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

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Toni Erdmann

Dir. Maren Ade

[Sony Pictures Classics]

The cliché is true: watching Toni Erdmann, I laughed and I cried. The tale of an oil industry consultant and the uncomfortable adventure she has with her prankster father during a trip to Bucharest, Maren Ade’s third feature is packed with everything: family melodrama, business intrigue, Whitney Houston karaoke, nudity, Austin Powers fake teeth. At heart, though, this sprawling film is about the simple struggle of communicating with the people you are closest to. Folding together the mundane, the grotesque, the high and the low, Toni Erdmann never loses sight of an almost old-fashioned desire to entertain that keeps the film from slowing down, even as it nears the three-hour mark. It is true magic to see a movie that not only takes seriously adult family relationships, the social gymnastics of being a woman in a male-dominated business, and the cultural displacement of the aging, but also manages to land a great fart gag. You can almost hear a Hollywood remake already being developed for Robert De Niro or whoever, but Ade’s epic family comedy is that rarest of works: indulgent and giving in equal measure, an entire universe of feeling that deserves to be cherished.


Green Room

Dir. Jeremy Saulnier


Jeremy Saulnier’s debut feature Blue Ruin was a year-end-listable beast of a film, but even it couldn’t prepare us for the taut, stately carnage of Green Room. This tense, bloody tale of The Ain’t Rights, a hapless touring band forced to fight their way out of an isolated neo-nazi club, was at once a siege movie to end all siege movies and a love letter to the DIY punk scene. While Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Alia Shawkat all delivered standout performances, it was Patrick Stewart who stole the show, playing against type as the sinister Darcy, club-proprietor with a velvet voice and ice-cold blood in his veins. Following the results of the 2016 election, the film has taken on a grim new timeliness. A resurgent white nationalist movement has gained new visibility, bolstered by what they see (correctly or incorrectly) as an ally in the White House. Ideas long thought taboo are gaining fresh currency, threatening to infect right-wing policy as a whole. In 2017, we are all The Ain’t Rights. May we fight as bravely and live to see a brighter morning.



Dir. Todd Solondz

[Amazon Studios/IFC Films]

A long trail of dog diarrhea, captured in a long, slow-tracking shot, summarized the ethos of Wiener-Dog, in which Todd Solondz turned the nihilistic rage and bitterness up to 11 for another grimacing comedy of human suffering. Solondz’s career seemed to be in a cul de sac circa Palindromes, but then he roared back to life, experimenting with form and somehow cranking up the contrast even further on his particular point of view. The canine connection between the four segments in Weiner-Dog was nicely abstract and got surreal in the film’s “dog around the world” intermission. Name actors got a chance to play in the darkness: Julie Delpy as a mom who damages her son with spiritual misinformation; Greta Gerwig as a grown-up, utterly self-esteemless Dawn Wiener; Danny DeVito as a stand-in for Solondz, a depessed film professor in a losing battle with soulless students; Ellen Burstyn as a defeated woman who doles out cash and rancor to her codependent granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). Solondz still coats his bitter medicine with a sweet shell of playfulness, but his films have lost the goofy baby fat of Welcome to the Dollhouse, revealing the skeletal souls of his guileless perpetrators and agonized victims.


Certain Women

Dir. Kelly Reichardt

[IFC Films]

Kelly Reichardt has made a career out of mining the subtleties of life on the fringe of society, her characters’ existences marginalized, if not entirely ignored, by corporate America and failed by both private and governmental institutions. With Certain Women, Reichardt returns to the open plains of Montana that she captured so effectively in her feminist Western, Meek’s Cutoff, which are now sparsely populated by chain restaurants and stores serving only to heighten the sense of economic anxiety dominating a community whose way of life has little worth within our current model of late capitalism. Adapting three Maile Meloy short stories for the screen, Reichardt deals explicitly with resolute females whose unflappable tenacity clashes with the various forces aligned to keep them in check. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart each exceptionally embody a feminine resiliency and fortitude that acts as a corrective to Hollywood’s singularly musclebound vision of female strength. But it is Lily Gladstone’s breakthrough performance, gracefully conveying a quiet dignity in her nascent desire and emotional isolation against Stewart’s icy demeanor in the film’s final segment, that acts as both a unifying coda and a tender, heartbreaking portrait of unrequited love, elevating Certain Women to the level of something truly special.


