With the Academy Awards airing Sunday night (ABC) and the Film Independent Sprit Awards airing Saturday night (IFC), many folks will be running to the movie theaters or any digital platform to watch last year’s best films. I’ve seen over 100 films from 2016 and would be honored to share my thoughts on the best ones!
From foreign/American independent films to big budget studio flicks, I’ve seen them all and it was yet another great year for the movies.
The power of cinema is so much more than just entertainment, it’s a visual medium and an art form that can catalyze important, socially impactful conversations and call to actions. Films can also simply allow people to empathize with humanity through a different perspective. To quote the late film critic Roger Ebert, “…movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us” (RogertEbert.com, 2014). Empathy is the “tool” that our world needs right now.
Picking my top 10 films of 2016 was a very difficult challenge because there were so many great artists (a.k.a. directors, writers, composers, editors, production designers, sound editors, etc.) who released their movies in 2o16 and whose distinctive filmmaking visualized vital places in time and most notably, provided voices for the oppressed.
Here the very best films of 2016 starting at #10:
(trailer hyperlinked in each image)
10. The Salesman
(Asghar Farhadi; Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group) Now Playing in Select Theaters!
After winning the Best Screenplay and Best Actor prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, one would expect Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman to have been the arthouse, international drama to look out for this awards season. While critics universally praised this film, it didn’t necessarily receive the same attention as Farhadi’s Oscar-winning drama, A Separation (2011). However, this is not a film to be missed by any means; The Salesman has been nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and it absolutely deserved it. Unfortunately, Farhadi WILL NOT be attending the Academy Awards due to the USA’s Muslim ban and I am heartbroken that he will not attend to represent his intimate and intelligently crafted film. The Salesman is the story of a couple whose relationship begins to turn sour during their performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It’s okay if you’re not familiar with that play – I haven’t seen it. It’s the aligned themes (family, gender relations, repressed sexuality) interwoven in the play and film’s narrative that snuck up on me; specifically the insights I was able to obtain through the eyes of an Iranian couple was so valuable in understanding the decisions and reactions from these characters and eventually empathize with the fact that these people are a product of their society, of their homes.
The ending of this film will leave your heart pounding like any great thriller and inevitably linger in your mind days after, but as a devastating work of art. (P.S. The five directors nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar released a joint political statement on Friday, read the full statement via IndieWire)
9. Everybody Wants Some!!
(Richard Linklater; Paramount Pictures) On DVD, VOD, Amazon Video
A couple of years ago, I wrote about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (Top 10 of 2014) and I described Linklater as a distinct auteur who understands time as a resource to inform characters’ choices and environments. Linklater also uses time to structurally shape his stories. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! is a masterfully restrained and observational journey that centers on a group of college baseball players as they navigate their way through the freedoms and responsibilities of unsupervised adulthood in 1980. Jake (talented newcomer, Blake Jenner) acts as the audience’s point of view and we’re able to explore these young men’s lives over the course of a weekend, before their first day of class. Again with time, we know right from the beginning when the movie will end – 1st day of class – and we get journal-like texts onscreen throughout, counting down the hours and minutes until class starts. Excellent films aren’t focused on plot, instead, they are written with distinctive characters whose choices will define and progress the story. The characters in Everybody Wants Some!! are so lovable because they each embrace their own kind of “weird.” These men are more than just jocks, and I love that this movie respects these characters as humans first. What Linklater does so well here and the reason why this movie is one of my favorites of 2016 is because the “hetero-male bond ” is so often poorly represented in cinema and these types of characters are usually categorized as dumb, bland stereotypes. It also doesn’t hurt that Everybody Wants Some!! is such a fun ride and simultaneously offers ample critique to what it means to be apart of a team and a young man in the ’80s. I wanted to show Everybody Wants Some!! to one of my best friends, since it was released over a year ago, because he’s an athlete yet I know him to be so much more than that. So I finally showed him this movie the other day and he absolutely loved it and appreciated the characters’ depictions; Everybody Wants Some!! showed me how impactful a funny, college movie can be when directed by one of the world’s most timeless filmmakers.
