Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2016

Suicide Squad, a film which will definitely not be appearing on this list
While 2016 was probably the worst year for mainstream cinema in ages, with a dearth of good, or even passable blockbusters to justify the big-budget model (and certainly nothing on par with Mad Max: Fury Road), it ended strongly thanks to a bumper crop of award season contenders. Even before that, 2016 reaffirmed my belief that every year is a good year for film if you're willing to look hard enough, and the ever increasing variety of distribution options available means that it's easier than ever to sample the best films any given year has to offer, even if you can't see many of them in a theatre.

Since it was, in my estimation, a really good year, I've expanded my usual top 20 to a top 25. As with any list, I'm already unhappy with it, and if you'd like to see what movies just missed out (and which might have been included if I had put this list together on another day) then you can see the full rankings on Letterboxd.

Now, let's begin.

25. De Palma (dirs. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

You need a fascinating subject to sustain a feature-length conversation and Brian De Palma is, among other things, a fascinating guy. Covering the entirety of his career from his early days in New York’s avant-garde film scene, through his commercial peak in the ‘70s and ‘80s, right up to his decades long exile from Hollywood, Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary is a fast-moving jaunt through an uneven but irrepressible body of work. At the centre of it all is De Palma, who offers the kind of insights and anecdotes that every interviewer dreams of getting, but only occasionally stumbles upon. While it doesn’t dig in to every film to the extent that it does Carrie or The Untouchables, it offers enough of a taste to make you want to seek out the ones that it merely glances at.

24. Tower (dir. Keith Maitland)

In a strong year for documentaries, Tower proved to be one of the best and most distinctive thanks to two smart choices. The first is a matter of style: in recounting the story of Charles Whitman's shooting spree from the tower of the University of Texas in Austin, the first mass shooting in modern American history, Maitland uses rotoscope animation (alongside interviews and some archive footage) to recreate the events of August 1, 1966 in a way which is visually compelling but not as tawdry or exploitative as live-action would have been. The second is a matter of focus: little to no time is spent on the man who killed nineteen people and injured thirty-two more. Instead, Maitland lets the survivors recount what happened to them in vivid, often heart-wrenching detail, allowing them to tell their stories of what happened on that day and what happened next.

23. Queen of Katwe (dir. Mira Nair)

A crowdpleaser that failed to find a crowd, Nair's real-life story of a Ugandan chess prodigy (Madina Nalwanga) and the tension that arises between her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and her teacher (David Oyelewo) over her success deserved to be a much bigger success than it was. It's a beautifully observed drama, a tense sports movie, and a non-exploitative look at extreme poverty that displays much more grit and honesty than you would expect of a glossy Disney production. At the same time, it was one of the  most visually sumptuous mainstream releases of the year, with Nair finding beauty and joy amid deprivation.

22. Kate Plays Christine (dir. Robert Greene)

A playful metatextual documentary about performance and the very concept of non-fiction filmmaking, Greene’s followup to Actress begins as a detail-orientated study of acting as a profession and an artform. As it follows actress Kate Lyn Shiel as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbock, a Florida news anchor who committed suicide on live television in 1974, we see all the work and research that goes into playing a real person, from studying tapes and newspaper archives to learning about firearms. But it’s complicated by the fact that, in a Charlie Kaufman-worthy twist, the film she’s preparing for does not actually exist (even though, weirdly, there was a wholly separate movie about Christine Chubbock made this year). The film bounces between these different layers of fiction, ultimately landing on a heavy-handed point about voyeurism which doesn’t detract from what a fascinating, at times unnerving journey the film takes to reach its natural endpoint.

21. Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)

After the critical and commercial success of 2012's Mud, I had high hopes that Jeff Nichols' followup would prove to be his Looper; a lean, sharp sci-fi movie that ushered him into the big leagues. While that situation didn't exactly play out at the box office, and Nichols' other 2016 film Loving is getting a lot more attention, Midnight Special was another great addition to Nichols' oeuvre. A supernatural chase film that owed a debt to Escape to Witch Mountain and Starman, it's a relentlessly tense story of a father (Nichols regular and all-round mensch Michael Shannon) trying to protect his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from the U.S. Government and a mysterious cult, both of whom are interested in the strange powers that he exhibits. In a year in which Stranger Things traded on nostalgia and became a cultural touchstone, it's a shame that this soulful throwback to '80s sci-fi went more or less ignored.

