New York City on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 was an eerie place to be. No one could ever accuse Manhattan of being quiet, but that day—the day after the city voted overwhelmingly against Trump—a mood of silent dread seemed to hang in the air, broken from time to time by a passerby on their cell phone talking hurriedly about how fucked up the night before had been. On November 10, I was back in the city on a (previously scheduled) trip to take two friends to see Dr. Strangelove at Film Forum. By then, I was curious to see how it would play given the general dear-god-what-the-fuck mood. But the audience loved it, laughing at every little touch of pitch-black cynical comedy—at least, until the end. As the world blew up, everyone at Film Forum went dead serious, and were dead serious still as they all shuffled out of the theater. And I wonder, if 80,000 rust belt voters had gone the other way, whether or not that 50-year-old sick joke would have suddenly seemed so rattling again.
Needless to say, 2016 will be remembered for many things more than its movies. The year was a clusterfuck: it began as one and ended as one, and the political plot twists in between put the imagination of screenwriters everywhere to shame. And I suppose it was inevitable that cinema itself would get caught in the whirlwind. Flashing back to January 2016, two movie news items are worth noting. First, at the Sundance Film Festival, during the height of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Nate Parker’s slavery film The Birth of a Nation set a $17 million record for the biggest deal in the fest’s history, pegging it as an early Oscar frontrunner, essentially for political reasons. Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, and virtually at the same time, the Trump team organized free screenings of Michael Bay’s action extravaganza 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, with its anti-bureaucrat machismo serving as propagandistic catnip for any Trump fan’s hatred of Hillary Clinton.
From there, the year only got messier. The Birth of a Nation‘s Oscar hopes were dashed when Nate Parker’s college rape charges landed in the mainstream press. The studio tried to get out in front of it, but the disturbing details, a tone deaf response, and an acquittal that sounded more like a technicality than a moral exoneration effectively sunk the film and its writer-director-star. A contender had, by the start of Oscar season, become a footnote, leaving us with two ironies. First is that, even if you set Parker’s scandal aside, Birth is something of a sham. It is a thin and flimsy piece of filmmaking, inspired by Mel Gibson and adopting Gibson’s worst traits—bludgeoning simplicity, fetishistic violence, and one hell of a messiah complex—but without the craft. In short, what ended up on screen is less interested in promoting knowledge of American history than in promoting Parker himself.
The second irony is that, even with Birth out of the picture, 2016 was a far better than average year for people of color getting noticed by the Academy. Currently, non-white artists are all but locks for Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Documentary Feature at the very least. And while the usual suspects may wish to blame this on the Hollywood PC police, all of those wins (and maybe an additional upset or two) will be goddamned deserved. That a film as outside-Hollywood as Moonlight is receiving such attention—its impressionistic style is a bigger mainstream hurdle than its absence of white faces—is cause for hope. It’s one of the most moving films I’ve seen this decade.
Back in 2011, I started calling this series “More Interesting Than the Oscars” because, compared to the diversity of filmmaking styles on the festival circuit, the Academy goes by a painfully ordinary definition of what constitutes a good movie. It’s not just that the Oscars are a popularity contest, it’s the nature of the popularity contest: it always seems to me that the Oscars—Hollywood honoring its own vaunted position in film culture—want very badly to be liked. That is, they want to acclaim films that a maximum number of people could see and be moved by, not necessarily which films are the most inventive.
Yet, to give them their credit, this year’s biggest Oscar contenders contain some fairly interesting frontrunners, or at least share a larger than usual overlap with the cinephile literati. Either the Academy is getting edgier or we’re getting more ordinary ourselves. But the smart money is still on La La Land to take Best Picture and a big haul along with it. And it speaks to our divided time that “what did you think of La La Land?”—a frothy, cine-literate, visually marvelous trip to the movies—has become such a loaded question requiring such a circumspect answer.
