Another year, another top 10 list. I feel like every year around this time I say this was a particularly great year, that it was difficult to choose only ten films, yadda yadda yadda. It’s true and it always is. In most years, though, there is usually one film that stands out from the pack, speaks to me as an undeniable best film of the year. Less than a month after the conclusion of the year, 2016 doesn’t have that yet. Maybe more than any year I’ve put together a formal list, this list could be completely rearranged. That may be a negative aspect of the year in film, but it was also particularly deep and diverse. For example, it was one of the best recent years for animation with Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootopia, and an unusual film that made my list. I love genre films, and aside from the films that are listed below, I adored 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Wailing, The Eyes of My Mother, The Love Witch, Under the Shadow, and many others. Yeah, the blockbusters were particularly bad in 2016, but c’mon, we’re not apart of the Battleship Pretension fleet by only judging the year on capes and cowls. Of the 1,003 eligible films from 2016, I saw a paltry 256. That may be more than most people, but this still produces wide gaps that prevent this list from being personally definitive in any way. For the films I haven’t yet seen at the time of this submission: Aquarius, Toni Erdmann, The Red Turtle, Train to Busan, Queen of Katwe, Julieta, and undoubtedly many more worthy of consideration. For those I have seen, let’s get to it.
A decade following his last feature (unless you count Tricked, which shouldn’t really count), Paul Verhoeven returned with a film that shows he doesn’t need space bugs or strip clubs to be a master provocateur. Elle is a deep character study that pushes the limits of sympathy. Michelle (Isabelle Huppert, in a performance that deserves any of the superlatives you’ve heard) is a terribly unlikeable character who is put through a staggering list of personal traumas—Verhoeven seems to gleefully push her to the brink. Still, it is the way that she handles, ignores, scoffs at her personal tragedies that makes it so difficult to feel sorry for her. And it isn’t just Michelle; the film forces you to examine every character, to inquisitively decide what you think of them, with Verhoeven adding new information and changing perspectives constantly. Elle is by no means a scientifically or socially accurate view of the effects of trauma and its depiction of rape feels gross on the surface, but it is far too complex to write off in any particular way. It is hard to imagine a film have more dramatic tonal shifts—an uncanny ability to go from tense and uncompromising to legitimately funny. The humor though, unsurprisingly, feels like a shock. As a longtime fan of Paul Verhoeven, Elle hits on everything I love about his storytelling and style, but is also something different, like his take on the European thriller we’re more accustomed to seeing from Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier. No doubt, Elle is going to sit with me for a long while, uncomfortably but thoroughly.
Alternate pick: Christine
9. I Am Not Your Negro
There may not have ever been as brilliant a social orator as James Baldwin. His ability to speak with anger, clarity, humor, intelligence, and grace, all at the same time, was remarkable. The words we hear him (or through his written narration) say in the documentary memoir I Am Not Your Negro reach a level of poetry, and as we see with the benefit of time, universal truth. In order to shape this film, director Raoul Peck leaps off from Baldwin’s unfinished biography of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers to create a stirring portrait of its author and his thoughts on the history and future of black people in America. In that way, I Am Not Your Negro is both expansive and intimate, which I’ve found to be an increasingly vital aspect of the documentary form. Peck uses typical resources to make the film (archival footage and speeches, film clips, voice-over narration, etc.), but his brilliant edits continually zooms in and out on the many issues. Without coming off as tacky, the film can cut from a MLK speech to Jerry Springer and Maury because of the greater perspective offered by Baldwin’s words and, sadly, because the issues he was talking to up until his death in 1987 are still visible today. The vehicle to deliver many of these words is also worth mentioning as an all-time superlative of documentary narration. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t exactly do an impersonation of Baldwin, but his performance blends so well into the text of the film that you’ll forget it isn’t Baldwin talking with you. I Am Not Your Negro is among the most beautiful and cinematic film essays I’ve ever seen. As it becomes more widely available in 2017, I hope that people seek it out.
Alternate pick: Cameraperson
Many of the films on my list this year are from filmmakers that I’ve come to love over the years. Interestingly, Jim Jarmusch doesn’t fit into that category—the only two films I’ve seen from him, Broken Flowers and Only Lovers Left Alive, I’ve liked, but I’ve inexplicably never been driven to see the rest of his filmography. Paterson stands in great contrast with the two others I’ve seen. While they are more stylized films and more defined in a genre, Paterson, like its main character (Adam Driver, in one of the best lead performances of the year), is workmanlike and almost strictly observational. The film’s structure is simple: Paterson wakes up, goes to work, talks with a coworker, listens in on the conversations of commuters, spends the evening with his wife (played by the marvelous Golshifteh Farahani), gives his dog a walk, gets a drink at the bar, and then does it over again over the course of eight days. Like many working folk, each day is basically the same, and so the small differences are wonderfully illuminated, even monumental at times. We don’t really get to know much about our main character, but we see the world through his eyes. As an amateur poet, he shows a keen interest, though often passive, in everything around him. Throughout his day, we see the poems he is working on—they are descriptive but not flowery, inspired by the things around him but not often directly. Paterson is wonderfully mellow, about thought, the artistic process, human interaction, observation, a beautifully rich collage of an ordinary life. But if that’s not enough for you, there’s a great dog performance, too.
