If you don’t count the presidential election, 2016 was a very good year, for films at least. Out of the 346 features I saw last year (yeah, I know, get a life), here are the ones that got my attention. They’re in alphabetical order, but if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to say that Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, La La Land, and I, Daniel Blake are my top picks, though I think all the films here are very strong. The majority of these are not studio films, but are “smaller” independent productions. It’s also interesting that for twenty-three of the thirty-two titles listed, the director was also the screenwriter .
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, director) Cerebral sci-fi thriller (also a puzzle and a meditation) with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker trying to determine why alien spacecraft are poised over a dozen locations around the world. Adams is a top linguist enlisted to decipher the aliens’ language. I wish Jeremy Renner had been given more to do, but it’s Amy Adams’ movie, she’s its heart and soul. Arrival reveals itself slowly and in ways that don’t necessarily register until later. Time becomes non-linear; at one point an alien tells Adams that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. A second viewing would be helpful, but I haven’t managed that yet. From the director of Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), and the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichart, director & writer) The following description by Polly Kat on IMDb covers it well: “Certain Women drops us into a handful of intersecting lives across Montana. A lawyer Laura Dern tries to defuse a hostage situation and calm her disgruntled client Jared Harris, who feels slighted by a workers’ compensation settlement. A married couple Michelle Williams and James Le Gros breaks ground on a new home but exposes marital fissures when they try to persuade an elderly man to sell his stockpile of sandstone. A ranch hand Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to a young lawyer Kristen Stewart, who inadvertently finds herself teaching a twice-weekly adult education class, four hours from her home.” There’s nothing conventionally dramatic about the Reichart films I’ve seen. Her Wendy and Lucy (2008) with Michelle Williams is a good example; unsentimental but deeply felt, keenly observed and respectful of all her characters. Her films have almost always had women at the center.
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, director & writer) This is one of several titles on my list that has deeply humanist concerns. In Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, a man, woman, and her daughter form a family out of necessity to relocate to a France. The title character has a strong sense of what’s right, and he’s not about to be pushed around by the drug dealers and hoodlums who control the housing project where he’s been sent. In this time of refugees trying to find new homes in other lands, Dheepan is especially resonant.
Disorder (Alice Wincour, director & writer) Slow-burn thriller in which a French Special Forces soldier with PTSD back from Afghanistan pulls security duty in a house where everything is definitely not all right. An excellent French film with Matthias Schoenarts and Diane Kruger.
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, director & writer) Haille Steinfeld as a high school student struggling to find out how she fits into her life and Woody Harrelson as the teacher she confides in are excellent in this freshly observed coming-of-age story.
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, director & writer) A true mind-blower, this film is a trip in every sense of the word. Shot in crisp black & white, Embrace of the Serpent slips from 1909 to 1940 and back again, and again. In 1909, a German scientist enlists the aid of an Amazonian shaman to help find the yakuna, a legendary plant with healing and hallucinogenic powers; in 1940, an American, who has read the diaries of the German scientist, persuades the same shaman to help locate the same plant. At times Embrace of the Serpent has vibes of both Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You’ve got to see it for that to make sense. This film is disorienting in ways you’re not even aware of until you find yourself out in the lobby wondering what just happened. Embrace of the Serpent is a unique experience.
Forsaken (Jon Cassar, director) An old-fashioned western with a few twists. Kiefer Sutherland is a gunfighter returning home and trying to lay down his guns. His father, Donald Sutherland, is the town’s preacher who can’t forgive his son for the life he led after the Civil War. There’s a local bad guy (Brian Cox) set on acquiring as much property as possible by forcing ranchers off their land even if he has to kill them. This is a classic premise and you know Sutherland will be forced to pick up his guns before the end credits roll. There’s not much new here, but it plays out very well, with the added bonus of seeing Kiefer Sutherland and his father together in a movie for the first time in their careers. Michael Wincott is especially good as a gentleman gunman for the other side.
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, director) Fascinating film from the South Korean director of Old Boy that stops and starts over about a third of the way in, showing us what “really” happened from a different point of view, then flips that again as more layers are peeled away. It’s sexy and creepy, twisty and twisted, and feels totally original.
Here is a collection of clips from The Handmaiden, followed by a trailer.
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, director; Taylor Sheridan, writer) I really love this film. I saw it again last month at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Contenders” series and it was a good as I’d remembered. My previous post on this film can be accessed here.
