So, I understand that we’re already like two months into 2017, and everyone’s already had their fill of reminiscing about how terrible of a year 2016 was. But since the Academy Awards won’t be passed out until Sunday, I feel like I’m still (barely) within the acceptable time frame to have my say. So please humour me for a few minutes of your time while I take us back once more to a year we’d all like to forget.
2016 was one of the more tumultuous periods in my life, resulting in me not being able to get to the cinema as much as I would have liked (and the delay on this write-up), but I feel as though it was a fairly lacklustre year for film. Most of my most memorable moments with motion-picture storytelling in this past year were with television rather than film. New shows like Atlanta, Westworld, and American Crime Story blew me away, while the latest seasons of Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones continued to impress and inspire. I even had such a profound experience with Bo Burnham’s latest comedy special on Netflix, Make Happy, that I nearly included it on my top ten list before determining that it erred too much on the side of TV.
It’s not that all of the films were bad in 2016. On the contrary, there were many good, competent films that I saw throughout the year. The issue is that there weren’t many great films, especially when considering how spoiled we’ve been for the last two or three seasons. There’s been such a concentration of masterpieces and groundbreaking films over the course of this decade that, when a year like this rolls around, full of mere competency, near-misses, and unique ideas that just didn’t quite work, it feels barren. That seeming dearth of artistic mastery, though, has a way of making the gems that I did find all the sweeter.
But now that I’ve sufficiently talked down on the previous year in film, let’s start thinking positively, beginning with my honourable mentions, in alphabetical order:
And now, without further ado, my ten favourite films of 2016.
10) Fire at Sea
Between this and Ava DuVernay’s powerful 13th, there were two truly essential documentaries that came out last year. Gianfranco Rosi’s spellbinding Fire at Sea documents a small village on the Italian island of Lampedusa, positioned on the frontlines of the refugee crisis in Europe as thousands of displaced migrants wash up on their shore every day. Where I favoured this documentary over DuVernay’s was its more adventurous approach to form, almost cinematic at times, and Rosi’s decision to eschew narration and instead allow the images to speak for themselves. The film takes a balanced approach, portraying both the lives of the people who dwell on Lampedusa and the unspeakably burdensome journeys of those arriving from war-torn parts of northern Africa, and every inch of the frame is filled with beauty and gravity. Some may find the film a bit obtuse due to its refusal to take the viewer by the hand and tell them what to make of everything they see, but its that respect for the audience’s intelligence and autonomy paired with its timeliness within the current political climate that makes Fire at Sea the must-watch documentary of 2016.
9) Nocturnal Animals
A woman receives a package from her ex-husband containing a manuscript of his debut novel, a violent and nihilistic thriller, in writer/director Tom Ford’s sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals. The film certainly exhibit’s more than its fair share of pretension at times, but it makes up for that in spades with sharp performances, a creative approach to narrative, and rock-solid cinematography. It boasts one of the best scripts of the year, juggling past, present, and fiction while conveying two stories that slowly bleed into one another. Michael Shannon puts in a solid shift in his Oscar-nominated supporting role, but Amy Adams shines as the true star here as her character’s world is slowly torn apart with every page of the novel she reads. If you thought she was robbed by the Academy for her performance in Arrival, wait until you see this. Nocturnal Animals takes risks that mostly pay off, resulting in a film that’s dripping with gut-wrenching emotional potency.
Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Jesuit missionaries in Japan facing cruel persecution as they seek their supposedly apostate mentor is an increasingly rare type of film, a classically-styled religious epic that is also one of the most deeply personal films from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Silence is at once a deeply moving, beautiful, and harrowing exploration of the limits of faith and the bounds of salvation. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography gorgeously captures the Japanese landscape, filled in with a multitude of top-notch performances, including one of Adam Driver’s career-best showings and what I would argue is the superior of Andrew Garfield’s two leading performances on the year (when he’s not doing a terrible Portuguese accent). The film is as theologically rich and challenging as they come, and its a testament to the film’s sheer power that it left such an imprint on me in spite of some surprisingly amateurish technical errors. Silence is flawed masterpiece.
Denis Villenueve caught my attention in 2013 with his superb thriller Prisoners, and for me he’s cemented his place as one the most exciting active directors out there with Arrival. The concept of “first contact” with extraterrestrials has become a bit of a trope in film now, but Villenueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer manage to breathe new life into the concept with an ingenious, physics-bending introduction to the aliens and shifting the primary focus onto language itself. Seriously, I was so entranced with this exploration of how language works at its most basic functions and how we could learn to communicate with something that did not share our verbal abilities that I genuinely wish the film had been an hour longer and filled with even more excruciating details about the characters’ linguistic discoveries. Throw in a top performance from Amy Adams, jaw-dropping photography, other heady twists in the spacetime fabric that I won’t spoil here, and a wallop of an ending, and you’ve got a recipe for pure adoration from me. This film is so good that it’s made me actually excited for Villenueve’s next project, Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that up to this point I’ve adamantly asserted should not exist.
