. Ah but the land endures, and so does my love for this gorgeously filmed meditation on a young woman’s struggle to find meaning and happiness in a life that consistently won’t allow for it. With a warmth to it that harkens back to John Ford’s masterpiece How Green Was My Valley, Sunset Song hits a rare emotional tone that is both heartbreaking and sublime.
1. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
How lucky are we in this modern political and social climate to have a film like Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight? It’s a film which makes the political personal, that reaches the mind through the heart, and that so beautifully and deftly reinforces that, yes, Black Lives Matter. Jenkins makes his statement by focusing on the complex growth of a single gay black man in three periods of his early life. Along his path of personal development, the main character (known as Little, Chiron and Black) comes across people who work to drag him down and others who try to lift him up. His identity and lot in life means the odds are stacked against him, and watching him struggle with this, and with himself, is agonizing and poignant. Moonlight offers no easy solutions, in fact it barely asks the questions. It not-so-simply touches you with its humanity, its grace and its open-hearted approach. Gorgeously filmed, expertly paced, filled with outstanding performances, Moonlight is the best movie of 2016.
And because there are so many other great movies to mention:
Best Documentary: 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
Best Comedy: Hail, Caesar!, directed by the Coen Brothers
Best Sci-Fi: Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols
Best Horror: The VVitch: A New-England Folk Tale, directed by Robert Eggers
Best Scene: Debating the Dean in Indignation
Tell me how wrong I am and let me know your favourite films of 2016 on Twitter @cinefileblog!