(This article was originally posted at Joel on Film.)
Taking inventory of a year in film is always a difficult prospect, but with 2016, I saw a very specific thematic constant forming: empathetic storytelling. Many among my top ten — and, indeed, beyond — were marvels of empathy, much needed in the year with that Presidential outcome and the political trash fire that proceeded and has succeeded it. I did not see everything, of course. That seems increasingly impossible as the number of high-profile gems rises. But I did see some stuff, and what follows was the best of it.
The best film of 2016 was this gem, following Miami-born Chiron from a boy (played by Alex Hibbert), who is raised by a crack-addict mother and the man who deals her the narcotics (Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali offer nuanced portrayals of these archetypes that transcend them) to a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) questioning his own sexuality in an environment that tells him he perhaps shouldn’t to a man (played by Trevante Rhodes) whose path in life is a form of imitative flattery toward the old father figure. All three of these performances are tremendous, as is the film’s marvelous empathy for its achingly human characters. Moonlight, with its shimmering cinematography (by James Laxton) and its quixotic editing (by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) of a triptych, is a masterpiece of compassionate storytelling. No film in these twelve months resonated with me more completely, and none of the various displays of compassion spoke to me as fully, as this one.
Toni Erdmann could have gone so wrong in so many ways. The plot is thus: A woman named Ines (Sandra Huller), dealing with sexism (some of it casual, some of it sly) in the workplace, is cheered up by her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) after she returns home for her own birthday celebration. The method by which her father cheers her up is absurd: He dresses up in a suit, slaps on a wig of long, dark hair that is at great odds with the rest of his features, inserts fake teeth into his mouth, and introduces himself as the German ambassador. One could imagine that this premise is ready-made for Adam Sandler and his producer cronies, placing the woman’s degradation in the odd situation of being both the subject of ridicule and of the hypocrisy of calling out those who do the ridiculing and mangling the father’s antics into meaningless physical comedy. But writer/director Maren Ade is remarkably precise in her goals here, and the humanity on display throughout what might be a freak show is disarming.
After her husband’s death, what will be Jacqueline Kennedy’s place in the world? This is the matter at the heart of Jackie, a film that contains a great well of emotion that builds by a finale that has no straight answer to such a question. Jackie may now be only the widow of a fallen President (the fourth and most recent of the handful that have been assassinated), but her dreams and aspirations — for the country right alongside her husband, for a family that had already seen tragedy in the form of children already gone, for the legacy of the House they inhabited as a monument and as a place of warmth in itself — ended with an assassin’s bullet on a chilly November day in 1963. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of this broken woman, her resilience astounding in the wake of trauma, is surely one of the year’s greatest screen achievements, and the film is an aesthetic wonder, too, with Stephane Fontaine’s granular cinematography and Mica Levi’s sweeping score.
Manchester by the Sea
A man has lost his brother and a son his father in Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating but entirely naturalistic new drama. My colleague Mark Dujsik called this film a “marvel of compassion,” and that sentiment rings true, especially in the writer/director’s examination of a shared past between Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and his ex-wife Randi, played in a handful of scenes by Michelle Williams. Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died rather suddenly of heart disease, and Lee has now inherited the care of Joe’s son Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges (the highlight in one of the year’s strongest ensembles). Manchester by the Sea is not a film dominated by simple plotting or simplistic characters but by compassionate observation. All of these performances are convincing, not least Affleck, whose purest moments are when he must only emote without the aid of dialogue, and Michelle Williams, who devastates in particular the second time her ex-wife Randi and Lee meet. Jennifer Lame’s editing, meanwhile, is fascinating in the way it treats memory as an unwelcome guest upon the present consciousness.
