A Year of Empathy | The 16 Best Movies of 2016
I’ve heard a lot of people complain that 2016 was a crappy year for movies, and compared to 2015 – which was an absolute monster by anyone’s measurement – maybe it was. But that was an aberration, and 2016 was just a year. A year with about as many great movies as any other, if you knew where to look for them. (And isn’t that why we have film critics in the first place?)
What’s perhaps most interesting to me about the best movies of 2016 is how very few of them were box office hits. We had some great popcorn flicks, certainly, but the majority of the most expensive features of the year were little more than pablum, and even the most interesting examples of blockbuster cinema were rarely rewarded by the viewing public. 2016 wasn’t a year of great entertainment, it was a year of emotional insight and profound understanding. It was a year in which the majority of the best movies were dedicated to giving the audience a greater appreciation of the human experience. Tragedy, mortality, anger, inspiration, the feelings that other people have which, in real life anyway, might have been alien to you… unless you watched some of these exceptional films.
So it is with that in mind that I present to you my selections for the best movies of 2016, an emotionally exhausting but (mostly) profoundly meaningful set of films that have the power to teach us something about how other people view the world. These movies (mostly) have the capacity to make us better people. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts and give them a chance.
(And for those who are wondering, nobody has time to see “everything,” so I did miss a few of the more acclaimed movies this year, like Captain Fantastic, The Edge of Seventeen, The Red Turtle, and 20th Century Women. I will see these movies and more in good time, and if I need to make some apologies afterwards, I will do so.)
The best superhero movie of the year is also just plain one of the best movies of the year, a sharp satire of the whole silly costumed crimefighting enterprise that also, impressively, tells the heartbreaking story of a man whose whole, flippant existence is undermined by a shocking threat to his mortality. And when Wade Wilson, played gloriously by Ryan Reynolds, finally conquers death it comes at the cost of his pride. There’s no reason why disfigured Deadpool couldn’t reclaim his old life, but to do so he’d have to admit that he’s not superficially appealing anymore, and he seems horrified by the prospect that there’s not much else that defines him. Of course Deadpool, the person, has more going for him… just like Deadpool, the movie.
For whatever reason, many of the best films of 2016 deal directly with the grieving process. The first on our list is Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which tells the story of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (then Jacqueline Kennedy) in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband, the 35th President of the United States. Losing a husband, and the father of one’s children, in an unexpected act of horrific violence would be difficult enough but “Jackie” also has to stay focused on her job, to preserve the legacy of the White House and the presidents within. Natalie Portman juggles more emotions than can easily be counted, and Pablo Larrain’s direction wisely keeps at her center stage. Jackie is post-traumatic stress for 99 upsetting, fascinating minutes, and it has the uncanny effect of making us sympathize completely with an experience that’s so specific that only a few people in history have ever suffered through it.
14. NINA FOREVER
Living with grief is a lot like living with the dead, and in The Blaine Brothers’ genre-defying, ghoulish fantasy, they’re literally the same thing. Nina Forever stars Cian Barry as a man whose girlfriend Nina dies in a car crash, and who discovers – after he finally starts to move on, and romances a lovely co-worker – that whenever he has sex, the bloody and battered corpse of Nina reconstitutes itself and then just lays there, judging them. It’s an odd curse, at once hilarious and horrifying, and as The Blaine Brothers explore the layers of this metaphor Nina Forever emerges as one of the most strikingly conceived works of allegorical fiction in recent cinematic memory. Insightful and playful, portrayed realistically by actors who understand just how bizarre and just how rich Nina Forever really is.
13. THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR
If the purpose of art is to shine a light on the human experience, then it also falls to art to expose the most disgusting elements of our nature. The first two Purge movies were, to varying degrees, serviceable and cynical experiments in dystopian fiction, set in a near future where an ultra-conservative political party has taken power and literally weaponized their voters, giving them carte blanche to commit any violent, hate-filled act they can think of on an annual, national holiday.
But the third film, which frames these events against a political backdrop – and focuses on an idealistic presidential candidate trying, desperately, to bring the nation back to its senses – finally achieves peak relevance. The Purge: Election Year is a brutal indictment of incendiary politics on both sides, a film that transforms each political affiliation into a monstrosity and in the process provides an ugly catharsis. In our fantasies, Election Year points out, all of us want to take the easy way out to shape the world to our ideals. Well, here’s what that would be like. Be entertained, then look at yourself in the mirror and be ashamed, and then make damn well sure that The Purge never happens.
Ron Clements and Jon Musker brought forth Disney Animation’s renaissance in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, which refined the studio’s formula into a delivery system for intriguing, idealistic heroines against a backdrop of high fantasy. But although they were groundbreaking for the time, many of those films now feel sociopolitically backward. With Moana, Clements and Musker appear to have learned from their past and forged ahead, honing the Disney formula further still and in many respects, making it better than ever.
