Well, it’s time to start closing the book on 2016 (except for my awards, of course), which means it’s time to anoint my top 10 films of the year!
I’m doing the list a little differently this time. I’m not just slapping down my top 10 ranked films in order and calling it good. Instead, I’m giving you my 10 favorite (or most-admired, or most-cherished, or whatever you like) films, in alphabetical order, and then 10 more from across my top 25 ranked films, also in alphabetical order, to give you an idea not just of what was the best, but what I liked the most.
Also note that this list is not necessarily predictive of my Best Picture lineup, or of any of my awards categories. It should be taken as a reflection purely of taste.
It’s a rare year for one biopic to make my top 10 list, let alone two, but that’s how things shook out. Christine is by far the less well known of the two, and its subject is likewise obscure, but neither are merited. As a depiction of personal and professional frustration crystallizing into tragedy, it sets nary a foot wrong, thanks to a script which lets Christine Chubbuck’s story tell itself, and a performance from Rebecca Hall that encompasses the entire spectrum of her humanity, rather than reducing her to a caricature or saint.
- Don’t Think Twice
A very personal choice, this, but that’s why it’s called My Top 10. Improv comedy was a big part of my life once upon a time (and perhaps it will be again), and this film beautifully captures the dynamics of improvisation, along with being a simply delightful ensemble comedy. It’s crisply written, perfectly performed across the board, funny and moving in equal measure (with one of the most heartbreaking single years of any film this year). It was a film that came into my life at the exact right time, and I deem it a treasure.
If Elle impressed me the first time around, it stunned me the second. A film which begins audaciously, reflecting a brutal assault in the face of the protagonist’s indifferent cat, might not be expected to be subtle, but how magnificently subtle it is. Paul Verhoeven’s direction cunningly balances the conflicting tones of the material – comic, tense, erotic, dramatic – but it’s Isabelle Huppert’s performance, showing how Michèle treats life as a battlefield, and changes her tactics by the second to deal with it, and David Birke’s brilliantly slick script that elevate into the realm of unequivocal greatness.
Does any film this year have a better ensemble? Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have justly been celebrated for their work, but at the expense of their co-stars, who inhabit the roles no less perfectly: Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and even Saniyya Sidney all turn in exemplary work. And Washington triumphs as a director, too. August Wilson’s magnificent play gave him a lot to work with, and in his able hands it becomes more than a mere play-on-film; it is a work which deserves to be called an American classic, for it tells a very American story of prejudice, of dreams deferred, and of families torn apart and brought together again.
There’s a scene between Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts partway through the film which is one of the most stunning pieces of duet acting I’ve seen in a theater. It’s nothing than a battle of wits between a non-conformist student (Lerman) and a rule-bound dean (Letts), and it’s absolutely gripping to watch. But there’s so much more to the film than that. There’s the magnificent script by director James Schamus, adapting Philip Roth better than, as far I can tell, anyone ever has; there’s his thoughtful direction; and there are the powerful supporting performances from Sarah Gadon as Lerman’s tragic love and Linda Emond as his mother, who proves capable of the most utter ruthlessness without so much as raising her voice. All these elements combine to make one of the year’s most underappreciated films.
So you take Natalie Portman (an actress I’ve often found overpraised) and cast her as Jackie Kennedy (not the first person I’d want to see a biopic of), and what’s the result? One of the year’s best performances in one of the year’s best films. Much of this is due to Pablo Larraín’s bold, stylish direction and Noah Oppenheim’s intelligent script, which understands Jackie far beyond the level of a mere hagiography, but without Portman’s perfectly judged blend of artifice and near-suffocating self-control, it wouldn’t work half so well.
- The Lobster
It’s rare that I have such a hard time explaining the greatness of a film, but The Lobster resists easy analysis. The script is a masterful satire of the absurdity of society, especially as it pertains to romance, but it’s Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction that really makes it sing. His control of the film’s tone is rather breathtaking; it’s absurdly funny one moment, profoundly unsettling another, and bizarrely sweet the next. And it’s that extra layer of humanity, peeping through when you least expect it, that elevates it from a gimmicky dark comedy to a masterpiece. Of the cast, I will only say that they fall perfectly in line with Lanthimos’ vision.
