By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016. While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet. So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.
In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine. I highlighted my top four early last week. I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.
A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table. The boy says, “My name’s Chiron. But people call me Little.” The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.” The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.” She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are. It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same. Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965. One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.
George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny. His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise. Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time. Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.
The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other). All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief: The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together. A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.
From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid. Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with. Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant. That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones. Remember, kids: Think before you send.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.
Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more? Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day. Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010. Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.
EYE IN THE SKY
Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents. However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution: drone strikes. This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.
Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth: Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here? Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years. Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato. Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987. We don’t sell no goddamned trout.” And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.
LA LA LAND
Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash. After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme. The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness. You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle: He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.
Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America: Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage. Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it. As we still do to this day.
After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.” Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief. It’s complicated.