The time has come to sip on a cup of green tea, close my eyes, and enjoy a critic’s greatest pleasure: reminiscing and gathering the best films of the year into one place. While many have lambasted 2016 as a year of death and loss, the world of film has remained undaunted in its rich, varied explorations of art, empathy, and humor.
It was a year when comedy films managed to reach a weird peak, consistently surprising audiences with unexpected laughs. The music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is easily the funniest film of the year (and you didn’t see it, poor devil), while Keanu is a close second. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! nearly made my list. Even films that looked like common Hollywood claptrap – Central Intelligence, Bad Moms, Storks – were unexpectedly amusing despite themselves. Three of the films in my own personal top 15 are arch and ambitious comedies.
2016 was also a great year for horror films, as over a dozen great fright flicks hit theaters. The Purge: Election Year was a more intelligent satire than one might recognize, and taut thrillers like Don’t Breathe were popping up occasionally. I also have to give an honorable mention to The Boy, an effective, twisted little horror gem from earlier in the year, and one that few saw.
There were some downsides as well. 2016 was a banner year for sequels that no one asked for. Zoolander 2, Ride Along 2, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Neighbors 2, Bad Santa 2, Now You See Me 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, Jason Bourne, Blair Witch, The Mechanic: Resurrection, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Ice Age: Collision Course, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny were all assumed to have built-in audiences seeking familiar brands. In all cases, audiences were simply baffled by their very existence. I would love to meet the single soul on this planet who was really, really aching for another Huntsman film.
This year, as with every year, I haven’t managed to see all of the films I have wanted. As such, certain contenders will have to be films I catch up on. Cemetery of Splendor, Christine, Certain Women, 20th Century Women, Green Room, Things to Come, A Bigger Splash, the two Terrence Malick films, Paterson, and the final 6 hours of O.J.: Made in America have, as of this writing, eluded my eyes. That said, here are the 14 best films of 2016.
In a world where blockbusters seem to be attracting even more money and worship than ever before, and superhero films have remained undaunted and unassailed for 15 years, there is a great deal of daring in taking the piss out of the genre. Deadpool is a hilarious, crass, and ironic film that did something certain audiences have been waiting for: something different. It’s not a grand deconstruction of the superhero genre by any means, but it puckishly thumbs its nose at many superhero conventions, and that’s worth a lot.
13. Under the Shadow
Perhaps one of the most feminist films of the year, this haunted house thriller from Iran imagines a woman, suddenly required by law to drop out of med school, forced to live at home with her child. The dark presence that moves in with them is, of course, a dark shadow of domestic oppression felt by women the world over. It’s politically intelligent, and no small amount of terrifying.
12. The Neon Demon
It’s fitting and even a little bit poetic that an obvious, ham-fisted criticism of the empty opulence of the fashion industry should also, in itself, be a work of empty opulence. Would-be genius Nicolas Winding Refn throws a teenage Elle Fanning into a deliberately over-aestheticized world of vanity-worshiping minxy lesbian models who either want to have sex with her, kill her, or idolize her. It’s one of the more visually stimulating films of the year, and its high melodrama is irresistible.
Elle is a complex adult drama about rape and its aftermath, told with an unprecedented sophistication by Paul Verhoeven, who, working with the resplendent Isabelle Huppert, explores regret, healing, suspicion, and sexual obsession in the wake of a sexual assault that is, rather shockingly, seemingly brushed off by its victim. This is a film about rape, but also about the way adults wind themselves into relationships of lies and sexual betrayal without really trying. Counter to the central messages of togetherness found in American films, Elle also boldly states that sometimes drifting apart is healthy and natural.
10. The Witch
Told in a heightened language, and thrusting audiences into the muddy morass of mid-17th century America, The Witch is a terrifying and amazing look at the way puritans can fall apart in the face of evil – or things they perceive to be evil. The Witch is either a supernatural film about the way women are oppressed and how evil entities can exact revenge… or it’s simply about those things as brought about by religious hysteria and paranoia. Either way, it’s a corker.
9. The Invitation
There is a tendency in the modern world for younger people to fetishize their own grieving. The Invitation is about how different people deal with loss differently, and how certain people, while in a state of depression, expect – nay, demand – that the rest of the world meet them on their terms. At a dinner party, a young woman, mourning a tragedy from years before, asks her friends and ex to a dinner party to more or less indoctrinate them into a feel-good cult. It’s a film that extends narcissistic grieving to an apocalyptic degree. It’s one of the more timely films of the year.