- Nocturnal Animals
This is far from a universally beloved film, and I can understand why. It begins with a beautifully filmed, intensely provocative sequence of obese nude women dancing – a sequence which has nothing explicitly to do with the rest of the film. Is it belittling? Is it empowering? I personally think one could argue the latter, but I suspect director Tom Ford was more interested in raising questions than in answering them. From there the film gradually develops a three-layered narrative: present, past, and fiction. The present and past are compelling in of themselves, but it’s the fictional narrative, which kicks off with one of the most sheerly grueling scenes of the year, that will really haunt your memory. It’s wonderfully directed, extremely well written (how the script missed out on an Oscar nomination is beyond), gorgeously shot and even more gorgeously scored. A real treat all around – and how could I forget to mention Michael Shannon’s quietly magnificent performance?
Amidst all the other great documentaries of the year, this one fell through the cracks to a degree, but it should not be missed. Without giving too much away, it’s one of the most harrowing narrative rabbit holes you’ll ever fall into – and it’s all true. That David Farrier lived to tell the tale – and that he is still, to my knowledge, a free man – is frankly miraculous. It is a film which will fascinate you to the very end, but may well leave you in a state of despair about what people with enough time and money are capable of.
It’s been a brilliant year for documentaries, but in my own estimation, this is the best of them all. It doesn’t tell an uplifting story, it doesn’t center around an exemplary individual, and it doesn’t bring to light an urgent societal ill. It simply tells, in crisply edited fly-on-the-wall fashion, the story of one politician’s grasp at redemption, and how the perversions which destroyed him once do so all over again. Anthony Weiner is one of the most queasily compelling protagonists of any film this year, and his long-suffering (soon-to-be-ex) wife Huma Abedin, often seen simply trying to maintain a calm facade in the face of betrayal and disaster, is one of the most achingly sympathetic.
- Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened – The creation of a problematic musical becomes a fascinating documentary, and a lovely reminder for any thespian of the joys of our craft.
- Finding Dory – Pixar makes magic again. It’s not another Inside Out, but in its own right it’s a lovely story of returning to one’s roots, as well as a delightful comic adventure for the whole family. No complaints whatsoever.
- The Handmaiden – Once upon a time in Japanese-occupied Korea, a pickpocket posing as a lady’s handmaiden (Tae-ri Kim, very good) falls in love with her mistress (Min-hee Kim, marvelous), which threatens to upset the designs of a shady sham count (Jung-woo Ha, very good). Let the twists and turns (and explicit sex) ensue. If it were a little tighter or better fleshed out, it would be in the top 10. As it is, it’s a hell of a good show, with excellent writing and direction, and some of the most impressive production design of the year.
- Hell or High Water – A film that initially seemed like an above-average late summer release, then turned into a word-of-mouth sleeper hit, and is now a Best Picture nominee. I can’t really argue with any of it; it’s a fine little modern Western, with a great script, solid direction, and a top-notch cast making for a superior entertainment. The dynamic between Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham is a particular joy – problematic though it may be.
- Miss Hokusai – A film few people saw, but up there with Finding Dory and Moana as one of the best animated films I’ve seen this year. A beautifully crafted story of artistic life in 19th-century Japan, it savors the moments of life as an artist would, drinking in the sounds, the colors, the textures, the flavors…and the emotions.
- A Monster Calls – A damnably underappreciated tale of youthful imagination, an honest portrait of alienated childhood, a poignant story of a loss, and just an all-around lovely piece of filmmaking. Liam Neeson and Lewis MacDougall, as the monster and the boy, turn in exemplary work.
- O.J.: Made in America – Objectively, this is absolutely a top 10 film. Subjectively, it just got crowded out by films I loved more. But make no mistake, this is essential viewing, even at 8 hours long. (It certainly doesn’t drag.) It’s a sobering portrait of the racial politics of modern America and how they affected one particular tragedy, and whether you know the story too well or not at all, it is told with exquisite skill.
- Sing Street – An utterly lovely, joyous little film. To hell with La La Land; this is the great musical of the year, with an engaging story, a witty script, a wonderful cast, and delightful songs (“Drive It Like You Stole It” is everyone’s favorite, but I’m especially fond of “Girls” and “The Riddle of the Model”.)
- Swiss Army Man – If this film had been at all good, I’d have wanted to put it on here. That it manages to be incredibly good on top of having a delightfully audacious premise is nothing short of remarkable. It’s a far better bromance than any dozen bro-comedies mainstream Hollywood has churned out in recent memory, and more imaginative than most of its fantasies. Daniel Radcliffe, in what could’ve been a joke of a role, gives one of the best performances of his career.
- Zootopia – The first two acts are great. The city of Zootopia is superbly realized, it deals with prejudice tastefully (but not timidly), it’s a great deal of fun, and the voice acting is excellent. The third act goes off the rails a bit, settling for conventional chases and revelations rather than forging new frontiers, but until then it’s one of the best family films of the year.