Anyone of these films would not be out of place on my top 10 list - in particular from 14 on up.
20. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)
The Austin Wright novel that Tom Ford adapted in Nocturnal Animals could not have been the easiest to adapt – it has a very literally structure and style that if you don’t quite just right, will quite simply not on screen. I don’t think Ford pulls it off effortlessly – you can see the strain in his effort at times – but mostly, he does it brilliantly. The film tells multiple stories – with fictions layered inside fiction – one involving a husband and father (Jake Gyllenhaal) who watches as his wife and daughter get kidnapped by a group of backwater psychos (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – and has to rely on a strange lawman (Michael Shannon) for help. The other involves Susan (Amy Adams), the ex-wife of Tony (also Gyllenahaal) – living a high class, empty LA existence of fashion, money, style and excess – who is reading the book he wrote (the kidnapping story). The film is a knowing mixture of genres and styles – half out of touch Hollywood Liberal, half dimwit Trump supporter – deliberately provoking a response from the audience, leading them to an inevitable conclusion – and then, simply not providing it. The film is brilliant and flawed, mesmerizing and messed up. There is a no way a film like this could ever be perfect – but it is unforgettable.
19. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Certain Women is one of the year’s quietest films – as you would expect for the latest by the wonderful Kelly Reichardt. It tells three, mildly interlocking stories about women in the Midwest, dealing with their lives – casual misogyny, loneliness, crumbling marriages, etc. – and does so without a hint of melodrama. The first story – starring Laura Dern as a lawyer with a client who will not listen her (but will listen to a man) – has the most plot, but even that is low-key. The second story, about a couple who wants to buy some sandstone from an elderly man, who always planned to use it, and never got around to it, is perhaps a little too quiet, too subtle. The finale one is of the best of the year (if the whole movie were as good as this segment, this would easily make the top 10 list) – and tells the story a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone, in one of the great performances of the year) who develops a friendship with her teacher (Kristen Stewart) – which leads her to do something she didn’t expect. Reichardt’s films are always quiet, always low-key – always feel like not much is happening, but grow in your mind for weeks afterwards. Certain Women – like Meek’s Cutoff, Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy – is beautiful, subtle, heartbreaking filmmaking.
18. Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez)
The best “pure” horror film of the year, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is intense and scary right from the start. The story of three young people who break into the isolated house of a blind veteran – supposedly because he has hundreds of thousands of dollars inside – is brilliantly executed by Alvarez. He favors long takes, tracking shots, showing us the lay of the land inside the house early, and then using it to great effect later on. The sound design is perhaps the best of the years – everything heightened for maximum effect. Jane Levy is in fine form as the “survivor girl” in the film – sympathetic, even though she’s there to rob a blind guy – but Stephen Lang gives perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year as that man – at first sympathetic, than downright frightening. The movie takes a few wild turns in the final act – does it go too far? Perhaps – but overall, this really is a brilliant horror film – and one of my favorite movie going experiences of the year.
17. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is one of the year’s most ambitious films – a full scale, made directly for the screen musical like this isn’t seen very often, let alone one that pulls it off this well. The film is anchored by two wonderful lead performances – Ryan Gosling as a character who in other hands may have been an insufferable asshole, is instead instantly charming, and Emma Stone, finds new bits to play as the ingénue looking for stardom. They carry the movie through a few of its rough patches. Strangely, I think if the music was a little stronger, and if Chazelle were better able to hide the obvious enormous effort of the production (musicals are always a ton of work – but watch Astaire/Rodgers or Gene Kelly – they make it look like they aren’t trying at all), this would be even better. As it stands, it’s still wonderful – and I have nothing but admiration for the wild, crazy ambition it took to pull it off.
16. Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The consensus seems to be that the Coens latest is minor Coens – and perhaps it is, since many of their films have found their way onto my top 10 list over the years, and this sits just outside it. Still, it’s impossible to overstate the pure joy I get out of this film- a brilliant homage to, and send up of, the studio era in Hollywood – a lighter side of Barton Fink perhaps, that still manages some thematic heft in its Christ-like story at its core. Coen comedies often take more time to find their audience then their dramas – and I find it hard to believe that people won’t be quoting this one for years to come (“Would that it were so simple”, “Squint into the grandeur!”). Coen regulars like Josh Brolin – in the lead role – and George Clooney – adding another Coen buffoon to his resume – are in fine form, as is its cast of stars – but no one is better than Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle – a seemingly dimwitted star of cowboy pictures, who turns out not to be so dumb after all. There’s no denying that Hail Caesar isn’t as good as the Coens last film – Inside Llewyn Davis is my pick for film of the decade so far – but it’s more Coen magic, then I’ll probably watch approximately 100 times.
