Craig’s Top Ten of 2016
2016 has been my favorite year in film since I began writing for Battleship Pretension a few years ago. It pains me that I can’t include more films on this list, so before I begin, I want to list all of the films that didn’t make my list but left a significant impression: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Arrival, Green Room, 20th Century Women, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, Hell or High Water, 13th, Swiss Army Man, Gleason, The Jungle Book, Hail, Caesar, Weiner-Dog, The Nice Guys, Keanu, Jim: The James Foley Story, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
There were a lot of great films this year. Here are my 10 favorite:
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Count 10 Cloverfield Lane as the biggest surprise on this list. A quasi-sequel to the critically ambivalent 2008 special effects bonanza, 10 Cloverfield Lane turns the bombastic universe of Cloverfield—defined by a monster tearing the head off of the Statue of Liberty—into a patient, shrewd thriller. Much of the credit can be given to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, each of whom bring nuance and finesse to two larger than life characters living through an absurd reality. John Goodman, in particular, delivers a performance that marinates in uneasy charisma, telling his own tale of mystery and intrigue by allowing the audience to relate to his character but never fully understand him. And for his part, first time director Dan Trachtenberg (the first of two rookie directors featured in this list) delivers a genre thriller with the confidence and style of a decorated auteur.
9. Peter and the Farm
It’s hard to speak about Tony Stone’s evocative documentary, Peter and the Farm, without regaling an unwitting audience with my own personal struggles with neuroses and creative anxiety. Not a single day goes by where I don’t second guess my own authority over my creativity or my own capacity for quality thoughts (even as I write this I’m imagining all of you rolling your eyes and scrolling ahead to number eight). But Peter and the Farm, a documentary about an artist-turned-farmer, performs a precise autopsy on mental illness, creative purpose, and the symbiosis between the two. The film’s subject, Peter Dunning, is an old man who lives alone amongst relics of an artistic, intellectual past, operating a farm in rural Vermont. Peter is a suicidal, neurotic, alcoholic manic-depressive. But he’s also incredibly vulnerable and remarkably insightful (even when he doesn’t mean to be). Though frequently hard to watch and emotionally taxing, Peter and the Farm is one of the year’s most genuine and candid examinations of mental illness and art. And though I couldn’t blame anyone for being put-off by Peter and the Farm’s blunt portrayal of mental illness, the film broke down my front door and met me right where I live.
8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Lonely Island has been a comedic commodity (or musical commodity, depending on your area of emphasis) for more than a decade now. And I just didn’t get it. Hits like “I’m On a Boat” and “I Just Had Sex” registered as simplistic comedy masquerading as semi-serious attempts at pop music stardom. But after seeing Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (written by all three Lonely Islanders: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Raccone and Andy Samberg), I totally get it now. Popstar puts all of The Lonely Island’s discography into context and presents Conner 4 Real (Andy Samberg), the film’s protagonist and the exaggerated id of pop music’s most flamboyant personalities. Popstar is not just the funniest film of 2016, it’s the most biting satire of the last decade, expertly skewering every facet of pop music and the industry. And for all of its ridiculous antics (including a Buffalo Bill style wardrobe malfunction, a singing refrigerator, and dog-shit pancackes), Popstar is an oddly affectionate portrait of friendship and creative expression.
7. La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a force of cinema. It harnesses the charisma and glamour of old Hollywood musicals and inextricably links them with the disconsolate life of struggling artists in the twenty-first century. Seb and Mia (played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whose chemistry is only overshadowed by the magnitude of Stone’s performance) are very real characters inhabiting a world built upon a Hollywood facade. Chazelle (who has had one hell of a year, also sharing a writing credit on 10 Cloverfield Lane) and composer Justin Hurwitz strike the perfect balance between show-stopping musical sequences and brooding melodies that culminate in a stunning finale that challenges anyone to find an artistic medium more extraordinary than film.