I’ve heard the praise, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, and the analyses from as many sociological angles as possible. If/when it wins, La La Land won’t be the best film of 2016; it’ll be another in a long line of Best Pictures that prize escapism most of all. But it won’t be an abomination. It won’t even come close to being the Academy’s biggest Best Picture misstep this decade. The Artist didn’t display nearly as much understanding of the cinema it was paying tribute to, and Argo was such a banal piece of workmanlike entertainment—”it’s a rental”, as we’d say in the era of Blockbuster Video—that assigning it lofty importance was a bigger act of insider self-congratulation than any of La La Land‘s hype.
Maybe it’s best to set the Oscars aside, because this year was a fine year to be a moviegoer, and not just for the awards bait. I have to admit I had trouble narrowing my list down. There are a few easy-pick great films at the top, but then one has to sort dozens of films that, while flawed, belong in any highlights reel of the year. So I should take a moment to praise what didn’t make the final list but deserves mention: the musical numbers and brotherly bond of Sing Street; the cheerfully insolent title hero of I, Daniel Blake; the Danny De Vito segment of Wiener-Dog; Natalie Portman’s achingly forced smile as she guides a TV crew through the White House in Jackie; Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked hero in Sully; the flow of dialogue in Fences; the precious moments of lyricism in American Honey and Knight of Cups; the fact that a film as insane as The Love Witch even exists at all; and not one but two delightfully laconic Texan sheriffs, embodied by Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.
And now, my favorite 10 films of 2016. As always, the term “favorite” is way more honest than “best”. Objectivity is for suckers.
10. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Five years ago, with A Separation, Asghar Farhadi became the first Middle Eastern director to win Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. The Salesman isn’t quite on the level of that arthouse hit. But I remain stirred by how Farhadi can make a movie about so many things at once—class relations, the treatment of women in Iran, the tie between art and life, cross-pollination between the East and West, the challenge of expression under a regime of censorship—while not losing focus on his characters. The story, a kind of social thriller set against the backdrop of an Iranian theater troupe adapting “Death of a Salesman” (that quintessentially American play), is thought-provocation at its finest.
9. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, US)
Mike Mills’ follow-up to Beginners is another look at family units and the gap in how separate generations see the world. He colors firmly and modestly—some might say annoyingly—in the “indie film” lines. But he distinguishes himself with an earned sense of worldliness: his film aspires to nothing more or less than understanding of how different people approach the same basic problems and all come up short. They are, after all, only human. No new ground broken, but every awards season needs a film you can safely recommend to your parents. Can’t say that about Elle or The Handmaiden, can you?
8. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, US)
Film is a medium more suited to emotion than intellect; for that, we always have the written word. So it’s worth stressing that this cinematic adaptation of the writings of James Baldwin, perhaps the most famous intellectual of Black American life, is an intensely emotional experience. Its assemblage of archival material is, like Baldwin himself, both deeply passionate and eloquently reasoned, and it covers everything from personal recollection to political turmoil to pop culture criticism with an almost uncomfortable intimacy. What stays with me most is the footage of the man himself, with a look in his eyes that seems to fear or realize that most of what he has to say, no matter how well he says it, will fall on a great many deaf ears. I left shattered.
7. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, US)
This is what our new golden age of television is good for. At different times biography, sociology, police procedural, and courtroom drama—and gripping for all 7 hours—this lucidly recounted story of race, fame, wealth, and media imagery has too many cruel ironies and nuanced perspectives to name. Are stories supposed to have morals? Made in America offers several but doesn’t insist on any of them. The overwhelming urge is to step back, contemplate, and ache for all involved. Originally airing on ESPN, with screenings at festivals and select theaters to qualify for the Oscars, you can binge-watch it now on Hulu.
6. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)
Toni Erdmann is exceptionally peculiar, not least because it feels so familiar. Surely its basic narrative arc—an embarrassing, anarchic relative invades the life of a joyless workaholic and teaches them to loosen up—has powered innumerable hack Hollywood comedies. Early reviews literally praised it as a savior of cinema; a friend of mine said it first struck him as “a three hour German Mrs. Doubtfire.” Yet during its (not quite) three hours, it gives its story such an utterly tender context and specificity that it stayed in my mind for days afterward. Its comic setpieces will get the most attention; its little details and asides are what make it special.
5. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Apichatpong’s previous feature, Uncle Boonmee…, made history as the first Thai film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His return—though if you count short films, he never went away—reminds us of what makes him such a valuable and imaginative voice in global cinema. He shows us a world of modern industry and mass culture, but with the spirits, phantoms, and memories of time immemorial mixing seamlessly with the present. Like its predecessors, Cemetery of Splendor insists the world we live in has a magic and spirituality to it that, in an inspiring way, his heroes unquestioningly accept as fact. Like its title, it is both a dark and optimistic film, full of love for its characters and arguing that human contemplation is much better at getting below the surface than any material tool.
4. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)
In which provocateur Paul Verhoeven, who once scored with such deceptively smart Hollywood “genre films” as RoboCop and Total Recall, resurfaces in France and throws down the gauntlet right away. The first 20 minutes are a brilliant, provocative metaphor for women expected to be unflappable in a world of sexual aggression, and from there it goes the full Almodóvar. But it’s Isabelle Huppert’s show, beginning to end, and she commands the screen in a way that suggests the “her” of the title is Woman with a capital W—lover, mother, daughter, boss, independent woman, both empowered and victimized, out to experience the world on her own terms and no one else’s. Whatever you do, don’t read a plot summary beforehand. Let each perverse twist of this sordid revenge tale hit you fresh.
3. Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, US)
I keep seeing people describe Manchester By the Sea as a downer, a miserably hopeless and pessimistic tale. I wonder if I saw the same film. Certainly, a great many bad things happen it. Yet by the end, everyone seems (at least to me) like they’re starting to learn, starting to let their guard down, starting to turn in the right direction. Can a film so full of misfortune and self-destructive behavior be hopeful? I think so, and this one is surprisingly sprinkled with humor. The triumph of the film, quite apart from Lonergan’s skill with dialogue and actors, is that it has a structure befitting a novel. Fuck Syd Field’s three acts: Manchester just keeps unrolling and unrolling, never afraid to flash back or add a new character into the mix. It feels like it could go on forever—no doubt part of what its detractors hate about it. But it’s currently the frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay, and misery or no, nothing else could warm my heart.
2. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US)
Here’s something I never thought I’d say in the year 2016: one of the very best films of the year belongs to Jim Jarmusch. In the history of American cinema, Jarmusch always seemed stuck in his very specific time and place, a key figure from the 80s/90s Sundance explosion who’d casually segued into being an elder statesman of acquired taste and excessive hipsterdom. But if by some tragedy he decides to retire now, Paterson would make a heartbreaking and ideal testament film, a mature fulfillment of the recurring themes of his early work. For Jarmusch, the USA is the land of Walt Whitman and Iggy Pop, and he reminds you that, while art may get filtered through studio sets or New York publishing houses, it springs from ordinary, unassuming streets like grass growing through cracks in the cement. Paterson is a minimalist sitcom, a melancholy look at the daily grind, an idiosyncratic love story, and an ode to the urge to create, no matter how good or bad your creation is. Adam Driver is perfect as a shy aspiring poet spotting links in the everyday world.
1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US)
Gorgeous and heartbreaking, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight may be the only film I’ve seen this year that struck me as a contender for a new classic of American independent cinema. It is a work of sweep and detail, directed in such a slippery style that once it’s over you won’t be sure if you saw the film it or dreamed it. As a work of narrative sophistication and visual storytelling, it marks a giant leap forward for its director; this is only Jenkins’ second film, and already he’s made his mark on Oscar history. It’s a deeply felt tale of suppressed emotion and identity told like The Wire reinterpreted by Claire Denis, and a story of the passage of time as melancholy as the magnificence of the Ambersons—and just as quintessentially American. For more, you can check out my review on the MUBI Notebook.
The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, US)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, US)
Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, US)
Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, US)
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, US)
Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, US)
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, US)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Greece)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, US)
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, US)
Silence (Martin Scorsese, US)