Well cinephiles and friends alike, my annual list of favorite films has finally arrived. I had to take these first few weeks in the new year to re-watch some of this years gems to order my list accurately. Through careful deliberation, I present to you my favorite films of 2016. Make sure to check out my top pick lists from previous years provided below!
Honorable Mentions: The Wailing Elle Goat The Sea of Trees The Witch Green Room Lemonade The Odyssey Black Mirror: San Junipero
** THIS LIST IS IN ORDER **
#18 - The Childhood of a Leader Directed by Brady Corbet
Brady Corbet’s directorial debut is a chilling fictional tale about the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. The result is a character study focusing on the origins of evil. Corbet is clearly inspired by the aesthetics of Michael Haneke, Ingmar Bergman and even a little bit of Andrei Tarkovsky. Long tracking shots and an overpowering orchestral score brings the audience on this artistic journey. The conclusion of the film left me shocked, watch out for it.
#17 - Operation Avalanche Directed by Matt Johnson
Operation Avalanche is a true hidden gem for anyone who delights in films centered around conspiracy theories. The theory of the moon landing being a staged production might be one of the most ridiculous hoaxes out of them all - and there are groups of people who truly believe it. However, this film is made in a way that actually makes it seem like a very possible reality. The movie is cleverly filmed in a POV mockumentary format with a classic 60s filter. The film shifts in tone from a comedy of sorts and ends in paranoia. I found it to be one of the most underrated films of the year.
#16 - Swiss Army Man Directed by The Daniels
It’s an impressive feat when a film featuring constant flatulence and directional erections can also end up being a heartfelt and existential story of friendship. There are very few comedies on this list, or on any of my other annual lists for that matter. Swiss Army Man succeeded on making me laugh multiple times. I praise it simply for its originality and the fact that the filmmakers tackled on such ridiculous themes in a way that they didn’t become immature or worthy of an eye roll. Another shoutout to the energetic score and colorful production design.
#15 - La La Land Directed by Damien Chazelle
The musical genre is most definitely one of my least favorite ones. Other than a few exceptions (Across the Universe, The Wall, Dancer in the Dark), I have found most musicals to be unbearably cheesy. The cheese is still there in La La Land, but it is effective because that is the intended tone. It truly is a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood filled with allusions from earlier infamous musicals such as Singing in The Rain. I anticipated this film from the start both because Damien Chazelle blew me away with Whiplash and because Ryan Gosling is my favorite actor working today. Shot on a film, in a dazzling Technicolor format, it also features some of the most awe inspiring cinematography out of all the movies released this year. I believe La La Land is the film that we needed to end 2016 with - a film filled with magic and hope for a better future.
#14 - Manchester by the Sea Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Man did this movie crush me. It squeezed everything out of me and left me a hollow shell. I went home and sat on my couch and just cried after leaving the theatre. Don’t let this lead you astray from watching it, it’s just such a realistic heart-wrenching drama that I couldn’t help but be affected by it the entire day after seeing it. It might not be a masterpiece as such critics claim it to be, but it is a moving insight on the loss of loved ones and the emotional wreckage that can come out of it. There is no overly-done melodrama or redemption in the denouement. Instead, it focuses on little moments that end up forming a much greater whole by the end. Casey Affleck’s restrained performance was something I empathize with as he held a tragic rage behind his eyes.
#13 - Jackie Directed by Pablo Lorrain
This was a film that grew on me days after seeing it. I was absorbed by it while I watched it in a small art-house theatre, but it was afterward where it really began to resonate with me. The JFK assassination is a momumental tragedy in history that has always greatly interested me. I remember being haunted by the video footage when it was shown to me in a college history class. While the script may be lacking in areas, the performance by Natalie Portman is the saving grace of this production. Portman has transcended her star status in this role by flawlessly emulating the former First Lady. Jackie is a film that plays like a fragmented memory - it jumps in time throughout. The production design transported me to the 1960s and Mica Levi’s score really is the standout aspect of the film.
