Favorite 30 Films of 2016 From battle-torn narcissism & candy-flipping slashers to Muskogee runaways & dog diarrhea

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Love & Friendship

Dir. Whit Stillman

[Amazon Studios]

In Whit Stillman’s first film (1990’s Metropolitan), the chronicler of the American urban haute bourgeoisie directly mentioned Jane Austen in such a way to make it readily apparent how much influence the author would have on his career. The cherished British novelist was something of a throughline in the four films that preceded this one, and nearly two decades ago, Stillman expressed an abiding desire to adapt one of Austen’s lesser-known works. This year, we finally got to see what he’d do with source material from one of the most overdone authors in cinematic history. A lofty undertaking to be sure, what really floored us about Love & Friendship (adapted from an epistolary novella of Austen’s called Lady Susan) was its energetic humor, pacing, and irreverence, particularly on display in the gut-busting performance of Tom Bennett as a blithering suitor to both Kate Beckinsale and her daughter. Stillman’s directorial choices and Austen’s witty sensibilities regarding social mores dovetailed so seamlessly that the resulting film felt like neither a period piece nor an adaptation — it captured the joy and playfulness that are usually the very first things to go when production commences on one of the countless adaptations of her work. Who knew Austen could be so fun?


The Neon Demon

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

[Amazon Studios]

Only one luminous, musically-textured ode to Hollywood warmed my heart in 2016, and Gosling’s piano-acting was nowhere to be found. Call it a perfume commercial à la Argento, a Vogue issue edited by Bret Easton Ellis, whatever — The Neon Demon chomps hard at “fresh off the bus” apocrypha. Although not novel — Elle Fanning, bloodied and glittery like a Nihilisa Frank nightmare, seems doomed from the start — Refn’s candy-flipping slasher actually bothers to flesh out warnings spouted to all showbiz hopefuls. You’ve heard of models being vampiric, of fetishizing ghosts, of chewing up and spitting back out: it’s here, and it doesn’t hold back. Following the visually tasty nihilism of Only God Forgives, Refn only cranks the empathy a smidge. His objective here is sick glee; with its dedicated camp (he’s finally attempting the likeness of Andy Milligan/Paul Morrissey), it’s his funniest film in years. And when mortuary cosmetologist Jena Malone spits on a cadaver’s tongue during a passionate sex scene, I stood up and cheered.


Swiss Army Man

Dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert


Swiss Army Man was easily misconstrued and dismissed as “that farting corpse movie with Harry Potter.” On the surface, yes there are lots of farts, and boners, and similar “low brow” type elements; however, they were all in service of painting a rich tapestry about finding companionship and revealing our intimate selves to each other. A touching story that straddles the line between the platonic and the romantic, between madness and inspiration, between the juvenile and the profound, the Daniels crafted a film about accepting oneself despite all of the things that make us feel weird or gross or alone. Powerful performances by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe propelled this story of two souls finding each other in a sea of trouble and loneliness and rediscovering what it means to be human and to be loved. It was easy to neglect the film because of its absurd premise, but viewers who took the plunge were rewarded with an inspired look into the power of creativity, the nature of life, and the emancipating honesty that comes with true friendship.



Dir. Ben Wheatley


Brutalist council estate flats birthed punk rock and dystopian futurism in 1970s Britain, shaping a counterculture whose sensibility Ben Wheatley has drank from. Perhaps the defining document of such breeding grounds, J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise has finally made it to the screen thanks to Wheatley’s elegantly decadent and darkly funny take on the material. If the novel’s many complexities meant it failed to be adapted despite several attempts over the decades, Wheatley tackles the problem by streamlining the narrative to its most essential (and contemporarily relevant) elements; namely, violent class struggle. Hence, the director presents the story exclusively through ellipsis, first to emphasize the primary urges that the titular building’s amenities seek to satisfy (the main character, played by Tom Hiddleston, moves into his luxury flat in a montage that’s quasi-advertorial in nature) and later to court the hallucinatory (non-metaphoric class conflict regularly takes place in the complex’s supermarket). The implication being that the building merely triggers some of the lurking, darker impulses of its occupants. While this design might prove harder for audiences to stomach than the depravity or grisly violence on display, Wheatley’s vision is strong enough to grip the viewers through 120 minutes of strange, albeit quite recognizable in their naked proximity — and thus Ballardian — deranged fun, clever social critique, and kitschy retro-futuristic decor.


Cemetery of Splendor

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

[Kick the Machine]

Its opening shots established a contemporary story of the world unearthed by state mechanisms, even as the rest of its running time blended the setting into a world of contemporaneity: jungle floors and ancient kingdoms, hospital bedside and a childhood bomb shelter. Cemetery of Splendor was not an elaboration of events, but a series of enfolding moments, like a field recording, that dwelled on rehabilitation. Weerasethakul centered the little movements of the movie in bodily functions and the motion of simple machines. As always, his direction makes a true and gentle medium of film, translating the affective charge of scenes into an open window, an ambient showing. The camera is almost always fixed at a static eye-level, an inviting witness to the unhurried mystery of the sleeping soldiers at the story’s center. The dialogue between the soldiers and their nurses is hushed and matter-of-fact. At this decibel, small talk sounds profound without meaning to. If you listen closely, from the innermost whisper of the heart to the furthest extension of microbes in the sky, Cemetery of Splendor is a program to honor the quiet confusion of being awake for the dreams of life and the march in place toward the certain smile of death. This is a good place to sleep.


