The Top 20 Films of 2016
1. Hidden Figures. This rather traditional Hollywood drama about the black female scientists at NASA who helped propel John Glenn into space feels like a reverberating bomb of political resistance in these trying times. After a brutal election campaign and the opening days of an increasingly autocratic ruler, a movie about the quiet pursuit to fight against entrenched systemic racism and conventional wisdom seems to be an antidote to “alternative facts” and fake news. Centered around three fantastic performances from Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, the film seems radical by not calling into question how refreshing it is to have a film about black women where nary a one is playing a maid, but rather are serious, qualified bureaucrats and intellects. Every time the film finishes in top five grossing films of the week, America shows that its civic values may still be in place, even if the new Fuhrer seeks to destroy them.
2. La La Land. Damien Chazelle exploded onto Hollywood’s radar with Whiplash in 2014. The small independent film, which won several Oscars for editing and best supporting actor, demonstrated Chazelle’s unique talents for filming music. He had an uncanny knack for bringing the vitality of jazz to the screen with some quick cuts and beautifully composed shots. His latest film is a musical ode to Los Angeles and the millions who migrate here for the weather and chance for stardom. Emma Stone and Ryry Gosling may not be of the caliber of Astaire/Rogers or Judy and Gene, but their (literal) missteps demonstrate the hard work necessary to make such a complex musical set piece work. Their errors erase the fetishized perfection of MGM musicals and give us a sense of the fragility of our labor. The third act has far too much talking, and should have been punctuated with a musical number, but the opening number filmed on the 710 Freeway on a blistering day in July and the coda with its references to An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge, and Les Girls are some of the best Hollywood had to offer this year. Additionally, I quite enjoy the fact that the Westside is virtually absent from the film. Long live downtown!
3. Moonlight. This expertly crafted and beautiful take on one man’s life growing up in Miami does what few films can offer: a unique perspective on the world that changes its audience’s view of that same world. Barry Jenkins’ film does not shy away from violence, but refuses to sacrifice the humanity of his characters. Jenkins has the confidence to allow his camera to wordlessly frame and narrate his characters without manipulation or triteness. A fabulous ensemble cast, including this year’s frontrunner for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali, and the incomparable Naomie Harris, bring into focus a community often critiqued and criticized but never fully understood.
4. Elle. Paul Verhoeven is a much-maligned filmmaker. In many cases, rightly so. His casual sexism and distaste for female sexuality that is unconfined seems to posit women as driven mad by their own desire. In his latest flick, we have the usual Verhoeven set up: a masked intruder brutally rapes a woman in the opening scene, and the trauma of the event transforms her into something almost subhuman. What saves this troubling narrative is the stellar performance of the famed French actress Isabelle Huppert. She fights the descent to madness that Verhoeven craves. She maintains her rationality and her anger through her trauma. Her pursuit of her rapist is twisted by her own desires of sex and revenge, but she is aware of this, not blithely unaware, as Verhoeven’s previous heroines have. The beautiful final scene opens a new possibility free of male predators where women have found allegiance.
5. Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan is a master of understated, character-driven dramas. Ever since he was nominated for an Oscar for You Can Count on Me (a film that made Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo into bona fide film stars), Lonergan has crafted tight narratives of loss and identity. In this touching film about the effects of grief, Casey Affleck gives a restrained performance with such a powerful arc that critics have fallen over themselves to praise him. The tension that explodes near film’s end is palpable, and even as one of the saddest films of the year, it inspires in its pursuit of relief from the loss and the consequences of our own mistakes.
6. Lion. A film about Google maps? That can’t possibly be good. Oh, how wrong you are, my friend. Based on a memoir by a young Australian man of Indian descent who was adopted by white Australians in the 1980s, the film follows his quest to find his birth family by using, you guessed it, Google Earth. Dev Patel, a reliable, quirky romcom lead (as seen in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), shines in the shaded layers of conflict he feels about his adoption and his multiple levels of identity. Nicole Kidman displays her talents in two quiet, but devastating, scenes. This is the tearjerker of the year about the families we create and sustain.
7. 20th Century Women. Mike Mills’ charming portrait of his eccentric mother is evocative of 1979 America and the political and cultural crises washing over the country. Mills somehow manages to create a film as memoir. Of course, aspects are fictionalized, but there is a sense of the competing voices seeking to narrate the travails and triumphs of a struggling, non-conformist family. Annette Bening, who was shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nomination, portrays a woman emboldened but also confused by the growth of her son and the world transforming around her. This film also had one of the best uses of a Talking Heads song in recent memory.