8. The Love Witch
(Anna Biller; Oscilloscope Laboratories) On DVD, VOD, Amazon Video
As I stated previously, it was very challenging for me to narrow down my top 10 best films of 2016. Hence, I decided to allow some ties! Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is about a modern-day witch who uses spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her. In a tribute to 1960s pulp novels and Technicolor melodramas, Biller boldly puts her main character, Elaine (a skilled and revelatory performance from Samantha Robinson – look out for her!) at the center of this archly funny but sincere psychodrama. To put it simply, The Love Witch is a feminist film about a character (Elaine) who thinks feminism is bad news. This film is an expertly subversive and stylized homage, but works so incredibly on its own terms. I have never seen Anna Biller’s work – that will change – and to find out that she not only wrote, directed, produced and edited The Love Witch but also designed and hand made its sets and costumes, leaves me to believe that Anna Biller is a filmmaker who is in complete control of her craft.
(Paul Verhoeven; Sony Pictures Classics) Now Playing in Select Theaters!
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was one of the most controversial films to premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, but with critics raving I knew there was something quite odd and original to be found in a film I only knew about through my impressions of articles and headlines. Legendary French actress, Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc who is a successful businesswoman that gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her. This is very audacious material which was actually based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, but Elle was directed by none other than Danish-filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven. He [Verhoeven] isn’t French, yet directed this French-produced film because its producers and Huppert were the only people in the world, literally, who were down for this project. Verhoeven is responsible for such cult classics like, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), so I knew Elle was definitely going to push boundaries. However, what made this film so fascinating was the main character, Michèle. She’s a straight up sociopath, but I understand her choices and ultimately care about Michèle. I’ve never seen a character like this onscreen, especially one that would normally be stereotyped as a “victim.” Michèle is not a victim, she is in complete control of her career, relationships, and active sex life. Isabelle Huppert delivers the performance of 2016 because she turns this unlikeable character into a woman whose actions speak louder than any feminist agenda (I would actually consider this movie to be a great feminist work of art). Huppert never shouts or cries, she just is and that is acting at its finest. Elle was completely snubbed for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination but Isabelle Huppert is up for a Best Actress Oscar and if there’s any justice at the Academy Awards, she will walk away with the golden statue.
(Denis Villeneuve; Paramount Pictures) On DVD, VOD, Amazon Video
I have been following this project since it was announced that Denis Villeneuve was directing an adaptation of a science-fiction short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Villeneuve has become one of the world’s most exciting contemporary filmmakers, from his experimental/arthouse marvel Enemy (2014) to the politically radical Sicario (2015), I will always run to the movie theater to see a Villeneuve film. With Arrival, he has crafted an unconventional science fiction film because for once the “enemy” isn’t the big, scary alien. Instead the otherworldly beings are mysterious, tentacled creatures who came to Earth to help save the human race…from themselves. Relevant much?!
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor tasked with interpreting the language of alien visitors. Adams is an incredibly versatile actress whose resume of performances since her revelatory breakthrough in Junebug (2005), can start offering comparisons to the talents of Meryl Streep. It’s the way she listens to other characters, the way her hands tremble, and – most distinctly – the way Adams’ big blue eyes speak volumes more than any words can, especially when she says one thing and her eyes are telling us something completely different. This is why every major director in the business wants to work with Amy Adams (it also doesn’t hurt that she seems like a very grounded individual based on the actress’ charmingly authentic interviews). Arrival also benefited from having one of the most talented cinematographers in the industry, Bradford Young. Young beautifully captures rich feelings, scoped in wide angle and richly lit compositions. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer create a narrative that is mind-bending and perplexing, requiring an absolute second viewing. The emotional shifts that Dr. Louise Banks faces within seconds of each other would not be an easy task for any amateur actress, which is why Adams’ nuanced talents make her an invaluable asset to the film. There would be no Arrival without Amy Adams.
