Top Ten Films of 2016

Mid-May isn’t too late to do a top ten of the year is it? I don’t think so, at least not when you’ve spent the previous year traveling the world! That’s my excuse anyways, for this super-late post on my favorite films of 2016.

2016 was not the strongest year for film. Due to traveling I didn’t see a lot; I was selective and only saw the good stuff, but even the best films I had issues with, they were the best because their strengths were so strong I was willing to overlook their weaknesses, but not because they were strong all around. I actually feel this way about a number of films every year, but usually I find enough great films that the “good but I had issues with it” films only make the bottom two or three in my top ten. This year, however, they made it all the way into my top three!

That being said, I still enjoyed a lot of what I saw from 2016, and regardless of quality, I had a great time seeing them all (have you ever gone to the movies in a foreign country, it is super-fun!).

I would like to note here that six out of the ten films below are the respective director’s first or second feature. And two more were a third feature. I did not set out for this, but I think it is a reflection of where the industry is, with established filmmakers moving to television or being relegated to franchise fare. It seems that you have to seek out new, fresh voiced filmmakers, ones who are still young and hungry, to find exciting filmmaking right now.

I should also note that there are still a couple popular/critically praised films I still haven’t seen from last year, like Hidden Figures, Elle, The Salesman, Moana, and probably some others that could make it onto this list once I see them. But I believe I’ve seen enough to put this out as it is.

Alright, no more preamble. Here’s my list:

10. American Honey

I’ve seen all Andrea Arnold’s films, including her shorts, and I have no idea how she does what she does. Her style is incredible, her films so raw and unique; as far as I’m aware, no one makes films like she does. As for this one, it is set amongst the young middle American door-to-door magazine subscription scene, a subculture filled with characters I’ve never seen on the big screen. But Arnold nails it, and this despite her being British; she’s a Brit but she understands America better than most Americans.

My only qualm with this film: it is two hours and forty-five minutes! It definitely overstays its welcome, being about forty-five minutes longer than it should be. I still recommend it though, just like I recommend all of Arnold’s work. She’s one of the most exciting filmmakers working today!

9. La La Land

Oh, La La Land, what to do with you? Never has a film been so amazing, so enthralling, and pissed me off so much. I loved everything about this film until it ended and I realized that everything was unearned. The characters had dreams they didn’t relentlessly pursue, instead they quit when things got too difficult. I was completely on board until this point, but when Mia gives up I was thought: “Really? I thought you wanted this. If you really want something you don’t let a shitty boyfriend get you down.”

And then, despite giving up, her dream is handed to her. Nothing about making things happen or taking what’s yours, and everything about waiting for someone to hand you an opportunity, exactly the opposite of how things work. Topping all this off, Mia tells Sebastian “I’m always gonna love you” and I remember thinking “Love? Where the hell did that come from?” “I’m always gonna love you” is kind of a litmus test for this film; you believe the line and everything is great, you don’t and the film doesn’t work for you. I didn’t believe it and that is really unfortunate because outside of this, La La Land really is an amazing film.

8. Arrival

Here is another film I don’t know what to do with. The film explores a super-interesting and unique subject (communication/language barriers), something I’ve never seen on film before. It has themes about love and fate and experience that are so powerful they verge on philosophy. And all the while the film stays grounded in reality, with seemingly real science and scientists (albeit much more attractive), the whole thing very rarely felt like a movie.

My only qualm with this film was the plot, which usually is one of the least important aspects to me. But this film set itself up as a mystery (at least I thought it did) and I figured the mystery out pretty quickly. I actually think I figured things out before I was supposed to, which meant I knew what was going to happen, which meant I was waiting for it to happen, which meant things got boring. All this from a film that had everything else that I love in filmmaking!

I bet I’d like this film a lot if I watched it again; the second time I watch a film I focus much more on the craft and themes and ideas, and less on the plot and story.

7. Zootopia

When this film was pitched to John Lasseter, it was pitched as “our modern world, as made by animals.” Not animals in the modern world or the animal version of the modern world, but our world, as made by animals. Once Lasseter understood this, his eyes lit up. It is an amazing premise, ripe with so much potential; if nothing else, the site-gags alone would make this film entertaining. And they did; I still remember the drink stand with the employee who handed drinks to normal height animals, used a vacuum shaft for tall animals, and used a ridiculously tall shaft for giraffes. Awesome!

As for the rest of the film, I loved the characters in this one. They were likable, relatable, fun, interesting; they had goals and relentlessly pursued them, nothing was handed to them (*cough* La La Land *cough*), and they refused to give up on their dream, no matter how much life discouraged them. Outside of this, the rest of the film was great too, with a powerful message and strong character relationships, and even the “animals going wild” element, which may seem fictional, hit close to home for me. This was a really, really, really fun and powerful film!

6. Moonlight

I found most of this film to be above-average. It was very well made but minus the homosexual element (which, while in some ways was the whole film, but in other ways was only a small part), it was actually pretty conventional, hitting almost every tried-and-true trope about inner-city black people (drug-dealing father-figure straight out of The Wire, crack addict straight out of The Wire, single mother, juvie, bullying, religion, extreme poverty). The main difference in this film, however, was the directing, which was phenomenal. The fact that the homosexual element was both the whole film and only a small part speaks volumes to this, to the films power and strength and subtlety. In my opinion, this film’s direction is what elevates it to an excellent film.

