So here we are again, another year has passed and we are well into the new Year. It had been a trying year in many, many ways to say the least but we are all here ready and willing to work towards a better tomorrow. Let’s all do our part. With that in mind ironically, or perhaps un-ironically, a lot of the movies listed below here are about down-to-earth characters dealing with great trauma, sorrow, and grief. Finding or rediscovering yourself after the proverbial rug is pulled out from under you was the overarching theme for many filmmakers to develop great drama, emotion, and empathy from throughout the trying year. With all that in mind here are my favorites from the year, enjoy and/or kindly debate! I won’t be commenting on each of my choices as much as I usually do with these year-end entries, but you can find more of what I had to say about all of these wonderful films on my letterboxd account.
Honorable Mentions: The Edge of Seventeen, Lemonade, The Invitation, The Neon Demon, Captain Fantastic
25). Kicks (dir. Justin Tripping)
Our dreams and illusions of grandeur colliding with the harshness of reality provide the basis for Tripping’s first confident feature set on the tough streets of inner city Oakland, California. Not your typical rough streets drama, think Malick crossed with Boyz in the Hood if you possibly can, with dream-like imagery and introspective voice-overs interrupted by brutal violence. A drastic film style mixing that the filmmakers make work.
24). Complete Unknown (dir. Joshua Marston)
I think everyone at a one time or another has this crazy idea of just walking out the door and leaving everything behind them, reinventing themselves completely. Rachel Weisz’s character here does just that every few years, why she does this and to what end is up to Michael Shannon’s Tom, a former lover, to discover. Revealing how easy it is to redefine yourself in our current times and what is lost along the way.
23). Mountains May Depart (dir. Zhangke Jia)
The Chinese filmmaker is in good graces with me after his Touch of Sin, which I consider one of the worst movies I’ve seen this decade, with his generation and continents spanning story of the relationship between a boy, Daole, and his mother, Tao. An affecting film about the effects of time, location, and globalization.
22). The Innocents (dir. Anne Fontaine)
Set in the aftermath of WWII centering on a secluded convent in Soviet-occupied Poland who reach out to a Red Cross nurse Mathilde (an excellent Lou De Laâge from last year’s Breathe) to help them with pregnancies brought on because of sexual assault by the Soviet soldiers. The filmmaker never one for light material tells a small but powerful story of faith and strength in times of unimaginable tragic circumstances.
21). Our Little Sister (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Reminiscent of Woody Allen by way of Ozu in portraying a group of four Sisters living together and taking care of one another after their estranged father dies. Each of them has distinct personalities that sometimes rub the wrong way against one another, but they all try to make things work together in their impromptu family unit.
20). Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight)
A fantastic stop-motion animated fable from Laika studios of grand beautiful scope with a nuanced message about the importance of compassion, memory, and storytelling. A surprisingly touching film of emotional maturity through love and loss.
19). Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen Løve)
The great French actress Isabelle Huppert has her first entry on this list with a midlife crisis movie where Nathalie (Huppert) has to rediscover herself after huge upheavals in her personal and professional life. Think of the film as not an overcoming adversity piece but simply redefining what matters in what a person wants out of their life.
18). The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
The Iranian filmmaker once again carefully crafts an engaging drama surrounding the lives of people caught in a sudden and shocking situation. Though the plot mechanisms may grow thick, what always remains apparent are the character’s emotions and thoughts through harrowing circumstances.
17). Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Biopics are hard to really engage with for me in my view, many a filmmaker has squandered the opportunity to portray the lives of extraordinary people in history with a unique vision or engrossing tact. But the Chilean director and Natalie Portman found a cinematic edge with portraying the iconic first lady Jackie Kennedy as a grieving widow that had singular determination, foresight, and calculating nuance in moving forward after her husband’s assassination.
16). Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Reichardt’s best work to date is an anthology movie about four diverse women living in Montana each having to deal a variety of problems ranging from big to small, centering on career-minded to personal choices. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and especially Lily Gladstone all turn in great resonating work in showing the real burden of “normal” everyday life in self and society imposed isolation.
15). Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater)
Everybody Wants Some!! takes you back to those carefree 1980’s college days in Austin, Texas to portray a hilarious but grounded fraternity comedy. Giving us a cast of characters to laugh with, and at, in equal parts while always maintaining that ‘laid-back’ patient attitude that has come to define the director’s seminal work.
