Top 25 Films of 2016

Top 25 Films of 2016

In 2016, I watched a total of 775 films. Of that number, 104 of which were 2016 releases. After extensive deliberation, I've put together a list of my top twenty-five favorite films. This was a tough, but fun list. I'd go to bat for any of these and encourage everyone to see them. 


1. Jackie

Pablo Larrain is undeniably the director of the year. He directed not one, but two incredible films released in 2016 that display the best of what cinema has to offer. Jackie is an intensely intimate portrayal of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her husband's assassination. Natalie Portman's performance as the titular Jackie has received plenty of buzz, but it's Larrain's distinct vision and direction that elevate Jackie to the film of the year. In Jackie, Larrain merges several thematic elements together in a way that feels both perfectly natural and brand new. The film captures and meditates on the concepts of grief and legacy in a way that understands how intrinsic they are to one another. At its core, the film feels like a eulogy to the American way of life. It calls into question how we remember our own history and the people that craft that history. Every piece of this film is phenomenal, pushing both the craft of filmmaking and our methods of storytelling forward in new and exciting ways. 


2. Moonlight

Director Barry Jenkins' broke important ground in 2016 with his film Moonlight. The film follows Chiron, a black man struggling with his sexuality, over the course of his youth. It's tempting to talk about Moonlight as simply a portrayal of one man's struggle with his own identity, but to do so would be to reduce the brilliant complexity of the film. With Moonlight, Jenkins' performs a character study and a cultural critique, tells a love story and a coming-of-age story, all the while staying true to his vision. In a year that has been so culturally divisive, Moonlight is a film that reminds us that our identities are not singular and our struggles are not universal, but that doesn't mean we are unable to empathize with one another, that doesn't mean stories like this shouldn't be told. Moonlight gives a voice to a minority rarely seen in film and the results are magnificent to behold.


3. Certain Women

In no uncertain terms, Kelly Reichardt's newest film is a knock out. Certain Women is her at her most refined, poetic, and graceful. The film showcases three stories of stark mid-western realism through the eyes of four independent women. The beauty of Certain Women crept up on me over time; it wasn't until weeks after my first viewing that I felt as though I had fully wrapped my head around all of what Reichardt had accomplished with Certain Women. Watching this movie felt like getting a glimpse into a world that is rarely seen, but full of profound feeling and depth. So much of the film's success is on the backs of its performers - Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and breakout star Lily Gladstone. They all bring to the table a level of extraordinary authenticity that allows the film to operate on an entirely different level that it might have achieve with lesser actors. Certain Women is a showcase of stories that wouldn't have been told without a female director and those stories have stayed with me in the months since I first watched. 


4. Silence

The name Martin Scorsese is sure to conjure up thoughts of brutally violent New York gangster stories, but this year, Scorsese turned that brutality towards a different kind of story. His film Silence follows two Christian missionaries who travel to Japan in the 1600s in an attempt to locate their lost mentor and spread Catholicism in a country that is hostile towards them. Silence epitomizes Scorsese's versatility as a filmmaker. Like his film The Last Temptation of Christ released in 1988, Silence textualizes Scorsese's fascination and enduring struggle with religion in a way that is endlessly compelling. Unlike some of the films on this list, Silence is by no means "audience-friendly." There's no wide appeal for this film or the story it's telling. However, I found myself moved to the point of tears several times by the sheer passion and struggle on display in both the story and the filmmaking itself. 


5. Arrival

In light of the results of the 2016 election, it's tempting for me to look at new movies through the lens of the socio-political divides currently wreaking havoc on the United States. But it's hard to ignore how Denis Villeneuve's Arrival works as a direct counterpoint to the divisions we are facing. Arrival makes a poignant statement about our inability to understand one another. Divisions between race, gender, and class are by no means new, but our struggle to communicate with those on the other side of those divides has become more apparent. What makes Arrival so special, in my eyes, is that it imbues itself with optimism. It does not excuse the gap between "us" and "them" as unconquerable. Instead, the film uses empathy to bridge the divide. More than that, the film uses actress Amy Adams as a conduit for that empathy (and if you're going to pick someone to portray empathy, you can't do much better than her). When you strip Arrival down to its core, it's a humanist vision of what it means to live with and within pain. It's understanding of the human condition makes it one of the best of the year. 


