Just as it’s difficult to pinpoint what truly defined 2016 overall, the same goes for film. In 2013, as we pointed out, shit got real. So, one year later, we escaped. Thus, the social outsider grew. And the social outsider didn’t go away. Shit got real again, but this time, perceptions in reality clashed with another. Citizens escaped into validating takes and talking points. Divisions widened. Murderers, as ever, came with smiles. The social outsider’s definition became elastic. Depending on where you stood, you may have been that social outsider and were judged harshly for it. All the while, tests getting put out for agility, strategy, and luck. If you survived them, if you made the right moves, you were powerful enough to survive anything. And if there’s a common thread through 2016, particularly our own list of 30 films, it’s just that: survival.
Unless you’re in a cultural elitist bubble like myself, cinema must be pretty boring. Very few of the films on our list were met with dump trucks full of cash, but let their inclusion serve as a reminder that the mainstream does reward intelligence. There’s a lot of good shit on our own screens at home. People want something different — they’re just not required to get it themselves. So it goes. Luckily, some studios continue to be as reliable as record labels — the A24s and Drafthouses offered dazzling singular experiences that didn’t waste their meager budgets. Amazon could offer you auteurs after you order kitty litter and Ecto Cooler. Even as budgets shrank, the best films of the year knew how to play, often in ways that were flat-out absurd. Be it a nudist awakening and a set of teeth in Toni Erdmann or delusions of an introvert’s lost life scored by farts in Swiss Army Man, the worlds presented were just as unfair as our own. But they were also, in a way, strangely optimistic in how to deal. As though lit up by what was at stake, filmmakers stopped taking it for granted, and the reliable auteurs — Villeneuve, Verhoeven, Refn — brought their A-game. As the mainstream order remained largely conservative and derivative, chaos and confusion prospered. The old guard fought the new wave. In this context, the world was unarguably better for it.
One film that didn’t make the cut, Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s ode De Palma, reminds viewers how vastly different cinema has become in the latter half of its century-long existence. It takes an outsider, for sure, but we learned this year that the approach of the social outsider doesn’t need to be one of nihilism and terror. As you’ll see in our top 5, the notion that the marginalized can prosper, even in the smallest of triumphs, took our collective breath away. Respect was dealt and earned. Hell, even if your nerdy ass never dug jocks, Everybody Wants Some!! made it possible for at least two hours. Women of the year, through different centuries and some of the nasty persuasion, grabbed back. Companionship was found in the most bizarre and wonderful ways. Even if our personal or political narratives didn’t succeed the same way, we could still be fired up; we know plenty of radical-leaning people inspired by something as half-baked as Rogue One. We’ll take what we can get.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
In Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, a man named Paterson who drives buses in the city of Paterson, NJ, writes poetry in his spare time and is obliquely inspired by the book-length poem by William Carlos Williams called Paterson. This Patersounds like a very bad Pateridea. At least it might to those unfamiliar with William Carlos Williams’s poem: despite being inspired by Ulysses and Pound’s Cantos, his ode to Paterson, NJ is accessible, ordinary, and nearly prosaic save some lingering moments of illuminated mundanity. Jarmusch’s film, the same. Paterson captures the work of creating poetry, work that is — for many — markedly unpoetic. Adam Driver’s Paterson (his most subtle performance — not like there’s competition) is content, not troubled; we see him observing his own blue-collar work routines and tranquil family life with his affectionate wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who flits from hobby to hobby, and his dog Marvin (Nellie), who he walks every evening as an excuse to secretly (his wife knows, and he knows she knows) have one beer alone at his neighborhood bar. As a sort of trantricly muted climax, Marvin eats Paterson’s only copy of his work. Then, he starts writing again. The most famous line from Williams’s Paterson is, “No ideas but in things.” Jarmusch’s film is full of such concreteness, using a literal, unadorned filmic language. Presently, this straightforwardness seemed important. Paterson kept going, without a struggle.
The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers
Dir. Ben Rivers
Wherein UK multimedia artist Ben Rivers delivered another obtuse, slow-motion triptych even more expansive and hypnotic than his last obtuse, slow-motion triptych (the 2014 Ben Russell collab A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness). This time, Rivers paid tribute to a vision of Morocco that has historically resided mostly in the mind’s eye of legendary polymath/(relatively) benign colonialist Paul Bowles, even going so far as to dedicate one third of the film to a freewheeling update of the classic Bowles story “A Distant Episode.” Hazy and heavy-loping, it was the sort of film in which one could easily get fully lost, a time-bending jeep ride through unfamiliar terrain. In other words, it was trippy as fuck, but leave the hallucinogens in your mom’s underwear drawer: Rivers had you covered sans controlled substances and managed as much with nary a stock “psychedelic” trope in sight.
