Best of the 2010s: My Favorite Films of 2016

My Life as a Zucchini (Directed by Claude Barras)

From my review: Director Barras shows us the sorrow of these children and their instinct to be defensive when meeting new people. Simon could easily be framed as the bully trope as soon as he’s introduced. However, there’s an intent to develop him, and he gives up on his act about a day into Zucchini’s arrival. They swap “war stories,” Simon acting as though his background of parents who were drug abusers wasn’t a big deal. Simon casually remarks about himself and the other children that “there’s nobody left to love us.” In the third act, we see how much it pains Simon to lose friends and how standoffish he becomes. Thankfully, Zucchini is aware of what’s going on beneath Simon’s behavior and ensures his friend that he loves him.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Directed by Taika Waititi)

From my review: Wilderpeople is a film of many techniques and themes, and it could have easily fallen apart trying to carry so much weight. Miraculously, it balances all of these elements and presents a story that is both rife with pathos but never maudlin. There are sweeping epic helicopter shots of characters traversing the wild, yet the movie maintains a very intimate, independent tone. Characters are absolutely silly and absurd, but we never lose sight of the humanity the film is in touch with. In many ways, Wilderpeople feels like a movie you would have stumbled across in the 1980s, an emotional and smart cult classic that would grow in popularity year after year.

The Transfiguration (Directed by Michael O’Shea)

From my review: From scene one, The Transfiguration sets its morose, bleak tone and does not let up. I am a sucker for well-made low budget horror films, especially films that aren’t using gore as a crutch and develop their characters. Writer-director O’Shea spends most of his movie with Milo and Sophie, strengthening their relationship and letting our protagonist’s sense of dread and conflict build. Actor Eric Ruffin plays Milo with perfection, the character is incredibly stoic, implied that this is a result of trauma and that adds to both the depth of his performance and the sense of his otherworldliness. He’s supported by Chloe Levine as Sophie who conveys the right amount of young, teenage girl without losing honesty, she feels like a real human rather than a caricature of a teenager.

Toni Erdmann (Directed by Maren Ade)

From my review: Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin at some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.

American Honey (Directed by Andrea Arnold)

From my review: Viewers could become frustrated with the aimless quality of American Honey, and I can understand that. However, this wanderlust and lack of a stringent series of plot beats are what makes the film so hypnotic. We feel that lack of forward momentum that these young people are experiencing, however, there is energy exploding all over the screen just without any target in mind. Star is asked by a fatherly truck driver at one point what her dream is and she replies that no one has ever asked her that question. Later she inquires the same of Jake, and he responds as she did. No one has sought out what these young people want, they were born into a system built by other people and then expected to follow it. We can see in our economy and social structures how the world of 30-40 years ago is not what young people today have on their plate. The final scene of American Honey is a baptism of sorts, Star washing clean of all expectations and possibly beginning a new journey of her own making.

Silence (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

From my review: Scorsese delivers a film about faith, colonialism, and the way religion is twisted by political forces that does not come down on any side of the argument. He is devoted to presenting the full breadth of this argument, both the sympathetic and the abhorrent. For the first half of the picture, we are given a front row seat to the tortures the Japanese government inflicts on the priests and the believers. Then around the halfway mark, Rodrigues is granted an audience with the Inquisitor, and we start to see the way the Japanese are viewing missions work. A parable is told about a king with four warring wives who are all seeking his attention, and in the process, they destroy his palace. The Inquisitor explains that the wives are England, France, Portugal, and Holland, and the king is Japan. To the Japanse government, Christianity is part of an advance effort to destabilize their hold on the populace, shifting the allegiance of the people to the European faith which in turn would make the nation open to further European colonialism.

A Dark Song (Directed by Liam Gavin)

From my review: A Dark Song could never work with young protagonists. Sophie’s weathered and continuously angry demeanor is something that comes with the bitterness of life viewed as unfair. At one point in the ritual, Joseph explains that she must go through a cleansing of forgiveness, and Sophie is adamant that she doesn’t forgive anyone. To compensate, Joseph cuts his arm and drains his blood into a glass for her to consume. There is the ever-present question of “Is this an actual part of the ritual?” but more importantly is the anguished guile with which Sophie guzzles down the congealing blood. She is disgusted at the act, but even more repulsed by the action of forgiving people in her past who transgressed against her. Where A Dark Song goes and how it concludes genuinely shocked me. I suspect, most audiences are not going to be able to figure out how Sophie’s story will end. The film is an incredibly slow burn, and would never do well in a wide release situation where audiences have become so used and expectant of repetitive structures and themes.

I Am Not a Serial Killer (Directed by Billy O’Brien)

From my review: I did not expect what I got from this film. I knew going in from the atmospheric trailers that it was going to be moody and dark. There is plenty of gore due to the mortuary being a key location. We never see the victims’ faces until more than halfway through the film. In many ways, this is from the perspective of Cleaver. He sees the bodies as simply hunks of meat at the beginning, parts of a mystery he wants to uncover. When the victims become people he personally knows the weight of the crimes set in.

Despite this darkness pervading the film, there is humor and softer moments. Cleaver frequently visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Neblin. Instead of Cleaver lying on a couch and unloading his feelings, the two meet in outdoor locations having sessions in a park or on a rooftop while birdwatching. The doctor comes across a very human and truly working to show empathy to the young man while attempting to stoke the fires of empathy in his patient. The family dynamics between Cleaver, his mother, aunt, and older sister feel very genuine with lots of tension around the holidays that the film knows it doesn’t have to get expository about.

Nocturnal Animals (Directed by Tom Ford)

From my review: Because Ford has come from the world of fashion the most striking aspects of the film are its visuals. This is a gorgeous looking picture, and he manages to establish visual continuity that helps the audience easily distinguish between the three layers of the story […] When you step back and examine the full sweep of Nocturnal Animals the whole picture is clear: This is a revenge story. The final scene confirms that and there isn’t much to question when the film ends. For an attentive viewer, it is evident what Edward is doing to his ex-wife in the novel. One particular scene, taking place near the middle of the movie where we are shown a piece of art in Susan’s gallery came across as hitting the nail on the head big time.

Lady Macbeth (Directed by William Oldroyd)

From my review: The lack of background on Katherine is to the benefit of the story. The audience doesn’t have a detailed history given to understand her, so we’re in the perspective of the house staff. We know something, but our experience with her is only in this position of the lady of the house. There is honest sympathy to be had for the protagonist even from the viewpoint of the staff as the men verbally abuse her. Her only justification for what she does to Anna and Sebastian is out of pure narcissistic survival. Would we do anything differently in such an oppressed position? Survival is everything in such a brutal time. The film doesn’t try to make its judgment, presents the story, and wants the audience to wrestle with it.

Raw (Directed by Julia Ducournau)

From my review: Ducournau has a profound understanding of pacing in horror and how the way information is delivered to the audience is crucial to conveying the right tone. For example, the film opens on a very wide shot of a rural road. After a few beats of silence, a figure jumps out into the road forcing a car off and crashing into a tree. The figure calmly walks over to the car, and we cut to the title card. It’s not until the midway point that we revisit this incident, and its significance is enormous. The way an artist sets the table in horror is typically more important than the actual payoff or scare.

The Handmaiden (Directed by Park Chan-wook)

From my review: The Handmaiden is a very difficult film to talk about without giving away secrets. The film borrows heavily from the tone of classic Gothic literature (Rebecca, Jane Eyre) but also feels indebted to Noir like Double Indemnity. The estate itself is a fusion of Japanese and English architecture (the film is based on a British novel). Beyond the story is a commentary on the complicated history between Japan and Korea. Hideko’s Uncle is a Korean who desperately wishes to be Japanese. So much so he married a Japanese noblewoman and took her family name over his. He comments at one point that everything about Korea is filth and he wants to wash it away. Moments like that elevate a film that could be a simple thriller to a piece of filmmaking that has something to say about its creator’s cultural history. This is a film that once you see it, you’ll have frames frozen in your mind for a long time after.

Paterson (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)

From my review: The film itself is structured like a poem, each day a refrain with variations. The morning often begins with Paterson waking without an alarm and glancing at his wristwatch on the nightstand. The minutes vary, but he seems attuned to the world, so he knows when to rise. His day ends with walking the dog and stopping by the bar to share fellowship with the bartender and its patrons. I can’t express how perfect this movie feels as you watch it. The premise sounds like something that would induce sleep, but the central character and his supporting cast are so genuine and compelling that I felt energized at the film’s conclusion.

Poetry has become an oft-ignored art in recent times, likely because American society values a certain breakneck burnout pace to life. Good poetry does not arise from that sort of primordial ooze; instead, it is born out of contemplation and allowed to grow at its own pace. Poetry is also found in the unspectacular; it is the mundane made transcendent; it is the unexpected made obvious. Jarmusch understands this notion and builds his movie in that lazy, thoughtful way. There’s no act structure here; we observe Paterson observing, finding beauty in serendipitous moments. A young girl’s poem on rain lingering in his mind until he must share it with his wife.

Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)

From my review: I had to fight back the tears at two moments in this film. The final scene between Chiron and Juan is profoundly painful and the final scene between Chiron and Kevin is a release of emotions and honesty. The element of the film that I want to praise director Jenkins the most for was the refusal to have a villain. No one is the villain, but many people make horrible choices that hurt people. However, Jenkins chooses to reveal layers to these characters that make a reductive judgment of good/evil near impossible. Juan is a strong example of this, and my overall favorite character in the film. He is responsible for crack cocaine being in the neighborhood and this business ends up having a direct adverse effect on Chiron. Juan is unaware at first and wants to be a father figure to this kid he sees in need of one. Chiron’s mother rightly suspects Juan is attempting to pull her child into the drug trade. But we learn more about her own connection to Juan and that becomes more complicated. Juan is not a villain but he is responsible for great harm in the community. The scene where he comes to this realization and then also has to admit it to young Chiron is heart-rending. This really highlights the idea that as often as we think we are the “hero” in our own story, we can so easily be the “villain” in another’s.

Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

From my review: With this film, I can say that Villeneuve has cemented himself as one of my favorite directors of all time and I believe is on his way to becoming one of the best in the art form. I don’t think we have seen his “great film” yet, but we are incredibly close and I’m excited. There is no bombast in his style. While Kubrick was very much a visual minimalist he could become explosive in his work, not that it was a bad thing and he most certainly earned it. Christopher Nolan is much more in line with Kubrick’s sensibilities, frigid emotionally but very complex in regards to ideas and concepts. Villeneuve is also working on complex ideas but has a more delicate touch and can bring the human emotional experience into his work without feeling maudlin. He is able to achieve a sort of ambient emotional tone. You feel the emotion of the character without verbalization. Performances are brought out of his actors that convey raw reactions yet filtered through honest human behavior.

Every element of Arrival’s production is at the highest levels. Screenwriter Eric Heisser kept the key pieces of Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” and added the right level of personal intimacy and changes that a film version of that piece needed. Jóhann Jóhannsson, a collaborator with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario, delivers a score that evokes all the profound sense of otherworldliness the visitors should have. The moment Louise arrives at the ship and first ventures inside is one of the most flawlessly executed sequences I’ve seen in a film all year. Johanssen’s music, the textured production design of Patrice Vermette, and the cinematography of Bradford Young coalesce into a profoundly visceral and eerie experience.

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