It was another stellar year at the cinema, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. While some are crying shouts that the cinema is dead the art form is doing all it can to prove otherwise, and it’s easy to see how the industry is doing. Below are my Top 10 Films of 2016, but it could just have easily have been 10 completely different movies on this list. The impressive list of honorable mentions (found at the end) should give some credence to that. These are the 10 films, though, that moved me most of all, the films with which I most engaged, the films I believe the cinema community will be talking about for many years, beyond 2016.
Found below, for you perusal, are my picks of the Top 10 absolute best feature films from the year 2016:
#10. The Witch
Writer/director Robert Eggers stunned audiences in 2016 with his debut film about members of a Puritan family banished from their community to the countryside and the horrors that awaited them there. More than your typical, horror film, The Witch chose atmosphere and subtlety to bring the terrors lurking within to grand, cinematic life. A stunning, lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy and rousing turns from all of the supporting players certainly helped raise the film’s standards, but it’s Eggers ability to unnerve while simultaneously telling an engaging story that puts this film in such high regard. The Witch is a horror film for fans of the genre who are growing tired of stale offerings, typical premises and jolts that come from most horror these days. The Witch is truly something we haven’t seen before and are not likely to see again soon.
#9. Toni Erdmann
It’s a tough sell, this film both written and directed by German filmmaker Maren Ade: a nearly three-hour comedy-drama about a businesswoman and the eccentric father she so desperately wants to keep hidden under wraps. What we’re given with Toni Erdmann, though, is a delightful and moving story headlined by an eccentric father-daughter relationship that could go either way. That Ade’s film makes us tremble with laughter as much as it engages our emotions is quite the accomplishment. With a new predicament falling at our feet at every turn and an impressive couple of performances from co-leads Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann proves its worth and justifies its length with astounding results. This tough sell ended up being the biggest surprise of the year and a film that puts its maker on our must-watch list.
Natalie Portman’s performance as First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, seems an obvious choice for acting awards at the end of the year. It’s that the film itself, directed by Pablo Larrain (who also stunned us in 2016 with two other films: The Club and Neruda), finds a way of transcending even Portman’s stellar performance that puts it well on this list. Written by Noah Oppenheim, the film is a stunning portrayal of one woman’s grief for her husband’s untimely death, but it’s also a highly engaging look at Jackie Kennedy’s strength in the face of her life’s biggest crisis. Immaculately shot and endlessly interesting, Jackie is a film worth so much more than Portman’s perfect performance which will likely help the film find its audience.
Director Ava DuVernay amazed audiences two years ago with her wonderfully crafted feature film Selma. In 2016, she amazed us even more with 13th, a documentary which expands on the racial injustices going on in this country even moreso. Going all the way back to when slavery ended in this country, 13th looks at the way our leaders shifted and restructured the criminal justice system so a form of slavery could continue to thrive within the walls of prisons all across our nation. DuVernay’s precision in delivering information is of the highest quality here making 13th one of the most engaging and eye-opening documentaries to come in quite some time. If nothing else 13th coming right on the heels of Selma shows DuVernay as a master storyteller whose future works are sure to be among the most anticipated.
#6. Kubo and the Two String
Animation studio Laika’s fourth feature film is yet another example of how animation continues to improve and how stop-motion is the most engaging form of animation there is. The texture of the puppets used and the quality of animation they bring add a depth computer animation is still yet to offer. Add to this the highly engaging story of one boy’s adventure and the family drama that ensues within and you have a recipe for something truly remarkable. Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Laika’s CEO Travis Knight in his directorial debut, is an endless string of awesome visuals and impressive storytelling. In an age when Pixar still reigns supreme atop the world of animated film it’s always a joy seeing a company like Laika attempting to outdo even themselves, and Kubo and the Two Strings is an example of the best kind of storytelling film has to offer, animated or otherwise.
