|The Ten Best Films of 2016
|by Peter Sobczynski
There are many lists purporting to contain the 10 Best films of 2016 floating around out there. Here is the one completely correct one.
1. La La Land: Having accumulated a certain amount of industry clout based on the success of his award-winning 2014 breakthrough ''Whiplash,'' writer-director Damien Chazelle decided to utilize it to make, of all things, an utterly beguiling romantic musical following a couple of would-be artists--a purist jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and an actress on the low end of the industry totem pole (Emma Stone)---who meet, eventually fall in love and try to maintain their relationship while at the same time struggling to keep from simply throwing in the towel on their ambitions. Both an homage to classical musicals of the past (especially Jacques Demy's ''The Umbrellas of Cherbourg'' and ''The Young Girls of Rochefort'') and a unique work in its own right, this wildly ambitious work contains lovely performances from its two enormously charismatic leads (back together again after lighting up the screen in ''Crazy Stupid Love''), delightful full-scale production numbers (including an opening sequence set in the middle of a traffic jam that is an instant classic) and an ending that, while perhaps not conventionally happy, is absolutely perfect, In a year that gave us an endless array of crappy sequels, retreads and superhero sagas, not to mention whatever the hell that ''Collateral Beauty'' bilge was supposed to be, this is the kind of movie that make you fall in love with the idea of going to the movies all over again.
2. Elle: In a collaboration so fruitful that you wish that they had gotten together years before now, controversial filmmaker Paul Verhoeven and the equally provocative French actress Isabelle Huppert joined forces for this powerful and sometimes darkly funny thriller about a hard-driving businesswoman who is brutally raped in the opening scene and, rather than report it to the cops (whom she has good reason to mistrust, as we eventually discover), sets about trying to track the assailant down herself. What happens next is best left for you to discover but suffice it to say, the story takes some very dark and twisted turns that will leave even the most jaded moviegoers reeling. Both Verhoeven and Huppert are at the top of their respective games here and while the end results may prove to be too intense and outrageous for more timid moviegoers, those who stick it out will be amply rewarded with a film that they will not be shaking off for a very long time.
3. De Palma: Thanks to such classics as ''Phantom of the Paradise,'' ''Carrie,'' ''Dressed to Kill,'' ''Blow Out'' to name just a few, we all know that Brian De Palma's storytelling abilities as a filmmaker are pretty much without equal. However, who knew that he was just as adept at spinning tales while sitting in front of the camera. That proved to be the case in this absolutely riveting documentary by Noah Baumbach & Jake Kasdan in which De Palma took us on a no-holds-barred tour of his entire oeuvre and offering up acute critical analysis of what worked and what didn't in the films as well as any number of priceless behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Beyond being a celebration of De Palma’s career, this is one of the essential Hollywood documentaries in the way that it charts the ups and downs of the American film industry over the last half-century as seen through the eyes of one of its most idiosyncratic participants.
4. Knight of Cups: In the latest effort from the great Terrence Malick, Christian Bale plays a spiritually and emotionally unmoored screenwriter drifting through an existence that sees him bouncing through a series of seemingly random relationships with a series of women played by the likes of Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer and Isabel Lucas. Of course, as is the case of many of Malick's recent films, the story is merely a launching pad for a truly audacious combination of stunning imagery and a defiantly non-linear narrative that is as decidedly freeform as anything ever produced by a major American filmmaker. Admittedly, even Malick’s most ardent fans may be perplexed at first by what he is attempting to do here in regards to his total dismissal to conventional narrative--there could not be a film less suited for our current hot-take culture than this--but those who are able to hone in on Malick’s singular rhythms will find it to be a one-of-a-kind work that pushes the boundaries of what art can say about the human condition in ways that are both startling and ultimately transcendent.
5. Love & Friendship: In the same year that devotees of Jane Austen saw her most famous work debased on movie screens via the already-forgotten atrocity that was ''Pride & Prejudice & Zombies,'' they also got to experience one of the very best cinematic takes on her body of work produced to date via this adaptation of an unfinished novella of hers brought to the screen by Whit Stillman, whose previous wry comedies of manners (including ''Metropolitan,'' ''Barcelona'' and ''The Last Days of Disco'') have invoked comparisons to Austen’s work over the years. This wickedly funny comedy stars Kate Beckinsale (in the best performance of her career) as a widow with a decidedly colorful past who crashes at the estate of her former in-laws while scheming to marry off both herself and her daughter in order to secure their futures. Rather than the stuffy museum piece that this might have become in other hands, Stillman has made a absolutely hilarious film that feels fresher and more vitally alive that most contemporary stories of late that you or I could name. Additionally, his pitch-perfect screenplay manages to translate Austen’s prose in such a way that the characters actually sound as if they are talking to each other instead of merely reciting a series of familiar quotations. The result is a perfect melding of sensibilities--it has the loose and relaxed feel of Stillman's other work while still maintaining the contours of the original narrative and comes up with an ending, the element that eluded Austen herself, that is smart, ironic, deeply satisfying and, like the film as a whole, pretty much perfect.
6. The Handmaiden: In this adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel, a young woman in 1930s-era Korea--then under Japanese occupation--joins forces with a swindler to get hired as the handmaiden to a Japanese heiress in order to help him elope with her, steal her fortune and toss her in an insane asylum, only to find her loyalties wavering when an unmistakable attraction develops between her and the heiress instead. Sounds like the premise for a standard-issue thriller but in the hands of controversial South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park (the auteur of such cult favorites as ''Oldboy,'' ''Thirst'' and ''Stoker''), it transforms into something wholly unexpected instead that is by turns grotesque, darkly funny and undeniably erotic. Yes, it clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours but Chan-wook weaves such a tantalizing and seductive spell from the first frames to the last that you will hardly notice the passage of time.
