Julie’s Top Ten of 2016
20th Century Women, The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some!!, Fences, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Indignation, Moana, Our Little Sister, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Weiner
Really honorable mention:
I anguished for hours about what to cut to get this into my top 10, but ultimately the deciding factor – a tiebreaker only – was that it didn’t connect to me and my life as much as the others. But it’s still a ravishingly beautiful and deeply complex work. Many critics have decried it by saying that it firmly takes the side of the white Christian protagonists, but frankly I wonder if they saw the same film as I did. Scorsese presents a nuanced depiction of a clash of religions, with all its layers and contradictions. Sure, it’s awful that the Japanese persecute Christians, but they want to protect their country and traditions against the very real threat of Western colonialism. Sure, Christianity might seem like an appealing and accessible alternative to the Japanese, but perhaps they’re only drawn to it because it promises escape into a better afterlife. Sure, the priests want to stay faithful to God and their beliefs, but suffering endlessly for it and causing others to suffer too might be more indicative of pride than faith. A strong cast led by Andrew Garfield and filled with great Japanese actors illuminates these dilemmas and doesn’t provide any easy answers.
10. Into the Forest
I was drawn to this film by the presence of the incomparable Ellen Page, possibly my favorite working actress. It’s a simple story about two sisters (played by Page and Evan Rachel Wood, with a great lived-in chemistry) surviving in a lo-fi apocalypse (no zombies or viruses here, just an unexplained power outage). Far from being just a compelling survival story, however, it’s one of the more honest depictions I’ve seen of sisterhood – how you can be fighting over something petty one minute, and willing to make great sacrifices for the other person the next. These oscillations have been mined for comedy plenty of times, but rarely explored dramatically.
9. Sing Street
For not liking John Carney’s prior two movies about getting a band together (fans of Once, please form an orderly line from which to lecture/insult me), I was very pleasantly surprised by Sing Street. What separates this one from its predecessors? Perhaps it’s the seamless integration of great music with a snappy wit, an unsung factor in many classic musicals (many of which could also be accurately billed as comedies). Even the visual humor is delightful: a boy casually opening the door holding a rabbit, the sight gag of the ad-hoc band’s ever-changing style. For a subgenre as tired as coming-of-age-by-trying-to-impress-a-girl, it’s quite a feat when a film comes along that imbues it with new life.
Before I saw Jackie, I remember seeing some review that likened it to Under the Skin. Besides the two films sharing a composer, I figured this was a hyperbolic claim being made in order to get more clicks. Yet after seeing it, I can’t help but agree – somehow director Pablo Larraín turned a biopic of one of history’s best-known First Ladies into something unnerving and filled with dread. You already know the horrible thing that happens in the film – in fact, due to the film’s non-linear structure, it has already happened when the film begins – yet somehow what ensues is still tense, claustrophobic, and immediate. Like Manchester by the Sea, it tackles the subject of grief, but unlike Manchester, it looks at what happens when a famous, publicly grieving person has to handle the logistics and cement a legacy.
The rare science-fiction film in which alien contact produces something other than mayhem and destruction, Arrival casts an ethereal spell. Though it’s about attempted communication with aliens, in a way it’s also about the universal struggle to communicate, even with those who speak your language. Everyday communication is still fraught with plenty of misunderstandings, hidden meanings, and suspicion. Having seen it a second time, the beats play just as well – if not better – with knowledge of the semi-twist at the end. And it’s also quite poignant in This Current Political Climate™ for the climax of a genre film – or any film, really – to be a plea for cooperation and compassion.
Upon hearing that Jim Jarmusch’s next movie was going to star Adam Driver and an English bulldog, I wondered if he could see into my soul and knew my deepest desires. That dream trio produces something even greater than the sum of its parts – a gentle, poetic, and frequently very funny portrait of being an artist with a day job, and finding contentment within what might appear to others as a mundane life. Stacked with great cameos and a pitch-perfect supporting turn by (BP-nominated!) Golshifteh Farahani, it’s also a very touching exploration of romantic relationships.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t completely sold on this film until the third chapter, which is not unlike Before Sunset in how it elevated “will they or won’t they” to borderline thriller levels. It’s so full of romantic tension that I nearly clawed through my armrest; I could watch these characters give each other charged stares all day. It’s a simple story, beautifully told with amazing visuals, stirring music, and the wise decision not to give in to cynicism.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings
The more movies you watch, the harder it is to come across something truly unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. And while I certainly can’t claim to have seen every movie ever made, I sincerely doubt that there’s another film out there that features an ocean full of eyeballs, semi-sentient origami, an amnesiac samurai beetle, a mother reincarnated as a monkey, and plenty of ghosts. Far from being a disjointed fever dream, however, the net effect is a rapturous, thrilling, and deeply heartfelt adventure proving that family films don’t have to dumb down or stick to a formula.
3. The Handmaiden
A kinky romance, a twisty thriller, a gorgeously shot period piece, a rallying cry against the patriarchy: The Handmaiden is all of this and more. Foreign films tend to have a reputation in this country for being pretentious and tedious, but this is primarily because the foreign equivalent of popcorn fare doesn’t typically get a U.S. release. Here, director Park Chan-wook splits the difference, and turns a corseted tale of deception and forbidden love into a rip-roaring and outrageously fun two and a half hours that simply flies by.
2. Manchester by the Sea
It’s largely thought that men avoid and repress their emotions, and in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan creates almost an entire film out of men refusing to talk about their feelings. They have conversations that are never about the things they’re actually about, conversations that are combative, sad, and often hilarious. The film is not only about grief, but about the struggle to improve oneself, and Lonergan never faults his characters for their inability to change. Casey Affleck is being rightly praised and awarded for his performance, but Lucas Hedges is an absolute firecracker.
1. La La Land
This is a film that’s so in my wheelhouse, I barely even had to see it in order to love it. Yet I was surprised by its emotional depth and self-awareness. Despite how many interpret it, La La Land seems like less of a tribute to classic Hollywood than an examination of those who worship and try to emulate it. As the characters get older, nostalgia for an era they never experienced gets replaced with nostalgia for an earlier period of their own lives. Ultimately, I’m afraid I can’t offer a revelatory hot take on the most acclaimed film of the year; just watch it and get lost in it.