And here we are! The first Best of the Year post in my tenure as critic-in-residence at Alternate Ending, wrapping up the last year of Antagony & Ecstasy’s long and happy life.
Good, not great. That’s how I’d sum up the movies of 2016 (as opposed to 2016 itself, for which the phrase “not great” would be kind of hilariously understated). I saw an almost uncountable number of very good movies – the number of 4-star, 8/10 movies I saw was more or less unprecedented, to the point that I couldn’t even fit all of my 8 ratings into a top 40, let alone a top 20. And yet the number of flat-out “yes, I just saw a masterpiece” masterpieces totals… one. All of one 5-star movie (but a few more 10/10s back at Antagony & Ecstasy, where my scale was just a wee bit different). That’s not much of a report card, and it undoubtedly says more about me than the films that I was that strict (as well as how amazing both 2015 and 2014 were – my two favorite years for movies since I started doing this back in 2005).
At any rate, I haven’t felt this disenchanted with a film year for a while. Nor this off-consensus: with one Best Picture nominee in my top 20 and none in my top 10, this is the most Oscar-unfriendly year I’ve had since the Academy broke away from 5 nominees, back in 2009. For those of you who care about such things. For those of you who don’t, I hope you will enjoy what I’m pretty sure might be the weirdest year-end list I have ever published.
1. The Red Turtle
(Michael Dudok de Wit (France / Japan / Belgium)
Absolutely everything I want out of my animated films. It is, in the first place, just so gorgeous, swirling together beautifully clean characters with luscious, painterly backgrounds. It is, in the second place, a triumph of using movement and position within the frame to establish character and narrative in the absence of words. It is, in the third place, an honest attempt to bring the visceral presence of a fairy tale into modern cinema without sacrificing its mystery. And it is, in the fourth and most important place, emotionally ravaging, with its final two minutes far and away the most powerful thing I saw in any movie this year.
2. Toni Erdmann
(Maren Ade, Germany / Austria / Romania)
It’s desperately funny, for one thing, which is no little achievement for something of this length and a director whose last work was so emotionally severe. And it’s even smarter than it is funny, surgically dissecting the state of modern Europe, and women, and capitalism, and all three of those things when pressed together, with vicious wit and a brutal lack of sentiment. It’s also weirdly sweet, with a tender story of fatherhood in the face of a daughter’s (not unreasonable) annoyance. Mix all of these together, add in some crackerjack editing to make the running time… not fly by, but certainly not crawl, and one of the great nude scenes in recent memory, and you have the year’s most justly-celebrated masterpiece.
3. The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece / Ireland / Netherlands / UK / France)
A venomous satire against one of the most sacred of all human institutions, romantic coupling, as only the director of the savage Dogtooth could manage. It’s unsurprisingly not for all tastes, particularly given how much of it depends on the cruel sense of humor underlying all of it. But I loved every bit of it, even the strange final act, where Lanthimos seems to dare us not to complain that it’s all flying off the rails. It’s beautifully shot, even more beautifully designed, and presents a fairly strong fable in its own right, as something like the polar opposite of The Red Turtle. And even in a year of strong ensembles, the unhesitating commitment of the cast is something to treasure.
4. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, USA)
The only film I saw all year that actively challenged my notions of what cinema could do. Parts of it could be better, and parts of it don’t work at all, but it’s a worthy trade-off for what amounts to an experimental film parading around in narrative film clothes: not so much the story of an over-sexed, sad Los Angeles man as a cinematic exigesis of the tarot using that man as its vehicle. “Feature-length exigesis of the tarot” is necessarily going to attract a self-selecting crowd, and that’s that, but there’s also the matter of Emmanuel Lubezki’s amazing cinematography, combining the talent of the world’s best cinematographer with cheap prosumer equipment to create a new form of cinematic poetry out of digital crud.
