The Best Ten Films of 2016

Photo: Roadside Attractions

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

Looking at my top ten films of 2016, I can’t help but to notice that many share the same sense of longing and melancholy, with characters wandering and unable to communicate with each other. In an America about as polarized as ever, these struggles prove relevant and resonate with many. But hope can be found in redemption, and many characters found some, too. They aren’t all happy endings, but most give reason to be optimistic about the future. With 2016 finally ending its death grip on us, we could definitely use it.

Honorable Mentions:

  • “Hail, Caeser!”
  • “Knight of Cups”
  • “Midnight Special”
  • “Green Room”
  • “Loving”
  • “Everybody Wants Some!!”
  • “Krisha”
  • “A Bigger Splash”

10. “The Witch”

Photo: A24

The devil is truly in the details of Robert Egger’s debut film. The dialogue is harsh and cryptic, lifted straight from actual Puritan settlers’ journals. The setting is quiet and disquieting, somewhere in 17th century New England, far from help. It’s these details that make the terrors all the more unnerving when they creep into the family in the form of paranoia and possession. The ambiguity is where the real evil lies: Is it deep in the woods, or deep in the hearts of the humans living outside it? This one doesn’t shake off easily.


9. “Jackie”

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Biopics tend to hit the same beats and ring hollow, setting up a life of chapters and arcs with little insight into the mind of the subject. “Jackie” succeeds because director Pablo Larraín never lets the audience out of Jackie Kennedy’s head, using disorienting music and editing to show her grief and agitation in the wake of her husband’s assassination. Natalie Portman’s performance never succumbs to mimicry, her breathy voice masking the sharp-edged princess of Camelot within.


8. “Certain Women”

Photo: IFC Films

Many films come from short stories, but few collect them into the sort of tapestry “Certain Women” weaves. The film was adapted from Maile Meloy’s short story collection “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” and directed by master of patient storytelling, Kelly Reichardt. What makes the film linger is its sense of place, with wide frontier landscapes surrounding lived-in characters caught in the midst of their anxiety about their place in the world. These slices of life are so cared for and loved that every moment and interaction carries as much weight as a Marvel movie. This is the kind of film that washes over you. Let it.


7. “Nocturnal Animals”

Photo: Focus Features

“Nocturnal Animals” is a film of stark contrasts: the cold lines and colors of LA luxury versus the dusty browns of west Texas, the stories we tell ourselves versus the truth we hide from. Structure transcends here as director and fashion icon Tom Ford cuts between the actual history of the two leads and a book manuscript that one character (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends the other (Amy Adams), a vengeful thriller that could be a veiled threat from her ex-lover. The film is a sensual delight to behold: the sets, costumes and characters are impeccably designed to draw the audience into this dark, moral tale.


6. “Manchester by the Sea”

Photo: Roadside Attractions

Playwrights know actors best, and writer and director Kenneth Lonergan uses his experience to draw out the best acting performances of the year in “Manchester.” Casey Affleck and newcomer Lucas Hedges both hide and bear their scars in equally devastating ways, and their sparring relationship is the heart of the film. A scene may contain biting humor and heartbreaking moments immediately after. Authenticity is found in in unflinching and honest storytelling. This is it.


5. “The Lobster”

Photo: Film4 Productions

Love is an absurd conundrum, and “The Lobster” encapsulates this in the oddest premise in recent memory: humans turn into an animal of their choosing if they can’t find a mate quickly enough at a mysterious hotel. It’s a dark and dystopian concept, but the execution makes for the best kind of anti-humor. Satire isn’t often as imaginative as this.


4. “The Handmaiden”

Photo: CJ Entertainment

Just try to keep up with this Russian nesting doll of delights. The almost 2.5 hours breeze by with a diabolical plot of double-crossing and upending of assumptions. It’s a lavish feast of visuals with South Korean director Park Chan-wook updating Sarah Water’s novel “Fingersmith” from Victorian London to an ornate mansion in Japanese-occupied Korea. The setting is gorgeous, but the character’s pasts and motivations are sinful and sinister. It’s best to give no more details. I don’t want to spoil the fun.


3. “Moonlight

Photo: A24

Poetry lingers not so much from the power of individual words or phrases, but the mood it conjures. “Moonlight” is a visual poem for this reason, using every element from the dialogue to the cinematography to the music to envelop the audience in the tender, melancholic story of a young man’s struggle to discover and accept who he is. It is told in three parts with three different actors in the lead role, each with the same longing glow in his eyes. There is no judgment or crowd-pleasing in its treatment of masculinity and sexuality. This is empathetic and necessary filmmaking. No film is as important for everyone to see in 2016.


2. “Arrival”

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) has only improved with each film, and “Arrival” may be his masterpiece. It is that rare film that finds the sweet spot between the head and the heart, pursuing big ideas while focusing on the individual. Here, Amy Adams is a linguist sent to decipher the language of an alien race hovering over the Earth in egg-like spaceships. A flashback at the start of the film sets it up to be like countless others, with a mother struggling with the grief of losing a child. The film elevates the genre and changes the landscape of the entire plot with a rewiring of the characters’ and audiences’ brains in the third act. At that moment, it goes from meditative to arresting, and you’ll hug your family closer after. “Arrival” explores concepts of time, regret and communication that few filmmakers would ever risk. It’s not perfect, but I prize ambition over all else in art, and “Arrival ” is full of it.


1. “La La Land”

Photo: Summit Entertainment

I could gush about this one for ages. Here’s a sample from my full review, which you can read here.

“Simply, ‘La La Land’ is joyous, and how many movies are these days? Like all great art, the world seems different when you leave. It’s a little brighter, a little warmer and perfect for a good tap dance. You smile, you hum and you go back home with a desire to continue chasing your dreams, or start again. Ask that girl on a second date! Write that script! Move to LA! It’s a movie that will move you. It’s a work of art that will inspire you to create your own art. What more can we ask of the movies?”

If that doesn’t get you to the theater, I don’t know what will. It’s the only movie this year I’ve double-dipped (and am planning on triple-dipping on). It only gets better each time. Now, if only we could get a sing-a-long version…

To 2017!

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