I know what you’re thinking. It’s already 2017. 2016 is dead and gone. Well, that may be. But publishing a year-end list in the beginning of December just doesn’t make sense to me. I wanted to use every available minute of the year to see as many of the year’s releases as possible. In the end, I watched 156 new releases. And I rewatched nearly everything on this list as I tried to pin down an order. Which brings us to this, my cinematic year in review. I thought back through all of the hours tucked away in cinemas, some with sticky floors, some with luxurious seats, all with the aroma of popcorn thick in the air. And I asked myself what stood out? What stuck with me? What did I remember at the other end of all of it.
I came up with 10 titles. Just 6.4% of the total pictures I viewed, that stand out to me as the very best the year had to offer. This is my cinematic year in review. And these are my favorite filmic experiences of 2016.
10. The Invitation
I actually first saw Karen Kusama’s taut, twisty thriller in May of 2015. I knew it had a 2016 release date, so I snuck it in a post-script mention at the end of my best-of list last year. Now here we are more than a year and a half later, and The Invitation still sticks out for me. I couldn’t guess what was going to happen (believe me, I tried), I could barely catch my breath. That’s how completely this mystery wrapped me up. I cannot say enough about Kusama’s pacing and subtlety. You won’t even realize this movie has you in its grips until you’re well and truly captivated. The less you know about the story the better, just dive in and enjoy.
9. Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan debuted this summer to far too little fanfare and recognition. It’s a well documented fact that I’m a sucker for a costume drama, but I had no idea what I was getting into with this story. Instead of Elizabeth and Mr. Dracy brooding and swooning at each other (a sight I do love dearly), Love & Friendship treats us to sniping and quips and brash social climbing. It’s survival of the fittest masked by politeness and accented by barbs worthy of The Bard himself. Kate Beckinsale is particularly wonderful in the lead role of Lady Susan.
8. 20th Century Women
Mike Mill’s 20th Century Women has yet to be released through much of the country, so it might not yet be on your radar. But believe me, if you’re an awards watcher you’re going to hear Annette Bening’s name … a lot. She’s brilliant. But though Bening gives the headline performance, this movie is made of fine performances. In particular, Greta Gerwig gives one of the finest performances in her career. I wasn’t around for the 70s, but I feel like I’ve visited them through a new lens with this picture.
Barry Jenkins triptych is the kind of picture you just don’t get the chance to experience all that often. Moonlight is raw and powerful and absolutely heartbreaking. It will leave you amazed by the human potential for both cruelty and compassion. Mahershala Ali delivers the kind of performance that put an end to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar race the second this movie premiered. Moonlight is an essential glimpse into an experience that’s rarely explored in popular cinema.
6. Sing Street
I’ll fully admit that John Carney has my number. I was a fan of Once and I find Begin Again irresistable. With Sing Street we get the same look at the charming life of sometimes tortured artists, but with the added bonus of 80s nostalgia and Irish accents. Carney has a real knack for capturing earnestness and there’s no exception here. Our young heroes are dynamic characters facing timeless and universal problems. We find joy in their journey and get some really delightful tunes along the way.
My personal historical reference for Jackie Kennedy is limited at best. I associate her with fashion and the 60s and the tragic death of a beloved president. In my mind, she was a figure, a quip from Grease 2. But Pablo Lorrain’s biopic made her human for me — instantly and irrevocably. Natalie Portman is transfixing in the role and transformed by it. It’s her finest work since Black Swan and the way she disappears into the accent and the mannerisms is quite as impactful. It’s a story of a woman walking a razor’s edge between power and powerlessness. And honestly, it knocked me flat.
12 months ago a lot of people were looking at Passengers as the sci-fi movie that could cross over into awards contention. That didn’t exactly work out, but Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival quietly became one to watch. Arrival has the audacity to put a linguist front and center and make the case for communication above all else. It’s meditative and brilliant with one of the best reveals in years. Amy Adams is great the first time you see this movie. The second time you’ll realize what she’s doing is nothing short of phenomenal.
3. La La Land
La La Land isn’t just another Hollywood movie celebrating Hollywood. It’s bittersweet ode to dreamers. It’s a film that takes its cues from golden age musicals and employs a modern lens to ground that whimsy in something real. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance their way through L.A.’s monotonous seasons and the highs and lows of romance in a pair of mesmerizing performances. Then, the film winds up with a climax that gives more weight and power to every step of the journey. This is movie magic.
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi’s story of an inner city youth who hits the New Zealand bush with his reluctant adopted father and triggers a national manhunt was the most unexpected picture of the year for me. And also the one that has given me the most boundless joy. It’s flat out hilarious every time I watch it. It’s also surprisingly resonant and features one of the best (and briefest) supporting turns of the year — Rima Te Wiata should be in the Oscar mix for her sweet, soulful work. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, just watch it. Especially if you could use a pick me up, It’s lovely and charming through and through.
1. American Honey
If Hunt for the Wilderpeople gave me more joy than any other movie this year, American Honey gave me every other emotion. Andrea Arnold’s youth road movie contains multitudes of story. It’s ambitious, unforgettable and utterly unique. Arnold took Shia LeBoeuf and a bunch of kids and hit the road to capture this hypnotic story. American Honey will break your heart, set your nerves on edge and put you in mind of moments where the possibilities before you feel limitless. Even if the present is hopeless. The soundtrack should be cacophonous, but instead, it’s an impossibly brilliant mashup of country and trap. And so it goes with American Honey. A movie about a girl who flees a terrible home life to hit the road with a band of outsider youths who travel around selling magazines shouldn’t be so powerful and hypnotic, but it is. It will sneak up on you. It will stick with you. It will move you. American Honey is staggeringly good.
So there you have it. The 10 pictures that top my personal list for the year. But, because this is my cinematic year in review, I’m going to indulge in a few more shoutouts before I say adieu.
10 Cloverfield Lane – Plenty of people loved this movie, right up until THAT ending. It was unexpected, I’ll give you that, but I’m not mad about it. Damien Chazelle’s overhaul of this script made it into a wickedly economic thriller. Add to that an unbelievable cast and I’m fully on board.
The Witch | Swiss Army Man | The Lobster – This trio of films are not related except that they are all from A24 and all wonderfully, wonderfully bizarre. I love that through these pictures I saw a murder-y goat and a magical corpse and a man so bad at romance he might get turned into a lobster.
The Nice Guys – Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe get their comedy and on bellbottoms on in this groovy action comedy. It’s funky and I dig it.
Lovesong – You can’t see it just yet, but I saw So Yong Kim’s sweet drama about friendship back at Sundance. I thought it was lovely. This picture has stuck with me and my esteem for it has only grown. Jena Malone and Riley Keough deliver unstated performances that smack of realism. Catch it in 2017.
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan’s achingly beautiful picture is a portrait of grief in motion. It’s relentless. But it’s also a powerhouse turn for Casey Affleck.
And now. Now I get to start all over again. Set the new release tally back to zero, we’ve got movies to watch.