Top 20 Films of 2016: Part I

THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, Kiernan Shipka (aka FEBRUARY), 2015. ©A24/courtesy Everett Collection

As we close the book on 2016, a year many of us would rather forget, it’s worth reflecting on the parts of it that are worth savoring—namely, the movies. This was perhaps the happiest moviegoing year of my life, thanks in no small part to my euphoric experience of covering the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time. Though streaming services have brought countless great movies to our living rooms, there is nothing quite like the thrill of watching a film with an audience that is fully engaged.

Only when you’re sitting amidst a crowd can you truly observe the unifying power cinema can have on a roomful of strangers. You can literally see laughter and excitement ripple through the audience, bringing viewers together like molecules in a stream. At a time of such extreme division and prejudice, we need the empathizing force of cinema more than ever before, and this list is overflowing with titles that are guaranteed not only to entertain but to enlighten.

Without further ado, here is Part I of my list ranking the Top 20 Films of 2016…

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20. Mountains May Depart

I love when a film takes its time. We have become so accustomed to the ADD-addled nature of American society that it may take us a while to adjust our mind to the rhythms of a filmmaker uninterested in easy payoffs. To me, a film by Jia Zhangke is akin to therapy. I wasn’t sure where his latest picture was going, but I was intrigued every step of the way, while moved by the plight of Tao (Tao Zhao), a woman who finds her loved ones drifting further and further from her grasp. Ironically, the film opens in 1999, with Tao and her friends dancing to the infectious pop tune, “Go West,” by Pet Shop Boys, which includes the refrain, “Together!” Two men are vying for her affections, and she must chose one of them. The repercussions of her decision form the basis of the following two acts, which take surprising jumps in time, leading us to a future overwrought with loneliness. The journey is a sad one indeed, but it is also a pleasing one, thanks to the poetic ingenuity of Zhangke’s storytelling. I’ll admit that the film secured a place on this list in its final moments, which are among the most perfectly executed and achingly poignant I’ve ever seen. A single word murmured at the distant horizon somehow manages to travel over continents, and it left me speechless.

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19. Eye in the Sky

After getting mired in underwhelming Hollywood blockbusters, Gavin Hood returns to the promise of his 2005 Oscar-winner, “Tsotsi,” with this exceptional edge-of-your-seat thriller. The central question facing each of the characters serves as a microcosm for the moral dilemma of modern warfare. What must a military officer, Col. Powell (Helen Mirren), do when an innocent life unknowingly wanders into her crosshairs? Powell is hunting terrorists in Kenya, and has found her prime target, but the kill zone is currently occupied by a little girl. Much of the film takes place in interior spaces—boardrooms, control rooms, etc.—where various government heads debate over the proper way to proceed. One of them is Lieutenant General Benson, played in his last live action film role by Alan Rickman. This would already be an immensely provocative film without his presence, yet he elevates it even further by providing us with a human perspective on the toll war has on soldiers. His final monologue is unforgettable, as is the scene where he goes shopping for a baby doll and reads this hilariously incoherent line off one of the boxes: “You will hear her babbling when it is beddy-byes.” Adieu to you, Mr. Rickman. You were, and will forever be, one of the greats.

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18. The Witch

Robert Eggers’ atmospheric gem is so much more unsettling than your standard spookfest. When young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) encounters the titular witch, she tempts him not with candy but with sexuality, taking advantage of the curiosity he displayed when he glanced down the shirt of his older sister, Thomasin (the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy), before averting his gaze with guilt-ridden angst. Caleb and Thomasin aren’t just victims of a witch, but of an entire repressive lifestyle. The devout Christianity preached by their parents (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) has reduced life to a solemn chore bereft of any tangible warmth. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke paints with natural light much like Emmanuel Lubezki did in “The Revenant,” utilizing the hues of overcast skies and flickering candles to accentuate the harsh reality of his characters’ circumstances. When the family’s crops fail and their baby boy suddenly vanishes, the conspicuous lack of trust between these people starts to take its toll, a la the “Twilight Zone” classic, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Voices are raised, accusations are made and blood is spilled without the witch having to lift a finger—let alone a broomstick. This is the only film I’d consider a worthy companion piece to “The Blair Witch Project.”

