We Hunted Down the 10 Best Films of 2016

From the Iranian mystery Fireworks Wednesday to the German black comedy Toni Erdmann, this year’s stand-out films were far off the beaten path.

Michael Atkinson December 30, 2016

Indie "Moonlight" follows the maturation of a bullied gay Miami kid.

In the real world it was a year of plagues and pox­es and com­ings of The Beast, but it was also a pret­ty crum­my year for movies. Nobody could be blamed for for­get­ting whole swathes of the the­atri­cal cal­en­dar, par­tic­u­lar­ly the high­est gross­ing prod­ucts, of which nine out of the top ten were either ani­mat­ed children’s films or super­hero sagas. (The tenth was the lat­est and entire­ly unnec­es­sary Har­ry Pot­ter adden­dum.) Who is like­ly to remem­ber any of them in a few years time?

Colin Farrell plays a very uncertain man in a modern world where uncoupled people are essentially illegal—at a country hotel-cum-boot camp, he is tasked with finding a mate, or else be turned into an animal of his choice.

We don’t seem to be look­ing for cin­e­mat­ic elec­tri­fi­ca­tion any­more — rather than search­ing out prime steaks and truf­fles, we binge-con­sume the bland carbs of TV, hour after repet­i­tive hour, eat­ing it like a bot­tom­less bowl of pop­corn. Cer­tain­ly, the new movies that are most like­ly to shift your par­a­digms are gen­er­al­ly a hell of a lot more chal­leng­ing than any rhyth­mic ten-hour slab of Empire or The Walk­ing Dead. My num­ber one and two, Apichat­pong Weerasethakul’s Ceme­tery of Splen­dour and Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’ The Lob­ster are, in fact, almost inscrutable, and all the more fab­u­lous for it.

A one-man Thai new wave, Weerasethakul makes tran­scen­dent­ly unique movie expe­ri­ences, filled with spir­i­tu­al weird­ness and med­i­ta­tive longueurs, and this new film is a day­dream encom­pass­ing nar­colep­tic sol­diers, ancient bur­ial grounds, a giant para­me­ci­um, young psy­chics, vis­it­ing god­dess­es, trop­i­cal lan­guor, errant erec­tions, and the ghosts of recent polit­i­cal upheavals and atroc­i­ties. Like all of his film, it resists synopsis.

Lan­thi­mos’ com­ic-scary freak­out (his first Eng­lish-lan­guage film) is even stranger — Col­in Far­rell plays a very uncer­tain man in a mod­ern world where uncou­pled peo­ple are essen­tial­ly ille­gal — at a coun­try hotel-cum-boot camp, he is tasked with find­ing a mate, or else be turned into an ani­mal of his choice. (The wood­ed land­scape around them are filled with roam­ing camels, dogs, bun­nies and flamin­gos.) The details of how this world works— how the sys­tem pas­sive-aggres­sive­ly sup­press­es the indi­vid­ual in the name of the social bonds of cou­ple­hood — are insid­i­ous and hilar­i­ous, as are the machi­na­tions of the rebel fac­tion liv­ing in the for­est (who out­law love alto­geth­er). Beau­ti­ful­ly shot and act­ed with a dry awk­ward­ness by a won­drous cast (includ­ing Rachel Weisz, Lea Sey­doux, John C. Reil­ly and Ben Whishaw), the film is made up almost entire­ly of metaphors so fecund it’s hard to keep up with their resonances.

Num­ber three, Ken­neth Lonergan’s Man­ches­ter by the Sea, is no mys­tery — just a mea­sure-by-mea­sure scorch of emo­tion­al war­fare, cen­tered on hol­lowed-out blue col­lar schlub Casey Affleck, whose life of her­met­i­cal­ly sealed grief is unpacked for us as he is forced, after his brother’s death, to take cus­tody of his wily teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Lon­er­gan is a pow­er­house engi­neer of explo­sive dra­mat­ic com­bat, and here Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams are so trau­ma-tox­ic and real you hold your breath like you would at an out­burst dur­ing a real funeral.

Inter­gen­der com­bat was a go-to top­ic in 2016. Maren Ade’s Toni Erd­mann (#4), anoth­er kind of bewil­der­ing fam­i­ly melt­down (in this case, a face-off between a cor­po­rate daugh­ter and her prank-dolt of a father) is near­ly as ter­rif­ic as its titan­ic fest hype sug­gest­ed. Num­ber five is Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evo­lu­tion, a bare­ly seen French para­ble about puber­ty and gen­der and pow­er that reach­es queasy new heights in body-hor­ror sym­bol­ism. Num­ber six, José Luis Guerin’s The Acad­e­my of Mus­es is a spry Span­ish gabfest pit­ting aca­d­e­m­ic ideas about love and beau­ty against 21st-cen­tu­ry fem­i­nism, while Asghar Farhadi’s Fire­works Wednes­day (#7) is the lat­est in that Iran­ian master’s series of deep-dish mys­tery-dra­mas explor­ing the tan­gles of Sharia-law soci­ety.

Out of nowhere, Kirsten Johnson’s Cam­er­ap­er­son (#8) is a bewitch­ing doc-“memoir” com­prised entire­ly of inci­den­tal footage John­son shot work­ing on dozens of oth­er peo­ples’ movies. Just as charm­ing, if in the end appalling, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog (#9) is a self-inter­ro­gat­ing black farce imp­ish­ly fol­low­ing a dachs­hund from one set of dys­func­tion­al human hands to anoth­er. Final­ly, there’s Bar­ry Jenk­ins’ Moon­light, a daz­zling trip­tych indie fol­low­ing the mat­u­ra­tion of a bul­lied gay Mia­mi kid (played at three ages by three actors) that is for many the film of the year, but which turned out for me to be intense­ly love­ly but on the thin side. Or maybe the hype did it in.

Run­ners-up, in order: Neru­da (Pablo Lar­raín, Chile), Wein­er (Josh Kriegman/​Elyse Stein­berg, U.S.), The Witch (Robert Eggers, U.S.), Amer­i­can Hon­ey (Andrea Arnold, UK/U.S.), I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK), High-Rise (Ben Wheat­ley, UK), The Hand­maid­en (Park Chan-wook, South Korea), Afer­im! (Radu Jude, Roma­nia) and Jack­ie (Pablo Lar­raín, U.S.).

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH