G Clark’s Top Films 2016
I’ll level with you, even if other film critics won’t: 2016 was not a great year for film. It was a good year, however, but that’s the problem—it was only a good year. The autumn is usually when the Awards-caliber flicks open, and I watched, with a sinking feeling, critically-acclaimed movie after critically-acclaimed movie. They were legion. I kept expecting, hoping, for something to slap me in the face and WOW me. Eventually it kinda sorta happened, three times to be exact, but I wished for more slaps. The vast majority of these movies were… very good. There are worse problems to have, right? But not enough were great.
Honestly, I blame two things. #1, the critics, through no fault of their own. Most professional critics are required to see everything (not me, haha), so trudging through all the sludge, are more inclined to overrate the recent good films they’ve seen, since they are comparing them to other recent films. #2 is Film Struck. If you haven’t heard of this collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection, I urge you to subscribe now. I feel like Film Struck ruined me for a lot of 2016’s releases. After consuming a steady diet of Sansho the Bailiff, Umberto D, Solaris, and other films among the greatest ever made, of course the modest pleasures of Moonlight and La La Land paled by comparison.
So I’m not going to lie and pretend that any movies on my list are worthy of comparison with the Film Struck titles I listed. (Well, my #1 might be.) In fact, this caused a lot of consternation for me when I began my list. So many ‘good but not great’ films were so comparable in quality, it was really difficult to choose between them without being completely arbitrary. So I approached this list a bit differently than I have in years past. Rather than trying to rank all the titles I’d seen, I asked myself: ‘If the Academy came to me and asked me choose the Best Picture nominees, what would I guarantee a slot?’
This wasn’t a question I took lightly, and after (probably far too much) contemplation and soul-searching, I had my list. However, like the Academy, I feel no need to pad my list just to get to a ‘full’ list of ten. As you will soon see, only nine flicks were great enough to earn a space. I did toy around with the notion of adding a tenth entry, but none of the titles I tried really seemed to fit. There is such a big drop-off after #9 that adding a tenth would be so arbitrary as to be completely meaningless. Oh, well. Maybe 2017 will show me ten worthy of inclusion. The runners-up vying for 10th place are itemised alphabetically after the main list.
Before we get to those, let’s do some housecleaning. I want this post to end on a high note, so let’s get the worst of the year out of the way. Full disclosure: since I am not required to see every new movie that comes out, I have not seen a good number of movies that probably deserve to be considered for the worst, like Collateral Beauty, Warcraft, Ben-Hur, that one movie where Kevin Spacey is a cat, that other movie where people bitched that Zoe Saldana isn’t racially pure enough to play a famous black musician, and that one 2016 release where super heroes fist fight. No, not that one; the other one. Here are the worst movies I did see:
The Year’s Worst:
A disgusting celebration of nihilism, so ineptly edited and constructed that I wondered if I ever wanted to watch another movie again. People complained that Knight of Cups looked like a perfume commercial, but this looks like the worst music video ever. Most offensive is that this complete and utter horseshit drew seriously talented actors into its web like Viola Davis and Jared Leto. And then it made money. The superhero/comic book fad of the 21st century is cinematic cancer, and this abortion of a film is Stage Four.
Kristen Wiig is a goddess. Kate McKinnon is one of the funniest ladies currently on the planet. I know she grates on a lot of people, but I am firmly on Team Leslie Jones (it helps if you’ve seen her insane stand-up). All of them are wasted in this unfunny, insulting mess of a movie. Here’s what it seems like to me: there was much improvisation and personal joking on set that made the cast and crew laugh, so they kept it in the film regardless how it played to non-initiates. I went to the cinema wanting some of my favourite comediennes to make me laugh; what I got instead was director Paul Feig punching the dick of my soul.
Sea of Trees
Honestly, it’s quite fascinating to watch an accomplished auteur like Gus van Sant make literally the worst possible choice at every stage of the moviemaking process. Not so fascinating that I’m ever going to repeat the experience, however.
Painful series of vignettes that seeks to explore the complexities of life, but just makes you wish you were dead. Ends with a joke involving a mutilated dog so unfunny you’ll never laugh again.
Headache-inducing propaganda that, like the worst films of Alan Parker (think The Life of David Gale), actually ends up arguing against the theme the directors are trying to convey. And, like Alan Parker films, some liberal critics are eating it up without peering too deeply into it (Mississippi Burning, anyone?). And I say all of this as a liberal! Have we already forgotten the subtleties of Pixar? Ugh.
All righty, let’s get to it:
The Year’s Best:
9. The Handmaiden
A premise that seems straightforward: a confidence trickster hires a young pickpocket to become the maid of an elegant heiress, in order to steal her inheritance. This is the springboard for an exciting mystery-thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock vein. Like Alfred Hitchcock, director Park Chan-wook shamelessly manipulates his audience, but in such a way that you’re not annoyed by the manipulation, you’re grateful for it. Here is one of those rare films where the narrative keeps you guessing, without showing its hand; I had no idea where it was going and loved Park’s tight narrative control. And if the ending might wrap up a bit tidily for some tastes, it’s a hell of a journey to get there. A master class in film craft.
An alien ‘first contact’ movie without mindless action set-pieces, endless explosions, and cardboard characters. Amy Adams plays the scientist tasked with communicating with the extraterrestrials, and she’s allowed to be complex, intelligent. I’d expect nothing less from Denis Villenueuve, whose Sicario was on my top ten list last year. He uses a semi-non-linear structure, not as a way to fool the audience, though it may seem that way, but to actually dramatise and develop his theme. I do think some dialogue at the end lands with a thud (‘Let’s make a baby,’ ugh), but the result is a fascinating examination of communication and connection, and the best science fiction film of the year.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
I don’t think another film this year, except for possibly my #1, more palpably evokes a specific time and place. The premise is so simple: director Richard Linklater follows a group of bros the weekend before college starts, in 1980. It’s all here: the introduction to new roommates and friends, the exploration of different social groups, the formation and bonding of friendships… You can practically smell the weed, and taste the stale beer! There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, but that’s because Linklater has crafted a film designed for you to live inside, with moments of specificity to be savoured. By the end, you could feel like you actually are one of the characters, and have lived someone else’s life (or relived fantastic memories of your own). A warm and wonderful present for everybody.
Certainly the most transfixing time I had at the movies all year. Avishai Sivan’s film follows Haim-Aaron (arresting newcomer Aharon Traitel), a yeshiva student studying in Jerusalem. He is so intensely devoted to his religious practice that he refuses even to bathe at home, preferring instead to cleanse in the ritual mikva. His religious ferocity isolates him from his peers, but pleases his ultra-orthodox father. One day, though, he resigns himself to using the family shower. This results in an accident wherein he dies for forty minutes, before miraculously (?) being revived. Except, was he supposed to be brought back? Is this God’s will? Sivan’s film is a dense examination of religion, spirituality, and the performative aspects of devotion. Oh, and there’s a talking alligator bursting out of a toilet! It’s Carl Dreyer via Béla Tarr, combining the driest humour of the year with its most hypnotic images—many have already etched themselves into my soul. Okay, Tikkun may be difficult and glacially paced, but I honestly loved every second of it.
5. Manchester by the Sea
There’s no 2016 release I’m more convinced my initial reaction was wrong about. I still think that Jennifer Lame’s editing shows hesitancy and ambivalence, resulting in scenes that seem truncated and half-formed. I still think that Kenneth Lonergan’s over-reliance on treacly music fatally mutes the impact of some crucial sequences. But Manchester by the Sea has lingered in my mind more than most other films I saw in 2016, and it inarguably contains some of the year’s very best moments. Whether it’s Lucas Hedges fighting with a freezer door, or a painful sidewalk conversation between Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, or that brief and shocking sequence with a gun… These moments stick in one’s mind, even as Lonergan’s great characters linger in your heart.
4. Hell or High Water
Having seen more movies in my life that I could probably count on a thousand hands, one of the pleasures of watching a movie is discovering that the filmmakers have also watched a lot of movies and, not only have developed a love of cinema, but also have learned from all these movies they’ve been watching. Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan (responsible for last year’s incredible Sicario screenplay) begins with a premise that could make your eyes roll: Two brothers take to robbing a bunch of banks in West Texas, with the aim toward stealing enough to save their family farm. Hot on their tail is a grizzled old Texas ranger who is close to retirement, and is definitely getting ‘too old for this shit,’ but may have one case left in him before calling it quits. This is all the stuff of cliché, but Hell or High Water seems hell-bent on denying the audience an easy, predictable payoff. In scene after scene, Sheridan sets up hackneyed premises only to topple and subvert them. He manages this while at the same time revealing information about his characters novelistically, so that the true scope of the men he writes about is only fully revealed in the final third. This makes Hell or High Water a helluva lot of fun to watch. No slouch either is director David Mackenzie, whose debut Starred Up was one of my favourite films of that year. In that film and now here, he sensitively and knowingly examines the dynamics and camaraderie between men. The result is a deep, entertaining, fascinating film.
James Schamus’s debut film follows young Marcus Messner, played by Logan Lerman, a working-class Jewish student from Newark whose acceptance to a college in Winesburg Ohio, has allowed him to avoid fighting in the Korean War. While at college, Marcus becomes infatuated with Olivia Hutton, who may have a sordid and troubled past, and has philosophical clashes with the dean of the college, played by Tracy Letts in perhaps the year’s most precise performance. This is a beautiful film that manages to deal at once with growing up, the formation of a personal identity, and the sheer undignified randomness of people’s lives. It is anchored by one of my favourite performances of the year in Logan Lerman, who has been brilliant before in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but here delivers a performance that should make him an international superstar. The icing on the cake is the central debate scene between Lerman and Letts, which I said on the podcast is the greatest individual scene in a movie since the processing scene in The Master—and second and third viewings have not muted my opinion, of that scene or the movie as a whole.
2. Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge follows Desmond Doss, the only Congressional Medal of Honour winner never to have fired a gun in combat. Doss was a staunch pacifist, but believed that this did not preclude him from offering his life to his country. He was a deeply religious man, and felt, quite rightly, that his Christian convictions utterly forbade him from taking another human life, and using an instrument of death like a gun.
The film is cleanly divided into three acts. In the first, we see Doss’s upbringing: his relationships with his raucous brother, pious mother, and drunk father, his courtship of future wife Dorothy Schutte, and how he comes to enlist in the Army. Act two chronicles his experiences in boot camp, and how his fellow soldiers test his faith. Act three is the grand centrepiece of the film, the battle for Hacksaw Ridge, so nightmarish, bloody, and godless, it often resembles medieval paintings of Hell.
Here Mel Gibson takes an idea—one man’s inflexible pacifism—and relentlessly follows it to its logical conclusion. This can be seen in the three-act structure I just mentioned. Act one shows us the foundation for Doss’s faith, how it develops and crystallises. Act two, the business in boot camp, shows how his faith is tested in the World of Man. And act three, the theatre of war, shows us how his faith can prevail in the Cosmic, Spiritual Battle of Good and Evil. ‘Who among you has such faith?’ Gibson asks us.
Andrew Garfield, in one of the year’s best performances, strips away any semblance of artifice or guile in his portrayal. We hardly seem to be witnessing acting—we’re witnessing being. When he asks Dorothy out on a date, he seems to be looking into her soul and asking it to waltz. When he calls out to God, ‘Please, let me save just one more,’ you feel that this man is a beacon to the Almighty. Hacksaw Ridge is a great example of cinematic art and an emotionally overwhelming experience.
Martin Scorsese has given us all a tremendous gift. No other 2016 release is as immersive, transportive, or awe-inspiring. We meet two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, as they travel to Japan, investigating the apostasy of the man who nurtured their religion. Their lives are in danger the second their feet hit the soil: a Japanese inquisitor roams about trying to stamp out the colonial influence in the region. The men find succour in a local village, whose Christians agree to hide them; they must spend their days cooped up in a cramped hut, silent, starving. Only at night may they leave, to minister to the locals and hear their confessions. Unfortunately, in so hostile a climate, betrayal is inevitable.
What follows is some of the most thematically dense, punishing, yet rewarding cinema Scorsese has ever created. Not punishing in the sense of violence or brutality—Scorsese has directed far bloodier movies. Punishing in the sense that he viscerally conveys the spiritual and psychic weight of apostasy and moral righteousness.
At what point does following Christ, or any model of behaviour, cross from devotion into vanity? Rodrigues sympathises with the Japanese Christians under persecution. He advises them to apostatise outwardly (in the film, this is accomplished by stepping on an icon of Jesus or Mary with one’s foot) to save their lives, but remain steadfast within. However, he himself is unwilling to do the same. He repeatedly refuses to renounce Christ, even when the Japanese he purports to help are punished by his refusal. He begins to see himself as a Christ figure. More than this, I will not spoil. This is not just a film you watch; it consumes all of your senses.
Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play the priests. Both take their skills and bodies to the breaking point for Scorsese, but the film is Garfield’s. Here he delivers yet another of 2016’s astonishing performances. In Silence, as in Hacksaw Ridge, he sloughs off any notion of emotional affect, delivering something pure, primal.
Silence astounded me. How did Scorsese get those shots? How did he coax such mesmeric performances? Throughout its 161 minutes I frequently felt the joyous pangs of frisson, which so rarely happens to me in a cinema any longer. I felt so awash with gratitude that cinema has the power to accomplish such feats.
Silence is The Best Film of 2016.
The Runners-up, vying for 10th Place:
Aferim! | The second title on my list featuring an exclamation mark. Radu Jade’s violent semi-western is filled with stark, beautiful images that serve at once as an oblique exploration of Romania’s history, and as an examination of power. Wow, I just made it sound boringly academic, I think. Trust me though—Aferim! is also very entertaining and cuttingly funny.
A Bigger Splash | Luca Guadagnino’s rich character study of four impossibly beautiful people (well, three) vacationing on an impossibly beautiful Italian island. Tilda Swinton radiates star power as a rock star on hiatus, but it’s The Ralph Fiennes Show, in perhaps the best male performance of the year, as her ex-manager/lover. Worth it for the two lead performances alone.
Elle | Video game designer Isabelle Huppert is raped in her home. Except, she doesn’t react the way her friends, or the viewer, might expect. At first, it seems she doesn’t react to it at all. Did she even… like it, maybe? Paul Verhoeven’s pulpy premise turns into one of the most psychologically complex thrillers of the year, exposing exploitative Lifetime movies for the hollow shells they are.
Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra’s evocative travelogue of the Amazon. Two scientists four decades apart work with the same shaman to find a mysterious healing plant. Like Silence and Everybody Wants Some!!, quite evocative of its environment. Perceptive about colonialism and modernity; riveting.
Eye in the Sky | Gavin Hood’s movie isn’t just about the War on Terror and drone warfare—it’s also a thrilling action movie, the most suspenseful of the year. Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi are all fantastic; the last screen appearance of Alan Rickman.
Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier’s film is a fascinating exercise in violence and suspense. Its simple story—a punk band trapped in a music venue run by a gaggle of white supremacists—gives Saulnier the breathing room to explore his cinematic ideas. It actually has a strong parallel in David Fincher’s Panic Room, in that it’s basically an elaborate cinematic chess game. It is a series of stalemates, gambits, minor victories and losses. Plus, it features a fantastic final two shots.
Hail, Caesar | Every so often the Coen Brothers seem to take a bit of a break and make their version of a B-picture. Hail, Caesar seems compiled from leftover ideas scratched into a notebook, but still manages to outshine even other directors’ bests. Whether its Ralph Fiennes as a frustrated movie director, Channing Tatum as a very, er, fancy singer/dancer, George Clooney as a bumbling movie star, or Alden Ehrenreich as the single most hilarious fictional character of the year (give him a damn Oscar already), these sketches are still hilarious and insightful.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople | Heartwarming and irreverently hilarious Kiwi confection about a juvenile delinquent and his adopted ‘uncle.’ Sam Neill is fantastic as the incorrigible foster father, who gets lost with his new son in the New Zealand bush. Throw in Rhys Darby as a character named ‘Psycho Sam,’ and how can you go wrong?
Jackie | A brilliant exploration of the inner mind of one of the 20th century’s most iconic women. Natalie Portman doesn’t just imitate Jackie Onassis, but allows us to sense the thought processes behind her behaviour in the wake of her husband’s assassination. A biopic for people who hate biopics.
Justin Timberlake + Tennessee Kids | No, really! No one does a concert film like Jonathan Demme. Even though Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience Tour wasn’t staged and choreographed with a film camera in mind, you’d never know it given Demme’s shot choices. The way he moves his camera, the flow of the lights and music… it gets downright abstract sometimes. Whatever you think of Timberlake’s music, this film contains some exciting filmmaking, and I was hypnotised.
