In A World… (The Top 10 Films of 2016)

31 12 2016

“In a world…”

Any self-respecting ’90s moviegoer can never forget announcer Don LaFontaine’s literally trademarked invocation. It was an invitation to enter a world apart from our own, be it an entirely invented fantasy realm, a different country or a fresh perspective.

I bring this up in regards to a year end list of 2016 because so many things I could say to describe the events of this year feel so unfathomable that they could only follow “In a world…” Both personally and culturally, the past 12 months have upended plans, expectations and assumptions. It’s not just the result of the 2016 election in America, or the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or whatever the hell happened when Batman battled Superman – and on the positive side, it’s not just the fact that I covered Sundance, tackled SXSW, and interviewed some really talented cinematic artists. It’s everything that led up to that, all the many breaks that went the way they did to get us to this point.

I always do my best to rewatch any movie I put on my year’s best, but this year I found that I had to rewatch more 2016 films not to determine whether they were as good as I had originally thought. Rather, I had to reexamine what I thought they were about at their core. I could go on and on, but for some examples: “Christine” played like a personal psychodrama at Sundance and an elegy for the dignity of television journalism in December. “Jackie” felt like an empowering tale of a former First Lady gaining her agency at the New York Film Festival in October, yet it seemed more like a requiem mass for a fallen dynasty in late November.

Melissa McCarthy as Michelle Darnell in The Boss

Films whose attitudes I had dismissed – “Deadpool,” “The Boss,” “War Dogs” – seemed validated. Others that seemed to champion the virtues of our era – “Denial,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Neighbors 2” – felt somewhat hollow, if not completely naive.

I remain uncertain as to which of these films is weaker or stronger for accommodating such a panoply of vantage points. In a world where nothing seems certain, it was a valuable and instructive experience for me to remember that while a film as an object stays the same, our ideas and understandings about are invariably shaped by the worldview from which we approach them. The conditions of its creation are unchangeable. The context of our reception is always subject to forces beyond our control.

So … in a world where seemingly so much is at stake and so little is known, what place do movies have? And what importance does writing about them take? When I started paring down the 200 theatrical releases from 2016 that I viewed this year (fun fact: that’s exactly the same amount as 2015), I was struck by how many of them had created an irresistible world or replicated our present one with a staggering amount of accuracy and honesty. I realized that for so much of the year, the best cinema was not an escape from the world but a means for better understanding it in this crazy year.

Without further ado, here are my selections for the top 10 films of 2016. Rather than lavish them with superlatives, I simply hope to convey what I found of value in those worlds. (If you want all the praise, look to my reviews – the titles hyperlink to them.) Now, on with the show: in a world…

Other People Jesse Plemons Molly Shannon

Other People
Written and directed by Chris Kelly
Starring Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon and Bradley Whitford

In a world of unbearable anticipation for his mother’s eventual passing, Jesse Plemons’ David Mulcahey must face down a number of conflicts that nag away at his happiness and keep him from reaching his full potential. There’s unresolved family tension stemming from a decade-old coming out that still leaves him uncomfortable in his own sexuality. He’s hit stagnation in his career as a comedy writer. And while back home in Sacramento to assist in the long-term care for his mom, David’s self-loathing foments by stewing in his own inadequacies. Resolutions, quick fixes and happy endings may not be on the menu in the film, but writer/director Chris Kelly serves us up something perhaps more touching by nudging David towards being supportive and present for his family.


Directed by Ava DuVernay

In our world, one in three black men in America will go through the prison system. That’s not an accident, according to the academic and policy experts documentarian Ava DuVernay assembles. It’s a feature of a system that began with the 13th Amendment passed in Reconstruction, which proved to be the connective tissue between slavery and imprisonment. The United States has never been adept at fully incorporating or accommodating black Americans once the law dictated they were people, not property. Over the course of 100 minutes, I was powerfully reminded of just how brutal and unequal the past 150 years have been – and how much further we still have to go.

Kirsten Johnson Cameraperson

Directed by Kirsten Johnson

In a world where the cinematographer – not the director, writer, producer or star – is the primary artist of a film, how do we read the work? This filmic memoir, cobbled together from archival footage shot by camerawoman Kirsten Johnson on a variety of projects, brings into question so much of what we presume about the ownership of images on screen. This bold self-portrait feels like a sonic boom to the discourse surrounding non-fiction film, and while we wait to see what comes from its reverberations, I am happy to keep pondering the profound issues it raises about auteur theory.