5. Hacksaw Ridge

One through line I’ve noticed in this post is that I really enjoy films about characters I’ve never seen authentically in a movie before. And Hacksaw Ridge fulfilled that with flying colors. Most “Christian” films (for lack of a better term) are so exploitative, propagandistic, and insulting; they all seem to lack the honesty and artistry that characterize great filmmaking. Not this one though. Mel Gibson once again proves he knows how to make religious films (I actually really enjoyed both Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ); if anything it was the battle sequences that were over-the-top and lacked artistry here. It’s rare for me to like a Christian film but that has nothing to do with the subject; its because most of them are bad. This one was good, really good, and I enjoyed it a lot.

It also helps that this film was based on a true story. Not sure I would have liked it if that wasn’t the case, probably because everything would be unbelievable to the point of ridiculousness. As Tom Clancy famously said: “The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.”

4. Lion

Wow, what a great film this was! One of the best first acts I’ve ever seen (this is especially true because I recently traveled through India, where I saw firsthand a lot of what was depicted here), an almost impossible to film (internet searches? Boring!) second act, and a super-sappy but earned ending. The only problem I had with this film was the way they filmmakers made the almost impossible to film second act work: the girlfriend character. Every character in a film, just like every person in real life, should have their own purpose, should be the main character of their own story, but it was pretty clear that the girlfriend had no purpose in this film other than to assist in the lead’s; she had no story of her own and that really bothered me. This was the one disappointing element in an otherwise excellent film.

3. Star Wars: Rogue One

The third and final film on this list that I just don’t know what to do with. The first act here was a mess and so was the second, but act three? Amazing! And it wasn’t the action, or the likeable characters, or the throwbacks to the original trilogy, all of which were great. It was the fact that this film somehow made the Star Wars universe, both its dynamics and history, deeper, clearer, and more interesting. This was something Lucas tried but failed to do with the prequel trilogy, and something Episode 7 didn’t even attempt to do at all. I really appreciated them doing it here, and especially enjoyed the fact that they did it really well.

And even better than this were the themes in this film, following characters who believe in something so strongly that they are willing to give their lives to it. I felt like I experienced this watching the film, experienced the characters having their beliefs tested, having to learn to believe. I earlier said the first two acts in this film were a mess but evidently they did something right, because when I saw all the rebels (not just the main characters but every single one) fighting at the end, it got to me; it got to me in a way I haven’t felt since the original trilogy.

I’m really glad I enjoyed this film because I love Star Wars and if this in any indication, the anthology films are something I will be looking forward to in the future.

2. The Witch

I have never seen a film like this before. This is a period piece (set during the witch-hysteria era in Colonial America) more authentic than pretty much any period piece I’ve even seen. This film is so authentic that the dialog actually uses the dialect of that time period, something that should make it hard to understand. But it isn’t, and that is just one of many testaments to this film’s excellent writing, directing, and acting.

In addition to the above, The Witch is a horror film, and it was terrifying. I legitimately had no idea what would happen next, nothing was predictable and I never had any idea how it was going to end. All this in a film that remained grounded in its own reality, that never cheated or bent the rules or tried to sneak anything by us.

The acting in this film is also incredible. The two young leads in particular, played by a 19 and 14(!) year old, were unreal. Mark my words, we’ll be seeing a lot of them in the future.

1. Birth of a Nation

If you never heard of this film, please allow me to explain. This film took Sundance by storm, winning both the audience and jury awards. It was bought by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the largest sum ever spent purchasing the rights to an indie film. It was even rumored that Netflix offered as much as $20 million, but the filmmakers went with Fox Searchlight because they wanted a theatrical release. All of this made this film the early front runner for best picture.

Then a story surfaced from fifteen years ago, when the writer/director/star of the film was in college, where he and his roommate were charged with rape. It didn’t matter that they were acquitted, the film was tainted, no one even wanted to touch it. Because of this, the film lost money at the box office and, come awards season, it was almost completely forgotten.

Here’s the thing though: none of the above affects the actual quality of the film. And this film is amazing. It is like a companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, covering the the same subject matter (slavery in the US south) and stylistically similar, but in other ways strikingly different. Most significantly, 12 Years A Slave is an epic story of a man’s life forcibly destroyed (almost) over the course of twelve long years, while Birth of a Nation is a small story about a man choosing to sacrifice his life in a two-day rebellion. But the movie isn’t about the rebellion, it is about what led up to it, the slow, painful road that led this slave preacher to violence, revenge, justice, and murder. I found it very impressive how this film took such a small, seemingly insignificant event and made an entire film about it. And a moving and powerful one at that.

Well, that’s it, my top ten of 2016. Hope it wasn’t too late, or too negative, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you have any thoughts and we haven’t already discussed them in person or on Facebook, let me know in the comments!

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About Gabriel Bruskoff
I write about films! I make them too! See www.gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

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