2016 was a nightmare, but at least it was a great year for movies.
10. Closet Monster
In this wildly imaginative feature debut, writer/director Stephen Dunn crafts an intimate portrait on the terrifying, but revelatory process of coming out. When an artistic high school senior, Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) begins to fall for his pretty boy co-worker, Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), he struggles to cope with memories of a traumatic hate-crime he suppressed as a child, while simultaneously living under the roof of his homophobic father (Aaron Abrams). Anchored by Jessup’s beautifully empathetic performance and layered with doses of magical realism ranging from Oscar’s talking hamster, Buffy (ingeniously voiced by Isabella Rossellini) to Cronenbergian body horror, this tale of sexual awakening is one of the year’s most underappreciated gems.
9. The Neon Demon
A deliciously depraved foray into the underbelly of Los Angeles’ modeling industry, this latest film from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) is a lavish feast for the senses. Polarizing both critics and audiences, it’s a dark, lurid satire on how female beauty is objectified through the male gaze, as well as a visceral homage to the works of Brian De Palma, David Lynch, Dario Argento and, of course, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Cinematographer Natasha Braier crafts striking compositions emphasized by vivid uses of color, while Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synthesizer score channels Refn’s fantasy world slowly deteriorating into a kaleidoscopic orgy of glitter and blood. (Shout-out to Jena Malone, too, who is mesmerizing as a queer make-up artist with a slippery agenda.)
Assembling an array of unseen footage from various projects she’s shot over the course of nearly seventeen years, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s remarkable documentary is an immersive, empathetic outlook of the world we live in. You may recognize snippets omitted from films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, but even if you haven’t seen any of Johnson’s work, she presents an accessible commentary on the nature of humanity while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking. It also features the best editing of any movie this year from Nels Bangerter, who structures Johnson’s sequences into a cyclical, non-linear memoir.
7. The Witch
As terrifying as it is meticulously crafted, this chilling debut from writer/director Robert Eggers is an audacious hybrid of historical fiction and supernatural horror. It’s also the first movie in years to give me nightmares. Set in New England during the 1630s, a puritan family relocates to an isolated farm by the woods after being banished from their church for unspecified reasons. Following a series of disturbing incidents, including the disappearance of their newborn baby, the devout parents begin to suspect that their teenage daughter, Thomasin (terrific newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy) is somehow responsible. Both a startling genre piece and a riveting story of female liberation, this wicked spellbinder conjures up enough blood-curdling imagery to haunt your dreams for weeks.
Paul Verhoeven hasn’t made a full-length feature since his masterful World War II thriller, Black Book (2006) a decade ago. With Elle, it’s clear that the Dutch provocateur is still at the top of his game, delivering what could be the most accomplished and controversial work of his oeuvre. The great Isabelle Huppert gives a brilliant, calculated performance as Michèle Leblanc, a video game designer who, in a devastating opening sequence, is sexually assaulted in her home by a masked intruder. Instead of calling the police, Michèle decides to take matters into her own hands, reclaiming her sense of agency by luring the assailant like a fly into her web. While certainly not for all tastes, Verhoeven’s subversive take on the rape-revenge genre is a savage (at times, hilariously savage) critique of misogyny and gender roles.
5. Little Men
This nuanced portrait of adolescence is another beautifully bittersweet slice of life from Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange). After the death of his grandfather, soft-spoken junior-high student, Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) moves into a new apartment in Brooklyn with his parents (Greg Kinnear & Jennifer Ehle). Jake begins to bond with the charismatic Tony (Michael Barbieri), son of a Chilean dress shop owner, Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García), but a financial struggle between the boys’ folks threaten the nature of their friendship. Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, drew inspiration from their own experiences of growing up for the screenplay, resulting in a subtle, quietly heartbreaking film on the lasting impact of certain relationships, and how they shape who we are.
A work of blissful transcendence, Jim Jarmusch’s meditation on finding beauty in the mundane is nothing short of a revelation. Set in the titular city of Paterson, New Jersey, there’s little more to its narrative than the daily routines of its working class protagonist, also named Paterson (a phenomenal Adam Driver). He works as a bus driver during the day, comes home to eat dinner with his delightful girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), takes their obnoxious French bulldog, Marvin for a walk, and has a beer at his favorite bar. Paterson’s true passion, however, lies in poetry, and through his perceptions of the world (often conveyed thorough serene montages by editor Affonso Gonçalves), we’re given a glimpse into his writing process. With Driver’s sensitive soul as our guide, Jarmusch provides a rich, existential outlook on how recognizing artistic merit within ordinary aspects of our lives is what makes them worth living in the first place.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Grief has been the subject of countless melodramas, but few have been able to capture the agonizing, parasitic nature of it more honestly than Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature. Casey Affleck is sensational as Lee Chandler, a hard-drinking janitor in Massachusetts who, after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is tasked with being a potential guardian to his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). What separates this tour de force from other male-weepies lies in the power of the performances and the bruising authenticity of Lonergan’s screenplay. Lee and Patrick both use masculinity as a shield to avoid any form of human connection, ignoring the fact that their repressed feelings will inevitably erupt over time, often when they least expect it. Unlike most Hollywood films, which typically gloss over the open wounds of trauma in favor of superficial forms of redemption, Manchester by the Sea emphasizes that we’re only human, and some tragedies in life are too painful for us to fully recover from.
Roger Ebert once said, “…the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify who we are sharing this journey with.” This quote stuck with me all throughout Moonlight, the sophomore effort from Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), which analyzes race and sexuality with such eloquent tenderness that you feel as if your heart is about to burst. It centers on the life of Chiron, a young, gay black man in Miami, Florida, during three crucial periods of his life. We see him as a child (Alex Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes), never feeling truly comfortable in his own skin as he attempts to find his place within our heteronormative world. Featuring a staggering ensemble that also showcases stellar work from Mahershala Ali, André Holland, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe, this compassionate portrayal of black queer masculinity is an extraordinary film on every level.
1. Certain Women
In his review for the Boston Globe, my friend, Ty Burr wrote, “Is Kelly Reichardt the most under-acknowledged great American director working today?” My answer is a resounding yes. Certain Women is not only the best film of 2016, but the crowning achievement of Reichardt’s astonishing career, whose previous masterworks include Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2014). Adapting the script from three short stories by Malie Meloy, (sister of Colin Meloy, frontman for the indie folk band, The Decemberists), Reichardt’s poignant triptych revolves around the lives of four hardworking, independent women in Montana, all of whom struggle to make their voices heard. Laura Dern is a lawyer with a disgruntled client who refuses to listen to her. Michelle Williams tries to obtain sandstones from a man who won’t even talk to her directly. And Lily Gladstone, in the breakthrough performance of the year, becomes infatuated with Kristen Stewart’s adult education teacher, who’s too exhausted to see the love in her new friend’s eyes. Gorgeously shot on 16mm by Christopher Blauvelt, the vast, chilly landscapes of the American northwest embody the isolation and loneliness of the characters, whose silences speak volumes. This is an exceptional piece of cinematic poetry from one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers.
De Palma, Evolution, Green Room, The Handmaiden, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, I Am Not Your Negro, The Invitation, Julieta, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, Kate Plays Christine, The Lobster, Mountains May Depart, No Home Movie, The Red Turtle, Right Now, Wrong Then, Sunset Song, Toni Erdmann, Tower, The Wailing, White Girl