Arrival is more than just an alien-invasion movie; it’s a film about a mother telling a story to her daughter about her life. With an extravagant production design, one would think that this was a studio film. But that was not the case. Paramount Pictures distributed Arrival but did not support in producing the movie. I’m not surprised, considering the film’s disjointed and intellectually constructed narrative would normally appeal to a more arthouse crowd. I have this gut feeling that if Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly was the main character, then Paramount would have produced/distributed Arrival with double the budget. Thankfully, Heisserer sent his script to independent producers who championed the film instantly and were able to get the script to Villeneuve. The rest is history. Arrival has grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, earned 8 Academy Award Nominations, and further proved to any doubters that intelligent films with a female lead can engage audiences of all types.
(Ava DuVernay; Netflix)
Well we have another tie! First up is Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary, 13th. As in the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States and declared that: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Documentaries are very valuable resources for classrooms and can act as a supplement for a teacher’s lesson because the best way to make a student, or anyone for that matter, understand our nation’s history…is to show them. Fiction can do the same, but documentaries obtain the truth more directly and less abstractly. 13th takes an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality. The amount of knowledge that I gained watching this documentary excited me as any cinematic experience would but also worried me that I simply just didn’t know to the extent of how the 13th Amendment didn’t exactly solve racism. So then I ask myself “why didn’t I know?” DuVernay is a powerful and important figure in the film industry because she is quite simply a role model of epic proportions. Her work speaks for itself by offering stirring political commentary, yet DuVernay’s style is elegantly restrained. It’s a beautiful contradiction to witness filmmaking so subtle and nuanced, almost European in tone – yet, her films’ appetite are indisputably rooted in political urgency. This is what marks a true auteur, or certain directors who not only express themselves with their films, but what they’re expressing is especially important because of the moral quality of their work. No matter what genre or subject matter, an auteur’s worldview is consistent from film to film, making their work instantly recognizable. Ava DuVernay’s 13th secures its talented director’s auteur status and most importantly opened my eyes to how racism has not disappeared but redesigned in our criminal justice system. Ava DuVernay for President 2020?!? Yes, please.
I Am Not Your Negro
(Raoul Peck; Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures) Now Playing in Select Theaters!
Raoul Peck’s avant-garde documentary, I Am Not Your Negro further supports my previous statement about distributing films of social urgency into classrooms. In I Am Not Your Negro, writer James Baldwin (impeccably narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) tells the story of race in modern America with his unfinished novel, Remember This House. To see the archived footage of James Baldwin discussing race on talk shows and at high-profile speaking engagements during the ’60s Civil Rights Movement, was like traveling back in time. Jackson’s hypnotic narration finds its pacing with the images to create a space of self-discovery. Baldwin, through his writing and instrumental role in the Civil Rights Movement, turns the camera back at America. To quote Baldwin, “I am not a nigger, I am a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, means you need it and you gotta’ find out why.” This necessary documentary and Baldwin’s insightful writing is suggesting something far more complex than obtaining civil rights. The solution to this lifelong struggle for race equality has to be found in the depths of this nation’s [white] soul, otherwise nothing will change. I Am Not Your Negro is a film that informs, infuriates and transcends the limits of what I thought I knew about racism.