La La Land
He’s an aspiring jazz club owner (played by Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) who wants to revive a dying genre, and she’s an aspiring actress (played by a radiant Emma Stone) who wants to be on the big screen. La La Land is about the dream deferred, and the way in which these two, who meet, fall in love, and change each other’s destiny, diverge from their path is at the heart of an exhilarating romantic comedy/drama that also happens to be a musical in the tradition of Astaire and Rogers. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, in his third film, stages those musical sequences with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross as flights of fancy even when the situation surrounding them is earthbound: a flight among a city of stars, a sung audition through which Stone’s Mia must act, a thrilling opening number set in the midst of traffic, a lovely dance on Mulholland Drive. One can joke that one must be a cynic to dislike the film, but is it, really, a joke?
It seems that, even among its central fan base, Green Room has been widely misunderstood. This is a genre effort and not much more than that, they say, and just look at the premise for proof. And indeed one could sum up the premise as a headline easy to picture in one’s mind: “Members of Band Killed by White Supremacist Group.” Members of a band, played by Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, and the late Anton Yelchin in a career-best performance, are indeed targeted by members of a white supremacist movement, whose foremost leaders are played by an unnerving Patrick Stewart as a personification of casual evil and Macon Blair, terrific as his waffling, cowardly lieutenant. The carnage is savage and graphic (“No guns,” Stewart’s Darcy intones rather ominously) but intensely well-edited by Julia Bloch, and the whole thing is kept at a feverish pitch. One senses violence simmering down the generations, and look at what it’s come to. None of these characters is unintelligent, but cleverness has variations. This was a nightmarish game of cat and mouse.
Now here was an unexpected delight: A true story told with conviction, gentle humor, and wonderful performances. The film was about Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, a trio of African-American women (played phenomenally by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae) working as human computers for NASA in the 1960s, until Johnson’s proficiency with numbers helped to launch John Glenn and Apollo 11 into an orbital space excursion. The women each meet some element working against them: Generally speaking, systemic racism and its institutional consequences limit the information to which they can be privy, while specifically, supervisors and co-workers of each woman have their own personal prejudices, clearly read on their judgmental faces. Hidden Figures is deadly serious in its examination of this prejudice, but it’s also an entertainment and a rousing love letter to scientific progress.
One of the many delights of 2016 was discovering the storytelling prowess in a film like The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s deliriously enjoyable, 144-minute maze of shifting perspectives, sympathies, and points of view. It begins as the story of a young con artist named Sookee (Tae-ri Kim in an auspicious debut performance), who is asked to be handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, perhaps the highlight of a strong ensemble), continues as various long cons raise their heads, and ends in a final act of such irresistible, hypnotic intrigue that it consistently amazes. The story surprises here were genuine surprises, too, not arbitrary twists that might belong to a lesser film about con artistry, and the film boasted the year’s finest exhibition of production design, featuring a central house with as many surprises in its construction as the narrative.
Family gatherings are always stressful, but it’s unlikely any have ever had a strain on anyone like this particular Thanksgiving reunion has on Krisha, the long-lost aunt of the family in Krisha, a shattering examination of familial strain and anxiety from writer/director Trey Edward Shults in the feature debut of the year. Shults showcases shades of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick in ways that thankfully don’t feel imitative but as if he actually learned from his classes in film school how to utilize striking visual storytelling. He also incorporates reality-based and semi-autobiographical elements: Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s aunt in real life, plays the aunt of the character Shults plays in the film (also named Trey) in a devastatingly great performance, and Shults’s various real-life family members play Trey’s family, too. It’s a striking vision from an exciting new voice.
With his third religious epic, after 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun, co-writer/director Martin Scorsese brings his passion project to the screen, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name about a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) called to search war-torn Japan of the 1640s for a third (played by Liam Neeson), who has renounced God and appropriated the life of a Japanese native. What they meet is the harshest resistance of the Christian faith that they have seen, a regime that beheads Christians by the thousands when they are not crucifying them. Silence is a troubling, sometimes frustrating, always mesmerizing venture from the legendary filmmaker, and in Garfield, we have found one of the great performances ever given in a Scorsese picture.
