The Best Movies of 2016 (According to Erin Whitney)
How you define the “best” of something varies from one person to the next. The “best” movies can be the ones crafted with the most artistry, the ones that feel particularly culturally significant, or the ones you can’t shake for hours, days, or months after seeing them. Or perhaps the best films are the ones you simply love the most and are eager to return to again and again.
All of those criteria fit the 10 titles I picked as the best films of the year. These are the movies that, in a year full of far too many terrible blockbusters, proved cinema wasn’t dead after all. These 10 films reminded me not only why I love watching movies, but especially why I love writing about it. Some of these I only came to love once I sat down and wrote about them; films that caught me off-guard, and demanded a second viewing and deeper analysis. As it turns out, 2016 was a pretty fantastic year for powerful and important filmmaking. And even if it’s all downhill from here in 2017, at least we have this crop of movies to treasure.
10. 20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
It’s the characters that give Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women nuance, emotion, and personality. The film provides a snapshot of three women (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning), a boy (Lucas Jade Zumann), and a man (Billy Crudup) during the summer of 1979 in Santa Barbara. Yet by the end we feel like we know their entire lives intimately.,When Bening’s Dorothea calls upon the women in her teenage son’s life to help her raise him, the female characters begin to learn about themselves across generational divides. Mills’ story subverts the traditional young male coming-of-age tale and turns it into a story that celebrates the feminine spirit. With a script full of tenderness, a warm sense of humor, and career-best performances from its leading actresses, 20th Century Women is a true gem.
20th Century Women opens in New York and LA on December 28.
9. La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
La La Land won’t just make you smile, it’ll leave you with a smile stuck on your face for two hours. (By the end, my face actually hurt.) Damien Chazelle’s musical about romance and ambition may not be a perfect film, but it’s downright irresistible. It oozes with charm and whimsy courtesy of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who continue to have pitch-perfect onscreen chemistry. The catchy score, composed by Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, will leave you humming tracks like “Someone in the Crowd” and “City of Stars” long afterward. And everything from its radiant, colorful cinematography to its costumes and production design evoke a nostalgia for classic Hollywood musicals and a dreamy Los Angeles.
La La Land is now playing in theaters.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Many have been quick to label Paul Verhoeven’s Elle a rape comedy or revenge film. It’s neither. This twisted thriller is hard to categorize; that’s exactly what I love about it. Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of the year as Michele, a French game developer who, after an assault, refuses to become a victim and instead pursues her rapist and brings him into a messy, dominant-submissive sex game. I discover something new about Elle each time I watch and each time I discuss it with someone new. Like it or not, it’s one we’re going to be watching and discussing for a while.
Elle is now playing in theaters.
Directed by Kristen Johnson
What does it mean to look at life through a camera lens? It’s a question art critics have been investigating since the 19th century, and one you’ll find yourself asking throughout Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. Assembling unused footage from her work as a cinematographer, Johnson jumps from interviews about post-war life in Bosnia, to a New York walk with Jacques Derrida, to scenes with her Alzheimer’s-diagnosed mother. The experience of watching Cameraperson is both perplexing and remarkably moving, and it reflects our instinctual need to seek answers, clarity, and meaning in what we watch. Johnson’s documentary questions the very nature of photography. As the title suggests, the cinematic apparatus can become entity of its own, a character lending us a different perspective into our own narratives.
Cameraperson will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play on January 10.
6. Manchester By the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
On the surface, Manchester By the Sea is a by-the-numbers Sundance tearjerker. It’s about a sad white guy who returns home and struggles with grief. But there’s nothing clichéd or melodramatic about Kenneth Lonergan’s version of this story, which approaches tragedy with an earnest mix of tenderness and humor. After unfortunate circumstances force Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler to return to his hometown, he has to take on new responsibilities with his teenage nephew (a great Lucas Hedges) while to coping with the pain of his former life there. This is a film that hurts, and Manchester By the Sea earns your heartache. It hones in on the small inconveniences that make life’s pains even more frustrating, like the weather delaying a funeral, or parents interrupting sex with your girlfriend. From the performances to the script and direction, Lonergan’s film is one of the most outstanding family dramas in years.