Moana is the story of a chieftain’s daughter (not a princess, but close enough) who pursues of her dreams of adventure and progress. She’s a member of a new generation who must fix the mistakes of the past. She sets out with an egotistical, powerful man who is incapable of admitting those mistakes and in the process, they prove that it’s possible to heal the world. It’s an inspiring story, humorously and enthusiastically told. It’s visually dazzling, and packed with memorable songs. Moana is Disney done right.
11. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
The funniest movie of 2016 was almost completely ignored by audiences at large. Their loss. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a riot, a spot-on satire of contemporary celebrity culture, featuring absurd yet catchy songs that – if you weren’t paying close attention to the lyrics – could be mistaken for real Top 40 hits. Andy Samberg plays Conner4Real, a former boy band member whose solo career hits the skids after he becomes so popular that nobody can convince him he’s doing anything wrong. His descent into self-involved stupidity is like Dante Alighieri by way of The Marx Bros. It’s as honest as a story about a superficial dipshit can be, and just about as utterly absurd as movie can get. And a sexy song about killing Osama Bin Laden may just be the year’s weirdest, sickest, funniest joke.
10. SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
An endlessly appealing, mature date movie about two smart people feeling each other out, intrigued but skeptical, attracted by not beyond reason. That the protagonists of Southside With You, played by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, are Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson adds a bit of context to Richard Tanne’s sunny, conversational romance – about the future President and First Lady’s first date, back in 1989 – but this film would have been one of the highlights of the year even in a vacuum. Sawyers and Sumpter are marvelous at withholding their obvious chemistry, which comes across as pragmatic first-date jitters. They come truly alive when they let each other have it.
The protagonists of Southside With You don’t reach a meaningful conclusion by the end of Tanne’s film, they are merely hopeful for the future. We know what that future holds for them, but the point is that they didn’t, and maybe no one ever does. Big things come out of small moments, and what is life if not a series of small moments?
9. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
What a wonderful experience Taika Waititi gave us in 2016 with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s the story of a “bad egg,” a troublemaker played by Julian Dennison, who has been rejected by every foster family in New Zealand except one. But when fate steps in to once again take him away, he winds up in living in the woods with a curmudgeonly father figure, played perfectly by Sam Neill. The forest is dense with SWAT teams who want to take them down – it’s a long story – and yet somehow Taika Waititi’s brisk, exciting film balances the high stakes with affable characters and clever visual storytelling, calling out references to classic films while inventing exciting new ways to film a montage.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the sort of pre-teen adventure that would have felt right at home in the 1980s alongside The Goonies and Stand By Me, by way of Roald Dahl, and with a little Mad Max in there too. If there has to be a “feel good movie of the year,” then this was it.
A cup of tea with honey in it, a soothing balm that eases the pain of the whole world. That’s Paterson, a reassuring and sincere little drama starring Adam Driver as a bus driver who also writes poetry, and who spends most of his days being inspired by the people around him. Jim Jarmusch’s casual approach to storytelling has rarely felt as justified, filtered as it is through the mind of a man who seems just as bemused by human nature as Jarmusch seems to be.
The tininess of the tale (it only has one plot point to speak of) belies Paterson‘s impact. While so many other stories focus on the affect we have on one another, Paterson seems to live in a constant state of observation, and in so doing it celebrates the absorption of experience as much or more than any conventional action. Watching Paterson feels like a break from the world and the people in it, until you realize that the world and the people in it are the only things that Paterson is really about. So you start to think that maybe our perspective is simply off, and then you realize that any film that can make you feel like you should be living your life differently is a film of remarkable power.
7. THE INVITATION
The Invitation is yet another film about grief, but to get at its emotional core, you have to solve a puzzle. Logan Marshall-Green stars as a man invited to his ex-wife’s dinner party, and who decides to go even though it means confronting his feelings about their dead child. So it makes sense that he’s distracted, nervous, a little bit defensive, and a little hyper-aware of all the details that make no sense. The friend who’s always early never showed up, there’s a strange guest who’s kinkier than everybody else, and then it’s time to watch an unusual video.
Karyn Kusama’s pressure cooker drama The Invitation is giving you every opportunity to find the horror in the subtext and on the periphery, and no matter how it ends – whether there’s something sinister going on, or it’s all in the protagonist’s head – the story would make perfect sense, making this one of the most unpredictable thrillers of its kind. And then, of course, when the story finally does come together, it’s in an ending that’s raw, unsettling, haunting and revealing.
6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
In Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious but unwieldy 2011 drama Margaret he tried to tell a story of an unthinkable tragedy through a character whose life went on, and who had to balance the “plot” of her life with all the incidental subplots and details that most storytellers would have left on the cutting room floor. It was a noble experiment at the time but it’s a motif that the writer/director seems to have perfected in Manchester By The Sea, a masterful examination of the grieving process, one that acknowledges – as too many of us know, and all too well – that our responsibilities don’t go away just because a part of our life has been ripped out.
