A-List: Top 10 Movies of 2016
By J. Don Birnam
December 26, 2016

Not the Tenenbaums.

It’s the one time a year that the A-List is ten entries long, and always a hard list to make. Making these lists is so entirely subjective that it is always more likely to cause arguments than to resolve them. Having seen over 150 movies in theaters, screeners, film festivals, and screenings, I still haven’t seen at least a dozen that could potentially be worthy of an entry, making any list invalid from the get go.

What is clear from 2016 is that the divide between critics and audiences, which has existed for at least 20 years or more, continues to grow. Audiences flock to big spectacle event movies like Captain America and Rogue One, but it is other types of movies that hold the top ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. So here goes nothing.

10. Sausage Party

It is not unusual for an animated film to be among top ten movies lists these days, not with the wonder of the imaginations of those folks working at Pixar. What is more unusual is for that movie to be a raunchy adult cartoon, one that basically centers on supermarket items humping each other. But Seth Rogen’s devilish cartoon is thick in innuendo and laughs, while also doing what more successful Pixar movies manage to do (though, notably, none this year): suffuse the entire exercise with at least enough cleverness to get you thinking in between laughs.

9. Loving

Speaking of historically important films about race, Jeff Nichols’ brilliantly understated love story of the couple that brought down the nation’s odious anti-miscegenation laws captures it succinctly. How ironic that, a year after the second go of the unfair and exaggerated #OscarsSoWhite controversy, one that everyone assumed would end with Sundance darling The Birth of a Nation, it is a much quieter film that should bring that controversy to a halt. With a surprising and moving performance by Ruth Negga, this film perhaps belongs to a time of heroes that has passed us, but at least good filmmaking has not yet gone completely by.

8. Captain Fantastic

A welcome surprise this awards season is that Viggo Mortensen’s project about a single father facing the challenge of raising his children to be admirable adults has found itself in the thick of it. As rich as the movie is with messages about its own view of the world and respectable citizens, it is laced with genuinely touching moments and impossible questions about the difficulties of parenthood. When I first saw this film, I felt it was a better version of Little Miss Sunshine, and although it has not achieved that level of success, I suspect it may obtain a warmer reception in years to come.

7. I, Daniel Blake

You cannot tell the story of the world in 2016 without recounting the anxiety of the aging white male. This movie, the top prize-getter at Cannes, approaches that topic from an unexpected perspective: a leftist one. Much like the lauded Tom Hanks SNL skit during the election, I, Daniel Blake reminds us that the problem of the government abandoning its most needy transcends race. It is a moving, intelligent, and finely tuned filmed in all respects. An odd but effective companion to Ava DuVarney’s brilliant documentary, 13th, in fearlessly taking on urgent topics in our times.

6. Elle

Likely to be one of the most controversial picks on the list, this French film about a woman who is sexually assaulted and seeks to turn the tables on her attacker is undoubtedly one of the surprising ones of 2016. Directed by Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven and featuring a bravura performance by French diva Isabelle Huppert, Elle finds itself in the thick of controversies in America about rape and how our culture deals with it. But as a study of the modern anxieties of the aging Western cultures and of how it wrestles with people who seek to subvert the old order, Elle is surprisingly brilliant.

5. Toni Erdmann

Leading the way among foreign language films that are vying for a Best Foreign Language Oscar is Germany’s film about a hardworking woman facing contemporary problems. Sexism and globalization and their collateral damage, make an appearance, but the entire exercise is buoyed by the ubiquitous figure of her loving and eccentric father. The film reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously in our pursuit of happiness and success, and relives the apparently lost value of finding humor in even the ridiculous. In today’s insane world, in which fitting in and being successful within oppressive corporate structures has made a gross resurgence, the father figure in this complexly honest film reminds us that perhaps there is more to happiness than success at the office.

4. Moonlight

The most critically acclaimed movie of 2016 is Barry Jenkins’ touching story of a gay black man as he navigates life in South Florida from childhood to young adulthood. Featuring a cast full of very personal performances, Moonlight is about nothing in particular other than life itself - its challenges, its ups and downs, and its rewards. But to board its themes with such equanimity, avoiding the obvious pitfalls of drug deaths or excessive violence, makes Moonlight memorable. Featuring a haunting soundtrack and perhaps the best cinematography of the year, the movie is sure to make a mark this awards season and in years to come.

3. Jackie

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first English-language feature is a clinic in good movie making. Larrain seamlessly weaves archival footage with modern day recreations of the days following the assassination of JFK to bring to the screen this intimate and even previously unknown exploration of one of America’s most iconic public figures. But it is undoubtedly Natalie Portman’s fastidiously exact portrayal that elevates this film from good to great - conveying emotion, pain, and resolve with every inch, with every teardrop, and with every gasp, just like the First Lady herself did.

2. Manchester by the Sea Even more surprising was Kenneth Lonergan’s exacting study of grief, coping, and loss, Manchester by the Sea. After Telluride, this movie seemed like one you never forget. My suspicions have been confirmed upon multiple viewings. It grows on you because you know what the deal is - what all these characters have gone through - and you note their sincerity. Hands down, three of the best performances in any film all year are in this film, by Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Williams. The movie has its finger on so many topics relevant to modern day Americans that it is hard to keep up. Most notable, though, are the challenges that the working middle class faces in the face of adversity. It is touching, intelligent, and unforgiving, and is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year.

1. Arrival

But it was clear to me from the moment I saw it that Dennis Villeneueve’s Arrival would easily be my favorite film of the year. Arrival is proof positive that the critics vs. audience divide can be bridged, that there can be smart and creative storytelling in the realm of space movies, and that one can have great visual effects and aliens alongside memorable stories. Beyond that, Arrival is the best movie of the year because it visits many of the themes of the other movies I listed here and combines them into an unforgettable mélange. Arrival is about what it means to be human, about what it feels like to lose your humanity, and about the process we take to find ourselves after loss. It is a touching story about motherhood. Above all, it is also a warning, perhaps, of the consequences of ignoring those first principles of civilized cooperation and human growth, those that have brought us here in the first place. Let’s hope, of course, that the movie does not turn out to be a dire warning about what is to come for us as a species…

What were your favorite movies of 2016?!

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