14). White Girl (dir. Elizabeth Wood)
No debut at last year’s Sundance was more shocking, unflinching and unrelenting as this one in Wood’s semi-autobiographical work. In depicting the naivety of youth in an exploitative world she gives a fearless lead performance by Morgan Saylor as Leah, guiding us through her character’s bad (but understandable) choices in an unforgiving reality.
13). Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
A rape-revenge story that goes in directions that will keep you guessing on the edge of your seat and wondering who exactly is this enigma that is Michelle? Isabelle Huppert once again shows she is at the top of her game right now in this Verhoeven cheeky thriller that never fails to surprise where this one is going.
12). Julieta (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Going back to his cinematic influences to depict a deeply resonating story of grief, guilt, and reconciliation, Almodóvar has his best work in years. Gently filming with eye-popping warm color palettes, he tells us a story of what we unfairly, but unavoidably, internalize as people of truly complicated feelings.
11). The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-Wook)
A delightfully twisting period-piece that changes tone and perspective at will, continually teasing its audience’s expectations. Remarkably performed by the two leads and shot with an eye for period detail, this is the iconic Korean director’s best work since his seminal Oldboy that never fails to engage on a visual or emotional level.
10). La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Along with Biopics, I have trouble engaging with musicals too, but the filmmakers here found a new spin on them for the glitzy La La Land to work on me. From the rousing opening number to the stylized closing montage a love story for tinsel-town is rendered that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of “making it” in Hollywood.
9). Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
The Sci-fi genre has gotten a real ambitious boost in the last few years with the likes of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, (Yes, even you Star Trek: Beyond for making the franchise fun for me again) and you can add Arrival to that list. The film is certainly about communication, compassion, and understanding, but brings a profound emotional edge that slowly reveals itself gradually throughout the film. An experience that rewards an audience’s patience in how the filmmakers choose to play the story out.
8). Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
I knew when the credits rolled on this at the premiere at Sundance this time last year this would make at least the top ten of the year as an outstanding unique work on deep seeded sorrow, guilt, and grief. Casey Affleck’s much-praised performance as Lee Chandler is one that will stick with me for long after the of-the-moment awards consideration talk fades away later this year.
7). American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)
Andrea Arnold’s road trip through run-down Midwestern towns is a snapshot of our times, a coming-of-age movie that defines the world around the characters to just as much an intimate degree as the leads. In the process discovering a new “lost generation” for the 21st Century, with young people aimlessly trying to find themselves in the wilderness.
6). Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)
Tom Ford presents your 2016 gut-punch, I know that there were a lot of them last year outside the theater but Nocturnal Animals was a beast all its own (pun intended). The film finds a way into your psyche and never lets up and leaves you just as Amy Adams character is at the end.
5). Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Hardly any other film from this, or any, decade portrays as achingly beautifully the choices we make to become ourselves. A haunting meditation on choice and identity and which inspires the other from one stage of life to the other.
4). The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
This movie was such an oddity from the director of Dogtooth that some audiences had no idea what to make of it and hated it because of that: it’s awkward, hilarious, shocking, touching, intimate, cold, sublime and strange. Consider myself a big fan, as a satirical take on courtship, relationships, and, yes, even genuine love in our very confused times.
3). The VVitch (dir. Robert Eggers)
The very best debut for a filmmaker from last year is based on old New England folklore and given new frightening life in cinematic form. It’s high on this list because in my view it is a perfect horror film from start to finish that shows the primeval horror of facing the unknown with paranoia, desperation, and baseless accusations.
“Wouldst Thou like to live deliciously?” indeed…
2). Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)
Ok listen I’ll admit it, I am completely in Malick’s wheelhouse for his intended audience whenever he releases a new polarizing work. Everything others complain about with his recent films, i.e the floating camera-work, endless voice-overs and lack of a concrete cohesive narrative, I would bring up as big positives for myself. What can I say but I am indebted to the man for showing me a world of profound beauty and elegance that only he could show.
1). Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Adapted faithfully and marvelously from Shūsaku Endō’s harrowing 1966 novel, Scorsese paints one of his most personal works ever in depicting a crisis of faith like no other. As unrelenting as any of the icon’s mafia and crime films in its portrayal of faith and belief put to the ultimate test. Never one to gloss over his own conflicts with faith in his work, one can look all the way back in 1988 with his Last Temptation of Christ, the director imbues the staggering work with an unwavering grace and compassion. The legendary filmmaker continues to awe and surprise well into his 50th(!) year of inspiring us all in his directing career.
And there you have it, I’ll be volunteering again at this year’s Sundance to see what this year has to offer. I hope this list has given you a few to put on your watch list and to help go into the new year with some renewed inspiration. Here’s to the making new memories!