#12 - The Blackcoat’s Daughter Directed by Oz Perkins
I believe The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the year’s most underrated and ignored horror film. The very few critic reviews I found online all have positive things to say, while most audience reviews are the opposite. This is the feature film debut of director Oz Perkins. He has created a richly nuanced horror film that never reaches any outrageous or flashy climax, which is a breath of fresh air compared to the usual tripe that comes out of Hollywood year after year. Perkin’s directs the film with a restrained control that would make his horror-icon of a father, Anthony Perkins, proud. There is a thick haze of dread that doesn’t ease up until the film’s bleak finale. The films minimal use of dialogue works perfectly in unison with the nonstop rumbling score. The entire aesthetic of The Blackcoat’s Daughter is what made it work so well for me. Loads of unnecessary dialogue and jump scares are replaced with well executed tracking shots and genuinely upsetting violence. The end product is a deliciously evil exercise In dread.
#11 - The Eyes of My Mother Directed by Nicolas Pesce
The Eyes of My Mother is the type of art-house horror film I feel like I’ve been waiting all year for. Everything about it speaks to me as a horror fan. The story seems as if it was ripped out of one of my worst nightmares; Or better yet, if you could visualize the musings of a demented asylum patient - the result would be The Eyes of My Mother. This film would never have been as effective if it wasn’t for the lush, gorgeous black and white photography. Camera shots are shrowded in shadows which adds to the aforementioned nightmare effect. Thank god this film has such a short runtime (it’s only a little over 70 minutes). I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of this grueling tale. The last 20 minutes of the film takes a plunge into the heart of darkness - which to many viewers could be considered completely morally reprehensible. Well, a desensitized horror junkie such as myself was pleased by the filmmaker’s decision to conclude this story as depraved as possible. I decided to celebrate Christmas this year in the holiday spirit by showing this movie to my brother. By the end of it, he just turned to me and asked: “Why do you do this to me?”.
#10 - The Light Between Oceans Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance is one of my very favorite directors working today. His first two films (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) both have found a place in my top 15 favorite films of all time. Needless to say I’ve been tirelessly anticipating his latest feature. It didn’t have the same impact on me as his previous features; however, it still ended up being an impressive and heartbreaking picture. Adam Arkapaw works wonders as the DOP. His camerawork captures the coast of Australia beautifully. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander work perfectly off of each other (yet another instance of Fassbender completely investing himself in a role). Keep an ear out for the perfectly utilized “Funeral Canticle” track that has never failed to give me goosebumps since the first time I heard it in The Tree of Life.
#9 - Cemetery of Splendour Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Describing this film is a challenge in itself - let alone reviewing it. This is the second film I’ve seen by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and they both are masterpieces in my eyes. Cemetery of Splendour, much like the soldiers affected by a sleeping epidemic in the film, lead me down the rabbit hole into a deep trance state. I love films which feel like I dreamt them after they’re over, and that’s exactly what this movie achieved. The long takes, minimal use of a score, and gorgeous natural scenery worked together to create a relaxing and mind expanding experience.
#8 - Moonlight Directed by Barry Jenkins
I might not think that Moonlight is the very best film of the year, but it might just be the most important. It’s not everyday where you hear about masterful films that deal with homosexuality in the African American community. Jenkins tackles this subject perfectly by not making this aspect of the character’s persona the focal point of the film. It’s just as much a coming of age story about masculinity than it is a story about a guy struggling with his sexual identity. I related to this film on a very personal level because I know what it’s like being harassed by peers in school on the basis of being gay. Moonlight follows the central character Little from his adolescence in grade school all the way until manhood. Although three different actors are playing the same character, I was utterly convinced it was the same person for they all adopted the same mannerisms and personality traits. Moonlight makes a grand statement about finding out who you truly are. It sends the message that it’s possible to find acceptance by people other than your immediate family.