5. The Handmaiden
(Park Chan Wook; Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures) On DVD, VOD, Amazon Video
To say I was floored by Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden is an understatement. The reviews out if its 2016 Festival de Cannes premiere were very positive and when The Handmaiden was acquired by Amazon Studios prior to its premiere, I knew that this vividly lush thriller will get a proper theatrical release. I am very thankful for Amazon Studios’ distribution model, because it allowed me to see this stunning film on the big screen! Every meticulous detail of The Handmaiden was realized with full artistic command – from Wook’s expert direction, the exquisite 1930’s Korean/Japanese production design, and Chung-hoon Chung’s absorbing cinematography. Wook’s admiration of powerful, yet complex women is on full display too. He turned this tale of a poor Korean woman (Sook-Hee) who is hired as a handmaiden to defraud a Japanese heiress (Lady Hideko) into an intimate story of two women who fall in love with each other against all odds. Corny may it sound, the experience is sublime. The sex scenes between these lovers (Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim deliver astonishing performances) are graphic and may offend those with a conservative eye. But for those with a more artful eye, Chan Wook paints The Handmaiden‘s erotic sexual encounters with such pure, beautiful and tasteful intent. These scenes enter poetic realism by using physical nudity to not only empower two sexually confident women, but without any words strip their souls even barer and reveal their blazing, passionate love. This is an experience you won’t want to miss.
(Berry Jenkins; A24) In theaters, On DVD, VOD, Amazon Video
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a miracle of a film that intimately provides a voice for…everyone. This is a movie that reminded me why I love films and how the emotional impact of putting unrepresented characters in the forefront of storytelling is how we [our nation] can build unity. Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man, Chiron, from childhood to adulthood, played by three different actors – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. These actors are remarkable and each one embody Chiron with the same soul; their eyes revealing his truth no matter what age. One can easily categorize this film as a story about a gay, African American finding himself against the worst of odds in Miami, FL. That description doesn’t nearly do justice to the artistry at display here. Jenkins renders Moonlight with the type of style and tone I would expect to come out of European cinema. I was immersed in Chiron’s head from the start and was transfixed throughout as he observes the human condition at its worst and most loving. He’s looking to answer a two-decade old question: “Who am I?”
Every shot of Moonlight reveals the hidden truths in the characters, which ably allows the camera to be a conduit for human empathy. It’s not what’s said that matters but what is done. It’s love that can heal and that theme is what turns what could have been a sad film into a hopeful one. There will always be someone there to pick you up when you’re down and even though that saying is a cliche, Moonlight blossoms that cliche into literature. Nicholas Britell’s original score is a flat out masterpiece; haunting me to this day, this score is used almost as our auditory guide throughout Chiron’s life journey. Moonlight is the cinematic poem everyone needs to listen to, experience, and feel inside a room full of people who may not agree on every political issue but who like everyone else…is human. Moonlight brings empathy to the center as cinema’s greatest weapon.
3. The Red Turtle
(Michael Dudok de Wit; Sony Pictures Classics) Now Playing in Select Theaters!
The Red Turtle is Studio Ghibli’s first film to be directed by someone not in their country [Japan]. That decision payed off big time, with French director Michael Dudok de Wit’s incredible The Red Turtle. This is a silent film; no dialogue. That risky choice created a visually, entrancing experience. The story follows a castaway on a deserted island as he tries to create a life for himself, even though he initially tries leaving the island only to be brought back from a peculiar red turtle’s destructive interaction with the man’s raft. The Red Turtle is a surrealist film that is informed by the simple realism of mother nature. It’s a love poem to the circle of life and provoked a sense of wonder in me – a feeling that I believe disappears as we grow older.
The imagery in The Red Turtle is jaw-dropping. Every detail is so meticulously crafted that it didn’t even look animated at times. Dudok de Wit’s ability to use animation as a way to paint humanity with such vivid life is how any great artist should use their tools. It’s a film of such beauty and haunting mystery. The Red Turtle is one the best animated films I’ve ever seen.