And here were ten more in no particular order, a next tier of films as fine as that above them:
Like so many of this year’s films, here was one set in the South, and the milieu is just one of the various things that American Honey, from director Andrea Arnold, accurately portrays. This one follows a young woman named Star, played in an auspicious debut performance by Sasha Lane, as she barely survives the backroads poverty of Texas and an abusive household and latches onto a group of nomadic magazine solicitors running a business scam and led by Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf.
Lion, from director Garth Davis, contained a surprising burst of emotion and tension. If Manchester by the Sea was a portrait of a man’s difficulties in returning to the town in which he grew up, this was just as compassionately the flipside in that is about a young man’s desperation to return to a home from which he was lost in a seemingly random turn of events. Twenty-five years after disappearing as a boy, memories are stirred from deep within, and he must return home.
Hell or High Water, from director David Mackenzie, was a Neo-Western on the order of 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and while it wasn’t as thematically loaded or as jarringly nihilistic as the Coens’ masterpiece, it still featured great work by Chris Pine and Ben Foster as a pair of bumbling bank robbers looking to stick it to the banks that did them wrong and Jeff Bridges (in the year’s best performance) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers on their trail.
Fences, from director Denzel Washington, adapted August Wilson’s play (which Washington revived for Broadway in 2010 with the cast that appears onscreen here) with literate fireworks and a healthy helping of deepest emotion. Washington himself stars as Troy Maxsen, the current patriarch of a family that has existed for some time under his deeply ethical, morally virtuous rule. The story then takes turns that strip the man of his values while building his character as a more complex one over 139 dazzling minutes.
Arrival, from director Denis Villeneuve, was the science-fiction effort that filmgoers needed in 2016 (a year plagued by miscommunication both unintentional and entirely intentional), featuring Amy Adams’s best performance in ages as a grieving mother and linguist asked to be the communication specialist when crafts carrying aliens descend upon Earth. The film then takes several narrative chances that resonate far beyond their puzzlebox nature before twisting upon itself with tragic consequences. It was hard removing this from the list above.
Sing Street, from director John Carney, was a wonderful romantic drama that used music as its entryway into the characters and their story — which is no surprise from Carney, who has a history with the art form that has driven his intentions as a storyteller. Here, it’s of a boy, a girl, and their shared, complex ideas about a future far away from the restrictive social norms of 1980s Ireland. The music was deliriously good, too.
Elle, from director Paul Verhoeven, was far more than the post-rape fantasy a cursory glance at its premise might suggest. Yes, Isabelle Huppert stars as a video-game designer whose agency as a woman is violated by a seemingly random home invasion that results in sexual assault, but the film is cannier than that in what it has to say about this situation, as (like The Handmaiden) the film shifts sympathies (Everyone — and I do mean everyone — is at some point worthy of our sympathy) as if it’s the easiest thing.
Other People, from director Chris Kelly, was the semi-autobiographical story of a young comedy writer (played by Jesse Plemons in a performance of great compassion) who has just exited a relationship with his boyfriend of several years and been sidelined by the cancer diagnosis of his ailing mother (played by a devastating Molly Shannon). The film then examines how the diagnosis and subsequent prognosis impact his focus on the rest of his life.
Midnight Special, from director Jeff Nichols, was something of an enigma in the early part of the year, but it was a forgotten gem — a science-fiction film more about characters than its genre, about a young boy (played by Jaeden Lieberher) being trucked across America by Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon for reasons that are kept close to the vest by Nichols until a climax that might or might not answer the film’s pressing queries. This was more about the questions, though.
And Swiss Army Man, from directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, was the year’s most oddball delight, starring Paul Dano as a suicidal man stranded on an island and Daniel Radcliffe as the mostly-dead corpse that washes onto it. Bromance ensues as the corpse starts showing unmistakable signs of life, talking and farting and otherwise acting as a multi-purpose tool for Dano’s survival. That Kwan and Scheinert attempted this mixture of the absurd and the emotional was strange enough; that it worked is kind of a miracle.