Alternate pick: Moonlight
7. The Lobster
The first half of The Lobster might be the best film of 2016. That isn’t to say that the second half is actively bad, but once Colin Farrell’s sad sack David escapes the matchmaking hotel to live among “The Loners” in the surrounding woods, The Lobster losses a bit of its brilliance. Like Lanthimos’s Alps and Dogtooth, The Lobster has a straight-faced, droll sense of dark humor that immediately connects with me. While the fantastical elements of the high concept plot might not totally stand up to a thorough audit, its humor and the cast’s dedicated performances are enough to excuse any possible holes. Farrell, an actor I’ve always liked, gives my favorite performance of 2016. His weight gain may have made it a bit too “showy,” but he proves to be a very good comedian with some difficult material. To give some praise to the less entertaining second act, seeing the world flushed out a bit beyond the hotel walls is key. And seeing the cruelty that exists in the people who have rejected the systems of the world is a surprising touch. Without the second half, we also wouldn’t have the fantastic Rachel Weisz performance—her voice-over that colors the world throughout the film is one of the driest and funniest uses of voice-over I’ve seen in any film. Thinking about other unusual international filmmakers making their English-language debuts, The Lobster might be the best transition. It never sacrifices its auteur’s style or voice for the broader audience.
Alternate pick: Swiss Army Man
6. The Handmaiden
The first time I watched Park Chan-wook’s return to South Korea was on election night—needless to say, I was in a pretty fragile state of mind. Thankfully, The Handmaiden proved to be a perfect antidote. Based on a Welsh novel, the story of a poor criminal who is brought in to serve as a secret agent to help a charming trickster attempting to marry his way into the fortune of a beautiful but troubled heiress might seem like a strange direction for the auteur behind Oldboy and Stoker. Park’s adaptation, though, is perfectly heightened to suit his style, with just enough of his trademark weirdness. The Handmaiden hinges on a mid-film twist, revealing that the already complicated plot wasn’t as it seemed. This moment would serve as the shocking conclusion to most other films, but The Handmaiden is just getting started. The film doubles back to retell its plot from a whole new perspective, giving new dimensions to its characters while filling in the traumatic backstory of its new narrator. Like most of Park’s work, The Handmaiden loves to play with the viewer’s expectations and is expertly designed as an off-the-wall joyride, but is also displays some of the most beautiful film craft this year. It is explicit and violent and erotic and strange and surprisingly funny, all at once and for most of its 140 minutes.
Alternate pick: Right Now, Wrong Then
As the world has gone gaga for true crime documentaries (and I have to admit, I’m in that boat, too), our focus on criminals has become super intensified. An unfortunate, yet typical side effect of the genre is making victims something of a footnote in comparison to the crazy twists and compelling characters. Keith Maitland’s unique Tower corrects this by recounting a horrific event purely from the victims’ perspectives. Through animated reenactments and existing archival footage, the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas clock tower is told with nary a mention of the man with the rifle. The results are absolutely stunning, playing out in close to real time and a building suspense. As the shooting begins, it is met with confusion and curiosity—in the moment, it takes a shockingly long time for anyone to realize what is going on. But as it continues, great heroism is depicted, with both big and small and surprisingly tender moments. Stylistically, the animated talking heads seems like it may be purely an aesthetic choice, but it sets the immediacy of the film’s tone. If we were only with the survivors as they are today, Tower would be a look back at the events instead of a more active document. The choice also leads to one of the year’s best cinematic reveals, a simple realization that brings the events to reality in an extraordinary way.
Alternate pick: O.J.: Made in America
4. Hell or High Water
On a basic level, Hell or High Water is simply one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. Great dialogue, great premise, great characters, great performances. It’s a fully established world that I can’t help but fully diving into, despite the fact that, you know, it is a West Texas economic wasteland. Like other films on this list and many others from 2016 in general, it speaks to an America we don’t necessarily see or want to see. In both the main plot and on the edges, there is so much commentary about America’s teetering relationships with the institutions that are there to protect them—most notably the bank and the police. The film nicely shows just how complicated these relationships are and why someone may choose not to cooperate with an investigation, even when they understand the crimes committed were wrong. But again, it all comes back to spending time with these wonderful characters. I could spend all day listening to Texas rangers played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham (who successfully graduates past “that guy” certification), watching the charismatic Tanner Howard (Ben Foster in his best performance), and even brood along with Chris Pine’s Toby. And then Hell or High Water, like basically every West Texas movie, is filled with a menagerie of perfect character actors who make every single scene memorable—special attention should be made to the always great Dale Dickey, the extraordinary Katy Mixon, and the incomparable Margaret Bowman, who turns “T-Bone Waitress” into the best character of 2016 (if all three aren’t major contenders for the Bruce McGill award, we’re not doing it right). Of all the films of 2016, Hell or High Water will likely be the one I return to the most, and happily so.