2. The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos; A24) On DVD, VOD, Amazon (Prime) Video
The best comedies aren’t actually comedies. They’re often tragic stories whose characters are complex in their contradictions and have quirks that ultimately make us laugh. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is a comedy, social satire, visceral horror film, and a tragic love story all in one. It’s the most original film I’ve seen in 2016 because it’s so hard to categorize and contains characters who are unconventionally likable. In a dystopian near future, single people – according to the laws of The City – are taken to The Hotel, where they are obligated to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or be transformed into an animal and get sent off into The Woods. That concept alone is pretty groundbreaking in that its dissecting the idea that you must find a partner to be happy and quite frankly, this seems like a very scary world to live in. The protagonist in The Lobster is David, who is perfectly played against type by Colin Farrell. I actually think this a career best for Farrell, not just for the incredible gut he put on but for the nuanced melancholy he gives his character. You feel bad for him but also frustrated by his actions. David enters The Hotel, after being dumped by his love, and is immediately interviewed for details about his relationship history. When asked about his sexual preference, David says “women” but then he takes a pause and asks if there’s a bisexual option available. The interviewer tells him that this option is no longer available. This scene has stayed with me for awhile, both for Farrell’s impeccable comedic timing and Lanthimos’ political boldness in addressing the core themes of the film with that one question. Life is not black and white. Humans are very complex creatures and it has been argued countless times by scientific studies that humans are not 100% straight or gay; we’re all basically somewhere in between. The limitations of labeling oneself as straight or gay can completely destroy potential chances of finding love. Films that can drive these types of progressive and honest conversations are so valuable, especially for people that are trapped in societies’ black and white world. The brilliance of The Lobster, notably the miraculous screenplay (hope they win the Oscar!), is that this film is gender blind. Men and women are equally realized in this world and that in itself deems this film as a 21st-century gem.
1. The Fits
(Anna Rose Holmer; Oscilloscope Laboratories) On DVD, VOD, Amazon (Prime) Video
Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits is the best film I’ve seen in 2016. Funded entirely through grants and starring a real drill team, The Fits is what true independent filmmaking is about. There is not one false moment in this authentic yet surreal coming-of-age film because money can’t make art, only artists can. The Fits marks Holmer’s feature-film debut; she wrote and directed this unconventional character study and it’s one of the most refined debut films I’ve seen in quite some time. While training at the gym, 11-year-old tomboy Toni (an outstanding debut performance from Royalty Hightower) becomes entranced with a dance troupe. As she struggles to fit in she finds herself caught up in danger as the group begins to suffer from fainting spells and other violent fits. The synopsis makes The Fits seem like a horror/sci-fi film, but every interaction is grounded in total realism. Toni’s identity is what’s at stake in the film; she initially embodies a tomboy identity as we come at the story, such as it is, as a visitor from the outside world, picking up information as the movie goes along. However, her internal desires begin to take force as she discovers her passion for dancing. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrians’ eerie score perfectly embody Toni’s internal conflict, from self doubt to discovery, we’re able to see and understand instead of having characters explain what’s going on through expositional dialogue.
I’ve watched The Fits a few times now and I’ve attempted to decipher the ambiguous subtext to what “the fits” really are. My instincts immediately pointed to the fact that the girls were the only ones getting these attacks and the boys weren’t, making a case that these “fits” were a sort of feminine right of passage (similar to how girls get their period when they come of age). However, Toni’s brother insistently says that those girls are crazy and that its all in their head. So are the “fits” actually real or are they in these girls’ heads? The sublime ending of The Fits answered that question for me and I want to challenge any of you who hasn’t seen this film to decide for yourselves whether you think they’re real or not. For me, it doesn’t matter if these “fits” are real or not. It doesn’t mean that Toni ‘s feelings are invalid or that her fears of not fitting in aren’t real. The Fits is an unexpected hybrid of genres that should be studied in film classes and Holmer is a true filmmaker by every standard. It’s rare to see movies pay full respect to just how fragile and important the inner-life of a kid can be, especially with characters rarely represented in cinema. The Fits is the movie of 2016 and my hope is that special, unique films like this one get produced and acquired in the coming months.
Also – here are 15 excellent films from 2016 that just missed my top 10:
Tale of Tales; Little Men; Nocturnal Animals; American Honey; Loving; Under the Shadow; Pete’s Dragon; Always Shine; Paterson; The Neon Demon; The Witch; Christine; Kubo and the Two Strings; A Bigger Splash; Krisha
Thanks for reading and go watch some movies!