2016 IN REVIEW: Justin’s Top Ten, Worst and Over/Under-Rated

2016 in review HEADERThe movies saved 2016 for me.

Enough jokes have been made, enough grief has been spilled, to make a case for why we’d rather see this series of Gregorian events put behind us. We lost true legends (Muhammad Ali, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher), artists who helped us find ourselves (David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher), and talents we’d just assumed would be around a little—or a lot longer (Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin… and Carrie Fisher). Culturally speaking, our country endured hateful, unbearable travesties, from nightclub shootings to cynical obstructions to our democratic processes. This led, of course, right to the empowerment of an authoritarian monster with a fuse shorter than his cocktail weenie fingers, of whom I’m all but certain shall make more difficult the lives of many people I love.

2016 in Review A Bigger SplashMy own life saw some seismic changes, from the completion of my Masters to a decision to leave my cushy job and move to New York so my husband could complete a Masters of his own. The movies were what saved me from an overstuffed year. I don’t mean to say they provided escapism—if 2016 proved anything, I believe less in “escapism” than ever before—but it provided a constant. 2016, on levels both micro and macro, ranks among the most significant years I’ve experienced as an adult. (Did I mention 2016 was the year I turned thirty?)

But the movies were my constant. They have movies both in Minneapolis and in New York. Movies played on screens November 8, and they continued to play on November 10. Movies reminded me why Carrie Fisher was my personal hero, and they reminded me I could move on once heroes like her moved on.

Movies were what anchored me, this year, to my sense of what the world is, of what the world could be, and of what joy we can find in the creative works of others. Sure, the year in film had its own low points: an excess of franchise films, a dreadful summer slate, angry male nerds who felt sinking a mediocre all-woman reboot somehow preserved their own mediocre childhoods. Those notwithstanding, movies built my bridge from 2015 to 2017. Now even more than ever, I love the movies. They saved me.

2016 in Review Petes DragonI love movies so much this year that I find myself doing something I’ve never done before with a top ten list: my #1 spot is going to three different movies. In the years since I’ve been writing lists for Film Misery (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) I always presented a clear-cut best. I didn’t want to change what I’d done before. But up to the second I started writing this list, I still couldn’t decide which movie I wanted as my #1. At least eight movies vied for that spot (some that didn’t even make the final list).

Then it hit me: why did I have to choose? 2016 is an exceptional year, and so why not take exception with this year’s list?

But I’m no anarchist; I did choose three movies as my number one, and actually kept my top ten limited to ten films, each great in their own right. These are the movies that best helped me through 2016, and I expect I’ll need them quite a bit in the upcoming year as well.

The Exceptions:

Notable Films I Did Not See:

  • Aquarius
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Captain Fantastic
  • Doctor Strange
  • Edge of Seventeen
  • Embrace of the Serpent
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • High-Rise
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • Jason Bourne
  • Keanu
  • Lion
  • Little Sister
  • Love and Friendship
  • Moana
  • A Monster Calls
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
  • The Secret Life of Pets
  • Shin Godzilla
  • Sing
  • Sing Street
  • Tower
  • Train to Busan
  • Your Name

2016 in Review The AmericansThe Non-Movie of the Year:

The best entertainment I consumed all year was not a movie, but the fourth season of a cable TV program. I had been listening to critics hailing FX’s criminally underseen The Americans for years, and I mostly agreed with their assessment that it was a terrific series. Genre television seldom feels this impeccably written, this artfully composed. And prestige series, unike the best of genre series, seldom nest their themes so deeply into the subtext. It’s with its fourth season I feel The Americans has finally hit high-gear. Many plotlines approached their boiling points (and, in several devastating cases, their ending points) which, thanks to the carefulness of the plotting and the commitment of the performances, has left me more confident than ever that this story of Soviet spies living in Reagan’s America is the best thing currently on television. The Americans has earned itself two final seasons, and is only now snagging the institutional acclaim (read: Emmy nominations) it deserves. I doubt the show will ever know a meaningful spike in its ratings. But hopefully you will make a mental note of this series and, when the whole thing becomes bingeable on Netflix two years from now, you’ll remember to give it the postmortem attention it deserves.