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17. First Girl I Loved

As any longtime reader of my work can obviously tell, I am a sucker for coming-of-age films that respect their characters and refuse to treat their journey of self-discovery in a flippant or contrived manner. Kerem Sanga’s sublime drama chronicles a young woman’s gradual epiphany regarding her own identity. She finds herself attracted to another girl in her class, and their initial encounters are spiked with a nervous energy that is utterly intoxicating. We share in their excitement as they test each other’s boundaries during prolonged texting sessions, and Sanga nails the sense of comfort technology can provide by enabling people to instantly convey thoughts they would never dare to articulate out loud. The third corner of this love triangle is a boy who considers one of these girls his best friend, and has secretly harbored a crush on her for years. I could clearly see the paint-by-numbers soap opera this premise could’ve become, but Sanga’s film is not about formulaic complications. Shane Hazen’s inspired editing choices give the film a fascinating structure, pivoting away from certain moments in order to return to them later. As the picture’s central heroine, Dylan Gelula is so authentic that you are never once aware that she’s “acting.” I’d suggest placing this film on a double bill with another fantastic picture, André Téchiné’s “Being 17,” which might as well be titled, “First Boy I Loved.”

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16. A Monster Calls

In his review of “Saving Private Ryan,” Roger Ebert wrote that “Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in ‘City Lights.’” I’d argue that the same can be said of J.A. Bayona, director of 2012’s “The Impossible,” about a family struggling to find one another in the aftermath of a tsunami, and now this wrenching fantasy about a young boy (a flawless Lewis MacDougall) coming to terms with the impending death of his ailing mother (Felicity Jones). His rage at the world is manifested by a towering creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) that grows out of a nearby tree and forces him to confront his feelings. Whereas Spielberg’s “The BFG” left many audiences feeling unmoved (though I quite liked it), Bayona’s picture refuses to make the suffering of its hero palatable for family audiences. There are sequences here that are flat-out brutal, yet the overriding emotion is one of catharsis, as the boy develops an acceptance for what must pass, and a gratitude for having experienced it at all. How fitting that all three of Bayona’s features have included a role for Geraldine Chaplin, who I had the honor of meeting this year. For the record, she told me that most films during Oscar season are too depressing for her taste, and that her favorite film last year (the one she felt should’ve been an Oscar front-runner) was Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck.” I believe she just made Amy Schumer’s day.

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15. Graduation

The sense of faceless menace that has pervaded so many Michael Haneke films, particularly 2005’s “Caché,” haunts every frame of Romanian master Cristian Mungiu’s agonizingly tense drama. From the very beginning, it appears that our protagonist, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), is being preyed upon by unseen forces. Windows are smashed, his daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is assaulted and her chances of acing a crucial exam are suddenly jeopardized. Romeo believes that this exam will provide his daughter with the ticket she needs to leave their troubled country and build a more prosperous future for herself. How many laws of a corrupt system are Romeo willing to break in order to give his daughter the life he believes she needs? Dragus previously lent her transfixing pokerface to Haneke’s 2009 triumph, “The White Ribbon,” and it’s well-utilized here by Mungiu in strikingly different ways. While in Toronto, I interviewed Mungiu for an article that will run closer to the film’s U.S. release date next February. His belief that more educated youth should remain in Romania to rebuild their nation will undoubtedly resonate with Americans currently considering a move to Canada. “Instead of fighting to change things and to encourage merit in society, people will choose a solution that allows them to avoid the problem,” he told me.

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14. Don’t Think Twice

I wasn’t in Toronto for more than a day when I got a call from one of my dearest friends, who told me that his mother had suddenly passed away. This friend also happens to be a comedian, and when I attended his mother’s wake, my father told him how sorry he was that he hadn’t met his mother in person. “Well you can still meet her,” my friend said jovially, pointing to the urn housing her ashes. “She’s a little shorter than she used to be…” Though my father was shocked, I understood my friend’s behavior perfectly, just as I understand the behavior of every character in Mike Birbiglia’s marvelous ensemble film. Comedy is not just their vehicle for escape, it is what they wield to combat—and more importantly, process—the despair of everyday life. Yet when the tight-knit improvisational group in Birbiglia’s film starts to splinter because of personal ambitions (propelled by those of Keegan-Michael Key in an excellent dramatic turn), their trust in one another is upheaved. The cast Birbiglia has assembled is a complete joy, from Gillian Jacobs (whose Gena Rowlands impression had me rolling on the floor) to the deadpan neuroses of Chris Gethard. Their chemistry has the spark and wit so often missing from the latest seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” which is satirized here with bruising accuracy.

