Regret and “what if” scenarios consumed many of the narratives on this list of my Top 30 Movies of 2016. Grief isn’t so much a novelty in cinema. It has been confronted thousands of times before, but the way it was handled this year was remarkably beautiful. The year’s best films didn’t hide the fact that their specific characters were going to face mighty obstacles that threatened to suffocate them. It seemed very intimate and personal watching how these films perceived their characters confronting grief and confusion. It’s as if the directors of these films know us so well. They capture what it is to be human.
The two brothers in Hell or Hight Water are beaten down by our financial institutions…what if they robbed them back? Regret and confusion follow a young boy around until he is a grown man in Moonlight, and still no signs of either ever leaving. What if Captain Sullenberger obeyed protocol and turned the airplane around instead of landing it safely on the Hudson River? We probably wouldn’t have the movie Sully. And what if O.J Simpson willingly admitted to murdering his wife we wouldn’t have the sprawling eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America. And an overwhelming amount of regret is the central theme in Right Now, Wrong Then.
Here are my Top 30 Movies of 2016…
30. Knight of Cups – Directed by Terrence Malick
29. Kaili Blues – Directed by Gan Bi
28. The Neon Demon – Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
27. Love and Friendship – Directed by Whit Stillman
26. Sunset Song – Directed by Terence Davies
25. The Wailing – Directed by Hong-jin Na
24. Neon Bull – Directed by Gabriel Mascaro
23. In Order of Disappearance – Directed by Hans Peter Moland
22. Sully – Directed by Clint Eastwood
21. Everybody Wants Some!! – Directed by Richard Linklater
20. Julieta – Directed by Pedro Almodovar
19. Krisha – Directed by Trey Edward Shults
18. Cemetery of Splendor – Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
17. Rams – Directed by Grimur Hakonarson
16. The Red Turtle – Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit
15. Certain Women – Directed by Kelly Reichardt
14. American Honey – Directed by Andrea Arnold
13. The Handmaiden – Directed by Chan-wook Park
12. Mountains May Depart – Directed by Zhangke Jia
11. Indignation – Directed by James Schamus
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
The best films get into the psyche of their character. Isabelle Hupert allows us that access and in result she gives the best lead performance by an actress this year. It begins with a bang as a black cat sits and surveys Hupert’s character helplessly lying on the floor in her Parisan home being raped by an intruder. The camera is unflinching during this act, capturing everything. We sit viewing it in discomfort. Just what Verhoeven wants. The remainder of the film questions how Hupert decides to cope with what had happened to her. Dealing with the ramifications of rape becomes an afterthought as Hupert begins to search for the suspect, leading her to question if she really enjoyed how she was treated sexually during that first bang of a scene.
9. Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
What a brave film this is. Ciro Guerra impresses with his uncanny ability to evoke an atmosphere that is akin to those found in sacred texts. That alone is a major accomplishment, but he does not stop there as he crafts an unforgettably unique fable. Filmed in the Amazonia region of Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent follows two narratives, both involving scientists in search of a rare healing plant. Separated by 40 years, the two scientists are connected by Karamakate, the last surviving member of his tribe. It is a narrative that knows no boundaries, exploring the religious and even the psychedelic.
8. Fireworks Wednesday
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Showing us familial strife as frequently as Iranian director Asghar Farhadi does one would assume that at one point it would it eventually falter and melt into tawdry historionics. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. He has a penchant portraying angst between husband and wife and we are helplessly consumed by the wonderful ordinariness of each situation. Slowly does his narrative unravel. We sit transfixed unable to peel away from the unstoppable decline of a couple’s trust and affection. We are offered instances where we think we know what is going on. After a few of these instances we realize the gravity and tragic eminence of a married couple’s situation, and pray that all will turn out well.
7. La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Leading us through a world full of vivid color, whimsical musical singalongs and young romance, director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film seems like a perfect tribute to the Hollywood musicals of yore. When the final act happens and it is devastating, clobbering us with an unexpected “what-if” scenario that ascends the film beyond good to near great status. Depicting young love between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is not so hard to do, but when the film makes their relationship complicated and having them choose between their artistic passions or their own love that is when La La Land is at its most effective.