The Superlatives:

2016 in Review Isabelle HuppertAll-Star of 2016

The most refreshing of this year’s awards narrative is how Cesar and Cannes darling Isabelle Huppert has found her way to serious awards-season buzz without compromising her choices in roles. Elle, Paul Verhoven’s haute-trash flick about the baffling choices of a video game designer following her violent rape, is by leagues the most technically difficult performance of the year. And she navigates the role so astutely, so seriously, so comedically, you cannot imagine any other actor in the role. She lent crucial gravity early this year in Louder Than Bombs, as the deceased matriarch of a grieving husband and their two sons. The movie itself is a straightforward “sad men” movie, rendered far more interesting because Huppert taps into the rich potential of her character in Joachim Trier’s script, and portrays her as something more than a maternal simple subject of grief and lament. Her performance in Things to Come is her year’s gentlest work, but possibly her best. As an empty-nested academic whose husband leaves her, Huppert carries Mia Hansen-Løve’s subdued vision of transition and newfound identity gracefully, yet unsentimentally.

I think that is her approach for all three of these movies—graceful, yet unsentimental—that has defined both her accomplished career and her reputation as the great actor of the world stage—every bit the peer of Streep and Binoche, DiCaprio and Leung—yet one not yet fully endeared to an American audience. That it seems she’s finally been embraced (she has a solid shot of winning the Oscar) after this triptych of performances, gives me faith Hollywood might finally open a seat for the world’s most invaluable living actor.

2016 in Review 13thMaster Moment of 2016

When a Democratic party official named Adam Parkhomenko posted on social media the final montage of her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay chastised the tweet as an act of “cherry-picking,” and of manipulating her advocacy documentary into “propaganda.” While DuVernay was (understandably) citing the ill-advised tweet likely to convince audiences to stream her movie in its entirety—and, not insignificantly, to remind folks like Parkhomenko his party is hardly an innocent actor in reinforcing mass incarceration—I have a hard time believing the potency of those final moments could ever truly hit when isolated from the movie preceding it. (That’s like watching E.T.’s weepy goodbye to Elliott without knowing how they became friends in the first place.)

I guess, on its own, there is shallow visceral satisfaction in hearing our now-President-Elect’s voice disparaging his protesters, imposed over threaded imagery of brutalized black protestors from the Civil Rights era through to today. But what gets missed on its own is just how well DuVernay crafts her argument to frame that ending montage less as a manipulation, but as a logical conclusion, as a refrain in the same awful song we’ve been singing for centuries. As a work of advocacy, 13th makes its case as elegantly as you could hope. As a crafted work, DuVernay delivers both the great final scene to a 2016 film, but an unsettling context for what she sees as our challenges in 2017 and beyond.
Runners-Up: Mia’s Audition, La La Land; The raid on Eadu, Rogue One; Caleb’s fever, The Witch; “Would that it were so simple,” Hail, Caesar!; “Camelot,” Jackie; The opening shot, Krisha; Removing the towel, Julieta; On the bus, Things to Come; Lily Gladstone’s ride home, Certain People

2016 in Review The Dressmaker2016 Movie I Liked More Than You

Jocelyn Moorehouse’s The Dressmaker feels like it was made in the wrong decade. An Aussie import pre-condemned with middling reviews, this story of Kate Winslet’s designer of women’s apparel returning to the provincial small town of her youth feels like the Sundance smash of 1998. But despite its condescending (if admittedly honest) disdain for small-town life, despite its creaky sexual politics (I should have more issues with Hugo Weaving’s closeted, dress-obsessed constable than I do), I delighted in every goofy, sudsy moment of the movie. The films begins as a parade of Winslet’s fabulous dresses (courtesy of Margot Wilson) that fabulously scandalize the town. It then settles into a nice mother/daughter dramedy between Winslet and a delightful Judy Davis. The central mystery drawing Winslet’s character back to her past is a ludicrous, unsatisfying one, but it does serve as a lynchpin for the (literal) barn-burner of a finale, all in support of an interesting message that sometimes our past is best left behind us. Winslet truly propels The Dressmaker and its pleasures, giving a brassy, vulnerable, sexy performance that’s more fun than anything she’s made in what seems like forever. It’s a movie destined for cult-favorite status.
Runners-Up: The Light Between Oceans, City of Gold, Into the Inferno, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Nice Guys

The Bummers:

2016 in Review Sully2016 Movie You Liked More Than Me

When it comes to crowd-pleasing, no-frills movies for adults, few directors these days are more invaluable than Clint Eastwood. That’s probably why Sully proved such a hit with critics and audiences. In all fairness, the movie’s not without its merits. But it is also one of Eastwood’s more disjointed recent efforts; a confusing portrait of heroism whose conclusions feel frustratingly at odds with each other.

