2016 Best Film List – Brendan Rose
Well, the Academy has spoken (after a shambolic mix-up) and, I’m happy to report, the news is heartening: With Moonlight emerging as the winner, the Oscar for Best Picture has actually gone to the top Anglo-American film of the year for only the second time in my life (along with Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave in 2014). And I was born a while ago, which means that dozens of mediocre films have been honored with this prestigious award over the past few decades.
Aside from Barry Jenkins’s new classic, 2016 was, overall, a deep and powerful year in the movies. There were a series of memorable offerings across genres, in sci-fi, horror, coming-of-age, and even a spry musical of note (yes, La La Land). But for me, the year was marked by a series of impressive auteurist dramas by some of world cinema’s still early-career innovators: Jenkins, Ade, Mendonça Filho, Hansen-Løve, Lanthimos, Larraín, Guadagnino. And the most outstanding of all this year, just a hint above Jenkins, would be the Colombian wunderkind Ciro Guerra, whose films are simply astonishing. I look forward to more features from all of these ambitious and talented filmmakers.
As with any year, there are promising films I have yet to see. With apologies to I, Daniel Blake, 13th, Certain Women, Under the Shadow, American Honey, Hell or High Water, and many others, I present to you the 2016 list:
TOP TEN (in order):
Embrace of the Serpent* (Ciro Guerra): This hypnotic and disturbing film, which details contact between European travelers and indigenous Amazonian communities in the first half of the 20th Century, is a sui generis masterpiece by one of the world’s most promising and inventive directors. There are shades of Heart of Darkness here, but with a stronger perspective afforded the local community than is evident in most works derivative of Conrad’s novella.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins): Jenkins’s second feature, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, is a magnificent piece of pure cinema, with its exceptional photography and pacing, but also a film anchored in textured, subjective storytelling, overwhelming with its aching pain, its deep tenderness. There are scenes of such beauty and sentiment (e.g., young Chiron being taught to swim by mentor Juan) that the scope and impact of this film continue to grow in my mind.
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch): Jarmusch, now thirteen features in, is the most consistently stellar American film director of the past three decades. In this ode to verse, Jarmusch trains his camera on the basement poet-cum-bus driver played by Adam Driver, revealing his protagonist’s meditative daily rhythms as well as the post-industrial grace of rugged and worn Paterson, New Jersey. This sublime film’s only flaw: an underwritten part for Golshifteh Farahani as Driver’s partner.
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho): Sônia Braga captivates as a single, middle-age music critic who stands up to rapacious real-estate interests in Recife, Brazil by refusing to move out of her apartment, the last inhabited unit in a beachside building pegged for demolition and redevelopment. Mendonça Filho’s keen eye for social critique gives this complex character study a broader agenda.
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade): This jaunty, off-beat father-daughter comedic drama from one of Germany’s finest directors keeps the audience on its toes (what a housewarming party!) while likewise skewering the sheltered English-speaking business-consultant class who traipse about Bucharest, Romania like a nouveau white-collar capitalist-colonialist clique. Remember: Never leave home without your spare teeth!
The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé): Speaking of capitalism and its discontents, Brizé’s timely parable captures the pitiless professional drift of Thierry, a sacked factory worker in France, played with sensitivity by Vincent Lindon. This is the tale of one of the have-nots in this dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy; Thierry’s ‘rebound’ job as a security guard at a supermarket is both dispiriting and all-too symbolic.
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan): Lonergan, one of the most important dramatists of his generation, constructs a quietly devastating film out of material that could, in the wrong hands, play as overwrought melodrama. Instead, buoyed by expert performances, he delivers an indelible piece of cinema, the sorrow and heartbreak of which remain palpable and resonant months later.
Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve): Top-class French actress Isabelle Huppert was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for the underwhelming Elle, but her standout performance—and one of the few very best this year— was certainly in Things to Come, Hansen-Løve’s rich story of Huppert’s Nathalie, a philosopher who seeks new ways to imbue her life with purpose and meaning after a series of life-shocks.
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin): This Proustian film of early love mesmerizes with its abundance of sharp, novelistic detail, its blending of the intellectual and the pop, its cross-decades expanse, its stinging wistfulness.
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve): Few mainstream sci-fi flicks have delivered the goods like Arrival. The assured Amy Adams paces this clever, taught film depicting a contact moment between humans and extraterrestrial life. Adams’s linguist-driven diplomacy and time-bending insight prevent carnage. One fault: the poorly-realized Jeremy Renner physicist character.
NEXT BEST FILM: The Witch (Robert Eggers): This bleak, eerie horror film is set on a Puritan homestead in 17th Century New England where a tangled, foreboding, and unknown forest beckons these new arrivals.
BEST DOCUMENTARY: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck): One of the top films of the year. Peck’s tour-de-force is a sophisticated examination of racism in America via Baldwin’s own words from an unfinished manuscript.
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino); Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig); Fences (Denzel Washington); Jackie (Pablo Larraín); La La Land (Damien Chazelle); The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos); Sing Street (John Carney).
*Embrace of the Serpent was up for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award for 2015, but it did not premiere in New York until 2016, making it eligible for this list. Similarly, this year’s Foreign Language winner, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which opened in New York in 2017, will be eligible for next year’s list.
List complied by Brendan Rose