20. The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Since breaking through with A Separation a few years ago, Farhadi has become firmly established as one the world's great dramatists. His elegant tales of ordinary Iranians are masterclasses in structure and tension, and an always timely reminder that the most devastating stories can unfold on the smallest and most intimate scale. In this instance, he explores what happens when a series of misunderstandings sends a teacher (Shahab Hosseini) on an ill-advised quest for revenge after his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) is attacked in their home. Broken up by glimpses of their performance in a production of Death of a Salesman, the film functions as a nuanced and delicate exploration of trauma and masculinity.

19. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dirs. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone)

Hands down the funniest film I saw all year. A meticulously crafted mockumentary that both mocks and adores the excesses of its target, pop superstar Conner4Real, played by Andy Samberg. Powered by some hilarious Lonely Island songs and an ensemble comprising some of the finest, funniest actors currently working, Popstar is one of the most densely packed and heartfelt comedies in years.

18. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

Saulnier’s follow-up to his blackly funny revenge thriller Blue Ruin was a slicker offering, complete with big name stars and a higher budget, but it lost none of its predecessor’s knack for delivering punishing violence. Riffing on siege movies like Assault on Precinct 13, the film trapped a punk band in the green room of a club occupied by neo-Nazis. Their already dire situation is made worse by the fact that they witnessed a murder being committed by one of the Nazis, the Nazis need to cover it up, and there’s no way out that doesn’t involve a lot of death. Saulnier alternates between long stretches of planning, brief bursts of chaos, and exquisitely elongated, desperate battles in which characters fight tooth and nail for their lives. It’s a brutal movie whose darkness is both alleviated and made much worse by the performances of its young cast, including Alia Shawkat and the late Anton Yelchin. As a group of funny, charismatic young people in a bad spot, they manage to make light of what’s going on, which in turns makes every death and dismemberment all the harder to watch.

17. Miss Stevens (dir. Julia Hart)

Reminiscent of some of Tom McCarthy’s work, in that it takes a premise which could have been cloying or saccharine and turns it into something quietly brilliant, Hart’s film about a teacher (Lily Rabe) who takes three of her students to a drama competition for the weekend is an assured and beautiful film about the difficulty that comes with being empathetic and caring, how doing the right thing can often be painful, and carrying on when everything seems broken. It’s also really funny, and not in the “has a few jokes, so let’s call it a dramedy" way, but because it has well-written, well-acted characters who are placed in awkward and difficult situations, and want to make themselves feel better so they say funny things. 

16. American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)

An expansion of the work Arnold did in her great 2009 film Fish Tank, American Honey is another coming of age story in which a young woman played by a non-actor (Sasha Lane here, Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) gets involved with an older man played by a more well-known actor (Shia LaBeouf as opposed to Michael Fassbender). Yet while Fish Tank was confined to the immediate area surrounding a housing estate, American Honey takes the Midwest as its canvas as Star (Lane) and Jake (LaBeouf) travel hundreds of miles to sell magazines as part of a scam orchestrated by their boss, Krystal (Riley Keough). The intense intimacy of Robbie Ryan's cinematography, which captures the action in natural light, conveys the joy and confusion of being young and untethered better than any film I've seen in recent memory, and the tension between the cast's vibrancy and Arnold's worldliness is palpable throughout. It's indicative of the amorphous, experiential quality of the film that it is able to use Rihanna's "We Found Love" as both an ironic comment on the superficiality of pop music and to soundtrack a moment of genuine human connection.

15. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

In stark contrast to Lonergan’s last film, Margaret, an at times overwhelmingly emotional movie that was dumped and ignored by its studio, Manchester by the Sea is a bleakly austere movie that’s made a little money and is a frontrunner for at least a few Oscars. Like all of his directorial efforts, Lonergan’s film is a richly textured study of grief and trauma, one which is played out through the performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges as an uncle/nephew pairing of emotionally guarded New Englanders coming to term with a sudden death in their family. It’s a fairly long film made up of small, indelibly painful moments, such as the way in which Hedges, having been convinced that he should see the body of his father (played by Kyle Chandler in flashbacks) walks into the morgue then immediately walks out again, or the way that Affleck does everything he can to avoid talking about the various deaths that have marked his life. There are the requisite big, emotional scenes - including a powerhouse monologue from Michelle Williams as Affleck’s ex-wife - but for the most part it’s a film about the ways in which grief can be all-encompassing, not because of the big, unavoidable absences, but because of the little, surprising ones.

14. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Helmer)

The Fits is an easy film to describe, but almost impossible to explain. At its core, it's a movie about a tomboy (Royalty Hightower) who decides to join a dance troupe who train at the Ohio gym where she and her older brother usually work out together. Her efforts to fit in are complicated when members of the group start experiencing strange seizures which don't seem to have any clear cause. On the most basic level, it's a dance film and a horror film, except the "horror" is more the existential dread of growing up and trying to fit in, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. The fits themselves are hard to watch and terrify the characters who witness them, but they also have the ecstatic quality associated with religious mania. Its 72 minute runtime means that the film doesn’t have time to get bogged down in specifics, which leaves plenty of gaps in a movie that invites multiple interpretations and deep consideration.

13. Lemonade (dirs. Beyoncé et al.)

The "visual album" tag would make it easy to dismiss Lemonade as a collection of music videos intended to promote an album. To do so would do a great disservice to the work of those involved, as well to Beyoncé's over-arching vision as the author of the work. Lemonade is a collection of disparate chapters, connected together by poems by Somali poet Warsan Shire, that combine to form an oblique, but unmistakable story of a woman's pain over a betrayal and the various stages she experiences on the way to some form of self-discovering and grace. More than that, it's a celebration of black culture, African culture, and black women in particular, with a dizzying array of influences that are still being digested and picked over months after the film debuted on HBO.

12. Moana (dirs. Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams)

Possibly the best film to come out since John Lasseter oversaw an overhaul of Disney's feature animation division, Moana's a gorgeous, hopeful and exhilarating addition to the company's illustrious canon. The songs are fantastic, the voiceover performances are some of the best I've heard, and the whole thing is a rip-roaring adventure which adds to, yet subverts the Disney Princess genre in ways that are fun for longstanding fans, while offering a new, potentially exciting path for the company to pursue in the years ahead.

11. Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson)

A film which sounds great in the abstract and is even better in practice, Cameraperson is a visual memoir compiled from offcuts and outtakes from the many documentaries that Kirsten Johnson has worked on over the years. On one level, it's a great deconstruction of how documentaries are made, with audio of Johnson and various directors discussing how to set up establishing shots serving as a reminder that documentaries are as constructed as narrative features. Yet mixed in with clips from heavy hitters like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War, and Citizenfour are snippets of Johnson's own home movies, including heart-wrenching glimpses of her mother suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer's. Their inclusion blurs the lines between the personal and the professional, suggesting that there is little divide between a life spent documenting the beauty and violence of the world, and capturing quiet moments with her family.

10. The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama)

A great, disquieting thriller that makes the most of its limited location, great cast, and sense of impending doom to create an unbearable air of claustrophobia and suspicion. It's best to know as little about it as possible when going in since most of the fun comes from seeing the ways in which Kusama is able to pull the rug out from under her characters, and the audience, through many acts of subtle misdirection. It also has one of the very best endings to a film I saw this year.