6. The Lobster
Trying to nail down a single theme for a year such as this may be a difficult task but I am willing to try. I think 2016’s overarching cinematic theme is the idea of finding purpose amidst the absurd melancholy of life (this would be an apt theme for La La Land, Peter and the Farm and at least three films forthcoming on this list). And no film exemplifies this theme better than Yorgos Lanthimos’ (the anomalous auteur behind 2009’s sensational Dogtooth) The Lobster. The Lobster sees an impotent oaf (played with pitch perfect despondency by Colin Farrell) check-in to a villa where guests must find love or be turned into an animal. Like his films before it (in addition to Dogtooth, Lanthimos’ Alps is an avant-garde oddity), Lanthimos creates a premise that is outlandish and hyperbolic, but uses this absurdist humor to whittle away at the characters. And from a bizarre piece of experimental comedy, Lanthimos yields a poignant story of love and belonging.
5. Manchester By the Sea
There’s a scene in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea that defines the film’s subtle power. The scene sees Casey Affleck’s Lee—while trying to get his dead brother’s affairs in order—unable to remember where he parked his car. It probably won’t make any Oscar highlight reels, but it’s scenes like this that define Lonergan’s unforgettable film about grief and those left in its wake. Refusing to be precious or maudlin, Manchester By the Sea is at its most powerful when it can create epiphanies in scenes of banal minutiae, showing that tragedy can permeate every aspect of your life but the mundane demands of routine existence still persist. Manchester by the Sea is, paradoxically, a grand epic tale of sorrow and grief as well as an understated character study of melancholy and distress.
4. The Handmaiden
A one to two-hundred word blurb seems inadequate when discussing the nuanced themes of Park Chan-Wook’s most recent film, The Handmaiden. At once a searing thriller, an erotic love story, and a horrifically provocative tale of empowerment, The Handmaiden packs a century’s worth of revelation into its two and a half hour run-time. Set in Japanese occupied Korea, The Handmaiden is an intricate film about sex, betrayal, love, and greed (all staples in the Park Chan-Wook repetoire) that showcases Park’s ability to weld the provocative and the beautiful.
Martin Scorsese’s opus of religious martyrdom places a microscope on the metamorphosis of theology. It is a personal, introverted story recalled in an epic, sweeping manner, creating some of 2016’s most vivid cinematic imagery. Silence pits Father Rodrigues (defined beautifully by Andrew Garfield, nominated for the wrong film in this year’s Academy Awards) against forces he perceives as agents working against the very Spirit of the Lord. A Scorsese passion-project in the making for nearly three decades, Silence is a fascinating, complicated exploration of religion, fanaticism, martyrdom and introspection. I’m still not entirely sure exactly what Silence is trying to tell me, but I know I’m excited to keep listening.
Of all the debilitating debates of 2016, none burns brighter for me than deciding which of my top two films would occupy the number one slot. Moonlight is a masterpiece (hyperbole be damned!). It has bounced in and out of the number one spot a half-dozen times since I first experienced it. It is an astounding achievement in empathetic storytelling. For a film so superficially gorgeous (in the beach sequences specifically, cinematographer James Laxton seems capable of bending light and harnessing forces of nature for pure cinematic exploitation), Moonlight feels like a guerrilla documentary, capturing undiluted snapshots of humanity. Invented characters aren’t supposed to be so vulnerable, so fully realized, unburdened by the constraints of fiction.
1. The Witch
The Witch is less a horror movie and more of an alchemy experiment that takes a reduction of adrenaline, cortisol, and all of the brain chemistry that creates primordial, existential dread and turns it into a cinematic potion heavier than lead, suffocating the audience’s sense of well-being and safety. Robert Eggers’—a neophyte who seems to have made a pact with Black Philip himself to make a debut feature such as this—The Witch is ultimately a film about acceptance. Ana Taylor-Joy gives one of the year’s best performances as Thomasin, a young girl ultimately rejected by society and kin, alike. The Witch takes place at the intersection between the unjustifiable and the righteous, frequently blurring the edges of both, creating a nihilistic dystopia where the forces outside pushing in are just as worrisome as the ones inside pushing out.
But The Witch isn’t merely an achievement in genre filmmaking. To credit The Witch only as a great horror film is to limit its scope in the cinematic universe. From its creeping score of moaning strings and primal crescendoes (courtesy of composer Mark Korven) to its dazzling screenplay that defines a period of time and its inhabitants with tremendous ease, Eggers’ film is a remarkable accomplishment. And though Eggers is the film’s driving force, cinematographer Jarin Blascke deserves much of the credit for making The Witch an oppressively atmospheric film, taking cues from the environment itself and turning each frame of the film into a ballet of pale moonlight and shadows. Live deliciously, indeed.