(Pablo Larraín, Chile / France / USA)
The second of two Larraín films to save the very idea of the biopic (the first is coming up in just a moment). Natalie Portman gives one of those “amazing mimicry!” performances as Jacqueline Kennedy, but that’s where this starts, not where it ends. She’s also playing a dense movie character, ravaged by grief, tormented by her loss of faith, and possessed of a politician’s instinctual steel will to control the world around her. And that is just the tip of a movie that has considerations of grief fucks with memory, and how individuals deal with grief differently than groups (in this case, whole countries) baked right into its structure. The fact that it’s gorgeous, and has a world-class score, are entirely secondary considerations, which speaks to how good the primary considerations are.
(Kirsten Johnson, USA)
A fearless act of ripping aside the curtain to let us see the Wizard: a documentary cinematographer, her stock in trade movies that advance explicit messages of social change, forces us to confront the reality that documentaries are movies first, and therefore controlled interpretations of reality, not reality itself. That is some intoxicating, bold stuff, and I would love Cameraperson for doing not one other thing. But then it goes ahead and repurposes the polemical, political material in new forms that manages to make this a better advocacy doc than just about any advocacy doc in recent years. I frankly don’t think it was a good year for nonfiction, but this would be a stand-out whenever it came out.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
(Travis Knight, USA)
You understand, Laika is playing us all with this whole “exquisite craftsmanship made in an artisan setting” thing. But then, the craftsmanship is exquisite, and the storytelling resonant and mythic and heartbreaking and simultaneously modern and timeless. If this was a pure “favorites” list, this one would be at the top with a healthy gap to #2 – the sense of fantastic awe, always tethered to a solid core of human feeling, makes this the very best of what American animation (inclined towards fantasy and adventure) is capable of, but with a carefulness in building the settings that goes leagues beyond any other contemporary studio.
Alexsandr Sokurov, France / Germany / Netherlands)
Doomed to spend the rest of its life as Russian Ark‘s little sibling, but for my money, this is actually the more complete achievement. Sokurov isn’t free of the guilt of overreaching with some very corny indulgences in his attempt to narrate the story of modern France and the role of art museums through the bones of the Louvre and his movie about the making of his own movie. Complex, pretentious, drop-dead gorgeous, and easily the hardest film on this list, but it got me all jazzed up to go out in the world and do some hard-core thinking more than anything else here.
(Pablo Larrain, Chile / Argentina / France / Spain / USA)
Larraín’s first genre-transforming biopic is both more elegant and more overt than Jackie, lacking its emotional core but replacing it with a florid, wonderful experiment in transforming the life of an author into the self-authored narrative of how that author wanted to be considered. Which is, in fact, kind of the theme of Jackie, though Jackie didn’t get there by cross-breeding itself with a pulpy crime thriller, featuring Gael García Bernal’s splendidly hard-boiled performance as a man who wasn’t there to compliment Luis Gnecco’s Falstaffian Neruda. Just conventional enough to trick the hell out of you when it turns out to be not conventional at all.
10. The Wailing
(Na Hong-jin, South Korea / USA)
As much as I’d be inclined to swear that there’s nothing left for the exorcism movie to do with itself, Na’s overstuffed epic of small-town possession comes powerful close to proving me wrong. Equal parts John Fordian deep dive into the rhythms of a community, domestic drama about the silent conflicts between parents and children, and creepy-as-shit horror movie about a red-eyed demon lurking in the woods, this is doing more than it should possibly be able to get away with, and yet it makes it look almost blandly easy to juggle all of these things at once. Grand and philosophical, effortlessly watchable and constantly tense, it’s one of the best genre films of the decade, and in multiple genres, no less.
5. Independence Day: Resurgence
(Roland Emmerich, USA
Emmerich and Devlin, together again at last, to make their loudest, stupidest film yet. Denied a Will Smith-level talent in the lead, there’s nothing at all to distract us from the hollow vortex where the movie’s heart, brain, and guts should all be. Instead it’s all confusing action and over-plotted adventure that comes alive only for its much-too-little-too-late climax.