9. The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)

There were films that made me laugh more than The Edge of Seventeen did, and there were films that affected me more emotionally, but there were none that I related to more painfully. It's the best representation of being an awkward teenager I've ever seen. Hailee Steinfeld gives a phenomenal performance as a young woman whose world unravels when her brother and best friend start dating, which in turn exacerbates all the other relationships in her life. It's a movie which goes for big laughs and big emotions because everything just feels bigger when you're a teenager, but it never exaggerates so much that it falls into caricature. Like Say Anything... or the best of John Hughes' oeuvre, it magnifies the concerns of teenage life just enough that they can carry a feature film, but not so much that they stop being recognisably human. It's one of the best teen movies in years, possibly ever.

8. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

The most sparkling and effervescent comedy of the year. Whit Stillman's archness is perfectly suited to the world of Jane Austen, and Kate Beckinsale seems to relish the chance to dig into some cutting, precise dialogue as she manoeuvres through and manipulates members of high society, all in aid of providing a better future for a daughter who she doesn't even seem to like that much. Although Beckinsale is the undisputed star, giving one of her best performances is years, special mention should be made of Tom Bennett, who plays her most idiotic suitor and gets one of the funniest scenes of the year. I'll never look at peas the same way again.

7. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Adapted from three short stories by Maile Meloy, Reichardt's seventh feature is, like many of her previous films, a tender look at life in the parts of America that tend to get forgotten about by people who make movies. In this instance, the stories all unfold in Montana, and focus on three women - Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone - as they deal with three very different relationships. Dern plays a lawyer whose client (Jared Harris) dismisses her advice then takes extreme action after discovering something about his case; Williams tries to get sandstone from an old man (René Auberjonois) to help build a new house; Gladstone plays a rancher who develops a friendship with a lawyer teaching a night school class (Kristen Stewart). All three stories are wonderful, Raymond Carver-like tragicomic playlets about people trying to live their lives, and Reichardt is a master of conveying the ways in which everyday life can be crushing and depressing, even though her movies are not.

6. I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)

Based on an incomplete novel by James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro manages to provide both a rundown of who Baldwin was and why he remains one of the most scintillating intellectual lights of the Civil Rights Movement, but also ably and thrillingly illustrates his philosophy. As is only fitting for a captivating speaker and a beautiful writer, the film allows Baldwin to speak for himself, both through archive footage and extracts read by Samuel L. Jackson, which allows Peck to shape the film as a posthumous commentary on race in America from someone who knew and understood the face of racism in his lifetime, and would have little trouble recognising it today.

5. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

This is the most surprising inclusion on this list because I am not a fan of the work of Denis Villeneuve: I hated Sicario, tolerated Enemy, and I'm still angry at Prisoners. I didn't have high hopes for his latest film, even though the reviews were good (because they're always good and they're always wrong) and the premise - aliens appear on Earth and scientists try to figure out what they want - is completely in my wheelhouse. It was only after much prodding from my podcast co-host Matt, who loved the film and wanted to talk about it on our end-of-year episode, that I overcame my skepticism and went to see Arrival.

I found the first hour really intricate and engaging, as Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner make tentative progress talking to creatures whose language doesn't remotely resemble human speech. It played with a cerebral brand of sci-fi that rarely gets given a big budget, so delighted me as someone who had gotten used to the idea that smart science fiction would forever be confined to low-budget indies. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, the story took a turn which I had not anticipated, and which delivered such an emotional gut-punch that I found myself audibly gasping and fighting back tears for five minutes. The marriage between Villeneuve's stark visuals and Eric Heisserer's intricate screenplay (adapted from a story by Ted Chiang) creates something which is emotionally satisfying (or devastating) even as it deals with the minutiae of linguistical theory. Of the two female-led science fiction films featuring Forest Whittaker and squid monsters that came out in 2016, Arrival was easily the best.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight)

The fourth and best film from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation company who previously produced such delights as Coraline and ParaNorman, was one of the most thrilling adventures of the year. In telling the story of a young boy who has the power to alter the world around him by playing music, it created a beautiful animated world of sea monsters, dragons and samurai, all of whom ultimately help him cope with death and trauma. Like all of Laika's films, Kubo balances heavy subject matter with ebullient fantasy, and almost as if to maintain that balance, the fantasy became even more ambitious and awe-inspiring as the material got sadder and darker. The end result of which was a poignant mix of breathless action, goofy comedy, and aching sadness.

3. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

Considering that The People v. O.J. Simpson came out at the start of the year and seemed to scratch the apparently still existent itch people have for stories about O.J. Simpson, it didn't seem like Edelman's documentary would have that much to add. With its more than eight hour running time, and a scope that encompassed hundreds of years, Made in America demonstrated that there was much, much more to be said about the O.J. Simpson trial, and how it reflected the society around it. Encompassing everything from the Great Migration to the Watts Riots, the institutional racism of the LAPD and the Rodney King verdict, not to mention O.J.'s football and acting career, Edelman creates a panoramic vision of racial tension in Los Angeles before he even gets to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Through providing so much deep background, the film shows how the O.J. trial came to exist at the centre of a unique nexus of race, gender and celebrity, and how it was the flashpoint of a conflict that had been going on for years. It makes for a thrilling, engrossing and exhausting work of history and storytelling.

2. 13th (dir. Ava DuVernay)

In her last film, Selma, Ava DuVerney chronicled the bravery and hard work of those involved in the Civil Rights struggle during the 1960s. 13th feels like an appropriate followup, since it's an urgent reminder that the work is not yet finished, and that civil rights are as endangered now as they have ever been. Taking its title and jumping off point from the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery except in the case of imprisonment, DuVernay compellingly argues that the white establishment in America used that loophole as a way to perpetuate the limits of slavery, which can be seen as a direct cause of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th and early 20th century, and more recent attempts to restrict voting rights for African-Americans. She also draws an unmistakable line between America's history of lynching and the unending spate of police involved shootings, and rhetoric of Donald Trump and the repressive actions of past administrations. In a year that saw plenty of films and TV shows about the black experience in America, 13th was the most passionate and necessary.

1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight has often been compared to Richard Linklater's Boyhood on account of how it follows the development of a single character from childhood to adulthood, but it's a misguided comparison, not least because of the vastly different ways in which the films were made. If anything, the film is closer to Linklater's Before trilogy, except instead of being spread over 18 years, it manages to pack all that longing and growth into less than two hours.

The film's episodic, triptych structure, in which each act focuses on a different period in the life of Chiron, a young, gay black man coming to terms with his sexuality, lends it a terrific emotional power. As each new actor takes over the role - with Alex Hibbert playing Chiron as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult - they create their own interpretation of this same man at different points in his life, while also building on the work of the actor who came before. Even though each actor has a different physicality, they all convey the same scared, wounded soul, and the magic of the film lies in being able to see some of the child Chiron in his adult self, particularly when he interacts with his abusive, drug-addicted mother (played brilliantly by Naomie Harris throughout).

The structure also helps make Moonlight a great film about different notions of identity. Each chapter takes its title from the names that Chiron goes by at different times in his life - "Little" as a child due to his small stature, "Chiron" as a teenager as he tries to redefined himself, "Black" as an adult, as he uses a name given to him by a boy he loved - and in so doing it asserts that we are all different people at different points in our lives, even though we occupy the same body. Its exploration of sexual identity, male identity, and black identity is effortless yet complex, with characters like Mahershala Ali's Juan, a drug dealer who takes a shine to "Little" Chiron and tries to help him out, embodying everything that the film does right by being allowed to be charming and likable, but also conflicted about what his role in Chiron's life should be, and what he can teach him about the world. 

Jenkins' script - adapted from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney - is marked by subtle gestures and half-formed thoughts. It's an intuitive work that leaves a lot unsaid, but provides enough information for the audience to figure out what must have happened in the long stretches of Chiron's life that we don't see, and while the jumps in time are sizable, his progression feels logical. It's also, in addition to being a great character study, a haunting and affecting romance, with shades of Wong Kar-Wai's best work. A work of rare beauty, empathy and grace.