Casey Affleck stars as a man who was defined by running away from his grief, but who must return home after his brother dies and now confront this new emotional crisis head on, just because somebody has to. Sadness infects every frame and yet teenagers still need to be driven to band practice, and you’ve gotta find somebody to fill in for you if you have to take the day off work. Lonergan is a genius at finding the epic struggles in everyday foibles, and at isolating the humor in the middle of a tragedy, and the cast does an incredible job of making little questions seem like great revelations.
5. A MONSTER CALLS
I spent a year in therapy after my father died, trying to reach the place that A Monster Calls gets to in under two hours. It is a rare and unusual fantasy about a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer, and who is visited in the night by a monstrous tree that says it will tell him three stories. And when he is done, the boy will tell the monster his nightmares. The parables the monster provides are wondrously realized in strange animation, and they aren’t pat fairy tales. They’re morally suspicious sagas that yield unexpected revelations. As our young hero begins to understand why the monster is really there, and what it’s really trying to tell him, our tears are skillfully extracted by the bucketload. But make no mistake, A Monster Calls isn’t an exercise in cheap sentimentality. This is a psychological boot camp that gives you all the tools you need to handle the death of a loved one. It’s not an easy movie; it’s a movie that makes things easier.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is rich with period detail and historical interest, but don’t let the details distract you. Silence may be steeped in religious persecution, telling as it does the story of Catholic priests tortured for their faith in Japan in the 17th century, but it’s even more valuable as an allegory for modern oppression. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as priests who venture to Japan to spread the faith and disprove the rumor that their predecessor turned his back on God, and in so doing they discover the lengths to which people will go to keep their identity alive, even when the people around them, the government and the tides of popular philosophy and morality disapprove.
That’s a cyclical narrative, played out today by oppressed peoples of different gender identities, sexual orientations and beliefs throughout the world, and Martin Scorsese’s intimate portrayal of personal turmoil – the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of being who you are, when your life would be easier if you were practically anything else – has a profound versatility. It’s not a Catholic story: Silence is the inner struggle of history itself, across cultures, and it’s a tragic, deeply personal experience that should fill each and every one of us with sympathy, empathy, and shame.
The horror of suicide is not, conventionally speaking, a comfortable subject. But Christine sits you down and puts you through it, not just presenting the events that led to the on-air death of news reporter Christine Chubbuck – who took her own life in 1974, on live television – but making damn well sure you understand why it seemed, to her at least, like a rational act. Giving the best performance of the year, Rebecca Hall embodies a woman afflicted by isolation, criticism, sexism, her own ego and her own self-loathing. She refuses to reach out for help, because it would validate her fears that she’s in genuine trouble, and when her friends see her flailing she denies them in an effort to prove she can handle her own problems.
It’s a tragedy but it’s a tragedy of logic, of an emotional being who sees her pervasive despair as a natural extension of her circumstances. Christine brings you to a deeper understanding of pain and suffering than most other movies can hope for, and it dares to bring you to brink along with its subject, and to think about how important it is not to follow her example. This is important, valuable filmmaking, with an important, valuable performance at the heart of it.
2. THE HANDMAIDEN
Park Chan-wook’s sexy, unpredictable, profoundly feminist thriller is one of the most absorbing works of cinema in years. It’s a tapestry of deception and betrayal and erotica, centered around a young con woman, hired to play handmaiden to a Japanese heiress and to convince her to marry a fake count, who plans to steal all her money. That plan gets even more complicated when “the handmaiden” falls in love with her master, and vice-versa. The Handmaiden has a spectacular and unpredictable storyline but even its weirder twists have a devious purpose, to undermine the “male gaze” that defines too much of culture and storytelling, and expose those who would demean and abuse women for who they really are. Weird, sensual, gorgeous, insightful… wow, The Handmaiden is incredible.
Movies exist for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost they exist to help us experience life through different eyes. With Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins has achieved this astounding feat with more grace and beauty than any other film in 2016. It’s the story of a young boy named Chiron, told in three chapters as he comes to new realizations about his life and identity. As a child, played by Alex Hibbert, he is bullied but doesn’t know why, and finds an unlikely role model in a sympathetic drug dealer. As a teenager, played by Ashton Sanders, he is becoming aware of his sexuality and has his first erotic experience with his best friend, Kevin. And as an adult, he is the sum of these experiences, a great and powerful and timid man played by Trevante Rhodes.
These three performances, though performed by different actors, create a whole portrait of a human life. Jenkins’ subtle screenplay and James Laxton’s evocative cinematography give us all the cues we need to piece Chiron together, to unite all the people he/we are, and to give us the heartening perspective of a fascinating, unique individual. We live his life in Moonlight, we live a whole life through him, whether or not he’s quite like us. We experience the ineffable and yet somehow we understand it. We come to a greater appreciation of the human condition, and as huge as that sounds, it’s no exaggeration. Moonlight illuminates.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
La La Land
Last Days in the Desert
Love & Friendship
The Neon Demon
The Nice Guys
Top Photos: The Orchard / A24 / Amazon Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.