6. Toni Erdmann

From director Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is by far one of the year's most unique films. Charting a strained father-daughter relationship, Toni Erdmann radiates with an energy completely different than anything else this year. What makes it so special is the way it's able to confidently and successfully mix dramatic and comedic elements without feeling overly fantastical or inconceivable. It's my pick for best foreign film of the year. 


7. American Honey

After I saw American Honey, I wrote that it posits itself as a revisionist American Dream. Andrea Arnold's film follows a group of kids travelling across the country trying to make money selling magazines. It's a simple premise through which Arnold is able to delve into concepts of youth, poverty, and isolation. The story that Arnold tells in American Honey exists as an antithesis of the American dream that has defined previous decades. It stands out to me as an incredibly important film in the oeuvre of the American road trip film. The film plays out like a bleeding, sun-soaked, self-destructive, money-driven fever dream. It's a coming of age story, a tale of love, a capitalist nightmare, and a commentary on youth blended together with the frantic energy of an all-night rave that won't soon be forgotten. 


8. La La Land

La La Land might be one of the most misread films of the year. A lot of its critics and plenty of its fans seem to think it's either a story about following your dreams or a story about falling in love. I can't help but think La La Land is a much tougher to work out than people want it to be. What impresses me about this movie is how it takes on the notions of happiness and success. The movie doesn't necessarily advocate that these things are mutually exclusive. However, I think it does wager that, depending on your choices, you may be more happy than you are successful or more successful than you are happy. In this way, La La Land is less a musical about falling in love and more an interrogation of what it means to search for and achieve happiness. Outside of the film's message, there's no denying  Damien Chazelle's directorial talent and skill that helped bring this film to life. While it surely operates as an ode to classic Hollywood, La La Land still feels distinctly modern. 


9. Cameraperson

A remarkable film that captures something special the human experience. Kirsten Johnson has worked as a documentary cinematographer for years. She's worked on several films including CitizenfourDarfur Now, and The Oath. In Cameraperson, Johnson pieces together several decades worth of footage into a single documentary that, like a puzzle, slowly reveals itself piece by piece until it reaches its moving conclusion. When I walked into the theater for this film, I did not expect to cry, but it ended up moving me to the point of speechlessness. A lot of the films that I loved this year captured a really specific story or identity, but Cameraperson exists on the other end of the spectrum. It captures humanity at both its brightest and darkest moments. Cameraperson is a true triumph of documentary filmmaking.


10. Manchester by the Sea

My decision to include Manchester by the Sea in my top ten comes after a surprisingly laborious decision-making process. Director Kenneth Lonergan's follow-up to Margaret (which I have no problem calling a masterpiece) is flawed work of art. I have several issues with it, but at the end of the day, I haven't been able to get it out of my head. The authenticity of character's emotions and world in which the story is told is shockingly good. The script, written by Lonergan, is decidedly better than most of the other screenplays on this list. But beyond the film's authenticity is an impressive bit of melodrama. With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has made a melodrama that leans on the masculine, rather than the feminine. In a prototypical melodrama, you would expect to see emotions on full display; Manchester by the Sea works against that expectation by displaying extreme emotional repression set against swelling operatic music. It's by no means a perfect film, but I'd be untrue to myself not to include it. 


11. O.J.: Made In America


12. 20th Century Women


13. Elle 


14. The Lobster


15. Neruda


16. Things to Come


17. Love & Friendship


18. Indignation


19. A Bigger Splash


20. Sunset Song

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21. The Salesman


22. Hail, Caesar! 

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23. The Edge of Seventeen

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24. The Love Witch


25. Julieta