By the end of the movie we hear Sully pay lip-service to the true, everyday heroes of the Miracle on the Hudson: passengers, first-responders, some of whom get fleeting, underwritten screen time. We gather that’s the final point Sully wishes to make and, by the grace alone of Hanks’ beautifully humbled performance, it’s almost believable. But it’s on this point that Eastwood’s filmmaking is comparatively less convincing. Instead of making good on that thesis, spending more meaningful time with the “everyday” heroes—particularly in the aftermath of the harrowing incident, where they seem to be forgotten—the focus stays primarily on Sully, the only real hero in Eastwood’s movie. So we watch repetitive sequences returning to his graceful rough landing. We endure scenes of pretty women approaching him to smack wet kisses on his cheek. We toil through scenes defending his gut decisions to the unfeeling bureaucracy of the NTSB (I’m less bothered by the fabrication of that conflict than I am by its straw-man function in the story). Sully’s final claim it’s a story about real heroes, but that’s disingenuous. As far as Eastwood’s concerned, this is a story about a reluctant, exceptional man; a hero who’s more of a hero than all the other apparent heroes.

Sully is disappointing because its vision is rote, and frustrating because it claims to be something else entirely.
Runners-Up: Deadpool, 20th Century Women, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Don’t Breathe, Hacksaw Ridge, The Birth of a NationRogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016 in Review Suicide SquadWorst Movie of 2016

I only saw David Ayer’s Suicide Squad because I had to (for a comprehensive podcast discussion of onscreen Jokers). Based on my general feelings on the D.C. Universe gestalt up to this point, not to mention my general lack of enthusiasm for director David Ayer, it was probably too much to expect I could ever actually like this movie. But the incompetence of Suicide Squad just cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Enough hay has been made about how D.C. outsourced this movie to the same editors who cut its popular trailer, I suppose in hopes that subversive humor could be juiced out of Ayer’s morose, prune-dry footage. The result is a tedious nightmare of half-assed ADR banter, unforgivably banal soundtrack choices (“Dirty Deeds?” “Super Freak?” Really?), an opening sequence that feels like a trailer for its own movie, and characters both written and performed with the depth and insight of a criminal rap sheet. (I suppose you could argue that’s a clever move for a movie about villains, but… no.) But Suicide Squad’s sin is worse than simply being a bad movie. It is another artless nadir in Hollywood’s depressing obsession with franchise building. It embodies a low-point in a movie series that’s still only(!) three movies old. It’s the cinematic equivalent of starting a road trip, having your bro-iest friend play Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” at full blast, and realizing “I still have a long way to go, don’t I?”
Runners-Up: Sea of Trees, Nocturnal Animals, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Blair Witch

Honorable Mentions (#11 – #23)

