Leave the cannoli, take the movies

Review Blog

Top 10 - 2016

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 16, 2017 at 10:40 PM

When I reflect on the best films of 2016, I return to moods, sensations, and melodies that, taken as gestalt, seem to evoke the entire spectrum of human feeling. I remember the almost unbearably overwhelming catharsis of a son seeing his mother for the first time in 25 years after he went missing as a boy; the indignation of a free-thinking student forced to defend himself from the patronizing harangue of a despotic dean; the excruciating awkwardness but even greater ecstasy of a birthday celebration literally stripped naked, a nightmare scenario transformed into a gesture of anything-goes abandon; the pervasive air of dread, disorientation, and grief experienced by a woman and a country following a national tragedy; the boundless exhilaration of a ragtag group of kids on the road pumped up by communal sing-a-long; the mournfulness, inquisitiveness, and compassion of a woman who sees the world through a camera. Certainly any movie year produces a plethora of these indelible moments, but in a year that saw as much callousness toward our basic humanity as 2016 did, the feelings somehow resonated just a bit stronger.

It was noticeable, also, just how many of the year's greatest films were inextricably tied to music, whether they were actual musicals or dramatic films emboldened by unique, unpredictable, and exuberant incorporations of song. Many scenes are now emblazoned into the memory thanks to, among others, Rihanna's "We Found Love," Richard Harris's "Camelot," the SOS Band's "Take Your Time, Do it Right," and the most hysterical rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ever recorded. 2016 was a rollercoaster of a year, mostly not in the good way. Its best films, however, are reminders of the full register of humanity we cannot stand to ignore.

One note up top: as always, tricky release dates have complicated my determinations of what I deem a 2016 film. To keep with consistency, I will continue to go by the year in which the film in question had its major premiere. Therefore, despite it showing up on several critics' lists this year (and receiving an Oscar nomination!), I am considering Yorgos Lanthimos's brilliant The Lobster as a 2015 release. If this were not the case, it would be on my list - very high on it, in fact.

On to the Top 10:

10. Lion / Garth Davis

Based on a true story whose outcome is so improbable - a lost child in India adopted by Australian parents uses Google Earth 25 years later to successfully locate the home village he could barely remember and reunite with his mother who is still living there - Lion registers, despite its historical veracity, as the fantasy it really is. It is thus ideally made for the cinema, not only providing the kind of cathartic, against-all-odds resolution that has such capacity to satisfy our desire for closure, but thematizing it in a story that gives us the poignant shape of a narrative and an actual journey come full circle. Davis's nimble handling of Luke Davies's bifurcated structure reinforces this multiple sense of closure, movingly surfacing the memories of its first half, in which young Saroo is played by the revelatory Sunny Pawar, in the second, where Dev Patel pellucidly conveys the anguish and implacable drive of a man seized by the need to reconnect with his past and cultural identity. As his adopted mother, Nicole Kidman colors a portrait of motherhood equally embattled yet unshakable in her devotion. They contribute mightily to the film's cumulative emotional impact, which is difficult to overstate.

9. Everybody Wants Some!! / Richard Linklater

One of two blissful 2016 films that casually and unsentimentally espouses contentment as a way of life (you'll find the other further up the list), Everybody Wants Some!! is a rare kind of pleasure: a film interested in people who enjoy living, and realize it. Linklater has never been a conventional dramatist, but Everybody Wants Some!!, perhaps even more than its avowed predecessor Dazed and Confused, is the director at his most easygoing and pleasingly ambling, energized not by conflict but by the unbridled spirit of a time of life - young adulthood - and the seemingly endless breadth of possibilities it affords. At the ebullient center of this is a superb ensemble, whose group dynamic is at once rollicking in a broadly comedic kind of way and scalpel-precise, even anthropological, in its playing out of homosocial male behavior in the frat environment. This is a group of guys glued together by physical prowess and gamesmanship, experimentation and jocularity, who embody what it's like to feel young, vital, and invincible. One might expect Linklater's cleverly employed ticking clock structure to count down to some putative end to their fun, but instead, true to life and affirming of it, it only signals the arrival of more present moments to be savored.

8. La La Land / Damien Chazelle

Yes, La La Land pays homage to the effervescent musicals of Golden Age Hollywood (as well as the candy-colored fantasias of Jacques Demy), but it neither looks nor feels particularly like them. Damien Chazelle's modern day musical is really an entity all its own, mixing and matching an array of cinematic idioms to produce a slyly postmodernist variation on some classic themes. We can talk all we want about how the film replicates the (mostly) lily-white fantasy world of classical Hollywood - this is obviously no mistake - but what deserves more comment is the film's ambivalent relationship to fantasy in general, and to the nostalgia it entails in particular. From its very beginning Chazelle is pushing the idealized polychromatic vision of the American musical up against a reality that can hardly support it: take note of all the times aggravating signifiers of contemporary life (traffic and blaring horns, cell phone ringtones, malfunctioning movie projectors) intrude upon and disrupt the romance of La La Land's self-aware "movie magic." Chazelle gets what it's like to be a struggling artist, particularly one trying to make it in an industry where the line between meaningful and meretricious is perilously thin, and it's unclear if anything you do will have any lasting value. As significant as its undeniable mirth, then, is La La Land's tension, moxie and passion in conflict with pragmatism and uncertainty. Chazelle's bittersweet epilogue indulges in one final blast of nostalgia to keep the flame burning, but its power is in its final suggestion that some fantasies ought to remain just that. Thankfully, the screen is a pretty good place for them.