15. Christine (Antonio Campos)
Antonio Campos’ Christine is a film that has continued to grow in my mind since seeing it at TIFF in September. The movie, about Christine Chubbuck, the Florida reporter who committed suicide during a live broadcast in 1973, is intense, scary and empathetic – looking at both the mental issues that Chubbuck suffered from as well as the outside forces that pressed in on her – and all women at that time. In the lead role, Rebecca Hall gives one of the year’s great performances in the title role – brittle, volatile, driven, and slowly driven mad – but the rest of the cast – Tracy Letts as her misogynist boss, Michael C. Hall as a Me Generation anchor, and especially Maria Dizzia, as an underling, who seems so nice, until she isn’t. Campos has been doing solid work for a while – chilling work to be sure, but distinctive – and Christine takes him to another level. A brilliant, underrated film that not enough people saw this year.
14. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Watching Paul Verhoeven’s controversial and incendiary Elle is like watching Verhoeven, and star Isabelle Huppert, do one of the most daring high wire acts of the year. This is a film that begins with Huppert being brutally raped, and gets more disturbing from there. For Huppert, this is one of the best performances of her career (I’m not sure she can top her work in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher – but this is as close as she’s ever going to get most likely) – as she plays a woman who is in control of every aspect of her life – beset with a bunch of weak-willed spineless men – her sniveling ex-husband, her lazy son, controlled by his girlfriend, her friend’s husband who she is sleeping with, etc. – who then finds one man in control – her rapist. What follows will be offensive to some (many? most?) but makes sense in the context of this one woman’s reaction. Huppert is brilliant, and it’s great to see a Verhoeven film again for the first time in a decade. With this, he does to European Art House cinema what he spent years doing to Hollywood films. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget Elle.
13. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hell or High Water became one of the year’s most relevant movies – a film where it was possible to see both Trump’s America, as well the opposite of that. It’s story of two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing banks – the very ones trying to foreclose on their home – is genre filmmaking at its finest by David Mackenzie – a journeyman director, who has quietly built up an impressive resume, with a great script by Taylor Sheridan. Pine and Foster fall into their roles easily – Pine the more subdued, Foster going characteristically crazy (in a good way) – and they are well matched on the other side of the law by Jeff Bridges, as a tired Texas Ranger, after one last big bust before retirement, and Gil Birmingham as his partner. The film sneaks up on you a little bit – yes, it makes its political point early – but for the most part subtly (it didn’t need to be literally written on a wall, but never mind). This is the type of film – part modern Western, part neo-Noir, expertly written, directed and acted that it seems like Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to make.
12. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Denis Villeneuve’s tour of different genres continued in 2016 (following interesting work in Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners and Sicario) – as he moved over to sci-fi – and to make the highest concept mainstream film that genre has seen in a while. Featuring an excellent performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is the story of a peaceful alien invasion – where humanity has to find a way to communicate with, but cannot get out of their own way, with their bickering and infighting. Adams is great as a linguist – who we first meet as she has to watch her daughter die after a long battle with a debilitating illness. She’s the one who knows figure out – through months of work – how to communicate. Arrival isn’t a movie with a lot of action – it’s an interior journey as much as anything, and asks some very heady questions of its audience, and yet its greatest strength is emotional – this is that rare film that makes you think and makes you cry at the same time. Villeneuve continues to be one of the more interesting filmmakers working today.
11. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
In terms of bonkers, gonzo genre films – things don’t get a whole lot crazier than Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – a two and half hour film, with twist upon twist about an Korean con-woman, brought in by a conman to be the Handmaiden for a rich, but sheltered Japanese heiress. Her job is to help him seduce her, so he can have her committed, and steal all her money. Things seem to be going according to plan, until the film twists, switches POVs, and restarts – and essentially does the same thing all over again (which it will do a final time as well). The film is set in the 1930s, and is one of the most visually dazzling of the year – the costume and production design are the best of the year, the cinematography wonderful, the score evocative, the performances pitched perfectly – going for high melodrama, well still maintaining some degree of believability. Whatever Park does, he goes all in – this is a violent, sexual, film that goes for broke, and doesn’t let down for a moment. It may just be the most purely entertaining film of the year.