6. Right Now, Wrong Then
Directed by Sang-soo Hong
Mr. Hong takes into careful consideration every gesture, word, and feeling of each of his characters. The first hour sees a renowned director arriving a day early to a press screening of his film in South Korea. He meets a pretty young lady in a courtyard. Discussion ensues and the two have coffee together, drinks, and attend a party. The second hour documents the same exact events but with different gestures, words and feelings that result in two different endings: one devastating, the other beautiful. The end result to this conceit is staggering. This narrative is developed to express the weight and gravity of what we say and do. What a unique perspective to take when regarding a relationship.
5. Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
A melancholic air pervades Hell or High Water for its entire runtime. What makes the film potent is its tone and subject matter. Witnessing men realizing the collapse of an ideal, an end of an era, or the ramifications of their decisions is undeniably heartbreaking. Mackenzie’s film is truly emotional and moving. Its dialogues are poetic and sad. What a film. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Winner of the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, Jacques Audiard’s immigration tale is a poetic meditation on what it takes to integrate into a foreign society and the multiple obstacles of attempting to disconnect from one’s past. Dheepan, at heart, is a contemporary Western that’s as sad and violent as any film in that genre. Focusing on a Sri Lankan family and set in the housing projects of France, Audiard’s film is eerily timely and its ending may be the year’s most haunting and tragic.
3. O.J: Made in America
Directed by Ezra Edelman
What could be mistaken as a formidable undertaking, watching the near eight-hour documentary, which is perfectly constructed by Mr. Edelman, isn’t a task at all: it’s an intoxicating and despairing journey to O.J. Simpson’s heart of darkness and America’s. Endless energy is spent on the trial of O.J. Simpson, but the astonishing thing is Made in America seems hardly about the trial. It is imbued with similar characteristics usually associated with a Shakespearean tragedy. Edelman has made a feature intensely rammed with life, not merely perceiving every waking hour of O.J. Simpson’s undeterred rise to stardom starting from his collegiate days at the University of Southern California to his professional days with a couple of NFL teams, but also chronicling the strife and racism America was burdened with.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Imagine Moonlight as a silent film. You can’t say that about many contemporary films, but you can for Moonlight. So much emotion is conveyed through facial expressions or a simple glance, that words are rendered futile. So much emotion is invested into this picture that it flows with an immense amount of grief and regret. It’s near impossible not to mourn for the film’s characters. Documenting Chiron’s life, a young boy wrecked with questions surrounding his sexuality and life, director Jenkins chronicles a heart-wrenching tale of Chiron’s childhood to adulthood (the movie is broken up into three different chapters and Chiron is played by three different actors). The occasional role model shows up, a mother denounces her son, a rare occurrence happens on a moonlit beach, and an encounter with a special someone at a diner late at night swells with anguish. These moments are beautiful and painful. The way Jenkins films his subject is akin to poetry in motion.
1. Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size. -Mark Twain
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is a film of astonishing magnificence. Many times I found myself in absolute awe of what was transpiring, thinking how is it possible to top the previous scene. Yet again, another powerful scene would ensue. It continued like this until the final scene. I believe Manchester by the Sea, which is completely consumed by the nature of loss, finds its mastery in unveiling and eventually stripping bare what makes us all human: our brittle and fragile feelings. How do we cope? How do we react? How do we go on living? These despairing questions invade the characters throughout the film. Somehow, though, scene after scene (heightened by Lonergan’s masterful selection of classical music) Lonergan is able to infuse his film with tender beauty rendering it poetic in its depiction of an unutterable and tragic loss. There are a handful of scenes that swell with an immensity of emotion, eventually exploding with such passion and feeling that has rarely been showcased in contemporary cinema. An abundance of grief and brief moments of laughter and intimacy make up a film that confronts one man’s uphill battle with life. By encountering grief and realizing that sometimes it’s just too overwhelming to endure, Lonergan has a made a film that is so true.