It was a good year for movies, though an uncertain one. Lots of disappointments, lots of interesting surprises, and lots of excitement. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm feeling the blockbuster fatigue, and nearly all my top picks are very small films. My favorite genre films came from overseas this year, though more on that in a later post. I also haven't been in the best of moods, and my picks tend to skew toward darker subject matter over more hopeful, uplifting, and escapist fare.
My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2016, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, and previously posted reviews are linked where available. I usually have a "Plus One" spot reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list, but there wasn't anything this year I found compelling enough to single out for praise.
And here we go.
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan returns with a film about a man and his nephew, both figuring out how to pick up the pieces after a tragic loss. While there are moments of gutting sadness, there's also a tremendous amount of humor and warmth here, conveyed through keenly observed behavior and dialogue. I especially appreciate Lonergan's ability to not only create great characters, but the vital relationships and communities around them.
Krisha - First time director Trey Edward Schultz creates a showcase for the formidable talents of his aunt, Krisha Fairchild. She plays an addict who is trying to reconnect with estranged family matters during a Thanksgiving holiday, but suffers a nightmarish relapse. Schultz puts the audience right inside her breakdown, the filmmaking mirroring Krisha's alienation and eventual descent. It's Fairchild, however, whose raw emotion and verve give the film its edge.
The Fits - A tomboy's decision to join a dance troupe is the catalyst for an engrossing exploration of gender, identity, community, and group dynamics. With very little dialogue, the film is largely told through the striking visuals and the very physical, very energetic performances. In the hands of director Anna Rose Holmer, a Cincinnati rec center becomes a maelstrom of strange, unknown forces, that our young heroine finds herself irrevocably changed by.
American Honey - Andrea Arnold provides an outsider's view of America by exploring the parts of it that others rarely do. The heroine spends most of her time travelling through an endless Midwest, eking out a marginal existence hustling for magazine sales. However, there's also a tremendous sense of exploration and possibility for her, as she encounters different people along the way from all walks of life. It's a hard film at times, but also a hopeful one.
The Witch - I love Robert Eggers' "New England Folktale" for its daring and its unwavering commitment to its ambitious premise. The final scenes especially sound very unlikely on paper, but Eggers and his actors fully earn that ending and make it work. They've created a universe where God and the Devil are real, powerful forces, while also acknowledging the harmful, repressive nature of the Puritan culture of the times on our tortured cast of characters.
The Wailing - Can be seen as a South Korean companion film to "The Witch," where a policeman investigates a series of demon possessions. The ambiguity of the narrative is a major strength, the way it film keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end which of the spiritual figures are benevolent, and which are the monsters. The oppressive atmosphere of paranoia and frustration is terrific, but the exorcism sequence is the showstopper.
The 13th - I don't have much patience for documentaries with an axe to grind, but Ava Duvernay's latest, linking the American history of slavery to the current prison boom, is exceptional. It makes its case in very clear, very memorable ways, and shines a spotlight on a major American social problem that clearly needs to be addressed more seriously. More than that, I found myself deeply engrossed and emotionally invested as I watched it all unfold.
O.J.: Made in America - A five hour documentary on the O.J. Simpson case may sound like overkill, but all the historical and cultural context prove to be absolutely vital in understanding why the case was the cultural landmark that it was. I certainly didn't understand all the little nuances and implications of what was going on at the time it was happening. And, or course, there were all those fine details we never knew, and the aftermath we mostly ignored.
Zootopia - I can't get over how beautifully this was executed, a modern day Aesop's fable and buddy cop comedy that tackles the none-too-child-friendly subject of discrimination. Sure, there are some missteps and a Shakira single, but otherwise this may be the most thoughtful, earnest, and intelligent children's film I've seen in years - and it's from Disney no less. It's always heartwarming when so much creative energy is used for something so positive.
I, Daniel Blake - Ken Loach has always made very timely, socially conscious pictures, and this may be one of this most pointed, but something about the travails of Daniel Blake really resonated with me. Loach does such a great job of capturing the mindset and the behavior of people living on the brink, and all the little cruelties that they face. I can so easily imagine this story in other hands being deluged in sentiment and soapboxing, smothering its more subtle charms.
Love & Friendship
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Red Turtle