7. Certain Women: Over the last decade, American independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has quietly been putting together one of the most striking filmographies around with such ostensibly low-key but ultimately powerful dramas as ''Old Joy,'' ''Wendy and Lucy,'' ''Meek’s Cutoff'' and ''Night Moves'' and this effort, a trio of loosely connected stories based on the works of author Maile Meloy about women living in the same area of Montana, is arguably her finest and most moving work to date. The first two stories--an overworked lawyer (Laura Dern) tries to talk down a disgruntled client (Jared Harris) whose dissatisfaction with an ill-advised worker’s comp settlement has led to a hostage situation and a married couple (Reichardt regular Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) discover unexpected cracks in their marriage while trying to acquire a stockpile of sandstone from a neighbor for the new home that they are building--are strong and sure and could have easily been expanded into feature-length narratives. However, it is the final story--in which a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) stumbles upon an adult education class and develops a fascination with the young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who has been roped into teaching it--that makes it a keeper thanks to the extraordinarily touching and nuanced performances by newcomer Gladstone and the increasingly invaluable Stewart and by Reichardt’s way of telling heartfelt and ultimately devastating stories without resorting to the kind of cheap melodramatics that might have been deployed by filmmakers less sure of themselves or their material.
8. Rules Don't Apply: After decades of speculation, rumors and false starts, Warren Beatty’s long-gestating project inspired by the life of notorious billionaire Howard Hughes finally arrived in theaters but the results proved to be far different from the standard-issue biopic that most people were presumably expecting. Instead, the film, set in 1958, tells the story of an aspiring starlet (Lily Collins) under personal contract to Hughes (Beatty) and the ambitious driver (Alden Ehrenreich) assigned to drive her around--an instant attraction develops between them that puts them at odds with both the sexual mores of the era and their mutual employer, who forbids any fraternization between employees and his contract actresses. Right from the start, it is clear that Beatty is not so much interested in Hughes’s life per se as he is in using him as a conduit to deal with subjects that have held a fascination with him throughout his long and storied career--sexual hypocrisy, big business and the inner workings of Hollywood--at a point in time when they were all about to undergo seismic shifts. Admittedly, the film is a little rough in parts--you get the sense that it was much longer and more detailed at one point (which might explain why so many members of the star-studded supporting cast turn up for only a scene or two)—but the things that do work, such as the superlative technical contributions, the byplay between the two young leads and Beatty's scene-stealing supporting turn as Hughes (who has less screen time than one might expect but whose presence is felt in virtually every scene), are so wonderful that they make up for the hiccups. Alas, the film failed to connect with audiences but I suspect that in time, it will be rediscovered and finally get its due.
9. The Shallows: On a secluded Mexican beach, a surfer (Blake Lively) accidentally wanders into the feeding ground of a great white shark and only barely escapes death by climbing onto a rock that has emerged due to the low tide--with the shark still milling about, she must figure out a way to evade it and get to the shore a mere 200 yards away before the return of high tide. Although the basic premise may sound like B-movie cheese, the resulting film turns out to be much more than that thanks to director Jaume Collet Serra’s ability to milk the concept for the maximum amount of suspense without descending into silliness (at least not until the last few minutes) and the surprisingly soulful and gripping performance by Lively in what is essentially a one-woman show. Put it this way--if more summer film releases were as smartly conceived and executed as this one, going to the multiplex during that time would be a far less painful experience for most moviegoers.
10. Silence: As was the case with Beatty and ''Rules Don't Apply,'' Martin Scorsese has spent decades trying to mount a film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) venturing into 17th century Japan, not the best time and place to be a Christian, in search of a mentor (Liam Neeson) who disappeared amidst rumors that he was forced to renounce his faith under threat of persecution and torture. About as far removed from his previous effort, the deliriously profane ''The Wolf of Wall Street'' as can be, this deliberately austere work finds Scorsese grappling with issues of faith, self-doubt and martyrdom that have informed many of his most significant works and this film is as powerful and deeply personal as anything as he has done before and a natural fit with such overtly religious efforts as ''The Last Temptation of Christ'' and ''Kundun.'' With its extended running time, grim subject matter and rigorous formal approach, this will probably not go on to be a success from a commercial standpoint but those who are willing to make the long and demanding journey that Scorsese has presented will be rewarded with the kind of truly powerful moviegoing experience that most filmmakers today do not even bother to attempt, let alone pull off to the degree that he has here.
Beyond those ten titles, there were a number of other excellent films that came out in 2016. In fact, if one of them had not existed, then any of the following ten titles, presented in alphabetical order, could have easily filled in that final slot. They are Robert Zemeckis' Allied, Christophe Gans' Beauty and the Beast, Kelly Fremon Craig's The Edge of Seventeen, Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some Joel & Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, Stephen Chow's The Mermaid, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson and Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Additionally, while I could not justify including it due to the fact that it never received an actual theatrical release, I am certain that if Beyonce's groundbreaking long-form video for her best-selling album Lemonade had gotten one, it would have landed a place on my Top 10 list in a heartbeat.
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originally posted: 12/26/16 20:52:16
last updated: 12/27/16 12:10:45