The Lobster

The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux

In a world where human relationships are regulated to the point where unmarried people are forced to find a partner in 45 days or be turned into an animal … admittedly, yes, this does sound like the kind of zany pitch that Don LaFontaine would make for a fantasy flick. But this high-concept film speaks more directly to the all-or-nothing relationship culture defining modern courtship than any traditional romantic comedy or weepy love story. And arguably my favorite question to ask anyone about movies this year was polling people about what choice they think Colin Farrell’s David makes in the final scene. It’s quite the litmus test.

Sasha Lane Shia LaBeouf American Honey

“American Honey”
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough

In a world that many people consider backwards, outdated and essentially invisible, director Andrea Arnold finds America in both beauty and grime. Her keen eye, refracted through the roving camera of Robbie Ryan, performs an ethnographic study of the country’s heartland that has been divided, remade and yet still feels unformed. And this landscape is not merely a scenic backdrop but a deeply important aspect of the film’s narrative engine, a rowdy group of rag-tag young adults who bands together for the purpose of selling magazines. Quite a few of them are products of this bleak territory, including Sasha Lane’s protagonist Star, and the ways that they navigate the terrain while mining it for profit proves endlessly fascinating.

Adam Driver Paterson

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver and Golfshifteh Farahani

In a world where small-town folks feel preternaturally kind to each other, is it any surprise that a bus driver can harmonize his work with his passion of writing poetry? Jim Jarmusch has been known to create some weird, wacky worlds, but this might be one of his most bizarre yet precisely because it is so insistently normal. His sense of rhythm builds irresistibly as we follow a week in the life of Adam Driver’s Paterson, eventually falling in sync with his routines to the point where we find them exciting rather than quotidian.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges

In a world where the wounds of the Great Recession never quite healed, how far is too far to protect your family? To secure your legacy? To deliver justice? Writer Taylor Sheridan probes the American West as it attempts, maybe in vain, to convalesce from the latest blow to the small town, salt of the earth folks, while director David Mackenzie captures the decaying milieu with a special eye towards the means used to entrap them in credit and loans.

Andrew Garfield in Silence

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson

In a world where I’m under embargo until January 6, there’s not a whole lot I can say. But I am just grateful I got to see “Silence,” my most anticipated movie of 2016, this year. Scorsese’s complicated world of Christian missionaries attempting to grow their faith in the “swamp” of 17th century Japan poses tough conundrums in regards to evangelism, belief and martyrdom that resonate profoundly in our current religiously fraught moment.

Zoey Deutch and Blake Jenner in Everybody Wants Some

Everybody Wants Some
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell

In a world where guys are just being guys (separate from the issue of “locker room talk” so crudely raised this year), I felt more at home than anywhere else. Richard Linklater’s trip back to his own collegiate baseball days ditches the nostalgia and embraces the natural through Blake Jenner’s Jake, a freshman pitcher soaking in all the options available to him in the blithe period of time before class begins. It’s perhaps the closest thing to pure escapism I found in 2016 as it dropped me back off in my own college days, allowing me three days (ok, two hours) to have all the fun and little of the responsibility.

Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams

In a world where the death of a sturdy patriarch sets off a seismic shift in the lives of his prodigal brother (Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler) and aimless son (Lucas Hedges’ Patrick), the story of life is not about moving on. It’s about adjusting, primarily in ways that seem small and unthinkable. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan builds a movie out of moments that cry for humanity so quietly that the pleas often fall on the deaf ears of other characters. In a year defined by grief for so many, this world offers something more realistic than harmony or inner peace. Grief may not improve us, but it will change us. The pain may never go away because, in life, loss is just loss. It’s not serving some grand narrative function to push us towards some kind of self-actualization. It can, however, open our eyes to the need for empathy all around us. Spending the two hours with this film had the same effect on me that the events had on the characters.



One response

1 01 2017

Good list! I am still waiting for so many of those films to come out in the UK. I did have Hell or High Water at the top of my list for the year. The Lobster is a very impressive film.

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