The Pearl Button
Dir. Patricio Guzmán
Since the beginning of the modern state, the relationship between politics and metaphysics has become increasingly contentious. Unanswerable questions are too often seen as suspect. Suspects, meanwhile, are too often seen as guilty. In the end, suspect questions — and people — are silenced, vanished. Virtually every tyranny of the 20th century bore witness to this reality. For example, in 1970, Chileans elected a man who would dare to question the evil of economic imperialism. In the United States, economists and analysts would then ask, “But how, now, might we develop Chile into a malleable state?” The unspeakably painful answer would become the subject of nearly all of Patricio Guzmán’s astounding films. Following Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button continues to call out, like Job, the question of pain — and of reconciliation — into the seemingly infinite. On the one hand, there is no answer. On the other, it is not at all infinite. Along the world’s longest coastline, a remnant was discovered — a button. From a remnant unravelled the story of a people. The present spoke to the past, and the past to the present. In so much space, the disappeared reappeared. Beyond the stripped-down facts of the modern state’s brutality is a glimmer of hope in the water. A question rediscovered.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Dir. Werner Herzog
“Because the internet” is a sort of trembling, isn’t it? We often hide our existential overwhelm about infinite screen permutations of information and mis-information (which now reveals, or informs on, itself with a nihilistic shrug). We dismiss and diminish with pithy appraisals, momentarily reducing the vast phenomenon into a sort of eye-roll-inducing gimmick. With characteristic wanderlust, Herzog considered our increasingly complex, module-based existence with a refreshing disregard for the mundaneness of adaptive ambivalence. Whether a chapter explored people online trying to cure cancer or traumatizing a family with vicious trolling, Lo and Behold was neither damning nor cold nor distant, as the director’s work is often mischaracterized. With his unmatched mix of stoicism and honest, unforced emotional asides, things were allowed to happen outside of the Q&A rhythm, be they awkward or endearing (or both). It’s sprawlingness may’ve been intimidating, but it was a film for grappling, not elucidating, and Herzog’s instincts are still sharp enough for a hearty wander. The ubiquitousness of the internet casts a vast shadow over our dismissive objectification of it, and Lo proved a novel place to reckon with this.
The Alchemist Cookbook
Dir. Joel Potrykus
A lesson from 2016: Don’t try to predict Michigan (my adopted state). Director Joel Potrykus blew us away with 2014’s Buzzard, a film with such a perfectly idiosyncratic kind of dirtbag comedic sensibility, I thought that I had the grimy genre that Michigander Potrykus had carved out for himself pegged. Then, this year, The Alchemist Cookbook came out: a refined piece of cult horror that observed trailer-dwelling Sean’s (Ty Hickson) isolation (there’s also a cat and one other character) in the Michigan woods as he tries to make gold out of batteries and shit. This film should not really exist (neither should Anti-Birth, the other unclassifiable film set — but not, like this one, also filmed — in Michigan this year). Played for both realism and humor are the Michigan touches we saw in Buzzard — Doritos and pop — but also a pivotal reference to Sleepaway Camp I think and the conjuring of Satan. Despite that thematic matter, though, the look nearly convinced me I was watching Michael Haneke’s follow-up to Caché. Was it a parable about how entrenched American materialism’s tentacles are on our alt-iest of citizens? A dismantling of myths of rugged self-sufficiency? Just terrifying horror done weird? Even Nate Silver doesn’t know, but I heard that he predicts with overwhelming odds that Potrykus will continue to meet our expectation to be defied.
Dir. David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
[A Ticklish Tale]
Tickled was not an exposé on any sort of large-scale conspiracy. Cheese pizza and the supernatural were not involved. Instead, Tickled revealed a more common form of abuse, what Joe South might have called “The Games People Play.” One man, not the Illuminati, playing games, small games, but big enough to make life difficult for its participants, their innocence exploited, not for profit, not for kink, but for small-scale power, for psychological kicks. It took very little to cause damage. Although it was hard not to laugh, it was torture — harassment, abuse, extortion, tickling — not at the inquisition level, but at the domestic level, behind closed doors and blinds; domestic terror, green alert. Which got us thinking: if the strange yet seemingly innocent world of competitive tickling was not what it seems, what else is not what it seems? What’s actually going down at that skeet competition? Or in the basement of that pizza shop? At that quilt festival? And what about that chili cookoff down in Terlingua?