Everybody Wants Some!!

Dir. Richard Linklater


PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be latched to the centerfield wall and pelted with horsehides, because jesus, freshman, figure it out. It’s the American Dream as sweet-swing college preen, two (!!) exclamations of wisdom and vulgarity matriculating invincible in the lost weekend before classes or life. Is it possible to slice a fastball in half with an axe? Does it matter if it’s not? No plan, no problem; persons attempting to find a moral will be assailed with unrequested advice that only means as much as the meaningfulness you give it (also, I don’t know: too much of this smells like cat piss). Persons looking for a plot just get pop-up as pop song, a frontier fraternity for Mark Twain and John Belushi. There’s self and passion in the tangents between framework, and there’s a real stereo democracy when every voice gets a verse, from the black to the white, the red to the brown, the purple to the yellow. Everybody Wants Some!!, freshman, but maybe nobody gets any if we don’t play this game the right way. Practice is mandatory. Everyone impacts the outcome. Shake your groove thing. Come for a good time, not for a long time. The rest is F-L-Y.



Dir. Dennis Villeneuve


“Abbot is death process.” This four-word sentence alone should be enough for Arrival to earn a place on every critic’s year-end list and at every awards show. It’s amazing on so many levels: (1) screenwriter Eric Heisserer presumably typed that into the script with a straight face; (2) it stayed in the film; (3) in its immediate context, that is, uttered in squid-alien language and translated for us onscreen (in subtitles, if memory serves), its seemingly hokey technicality keeps the film honest to genre, but; (4) it does so while also speaking directly to and illuminating the brainy twist that gives the film its heart and soul. All great sci-fi reveals that the barrier between supposed “high” and “low” art is bullshit; this film arrives at that point with such finesse that you might miss it if you aren’t paying close attention. But then, like the film’s title, this says more about humanity than anything else. “Abbott is death process.”


The Handmaiden

Dir. Chan-wook Park

[Magnolia/Amazon Studios]

The Handmaiden wasn’t just a daring, prurient thriller. More importantly, this story of two women’s sexual awakening was one of the most tender and moving romances to grace the screen this year or any other. In the beginning, Lady Sideko and Sook-He are separate pawns in a long, twisted con orchestrated by the thief, Count Fujiwara. By the end, the two women have taken control of the narrative and rewritten the ending. The Handmaiden demonstrated the power of stories and imagination, even pornography, to empower and transform our experiences. In one of the film’s central metaphors, an idea gleaned through a pornographic story becomes a catalyst to transformation. Thus, a set of bells, first used as an instrument to abuse the young Lady Sideko, becomes the soundtrack to a joyful erotic coupling. Love, too, performs a kind of magic, allowing inner and outer worlds to collide through the body, in a touch, glance, or embrace. This movie has a lot more to offer than the already slick, glittering veneer it presents. Its undercurrents are far subtler than even most of the positive reviews gave it credit for, and it earned a rightful place in Chan-wook Park’s oeuvre of masterworks.


Manchester by the Sea

Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

[Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios]

Manchester by the Sea imparts a narrative, not so much of family, but of anti-family. Trailers, whispers of the mouth, and other various year-end reviewers could all tell you that the film is a melancholy picture. It has no clear denouement, nor a happy ending, nor is it, of itself, an uplifting experience to be party to. But it is so much more than just a sad story, a simple bildungsroman à clef. A character study of the deeply-wounded men and boys of our past, its immediate shifts in temporality beget a protagonist’s wayward memory and sense of self; it is a detachment and brokenness so profound that it is hard to overcome bearing. It betrays more than its formality, its distinctly New England space-time, and the approaches of its characters, though its mise-en-scène are masterfully clear. Although presenting a rather quaint space, it touches the coward and the stalwart internal and international, beyond the trappings and sentiments of the white working class, beyond those of the outsider. It is a painful portrait, a crying-out of the spirit that never seems to shut off.