Alternate pick: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
3. Green Room
The cinematic powder keg of 2016, Saulnier’s Green Room was by far the most intense experience I had this year at the movies. It is a 95 minute lighted fuse, but just as there is an incredible explosion, there isn’t much relief before the next even more violent explosion is brewing. Incredibly sleek, the inspiring incident occurs within the first 10-15 minutes and then moves from moment to moment, keeping its necessary breakneck pace to the end. But it is more than a roller coaster ride, as it builds its characters smartly amidst the action, giving them real motivations and humanity—yes, even the neo-Nazis feel like real people, not just faceless movie villains. It helps to have incredible actors, and the performances from the ensemble cast including Anton Yelchin, Macon Blair, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Eric Edelstein, Callum Turner, and Joe Cole make for one of the best groups of the year. Obviously, it is Patrick Stewart as the radical collective’s leader that received the most attention, and his chilling yet strangely fatherly take on the character is worthy of the praise. I was a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s debut Blue Ruin (it was my #3 film of 2014) and Green Room is definitely a step forward in overall filmmaking, more slimmed down in tone and vision, but a more cinematic experience. If I prefer Blue Ruin it is only because of the out of left field surprise it was. Through just these two films, Saulnier has already branded himself one of the best genre filmmakers working today. If he keeps this pace (pun intended), the growing comparisons to John Carpenter won’t be hyperbole for long.
Alternate pick: Don’t Breathe
Ever since I saw Incendies at a secret screening (as in, I didn’t know what film was going to be played when I sat down in the theater), I’ve been in the bag for Denis Villeneuve. Since his last foreign language film came out in 2010, his Hollywood films have been bleak and rightfully divisive. Arrival continues the incredibly strong and serious craft (camera work by rising star Bradford Young is some of the best of the year and Joe Walker’s editing is wonderful), but the messages and tones are a genuine surprise. As American politics have become increasingly paranoid, divided, and isolationist, science fiction stories have taken those idea to the logical dystopian extreme. Arrival plays with this wonderfully by subverting expectations on the title event and how the geopolitical subplots develop. In the film, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is hired to communicate with the alien beings who have planted their spaceships around Earth’s major cities while also grieving the untimely death of her daughter. The emotional drama of the film is strong and surprising throughout, but I want to give some love for the emphasis on professionalism. I wouldn’t have expected to ever be interested in a film about a linguist, but here we are. The way Arrival describes the way its character works and even the way she is able to influence the governmental suits around her through stories and language is actually pretty fascinating. This is, without a doubt, Villeneuve’s best all-around film, combining his usual confident and gorgeous filmmaking stylings with a story that resonates with exceptionalism and hope. One of my favorite moviegoing experiences, as well, I can’t wait to see Arrival again to see how its structure reveals even more when I see it again.
Alternate pick: Krisha
1. The Witch
In a year with films like Moonlight, La La Land, Arrival, The Love Witch, etc. Robert Eggers’s “New England Folk Tale” is the most distinctive looking and sounding film of 2016. What’s strange is that I kept misremembering The Witch to have the stark black-and-white look that suits the material’s period. If The Witch had been shot in black-and-white, it would have been kinda boring and obvious (and, of course, this would deprive us of all that delicious blood). Instead, Eggers uses color, but drains almost all of it out, leaving an even bleaker palette of greys and browns and pale whites. Additionally, the period dialogue, reportedly crafted from historical texts of the time, is often difficult to parse but strangely pulls you fully into the world. The actors blend into their roles so well as if they couldn’t exist as anyone else—Ralph Ineson is particularly striking as the patriarch, especially considering I know him primarily in the David Koechner role on the British version of The Office. Unlike many recent psychological horror films, The Witch doesn’t try to trick the audience on the presence of evil; Eggers is keen to show us straightaway that the witch is real and is as terrifying as you can imagine. Yet still, despite an overarching mystery, the film builds thoroughly, with plenty of tension and fair share of reveals. The long, slow build breakdown of the family (metaphorically, the breakdown of America) finally explodes into a delirious final 20 minutes, full of nightmarish images—the very final one lends to one of the most provocative endings of the year. There is a lot more to unpack within the deeper meanings and metaphors of The Witch (how we push minorities to radicalization, for example), but purely as an artistic and visual endeavor, it warrants a place among the best of 2016.
Alternate pick: Embrace of the Serpent