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13. Hooligan Sparrow

It’s frankly miraculous that this documentary directed by Nanfu Wang exists at all, since the footage was constantly in danger of being detained during production, requiring it to eventually be smuggled out of China. Wang’s film chronicles the efforts of Ye Haiyan, a fearless women’s rights activist, to bring justice to six schoolgirls who were raped at a hotel by their principal, who later charged them with child prostitution. With China’s chauvinistic government threatening to browbeat her into silence, Ye Haiyan is forced to flee across the country along with her daughter and devoted band of fellow muckrakers. She embodies the spirit of defiance that unites us in opposition to what has become an increasingly tyrannical world. Though Wang never resorts to cheap gimmickry to heighten the tension, several stylistic staples of the thriller genre naturally find their way into the picture. A scene where the filmmaker is forced to charge up a stairwell while pursued by police is identical to any found footage horror film, as the sound of her labored breathing is entangled with the screams of captured activists echoing from the ground below. Wang has us so wrapped up in her plight that we find ourselves holding our breath until she reaches safety. Consider this film essential viewing along with Alison Klayman’s 2012 doc, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

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12. Sunset Song

Oh what a lovely film this is, and what a heartbroken one. It begins with one of many ravishing shots lensed by Michael McDonough, as its heroine, Chris (Agyness Deyn), rises from a field, resembling no less a part of nature than the Native Americans in Malick’s “The New World.” Her father, a Scottish farmer (Peter Mullan), is monstrously abusive and has left his family in permanent disarray, though Chris’ love of the land keeps her at home. She eventually falls for a sweet farmer, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), who gives her a lingering glimpse at what a loving relationship feels like—until World War I ruins him beyond recognition, not physically but psychologically. It is the third act of this picture, deftly directed by Terence Davies, that emerges as one of the most riveting portraits of how war systematically destroys people, especially those who have survived. Ewan’s tenderness and affection for his wife and young child are entirely stripped away, replaced with a bitterness toward anyone who cannot possibly comprehend the horrors he faced on the battlefield. Yet after enduring so many years of torment at the hands of her father, Chris refuses to be victimized by Ewan, and the scene where she stands up to him is as viscerally powerful as the scene in “Paths of Glory” where Kirk Douglas finally tells the heartless general to go to hell.

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11. The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Another memorable experience at Toronto took place in a crowd outside the theater, as Osgood Perkins practically ran into me while hailing a cab. He looked several feet taller than anyone else on the sidewalk, and when I gazed up at him, I thought for a split second that his father, Anthony (a.k.a. Norman Bates in “Psycho”), had retuned from the grave. Not only is the resemblance uncanny, but Perkins has also proven to be just as skilled at conveying a creeping undercurrent of dread in his first two directorial efforts. I saw his second film, “I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” at Toronto, which I initially found frustrating, though it has grown on me during subsequent viewings. What’s odd is that while “I Am The Pretty Thing” was swiftly picked up by Netflix, Perkins’ first movie, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” still has yet to receive distribution in the U.S., despite the fact that it premiered at Toronto in 2015 (under the title “February”). In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Perkins mentioned that his affection for “Blackcoat” was of the begrudging kind. “At this point, I can say that I hated it while I was cutting it, and I was nervous about it when we showed it, but the reception was overwhelmingly positive,” Perkins said. “I quite like it now.”

Well, I was fortunate enough to catch “Blackcoat” when it screened late at night as part of this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre, which looked an awful lot like Club Silencio (from “Mulholland Dr.”) when Perkins’ film flickered on the screen. Not only is the movie better than “I Am The Pretty Thing,” it is one of the most potent and unnerving pieces of horror cinema in recent memory. If you’ve ever been plagued with nightmares inspired by traumatic viewings of “The Exorcist,” “The Shining” or “Psycho,” then you are the ideal audience for this picture. It is a movie lover’s dream, from Julie Kirkwood’s bone-chilling imagery to the spectacularly eerie sound design that would make David Lynch proud. I will refuse to summarize the plot, since going in cold is the best possible way to approach it. The story is told in disconnected fragments that may baffle at first, yet Perkins holds our attention in his vice grip until all the strands are woven together in startling fashion. It’s difficult to recall the last performance that frightened me more deeply than the one delivered here by Kiernan Shipka, best known as Sally Draper on “Mad Men.” Her astonishing portrayal would make even Linda Blair run for the hills, and I frankly can’t wait for more people to see it. As for films to look for in early 2017, make sure to put this one right at the top of your list.

Stay tuned for #10-1 in Part II…

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