Knight of Cups
Dir. Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick has now released as many films in the past five years as he did in the previous forty, and our relationship with the enigmatic director has shifted. His motifs, often inscrutable but instantly recognizable, are now a yearly occurrence, as present as the litany of car and phone commercials aping his style. With this in mind, Knight of Cups, already a semi-autobiographical piece, comments on itself and its creator. As Christian Bale’s Rick stumbles half-dazed through the beauty and luxury of Los Angeles, of his partners, of pensive moments, the viewer wonders how their version of the protagonist’s journey would be different. What would we feel in his life; could we possibly be so jaded? The tarot card chapter headings invoke fate, though the narration seems to be recalling, as if divining one’s own past. A dreamy state where direction is unclear and rhythm is everything. Malick’s world, and we’re deep into it. Are we being pummeled by navel gazing and gorgeous imagery, or are we boring toward the core of the artist’s vision? With time, we’ll see the shape of this stage in the oeuvre more clearly, but for now, Knight of Cups remains an exploratory work, rich with thoughtfulness and mystery.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Dir. Travis Knight
When you get past Charlize Theron voicing a monkey, you stop acting like the dumb adult you are. When it comes to yearly animation strongholds, Zootopia and Moana made me experience wonderment through an adult lens. Kubo and the Two Strings made me feel like a child watching a memory maker in a special time and place, outside of myself. There is no suspension of belief needed when one-eyed Kubo plays his shamisen, making origami come to life in vivid storytelling. The magical world of Kubo is child logic. It’s pure imagination without the expected Pizza Planet easter egg or pop culture reference or Justin Timberlake dance number. Laika once again proves they are the humbled and inspired underdog. Kubo’s journey is at its core a child looking to be reunited with his family. The animation is so dreamlike and wavy that you feel closer to the action and emotion that Kubo experiences. Kubo may lose out to the mouse when it comes to the gold man, but this is the type of film that truly digs deeper into your heart and psyche. Oh, and Matthew McConaughey voice a beetle. Alright, alright, alright.
A Bigger Splash
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
A quartet of brave, masterful performances anchored this sumptuous and tense portrait of ennui and rage among the beautiful people. Comparisons to Antonioni were inevitable, but we were also reminded of Paolo Sorrentino’s studies of aging, jealousy, and soulless debauchery. Unlike The Great Beauty and Youth, however, A Bigger Splash didn’t buckle under its pretensions, turn maudlin, or succumb to awkward fits of magical realism — it was also a hell of a lot more fun. Ralph Fiennes stole the show with his spastic Jagger-like dance moves and his leering, predatory gregariousness (the polar opposite of his other great supporting role this year in Hail, Caesar!) and Tilda Swinton perfectly balanced radiance and exhaustion, strength and dependence as a Bowie-esque superstar taking an extended sabbatical following vocal cord surgery. Guadagnino’s direction was smart and nuanced, shifting gears between fluid and jumpy, flashy and restrained, always holding just a little something back. The high wore off in the final act, however, as the real world — the world of death and consequences — finally encroached upon their charmed, cloistered idyll. And unlike the snakes and geckos that trespass upon their impossibly gorgeous Italian villa, those problems cannot be blithely discarded. An unexpectedly affecting and sometimes chilling love square, intelligent and unvarnished while remaining carnal and raw. Beauty has rarely been so ugly, and vice versa.
Dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Despite the rubbernecking quality of this doc of unprecedented access (and it is undeniably a hoot in this regard), what really stunned about this film was how effortlessly engrossing it was as drama. The filmmakers and their subject seemed to be struggling for tone together, and the way that things spun out was palpably tragic, even as Huma’s gameness about the experiment falls away and her side of things becomes harder to know. Our protagonist was eminently watchable: an unpredictably malfunctioning blender of affability, braggadocio, soul-searchingness, hokey humor, and infectious urgency. His libido and the decision making around it was something, even in his open contrition, that remained a confounding mystery. In the end, as we saw him seeing us seeing him, his raw limo outburst felt like a “how’s this for an ending?” answer to that awareness. Having witnessed key moments in the breakup of his family and the disastrous end of his political career, Antony Weiner’s battle-torn narcissism was the last lingering filament of possible redemption. And watching it snap, we couldn’t help but sigh with him.