And so, after all the fuss I’ve made and all the hours I’ve spent ruminating upon them, here are my choices for the best of 2016.
The nominees are listed here.
Best Picture: Elle
I settled on my awards from the bottom up, so going with this was the final choice I made. And maybe on another day I’d choose differently, I don’t know. There were three films really duking it out for the top prize, and after having had The Lobster as my #1 for months, maybe I just wanted to switch things up.
But it’s about the film itself. And this film really grew for me on repeat viewing. I’d known it was great, but it wasn’t until the second viewing that I realized how great. It’s incredibly well done in every way, with a brilliant, brilliant script and a superior performance from Isabelle Huppert. It’s a film which challenges you, challenges our society (especially our sexual politics), and confounds your expectations. Some will find it too much. I thought it was just right.
I will say, whichever one of my top three films had won, this would be my weakest Best Picture winner to date. Last year it would come in 3rd, and in 2014, it might not even have made the top 5. This was a year without an unquestionable #1. And so I went with the film which sent me out of the theater on that second viewing flush with the sense of its greatness. To the first foreign-language winner of my award…congratulations.
Best Director: Pablo Larraín, Jackie
Another choice I settled upon at the last minute. And yet, one that I realize now was increasingly inevitable. In no way do I want to diminish what Yorgos Lanthimos did with The Lobster or Paul Verhoeven did with Elle. But Larraín achieved something really incredible here, taking a genre all too often associated with bland tastefulness and injecting it with a sense of daring.
This is a gorgeous, haunting, immaculately assembled film, and honestly, if it weren’t for a few nitpicks, I probably would’ve chosen it for Best Picture – and I may, at some point down the line. Not to mention, he crafted another audacious biopic this year, the fascinating Neruda. He deserved this completely.
Best Actor: Denzel Washington, Fences
I knew it Christmas Day, watching him fill the screen as Troy Maxson, a man fighting to stay larger than life as the tragic limitations of his life weigh him down more with every passing day. Washington took a lot of risks here, recreating a role he’d played on the stage, and splitting his attention between starring in the film and directing it.
But the risks pay off in every way imaginable, and he gives us a portrayal as compulsively watchable as it heartbreaking. I really hope he manages to complete his planned adaptations of Wilson’s entire Pittsburgh Cycle; on the basis of this film, he deserves to.
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Jackie
Strange, isn’t it, that I give Elle Best Picture but not Best Actress? But it was close. Portman, Huppert, and Rebecca Hall for Christine all practically tied for my top spot, and Portman, an actress I’ve had mixed feelings about before, managed to win out. It’s the way she evokes the fragility of Jackie’s private self, and how that private self has almost been subsumed by the demands of her incredibly public life. Jackie is almost always “on”, even when she’s by herself, and it’s that nerviness that Portman realizes so perfectly that just pushes her to the top.
Again, ask me after another viewing and I might let Huppert take it. I almost did just now. And don’t rule out Hall – she’s damned good as well. It really was a fine year for lead actresses.
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
The film was severely under-appreciated and almost totally snubbed by the Academy, but they did give it one nomination, and it was richly deserved. Shannon takes a stock role, the maverick Texas lawman, and applies his tightly-coiled charisma to it, finding the dry humor and quirky pathos of this hard-bitten man. I’ve said before that it’s hard to describe just how great this performance is; you just have to watch for yourself, and be mesmerized by this great actor.
Who, I should add, had a hell of a year; he gave a heartfelt performance in the overrated Midnight Special, a delightfully funny yet subtly poignant turn as The King in the underrated Elvis & Nixon, and had a nice little one-scene role as a sympathetic photographer in Loving. What a guy.
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
Is there any more slam-dunk choice this year than Viola Davis as Rose Maxson? It’s not enough that she’s overdue for the Oscar she’s going to win. It’s not enough that she’s a beautifully sure-handed actress, able to play icy calm and operatic despair with equal skill. She also traces a glorious arc of energy across the long, deliberately-paced film she’s in.
