by Robert Joseph Butler
2016 will be a year that will be remembered for its long list of celebrity deaths and for being a polarizing election year. While we are living in very polarizing times where our country is yearning for healing and unity, the best works of the year offer the anecdote for the basic American principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whether it’s about self-discovery in Barry Jenkin’s three-act film “Moonlight”, Damien Chazelle’s wonderful musical that plays an enchanting and liberating ode to never giving up on your dreams, or a tyrannical government trying to suppress individualism and conforming individuals to find love in “The Lobster”. Weather these filmmakers realize it or not, cinema is a reflection of reality, and rather it’s a mirror into our deepest desires for optimism, hope, and for a better tomorrow. Great films have always tapped into these convictions of the human spirit, and in 2016 filmmakers continue spreading these principles and convictions.
1. La La Land (d. Damien Chazelle)
From the exquisite dance choreography that enclose its story to the glorious Technicolor cinematography by Linus Sandgren, Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) radiant musical is a richly stylized, romantic meditation on love, romance, art, and chasing one’s dream. He takes the tropes and style of 1950’s MGM Musicals and infuses it with vibrant colors and a sense of wise, limitless joy and equal melancholy that manages to feel refreshing and clever.
2. The Lobster (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) oddball romantic comedy is about a fascist government that forces it’s citizenry to find a companion within 40 days, and if they fail to they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing. “The Lobster” has a philosophical, dizzy, and strange sweetness to it. It plays out like a Franz Kakfa novel-hectic, bizarre, nonsensical and overall terrific. The skill of the film belongs to the wholly original and inventive writing and directing by Lanthimos.
3. Moonlight (d. Barry Jenkins)
It’s not often that movie audiences endure a great masterpiece that is so pure, so personal, and so elegiac from a new director, and Barry Jenkins second feature “Moonlight” is a heroic birth to a potential new master. The film is a deeply empathic and humane study of sexuality, identity, suppression, and the yearning to liberate one’s repressed individualism. It’s a deeply personal study of streamlined social conformity devoted to crushing the individual’s sexuality.
4. Manchester by the Sea (d. Kenneth Lonergan)
In Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) tragic, powerfully moving third film, Casey Affleck delivers a towering performance as an emotionally battered janitor in Boston who, after the expected death of his older brother, temporally moves to a fishing village where he grew up to be the guardian of his teenage nephew. What is great about this writing and film is how it doesn’t offer cloying sentimentality, overwrought melodrama, or forced solutions in a film that instead resonates with its emotional authenticity.
5. Silence (d. Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s long awaited passion project”Silence” is a true work of art. It is absolutely breathtaking, awe inspiring, and it captures the spirit and existentialism of a great Akira Kurosawa film. This is Scorsese’s most passionate and visionary film since “Gangs of New York”, and it’s his most visceral since “Raging Bull”. It’s a great tribute to faith, and one of the finest films ever released about faith.
6. Toni Erdmann (d. Maren Ade)
French filmmaker Maren Ade’s latest is a sharply written and greatly directed film about a father, his daughter and preposterous gag teeth that satirically show the pairs economic and social divide. The 162-minute film is long, but not suffocating. It’s refreshing to see a storyteller like Maren Ade allow film to unfold every single moment and exchange with exhilaration, delight, and poignancy. Something most long blockbusters fail to do.
7. The Neon Demon (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
The modern state of modeling provides Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” as a cautionary tale of beauty and youth. Refn depicts the modeling industry as a cruel, competitive, and nightmarish world. While these ideas are not new, Refn instead focuses and explores the definition of beauty, and how it comes in many forms of the beholder, weather authentic or manufactured, internally or externally, youthful or aging, all crafted with gorgeous, hallucinatory Dario Argento style imagery and surrealism.
8. Sunset Song (d. Terence Davies)
Terence Davies’ offers another kind of coming-of-age story, a retrospective of womanhood in pre WW1 Scotland. With breathtaking detail and clarity, with 65mm glowing cinematography by Michael McDonough, Davies penetrates the saddest, darkest truths of Scottish history, and how a countries tragedies coexist with family ones. A Scottish girl, Chris (British model Agnes Deyn), grows up under the rule of her patriarch father (Peter Mullan), who death allows her liberation into her young adulthood. She falls in love with a young man, their life shows a lot of innocence, vulnerability, and hope until a major plot twist transitions their relationship into an unstable one after he is drafted into the Great War, and returns with PTSD and an alien existence. Chris attempts to hold her balance as Davies explores the relentless nature of the passage of time.
