Among the many personal joys of 2016, this ended up being a really strong year for movies, and my top ten is the most solid collection of movies I've seen in years. So click through for some capsule thoughts...
For the past several years, my #1 slot has gone to a film that was an overwhelming emotional experience. But when I’ve rewatched those films, they’ve grown smaller, paling in comparison to the intensity of the first viewing, to the point that I’ve stopped even returning to them. Moonlight was one of those overwhelming experiences, the most profoundly affecting one I can remember, but this time, I can’t wait to revisit it. This is a film that I know will only continue to unfold and reveal itself to me, and one whose style I’ll want to keep immersing myself in. I don’t know what we did to deserve a film this unique, an impressionistic tone poem about subject matter so often treated with a much more gritty, docudrama style, but I’m grateful for this film in a way I’m not often grateful for any piece of art. This is the rare film that feels essential to me. It deals with characters and situations that are entirely alien to my own life, but director Barry Jenkins captures an almost alchemical effect with his camera and other technical elements, harnessing visual and aural language to generate empathy to greater effect than I’ve ever seen. If this film finds its wide audience, beyond those already prone to feel compassion for its characters, I believe it’s a work that could do real good in the world. Moonlight attacked my heart and my soul, and made me believe in the power of this art form. Nothing could be better than that, and just about nothing ever has been.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA
I’d been looking forward to this one for a while, but I was still entirely unprepared for it. The trailers sold a typical indie dramedy, and so I was shocked when it turned out to be unlike anything I’ve seen (the common thread in my favorite films this year). It’s rare to see a crowd-pleasing comedy starring a sitcom star (Craig Robinson of The Office in a revelatory performance) that feels so European in shooting style and structure. It’s a coming of age film that avoids cliché at every turn, a father-son film that’s relentlessly compassionate and winning, and a gorgeous, idiosyncratic piece of visual art. Coming-of-age films are a dime a dozen. Good ones are rare. But ones this unique come along very, very seldom, and they’re to be savored.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
What in the world is this movie? The best description I’ve managed to come up with is, A Roald Dahl story for grownups—it doesn’t quite follow literal reality as it tells the larger-than-life story of a child on an extraordinary adventure to escape an authoritarian cartoon of an antagonist, but any comparison to other storytellers (and Wes Anderson is a clear touchstone for shooting and editing techniques, even moreso than director Taika Waititi’s earlier film, Boy) doesn’t do justice to this wholly unique, uniquely hysterical film. There’s a movie every year that gives me a giddy, almost drunken buzz off the joy I’m experiencing. This year, it’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I expected to enjoy it. I didn’t expect to adore it.
SWISS ARMY MAN
This year’s award for “Movie I Loved But Never Want to Watch Again” goes to Swiss Army Man, only because I’ll never again be able to see it for the first time, and it’ll never be the same. This was the “farting boner corpse” movie, and it always will be, but that descriptor masks a shockingly raw and beautiful story of what it means to search for, and find, connection in the world, and the pain and courage that goes along with opening ourselves up to vulnerability in relationships. To call it unique doesn’t begin to capture the unexpected effects this film had on my heart and mind, and I left it shaken and thrilled and grateful. This isn’t the only film that I drove home from in silence because I wanted to savor the feeling it gave me, but it’s the only time that I jumped onto YouTube as I drove to pull up the soundtrack and try to bring back and prolong that feeling. There are singular films, and then there are one-of-a-kind experiences that use sounds and images and the braiding of the two to blindside you and leave you reeling with new questions about who you are and how you fit into the world around you. And yes, those feelings are nestled within a movie about a sentient corpse whose boner acts as a compass and whose lit farts act as a propellant, but no matter what you think this film is, it will surprise you. It’s strange to recommend a farting boner corpse movie with, “You don’t understand! It’s UNUSUAL!” but it’s true.