Hell or High Water

Dir. David Mackenzie

[Sidney Kimmel Entertainment]

A bona fide barnburner, Hell or High Water never let up. From the initial heist in a dry and desolate town to a staredown between cold-blooded adversaries, nary a minute of our time was wasted. Watching Chris Pine and Ben Foster knock over banks on a mad but noble dash was like watching a pair of manic whirling dervishes with pistols and shotguns. With jolts of violence and gut-ripping humor, the story refused to sit still. Call it an anti-Western, a black comedy, or just a damn fine chase flick, the film insisted on defying categorization and exceeding expectations. Yet as fun as these delinquents were, they had to share the stage with a scene-stealing lawman spitting casual racism and his stoic partner who shoved it right back (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). There was love there, but there was reality too. Rules of propriety don’t always apply in West Texas. If you needed proof that an explosive and exhilarating action flick doesn’t need a billion-dollar budget or a complete CGI makeover, Hell or High Water was Exhibit A.



Dir. Paul Verhoeven


In a central moment in Elle, Michèle (masterfully played by Isabelle Huppert) removes her rapist’s ski mask to reveal him as her handsome, mild-mannered neighbor, Patrick. Complicating matters, Michèle spends the first half of the film flirting with him and even masturbates while watching him set up a life-sized nativity scene with his wife (one example of the film’s sly wit). After the revelation, she continues to see him, though her motives for doing so remain troublingly opaque. As she discovers, he is incapable of consensual sex with her. “It has to be like before,” he says. Wearing a mask allows Patrick to play a role he can step out of when it no longer suits him, but Michèle cannot easily separate the man she was attracted to from the man who raped her. Like many of Verhoeven’s films, this one was at risk of being dismissed as exploitative pulp, but it raised some crucial questions about the representation of rape on screen. Elle refused to place people into categories: Victimhood doesn’t always eliminate agency or inspire revenge, and too often, monsters wear the faces of neighbors and friends. We contain multitudes, and we carry our monstrosity within us, just waiting to be unmasked.


Embrace of the Serpent

Dir. Ciro Guerra

[Oscilloscope Laboratories]

The “white guy going through an intense, eye-opening journey in the jungle” storyline has been done to death, but no matter how sympathetic or well-intentioned, it’s still usually told from the perspective of said white guy, with natives serving as scenery or, at best, “Noble Savages.” With Embrace of the Serpent, Colombian filmmaker Guerra upended the trope, and unlike his Eurocentric precursors, he did so without denying sympathy to the film’s ostensible antagonists. As the guide Karamakate, both Antonio Bolívar Salvador and Nilbio Torres (as the elderly and young version of the character, respectively) infused the film with resilience and fury in the face of imperialism, making for one of the most intriguing, deeply felt characters in recent memory. The film’s turns from grotesque violence to pervasive stillness were jarring, but resembled shifts of scenery in a dream: as with the two explorers who voyage down the Amazon through the film’s dual timelines, one found themselves too deep into the world of the film to not accept its twists.


American Honey

Dir. Andrea Arnold


Where would we be without the promise of the fresh start, the open road? Andrea Arnold’s winding, visually resplendent ode to the American Dream positioned us as witnesses to the reckless journey of Star, an 18-year-old Muskogee runaway who finds a new home for herself on a van full of acne-laden misfits, bumping E-40 as they tear across the country selling bullshit magazines. From the moment the film opened with a passing car bearing the bumper sticker “God Is Coming,” American Honey led us on a mythic trek across the Midwestern United States, with trials and temptations and fleeting moments of love folded in between the suburban desolation and languor. Finding a kindred balance between the desert romance of Badlands and the destructive dreaming of Spring Breakers, American Honey unlocked a rare human sympathy: an understanding of our own common indecency, our basest needs to both be wanted and to be free. As Star slowly finds herself tangled up in the same hustle as the rest of us, a wage slave even in the drift of the endless interstate, American Honey revealed the greater pattern of our lives — always leaping from one trap to the next, caught in a moment just as it begins to fade.



Dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore

[Walt Disney]

Zootopia’s real clincher is that it isn’t a perfect allegory. It isn’t a parable either. It’s too complex and too incomplete for either of those. Zootopia itself is too big a place. Zootopia’s narrative whirlwind of convoluted, deeply political stories doesn’t remotely represent Zootopia in its entirety, and its creators know this. Zootopia is messy because Zootopia is messy; its characters, its inhabitants (protagonists and antagonists alike) make snap judgments about those who look or act different, create biological narratives that systematically oppress minorities, deviate from norms, and face persecution while taking intersectionality for granted. Zootopia succeeds not because it depicts triumphs, but because it focuses our imaginations on how inequality structures all of our interactions within our REAL communities. That it explores this in so many complex ways is impressive. That it does so while remaining entertaining and hilarious even more so. That its main characters are a talking bunny rabbit cop and a hustling fox couldn’t matter less.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series

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