I’m ashamed that my list isn’t very esoteric. Every film on here was a fairly mainstream release and all of them have received some level of praise and success. But I didn’t find any hidden gems this year. I’m sure there were some. If you found them, let me know. But here’s my list of my favorite films of 2016, as usual broken into 3 tiers: I. Masterpieces, II. Great Films, and III. Very Good Films.
ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve)
Sicario was my favorite film of 2015 and now here’s Villeneuve’s latest, at the top of my list once again. Needless to say he’s becoming one of the world’s premier filmmakers. I normally wouldn’t be too excited about new Bladerunner and Dune films, but with Denis at the helm, I’m now actively looking forward to them. I’m not talking about the actual film too much. I don’t want to give any of it away. Yes, it is a film about a couple scientists trying to communicate with alien visitors. But that is just one layer of this beautiful gut-punch of an onion, and I’d rather you peel it for yourself and cry your eyes out. Lois Lane, Hawkeye, and Saw Gerrera are all great but it’s Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s confidence and grace behind the camera that make this one of the best science fiction experiences ever put to film.
THE HANDMAIDEN (Park Chan-Wook)
Park’s best film since Old Boy, The Handmaiden is not at all what it seems. The poster and title and production design and costuming would leave you to believe that you’re about to watch a “serious” period drama, a Korean “Downton Abbey” or something. But The Handmaiden, while having those trappings, is a crazy-as-fuck double-and-triple-cross forbidden-lesiban-love-story con movie. It is fun and hysterical and sexy and entertaining and, shot through Park’s unique eye, a visual treat that I can’t wait to revisit. It’s not a film for everyone, I guess, but it’s definitely a film for me. Villeneuve and Park. Two of cinemas boldest voices. Right here at the top of my list. Who’d have thought?
OJ: MADE IN AMERICA (Ezra Edelman)
The flat-out most compelling thing that I watched all year. There was some debate over whether or not Made in America was a feature film or not, but, despite its 7 hour plus run time, and the fact that most people saw it on TV, it has been nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars and that makes it a movie. And what a movie. I was a young man as the O.J. saga unfolded, and, like most of America, I was fascinated by it, but Edelman’s documentary is so much more than just a recounting of the “Trial of the Century”. The first part alone, which covers the historical relationship between the police and Los Angeles’ South Central black communities, is an Oscar-worthy piece that seems even more relevant today. Don’t know anything about O.J. Simpson or his trial? Watch this. Don’t know anything about the history of police brutality by the LAPD? Watch this. Still angry that O.J. went free, don’t understand how an obviously guilty man was found not guilty in front of the entire world? Watch this. You will understand. Filled with a dozen stunning “what-the-fuck-did-he-just-say?” moments, each episode will propel you into the next and you won’t be sated until it’s all over. This is not some exploitative true-crime documentary. This is a work of art, a film about so many things, and one of the best films of 2016.
MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins)
Nothing I can say about Moonlight that hasn’t been said by its reviews and its run through awards season. Achingly delicate film, anchored by 3 strong actors all playing the same character, with a big assist from this year’s breakout star, Mahershala Ali, in a film that may win him an Oscar, Jenkins delivers a film that will stick with you for a long time.
LION (Garth Davis)
I knew nothing about Lion when I saw it, and I’m glad. A true story about a young Indian boy who is separated from his family and adopted by an Australian couple, this is the year’s best “uplifting” film, and if you can get through the end without crying, I welcome you as my new robot overlord.
SILENCE (Martin Scorsese)
I am admittedly a Scorsese fanboy, him being our greatest living director and all, and I think Silence is a masterpiece, the third and most likely final of his overtly religious works (Marty tends to revisit certain topics three or four times, then give them a rest), Silence is a deeply meditative, slow, quiet, and even-handed film that should appeal to believers and nonbelievers alike. I think over the years, this film my creep farther up my list. Like most of Scorsese’s films, I will watch it many more times over the course of my life.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (Tom Ford)
Fashion designer Tom Ford released A Single Man in 2009 and I loved the shit out of that movie. Nocturnal Animals isn’t as strong, or as emotionally resonant, but it is a work of somber fiction that matches my sensibilities well. IMDB summarizes the plot as “A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale.” I guess that’s true. Come for the story, stay for the Adams, the Gyllenhaal, the Shannon, and the Ford.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan)
Speaking of somber fiction, Manchester is driven by a challenging screenplay by Lonergan but will remembered because of the power of Casey Affleck’s soon-to-be Oscar winning performance. It’s an incredible bit of screen acting. And don’t overlook the often-overlooked Michelle Williams. She’s only in a few scenes but she fucking kills it. Not a date movie. Not a movie to watch if you want to get anything else done that day. But a movie you should see nonetheless. Although I’m not sure you’ll want to see it twice.
HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie)
Great modern western featuring great modern actors. Nice to see Chris Pine playing a character and not just relying on his Kirk charm to get him through (coughchrisprattcough).
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (Richard Linklater)
Not a sequel to Dazed & Confused like people wanted, but this film is classic Linklater: there is very little story, it feels like nothing happens, it meanders, and I love it all the more for it.
MOANA (Ron Clements & John Musker)
Moana Will forever have a special place in my heart (it was my oldest daughter’s first movie theater experience) but it is also the best Disney animated film in years (including Pixar). And with songs by Hamilton’s Lin Miranda, I can’t even complain when my daughter wants to listen to the soundtrack over and over.
ROAD TO BUSAN (Sang-ho Yeon)
Snowpiercer with zombies. What else do you need? Go rent it now.
FENCES (Denzel Washington)
Two of the world’s best actors yelling and crying at each other for two and a half hours? Count me in. Washington does very little to “open up” this August Wilson play, but he and Viola are such pure fire you won’t care.
ROUGE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Gareth Edwards)
It feels good to have a Star Wars film on here. And it deserves it. It was so much more Star Wars literate than The Force Awakens and I felt so much at home.
HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi)
A film about three truly inspiring women told in a fairly uninspired way, it’s impossible to deny the importance and power of Melfi’s film, even if I wish he had found a more compelling way to tell it. But these women, though, and these actresses. Man. Worth it just for them.
Just for fun, here’s my list of the BEST TV OF 2016. No particular order, no details. Just a quick list. We all know TV is better than movies these days. Pretty soon these lists will merge as the walls between media crumble:
LUKE CAGE, ATLANTA, BETTER CALL SAUL, STAR WARS: REBELS, GAME OF THRONES, SILICON VALLEY, BATES MOTEL, WESTWORLD, LAST WEEK WITH JOHN OLIVER, and, yes, STRANGER THINGS, although I didn’t love it as much as everybody else did.