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, director & co-writer) This is an important movie that tells the little-known story of African-American women with math skills working for NASA in the early 60s at the dawn of the space age. We see the challenges they face as women in a male-dominated workplace, as well as experiencing the casual racism of the period. There’s nothing innovative about the filmmaking — it’s very straight-forward and direct — but the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, and Kevin Costner are very strong, and the story is very resonant with today. Hidden Figures shows how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, director; Paul Laverty, writer) This is one of the best I saw. Ken Loach has been called a director of socialist realism, and while that’s an accurate description, what always comes through for me in his films is the sense of humanity that’s present in every frame. Loach, who will be 80 in June, has been working in film and television for 50 years. His commitment has never wavered. Films of his I particularly like are Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), and My Name Is Joe (1998). I, Daniel Blake ranks with his very best. The title character is a basic, decent man struggling to get through a snarl of bureaucratic bullsh*t designed to be as unhelpful as possible. Daniel, played by Dave Johns, spends hours on hold trying to reach officials who can’t help him anyway. We can all identify with that. Along the way he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two children, recently moved from London to Newcastle. Katie is also thwarted by a system filled with Catch-22s. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. It’s a beautiful film.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, director & writer) There was a lot of enthusiastic buzz for this film before it opened. I have to say, it delivers and then some. I was enjoying it well enough, and then there was a point about midway through — during an argument between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — when I realized with a rush that I was seeing a great movie. Stone and Gosling are wonderful. I’ve been a big Ryan Gosling booster since seeing him in Half Nelson (2006). Emma Stone is dazzling. La La Land hits you with positive energy. It’s like somebody juggling chainsaws and spinning plates at the same time. The filmmaking is very fresh and inventive. I had a problem with Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014). The music in that film was great, and the big drumming finale at Carnegie Hall was incredibly exciting, but I had a hard time accepting that a teacher as verbally and physically abusive as J.K. Simmons’ character could last for any length of time in a school. He was more like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I had no such reservations about La La Land. The music and dance numbers are great, and the bait & switch ending keeps your head spinning. This film justifies all the attention it’s been getting.
Loving (Jeff Nichols, director & writer) Loving is the true story of the relationship between a white man and a black woman in Virginia in the late 1950s, a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most states. I’ve been a big fan of Jeff Nichols’ work ever since seeing his first film, Shotgun Stories (2007). Since then he’s made a series of exceptional works: Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special, released earlier in 2016. Nichols’ approach to filmmaking is low-key, minimal, unsentimental, and naturalistic. Loving refines his style even further. The film is made up of the small, day-to-day details of living. There’s nothing melodramatic about it. Scenes of racial confrontation are largely absent. Richard and Mildred Loving, excellently portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, aren’t even present when the Supreme Court decision comes down in 1967 that legalizes interracial marriage. The same day we saw Loving, we also watched Nancy Buirski’s excellent documentary, The Loving Story (2011), which the feature was closely based on. Loving would make a great double-feature with Hidden Figures, as they both deal with crucial advances in civil rights.
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, director & writer) Before I saw Toni Erdmann, I would have said this was the best feature film of 2016. But it’s so close, the difference probably doesn’t matter. This is only the third feature from Kenneth Lonergan, after the stunning You Can Count on Me (2000) and the messy but amazing Margaret (2011). I can’t recall a film that deals with grief, loss, and responsibility to the powerful degree that Manchester does. Scenes in a hospital of people struggling to process the fact that someone has died are amazing. Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler is astonishing. You have to wonder how someone does that. Michelle Williams is equally good as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. A heartbreaking loss in their past was too much to bear. I especially liked C.J. Wilson as George, the partner of Lee’s brother Joe on their fishing boat. Lucas Hedges is also very good as Patrick, the nephew Lee is reluctant to take responsibility for following his father’s death. This is a heavy movie, though it’s also quite funny at times.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, director & writer) A deceptively simple story of the life of an African-American boy told in three parts; the first when he’s an adolescent; the second when he’s a teenager; the third when he’s an adult. None of these parts have obvious endings or resolutions. They just happen. Mahershala Ali plays a Miami drug dealer, Juan, but he’s not a stereotype. He takes the young Chiron, known as Little, under his wing and becomes a mentor of sorts, giving Little a safe space away from his crack-addicted mother (Naomi Harris). Janelle Monáe is Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, who also cares for Little. (Mahershala Ali has been turning up frequently. He and Janelle Monáe are in Hidden Figures. He’s been in House of Cards (Netflix) and the Marvel series Luke Cage, also on Netflix.) In parts two and three, Chiron has the growing awareness that he’s gay. All of this is dealt with in an understated way that feels very real. As with a number of films of 2016, there’s a profound sense of humanity at the core.