A new Ben Wheatley film is always going to be an event for me. No two films he’s ever made have been remotely alike, with each possessing a fabulously distinctive voice and style. For my money, High Rise is his masterpiece to date. This is a story that works on both literal and hallucinogenic-nightmare levels, a symphony of images and sounds that punches you in the face while stroking your cheek, and the most beautiful tortured scream I’ve encountered in a good long while. Wheatley is fully in control of his chaos, but applying that measured style to a story of anarchy produces something dreamlike and gorgeous even as it depicts horrific events. When you consume as many films as I do, anything that delivers this many head-spinning delirious gasps certainly earns its spot near the top.
This is a very difficult film for me to judge on anything approaching objective merit, so I’ll just tell the very personal story of what it did to me, and you’ll have to take my word for the fact that it’s also very, very good…This is the hardest I have ever cried in a movie theater. It was my first trip to a theater since my daughter was born; it had been about eight weeks, but the night before, I’d been up very late with Nora, who was fussier than she’d ever been, to the point that her panic was scaring me, making me wonder if she might be sick, if we might be heading to the hospital that night. So I was sleep deprived and raw when I sat down to watch the alien invasion movie that I knew was getting good reviews. I had no idea the opening moments were going to tell the time-lapse story of the protagonist raising and losing her daughter to cancer (or a similar diagnosis). So by the time we even got to the aliens five minutes later, I was primed to have a problem with this movie—how many times do I have to see the death of a child as a protagonist’s tortured backstory?—and I almost just walked out. But the ads had promised a mind-blowing ending, and I figured reading spoilers wouldn’t do it justice, so I stuck it out with a chip lodged firmly in my shoulder. I considered walking out several more times as the dead kid angle kept getting revisited, but the story and the style kept me in my seat—which was, incidentally, the only occupied seat in the furthest-forward row of an otherwise packed theater. And then, after spending almost the entire film tense and primed to jump up and leave because I was convinced I was being unfairly manipulated…the story broke wide open. And I fell the fuck apart. I got that tingling about-to-get-emotional feeling as the climax started to kick in, that soaring-heart/tightening-throat sensation, and as the tumblers began to fall into place, making everything we’d seen make sense, the tears came. And I wasn’t totally crying about the movie, but I wasn’t totally crying about my daughter, either. The movie and my life were ebbing and flowing into each other, feeding on each others’ power, and creating a cycle of intense emotion that pretty soon had me literally quaking with sobs. As things drew to a close, I pulled my hood up so nobody would see my wet face, but I know my body was visibly shaking, so I let everyone leave, and I watched the entire credits, letting wave after wave of sobs crash over me. And then it was all over, and the ushers came in to sweep the popcorn, so I stood up and slipped out. There was a line of people waiting for the next show, watching the puffy-faced guy stumble out, and I shot them a look like, Hey, what’re ya gonna do? and hustled through a packed early evening theater and out to my car. But my hands were still trembling too much to drive, I was still intoxicated by the power of this film, and shocked by the chemical effects it had catalyzed when it smashed up against my own feelings about parenthood and the beauty of my daughter’s new life. All this for a movie I went into expecting to see cool alien stuff. It isn’t often that a movie can remind you of the intense power of the medium to help you find, and then rock, your emotional center. This one did it.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
This film has gained a reputation for being crushingly depressing, and that does it an immense disservice. A reputation like that can make a movie seem like eating your vegetables, when this movie is surprisingly lively and vibrant and often very funny. It’s a powerful reminder that a story about pain and depression doesn’t have to be a painful, depressing experience. It helps that the script, by director Kenneth Lonergan, sizzles with wit and life (one line, “if you’re going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken, I think we need to go to the hospital,” is hilarious out of context, but in context it’s a laugh that feels more like you’ve been punched in the gut), and you can count on a well-known playwright to write engaging dialogue for great actors to devour. I’ve caught a bit of flak for saying this, but I do believe some technical elements are underwhelming—I found the camerawork indifferent and that the editing choices obscured the story’s points more often than they elucidated—but that’s all easily forgiven when a film is this absorbing and humane. For a film featuring the saddest events of the year to leave me uplifted as I walked out into the cold coastal Massachusetts air is a testament to a pretty powerful piece of art.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
I had this film pegged for my #1 slot months in advance. It was billed as the “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, one of my very favorite films, and in many ways, it lives up to that title. It’s a plotless film, and a storyless one, moreso than any film I can think of outside avant-garde experimentation. But it’s a different beast than Dazed and Confused; while that film is about the unknown feeling of endings, this one is about the unknown feeling of beginnings, and it’s a joy to experience, if not a profound one. There’s certainly a lot on this film’s mind—notions of the potential of fresh starts, experimenting with who you’ll be not just for the next four years but the rest of your life—but the film’s true strength is simply in creating a vivid, warm world to live within for a few hours, and a charismatic group of people to watch explore it, and I don’t think the smile left my face the entire runtime. There isn’t much art out there that treats college with the warm kinetic energy I felt as a student, while honoring the specificity of each individual’s college experience, but this film did. It mixes the personal and the universal, and the two-hour runtime goes by like thirty minutes. Any year that brings us a Linklater film is a good one, and this is a very good Linklater film, so this must have been a very good year.