7. Indignation / James Schamus

The centerpiece scene in Indignation, one of the most sensationally performed of the year, is a nearly 20-minute ideological showdown between a defiant, secular Jewish student from New Jersey (Logan Lerman) and the paternalistic dean of a small conservative college in Ohio (Tracy Letts). The power imbalance is such that even before a word is exchanged, the cards are stacked against our erudite protagonist; that the dean articulates his condescending, anti-Semitic charges against the student with such eloquence serves to make this emblematic scene of inescapable dogma all the more terrifying. Adapted from Philip Roth's novel, the whole of James Schamus's Indignation similarly bristles with such palpable angst. This is a quintessential portrait of 1950s America as soulless province of conformity, repression, and covert domestic barbarism, a time and place that only rewards those willing to comply with its prescriptive conditions. In other words, not ideal for Lerman's Marcus, nor for Sarah Gadon's elusive, sultry femme fatale Olivia, whose own stifled desires and sexual hangups open a pandora's box for the inexperienced young man. Schamus's elegant narrative build and perfectly smoldering rein on atmosphere keep the vice-like grip tightening around him. As everything that could possibly go wrong essentially does, Marcus's conviction and recusance feel, paradoxically, both increasingly foolish and laudable. It's a no-win situation in one of the most searing films about the perils of stubborness since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

6. Toni Erdmann / Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann makes it acutely evident just how lacking so many comedies are in the departments integral to generating, and sustaining, humor: rhythm, timing, suspense, the element of surprise. It is not merely that the film is the most uproarious of 2016, it is that it exemplifies better than any in recent memory how comedy develops and accrues, and even further, why it works so extraordinarily well when it’s working. At nearly three hours, the film on one level operates as a kind of anatomy of a particular film comedy process, using its expansive runtime to offer a methodical demonstration of its comic logic. In this formulation, Ade allows us to see precisely how her situations build and her tone oscillates, how her actors incrementally add and combine inflections of embarrassment, bemusement, pain, longing, and elation through their winching interactions. Nothing in the film ever stays one way for long: its progression is a masterclass in the escalation of incident, carrying a sustained comic momentum that never wavers even as individual episodes flit liberally between farce, pathos, and caustic absurdism. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek provide the exhilarating tête-à-tête that keeps this tonal mélange authentic and spontaneous. Pushing and pulling at one another, deceiving and dissembling, assaulting and relenting, their brilliant performances illustrate the history of a fraught father-daughter relationship that seemingly only humor, and the blithe, extravagant undermining of social etiquette, can ameliorate. Toni Erdmann is a comedy in that it’s genuinely hilarious, but it’s also about its own hilarity: a tribute to and exemplar of comedy as disarmament, liberation, and euphoria.

5. Hail, Caesar! / Joel and Ethan Coen

Just when you thought every possible interpretation of Hollywood on screen had been exhausted, Joel and Ethan Coen step in to offer a fresh perspective. In Hail, Caesar!, the hegemonic American film industry becomes the church in a parable of faith in crisis, its products - mass entertainments both dazzling and phony - its religion. The witty narrative of the film finds its thrust in how Eddie Mannix, a pious studio fixer tasked with managing the folderol of industry politics, is forced to question the value of his role and the validity of his beliefs in the institution he works for. Rarely has the "Dream Factory" felt as apt a title as it does here: in characteristically sardonic fashion, the Coens satirize the artifice and mendacity of an industry that manufactures fantasies on the backs of exploited - although lavishly paid - labor, with artistic and spiritual worth almost always eclipsed by the profit motive. But this is also an atypically sanguine Coens picture. Rather than unequivocally skewer Hollywood's callous capitalist ideology, their vision evinces a pointed ambivalence that also carries a reverence for its craft and capacity to delight, most apparent in their buoyant homages to genres of the studio system. Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Eirenreich as the dashing but guileless Hobie Doyle have a ball with these tributes, navigating with precision their lovingly mocking tone. An allegory laced with irony and acid, Hail, Caesar! ingeniously embeds a philosophical meditation inside of a farce - and argues they mean about the same.

4. Jackie / Pablo Larraín

Jackie offers a surfeit of entry points through which it can be approached, each contributing to its prismatic, multivalent texture. From one angle, it is a feminist refiguring of an iconic historical moment; from another, it is a psychological portrait of destabilizing grief; a commentary on the performance of politics and the porousness of "official" narratives; an existential horror in which the foundations of an individual, and the country she helped represent, are thrown into terrifying limbo; a Brechtian display that uses uncanny simulations to make us aware of all the forces that mediate history. Larraín's film belongs to that special sub-category of the "biopic" in which the very conventions of biographical storytelling and cinematic representation are systematically questioned, in the process rendering conscious the larger epistemological problems of how history is written and received. But this is not a mere academic exercise: Jackie is, underneath all intellectual concerns, a chilling and visceral evocation of an unfathomable nightmare, in which Natalie Portman's haunting, brittle embodiment of Jackie Kennedy and the masterly work of below-the-line artists send physical shockwaves. In concert, they articulate a turbulent American mood with expressionistic force, fashioning a (frighteningly) resonant portrait of American political upheaval that ripples through and beyond the White House's glorified domestic sphere. In 2016, Jackie takes on another shade as an uncomfortably recognizable reflection of identity profoundly upset.

