Top 20 Films of 2016

Honorable Mentions/Alternative Facts: Moana, Neruda, The Edge of Seventeen, Christine, 13th, Manchester by the Sea, Zootopia

20. A Bigger Splash
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A hot, sweaty, impassioned work of bad behavior among the well-to-do. Unlike its director’s previous work (I am Love), this radiates with the passion and sexuality that the text suggests. Tilda Swinton, silenced by the script’s demands, still creates a captivating character. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes spastically dances away with the whole thing, while Dakota Johnson and Belgian hunk Matthias Schoenaerts supply some youthful eye candy. As sweet and sticky as an exotic summer love affair.

19. Aquarius
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Its simple set up does, at first glance, not appear to justify its nearly 2.5 hour runtime. But the humanity on display, most notably from Sonia Braga’s (Kiss of the Spider Woman) achingly real performance, pushes this straightforward drama toward the transcendent. It works best as a vehicle for its central performance, yet there is much to admire in the filmmaking around the endeavor.

18. Hell or High Water
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A case for the screenwriter as auteur. Taylor Sheridan (the writer of 2015’s Sicario) knows how to write characters and dialogue that sing. A low-tech Texas caper that casually boasts some of 2016’s finest performances.

17. Elle
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By God, it shouldn’t work. And yet…..amid the potential for crass transgression emerges an acid-soaked character study that just happens to include a rape. Elegant and profane all at once. Huppert reaffirms her status as cinema’s reigning Ice Queen (with apologies to Ms. Swinton, Ms. Kidman, and others). I could watch her toy with an obsidian hatchet all day.

16. Love & Friendship
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The joys of biting wit. A comedy of manners and manipulation, with a caustic undercurrent. Kate Beckinsdale is a revelation, and Tom Bennett provides the year’s greatest (fictional/non-presidential) buffoon.

15. The Innocents
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2016’s other great work of Catholic filmmaking. A story of women, both of the cloth and of the stethoscope. Boilerplate on the surface, yet written, directed, and acted with enough artful conviction to create something special.

14. I Am Not Your Negro
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A rigorous slap in the face to bigotry. An impassioned, scalding wake-up call to complacent progressivism. A plea to recognize James Baldwin as the intellectual and idealogical giant that he truly was.

13. Loving
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A landmark court case shoved to the margins to make way for the simple lives of its simple heroes. In places, it is too reserved for its own good. Yet when it connects, it hits home thanks to the radiant work from its leading man and lady. A tragedy that its message still feels necessary. Ruth Negga’s eyes and Joel Edgerton’s puffy cheeks can move mountains.

12. Silence
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Contains more ideas in individual scenes than Marty’s previous 3 movies have combined. Religious conviction, selfish martyrdom, idealogical/cultural imperialism whirl together in a challenging centrifuge of a movie. It may not be possible to fully do justice to Shusaku Endo’s novel on screen, but the middle and end portions of this film come close.

11. Evolution
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The oppressive bodily control of a patriarchy as presented through a matriarchy. Terse, ambiguous, and chilling. Contains one of the great “oh god what the fuck???” scenes of the year.

10. Certain Women
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Three chapters, each completely separate from the others, yet somehow threaded together into a thematic tapestry. A celebration of women in various states of obstruction (personal, professional, romantic, etc…) and the ordinariness that makes their journeys extraordinary. Seasoned screen pros (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams) and bright newcomers (Lily Gladstone) all shine together. The men aren’t too shabby either (give it up for Mad Men’s Jared Harris; devastating).

09. The Handmaiden
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Stuffed to the gills with twists and reveals, with each one adding yet another perverse level of delight. A stunningly dressed world where no one is quite what they seem, and nearly every scene changes if you adjust your view by a few degrees. Gone Girl‘s Amy Dunne would be proud of the schemes on display. Each development leaves you grinning at its construction. A welcome reminder of the gems pouring out of South Korea.

08. The Witch
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As with many recent stand-out horror entries, it soars because it wants us to watch, rather than jump and cover our eyes. Even with its exemplary command of atmosphere, it would be nothing without the sterling work from its cast, most notably the father-daughter combo played with great force by Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Absolutely.

07. 20th Century Women
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Memory as a collage, a music video, a slideshow, an art exhibit. A coming-of-age tale centered on the formative figures of a teen boy’s life. Annette Bening taps into an endless reservoir of warmth. Affirms life not just for its highs, but also its lows.

06. Louder Than Bombs
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Unfolds like a great novel that was under-appreciated in its own time. Pulverizing in its silences, haunting in its elliptical structure. A story of loss in which the dearly departed is as fully realized as those who carry on afterward. Even the smallest of performances are note perfect.

05. Things to Come
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A finding-yourself-in-late-middle-age drama composed of serenity and grace. Arguably the best Isabelle Huppert performance of 2016, distinguished but its uncommon tenderness and warmth. Flows with the gentle movement of life, unhurried, yet always transfixing in its mundanity.

04. The Lobster
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Social engineering as a darkly humorous tragic farce. The year’s boldest, oddest concept, bolstered by the Olympic-level deadpanning from its terrific ensemble. Individual stabs of humor register more than many comedies in their entirety.

03. Arrival
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The beauty of language and communication juxtaposed with an intimate study of time, memory, and grief (and in so many configurations). Pulls off a heady, perception-altering reveal with economy and grace, translated effortlessly through the face of Amy Adams. Its intergalactic setup proves a brilliant context for its character-driven components.

02. Jackie
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The all-too-rare dramatization of a real-life icon that prioritizes drama over accuracy. A meditation on loss and legacy; a disorienting pseudo-psychological horror film about private and public lives. What starts as Natalie Portman playing dress-up soon morphs into a gut-wrenching portrait of trauma on an operatic scale. Real or imaginary, you will mourn for Camelot.

01. Moonlight
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A breathtakingly intimate journey from childhood to early adulthood. Aspects of it are universal, yet what hits most powerfully is how to delves into the socio-economic specifics of its characters. In some of its longest silences, it swells with orchestral rapture. Life captured as both complete sentences and open-ended poetic verse.

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