The Nice Guys (Shane Black, director & co-writer) Based on the print ads and trailers I’d seen, I had no desire to see this film — it looked stupid — and wondered what Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were doing in it. Then I got an invite to a pre-release screening with Shane Black in attendence for a Q&A after, so I figured what the hell. I’m really glad I went, because it turned out to be great, a real kick. Crowe and Gosling are terrific in this violent comedy. Gosling channels The Three Stooges in a couple of WTF moments. Black began his career getting record amounts of money for his screenplays, beginning with Lethal Weapon in 1987. I’d liked Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a convoluted meta private eye thriller with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer that he wrote and directed. The Nice Guys has a similar vibe. It may not be high art, but it’s hugely entertaining.
Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, director & writer) This is a touching and delicate Japanese film concerning three sisters who discover they have a half-sister, and embrace her as a member of their family. It’s a wonderful, smoothly told story with no villains. I first became aware of Kore-eda with Mabarosi (1995), followed by After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004), the glorious I Wish (2011), and Like Father, Like Son (2013). He frequently has children as protagonists and does wonders with them. His films feel very special.
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer) Paterson is a quintessential Jim Jarmusch film, quirky and dead-pan, with a sharp eye for odd detail. Adam Driver plays a character named Paterson, who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. He also writes poetry, which we hear in voice-over from time to time. Sets of twins turn up frequently for no particular reason. The English bulldog Marvin is a silent observer around the neighborhood and in the house Paterson shares with Laura (Golshifeh Forahani), a self-styled designer of clothing and interiors, and aspiring singer-songwriter. Paterson gets up every morning, has breakfast, drives the bus, comes home, walks Marvin and hangs out in a bar, goes home and spends time with Laura. Along the way he observes life around him and writes poems about it. That’s pretty much it and it’s great.
The Shallows (Jaime Collet-Serra, director) A nasty piece of work about a woman (Blake Lively) being stalked by a shark while surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. It’s tightly wound, single minded, and sharply focused. After some initial doubts about seeing The Shallows, I was quite surprised at how good it was. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, this one comes along.
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, director & writer) This is my top pick for the year. We saw it the night before New Year’s Eve, so it’s still fresh in my mind. Astounding, amazing, unique, jaw-dropping, all that. Or, as my favorite blurb from the poster says, “It’s absolutely nuts!” It’s incredibly funny, but also serious and touching in its depiction of a frayed father-daughter relationship. Sandra Hüller is Ines, a driven corporate professional working for a consulting company trying to convince a company in Bucharest to outsource their work. Peter Simonischek plays her father, Winfred, who identifies himself as Toni Erdmann much of the time. Toni is a prankster, given to whoopee cushions, popping a set of buck teeth in and out of his mouth, and showing up unannounced in Ines’ life at the most inopportune moments. He’s an incredibly engaging character. An extended scene of Ines struggling to get out of a too-tight dress is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Toni Erdmann runs for 2 hours & 42 minutes, but doesn’t feel long at all. If it had kept going, we would have kept watching. It’s really unique, in a class by itself. Do not miss it.
Train to Busan (Yeon Song-ho, director & writer) Zombies on a train, everything just gets worse and worse and then worse than that. It’s unrelenting, high-octane, propulsive, amazing, and great. If you like this sort of thing — and you know who you are — Train to Busan is not to be missed.
20th Century Women (Mike Mills, director & writer) An award-worthy performance by Annette Bening as a single mother in 1979 Santa Barbara and a killer soundtrack are obvious attractions in this fine film from Mike Mills. His previous feature was Beginners (2010), fwith Ewan McGregor playing a son whose father, Christopher Plummer, has come out of the closet at age 75. Beginners was great, but I think 20th Century Women is even better. Mills’ approach reminds me of Ira Sachs’ films, whose Little Men is also on this list.
The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardonne, co-directors & writers) Like Ken Loach, the Dardonne brothers are deeply humanist filmmakers. Their earlier films, which include Rosetta (1999); The Son (1999); L’enfant (2005); and Two Days, One Night, are ample evidence of this. The Unknown Girl is no exception. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor filling in at a walk-in clinic in Liege. When someone rings the buzzer after a long day, an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), wants to let the person in. Jenny stops him, saying it’s already an hour past closing. When the person who rang, a young African immigrant woman, is found dead the next day on the bank of a river, Jenny feels responsible. She makes it her mission to find out who the woman was, so that she won’t be buried without a name.
Other films I liked a lot last year include the following:
Elle (Paul Verhoeven, director)
Indignation (James Shamus, director & writer)
Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)
The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, director)
Little Men (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer)
Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, director & writer)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, director & writer)
Sing Street (John Carney, director & writer)
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, director) My previous post on this film can be accessed here.
I haven’t yet seen Lion, A Monster Calls, or Kubo and the Two Strings, all of which have received strong positive response. I’m sure there are others that slipped past me.
Many of these films are already available for streaming, rental, or purchase.