Arrival film

The Best Movies of 2016

Monday, January 02, 2017 Rob Samuelson

As I mentioned in my “advocacy list” last week, 2016 was a terrific year for movies, but ranking them is impossible because there wasn't a movie that emerged as The One for me. So these are all great in no particular order. The usual caveats apply to the following, of course: I haven’t seen everything (including new movies by Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch), so this list could be totally upended in just a few short weeks, once I have a chance to catch up with Silence and Paterson, among others that I will probably review for this here website. With that, let’s put 2016 to bed.

Photo credit: Moonlight/Facebook

The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee

Beauty is fleeting and it is dangerous. Best to use it while you’ve got it, right? That’s how Jesse (Elle Fanning) lives her life. She’s a new model on the scene in a Los Angeles fashion scene bathed in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) signature blue and red and gold lights, like the world’s grossest and most surreal nightclub. She is almost supernaturally gifted at having “the look,” and soon the 16 year old who is lying about being an 18 year old begins to take away gigs from the “veterans” of the industry, like Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, each of whom barely looks old enough to drink. The horror and jealousy and often silent power moves that follow are disquieting and often stomach turning, but The Neon Demon is about finding that perfect moment to shine before it’s all taken away -- and about the monstrous lengths you sometimes must go to hold onto that perfection. That’s borderline earnest for a director best known for being a provocateur, and it makes this one of 2016’s best.

The Invitation
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard

Karyn Kusama made the year’s best (literal) cult film with The Invitation. This thriller about an awkward dinner between old friends (and ex-spouses) who haven’t seen each other in years is wound more tightly than a piano string. Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard’s characters had been married until the death of their child a couple years before the events in this. He goes through some universally recognizable stages of grief, such as growing out his hair and beard so that he resembles a fashion forward lumberjack, but she has discovered something bigger and far more disturbing. A couple years in Mexico with a religious group have turned her life around, she promises, alongside her new husband, played by Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman. Their new “friends” and hangers-on join the dinner party, throwing off an already nervous balance. The tension winds and winds, with every offer of a fresh glass of wine quickening the viewer’s heart rate, waiting for the worst to happen -- and it does. Once it goes the way it is destined, the violence and deception is shot impeccably. Most importantly, because of all of the character work done in the early going, the horrendous things that happen are loaded with meaning. It also ends with the best and most haunting final shot of the year.

The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw

I’m reluctant to classify writer-director Robert Eggers’s The Witch as a horror film. It has its frightening moments and unnerving imagery, but it is more about the slow burn of tension that surrounds a family when the children are coming of rebellious age. Yes, there is a witch that steals babies (this is treated as a matter of fact in the film rather than a setup for some rug-pulling “gotcha” twist later), but the real evil is Ralph Ineson’s inept and uber-religious father, who has removed his family from the relative safety of their colony in America’s early days because none of their neighbors (themselves religious exiles from England) were pious enough. He rules his family with an iron grip, but he cannot control their minds, which are rapidly hardening against him as his lackluster farming and home building skills fail to provide for them in their secluded homestead in what would become known as New England. Anya Taylor-Joy, as oldest daughter Thomasin, shows that rebellion from one’s parents sometimes goes much deeper than staying out a little too late. When she makes her final break from them, it is chilling and brimming with potentially positive implications at the same time.

Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris

While viewing the development of protagonist Chiron at three different periods of his life -- as a young child (played by Alex R. Hibbert), as a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), and as a 20-something (played by Trevante Rhodes) -- director Barry Jenkins has crafted a stellar coming of age story with a warm color palette that highlights details like how the moonlight of the title bounces off Miami waves or how one must intricately place garnish atop a meal for an old friend who may have been something more all along. Chiron is a tortured, anxious kid who barely talks and grows up with an increasingly distant mother and an absent father. The other people in his life, like a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali in possibly the finest performance of the year) and his live-in girlfriend (musician Janelle Monaé), show him kindness and warmth and do their best to raise him to trust in himself and be better than the kids who taunt him for his possible sexual orientation -- he isn’t sure at that young age, nor should that confusion hurt him, his surrogate father insists in a perfect scene. His friend and potential lover, Kevin, grows alongside him, culminating in an intimate third act about reconnecting with the one who got away, realizing things haven’t gone the way anyone would have expected from you, and acknowledging who you are at your core.

