Usually around this time, as best of the year lists and awards start to flow, we take a full look at the year in movies and realize that it was a pretty damn good year. Despite near-constant calls of the death of cinema and summer movie seasons that have become bigger and broader to a fault, dozens of films every year come to the forefront. And as you see our writers’ picks for their favorite films of the year, you’ll see just how diverse and deep 2016 ultimately was. From a nostalgic sing-along to strange metaphorical worlds, from historical texts of a terrifying pasts to rays of hope in a bleak future, these are our favorite films of 2016.
Immediately praised for its progressive handling of race and gender—which was answered by a necessary and justified critique of same—Disney’s Zootopia was also the best time I had at the movies this year. Humor in the animated films of other studios tend to rely on pratfalls for the kids and asides that go over their heads for the parents, but the trademark of John Lasseter’s work has been that the humor is fully integrated into the narrative. In Zootopia the jokes have subtle set-ups and reveal attributes of the characters, and thus, like the humor in Lasseter’s earlier work at Pixar, they hold up upon repeated viewing. But its main strength as a story comes from the fact that its two main characters don’t feel like simple conduits for the film’s message, but are believable characters. Instead of lecturing us, the film brings us to sympathize with these characters who have been shaped by the social pressures the film depicts. As a result, it doesn’t feel heavy handed, and it even tweaks the usual liberal-moral understanding of social prejudice—showing in a truly affecting moment that even well-meaning people [or rabbits, as it were], who are perhaps victims of social oppression themselves, can also perpetuate racism. Also, Shakira plays a pop-star gazelle named Gazelle.
In the dystopian world of The Lobster, single people have 45 days at a seaside resort to find a romantic partner before they are changed into an animal of their choice. Divorced bachelor Colin Farrell arrives with his newly transformed brother [now a dog] and begins a series of grueling “activities” to help him find this new partner, including performing daily routines with one hand tied behind his back and hunting single people in the nearby forest with tranquilizer darts in order to add more days onto his stay. What seems to be an absurd, bleak, and very funny film about relationships becomes an increasingly devastating metaphor for the absurdities people will subject themselves to in order to avoid ending up alone. By the end of the film [and that fantastically open-ended last scene], it becomes impossible not to wonder if the relationships we put so much stake into aren’t simply made of the social restrictions we allow ourselves to be subjected to. The existential revelation of the film shows us a truth beyond absurdity. What we’re left to wonder is not “how could a society become so twisted?” but rather, “are we really all that different now?”
It's hard to describe the genre of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Wikipedia calls it a “science fiction psychological thriller” which makes sense but is not usually my kind of movie. But the science fiction aspect, while it makes up the backbone of the narrative, is not really that present throughout the movie. The psychological thriller part definitely is, and John Goodman is brilliantly terrifying. It’s also fronted by a woman, which, granted, there is a history of female-led sci-fi films but this one feels different. Michelle isn’t over-sexualized for one thing, and throughout the whole movie I was expecting at least one conversation about re-populating the earth [bow-chicka-wow-wow] but it, refreshingly, didn’t happen. At first, I couldn’t decide if I liked the alien action at the end. But on a second watch-through, I think it’s brilliant. Obviously, this is a sister film to Cloverfield [which I hated], so there had to be an alien storyline, and that storyline brought it all together. It also gave Michelle her true calling: alien combat soldier. Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane, while perhaps not a masterpiece, is a really fun movie that brings some uniqueness to its genre. The performances are good, the writing is good, and the storyline and details are well-thought out.
It’s up for debate whether Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, seven-plus hours of documentary footage, qualifies as a film or a television show. It debuted to the public on ESPN as part of the network’s exceptional “30 for 30” series because of its length, but it also screened in theaters as one bladder-bursting block of film excellence. This debate obscures something important: However you classify it, this is the best piece of visual media in 2016. It takes a small piece of American history—one that everyone over the age of 20 remembers vividly—and contextualizes it with such thoughtfulness that it makes you rethink everything you thought you knew.