Knight of Cups | Well, maybe Terrence Malick has finally done it. Since his triumphant return to filmmaking with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, each subsequent effort from the hermetic director has been growing more and more abstract. His latest jettisons all pretence of plot and sets course for Godfrey Reggio territory, becoming an Inland Empire, or perhaps The Mirror, for Zen masters. If you were turned off by the symbolic, impressionistic nature of To the Wonder, I imagine you’ll despise this one. As Koyaanisqatsi is a tone poem reflecting on the relationship between humans and technology, Knight of Cups is best regarded as a tone poem as well: a meditation on spirituality amidst a world of commercialism and empty physical pleasures. Characters, dialogue, crumbs of story are just ciphers—a launching pad into Malick’s ideas (and possibly a way to secure funding for them). What Knight of Cups is really about is the juxtaposition of incongruent images, the dense layering of sound and music. It is most palpably and defiantly about itself. The atoms of film grammar are obliterated in the plasma of Terrence Malick’s ego. (That’s not a criticism—it’s a selling point.) But you’ll probably hate it.
The Light Between Oceans | Derek Cianfrance’s third feature was met with grand indifference by less insightful critics; I was quite taken by its themes of forgiveness and grace. With devastating performances by Rachel Weiss and especially the otherworldly Alicia Vikander, in a role that tops her Oscar-winning turn from last year, here is a film that will amply reward and touch patient moviegoers.
Louder Than Bombs | Actually, kind of a great companion piece to Manchester by the Sea. If not as immediately emotional, still a rich, novelistic story about a family in turmoil, with some of the richest characterisations of the year.
Midnight Special | While I still don’t like that the film ends in Tomorrowland, Jeff Nichols constructs an exciting action picture, surely the most unconventional one you’ll see all year. That it is also a bang-on metaphor for parenthood is just icing on the cake. Compelling and cheerfully entertaining.
A Monster Calls | A wonderful family film about a 12-year-old dealing with grief and loss. It’s not a heavy slog, however; it is a film with jaw dropping special effects, capable of sequences of true awe and wonder. It’s everything I desperately wanted Steven Spielberg’s The BFG to be, but wasn’t; see this instead.
Moonlight | A moody, cinematic tone poem. Moonlight follows its main character Chiron through three phases of his life: as a lost waif dealing with an abusive mother, as a bullied teenager, and as a drug-dealing adult wrestling with his identity. It has been wildly overpraised in some circles for telling the right kind of story: the main character is, at once, black and gayish. The baggage of its ‘representation’ in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite means a lot of people find it great simply by default, ignoring the clichés in some of its plot points and the clunkiness of certain line readings. I truly tried to, but could not, ignore such things. But though it fails as a grand artistic achievement, there is still much to commend in James Laxton’s gorgeous images and Barry Jenkins’s skilfully controlled mood. A quiet gem; very good—but ulimately not great.
The Neon Demon | Come see the film that James Berardinelli has proclaimed 2016’s worst! A batshit crazy evisceration of Los Angeles’s modelling scene, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films features bright neon colours, flashing lights, vampiric bloodlust, great cinematography and a killer score. For the adventurous only.
The Nice Guys | A hilarious black comedy, one that feels every bit like an independent 1990s underground thriller. The rapport between Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling is so entertaining that I long for several sequels. Maybe the funniest film that too few people saw in 2016.
Sully | Jeez. Lighten up, Jagoe. Clint Eastwood’s recreation of the Chesley Sullenberger’s ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ is an exciting tribute to ‘everyday heroism.’ The story is not told linearly, skipping as it does among the moments before takeoff, the ‘208 seconds’ of white-knuckle terror from birdstrike to landing, the following bureaucratic investigation, and the resulting media frenzy as news outlets latched onto a hero-worshipping narrative. But Eastwood isn’t just going for a Hollywoodised deconstruction of events. Sully attempts to show, steadily and methodically, how decades of training and experience led to 155 people surviving a near-catastrophe, instead of perishing in a fiery maelstrom. (I highly recommend you read David Bordwell’s analysis of the brilliance of Eastwood’s handling of flashbacks.)
Under the Sun | Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky asked North Korea permission to shoot a film in the hermetic country. They agreed, but quickly overtook his production, using it as a tool for their own propaganda machine. Mansky left his cameras on in between takes, however, giving us a chilling glimpse into the workings of the repressive Stalinist society. One of the year’s best documentaries.
The Witch | Robert Eggers’s flick is a special kind of horror film: one that tries to scare the audience not with sudden noises and jump-scares, but with disquieting atmosphere and tone. (See last year’s It Follows.) Come for the spine-tingling horror, stay for the unforgettable goat.