Aaron's Top Ten Movies of 2016
Throughout the year, I kept on hearing how bad 2016 was for film. That might be correct if you only watched the big blockbusters. Suicide Squad flopped, the new Independence Day was a monotonous mess, and, arguably Batman v Superman didn’t hit the notes many of us wanted it to, even if it branched out in ways few blockbusters are willing to. That having been said, this was a tremendous year for documentaries and horror. We saw a spectacular sequel in The Conjuring 2, a box-office hit in The Witch, and ESPN’s documentary epic O.J.: Made in America significantly expand what we can consider the scope of documentary filmmaking. It was also a tremendous year for indies with great films like the Eyes of My Mother, Kelly Reichardt’s singular and quiet Certain Women, and the emotional gut punch Krisha; even if they went mostly under the radar.
So, without further ado, here are my picks for the top ten movies of 2016:
10. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s sophomore effort is a tough one to describe or categorize, part neo-western, part twisted thriller. It also features gorgeous cinematography and impeccable costuming, which shouldn’t be a surprise given Ford’s background as a fashion designer. Far from being a simple genre picture, Ford crafts a story within a story that creates disturbing implications through a brilliant casting of Isla Fisher, commonly mistaken for Amy Adams. The film manages to wobble carefully between the gorgeous and the grotesque; one moment you’re admiring the impeccable set design, the next your stomach has turned from some of the most tense scenes of 2016 – or in all of cinema for that matter.
9. O.J.: Made in America
ESPN’s epic five part drama chronicles the story of Orenthal James Simpson, framing it as a Greek tragedy with such academic precision that it surprises how remarkably entertaining it all is. What Ezra Edelman and co. do is more than just summarize O.J.’s history, they also find and highlight the connective tissue between his story and race relations in American history. There’s an acute understanding of what O.J. meant to Black America, what he meant to White America and what he meant for all America. This is no less than the finest documentary since Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence.
8. American Honey
American Honey is not for everyone. The fusion of Terrence Malick’s textural sensibilities and the Dardenne Brothers' focus on a forgotten slice of society. It’s a nearly three hour road trip set to pop songs and young dreams floating above a vast flat landscape. If you’ve ever dreamed of being something more than you are now, if you’ve ever struggled and done whatever you needed to attain that dream, American Honey will likely evoke the same feelings in you that it did in me: a shared longing with the characters and hope for their future.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika’s newest effort is a labor of love that feels effortless. It’s a tale as epic as Lawrence of Arabia, but also as intimate as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But, what surprises most is that Kubo, despite being a fun adventure for children, never talks down to its audience, especially younger viewers. It doesn’t over-explain or play up its emotional beats in a manipulative way. It just lets them breathe. That more than even the mind-bogglingly gorgeous stop-motion animation and phenomenal script, says all you need to know about this animated masterpiece.
Barry Jenkins’ triptych chronicling the life of Chiron, a young, gay, African-American man, at three pivotal points in his life is all about identity and the internalization of nicknames. Throughout the film Chiron is given different nicknames like Black and Little. At one point in the third chapter entitled “Black”, we see Chiron donning a black shirt, shuttling himself around in a black muscle car with a license plate that reads “BLACK”. He has totally internalized the identity that society has forced on him. Throughout the film, Jenkins uses subtle visual cues like this to slowly peel away the layers of that he has built for this character.
5. The Neon Demon
Refn’s latest is a neon splattered horror that recalls both Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, and the masterworks of Italian Giallo maestro Dario Argento. What is so special about The Neon Demon, though, is how it treads the line between high art and b-movie horror so confidently and so adeptly. This is a film that shocks and awes in equal measure, but, best of all, and like all great films, the more you know about the work that informs The Neon Demon, the better it gets. Regardless, The Neon Demon is one of the most eminently re-watchable films of the year, and plainly one of the most fun.
Watching Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was a bizarre experience for me since to get to the theater I saw it in, I had to walk almost the mirror route that Jackie Kennedy did when she buried her husband. In the end, that walk cemented what I loved about this extraordinary biopic. This is a film that takes a national tragedy known the world over, one which is shrouded in a layer of historical objectivity due to its prominence, and manages to make it feel immediate and raw. Portman’s utterly devastating performance has a large role in creating this feeling. It’s a testament to her skill that even despite the dissonance her accent causes, there was not a single moment Jackie pulled me out of the experience. This is the model for biopic filmmaking.
All that can be said about Arrival probably already has been said. It’s Denis Villeneuve’s best work, an impressive feat considering how stellar his oeuvre already is. What I found most powerful about Arrival was its timeliness. It opened wide the week after one of the most tumultuous elections in recent memory, so Villeneuve’s tale of unity and cooperation rooted in Cold War-bred science fiction felt unusually necessary; a welcome salve in a time of great uncertainty. However, this is a film that isn’t just shackled to 2016. This is a brilliant sci-fi, perhaps the best since Children of Men, that I am convinced will stand the test of time for years to come. Both intimate and epic, it’s about something almost entirely uncovered in film: language.
2. The Handmaiden
Two years ago I saw a little film called Gone Girl and it was one of the most enjoyable movie-going experiences of my life. The first time since October 2014 that a film has come even remotely close to that experience was when I saw Park Chan-Wook’s twisted masterpiece, The Handmaiden. This is a film that manages to end each act with a twist and still make every twist land perfectly and unexpectedly. The acting is impeccable, the writing is impeccable, and the cinematography is impeccable. What more could you ask for?
1. La La Land
My most anticipated of the year turned out to be my favorite. Damien Chazelle’s soaring musical masterpiece, like Arrival, is one of those perfectly timed movies. After a rough year, Gosling and Stone swooped in and swept me off my feet with a film that, despite being grounded in the reality that the attainment of every dream leads to some sacrifices, felt fantastical and ever optimistic. It’s a movie that not only gives you a warm blanket to wrap yourself in for two hours; it makes you excited for the future. All the Oscar buzz this film is getting is well-deserved. La La Land is fresh and beautifully compose, but most of all, it’s vital.