Not only do I think Moonlight is the best film of 2016, I think it’s easily the most important. A coming-of-age story unlike any other, it focuses on the secret inner life of Chiron, a black youth from the unstable home of a single mother as he comes to terms with his homosexuality over the course of his life. At every single turn director Barry Jenkins’s screenplay refuses to be predictable. It is wholly disinterested in the comfortable, familiar beats of other films and it refuses to ever shift the focus off of Chiron’s emotional journey despite surrounding violence and death. Nothing ever overshadows him. And as difficult as parts of this film are to watch, neither is it interested in punishing the audience or its lead character—expertly played by three different actors: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert. This is not another tragic coming-out story, a rarity for many LGBT films, but rarer still for those featuring people of color. And to top it all off, James Laxton’s cinematography is the most stunning I’ve seen since anything by Roger Deakins. Put this in the film canon ASAP.
My favorite film experience of 2016 was watching Embrace of the Serpent unfold, expand, twist and then circle back in on itself. Ciro Guerra’s film centers on parallel journeys down the Amazon. On the first trip, a botanist is searching for a cure to his fatal illness, the second trip follows his journal decades later. Both voyages are guided by Karamakate, a shaman and sole surviving member of his tribe. The movie frequently cuts between the two different eras to show the effects of colonization. Aided by the beautiful black-and-white photography, the entire experience is surreal and dreamlike. However, the artistry does not soften the film’s critique of history and the deleterious effect it had on the psychology of the native people. Karamakate guides the movie through events providing the context and history to the odd [and occasionally disturbing] encounters. The film draws favorable comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Fitzcaraldo, but Embrace of the Serpent inverts many elements of those films. Serpent is Karamakate’s film. It’s concerned with the lost myth and spirituality of the native tribes and not the foreign ideologies that will inevitably take over.
In a year that many are hailing as the grimmest in recent memory, I found relief at the movies. In fact, 2016 offered some of the best feel-good movies that I’ve seen in years. There were more times in 2016 where I left the theater feeling like a million bucks than in any year I can remember [although I’m not that old]. And at the very top of this list is Sing Street, director John Carney’s musical love letter to growing up in the 1980s. This movie combines a killer original soundtrack and wonderful performances with a booster shot of optimism and just the right amount of schmaltz. This recipe transmutes the story of outcast high school kids making music videos into pure joy. Months after I first watched this film, I’m still tapping my toes to its soundtrack. Sing Street is cinematic escapism at its best and in 2016, that’s just what I needed.
The first time I watched Park Chan-wook’s return to South Korea was on election night—needless to say, I was in a pretty fragile state of mind. Thankfully, The Handmaiden proved to be the perfect antidote. Based on a Welsh novel, the story of a poor criminal who is brought in to serve as a secret agent to help a charming trickster attempting to marry his way into the fortune of a beautiful but troubled heiress might seem like a strange direction for the auteur behind Oldboy and Stoker. Park’s adaptation, though, is perfectly heightened to suit his style, with just enough of his trademark weirdness. The Handmaiden hinges on a mid-film twist, revealing that the already complicated plot wasn’t as it seemed. This moment would serve as the shocking conclusion to most other films, but The Handmaiden is just getting started. The film doubles back to retell its plot from a whole new perspective, giving new dimensions to its characters while filling in the traumatic backstory of its new narrator. Like most of Park’s work, The Handmaiden loves to play with the viewer’s expectations and is expertly designed as an off-the-wall joyride, but is also displays some of the most beautiful film craft this year. It is explicit and violent and erotic and strange and surprisingly funny, all at once and for most of its 140 minutes.
My love for strong female leads in science fiction knows no bounds. Arrival combines a smart, interesting and multidimensional female lead in the mostly male dominated genre with a compelling story and tremendous cinematography. The story that Arrival is telling is profoundly feminist—and quite timely when looking at the reality of our current political climate when female voices are increasingly important but continually unrepresented or even diminished. Director Denis Villeneuve has proven that he can transcend genre, and that makes me even more excited about how he'll bring new life to Blade Runner 2049 later this year.