It’s fashionable to rag on 2016—with good reason—but this was an excellent year in film. My honorable mentions from the year past include a couple of fantastic foreign animated features that were ignored by the mainstream press: the French steampunk fantasy April and the Extraordinary World and ‘ Harmony, the only movie where the World Health Organization is cast as a villain. Also worthy of a mention are two-time Certified Weird director Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival (almost a postmodern Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and I Am Not Your Negro, which is basically just Samuel L. Jackson reading unpublished reflections of writer James Baldwin—making it the most authoritative commentary on race relations in a year that included 13th and the epic O.J.: Made in America. Either could have made the top ten in a weaker year. We should also mention Weiner, a documentary giving us unprecedented access to the title character’s bizarre act of political self-destruction—a man so hounded by his own incomprehensible demons that he could not keep from publicly humiliating himself again even after the movie’s release. And how could we forget Swiss Army Man, which easily made the list of the but barely missed 2016’s pan-genre top ten.
10. Peter and the Farm: Documentary following Peter Dunning, a depressed 68-year old alcoholic Vermonter who works his declining farm alone. Poetic and honest; Peter despairs, but keeps drinking and keeps farming, realizing he and his farm have become one. A good antidote to the populist and inspirational Gleason: not everyone is cheerfully persistent in the face of death. Some critics felt the documentary was exploitative, but I believe the articulate Peter is in full possession of his faculties (when sober) and is deliberately pushing our noses in a view of mortality we would prefer to deny.
9. Finding Dory: A fish with very early onset Alzheimer’s is lost in the ocean for years and tries to find her way back to her home and parents, assisted by characters from Finding Nemo, a “septopus,” and other colorful aquatic anthromorphs. There are four great things about this movie: the fast-moving plot, the cute sea creatures, the excellent animation, and I forgot the other one.
8. The Jungle Book: Mogwli, an orphaned “man cub” raised in the jungles of India by a pack of wolves, has adventures with the talking animals while fleeing the man-killing tiger Shere Khan. This is the first of Disney’s recent series of live action remakes that is clearly superior to the animated original. Jon Favreau keeps most of the humor and a little bit of the music but ramps up the peril and expands the scope so the movie feels like an epic adventure rather than a lightweight musical comedy.
7. Moana: Defying her parents, an island princess sails off to find a mischievous trickster demigod (voiced by the Rock) to help save her home. Once again, Disney successfully tweaks their formula with this Polynesian themed winner that features unique sidekicks (a particularly dumb chicken, an impudent tattoo) and adversaries (coconut pirates, a giant singing crab). The name had to be changed in Italy so that people would not think it was a biopic of porn star Moana Pozzi.
6. The Brand New Testament: God is alive and living in Brussels, and he’s a jerk. His 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel. Literate and genially blasphemous comedy with bizarre touches, like Catherine Deneuve sleeping with a gorilla. Jaco Van Dormael is the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.
5. La La Land: A struggling actress meets and falls for struggling jazz musician in this old-style musical set in L.A. Predictable beats, but played in a vintage style with a refreshing lack of irony; impressive choreography, especially in the highly effective, bittersweet climax. Thankfully they wrote a (mostly) original score instead of going for the popular, lazy Moulin Rouge option of repurposing hits of the 70s and 80s. It’s kind of sweet how Damien Chazelle keeps slipping jazz propaganda into mainstream movies.
4. The Love Witch: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying in this tribute to 1960’s Technicolor spectacles. Samantha Robinson is enchanting, and this mixture of period camp melodrama, perverse witchcraft rites that could have been lifted from afilm, and a bubbling feminist subtext makes this witch’s brew the most unexpectedly spellbinding surprise of 2106. Full review coming in 2017.
3. The Lobster: Certified Weird! In a future dystopia, every adult must be in a mandatory romantic relationship or they are sent to a state-run hotel to find a match within 45 days, to be turned into an animal of their choice if they fail. Remember, you can’t crossbreed a camel and a hippopotamus; that would be absurd.
2. Love & Friendship: In this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” Susan Vernon, a destitute widow, stays at the estates of various wealthy friends and in-laws, seeking to arrange an advantageous marriage for herself and her daughter. Kate Beckinsale realizes Austen’s antiheroine as a scheming cougar playing the patriarchy like a harpsichord, while Tom Bennett provides comic relief as her daughter’s wealthy but rather stupid suitor. This is not my genre and Austen is not my author, but the film’s few flaws are too slight to keep it from a near-perfect rating. If I liked it, Janeites will swoon like their corsets have been fastened too tight. Horrible title, though.
1. The Witch: A family of Calvinist pilgrims is exiled from their plantation and builds a farm in the wilderness, while evil forces in the forest slowly menace them. This atmospheric movie takes you to another world, one where sin is real and the immortal soul is in constant peril. It suggests that anyone this conscious of their own corrupt nature is doomed to be consumed by it. Anya Taylor-Joy looks like a minor star in the making. Writer/director Robert Eggers is a major star in the making.