The Best Movies of 2016 (According to Britt Hayes)
According to most people (at least on the internet, where most people live now), 2016 was horrific. It was a year in which we lost some of our best and brightest artists, a year in which we elected a president who will, according to Kate McKinnon’s Hilary Clinton, “kill us all,” and it was a year that put the “bust” in blockbuster. Despite all of this, 2016 delivered some truly remarkable films; because of all of this, we needed them.
It was incredibly difficult to narrow this list down to 10 titles. It’s a privileged burden, and one that’s silly to complain about, but it still stresses me out in a way that’s reassuring: This year wasn’t all bad, at least not as far as movies are concerned. There were so many great films that it felt impossible to choose just 10 and rank them. (I mean, Dirty Grandpa didn’t even make my top 25. What a year.) This ranking doesn’t change every week or every day, but every minute — so what you’re seeing isn’t a definitive list, but a snapshot of my opinion as it was at the very last minute before I had to finally stop procrastinating and just write it already.
There will be omissions (even in the honorable mentions), but for every film you believe I unjustly left out, I can name two I already regret excluding. Without further ado, here are the best films of 2016, according to me:
10. O.J.: Made in America
Directed by Ezra Edelman
ESPN was smart to snatch Edelman’s compelling documentary and cut it into parts for the Bingewatch Era. Many viewers who might flinch at the idea of watching a seven-and-a-half movie in theaters would be more than happy to devour a five-part miniseries, especially one that involves a notorious true-crime story. Like FX’s equally compelling The People v. O.J. Simpson, Made in America revisits the Simpson trial and examines how the media coverage, unprecedented in its sensationalism, paved the way for reality television and a new era in pop culture. But Edelman goes beyond the moment that came to define O.J. Simpson’s place in history, adding much-needed context to the arc of his subject’s life to explore a symbiotic convergence of events in which socio-political issues collided with the trial to yield an outcome as remarkable and relevant today as it was in 1995.
O.J.: Made in America is available on home video and Hulu.
9. 20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
Mills’ follow-up to Beginners could have easily been titled The Feminine Mystique. It could have just as easily gone so very badly, with its story of women and the vital roles they play in the shaping of a young man’s life. But these women — played beautifully by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning — aren’t reductive stereotypes that function as accessories to a man’s journey; this is their story, as seen through the eyes of a boy who is consistently perplexed and mesmerized by these human beings he will never fully understand. “I’m not all men,” a defensive Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) says to his mother (Bening), to which she replies, “Well, yes and no.” That moment is deceptively simple, not unlike the women of Mills’ film, which often vibrates on subtle but resonant frequencies.
20th Century Women is currently playing in select theaters.
8. The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
Few directorial debuts are as impressively confident as The Witch. Robert Eggers’ New England folktale centers on a Puritan family and their devout patriarch, a regular Job-type who moves his clan out to an empty plot of land conveniently located next to the eeriest woods this side of Burkittsville. The Witch is gorgeously atmospheric, impeccably dressed, and performed with pitch-perfect accuracy, while avoiding the overwrought tendencies of period drama. Eggers has crafted a deviously unnerving experience every bit as artful as its more prestigious counterparts, with an ending every bit as delicious as Black Phillip promised it would be.
The Witch is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
7. The Invitation
Directed by Karyn Kusama
I have already written extensively about Karyn Kusama’s latest film (seriously; I wrote the essay for the Blu-ray booklet), which functions, among other things, as a master class in building and sustaining tension. That last part is crucial to The Invitation, a bonafide thriller for grown-ups that centers on a man (Logan Marshall-Green) who attends a dinner party with friends hosted by his ex-wife. Kusama deftly explores grief in the context of social etiquette, and examines our craven desire to be polite and avoid offending others by indulging them — an act that often has poisonous consequences. We’re familiar with the “comedy of errors” genre, but what Kusama created with screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi may very well be the first horror of manners.
The Invitation is currently available to stream on Netflix Instant.
6. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
The Lobster posits a dystopian future that isn’t all that unrealistic: A society that forces single adults (like Colin Farrell’s delightfully schlubby David) to check into a hotel where they have 45 days to find a romantic partner or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. Lanthimos doesn’t heighten reality to an absurd degree; he heightens the absurdity of our existing reality, and finds immense pathos and dark humor in concepts like dating and the unhealthy compromises we make in order to avoid the most dreadful fate: Being alone.
The Lobster is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
5. American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold takes the great American road trip and its empty promise of self-discovery, and divorces it from all that neat and tidy poetic pretense. There is still poetry to be found in American Honey, just not the kind we’ve grown accustomed to in the words of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Featuring a remarkable performance from newcomer Sasha Lane, Arnold’s Midwestern odyssey explores a hidden economy built on exploitative transactions and the often uneven ground of mutual benefit, where one side stands to gain much more than the other. American Honey crept into my emotional consciousness, and it’s been stuck there ever since.
American Honey will be available to rent or own on December 27.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
I can think of no better way to describe my reaction to Moonlight than “visceral.” Whether joy or sadness, or some exceptional combination of both, Barry Jenkins’ film provokes a palpable empathetic response. This poignant triptych centers on a young black man coming of age at three different points in his life; each actor and section is as affecting as the last. Jenkins’ achievement is unique — it’s not often that I walk away from a film believing that I felt everything a character felt, exactly how they felt it, every step of the way. I felt the giddy anticipation of Chiron’s first romantic exchange and the anxious shifts in energy of the last. Jenkins proves that building and sustaining tension isn’t just for horror stories and thrillers; in the context of love, it can be just as exquisite and far more rewarding.
Moonlight is currently playing in select theaters.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Elle weaves the twisted story of a video game executive (Isabelle Huppert) who copes with a series of sexual assaults in surprising ways. It’s an engaging thriller that also happens to be a dark comedy. Without Huppert, Elle would never work. It was she who steered the film in a more darkly comedic direction; Verhoeven smartly followed. The end result is wholly subversive, challenging our ideas of agency, our expectations of victimhood, and our view of female sexuality. This isn’t the story of all survivors, but the story of one woman and how her distinct life experiences inform her reaction to a traumatic event. Is she toying with her rapist in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game, or is she genuinely engaging in a precarious dominant-submissive sexual waltz? Perhaps both. Elle is a magnificent marriage between one of our most provocative directors and one of our most provocative performers. As such, it’s not for everyone, but it was most certainly for me.
Elle is currently playing in select theaters.
Directed by Pablo Larrain
If not for Elle, Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy would be my favorite performance of the year, but second place — even on this list — isn’t too shabby. The word “biopic” is too reductive for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, a discordant portrait of grief in which Portman’s eponymous widow refuses to accept that there are things she cannot control, and turns the act of self-mythologizing into an art. Steeling herself with the pedestal on which she’d been placed in our collective imagination (or was she the architect of that, too?), Jackie copes with her loss not by becoming the master of her own destiny, but by mastering history. Music is rarely as imperative to film as Mica Levi’s incredible score for Jackie, which breathes jarring life into in this unshakable post-mortem as we watch the widow unravel, with grace. Always with grace.
Jackie is currently playing in select theaters.
1. The Handmaiden
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith transposes the cleverly twisted narrative from England to Japanese-occupied Korea, and while it’s not entirely divested of the director’s penchant for revenge (the setting and basic setup imply as much), it is most certainly his masterpiece. At the heart of this elegant and thrilling caper is a wonderful love story, though not without the sort of beautiful and unnerving visuals we’ve come to expect from Park. No other film this year made me feel the way I felt while watching The Handmaiden (both times); nothing compared to the overwhelming joy in my heart as I watched two women (Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri) free themselves from a patriarchal system by gleefully ripping it to shreds.
The Handmaiden will be available to rent or own on January 24, 2017. Amazon Prime has exclusive streaming rights.
Honorable Mentions (In No Particular Order): The Neon Demon, Lemonade, High-Rise, Christine, Arrival, Wiener-Dog, Manchester by the Sea, Toni Erdmann, A Bigger Splash, The Love Witch.