By: Daniel Reynolds
This year was a hard one. That’s the refrain you’ve no doubt heard most about 2016. Not from the “deplorables” obviously, they were busy trying to bully anyone they could while cheering on Suicide Squad or whatnot. No, for people with some sense of empathy or responsibility (or maybe just guilt and shame), 2016 generally trended in a bad direction.
And I’m not blameless here in my little corner of the world. I generated my share of bad vibes and sat in enough uncomfortable negative emotion. But in all things, always and forever, film was there to help me learn, consider, grow, and change. If distraction was called for, movies had me covered; if catharsis was required, film did the trick. Now, did cinema finish its work on me or anyone else? We’ll see what 2017 has in store. But my bet would be for the process — and in some cases, fight — to be an ongoing one. Such is life.
Here are my top ten films of 2016, the ones I responded to the most strongly, the ones I’d most want to watch again, and as is so often the case: the ones I really want to tell everyone about. I hope you’ll watch them too and feel something good.
Hello Destroyer – This will be the Canadian film, directed by Kevan Funk, you hopefully hear a lot about in 2017.
Hell or High Water – A solid new-age western propped up by a fantastic supporting turn from Jeff Bridges.
Swiss Army Man – The ending didn’t entirely work, but if you want weird cinema (or a movie featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse) you could do a lot worse.
Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt continues her streak as a one-woman industry for small, soft-spoken, yet eminently powerful films. Long may she reign.
10) Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Somehow Lo and Behold is the first of three documentaries on the list this year — a wild accomplishment considering I’ve never had any non-fiction films in my top ten on this site. In any case, Werner Herzog’s pulse check on the technological world resonates; most Herzog docs do. But while he’s journeyed to the edges of the planet, gone diving into caves and jungles, sought out various oddballs and eccentrics, Herzog’s exploration of what we know about how we live today, and where we may be heading, is my favourite doc of his yet. Broken up into ten prismatic chapters, each part of Lo and Behold acts as an exciting refraction point designed to bring more vistas into view. Herzog doesn’t judge here, he only searches and questions, then records the results. One thing is, as always, clear: behind Herzog’s comically stoic exterior there is a man with a keen sense of wonder, exercised in equal measure for moments of communal bluegrass banjo picking and soccer-playing robots. Behold, indeed.
9) Everybody Wants Some!!
The easiest (re: laziest) way to define Everybody Wants Some!! is as a Bro Movie. (The second laziest is as a “spiritual” sequel to Dazed and Confused.) It’s about baseball dudes doing guy things the weekend before the college semester begins. They get together, bust chops, chase girls, compete about the smallest things, and eventually they do play some sports. That’s it, that’s the movie. Now, far be it for me to defend Richard Linklater’s decision to make it when opinions on bros are at an all-time low, but Everybody Wants Some!! is about as purely enjoyable as a film can possible be. Yes, it’s about exactly one specific experience (one that’s, in a way, been done many times before), and its philosophies are shallow at first glance. But how Linklater creates and sustains the tone of his film, one of casual, perceptive grace, is remarkable. The film may feel lazy, and one can be lazy about it, but this is hard work. And most importantly: it cares a great deal.
8) The Nice Guys
What’s commendable about The Nice Guys is its sense of self. Despite centring on two characters who don’t really have a firm grasp on who they are (or are actively resisting this reality), the film glides along with a comfortable certainty. Part of this is due to writer/director Shane Black’s confidence — he’s the one who, after some long, lean decades in Hollywood, most knows himself. It’s his unique voice we hear in everyone’s mouth, it’s his sense of style that drives the film, it’s his ease with the material that sells it. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have cast Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as the leads. Sure, the plot kind of hops around and ultimately feels inconsequential. But then again, like some of the best shaggy dog detective stories, who cares? What The Nice Guys solves goes far beyond corruption in the auto industry or a murder cover-up (or whatever), and that’s why it works.
It feels like every year there’s at least one grand film with a hopeful message no matter how dark the times. The science fiction monolith Arrival is one such film. That it comes from Denis Villeneuve, specialist in sordid and grim tales, is something of a surprise. On the surface — one of beautiful cinematography and skilled editing, by the way — the film is merely a big budget science fiction movie about aliens on Earth. But this is not an invasion; in fact, the film’s tension is produced entirely by humans (including a superlative Amy Adams) lost in the questions of what this all means for them. As a result, the set pieces here recall something of classical sci-fi tales of yore, ones built around discovery and mystery, founded on emotion, and resolved with a piercing look inward.
