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