The 10 Best Films of 2016: Beyoncé, Killer Neo-Nazis, and a Modern-Day Masterpiece
Behold: Jen Yamato’s picks for the very best movies of the year.
When we bring our hearts with us to the movies, their stories can transcend the screen. And the best of them can become much more than mere moving pictures. In a year in which the political stage became intensely personal no matter on which side of the election you fell, some films loomed larger, keyed into the zeitgeist; others resonated more personally, emboldened by fresh visions that shook us out of our national malaise-cum-mania.
When I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster in the spring, I was in love. I watched it again months later and the ending had changed. It was the same movie, with the same final shot, the same ambiguous ending I’d found a sliver of hope in. It was me who had changed—and so was what I took away from it this time, much more cynical, much less sure in that happy ending, a little more inclined to understand why someone might slip out of that diner and into the bright and bustling ordinary world, alone.
By winter, I sat down ready to watch Damien Chazelle’s La La Land for the second time. My first had been drenched in tears, the kind of deeply embarrassing ugly cry that comes from all the feelings pressing up against a bruised heart, one already enamored of this brightly bittersweet musical. Over time, it too had transformed. That achingly mournful coda somehow ached a little less. The flash of a memory between two people across a crowded room, a single song laden with long-forgotten possibilities—all the magic that made those foolish hearts ache—took on new dimension.
Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was already the best film of the year before the election made the tenacity of its existence that much more resonant. In a year flush with great moments, unforgettable turns, awful films, and plenty of mediocre fluff, movies have come alive more frequently than expected. I had a hell of a time going to the movies and talking about them for The Daily Beast, which I’ll bid farewell to in the new year. Here’s to the ones who dream when the lights go down and the screen starts to flicker, and to a 2017 that brings us more hope than horror—at least offscreen.
10. THE WITCH
Robert Eggers’s ye olde 17th-century psychodrama opened in February and kept its rank atop the best horror fare of the year, its slow-building tension still some of the best anxiety cinema of 2016. Not bad for a first-time director, whose knack for casting and grasp on the gloomy natural aura of his New England paranoia parable makes The Witch (or The VVitch) a masterfully contained piece utterly plucked straight out of an America both alien and all-too familiar to the one we know today. His discovery of star Anya Taylor-Joy, too, was a gift: The breakout actress showed tremendous depth as Thomasin, the dutiful daughter pushed to a breaking point by her parents’ moral and sexual austerity (see her romancing a young Barack Obama in the excellent new Netflix flick Barry). Black Phillip—The Witch’s other instantaneous star—left us all with a tantalizing proposition in the face of any force that may seek to control us: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
If Beyoncé took lemons and made her album Lemonade, what are critics to make of the sweeping and incendiary cinematic accompaniment she crafted to go along with it? Far more than just a visual album, Lemonade the film is a work of elevation: Building on songs of grief and fierce liberation, it weaves in Malick-esque scenes composed with lyrical visual power, threaded together with the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. The chameleonic Beyoncé herself is the throughline powering from one scene to another, pulling from all directions to adorn herself with the influences that shaped her: family strength, personal tragedies, the legacy of women she descends from, and an America in which black female power comes in many forms. Lemonade honors the cinematic heritage of filmmakers like Julie Dash, whose Daughters of the Dust enjoyed a resurgence in popularity—and a theatrical rerelease—because of it, and it throws new shine on rising filmmakers like Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Jonas Akerlund, Mark Romanek, and Khalik Allah (Field Niggas).
8. TRAIN TO BUSAN
This year, South Korean audiences discovered the exquisite combination of zombies and trains—two great tastes that taste great together, especially when packaged in an epic ensemble action pic pulsing with heart-pounding human drama. Director Yeon Sang-ho’s gory thriller about passengers on a commuter train during a terrifying zombie outbreak broke box-office records back home, and after a limited run stateside is set to get its own English-language remake. Adapted out of its original South Korean context, however, can Train to Busan retain the cultural and class commentary Yeon loaded into his saga—in which an elitist businessman’s worst qualities and even worse parenting skills emerge as survivors turn on one another, eager to sacrifice their fellow man to the undead hordes? Train to Busan is Snowpiercer meets World War Z, down to the car-by-car combat and ravenous, lightning-quick monsters—but it’s also the kind of movie that fills every frame to capacity, delivering equal amounts pathos and stomach-churning carnage. One of the best horror films of 2016.
7. GREEN ROOM
Jeremy Saulnier’s punks vs. neo-Nazis siege thriller is a wonderfully nasty piece of cinema with a melancholy postscript: It’s also one of the last films to star the talented Anton Yelchin, tragically lost this year. His biggest 2016 picture was the big-budgeted Star Trek Beyond, reprising his role as the Russian Starfleet officer Chekov. But Green Room, Saulnier’s second great film (after Blue Ruin) about characters driven to desperate, violent ends, was Yelchin’s more harrowing hero turn. Facing off against one of the most sinister villains of the year—Sir Patrick Stewart as a coldly vicious white-supremacist gangster in command of a militia of eager young foot soldiers—Green Room’s defiant punk rockers find themselves in an impossible hellhole, suddenly forced to care about their lives, their futures, and their most embarrassing desert-island picks.