13th (dir. Ava DuVernay) – The best-looking talking head documentary in years (it makes Gibney’s workhorse-quality films look hackneyed by comparison) is also an acute, enlightening, sober, and convincing argument about the reverberations of a nation’s great sins. No one gets away clean, because no one gets away from this.
2016 in Review AferimAferim! (dir. Radu Jude) – Among the most visually striking movies to come out of Romania’s new wave. Jude’s pseudo-western plays out both as a clever document of its country’s history and as an insightful meditation on masculinity and power. A wry father-and-son road trip movie.
A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino) – The perfect movie alternative for those who cannot afford a lavish a summer vacation. Guadagnino moors beautiful people in an even more beautiful Italian villa, and makes you wish you had sand into which you could bury your feet while watching. Most notable for Ralph Fiennes at his apex of dangerous sexual appeal. It’s the year’s best performance.
Elle (dir. Paul Verhoven) – I never thought Verhoven could/would cede control of his whole film to somebody else, but he does just that for Isabelle Huppert. It pays off. Elle plunges into thorny eagles like a Looney Tunes character on a cactus bed, but Huppert retains elegance and agency of her character throughout. A tasteful feat of exploitation.
Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater) – Straight white dudes couldn’t have been all bad this year if they gave us this summer confection. A shaggy, low-octane insight machine as only Richard Linklater could deliver, replete with small delights and gorgeous character beats.
2016 in Review Hidden FiguresHidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi) – A crowd-pleaser with teeth. You anticipate every narrative beat before you even get comfortable in your seat, but there’s a novel value both in feeling the racist’s gaze through the women experiencing it, and in seeing them as principals in their achievements. Benevolent white saviors need not apply here.
Julieta (dir. Pedro Almodóvar) – Even garden-variety Almodóvar is essential viewing. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte give impressively unified co-performances as a spurned wife and mother on the precarious road to healing. I’m not exactly an Alice Monro acolyte, but this makes me want to read more of her work.
Krisha (dir. Trey Edward Shults) – A compact, expressionistic, visionary portrait of a damaged woman staggering down the road of sobriety and self-improvement, propelled by Krisha Fairchild’s stunning performance. If any one medium can encapsulate the unique experience of feeling forlorn in a house teeming with loved ones, it’s cinema. And Shults, a student of Malick and a visionary in his own right, proves it.
2016 in Review La La LandLa La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle) – In the hours after watching this, it was the best movie of the year. Chazelle’s candy-coated ode to classic musicals and creative types works best when thought of as an espresso shot. Little beyond the terrific music lingers afterward, but few movies so quickly make the impossible seem not merely possible, but easy.
O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman) – The better version of Simpson’s story we saw this year. Much of what Edelman re-litigates from two decades ago remains so relevant today, you suspect it will remain relevant two decades from now. This already-seminal eight-hour 30 for 30 documentary examines three American tenets—sports, race, and media—and examines their connective tissue so astutely, so thoroughly, you’ll wish more attention was spent discussing the work itself than on whether it’s truly a movie or a TV show.
Pete’s Dragon (dir. David Lowery) – This year’s Paddington. Placid and lyrical, low-key and coherently wrought, this is the perfect title for parents who view movies as more than a babysitting apparatus. Where it’s lacking in pop-song covers and fart jokes, it instead offers resonant themes about family and community. It’s a movie that respects its audience, young and old alike.
Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve) – This few-frills story punches so lightly, so deftly, you hardly notice the bruise on your gut until some time afterward. I’ve sung Huppert’s praises already, but she truly serves Hansen-Løve’s mature vision of the seismic yet glacial experience of a life in transition.
2016 in review The WitnessThe Witness (dir. James D. Solomon) – In one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, the brother of Kitty Genovese reclaims his sister’s life from her notorious and, it turns out, apocryphal death. While it plays out mostly as a straightforward procedural, seeing new information uncovered though brother Bill’s eyes gives personal insight to just how badly a good narrative will obscure truth.

Justin’s Top Ten Films of 2016

2016 in Review Hail Caesar10) Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

“You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor, and that’s what you do… just like the director, the writer, the script girl, and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth! And you have worth if you serve the picture. Never forget that.”

Hollywood, seldom one to leave an opportunity for self-affirmation on the table, is busy crimping its hair for another awards season of toasting the “Magic of the Movies!” and the great things they give the world. And though the films of the Coen brothers brim always with cinematic history and verve, they feel allergic to fatuous, sentimental self-regard. Cue in their commercial flop Hail, Caesar!, an impossibly stuffed movie about a day in the live of a movie studio, that treats Movie Magic not with solemnity, not with nostalgia, but with quotidian drudgery. Seen largely through the eyes of Josh Brolin’s studio suit Eddie Maddox, Hail, Caesar! reads best as a wryly bloated office comedy, one that jadedly understands the “Magic of the Movies!” as its directors do: an 18-hour day filled with arduous shoots, vulturous press, meetings with religious anti-defamation groups, and ego-stroking of stars and writers. Less Burn After Reading than A Serious ManHail, Caesar is dense and dryly humorous, best-suited for those wishing to appreciate “Movie Magic!” from an ironic distance.

2016 in Review Manchester by the Sea9) Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

I first knew Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature was something special in the scenes following the death of Kyle Chandler’s Joe, the brother of Lee and the father of Patrick. After Lee takes his nephew back to his fatherless home, the teenage boy invites friends over, orders pizza, and banters about Star Trek (excuse me, “Staaaaah Trek”). It’s a striking scene, puzzling even; a mundaneness we’re not conditioned to experience in cinematic grief. It sets the stage for specifically how Manchester approaches the experience of coping with unimaginable loss: as a series of microscopic arcs and experiences, confoundingly mired alongside everyday moments, happy moments, awkward sexual encounters, and triggered on occasion by incidental goings-on (such as frozen chicken failing to fit into a freezer). And while that approach begets the illusion of little actually happening, what Manchester achieves is an arch, deeply specific, unexpectedly funny exploration of that old platitude on “how the life goes on.”