We had a feeling this science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer would be something special, but even that undersold on what we were to experience with Arrival. The film engages the viewer with its story of one woman’s grief for her lost child, the global event she is thrust into, and the universal strings that tie it all together. Amy Adams gives a phenomenal performance here, but it’s Villeneuve’s ability to deliver rousing visuals and incredibly emotional plot points that make Arrival a science fiction film that truly transcends the genre. The film’s structure practically requires the viewer to experience it more than once, and it’s in those subsequent viewings where the true high points of Arrival reveal themselves. With Blade Runner 2049 on Villeneuve’s horizon it appears the filmmaker is a new voice worth listening to when it comes to the highest quality imaginable in the world of sci-fi storytelling.
Leave it up to Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven to return in 2016 with his most audacious and possibly most controversial film to date. Elle is a psychological thriller unlike anything we’ve seen before and tells a story which, on the surface, might possibly be the hardest sell on general audiences we’ve seen all year. Aided by an immaculate performance from Isabelle Huppert, though, the film reveals itself to be a highly engaging depiction of one woman’s struggle to form any, positive connection with the men in her life whether it be from her mass murdering father, her chauvinistic coworkers, or the strange relationship she has with the man who rapes her. Dripping with Verhoeven’s signature form of trashiness and art, Elle is not a film that will work for everyone, but overlooking the subversive aspect of its story proves the film to be as rewarding and interesting as anything the filmmaker has delivered before.
Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel was #1 on my list for the bulk of 2016, and it may still remain in that spot in terms of my favorite films of the year. Absolutely Kubrickian in nature, the film is endlessly rewarding for subsequent viewings both in terms of what it’s saying as well as all that it implies. Wheatley’s abilities as a filmmaker and the screenplay by Jump, which gets top billing in the end credits, are of a quality that demands future dissection. High-Rise is a cerebral whirlwind that isn’t interested in hand-feeding the viewer all of its answers, an ability Wheatley is becoming more and more impressive at accomplishing with each film. It’s difficult to claim High-Rise as Wheatley’s masterpiece, as you’re never quite sure what he will be delivering with his next work, but, for now, this film remains his crowning achievement and a stellar adaptation of a novel many claimed to be unfilmable.
#2. The Handmaiden
South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook is no stranger to delivering the highest quality of cinematic offerings, and his latest, The Handmaiden, is in no way an exception. Adapted from the Welsh novel Fingersmith, the film plays with structure and subtext to the best of their respective abilities and offers a highly engaging depiction of two women and the love they are unable to deny themselves. At the same time, The Handmaiden delivers a barrage of intensely satisfying visuals, Park’s ability as a visual storyteller growing with every, new project he has to offer. The Handmaiden is visually stunning, but it’s the many rooms Park has for the viewer to unlock for themselves that makes this film something truly great, a mansion of quality that will surely improve with each, subsequent viewing.
Moonlight is not Barry Jenkins‘ debut as a director, but it is sure to be the film on which the cinematic world looks back as his coming out work. The story, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, tells of three, key moments in the life of one individual, moments that shape and change the character’s life both for better or for worse and moments that allow the character to unlock just who he is in this strange and unaccepting world. Jenkins’ storytelling and filmmaking abilities, though, are in rare form. He delivers something in Moonlight that is rarely seen, a film with an inherent air of importance that delivers this quality without effort or pretentiousness. Aided by the highest quality of performances from Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes all playing the same character during these three, separate periods, Moonlight is the closest the cinematic world came to a perfect film in 2016. It’s also what is sure to be the first of many such impressive works from this new voice in the world of quality cinema.
Honorable Mentions: 20th Century Women, The Brand New Testament, Deadpool, Evolution, Green Room, I Am Not a Serial Killer, In Order of Disappearance, Krisha, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester By the Sea, The Neon Demon, The Nice Guys, O.J.: Made in America, Oasis: Supersonic, Paterson, The Shallows, Swiss Army Man, Tickled, The Wailing, Zero Days, Zootopia.
What do you think of Jeremy’s Top 10 films of 2016? Do you agree or disagree with his picks?