6) La La Land
By now you’ve probably heard a lot about La La Land with the incessant Oscar buzz, and hopefully you’ve gone to the cinema and experienced it yourself. Damien Chazelle followed up his stellar film Whiplash with what I can say without hyperbole is the best musical film to be released in this century thus far, and it deserves most of the accolades it has and will receive. La La Land is simultaneously whimsical and firmly grounded, filled with gloriously fantastical setpiece moments and deep, well-rounded characters that allows an indulgence of following one’s wildest dreams without losing sight of the realistic cost. The music is excellent, featuring musical numbers and jazz pieces going toe-to-toe to tell the story, and there’s not a moment or element of the film that doesn’t feel like the product of the heart and soul of the director and his cast. Chazelle manages well to pay homage to his influences from the golden age of musicals without merely parroting them, instead producing what I would call the first real success at musical film using contemporary, creative filmmaking techniques. And my word does Chazelle know how to end a film. If La La Land and Whiplash are any indication, I think this man will turn out to be a very special director.
5) The Witch
The modern horror renaissance continues with another top-drawer entry into the genre with Robert Eggers‘ impressive feature debut following a 1600’s colonial family in New England tormented by a witch after they’re banished from their village. Eggers shows incredible control for a first-time director, juggling tension and emotion with the skill of one of horror’s masters, and his fantastic original screenplay explores themes of sin, damnation, and grace (or lack thereof) while using period-authentic dialogue. Speaking of which, the performances from all members of the cast are tremendous, portraying a host of deep characters while making the difficult dialogue appear natural and genuine. It’s my favourite film of the year in terms of cinematography as well, each frame as beautiful as it is terrible. I didn’t find the film frightening so much as equal parts fascinating and disturbing, but it was enough to put me well under The Witch‘s spell.
It’s hard to know what to say about Moonlight, how to even begin to describe how monumental of a film it is. Barry Jenkins has put forward the directorial achievement of the year here, a deeply moving and impeccably shot and performed story of one boy’s journey of self-discovery in a world pitted squarely against him. The film has so many gorgeous layers and ingenious flourishes that perfectly enhance the storytelling without any real pretentiousness – near-perfect execution, full of empathy and feeling, never tripping over itself. If you’ve not seen Moonlight, make it a priority. While it’s not my favourite film of the year at the moment, I’d certainly argue that it’s the best in terms of sheer craftsmanship and will likely move up my rankings with repeat viewings.
Based on the true story of a television news reporter in Sarasota, FL, Christine is one of the most criminally underappreciated films of 2016. The film is an immense character study that manages to embark on a balanced exploration of themes regarding grief, feminism, the media, and mental illness while maintaining a strong focus on its protagonist. Rebecca Hall puts in the performance of the year as the titular role, sublimely understated and altogether exquisite. It’s not a “loud” performance by any means, but every subtle mannerism gives the character more life than anything else I’ve witnessed on screen in the past twelve months. If you don’t know the story at the centre of the film, I won’t offer any spoilers here, but know that Christine is well worth your time to seek out and watch.
2) Manchester by the Sea
There’s something raw and deeply human about Manchester by the Sea, and it makes me love it to bits. It doesn’t hide behind artistic flourishes, but rather relies on well-framed and undistracting tripod and steadicam and lets the characters fill the space. Kenneth Lonergan has written a phenomenal screenplay that seems to meander from one moment to the next, sometimes to things that seem strangely ordinary or unremarkable, feeling more like a slice of life than a grandiose piece of drama in three acts. Casey Affleck gives an absolutely tremendous turn as Lee Chandler, a man who’s dealing with a crisis he never asked for while bearing a pain that no person should ever have to carry. Though it delves into some especially gloomy territory, Lonergan makes it watchable by peppering in humour and levity throughout while still having the boldness to assert the most un-Hollywood of notions, that some grief may prove to be insurmountable. It’s a likeable, prickly film that will likely have you in tears at some stage unless you have a heart made of stone.
1) The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
I saw this film at the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival and immediately fell in love. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a delightfully subversive take on the sports film genre, mixing in sharp, witty humour as it tells the true story of a Finnish boxer training for an upcoming title fight while realising that he’s fallen in love. Jarkko Lahti is superb in the lead role, and his chemistry with both his coach/agent (Eero Milonoff) and love interest (Oona Airola) causes the film to come alive with tenderness, joy, and urgency. First-time director Juho Kuosmanen has crafted (again, zero hyperbole) one of the best debut feature films I’ve ever seen, showing a level of mastery over form and tone that many veterans would aspire to, and I’m chomping at the bit to see what he’s going to do next. People who know me will be surprised that I’ve chosen a feel-good film as my favourite of the year, but that ought to speak to the consummate quality of this picture. There’s no film I enjoyed watching more in 2016 than The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. It will be getting a proper run in the cinema in April this year, so don’t miss your chance to see it. I’ll certainly be going again.
For an interactive version of this list, check it out on my Letterboxd profile.