Conventional wisdom would have it that 2016 was an awful year. Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince and many more stars all passed away. Shootings at night clubs and a fire at an Oakland venue sent shockwaves through communities and brought into question where we as Americans can feel safe. And of course the election results were not only the opposite of what I would’ve hoped for, but they polarized the nation so deeply that facts and freedom seem to hang in the balance.
Since the election results, I’ve been far more guarded about projecting what I believe. What’s the use when either no one wants to hear a word, or it will only echo around in a bubble of shared values?
The same could be said of movies. I’m sure for many culture writers it’s tempting to rank the most “relevant” movies and present them as “best.” It would be films that aren’t so much “good” as they are reflections of the writer’s worldview and what they say about 2016 today (somehow I feel “Sausage Party” wouldn’t do so great on that list). But when I think about the consequences of writing that sort of list in the wake of the election, I ultimately have very little interest. I’d rather present a list of the movies I would most recommend to anyone right now and leave the rest for the would-be pundits.
And yet these movies do reflect America and 2016 better than I would’ve imagined when I penciled each into a working list. You could place these films literally on a map of the US and find unique swaths and identities represented across the board. They’ve all come from a new class of elite directors and artists rather than the auteurist veterans who have been shaping the conversation for decades. And best of all, they’ve carried meaning and value for me both before and after the election. How we interpret them may evolve, but their texts and their emotional power remain unchanged.
1. Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Headlines started calling “Arrival” scarily prescient in a post-election climate. The film’s science fiction trappings exposed our struggles in communicating beyond borders, literal and figurative. It revealed the weaknesses of a world where we’re all connected but are hardly unified. Yet those ideas never seemed to matter less than when the aliens that have landed on Earth reveal to Amy Adams their purpose for making first contact. In an inspired twist of scientific jargon and story construction, Denis Villeneuve’s film comes full circle as a story that allows us to understand our whole being.
Maybe “Arrival” is silly: the alien ships with perfect black curvature look like next-gen iPhones, the massive heptapod creatures aren’t much more than deep sea aquatic life, and circular wisps of smoke used for communication look like skywriting gone wrong. And in its finale when its twist becomes clear, the film becomes transparently literal. But Villeneuve is a master of tension, and “Arrival” is his largest and most deeply profound film. The encroaching camera, surreal lighting and sparse framing make every moment unsettling. The on-screen noise blends into the darkly orchestral score to feel disturbingly in the moment. And watching Adams’s character reconcile her past, present and future and do so with such foresight creates a spiritual, transcendent feeling. Suddenly the problems of the world dissipate beneath seeing ourselves more clearly.
2. La La Land – Dir. Damien Chazelle
“La La Land” lives on its nostalgia. Much of its charm is the artificiality that it so transparently wears on its sleeve. The glowing purple sky over a hillside highway or along the ocean pier is designed to look like a sound stage, and every dance serves a reminder of a lost past when this level of candy colored bliss was the norm. But Damien Chazelle’s musical draws melancholy romance from the past and doesn’t just copy it strictly as pastiche. Chazelle’s millennial mantra of ambition and affection for the past gives “La La Land” its own magic charm. “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem,” Emma Stone sings in a heartrending close-up. This is a busy, messy film with much to nitpick, but “Here’s to the mess we make.”
3. Sing Street – Dir. John Carney
John Carney’s “Sing Street” shows music’s power to shape the person you become, but it also reveals the individual behind the music and lights the fire within us to achieve. Carney’s third film combines the grainy, small-scale affection of “Once” with the pop sheen of “Begin Again” to tell a story of adolescence, brotherly love and ambition. “Sing Street” draws on everything from Duran Duran to Hall & Oates, but the catchy rock songs composing this jukebox musical still have the campy charm of being written by amateur kids. Carney hits you with more music references than you can name, and the film’s scrappy Irish school kids give it a great sense of place. But it’s sheer magic to see these kids jump into the English Channel or transform their drab Catholic school into a colorful American prom solely through the power of their rocking.
4. Neruda – Dir. Pablo Larrain
Pablo Larrain has done the impossible and made a cinematic movie that embodies the literature and language of its subject. “Neruda” focuses solely on Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s exile for being a Communist, making it something of an anti-biopic. But he bends the truth of the history and turns the cluelessly over-eager cop pursuing Neruda (Gael Garcia Bernal) into a poetic, comic figure. Larrain’s dreamy, weightless cinematography evolves “Neruda” from a straight drama to political satire to a film Kubrickian in nature, with the cop himself becoming a part of Neruda’s literature and legacy. In doing so, Larrain makes Neruda’s story eternal.
5. Manchester by the Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Casey Affleck has shown his quiet, timid and awkward side on screen before. But in “Manchester By the Sea” he conveys in every moment a person who can’t fully live with himself, a deep-seeded apprehension at being the brother, uncle, lover and friend that he should be. “I can’t beat it,” he says, and we know it to be true. That Affleck sustains that nagging doubt within his performance throughout the film is testament to how brave and nuanced his work is. Kenneth Lonergan’s script gets genuine humor and warmth out of these brash, salty and sarcastic New Englanders. It’s a remarkable feat given the film’s heartbreaking subject and how death and loss lingers over every moment.
6. Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins
Just thinking about “Moonlight” is a sobering thought. I find myself breathing heavy every time I recall seeing it. It’s the story of a gay black man finding his identity across three different portions of his life, but Barry Jenkins’s translucent cinematography and penetrating close-ups make watching it unfold deeply intimate. This is a film where a shot of a hand digging into the sand feels more passionate than any sex scene ever filmed. Chirone represents a character never seen in the movies, but the film’s slow burn coming of age make it feel as though we’ve known a person like him all our lives.
7. Midnight Special – Dir. Jeff Nichols
No film this year blended genre as well as “Midnight Special.” Not only does it have the tension of a neo-noir and the creativity of a sci-fi, it has the affection of a father/son drama, the values of an Americana road trip and the profundity of something deeply spiritual. Jeff Nichols never entirely shows his hand to reveal this peculiar boy’s alien secrets, but the audience develops a sense of faith along with the boy’s father. Watching this film may make you believe in something greater while allowing you to hold onto the people and connections in life that matter most, and that’s rare from a genre movie as entertaining and exciting as this.
8. Everybody Wants Some!! – Dir. Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused” finds wisdom within a shallow concept of a college sex romp. It’s drenched in ’80s culture and is low-brow hilarious in its slick dialogue of trash talking boys and sweet talking girls. But Linklater uses these jocks, all constantly competing and showing off, to subtly examine masculinity and the reality of growing up. Linklater finds profound realizations about life and identity in epic bong hits, admiring how good your ass looks in the mirror, or in proving you can slice a moving baseball in half with an axe. The honeymoon doesn’t last, but the memories will, and watching Linklater’s film makes you feel like you were there, man.
9. American Honey – Dir. Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold’s odyssey across Middle America takes more dreamy, insightful and harrowing detours surrounding youth and freedom than many films combined. It’s the story of a traveling convoy of teens selling magazines door to door and endlessly partying along the way, and it reveals wonders about how the other half lives in this country and asserts what it is to be free. Arnold can be equally critical of a girl at a motel in a trashy Confederate Flag bikini as she is of a snobby WASP family. And each moment of teen liberation is equal parts inspiring, disturbing and dangerous. Sasha Lane as Star is a force of nature, jumping into every moment with gleeful abandon, and she’s met by the wild card energy of a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf.
10. Hacksaw Ridge – Dir. Mel Gibson
It doesn’t seem to add up that Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” could be such a brutally violent movie about non-violence, and yet the film contains an immense power. It’s old-fashioned in its storytelling and one-dimensional in its view of Christianity, but Gibson returns time and again to a firm, earnest belief that faith has the power to do enormous good. Gibson’s relentless, crystal clear, punishing filmmaking during the gratuitously violent war sequences show a commitment to never relent. It matches the fortitude and value of its hero Desmond Doss. We keep our faith because he keeps his. Andrew Garfield channels Gary Cooper in a nuanced everyman performance, and “Hacksaw Ridge” feels spiritual and inspirational without becoming a sermon.
11. Toni Erdmann & The Lobster (Tie) – Dir. Maren Ade, Yorgos Lanthimos
“Toni Erdmann” and “The Lobster” tie here not just because they’re bizarre, outrageous art house comedies from foreign directors, but because they find wisdom about modern love and life through wonderfully surreal premises. In “Toni Erdmann,” Maren Ade takes the ordinary story of a father trying to reconnect with his overworked daughter and milks it for cringe-worthy astonishment. A mid-film surprise makes every moment unpredictable and infinitely possible, and its hilarious set pieces pay off enormously. In “The Lobster,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian future where failing to have a mate gets you turned into an animal is a scathingly dark satire about contemporary dating and superficialities. The deadpan humor and impeccable world building both culminate in a harrowing ending, perhaps the best closing scene of the year.
13 More I Love (in ranked order):
- Your Name
- Tale of Tales
- Only Yesterday
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Hell Or High Water
- Nocturnal Animals
- Green Room
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- I, Daniel Blake
- Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
- Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
- Shia LaBeouf – American Honey
- Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
- Tom Hanks – Sully
- Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
- Ryan Gosling – La La Land
- John Goodman – 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Adam Driver – Paterson
- Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
- Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
- Sasha Lane – American Honey
- Emma Stone – La La Land
- Naomie Harris – Moonlight
- Michelle Williams – Manchester By the Sea
- Amy Adams – Arrival
- Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
- Riley Keough – American Honey
- Elle Fanning – 20th Century Women & The Neon Demon
- Isabelle Huppert – Things to Come
- Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
- Kate McKinnon – Ghostbusters
Best Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet
Fences, Silence, Jackie, 13th, The Handmaiden, Elle, Krisha, Love & Friendship, O.J. Made in America, Moana, I Am Not Your Negro, A Bigger Splash