2016 in Review Cameraperson8) Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson)

Stories We Tell by way of Samsara, the year’s most impressive feat of nonfiction filmmaking proves greatness can be crafted even from the ribbons on the cutting-room floor. Kirsten Johnson, credited cinematographer to countless political and social documentaries, assembles a memoir of her life from the carefully juxtaposed outtakes and bloopers and cut scenes of the movies she’s shot. Where invisibility was expected of her on the job, here she exposes that artifice to convey just how much craft goes into even the most unaffected of documentaries. Beyond the academic subtext of Cameraperson suggesting no documentarian is ever truly “invisible,” Johnson crafts something truly personal from ostensibly disposable footage. Cameraperson explores what it means to have a life defined by your facility with a camera, poignantly juxtaposing those outtakes with footage of her family and her dying mother. It is an unlikely work of pure cinema, tapping into life’s significances not by engaging the “important” moments, but the moments in between.

2016 in Review Certain Women7) Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Sometimes great cinema doesn’t need to feel like a game-changing, life-altering experience. Sometimes it can evoke the feeling of wrapping up in a heavy blanket with a good book, a cup of piping hot cocoa at your side. Kelly Reichardt, the director usually known for challenging and arid works of neo-neorealism like Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, retains her acuteness as she explores the gender politics as experienced by three specific Montana women. (You might even say… “certain” Montana women… No, no! Don’t go away, I promise I’ll stop!) Despite the chilliness of those Montana landscapes, and despite the forlornness they’re mired in, this may be Reichardt’s warmest effort yet, her most overtly welcoming. Reichardt challenges her actresses–Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, the revelatory Lily Gladstone—to unearth their characters’ vulnerability, even as they clench it tightly to the inner-wall of their guts. The result is a masterclass of emotionally subdued yet humanistic portrayals of rural women, enriched by some of the year’s most under-hearalded performances.

2016 in Review The Handmaiden6) The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook)

On the other hand, sometimes great cinema doesn’t need to feel like wrapping up in a heavy blanket with a good book. Sometimes great cinema bores into your head by the eye sockets, and allows its pleasures to seep down to overtake every possible extremity. This adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a violent, layered, and sexy story of performance and deception, one that manipulates your emotions and investments with a confidence worthy of Hitchcock. Though he’s not not exactly my favorite director, Park Chan-wook’s macabre, even zany visual style serves this material perfectly. The Handmaiden, while also a thriller, is also a thrillingly bent love story, an illuminating fable on how withholding certain information can shape an entire (false) narrative. It is, hands down, the best Korean lesbian BD/SM period piece thriller you’re going to see this year.

2016 in Review The Lobster5) The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

From his first movie, the scarily funny Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos has loved telling stories of the world not as it is, but of the world as it could have been with a few very bizarre turns. The Lobster deepens the Greek director’s exploration of our ad absurdum commitment to accepted truths and ideologies, this time creating a society so invested in its citizens being coupled to a mate, all single people are turned into an animal of their choosing after forty days of single life. A mousy Colin Farrell, wearing a beautiful layer of paunch around his belly like a starlet in a mink wrap, is so deadpan in his embrace of the character he nearly comes off as serious. But that’s the rub: for his character, who does what he can to avoid this oddball sword of damocles, this is a most serious business. Lanthimos may come off as cruel, and perhaps he is cruel, but it’s a cruelty that exposes larger malevolent forces for social conventions only one or two degrees removed from our own.

The Lobster feels like the lovechild of a Philip K. Dick adaptation and a 70’s sci-fi dystopia raised on a diet of Michael Haneke, that’s killed a Wes Anderson film and is now wearing its skin. Most people will likely hate it, but for a select few, it will be the romantic comedy of the year.

2016 in Review Paterson4) Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

In her show-stopping number “Audition,” I don’t imagine Emma Stone’s La La Land character had the residents of Paterson, New Jersey in mind when she toasted “the fools who dream.” Their dreams, after all, are too modest. As seen through the eyes of Adam Driver’s small-time poet “Paterson,” a bus driver for his namesake town, these folks are the ones on the periphery who create for the sake of creation, the ones whose art is inspired not by their aspirations, but by the world fully formed, fully changing, around them. Jim Jarmusch’s follow-up to his magnificent Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the purest odes ever made to the creators of art, because those creators use it as a venue at once to clarify their thoughts about the world, and to use it as an outlet in a society where little else than the same ritualistic bullshit—day after day, week after week—is expected of them. Driver gives his best performance yet, charging Paterson the poet, Paterson the town, and Paterson the film with a generosity for anybody who make art by whatever means are available to them.

