The 10 Best Films of 2016
Superheroes, first ladies, road warriors and cute rabbits
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most important directors in Hollywood today. This drama of otherworldly import is one of the smartest sci-fi films in years. Villeneuve isn’t simply a great genre director—although Arrival is certainly filled with moments of thrilling imagery and tense mystery. He’s a man of Big Ideas. Armed with a finely tuned script by Eric Heisserer (based on the award-winning short story by Ted Chiang) and an excellent cast (led by Amy Adams), Villeneuve created a gripping speculation about the power of language. More than just a tale of communicating with space aliens, Arrival is a plea to tear down the Tower of Babel and find common ground with our fellow Earthlings.
If Hollywood is going to continue to make blockbuster, mega-franchise, “connected universe” films, then this is the template by which they should all be assembled. What could have been a crass jumble of characters and storylines lifted from a half-dozen other films was instead a thrilling, thought-provoking metaphor for our divided times. Most fans called this “the best Avengers movie that isn’t really an Avengers movie.” But that no longer counts as soft criticism. Disney/Marvel have worked out a way in which characters can cross over in an increasingly organic way. It’s no longer a question of “sequels.” Its a matter of dropping in, once or twice a year, on this vast, superhero-filled universe we’ve come to know and love. Fast, fun and light on its feet, Captain America: Civil War showed cross-town rivals DC how smartly written, non-concrete-colored superhero conflict is done.
This mystical take on territory explored by Werner Herzog in 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God comes from Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra. In luminous black-and-white, the filmmaker takes not one but two trips down the Amazon. In the first, hermit-like shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, an actual Amazon native who had never even seen a film prior to being cast) leads a deathly ill European explorer (Jan Bijvoet) on a quest to find some ancient healing herbs. In the second trip—set decades after the first—a German ethnobiologist enlists the now-aged and senile Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) on a journey to rediscover the legendary “Workshop of the Gods.” Between the two symmetrical storylines—which both lead directly to some apocalyptic revelations—we come to realize how two cultures have failed to share their beneficial knowledge and have merely melded “the worst of two worlds.” As the film grows increasingly dark, tense and spiritual, the earthy ethnographic vibe slides away, leaving audiences woozy, tripped-out and (hopefully) enlightened.
In a way, The Handmaiden is one of director Park Chan-Wook’s tamest, most mainstream films. On the surface, the man who gave us such outré entertainment as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst and Stoker has dialed things way back, delivering a polished period adaptation of Welsh author Sarah Waters’ historical crime novel Fingersmith. On the other hand, as the film goes on, it veers further and further away from Waters’ source material, creating a twisty, erotic world all its own. Ostensibly, it’s a film about a Korean con woman who gets a job as a maid for a wealthy Japanese heiress so she can help her sleazy boss seduce the girl and take all her money. But, as is the case with these sorts of capers, nothing goes as planned. Some gorgeous cinematography, a bunch of kinky sex, a bit of sneaky social commentary and a delicious surprise or two make this a luridly addictive thing of beauty.
Biopics can be extraordinarily rote, ticking off various highlights of a famous person’s life with all the thrill of a night watchman punching his rounds on a timeclock. But Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No, The Club) wisely figured out the symbolic substance underneath the weight of facts that make up former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s life. By sticking more or less to the days before and after JFK’s assassination, Larraín (and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim) creates an intimate portrait and also posits a fascinating cultural theory. The idea is that the newspaper interview at the center of this narrative is Jackie’s way of solidifying her husband’s (and by extension, her) legacy. In telling the story in her own words to an anonymous reporter (Billy Crudup), Jackie is creating, from whole cloth, the myth of the Camelot Era. In this, the film captures that critical moment when modern politics became less about legislation and more about image. Throw in some incredible attention to detail and a mesmerizing central performance by Natalie Portman, and you’ve got an emotional (as well as contextual) portrait of an iconic American figure.
Is this cheating? Maybe. Wasn’t Mad Max: Fury Road on last year’s “Best Of” list? Yes. But the film remains such a groundbreaking shakeup of cinematic art that it deserves a return trip. And director George Miller provided the perfect excuse by releasing the film again in this modified format. Black & Chrome restores Miller’s original idea for a black-and-white edition of the film. No studio would have greenlighted that out of the gate, but the success of Fury Road allowed the filmmaker to tinker a bit. The result is an even purer version of Miller’s vision. Is it markedly different in black and white? I would argue yes. The desaturation of color allows the pure visual storytelling of the film to shine though. Watching it again in black and white, I felt even stronger that the film belongs alongside such epics of filmmaking as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
On the one hand, this poetic coming-of-age drama is incredibly specific, focussing on three different life-stages of a fatherless, homosexual, African-American kid living in gang-ravaged, inner-city Miami. On the other hand, its exploration of how we go about figuring out who the hell we really are feels mighty universal. Though it offers no easy answers, no concrete path to understanding, self-fulfillment and redemption, this dreamy character study sympathizes greatly with those who struggle to define themselves—which, when you think about it, is pretty much all of us at one time or another.
This Turkish film—which, like Embrace of the Serpent, was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar earlier this year—starts out looking like a near-East take on The Virgin Suicides (both Sofia Coppola’s 2000 film and Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel). In it a group of five schoolgirl sisters are locked inside their house by their ultraconservative uncle in order to curb their stirring sexual urges and to ensure they’ll be proper marriage material. First-time writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s patriarchy-
If Moonlight is a hard-hitting examination of what is means and what it takes to be a man in modern-day America, then this 1970s-set dramedy is an awfully apt companion piece. Teenage Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is being raised by his first-wave feminist single mother (the never-better Annette Bening). But she fears for his development as a man, so she turns to his not-quite girlfriend (Elle Fanning) and a punk rock-loving artist (Greta Gerwig) for assistance. Is it possible for three women to “teach” a boy how to be a man? Of course not, but extraordinarily sensitive filmmaker Mike Mills (Beginners) uses his note-perfect ensemble to spin a deeply humanist story about how all of us rub off on one another—how parents, lovers and friends shape who we are. Whether we like it or not.
Disney has cranked out plenty of entertaining cartoon fare lately. There’s no denying, for example, the blissful, nostalgic perfection of Moana, which also hit theaters this year. But this thoroughly original film, released in early March, was cut from a whole different cloth. The tale of a plucky rabbit cop (Ginnifer Goodwin) and a louche con man of a fox (Jason Bateman) trying to find a string of missing persons (animals, actually) in the big city is as funny, entertaining and smartly assembled as any other Disney hit. But it’s the film’s zeitgeist-grabbing theme of social justice—about the power of the ruling predators and the complicity of the oppressed prey animals—that makes you stop and question 100 years of funny animal cartoon tropes. “Tom and Jerry” will never look the same.
The 10 Worst Films of 2016: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, The Sea of Trees, Independence Day: Resurgence, London Has Fallen, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Nine Lives, Ratchet & Clank, Yoga Hosers, Zoolander No. 2.