by Jason Koenigsberg
In the end 2016 was not a bad year for movies. It may have been dismal for sports, politics, economics and life expectancy of beloved celebrities but this past year was actually one of the better years we have seen in quite a while. The big blockbusters and event movies failed to live up to the events they promised, but the outliers were very exciting and interesting works of art. As previously stated in my Reflections on the Year in Film article, we had films that reflected a country hurting from bad leadership and an economic recession. Talented directors emerged and tackled difficult subject matter. Humor was found in the unlikeliest places in movies this past year, horror movies delivered scathing social commentary along with terrifying thrills. Teenagers had an honest voice as they were depicted in mature and candid ways, and comic book movies hopefully hit their nadir (Deadpool being the only exception). In fact only one of the movies that I declare as the best of 2016 had no real social satire. The other titles are all intellectual works of art that reflect our current struggles with social issues such as race, identity, sudden tragedy, healthcare and poverty.
One disclaimer, even though OJ: Made in America has been on other critics best of the year lists because it had a limited theatrical run prior to premiering on ESPN, I thought it would be unfair to include an eight hour documentary with other feature length theatrical films. I wrote about how outstanding it was as a Streaming Pick of the Week. OJ: Made in America is gripping must-see entertainment and one of the best encapsulations of the dark side of the American dream, but including it here just did not feel right because of its length and the fact that most people saw it on cable and not in cinemas.
Without any further ado, here are Pan and Slam’s Best of 2016:
1. Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins)
I still cannot believe this movie was made. Moonlight is a thrillingly deep and emotional journey that explores themes of race, sexuality and poverty in the form of a brilliant coming of age story about the power of memories. An unforgettable and poetic tale that uses the camera as a tool for empathy in ways that have not been done before in motion pictures. The Academy would make an egregious error to not honor this film in some way, especially with its highest honor.
2. Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch)
One of our finest humanistic directors delivers one of his best works of art. Paterson is funny, sad, makes the ordinary powerful and the mundane routines of life beautiful. Most of all, Paterson is a glorious work of subtlety and a love letter to the dreams of everyday blue collar workers that we encounter in the most unglamorous of settings. A small film with magical moments filled with symbolism and the best performance of Adam Driver’s career thus far.
3. Hell or High Water (directed by David Mackenzie)
I came so close to having this film at number 1 or 2 on my list. It was the most fun movie of 2016 that served as a biting social commentary using western cliches and making them relevant for the twenty-first century. Hell or High Water is a great film and the type of movie I could watch over and over. It helps that it has snappy editing and cinematography that makes you feel the heat beating down on these characters. A visually rich film with terrific acting that is very much a film about right now.
4. Manchester by the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan)
This movie works because of an outstanding script accompanied by three of the best performances of the year from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges. Manchester by the Sea is the years most depressing film, but it is also one of the most extraordinary. An eloquent story of love and loss due to tragedy, themes that will never disappear. Yet is is also sprinkled with moments of humor and anchored by the lead performance from Casey Affleck.
5. The Handmaiden (directed by Chan-wook Park)
One of the greatest Korean filmmakers channelled his inner Hitchcock and Fellini with a dash of Orson Welles for The Handmaiden, the best film of his career thus far. A sumptuous and erotic love story with twists around almost every turn yet they never feel manipulative or contrived. It is great to see Chan-wook Park really flex his directorial muscles and take risks that pay off. The Handmaiden is a complex feminist story and one of the most indulgent films of the year.
6. Elle (directed by Paul Verhoeven)
During the 1980’s and 90’s Paul Verhoeven made some of the best action, science fiction and adult thrillers of their time. Since returning to Europe to make films, he has not lost his provocative edge at all. Elle is a dark, deeply disturbing film that I would go so far as to classify as a comedy. Granted it is one of the darkest comedies you might ever see, but I laughed out loud more during this film than almost anything else from 2016. Isabelle Huppert gives the most audacious performance and the best from any actress in a leading role of the year. She creates a despicable character that is incredibly complicated. One that is not easy to relate to or sympathize with, but we are still compelled to root for her.
7. Don’t Breathe (directed by Fede Alvarez)
In a year of some truly great horror movies that delivered scares and social commentary, Don’t Breathe was easily the best at successfully giving audiences both with some crazy twists along the way. It was effective at making me think about the characters and their motivations, as well as making me scared both physically, by jumping in my seat, and psychologically, with elements that stayed with me long after the end credits rolled.
8. American Honey (directed by Andrea Arnold)
One of the best and most brutally honest films about teenagers and their anguish we have seen in a long time. Only Moonlight eclipses it in terms of artistry and importance. But American Honey is every bit as bold and daring as any other film on this list. A candid take on poverty in America as seen through the eyes of a teenager without the benefit of any parental guidance. The cinematography reminds you that we are witnessing these events from her point of view and Sasha Lane gives an outstanding lead performance in her debut film.
9. The Nice Guys (directed by Shane Black)
What would have been just a very good movie if it were made in 1996 is instead one of the best and funniest movies of 2016. Shane Black, the mind that gave us Lethal Weapon (1987), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) delivers exactly what he is known for. An action-comedy about lonely, lost souls being forced to work together to solve a convoluted mystery. Oh yeah, and this is one of the most clever screenplays of the year with some deep and savagely satirical moments. When they say they don’t make em like they used to, The Nice Guys is the lone exception to that statement when it comes to the buddy cop action picture.
10. La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle)
The only film on my top 10 that did not serve as a social commentary (unless you count it being a commentary on show business) and did not challenge me intellectually or emotionally. But boy was La La Land fun. Easily the happiest and most crowd pleasing movie of 2016 which is probably why awards shows are honoring it so much. The singing, dancing, jazz music, cinematography, sets, costumes and choreography are all stellar. This is the Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for millennials.
11. Deadpool (directed by Tim Miller)
The best comic book movie of the year featuring the unlikeliest superhero in a mainstream film.
12. Everybody Wants Some (directed by Richard Linklater)
What Richard Linklater started with Dazed and Confused (1993) he continues here with a film that also felt like a spiritual sequel to Boyhood (2014). This movie made me smile more than any other film from 2016.
13. The Witch (directed by Robert Eggers)
A haunting and poetic film that worked best as an artistic social commentary about our fears as a nation.
14. Silence (directed by Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s most difficult and inaccessible film, but a deep transcendent meditation on religion and its power over our lives.
15. Lion (directed by Garth Davis)
A phenomenal true story of poverty and privilege and one that it is near impossible to not be emotionally moved by.
16. Green Room (directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
A claustrophobic thriller that also worked as a social commentary about our country and the economy.
17. Cafe Society (directed by Woody Allen)
A typical Woody Allen romance that mixes comedy and drama is still one of the best movies of any year.
18. Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)
A hilarious animated film that also served as an allegory about racism. The most pleasant surprise of 2016.
19. Fences (directed by Denzel Washington)
Denzel directs himself to one of his best performances in years and Viola Davis shines in the screen adaptation of an award winning play.
20. Edge of Seventeen (directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)
Another terrific and honest look at the trials and tribulations of teenagers growing up with Hailee Steinfeld dealing with internal conflicts that are not easily shown on screen. The acting and the script are both top notch.
There were so many great movies with talented actors and directors that emerged from 2016 that a top 10 would not have sufficed. Seek out all of these pictures to get an idea of how diverse and rewarding going to the movies was in the past twelve months. Even though some of these films connected thematically, they are all unique visions that interpret the times we are living in. I think all 20 of these films will have long shelf lives and be looked fondly upon as high points in the careers of their actors, writers and directors.