3. American Honey / Andrea Arnold

American Honey is a long movie, its length conferring on the spectator a sense of the drift, ritual, and general repetition of experience its characters endure. But the last thing anyone could call it is listless. On the absolute contrary, Arnold’s film is an exuberant, larger-than-life rush of cinema, a full-bodied sensory submersion that celebrates the will and resilience of its disenfranchised youth even as it palpably laments the socioeconomic circumstances that have led to their status. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, shooting in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that intensifies the film’s raucous energy precisely by not being able to contain it, conjure a cascade of saturated images in sensuous shallow focus. Their subjects, though, are the film’s raison d'être: a panoply of young actors, most nonprofessional, each with their own distinct physiognomies and behaviors that bear the traces of their characters’ pasts. Each actor brings their character to startling life, and in each other’s company create American Honey’s most rapturous effect: the mobilized, indomitable spirit of the group. Employing music as the motor and the glue, Arnold profoundly conveys how the individual surrenders herself not just to the group, but to the group in song. Far from implying an insidious submission, however, she powerfully demonstrates the unifying strength of music and its role in absorbing, and channeling, the collective emotions of a tight-knit community. With anthemic gusto, Arnold and her young actors produce a wellspring of angst-bound-up-in-optimism that’s vivifying, and empathetic without condescending.

2. Paterson / Jim Jarmusch

The other distinguished 2016 film that makes cinematic a worldview of contentedness, Paterson is a Zen-like experience whose measured rhythms and droll, affectionate regard for life's mundane sights and sounds has the effect of renewing a viewer's perceptual attunement to the world. It is a poetic, philosophical palliative, a soothing ode to deriving inspiration from the quotidian that mixes the banal and the idiosyncratic, the local and the cosmic, in ways distinctly Jarmusch-ian but oriented toward more affirming ends. In the largely invariable weekly schedule of Adam Driver's titular character, the director illustrates a blue-collar, workaday lifestyle that's recursive and predictable but also rife with expressive possibilities. Paterson names both the bus-driver-cum-poet protagonist and the city he resides in, and as the film transpires, shrewdly accumulating visual and narrative information in endlessly rhyming patterns, it becomes clear that both have reciprocally informed one another, urban space and individual mutually emboldened by the mere fact of their peaceful coexistence. And although Jarmusch slyly has us inhabit Paterson's subjectivity throughout (this is probably the most loving depiction of solipsism ever committed to film), he sketches a much more generously inclusive social portrait that reveals a whole diverse populace galvanized by creative energy they both produce and absorb. Hilarious, wise, soulful, Paterson encourages an active receptivity to and participation in life even, or especially when, it seems most routine.

1. Cameraperson / Kirsten Johnson

The title of Kirsten Johnson's humane, transcendent documentary memoir may refer to her profession, but its best and truest meaning exists beyond that literal denotation. Instead, the compound word points to a veritable melding of human and machine consciousness, an intimate, corporeal relationship between body and camera that Johnson, throughout her film in a myriad of thought-provoking ways, suggests to be one of the most significant and symbiotic partnerships we have the privilege of engaging in. Every shot and every moment in Cameraperson, all from unused footage Johnson shot for various documentaries over her career, evince the fundamental inseparability of cinematographic apparatus and embodied human subject. Johnson proves that there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective or a recording of subjects divorced from human presence: marshalling our attention, transfixingly, toward aspects of framing, lighting, and cutting, she reifies how images are made and read only through processes of human mediation. And although Johnson only appears briefly on screen once, Cameraperson is among the most personal and powerful of all cinematic autobiographies. It shows not only a woman's unique work, passion, memory, and life inscribed in the corpus of the images she's produced, but shows those images as constitutive, an archive and body all their own with the capacity to touch and transform. Although on the most basic level a superior interrogation of filmmaking practice and ethics, Cameraperson finds its greatest import as an example of cinema as our foremost conduit for communication, expression, and empathy.

And the magnificent runners-up:

THE FITS, by Anna Rose Holmer, a dazzling and assured debut feature that celebrates young female identity and agency blossoming through dance. At just over 70 minutes, an economical and evocative miniature with major power.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, by Whit Stillman, an exceedingly witty Jane Austen adaptation with a blisteringly acerbic bite. Silly, caustic, brusque, and as whip-smart as the best screwball comedies.

LITTLE MEN, by Ira Sachs, a beautifully sensitive child's-eye view of vexing adult conflicts that refuses to judge the positions of any of its parties. As the boys whose friendship is both forged and dissolved under their parents' contentious interaction, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are extraordinary finds.

Categories: Yearly Top 10s

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