8. OJ: Made in America. Two people, who have absolutely no interest in football, were shocked when they discovered I had not yet watched this eight-hour documentary about OJ. I replied: I watched the Ryan Murphy miniseries. Isn’t Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark enough? No, they emphatically replied. Thus, I doggedly decided to try it one night, and I found myself awake until 2 am on a school night because I watched three back-to-back episodes. This is not simply a documentary about the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the subsequent trial of Orenthal James Simpson for said crime, but a history of Los Angeles and its race relations. How did OJ become the darling of a white and conservative university like USC, and then how did he suddenly transform into a symbol of oppression for the black community? It is incisive and fascinating.
9. The Handmaiden. This Korean erotic thriller by Park Chan-wook is based on a novel by Sarah Waters set in Victorian England. This film transposes that novel to Korea under Japanese occupation. This masterful adaptation brings to light the particular sensibilities of Korea in the 1930s. The twists and turns of its plot is narrated through each of the main characters, and the performances of Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri crackle with sexual subversion and intensity.
10. Hell or High Water. This riveting tale of bank robbers narrates the plight of the common Trump voter, but it points liberals to the way that these voters can be shown how the powerful world-order espoused by Trump actually harms them. The film maintains its tension through withholding the motives of its robbers until the very end, when Jeff Bridges, as the intrepid US Marshal, cracks the case in one of the most satisfying endings of a film this year.
11. Weiner. When Anthony Weiner allowed a film crew complete access to his bid to be mayor of New York, he should have probably foreseen what a terrible decision that was going to be. Unfortunately for Weiner (and the Democratic party), he is so myopic and stubborn that he didn’t even conceive of the possibility of his Twitter sexting rearing its ugly head all over again. And boy, did it. His twitter handle of Carlos Danger is revealed and everything proceeds to collapse around him instantaneously; all of it captured on film. Huma Abedin looks pained and angry as her marriage continues to face an array of personal problems. It seems patently obvious that she would have rather not have any of it filmed. Let us hope she is happier alone.
12. Love & Friendship. Whit Stillman’s ingenious take on a piece of Austen juvenilia sparkled with the type of wit that is often devoid from your common BBC costume drama. Charming performances from Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny (“Hello, America, I’m Chloe Sevigny”) demonstrated the relevance of Austen to American audiences in the 21st century, especially with quotes, such as “Facts are such horrid things.” We probably shouldn’t allow the Trump staff to see this one, except the characters are pretty dismissive of the ingrate Americans.
13. Hello, My Name is Doris. Sally Field stars as a hoarder who falls in love with her very young co-worker, played by Max Greenfield. His hipster friends see her eccentric tastes that mark her as an outsider to her peers as symbols of her non-conformity. Finally, a woman in her sixties is allowed to feel sexual desire and not be portrayed as a blood-sucking vampire. She doesn’t end up with her younger man, but she is nonetheless transformed by her encounter.
14. Zootopia. If Disney did anything right this year, it was making a film for children that instructed them about racism. We will need to show this one to our kids frequently for the next four years.
15. Jackie. Pablo Lorrain’s at times overwrought and melodramatic interpretation of Jackie Kennedy’s days following the assassination of her husband displays a deft hand at narrative and camerawork. The pounding score and breathtaking shots follow Jackie as she washes the blood from her hair and battles LBJ’s incoming staff on the proper way to honor her recently deceased spouse. Natalie Portman seemed to be the leading contender for Best Actress, and that seems to have faded, but this will stand as one of her finest performances.
16. The Lobster. Singletons are sent to some sort of camp to be paired with someone or risk being turned into the animal of their choice. It is an odd and charming piece about the demands of compulsory coupledom, and the unreachable demands and expectations we place on ourselves and those around us. Forster exhorted his readers to “only connect,” and The Lobster echoes that. In order to that, we must dismantle the psychological barriers we place before others.
17. Eye in the Sky. This drama about drone warfare, helmed by the director of Tsotsi, exposes the fraught decisions at the heart of this new, impersonal way of battle. Additionally, it handles the legal and diplomatic issues during such elevations of hostilities in a nuanced way. Helen Mirren, as always, provides a portrait of a military commander both surprising and honest.
18. Toni Erdmann. This German film tracing the troubled relationship of father and daughter is strange, and too long at over two-and-a-half hours, but it is rather haunting. It poses a rather vexing ethical question: in late industrial capitalism can we even achieve fruitful relationships?
19. Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen leads a rebellious left-wing family on a journey to bury his wife. With civil liberties now eroding, this film gives us a romantic portrait of what our communes will look like when we disengage from the grid.
20. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A troubled Maori boy is adopted by a white New Zealand couple, and all seems well. Then the adopted mother drops dead of a heart attack. The rather gruff husband, played by the underrated Sam Neill, must now take charge of this boy, except Child Protective Services wants to take him back. In order to escape, they flee into the hills and forests. There is a troubling anti-government narrative in here, but the bonding between these two men who seem so distant is lovingly portrayed.