At first, she’s quiet, patient, long-suffering, occasionally amused by Troy but just as often exasperated by him. And then she begins to build up steam, defending her son against his harsh disapproval. And then, when an unbearable bombshell is dropped upon her, she boils over with the horror of betrayal, in a scene which seems at a glance to be impossibly over-the-top, but which in her hands becomes a tour-de-force. And from that point to the end, she guides Rose back to emotional earth, ending not as she began, but in a new light: reflective, forgiving, and at peace.
Best Vocal Performance – Male: Liam Neeson, A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls didn’t get anything like the attention it deserved, all the sadder because Liam Neeson sets aside his paycheck/action-hero mode for the first time in years and shows how fine an actor he can be. He makes the Monster a figure of fear, of mystery, of frightening wonder, and finally, of love. And all with that rich voice. Well, that and a mo-cap suit.
Best Vocal Performance – Female: Charlize Theron, Kubo and the Two Strings
Theron plays two roles here…kind of. She plays Kubo’s mother, whose mind is slowly crumbling into dementia, but who in her good moments regales Kubo with fantastical stories and showers him with love. And then she plays Monkey, an embodiment of the mother’s spirit, who is both guide and foil to Kubo, and is by turns sardonic, tender, and tough. Theron nails every facet of the character.
Best Ensemble: Fences
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are magnificent, of course, but they’re surrounded by performances of comparable brilliance, simply on more modest scales. My own favorite is Stephen Henderson as Troy’s friend Bono, a cheerful sounding board for Troy’s boasts who reveals himself to be the voice of reason that Troy needs, but may not listen to. But there’s also Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel, a brain-damaged veteran who might just be in touch with a higher reality; Williamson perfectly balances the risky nature of the role with sympathy and dignity. And there’s Jovan Adepo as Cory, driven by his frustrations, determined to realize his own dreams of athletic glory in the face of his father’s demands. And Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy’s smooth-talking older son, who extends his soft-spoken charm first and an open palm second. And lastly, there’s Saniyya Sidney as Raynell, who appears only at the very end, but is as convincing in her few scenes as her castmates are throughout the rest of the film. It truly is an astounding ensemble.
Best Original Screenplay: The Lobster
This might not be my Best Picture winner anymore, at least not for the time being, but make no mistake, it’s still a marvelous film and a brilliant portrait of the toxicity of conformity and the madness of modern romance. Set in a world where coupling is enforced by law, and loners are turned into animals if they cannot make a go of human relations, it plunges our nebbishy hero into a 45-day gauntlet which he finally escapes…only to find himself among radicals as brutally devoted to singleness as society is to coupling.
It takes the extreme deadpan of the Greek New Wave and allows just enough humanity to creep in around the edges to make it all the more painful. There are moments of tenderness, too – it is not a film that will necessarily leave your spirit crushed – but it turns a mirror on the dark side of human nature and only avoids being unspeakably horrific by being so funny.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Elle
Elle is, in many ways, a meditation on autonomy. Michèle’s sexual autonomy is at the center of the story, and the film deals with it in a bold and, for many, disturbing way. But there’s also Michèle’s lack of autonomy in being held partially culpable for her father’s crimes (despite her innocence). And then there’s her profession as a video-game developer – a medium which grants exceptional autonomy to the player. Or how about the subverted autonomy of her son, who’s gulled by his girlfriend and pitied by his mother? And that’s just scratching the surface of the film’s thematic brilliance.
In terms of narrative and character, it’s no less accomplished, telling a Hitchcockian tale of rape and revenge with suspense and pitch-black humor, populated by three-dimensional characters, led by Michèle, who has been forced to view life as a battlefield, and who, when we meet her, is always ready for the fight.
Best Factually-Based Screenplay: Jackie
This one was a no-brainer. Christine was also great, but this tells a familiar story in a fresh and insightful way, and its portrait of Jackie herself is complex and sympathetic, never blandly reverential. It takes hoary clichés, like the interview-as-framing-device and father-confessor figure (the late, great John Hurt) and makes them work marvelously.
