Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 10 Best Movies of 2016

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
Was 2016 a good year for cinema? Who can say? Each year at the movies is different, even if every year is also the same. The 100-plus theatrical releases that I watched over the past year were all distinct—admittedly, some were more distinctive than others—but they all contributed to that familiar emotional experience that is the movies, inspiring in me a vast array of feelings: disappointment and delight, frustration and pleasure, sadness and joy. And just as selecting 10 particular titles from a single year is a cruel and capricious task, evaluating a year’s disparate films as though they collectively form a cohesive whole is equally foolhardy. Put differently, 2016 was a good year insofar as it afforded us the opportunity to stumble into a darkened theater with the hope of seeing something vital and new. If that renders it the same as any other, well, that’s why we keep going to the movies.

In other words, I liked a good number of movies in 2016. I disliked many others, hated a handful more, and loved a precious few. These were my 10 favorites. (Note: Though I’ve done my best to see every critically acclaimed release, I have yet to see the much-beloved Toni Erdmann, as my local art house has been negligent with its bookings. I expect to see it within the next two weeks; if it ends up cracking my top 10, I’ll update this post accordingly.)

10. The Witch. A startlingly assured debut, Robert Eggers’ self-described “New England folktale” is a model of expertly paced horror that is almost gentle in its slow-rumbling disquiet. Eggers’ craft is flawless, but he makes sure to foreground his characters, who speak in ornate, period-specific dialogue. Ralph Ineson is excellent as a well-intentioned tyrant, while Anya Taylor-Joy (recently seen sparring with James McAvoy in Split) is equally fine as a fearful dreamer. And Eggers’ deliberate approach ensures that The Witch earns its scares. As a horror movie, it’s terrifying, but it’s never cheap. (Read the Manifesto’s full review here; currently streaming on Amazon Prime).

9. Moonlight. Appearing in the top spot on many critics’ list—it dominated the prestigious Village Voice pollMoonlight isn’t without its flaws; its aesthetic can feel a bit ragged, its pacing a bit sluggish. But as a thoughtful and supremely empathetic character study, it gradually acquires tremendous power. Mahershala Ali is devastating as a gregarious gangster, while director Barry Jenkins strikes a delicate tone that is both angry and deeply humane. It’s an ostensibly quiet film with a loudly beating heart. (Full review here.)

8. Kubo and the Two Strings. The best animated feature of the year, this gem from Travis Knight and Laika Studios is astonishing in its painstaking craftsmanship. But it is also a soaring testament to the power of storytelling, with sharply drawn characters and an unflinchingly dark narrative. The stop-motion animation has a tactile beauty, while the set pieces are coherent and energetic. Bold, expressive, and tinged with sorrow, Kubo and the Two Strings is a stirring and satisfying picture, with a poignancy to match its alacrity. (Full review here.)

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane. Taut, tough, and indecently suspenseful, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterful thriller, piling on one twist after the next without ever resorting to cheating. Much like The Witch, it’s a debut feature that demonstrates its director’s gift for slow-building tension, only instead of the ominous New England woods, the setting here is a cramped underground bunker, which is both a refuge and a prison. John Goodman is terrifically odd as a surly survivalist, but it is Mary Elizabeth Winstead who anchors the film, lending it its breathless desperation. She is our window into this cloistered, suffocating world, and she welcomes us in, even as she tries with all her might and ingenuity to get out. (Full review here.)

6. Arrival. Part sci-fi mind-bender, part message movie, part heartfelt weepie, Arrival is a rich and challenging film, asking heady questions without providing easy answers. It is also an arresting mélange, with director Denis Villeneuve (appearing on this list for the second straight year) nimbly melding genre elements with more searching thematic material. He is aided enormously by Amy Adams, who as a melancholic linguist delivers a radiant and fiercely intelligent performance. Arrival zigs when you expect it to zag, but even if its ultimate catharsis is far different than you expect, Adams keeps things on course with her effortless magnetism. The movie’s aliens are fascinating, but its real hook is the achingly human woman at its center. (Full review here.)

5. Manchester by the Sea. A searing study of tragedy and grief, Manchester by the Sea is not an upper. But there is real tenderness in Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of frayed, flawed people, and acerbic humor too. The film’s obvious selling point is the performance of Casey Affleck, who is almost ruthless in his restraint, gradually revealing his character as a husk of a man incapable of processing his own existence. If that sounds depressing, it is, but Manchester by the Sea is also vibrant and rewarding. It’s a sledgehammer wielded with grace. (Full review here.)

4. The Lobster. Why do fools fall in love? The Lobster answers that question with uncommon insight, even as it systematically shatters our preconceived notions of romance. That it does so within a fictional dystopia—one where masturbation is criminalized, children are commodified, and unattached adults are turned into animals—only enhances its thematic potency and biting satire. Of course, the movie wouldn’t work at all without Colin Farrell’s reserved, bleakly funny turn as a floundering loner fighting against a society that has stripped him of his agency. Even when he finally finds love, uncertainty still creeps in. Watching The Lobster, I had no such doubts. (Full review here; currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)

3. Hell or High Water. A movie decidedly of and for its time, Hell or High Water is an old-school cops-and-robbers throwback with a contemporary twist: The chief villain isn’t a black-hat bandit or a corrupt lawman, but a faceless, remorseless bank. That lends a shiver of topicality to a film that hardly needs it, given the cinematic verve and personality already on display. As a didactic fable, Hell or High Water can feel overheated, but as a thriller, it’s electric, with richly drawn characters, a smart and patient screenplay, and terse and exciting set pieces. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are perfectly complementary as brothers in arms (one wearily soulful, the other gleefully wicked), while Jeff Bridges delivers his best performance in many years as a wisecracking Texas Ranger with a heavy heart. The bank may be the embodiment of corporate evil, but the human characters are sublime. (Full review here.)

2. The Handmaiden. This movie is sex. It’s lush and beautiful and surprising and provocative and completely nuts. By all rights, it should be chaotic as well, but Park Chan-wook exhibits absolute control over the gonzo proceedings. As a result, The Handmaiden is a freewheeling sensory assault that’s also a meticulously disciplined mystery, a combination of heedless pulp and high art. Terrific twin performances from Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee give the film its feverishly erotic kick, while Park pulls off his own seduction, shackling you in your seat and enthralling you with his exquisite craft. This is a gorgeous and ghoulish film, a spectacle of serpentine plotting, demonic violence, and unfettered desire. It’s lovely, it’s ugly, but above all, it’s triumphant. (Full review here.)

1. La La Land. Combine the sensuality of The Handmaiden, the fragility of Manchester by the Sea, and the ingenuity of Hell or High Water, and you might begin to approach La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s tour de force of love, longing, and music. It’s a movie about choices, which makes it a wonderful irony that we don’t need to choose between its pillars of greatness. The technical bravura of its choreography, the sublimity of its colors and cinematography, the enchanting chemistry of its stars, the delicate melancholy of its story—they all coalesce into a single intoxicating brew. La La Land is a joyous moviegoing experience, but it is also profoundly sad, a wistful meditation on the inherent tension between love and work. Yet even in its mournful passages, it is never anything less than mesmerizing, transporting you into a dazzling universe of light and sound and color. This is what the movies can do. This is why we’re here. (Full review here.)

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