I think that the idea of film awards is strange and misguided. Not only do the established award shows (Oscars, Golden Globes etc) consistently fail to pick out the vital, complex films of any given year but it is often a self fulfilling prophecy, given that withstanding the test of time is a key signifier of a film’s worthwhileness. However, it is important to consider that these award shows nevertheless spark a large scale film discussion that would not be had otherwise. On top of that, they get people to watch plenty of movies that wouldn’t normally be given the time of day. As such, my top ten list ends up being less about calling a movie “the definitive best picture of the year” and more about recognizing merit in movies that I wish everyone could see and discuss. So, without further ado:
10. The Neon Demon
The first time you watch a Nicholas Winding-Refn film is always a memorable experience and The Neon Demon is no exception. The film is consistently vexing and shocking while also being frequently beautiful. Indeed, The Neon Demon plays like some strange, acid trip combination of a Stanley Kubrick and David Argento movie as it satirizes the fashion industry in a way that only Refn could have. In addition, the film’s score is a high point in Cliff Martinez’s already impressive body of work. Similar to his massively underrated Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon will have you saying both “what the hell did I just watch” and “when can I see it again”.
This movie has a killer premise that it would have been easy to screw up. A deaf, mute woman lives alone and finds herself smack in the middle of a home invasion thriller. The movie could have felt cheap and exploitative but instead ends up being a taut, character focused thriller that clocks in at a lean one hour and twenty-minute run time. Director Mike Flanagan creates an incredibly parsimonious film that uses every minute wisely and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The movie mines a lot of tension out of the fact that our protagonist can’t hear her attacker or call for help but, crucially, it succeeds in making said protagonist a nuanced, three dimensional character.
8. Nocturnal Animals
I find the idea that one element of a film can be perceived as “more real” than another to be fascinating. For a quick example of what I am talking about, think of the audience reaction every time some element of a narrative is revealed to be a dream or figment of a character’s imagination. The ascription of degrees of reality to films is strange and merits exploration in a way that I hadn’t seen until Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. This film explores the relationship between audience, artist and art using an multilayered structure that sounds like it shouldn’t work – roughly half the film consists of a dramatized version of a novel that the protagonist is reading- and yet totally does. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams are both great in this movie but Michael Shannon and a barely recognizable Aaron Taylor Johnson steal all of the scenes that they are in. I don’t think a lot of people saw this one, which is a shame because I expect that we’ll be talking about it for a while.
7. The Invitation
If you were to approach The Invitation without looking at its thematic subtext, you would likely come away happy from the incredibly gripping thriller that you just watched. It just so happens that the film is also a unique look at the way that socialization affects grief in modern society. The best movies are the ones that grab you on the first watch but that get better and better the more that you think about them. The Invitation is just such a film and I can only hope that it gets director Karen Kusama the attention that she has deserved since the underrated Jennifer’s Body was released in 2009.
6. The Witch
The Witch does something that many horror movies fail to do. Namely, it relies entirely on the craft of the filmmakers for its horror. There isn’t a single “jump scare” in the film, which is pretty remarkable. Anyone can scare you by unexpectedly shouting in your ear really loudly. It takes a true mastery of the form to frighten an audience with only atmosphere and ambience. There are more reasons to love The Witch than just its palpable atmosphere: it has great child actors, it strives for authenticity in its depiction of witch hysteria and it contains one of the most awesome cinematic depictions of the devil that I have ever had the good fortune to witness. The Witch is director Robert Eggers’ debut feature and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I just published a fairly lengthy essay about Denzel Washington’s superb adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. So, it should come as no surprise that the film is easily one of my favorites of the year. The quality of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis performances could not possibly be overstated. On top of that, Fences offers a poignant story about accepting everything that made you who you are, even the ugly things. In a market saturated with movies in which the world is constantly going to be destroyed by some supervillain or another, Fences proves that there is no substitute for good drama when it comes to making involving, meaningful works of art.
I usually try to avoid statements like “X is the Y of this generation” because they can be reductive. However, I have no problem saying that Moonlight is a worthy companion of Ang Lee’s nearly perfect film Brokeback Mountain. Moonlight does what Brokeback did so well and puts a magnifying glass on a very specific kind of experience. In this film’s case, it is the experience of a gay, black man and his struggle to accept and understand his own identity. Obviously, I am not the person to verify whether or not the film is authentic in this depiction but I can say that it is profoundly moving and it reads to me as insightful. This might not have been my favorite movie of the year but it definitely merits the most attention.
3. Amanda Knox
How come I heard about Making a Murderer for months after its release but nobody is talking about this incredible true crime documentary? Amanda Knox cogently argues for the innocence of its subject, going through the evidence piece by piece and revealing the dubious police work involved in her investigation. Beyond that, the film also takes a hard look at the misogyny that informed the public’s bias against Knox and holds the media accountable for its pandering to a public that wanted to see a woman in prison for no compelling reason. I loved this movie but more than anything, its willingness to look at Amanda Knox as a woman rather than a character in a misogynistic media narrative really won me over.
2. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is a film that tactically avoids catharsis. The film explores grief in a mature, understated way that eschews many movie cliches in its depiction of a man grieving his brother and forming a relationship with his estranged nephew. As such, I feel a lot of people will be disappointing by the film because they want Lee (Casey Affleck) and Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to become surrogate father and son, fixing all of each other’s flaws in the process. Manchester By the Sea is simply not that film. What it is instead is a powerful look at how memories and grief pervade over a man who is dealing with unimaginable trauma.
I thought of a poignant scene from Arrival months after I saw it, while I was doing some shopping at the mall, and I nearly came to tears. Nothing could have prepared me for how much I love Arrival. The film is at once a tear jerking piece of human drama, a high-minded science fiction film that deals with my favorite subject matter (death and how we should feel about it) and the home of one of the greatest plot twists since The Sixth Sense. I had only ever seen Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners before this film (which is excellent) but Arrival was the movie that pushed me to seek out his entire filmography.
So, these are some of the films that I loved this year. I would happily spend more time talking about my top 15, 20 or 50 movies of 2016 but the internet seems to have arbitrarily decided that 10 movies are enough to read about at one time. So, let’s hope I get to do another one of these before the United States’ lunatic clown President brings about the downfall of western society.