#7 - Midnight Special Directed by Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols is being praised this year on the award circuit for his touching film Loving, but it’s this film that stayed with me after watching. Never has there been a film made about supernatural abilities that has hit me on such a deep level. Midnight Special deals with a plethora of themes other than a child with superhuman abilities. These include the responsibilities of fatherhood and the special bond between parents and their child. It opens ambiguously and the intelligent plot slowly unfolds in such a way that questions are answered little by little until the absolutely soul-touching finale. Even though she has limited screen time, Kirsten Dunst added to this films perfection. The sheer humanity displayed through her performance as a mother who will do anything to keep her child out of harms way is an admirable thing. Midnight Special is a sci-fi film for the ages.
#6 - Embrace of the Serpent Directed by Ciro Guerra
The fevered madness of the jungle is alive in this flick. Embrace of the Serpent addresses the duality of man. His ability to create yet also his sure-fire knack to destroy goodness. His willingness to help others yet also falling victim to his own egoic desires. In this film, the Westernized man leads to the downfall of an ancient Amazonian civilization. Serpent focuses on two different white men, separated by decades in time, who traverse into the depths of the jungle guided by the last living member of a tribe. Both of these men are looking for a hallucinogenic plant - one to cure his terminal illness, the other for purposes of being able to dream. The end product is a head-trip into psychedelia where plant medicine is the supreme deity.
#5 - Arrival Directed by Denis Villenueve
Villenueve knocked it out of the park again this year with his latest film. Is there anything this man cannot do? The French-Canadian filmmaker strayed away from the dark and somber tone of his previous works and created something life affirming. Arrival is an example of smart science-fiction that has been coming out of the film industry recently (something along the likes of Interstellar). Humanity is put to the test in this movie as they try to figure out the intentions of the alien visitors. But it’s a story about love and loss above all. Arrival is edited perfectly by manipulating the viewer’s sense of time. Once I reached the ending and pieced it all together, I was a wet-faced audience member in that dead silent theatre as the other attendees sat dazed.
#4 - The Neon Demon Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Is it a dazzling grand statement on the depraved narcissism of the professional modeling industry? Or is it just more pretentious artistic masturbation which has become expected of Refn? My thoughts are with the former. Refn’s auteur style that he has developed upon since the release of his magnum opus Drive has been particularly polarizing among critics and audiences alike - almost as polarizing as Terrence Malick. I believe people dislike The Neon Demon for some of the same reasons why the general masses reacted so negatively to Spring Breakers: it tries too hard to be artsy, it’s just a boring music video, the dialogue is unrealistic. At the same time I feel as if these audiences didn’t grasp onto the fact that these films which shed light on the hedonistic lifestyle of deranged young women are purely satirical. They’re supposed to be absurd. The irony is is that this absurdism is actually reflective on the types of females that move to LA for the pursuit of fame and recognition. It certainly is the best looking Refn film to date, with even banal or commonplace locations drenched in neon hues. And Cliff Martinez has outdone himself with the synth-heavy score which guides us along this fairytale of horrors. How far would you go to get to the top? In Refn’s surreal vision of Los Angeles there is no such thing as going too far to reach fame, even if it means bloodshed. As one character says in the film: “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” It would be nice to write off this statement as pure subjectivity, but what else has the media taught us but this ideal?
#3 - Nocturnal Animals Directed by Tom Ford
Do you ever really know the person you love? This is the thought running through my mind while watching Tom Ford’s romance story disguised as a crime-revenge. Ford has created a highly innovating form of storytelling with Nocturnal Animals. A violent story of revenge is presented to symbolize the betrayal that Amy Adam’s commits against Gyllenhaal’s character. What made this film so enjoyable was the aspect that it was like two different films in one, yet both stories suitably complement one another. The frustratingly ambiguous ending was delightful as the audience searches for the intentions of Gyllenhaal’s character. The whole thing was a stylish story of betrayal.