6) Rogue One
Given the overall richness of the Star Wars universe, it’s a little funny that the first cinematic story being told away from the Skywalker hero’s journey, still involves some Skywalkers. That particular call to adventure is hard to ignore. But what’s commendable about Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is how it recasts the typical Star Wars yarn by using a lot of the familiar icons to create something tonally different. This is the first film set in this universe to capture the grit and grime of life under Imperial order. There is madness and anger here. It frames the actual “war” context of Star Wars as something other than space-faring hijinks. And while the space-faring is still damn good, and the conflict — particularly in the third act — is downright breathtaking, Rogue One carves out something new. And as a huge Star Wars fan myself, it feels like we’re on the edge of something special.
5) O.J.: Made in America
The debate on whether Ezra Edelman’s towering documentary O.J.: Made in America belongs to the movies or TV is a silly one. It played in theatres first, but the almost eight hour runtime makes it far more conducive to TV viewing. This chatter avoids the real implication: a film in 2016 about a celebrity murder case from 20 years ago can still provide almost eight hours of material and still be entirely relevant to life in America today, yesterday, and, sadly, on into the future. On screen, O.J. Simpson is a terrifying figure, both for what he was so obviously capable of and for what he represented. Here was a Black man who sought to run from his background and insulate himself from history — and why not? As Edelman’s film makes clear, the life of an African-American man, particularly one in Simpson’s Los Angeles, was (and is) hard. So hard in fact, that even millions of dollars, celebrity status, and the best legal team money can buy, could not help one escape the judgement of white America. At turns funny, tragic and chilling, O.J.: Made in America is essential viewing.
Kirsten Johnson, the cinematographer behind Cameraperson, would like her film to be viewed as a memoir. The assembled footage from her 25 plus years spent around the world with people in places as disparate as rural Bosnia, Kabul, Lagos and across America profoundly makes this case. What begins with an objective eye — a view into one specific history, recorded, saved and edited together — becomes something far more subjective and, in the process, empathetic. And that’s before I mention the role Johnson’s own mother, deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease, has to play in the narrative. But then again: there is no real narrative here, or roles; the film’s scenes follow no chronology, and defy easy geographical or even thematic order. What Johnson has done instead is told the story of her memory, captured the effect of time on humans everywhere, and shown how, as trite as it may sound in film, we really are connected. Cameraperson defies easy description and stands wholly unique. I was enthralled as it bounced from one place to another, drawing lines across time and space in a way which only film is truly capable, while expressing emotion through the only conduit possible: people.
What stands out in Moonlight, after we talk about the film’s context and character, are those scenes of perfect visual harmony. Think of a young boy trusting a near-stranger father-figure as he is cradled in the ocean, or the fury of two teens fighting, touching each other the only way the know how (and they only way in which they’re allowed), or a hardened “criminal” silent behind his grills, driving on into the night. There’s plenty of dialogue in Moonlight, as with any other film, but the strength of its emotive power comes from what is not said. You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot about how Moonlight is an important film — as a Black coming-of-age story that intersects with a coming out, how could it not be? — but this almost overlooks the qualities that make it truly great. The subject matter is significant, but the craft from writer/director Barry Jenkins is what makes it sing. When you get to that final image of the boy in the nighttime, standing in the glow of the moon, there’s only one thing left to think: this is a beautiful film.
2) Manchester by the Sea
There’s just no way this film should be as funny as it is. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea‘s writer and director, takes a premise that should be steeped in agony — literally it’s death upon death in this one! — and imbues it with… laughter? Yes, yes he does, which is why this film stands so tall over so much of this year’s cinematic landscape. This is an unflinching look at life after death, and an honest review of what guilt and grief really amount to over time. And while it’s easy to point to the performances — Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges all shine — the star of the film remains its voice. For a long time we’ve just barely had Lonergan in our lives, and it has felt like something of a creative death. Here’s hoping with this film he’s back full-time. It feels like there is still a lot left to say.
1) Toni Erdmann
For some of the films I saw this year, the more I thought or read about them the easier it became to pick them apart. It always felt like there was some caveat to add that brought them down a notch. As I crafted this list, the one film that kept pushing its way higher and higher was Toni Erdmann, a movie that resists, nay, insists on more thoughtful study. Also, it is really gotdamn funny.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, Toni Erdmann hasn’t quite screened much in Toronto. It played at TIFF to raucous reaction — which is where I saw it — and has been making the rounds on the international film festival circuit for most of the year. The film, directed by Maren Ade, is also almost three hours long and mostly in German (with a smattering of English and Romanian). I realize these sound like caveats, but they are not. And that’s because what Toni Erdmann most decidedly is is the most complete film of the year, stocked with memorable performances, perfect writing, and a sharp visual eye. It tells the story of one specific father and daughter, but it also pokes at the entire capitalist structure of our world. And, again, it is really, really funny. To explain the details of the plot here, now, feels unnecessary. Know this instead: it’s been a hard year, yes, but films like Toni Erdmann exist. Go see it and be amazed.