9. Paterson (d. Jim Jarmush)
Doubt and uncertainly has hovered over the working class as it continues to shrink. A film like Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” plays wonderful tribute to the working class-average Joe that longs for something better with great potential. Tapping into the mundane, Jarmush’s finest film since “Dead Man”, taps into the life of a bus-driver played by Adam Driver, who is happily married, and who is a poet on the side. The film doesn’t get caught up in typical conflict; there is showmanship craftsmanship, an atonogist , or showy symbolism. The minimalisms result is very modest, humble, and lyrical film. This is a brilliant celebration of the routine.
10. American Honey (d. Andrea Arnold)
In the wrong hands, Andrea Arnold’s coming-of-age story, part road movie would have come off exploitative or morally repugnant. Instead “American Honey” is a sprawling saga of contradictory feelings, sensations, and it’s also merger of many different film genres and styles. It’s also a gritty and equally luminous American travelogue that shows the hardships and poverty of Middle America, where families endure poverty and drug addiction, and where a lot of young children are neglected. The film is about Star, a 18-year-old who leaves home, leaves an abusive relationship and joins a band of teenagers who travel the heartland selling magazine subscriptions door to door. The film is very messy, but the result is exuberant and wholly sweet organic the more it unfolds.
Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)
A Bigger Splash (d. Luca Guadagnino)
What was supposed to be a remake of 1969 French Crime heist crime movie, instead Italian master Luca Guadagnino ends up using the imagery and psychology of European crime movie tropes and implements it with the skin and sunshine you see in the original, and makes a thought-provoking and expertly crafted film about temptation, desire, stardom, and the modern oppression of celebrity privilege.
Certain Women (d. Kelly Reichardt)
Acclaimed filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy) latest film “Certain Women” continues her low-key and allusive sensibilities, yet out of all of her films this one holds the most grace. With a first-rate cast of name talent that includes Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart, Reichart brings great depth and characterization to these women characters that hold a lot of frustrations, doubts, and uncertainties. Yet it’s newcomer actress Lily Gladstone that truly stands out here, the performance is so tender and humane.
Everybody Wants Some! (d. Richard Linklater)
While we are living in a time of ultra-sensitivity with an overbearing amount of political correctness, it’s a surprise and a relief that Richard Linklater can still create a film that has the spirit of 80’s raunchy comedies while not being accused by pc detractors of being sexist. Think “Meatballs” or “Wet Hot American Summer” but far more thoughtful. The film has the locker room humor, and it’s a highly hysterical comedy that is equally affecting. The guys talk about girls and sex, they play jokes on each other, and they discuss the importance of being an individual, as well as being part of a team. This is very much a companion piece to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”, and like other Linklaters films it continues on the celebration youth, individualism, and the passage of time.
Hacksaw Ridge (d. Mel Gibson)
Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is by far the greatest war film since Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima”. The film offers passionate gusto and heart that plays tribute to peace, faith, freedom of expression, and courage. The film exhibits some of the most harrowing and realistic battle sequences ever captured on celluloid, balancing the graphic with the grace.
Loving (d. Jeff Nichols)
By far Jeff Nicols most mature and deeply compelling film yet. The film is a true account of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, who was married in Virginia 1958. Local authorities broke into their home, arrested them, and they were sentenced to a year in a state penitentiary. This sentence was suspended on the condition that they are exiled from the state of Virginia. Richard and Mildred would spend the next nine years fighting to go back to the state where they wanted to live. All of this just because Richard was a white man and Mildred was a black woman. This film truly speaks the principles of the non-aggression principle, as well as to our founding of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is baffling to me the state used to forbid people from loving who they wanted.
O.J. Made in America (d. Ezra Edelman)
While this ESPN 6-Hour 30 for 30 Documentary primary focus is of O.J. Simpson, the wealthy, black star athlete who ultimately went down a rabbit hole of trial, murder, and self-destruction is deeply compelling from beginning to end. The film is a masterful examination of racism in America, class, sex, celebrity, and the cult worship of sports heroism and celebrity in America. It shows how the American Dream can destruct into the American nightmare without self-control.