By the time this film finally saw wide release, I’d been hearing rapturous buzz for over a year, all of it centering on one notion: this is the scariest movie in decades. And since it was supposed to be so amazing, I tried to remain totally unspoiled before buying my ticket. And that’s a blessing for a couple of reasons: one, this movie is not really all that “scary” in the way I was imagining. What it is is profoundly unsettling in a very unusual way. With its archaic language and references, this film feels like it was made in the colonial era in which it’s set, if you just sent some cameras and a crew through a time machine. More than any historical film I’ve seen, it creates an immersive world, and it opened my mind up to the way people might have interacted and communicated centuries ago. And so when things started going very, very sideways, I was deeply rooted in an uncanny world that’s both historical and fantastical. The ways it goes sideways really aren’t typically “scary,” but are borne of entirely new effects—eerie claustrophobic paranoia, religious terror, the idea of the occult living right alongside us. It’s a shame that the final line of dialogue has become something of a meme, because by the time this long, sometimes slow, always engaging trip came to its hair-raisingly creepy conclusion, my yearlong spoilerphobia had paid off in spades. This is a film that’s so singular, it seems impossible that there will ever be anything like it, because anything like it would be an imitator and lack the quality of discovering something brand new. This might not be the movie horror fans were looking for, but more than a horror fan, I’m a fan of movies that burrow under your skin and get lodged there. This one did, and it hasn’t budged yet.
Another film I’d been looking forward to for a long time, since before cameras even rolled. I’m a massive fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film Dogtooth, a movie so strange and disturbing I haven’t shaken it in the almost three years since I saw it. So when I heard he was making a move to English-language features, I was on board, and I didn’t bother trying to keep myself in the dark. So I figured I knew what I was in for with this story of a society in which people have a limited time to find a partner before being forcibly transformed into an animal. I was wrong. This is a film that seems like the final project for an alien being’s study of human behavior. The characters speak recognizable words and move their bodies in generally recognizable ways, but that’s about all that feels familiar in this film. It’s impossible to overstate how stilted and odd this movie is in the most absorbing, thrilling ways. Of any film I saw this year, this is the one that provoked the most fruitful, revealing conversations afterwards, both with the people I saw it with, and with the others I dragged into the same morass of existential searching for days afterwards: Why do we seek love? Yeah, but why? Yeah, but WHY? This film sends you falling down a well of questions into your own behavior and motivation, until all human existence becomes abstracted and foreign. Like so many of my favorite films this year, it showed me something strange and new that allowed me to discover new facets of myself. Movies are an incredible tool that way—they can create empathy, they can provide escape from pain or mundanity, they can put us in touch with feelings we didn’t know we felt, and we never emerge from any film quite the same as the way we went in, no matter how inconsequential the story, because we’ve been packed with new pictures and sounds to carry with us and give us new lenses through which to see the world. If we’re lucky, we can experience a year where even the tenth best film is as magical and idiosyncratic as The Lobster. And that’s exactly the kind of year this was.