4. Nine Lives
(Barry Sonnenfeld, France / China)
Repulsive in every way. The weightless, boneless CGI cat protagonist is a pure abomination, and Kevin Spacey’s sullen, sneering line deliveries make him all the more hateful. The plot is basic kiddie movie boilerplate, but the execution despises its audience with a venom rare in children’s movies. And why this PG story about a broken family healing devotes a third of its running time to corporate intrigue, I do not know and wish to avoid thinking about.
3. God’s Not Dead 2 (not yet reviewed)
(Harold Cronk, USA)
The first God’s Not Dead is no damn good, but at least its polemicising is based in something that resembles the real world. No such praise for the sequel, which whips up a contrived setting for its tub-thumping that involves not one human being who resembles an actual person, ginning up a self-serving victory in the face of absolutely nothing even slightly resembling a conflict.
2. Norm of the North
(Trevor Wall, USA)
An act of warlike aggression on any child who sees it. The comedy is loud and flat, the theme a confusion of vaguely eco-friendly but mostly pro-social-positioning messages, the animation waxen and corpse-like. An uglier, more nakedly cynical animated feature hasn’t come out in years.
1. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party
(Dinesh D’Souza and Bruce Schooley, USA)
In the “and the portions are so small” department: it’s bad enough for D’Souza to keep cranking out these tawdry little lying attacks on anybody further left than Richard Nixon; must he also be so bad at it? Hillary’s America is packed full of cheap re-enactments, non-sequitur arguments, and production values that suggest a moderately well-heeled public school production of Our Town. It’s even more aesthetically unpleasant than it is politically, and that takes some doing.
Knight of Cups
Not only was To the Wonder a tedious bore, people I deeply trust had nothing kind to say at all about Terrence Malick’s follow-up. I mostly only watched it out of grim obligation, and by the end of it, I was completely addicted: to the weird beauty, and the anti-structure, and the dreamy world-building. It’s challenging and startling in the way I hope for all movies to be, not just ones I barely wanted to see in the first place
Even the can’t-win scenario of a years-later sequel wasn’t enough to shake me of the hope that Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon returning to the franchise they perfected 12 years ago would result in, if nothing else, a solid summer action movie. It was absolutely nothing of the sort. Instead, the fifth Bourne film turned to be a tired retread, lazily turning the sharp action of the earlier films into wheezy shtick. Profoundly generic and maddeningly unexciting.
Best Popcorn Movie
Simplicity itself: one character, one setting, one giant shark. It’s short as a live-action feature could dare to be, and has absolutely no depth of any sort, nor is it particularly surprising. It is the quintessence of the film you go to see because outside it is hot summer, and inside it is black and cool and you will be delighted with effortless, mindless razzamatazz. It needs to try for no more to be the sublimest kind of diversion
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
What it comes down to: are we to prefer movies that are successfully safe, or movies that trip and fall down on their face while pursuing some crazy ambition? For me it’s always, always going to be the latter, and I’m even more delighted by a superhero movie that dredges up the long-dormant idea that superheroes are mythical, totemic figures of great grandeur. It is, of course, not terribly good. But it’s far closer to what I want comic book movies to be than anything the other guys are making.
Film I’m Most Eager to Revisit
Things to Come
One of the year’s subtlest films, and in possession of probably it’s subtlest performance, which is already sufficient reason to want to check it out gain. What pushes it over the edge is the number of different people who’ve all told me how much richer it is on a second viewing.
The dual (and dueling) rituals in The Wailing. Pure cinematic technique – it’s driven by almost nothing but the extremes of picture and sound editing creating jarring contrasts – used to create a powerful mood and strong shift in the narrative. It’s pleasurable just for the sensory overload, but it’s also the central focus of the film’s conflict, and funneling that conflict through such a sensory experience makes it all unusually potent and powerful.
Mr. Fuzzypants the cat tries to uncap a pen in Nine Lives, and we are all treated to the most hideous, mind-melting, soul-draining CGI monstrosity of a “cat” that you could ever fear to see in your most psychotic nightmares.