Dir. Barry Jenkins


At this point, is there more to say about Moonlight? In a fractured era, Barry Jenkins’s second feature film received nearly universal acclaim from pretty much everyone who’s seen it (and it’s on this list, which means you should see it). Per some media sources, 2016 was in fact a discordant year that polarized around identity issues of class, race, and sexuality. Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story of a young black boy’s journey into manhood gracefully danced over these topics, as it charged full speed past the obvious labels and stereotypes that might otherwise define Little/Chiron/Black. The destination: a greater understanding of the human threads that not only connect us to other people, but also to ourselves as complex individuals who construct our own identities over the course of our lives. As complete fucking film snobs, we’ve obviously read about the overwhelming reaction viewers had to Francois Truffaut’s classic 1959 coming-of-age film The 400 Blows, but we’ve perhaps never experienced something close or even equivalent to this in our own lifetimes. Thanks for something, 2016.


The Witch

Dir. Robert Eggers


Plenty of classic films touch upon witches or witchcraft (Häxan, Rosemary’s Baby, Paradise Lost, The Blair Witch Project), but it wasn’t until The Witch hit screens this year that cinema finally had a quintessential film about witchcraft in the early modern period. Writer-director Robert Eggers relied on folklore archetypes and historical documents to craft a film in which a deeply religious family is beset by the dark forces of witchcraft in 17th-century New England.

The film was subtitled “A New England Folktale,” but as Eggers repeatedly stated, period contemporaries would see no difference between the fairy tale world and the real world. They would not consider the idea of witches, curses, and possession fanciful, but instead the very real causes of daily tribulations. So when their crop fails and their youngest disappears while in the care of their oldest (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), it’s not a huge leap for the film’s characters to go from blaming a wolf to blaming a witch. From here, you can probably guess what happens next: family trust quickly unravels, crises of faith are had, and increasing paranoia plagues the family until they are (literally) at each other’s throats.

The Witch placed its faith in the pre-existing particulars of the folklore (a goat, a hare, the forest, sabbats), with the hope that none of their terror has been dulled in the last 500 years. And first-time director Eggers succeeded by not only relying on these aspects, but also reinforcing them. Eggers, a veteran of the theater, demonstrated an impressive command of film technique and aesthetics. This was made especially clear during a sequence in which he attempted to imbue the forest with evil intentions, beginning with a few establishing shots (accompanied by the atonal score) of the woods that evoked a foreboding quality. It was followed by a sequence used during the vanishing of baby Sam that implicated the forest in his kidnapping, establishing a shot-reverse shot pattern between Thomasin and Sam as they played peek-a-boo, with the sequence’s final shot of the blankets where Sam lay moments ago, which then pans up to reveal the woods in the distance. It is the camera move itself that damns and points at the woods. (The sequence is so great that its on full display in the film’s trailer). And of course, these are the same woods in which Caleb, the purest soul in the family, finds the hovel of the maiden witch and later where Thomasin, after everything has fallen apart, looks for salvation.

In fact, execution was nearly perfect across the board. The shot composition and framing showed enough to frighten us, but it also left plenty in the shadows so that we had to fill in the blanks with our nightmares. The color palette, aided mostly by natural light, ensured the film looked as bleak as it felt. The performances (and I’m including Black Phillip’s shallow breathing, scene-stealing rearing among them) made us believe it. And director Eggers produced those performances from a young lead in her first credited role, several child actors, and a God-damned goat.

Maybe it was because The Witch was confident enough to avoid deliberate ambiguity or retreating behind a Shyamalan twist. Maybe it was because it’s a feminist parable or an allegory about how society, shouting “Guilty until proven innocent!,” turns us into the monsters it accused us of being. Or maybe The Witch was our favorite film of the year for its ability to weave the disparate strands of a historical film and a genre film into a tight tapestry of folklore and terror that never ripped from the strain. The Witch was not just a great genre movie or an exceptional period piece, but also a nearly flawless film. It was the quintessential witchcraft film we didn’t know we were missing. Sign your name in its book. We did.

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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