Here’s where we skip from #4 to my 3-way tie for #1…

2016 in Review Arrival1 — TIE) Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival is my favorite movie of 2016 because it showed me the world as it could be.

Denis Villeneuve’s best film yet opened the weekend after the election, and it was the first movie I’d seen since we learned the results. I entered the movie finding myself one 62-millionth of a contingency whose faith in his fellow countrymen was shaken. Then Arrival started. A twisty, melancholy, emotionally resonant story about loss unfurled, as did a visually and aurally striking alien invasion story about how patience and communication—in lieu of brute force—enabled the planet to oscillate not toward self-destruction, but enlightenment. Of all the 2016 movies I could have seen that dismal November weekend, only this one could have convinced me not to despair.

But the impeccable timing of Arrival’s release only accentuates, not obscures, the brains and beauty of Villeneuve’s accomplishment. Villeneuve, a director to whom I’d only recently warmed, matches his themes of memory and time and language with breathtaking formal unity, succeeding where many other comparative auteurs/impresarios (Nolan, Snyder, Fincher half the time) come up short. His nonlinear approach suits the story so well, I did not even see the twist coming on first viewing (on second viewing, I kicked myself for not picking up on something so obvious).

To call Arrival the year’s most optimistic film is insufficient. It is a kind of science fiction in the tradition of Close Encounters and The Day the Earth Stood Still. It exposes our human flaws and, instead of imagining the dystopic repercussions, it reminds us it remains possible to step from the abyss.

2016 in review The Witch1 — TIE) The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)

The Witch is my favorite movie of 2016 because it showed me the cinema as it could be.

I don’t remember the last time I had a horror film in my top ten, let alone my top three, but I love that such a distinction also goes to the most electrifying film debut in years. With a simple, low-budget, ninety-minute supernatural thriller, Eggers earned comparisons to Kubrick (always a plus!) for the assuredness of his hand. That comparison was deserved. No movie this year, not even from the great working directors, boasted such mastery of tone and atmosphere. No movie so beautifully scoured every nook and cranny of its small set to make it look at once daunting and oppressive. No movie made me fear for the safety of the characters, both from the supernatural forces around them and from the familial roles that imprisoned them. No movie better exposed the arrogant folly of inflexible, pious men. No other movie had Ralph Ineson’s sandpaper voice. No other movie could make a goat so convincingly fearsome.

Had the movie not ended sooner than it did, I would have called The Witch the year’s most perfect movie. But it’s still a perfect debut: a thrilling, terrifying experience in its own right, and the best supernatural thriller in years. It’s reason enough to induct Eggers forthwith into the pantheon of most exciting new directors.

2016 in Review Moonlight1 — TIE) Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight is my favorite movie of 2016 because it showed me the world, and the cinema, as it truly is.

They say it takes specificity for art to access the universal. I imagine that’s because it’s when you recognize the common experiences of your own life in the art you consume that a shared humanity blossoms. That is likely why Berry Jenkins’ discomfitingly intimate sophomore feature about a poor, black, closeted boy feels like such a revelation. It’s all but expected that movies like this don’t get made, let alone garner this kind of attention.

The miracle of Moonlight is not merely that it exists, though, but that it exists as it does; that the greenlight could be given to a movie whose world is depicted so wildly outside the comfort zone of conventional Hollywood and independent cinema. That it can tell Chiron’s story not through the lens of simple tragedy, but of his choices within his circumstances. That Jenkins could tell it in a style less evocative of tasteful “issues” movies like Driving Miss Daisy or The Imitation Game than of the palpably cinematic techniques seen in Weekend, Do the Right ThingHappy Together, or even Bicycle Thieves. That it could be a character study, first and foremost, about a boy struggling with his agency and growing into his core identities. That there’s still room in the movie for small-talk in diners, for subverting drug dealer stereotypes, for downright Malickian sequences on the beach or along the soccer field.

Moonlight, as it exists, reaffirms for me that it’s the cinema, above all, that can bring visual and aural voice to the experiences some of us may not recognize, but others may recognize all too well. Roger Ebert had movies like Moonlight in mind when he called it a “machine that generates empathy.” It’s a sterling sample of this great popular medium, a thing capable of revealing to us and of opening up to us, to make this world feel a little bigger, and a lot more brilliant.

You can look at my complete rankings of the movies of 2016, from best to worst, over at my Letterboxd page.

What are your favorite films of 2016? What did I get right, and what did I get wrong?

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