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

When a bunch of contact-lens-shaped alien vessels appear over the planet’s biggest countries, the world loses its mind and is forced to work together to come to understand the visitors -- it’s not a smooth worldwide partnership. Enter Amy Adams’s linguist and Jeremy Renner’s physicist, who are tasked with establishing communication with the squid-like creatures, who write “sentences” in the form of circular ink blots on a clear piece of glass. In learning this new language, Adams experiences joy, grief, frustration, exhilaration, and ultimately understanding as she begins to see her life and memory in an entirely new context. Director Denis Villeneuve has quickly risen to the level of “master filmmaker” in the last few years, and Arrival is a lovely, moving, humanistic capstone on this portion of his career.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata

A lonely, "bad egg" foster child named Ricky (Julian Dennison) with a love of hip-hop (“[Tupac’s], like, my best friend.”) goes to live with a 60-something couple in the New Zealand brush. A series of events lead to the government threatening to take Ricky back, so he follows his foster father, whom he calls Uncle (Sam Neill), into the woods where they hide out and bond while a nationally televised manhunt for them captivates the country. This type of kookiness would be amusing in itself, but the humanity writer-director Taika Waititi (he also plays a priest who is terrible at giving eulogies) brings to the project is next-level stuff. These characters start from a place of rigid rejection of each other, and Waititi earns every layer of appreciation and, eventually, love, they come to share. That, plus Rima Te Wiata, as Ricky’s foster mother, sings a delightful “Happy Birthday” song for him that will have you in stitches.

Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Capitalism is a hell of a thing, especially for the little people. It ruins the livelihoods of a pair of Texas brothers (a never-better Chris Pine and Ben Foster), who begin robbing banks to make ends meet. They’re humorously horrible at it and soon have a gruff lawman played by Jeff Bridges on their tail in what is to be the last case of his career before his upcoming retirement. These tropes are the basis for an achingly gorgeous look at what it’s like to see your world fall out from beneath you and how to deal with it. Director David Mackenzie, as a Scottish man, probably should not have such a precise grasp on such a uniquely American portrait of the working class in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, but Hell or High Water shows a Texas that has wasted away beneath the desert sands, leaving only the most desperate grasping for what’s left. That he and writer Taylor Sheridan crafted a white-knuckle modern Western (with witty and sardonic lines aplenty) to deliver this message is just gravy.

Manchester By the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Unless you count the Chicago Cubs World Series championship documentary put out by Major League Baseball, Manchester By the Sea is the only movie from 2016 that brought tears to my eyes -- and unlike the Cubs, it was not for happy reasons. Kenneth Lonergan’s first film since 2011’s Margaret (for my money one of the top three movies of the decade so far) is a heart-wrenching tragedy that is nevertheless life affirming. Casey Affleck, as Lee, plays a man dealt an impossible card, that of having to decide what to do with his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges in a breakout performance) after his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies. Through flashbacks, we see the things that have led Lee to withdraw from the world, and they are harrowing, spirit-breaking things that will haunt you. When the rays of hope begin to peek through, though, like when he brings his nephew and his girlfriend aboard the family boat, it makes all the difference in the world. Just keep going, no matter what, Manchester By the Sea argues, and you can carve out something decent amid the miserable chaos.

Pete's Dragon
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery , Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban

There is no way for me to describe Pete’s Dragon without resorting to puns, so here we go: Pete’s Dragon soars -- I’m sorry. David Lowery takes a little-loved Disney movie and changes basically everything about it except for its core concept (a boy has a dragon friend in the woods) to make it into a loving look at how surrogate families form. Elliot the dragon is a splendidly rendered CGI marvel that resembles a dog and cat depending on the scene, and his love for young, orphaned Pete is as real as that of any live animal. Bonus points for the movie’s resolute advocacy for the natural world via Bryce Dallas Howard’s park ranger and Robert Redford as her tall tale-spinning father.

The Fits
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Writers: Saela Davis, Anna Rose Holmer, Lisa Kjerulff
Starring: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Antonio A.B. Grant Jr.

When a mysterious seizure-inducing bug hits a Cincinnati childhood community center, wacky things start happening. Is it mass hysteria? Are aliens invading by inhabiting these kids? Does it matter? The answer to that last question is a resounding “no,” because Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut, The Fits, is really about finding your place as you grow up. Young Toni (Royalty Hightower, who should earn an Oscar nomination) begins the movie as her older brother’s shadow, hanging out with him in the boys’ domain, the boxing ring. She finds herself entranced by the girls’ dance group across the hall, though, and she slowly works her way over to them, rarely feeling totally comfortable in either environment. Once she begins to apply the rigorous training regimen she learned with the boxing class, her dancing improves exponentially and she begins to find the friends one expects will accompany her through the rest of her youth. One scene showing a late night when Toni and a dance friend stay behind after hours in the community center is one of the more perfect depictions of what it’s like to stay up late with a friend at that age -- it is all “aren’t we being so bad?” giddiness and a creeping fear that they could be caught at any moment, leading to intense excitement of being on their own.

Honorable mentions: Blood Father, Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Jackie, The Conjuring 2, Moana, The Edge of Seventeen, Central Intelligence

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