Silence tells the story of Catholic priests who find themselves bravely exploring the world of 17th-century Japan, a time when being Christian was punishable by death. Martin Scorsese manages to construct this tale of conflicting faiths as a combination Biblical parable and Zen koan, highlighting the fundamental differences – and similarities – of the two faiths. But beyond that, Scorsese has made a largely universal allegory for the way persecution works, and what can remain in your heart/head/soul/self even if the rest of the world demands you be something else. What’s more, it’s beautiful, textured, visually striking in a way few films are anymore.
7. The Lobster
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos seems to have noticed that the realm of adult romance has been wholly commodified, turned into something with social currency rather than an emotional instinct. He satirizes this notion to an amazing degree in The Lobster, a brilliant absurdist fable that takes place in a world where single people are rounded up by the police and forced to find life-long spouses in a dull English resort hotel. By turns bizarre and hilarious, The Lobster is one of the more outstandingly outlandish films to come along in a while.
6. American Honey
A quiet, very long, and seemingly aimless film about living an aimless life, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of the more emotionally moving and deeply satisfying films of the year. The excellent Sasha Lane plays a teenage girl named Star who, to flee her extreme poverty and cycle of abuse, takes to the road with equally impoverished magazine-hocking teens. It’s a natural film that has the nerve to breathe. And in those breaths, we realize that we, despite our hardships, can live. The smallest moments become the biggest heartbeats.
5. Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman has always dealt with what he calls comedies of mannerlessness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Jane Austen should prove such a perfect fit for him. Stillman employs a florid version of English that I didn’t realize that I was missing from my movies, letting the characters savor their words rather than just deliver them. Lady Susan Vernon, as played by Kate Beckinsale, is a beautiful cinematic creation, in that she is a bare-faced opportunist and rude jerk, but who is still 100% likable and sympathetic. The laughs begin gently, and simply grow. The world needs to keep an eye on Tom Bennett, a comedic actor who waltzes away with every scene he’s in, playing the best upper-class twit this side of Monty Python.
4. The Edge of Seventeen
This is the sort of movie that will not get enough praise in 2016, which is a pity, because it’s quietly brilliant. Hailee Steinfeld, giving one of the best performances of the year, plays a bratty teenage girl named Nadine who is cordoned off in her own world, incensed that her mother doesn’t listen, and mortified that her best friend may be falling in love with her golden child brother. There is a casual universality to Nadine, and director Kelly Fremon Craig captures the adolescent mindset – replete with sexual hangups, romantic angst, and amusing arrogance – with a subtle ease and staggering accuracy.
3. The Handmaiden
A lavish, melodramatic soap opera writ large, Park Chan-wook’s airport thriller about con men and secret pornography rings reaches well beyond its trashy roots to find something downright gleeful and, weirdly, deeply romantic. But while still feeling as lurid as it wants. In it, a reclusive and creepy heiress is marked by a team of con artists who mean to prime her for a sham marriage (and subsequent robbery), but who ends up falling in love/lust with her feckless and young handmaiden instead. The twists are certainly fun, but Park Chan-wook is also composing a treatise on pornography, and how certain men have had their view of women tainted by the over-consumption of it. There is a powerful feminist underpinning to The Handmaiden, that gives it richness in addition to its wicked, scandalous narrative.
David Hume once said that the true secret to empathy was reading fiction. Roger Ebert echoed that sentiment when he called films empathy machines. One of the greater thrills, then, of great cinema is the opportunity to understand, empathize with, and become emotionally intertwined with an otherwise marginalized segment of the human population, and Moonlight does this in spades. Tracing the life of one young gay black man in Miami named Chiron (Shy-RONE), played over the years by three actors, as he discovers himself, the way he loves, and the struggle he must make to survive a drug-addicted mom, and a dad figure (the amazing Mahershala Ali) who wants the best for him, but who’s drug-dealing job is ruining Chiron’s life. Moonlight‘s natural frankness about the way young sexuality functions is accurate, and its understanding of needing to remain closeted is heartbreaking.
The best film of the year is one that appeals to the intellect just as strongly as it appeals to the heart. In Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi contemplation, Amy Adams plays a linguist who is tasked with translating the language of recently-landed space aliens who have not made any public appearances, and whose agenda remains hidden. In exploring their language, the characters – and by extension, the audiences – is allowed to experience the depth and wonders of what language means, what it’s for, and what it can do. How we communicate alters our perceptions, and simply talking may hold the secret to understanding the universe in a new way. Arrival is profound, intelligent, and dares to be about intelligent people.
Top Image: Amazon Studios
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.