6. THE LOBSTER
Given 45 days to find a new romantic partner lest he be turned into an animal for the rest of his natural life, boring, unassuming David (the not boring, ebullient-in-real life Colin Farrell) submits himself to the rules of society in The Lobster, an absurdist black comedy that speaks cringingly accurate truth to the ways in which we live and attempt to love in the real world. Yorgos Lanthimos creates a reality not terribly far-removed from our own, in which humorlessness and polite behavior reign over freedom of expression and relationships are the natural order for well-functioning humans of a certain age. What happens to David when he breaks free of this rigid society and flees to the wilderness only underscores the hypocrisy in any institutional system of modern living. But when he allows himself to truly exercise free will—his soul awakened by Rachel Weisz, terrorized by an also-great Lea Seydoux—what fate does David choose for himself?
5. LA LA LAND
Dedicated to the dreamers and the lovers who risk it all for greatness—and, here in Los Angeles, you know plenty of ’em will fail spectacularly—La La Land is a lovely bittersweet song of a movie. Where Damien Chazelle kept it claustrophobic in his first film, Whiplash, he goes big in his ode to the Golden Age Hollywood musicals and characters so high on life they’re given to breaking into impromptu song-and-dance. The influence of Jacques Demy’s subversive, candy-colored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg lends La La Land something more surprising, and less artificial: Between hopeful ballads and pas de deux, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone spin dreams for themselves that collide with their romantic fantasies. La La Land may dance across the city of stars with a nostalgic spring in its step, but it sings the realest song.
4. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
The words of 20th-century thinker, author, and cultural critic James Baldwin ring as true today as they did 50 years ago when he spoke hard truths about the troubling ways in which the country’s deep-seated racism seeped into every facet of American life. Director Raoul Peck translates Baldwin’s imperative toward a personal responsibility to speak out, eyes open, creating a tapestry of archival footage, historical context, and Samuel L. Jackson’s dramatic interpretation of the writer’s words—culled, incredibly, from only 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript. Baldwin sought to connect the work, lives, and untimely murders of civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Peck achieves this, and more: I Am Not Your Negro is a combustible call to action, a masterful work of documentary cinema, and one of the most important films to come along in recent years.
3. THE HANDMAIDEN
The most erotic love story of the year is one between a beautiful heiress and her maid in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, a setting with implications that are impossible to divorce from the lusciously twisty melodrama that unfolds in Park Chan-wook’s latest. The Oldboy auteur toys with his audience with an expert touch as The Handmaiden (Agassi) unfolds, an exquisite heist-thriller adapted from Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith: Korean con woman Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent to work for the Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) with the secret task of helping swindle away her inheritance, when (whoops!) romance blooms between the young women, whose sexual chemistry explodes in a few of Park’s more lushly lurid sequences. The film is sumptuous and restrained, allowing its breakout leads to squeeze every bit of heat out of the slightest glance and touch. But that’s all foreplay for what Park really has in store. The Handmaiden knows exactly what it’s doing as it leads you down into darker depths. Didn’t you say you wanted to live deliciously?
2. AMERICAN HONEY
American Honey pulsates with the lifeblood of youthful liberation, a contemporary road story spun with timeless vibrancy by director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road). The freewheeling tale of a teenager who joins a roving band of magazine-selling hustlers to escape her small-town life captures a verite honesty, thanks to Arnold’s unorthodox approach and her uncanny instinct for casting. In newcomer Sasha Lane she hit a jackpot. Lane’s turn as the curious, intrepid, emboldened Star is a quiet revelation, and as she tastes her first flush of love with Shia LaBeouf’s mag crew veteran Jake, she leaps into womanhood before our eyes. American Honey gives voice to a generation of searching youngsters raised on Lady Antebellum and internet rap, simultaneously repping a specific time and place while speaking to more universal longings. It’s a special film deserving of more attention that reminds you what it feels like to lose yourself and howl at the moon, ready to live whatever comes next.
Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is the exquisite slice of humanity we needed in 2016 and Chiron, the fractured protagonist we meet in three acts, is its hero. The full title of the Tarell McCraney play on which it’s based, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, hints of his truth. But the threefold portrayal of actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the same young black man wrestling with his homosexuality in the neon decay of impoverished Miami, gasping for connection where he can find it, breathes visceral life into his struggle on screen. Seeing how one Chiron becomes the next, self-transformation as means of survival, is the most heart-rending experience of the year. Thankfully there’s an impressionistic poetry and power to Jenkins’ lyrical storytelling that lends Moonlight just enough light to illuminate the beauty in Chiron’s blues.