#2 - Knight of Cups Directed by Terrence Malick
My cinematic idol returned in 2016 with many ambitious projects: two different documentaries about the birth and death of the universe with Voyage of Time, a festival premiere date set for his forthcoming Song to Song, and the stream of consciousness visual poem which is Knight of Cups. I believe there is such thing as a Malick gene. His films either strike people with such awe and wonder that they come out of his films feeling enlightened or they are the cinematic equivalent of taking an Ambien for others. I have total faith that this film will be considered a classic masterpiece in decades to come. Sometimes it just takes time for a film to receive that cult status. Unfortunately, a formula which critics took such a liking to with The Tree of Life quickly became redundant and meandering in the public’s eye with his two follow-up works. Just like with all great art, it takes repeated viewings to really appreciate the philosophical mastery of this film. I’ve seen it over five times now and each time I walk away with something new - a blossoming appreciation that such abstract and soulful cinema can be financed. If you have any idea about Malick’s life then you understand that Knight of Cups is the last film in his autobiographical trilogy. I see it as a sort-of spiritual sequel to The Tree of Life. A sense of disassociation is felt through the floating camerawork which follows Christian Bale on an odyssey of temptation in Los Angeles. Malick abandons small-town rural settings and older time periods for a tale set in the present day luxury land of LA. I must admit that when the credits started to scroll I couldn’t help but ask myself: “that’s it?” The abrupt finale left me feeling a little hollow. It left me with nothing. But I soon realized that this was Malick’s intention. This was the loneliness and isolation he felt as a big-shot Hollywood director even though he was surrounded with admirers. So to save himself, he leaves that lifestyle and finds his redemption through the glories of divine Mother Nature. I am so happy that there is a director who I feel so connected to, someone who expresses his eloquent ideology through some of the most beautiful movies ever in the annals of cinematic history. Knight of Cups is a fervent reverie on love, loss and life. A haunting meditation of redeeming oneself after a swift fall from grace.
#1 - American Honey Directed by Andrea Arnold
A film so filled with life that I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated after it ended, American Honey is an epic road trip story for the millenial era. Its plot is open and free flowing much akin to the characters who traverse across the midwest in a van selling magazines to folks from all different social and economic backgrounds. American Honey exposes the dark underbelly of American households, especially for low-income ones. Youths search through trash cans in order to find a fitting meal. A drunken stepfather takes advantage of his stepdaughter. A junkie mother falls unconscious on the couch unable to take care of her young children. I might be making American Honey sound like a film filled with sorrow and hopeless situations. However Andrea Arnold takes the subject matter and actually gives it a twinge of hope. The chemistry between all the characters, most particularly between Sasha Lane and Shia Labeouf, makes it practically impossible to look away at could very well be a trainwreck waiting to happen. As soon as you think some awful event is going to happen to end the roadie’s journey of freedom - it doesn’t. American Honey sometimes feels more like a documentary than a feature film. The dialogue comes off as mostly improvisational and the plot is minimal at best. Arnold has taken cues from Larry Clark’s style of filmmaking when he released his controversial HIV drama Kids in 1995. Considering that film is in my top 10 favorite films of all time, it’s clear as to why American Honey was my favorite work released this year. With its unique aspect ratio, colorful and eccentric characters, and one hell of an eclectic soundtrack, American Honey breathed new life into me. By the end I felt almost as purified as Sasha Lane does as she takes a dip into a lake, descending to the bottom only to emerge from the surface a newly realized person.
You know, I’d always hoped that right before I died my life would flash before my eyes and I would see wonderful things, but as I was hanging up there I didn’t really see much of anything, but I did see you.
once you’ve loved them,
become yours forever
and if you try to let them go
they circle back
and return to you,
they become part of who you are
or they destroy you.” -Allen, Kill Your Darlings
“I suppose whenever you go through periods of transition, or in a way, it’s a very definite closing of a certain chapter of your life - I suppose those times are always going to be both very upsetting and also very exciting by the very nature because things are changing and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”