Manchester by the Sea is now playing in theaters.
5. The Handmaiden
Directed by Park Chan-wook
When you sit down for a new Park Chan-wook film you know you’re in for a surprise, but with The Handmaiden you get two twists for the price of one. This delicious thriller finds Korean con artist Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) posing as the maid to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-Hee is plotting to trick Hideko into marrying a false Count (Ha Jung-woo) to steal her fortune, but a romance soon blossoms between the two women. For a lesbian erotic thriller written and directed by a man, The Handmaiden is unabashedly feminist, and it has an ending that’ll make you want to break out into a fist-pumping cheer. If that’s not enough, it’s also one of the finest technical achievements of the year, with gorgeous cinematography, sharp editing, stunning costumes, and a killer score. Park has delivered his most brilliant movie since Oldboy; now I’m only worried he won’t be able to top this one for a while.
The Handmaiden is now playing in theaters.
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Krisha was funded on Kickstarter, shot in nine days with mostly non-professional actors, and written and directed by a first-time filmmaker. And it’s one of the most startling achievements of 2016. Krisha follows a woman visiting her estranged family on Thanksgiving Day; we come to learn bits and pieces about the title character (played by director Trey Edward Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild) and her addiction-riddled past as her interactions with family members become more and more hostile. Fairchild, Shults, and his real-life mother Robyn Fairchild give shattering performances in quiet moments full of tears, and louder scenes exploding with rage. If there’s any upcoming filmmaker to keep your eye on, it’s Shults.
Krisha is currently available on home video and Amazon Prime.
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Is Pablo Larrain’s Jackie a biopic? Yes and no. In the most basic sense, it’s a film about Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But Larrain challenges cinema’s traditional approach to historical figures while forcing us to question how we perceive the manicured life of the former First Lady. Jackie shatters the glass case that keeps us at a safe distance from revered icons, and offers an intimate look at a woman, mother, and political figure. Natalie Portman gives us three sides of the First Lady. We see her Jackie perky and smiling as she gives a White House tour pre-assassination, then blood-splattered as she sits in bewilderment moments after the shooting, and later we witness a fierce widow steering an interview to craft an iconic myth with a reporter. Larrain’s direction subverts the biopic genre and turns what could be a typical bio-portrait into a harrowing and haunting tale about outward perceptions and how we move through grief.
Jackie is now playing in theaters.
2. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos has the ability to horrify you and make you erupt in laughter all at once. In The Lobster, Colin Farrell plays David, a pot-bellied single man who must check into “The Hotel” to find a romantic partner within 45 days. If he fails, David, like all the other Hotel guests, will be turned into the animal of his choosing (a lobster, in his case) and released into the wild. It’s wacky and twisted, and no doubt the most original premise cinema has seen in years. Yet beyond it’s unique narrative, The Lobster is as brutal and dark as it is hilarious. The first time I saw it I sat in pure shock watching the way Lanthimos portrays graphic violence. But on second viewing, I began to understand the director’s wicked sense of humor. The way The Lobster transforms from viewing to viewing is very special.
The Lobster is currently available on home video and Amazon Prime.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
After two viewings, many written words, and plenty of tears, I still struggle to convey just how much I love Moonlight. Barry Jenkins’ aching triptych of black queer male identity is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. On the surface, there’s hardly a plot, and yet Moonlight feels like one of the richest and fullest explorations of life, love, and identity ever captured onscreen. Over three chapters, Jenkins’ follows one boy across three distinct time periods. Moonlight feels like more than a film; it’s a visual poem about sadness, longing, and intimacy that’s as specific as it is universal. Few films are worth of the designation “masterpiece.” Moonlight deserves every bit of it.
Moonlight is now playing in theaters.