Alfre Woodard, Captain America: Civil War
In one single scene, she brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe all of the painful, desperate human emotion that the MCU, and comic book movies generally, have so signally lacked. It’s a raw cry that casts a pall over the rest of the film and makes it feel much deeper and darker as a result. The only problem is that I spent the rest of the movie wishing she’d come back.
Hugh Jackman, X-Men: Apocalypse
No fault of Jackman’s, but stuffing Wolverine into an already clumsily plotted film is symptomatic of everything Fox’s X-Men films, and contemporary genre cinema as a whole, get so bad: catering mindlessly to fanboy tastes at the expense of sense, artistry, or anything else.
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
-Kubo (Art Parkinson), Kubo and the Two Strings. Screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
“When you use a bird to write with, it’s called ‘tweeting’.”
–Maui (Dwayne Johnson), Moana. Screenplay by Jared Bush.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot
Worst Title, Franchise Film
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Worst Title, Standalone
The Birth of a Nation
Best Title Punctuation
Everybody Wants Some!!
A simple idea, gorgeously executed: the three actors who perform the film’s tripartite central role blended together just not quite seamlessly, to suggest both the continuity of one man’s personality across the years, but also the important, discernible shifts that we can detect at each of the different moments we meet him. And the color scheme is jaw-dropping: bold, unexpected, unforgettable, and it perfectly, silently evokes the title of the unproduced source play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
Best Teaser Poster
Sublime use of negative space – not uncommon in a teaser, but rarely so dramatic and powerful. It’s a marvelous composition, using the line of smoke and the tiny splash of bright red and yellow to draw our attention to the dying oil rig while also calling maximum possible attention to how dreadfully isolated that rig is within the wide, empty ocean, under the wide, empty sky. And just to finish it off, the officious chilliness of the sans-serif font, in an uncomfortably small size, adds a lovely note of imperious authority.
So, okay, we might as well move top to bottom? Because the very, very worst parts of this are definitely the faces: that shockingly unflattering, T-zone accentuating lighting on Tom Hank’s face, that makes him look like he’s got a little butterfly of sweat where his eyebrows should be and the… stuff… they’ve done to Felicity Jones, who appears to be composited out of a face, chin, hair, and head that came from four different photos, one of which was super-grainy, so they had to put a filter on all of them to compensate. The first-week-of-Photoshop transparency gradient on their legs is a close second, but at least we’re not really looking there, nor at the plumes of smeary smoke ostensibly motivating that gradient. Not when that unbearably shitty “is upon us” tagline is hovering on Hanks’s shin in the lumpiest way possible. The inverted cityscape would look gaudy as hell on many another poster; here, it’s the classiest thing going on by far.
Suicide Squad, Trailer #1
Does it matter that it was obvious from the moment it dropped that the finished film would be nothing like this (or, for that matter, that they’d try to retrofit the film into the trailer with such clumsy results)? I’d have to say no. The giddy pop pleasure of the editing – which makes the performances look far better than the finished film did – is some of the most kinetic, energising cinema of 2016, and it takes a hell of a lot to use something so monstrously over-exposed as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and make it feel genuinely inspired. Warner’s habit of advertising better movies than they release continues unabated.
Sing, Trailer #1
The flipside of my last question: does it matter that all it really does is to represent the movie with precise accuracy? Insofar as the job of film advertising is to make the attached movie seem in some way pleasurable to watch, nothing did a worse job of it for me all year: it promised that Sing would be colossally ugly, drenched in tinny Autotune, and contain nothing but a slurry of “follow your heart” clichés all crammed into one giant pander-a-thon. Which is precisely what it was, and damn this trailer for making me dread six months in advance my date with the year’s worst major animated release.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2016
Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950)
Miracle in Milan (Vittoria De Sica, 1951)
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
The Emigrants (Jan Troell, 1971)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
New Book (Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1976)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)
Battle Royale (Fukasaku Kinji, 2000)