Best Cinematography: Silence
If I saw Jackie again, it might reclaim this award. But then again, if I saw Silence again, it might secure its position all the more. I’ll stick with Silence for now, because it really is a gorgeously shot film, what with the stark scenery of coastal Japan (actually Taiwan) and the stark decor of its buildings, Scorsese’s precise compositions, and his use of light, especially sunlight and torch-light.
Best Editing: Jackie
The way it hopscotches around in time between the interview frame, the day of the assassination and those following, the 1961 White House tour, and other events during Kennedy’s presidency is truly virtuosic; the film has a lyrical sense of time but never becomes confusing. There was no question about the winner here.
Best Production Design: The Handmaiden
Uncle Kozuki’s mansion is an incredible set, especially his library and…private chamber. On top of that, there are the hotels and hovels of 30s Korea, all of which are brilliantly and expansively realized. High-Rise was mighty tempting, but I think The Handmaiden just edges it out.
Best Costume Design: The Love Witch
I almost went with Silence here. But Anna Biller’s designs (which she then made by hand) for The Love Witch are honestly more creative and memorable. They blur the line between 60s/70s kitsch and present-day (just like everything else about the film), allowing the actors to perfectly populate the world of Biller’s imaginative homage. They easily became my #1 after I saw the film, and on reflection, they really deserve the top spot.
Best Makeup: Star Trek Beyond
The makeup here is just too good to ignore. And there were some great contenders here – the realistic makeup in Deepwater Horizon and Hacksaw Ridge, the comic-book designs of Suicide Squad, and the lo-fi grotesquerie of The Greasy Strangler. But when a Trek film is in the running, is there any other way to go?
Best Score: Jackie
I had assumed The Neon Demon would easily hold on to the #1 spot. But during my last-minute re-listenings, it fell a bit in my estimation and Jackie rose to take the top spot. (I also considered Nocturnal Animals for a hot second.) It’s a score that has it all; it’s innovative, it’s moving, it’s distinctive, and it’s memorable. I really hope it somehow wins the Oscar. And I really hope Mica Levi keeps on writing film scores. She’s a hard 2 for 2 with me.
Best Song: “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana
I went back and forth between this and “Gone 2015” for quite some time. Honestly, I’ll probably listen to “Gone 2015” more in the future. But I do think this is the better song. It might the lyrics that put it over the top – the simple, precisely crafted lyrics that sum up Moana’s yearning, which dance around the music with consummate grace. The lyrics in “Gone 2015” are excellent as well, but it’s a great song which has fairly little to do with its film. “How Far I’ll Go” has everything to do with its own.
Best Sound Mixing: Arrival
Did any film this year sound better than Arrival? The controlled chaos of a military base camp, the eerie stillness of the heptapods’ ship, the inside of a helicopter, the peaceful quiet of a home…all of these were perfectly balanced in the mix.
Best Sound Effects: Arrival
And the sounds of those helicopters, heptapods, guns, voices, and vehicles were all superbly crafted and applied. There were other strong contenders, but after seeing this again, there was no question in my mind.
Best Visual Effects: A Monster Calls
I’ll be honest – on a purely technical level, these aren’t the best effects of the year. But they are extremely good effects, and since there wasn’t an undisputed winner in my eyes this year, I decided to honor effects which strove for something other than glossy verisimilitude.
These are more stylized effects, in keeping with the theme of stories and dreams come to (allegorical) life. The Monster in particular, an animate tree that looks like it eats Ents for breakfast, is a beautifully realized character, convincing because the film doesn’t try to make him “real” – he is a monster of the imagination, real to the protagonist, real enough to the viewer, but not…you know, real.
Essentially, these effects have personality. And that was enough for me.
- 5 awards: Jackie
- 3 awards: Fences
- 2 awards: Arrival, Elle, A Monster Calls
- 1 award: The Handmaiden, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Lobster, The Love Witch, Moana, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Star Trek Beyond
Up next: the results of the public voting.