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Our 10 Favorite Films Of 2016: A Cinematic Emotional Rescue

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 20, 2016 3:19PM

Ralph Fiennes in "A Bigger Splash." (Photo: © Fox Searchlight)

Film critics of the world, throw off your shackles!

Free yourselves from the silly notion your year-end "best of" picks are any kind of meaningful survey of contemporary cinema. When we interviewed Paul Schrader earlier this fall, he noted that having a full grasp on film history, even current film history, is now impossible. He's right.

"Keeping up" on movie culture was always a bit of a lie we told ourselves, but never more so than in today's maze of countless distribution avenues—from traditional theatrical to VOD-only to multiple DIY online release platforms. More movies are being released than ever, from the blockbusters to that unknown genius about to give his petty cash production away on YouTube.

So embrace the arbitrariness of this exercise. Stop chasing your tails to see all the late-year releases (particularly ones opening only in New York and L.A. in the calendar gamesmanship of awards season) and don't exclude movies shown at festivals that may or may not get wider releases.

Take a deep breath and open your arms to the word "favorite." Leave "best of" behind and think of it as the flat earth theory of year-end reviews.

With that declaration, I do hope this purely personal selection encourages readers to check out some of these movies they may have missed. 2016 was a pretty rough year, but at least in terms of this writer's intake, not a bad one at all for cinema.

  1. 1. A Bigger Splash - Pure joy of filmmaking exudes from every scene in Luca Guadagnino's stylish and irresistibly entertaining remake of the 1969 French melodrama, La Piscine. The story is a dark one of jealousy, sexual tension, betrayal and murder, but the visual telling of it is playful throughout. Guadagnino's energetic direction, gorgeous and colorful Pantelleria settings, and a gleefully manic performance from Ralph Fiennes combine for an intoxicating sensory blast. Fiennes' wonderfully terrible dancing to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" is worth the price of admission alone.

    1. 2. Hell or High Water - It took a Scotsman (director David Mackenzie) to make this most American crime saga. It's steeped in influences spanning from High Sierra to No Country for Old Men, but with an impact all its own as an outlaw Western portrait of the desolate communities left out of the recovery from the 2008 economic crash. Chris Pine's understated lead performance marks him as far more than "Captain Kirk 2.0," and Jeff Bridges is in top form as the aging, wisecracking cop tracking him down. Social issues aside, this is simply the kind of well-crafted, gritty genre fare Hollywood doesn't bother with much in an age of franchise "universes."

    1. 3. Tower - At a time when the public seems numb to mass shootings, this emotional powerhouse of a documentary is like a booster shot for our collective humanity. Using rotoscope animation to dramatically recreate first-hand memories of the 1966 University of Texas shootings, Keith Maitland's film keeps the focus fully on the victims and survivors. The recreation of the takedown of the shooter is more suspenseful than most action films, but Tower succeeds most fully as a loving tribute to lives lost or forever changed by the tragedy, and to the bravery of those on the scene who did what they could to help others.

    1. 4. Viaje - In just 71 minutes, this lovely black-and-white Costa Rican drama about a spontaneous romance creates a vivid and multi-layered relationship. A drunken party hook-up evolves into something potentially much more significant and a weekend in the woods tests the young lovers' newfound feelings. Beautifully filmed and perfectly acted by its charismatic young leads, Viaje combines the deadline-looming arc of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise with the awe of natural beauty seen in Terrence Malick's best films. If that's not selling you, it's also really sexy. (Shown at the Chicago Latino Film Festival.)

    1. 5. Anomalisa - This stop-motion animated feature for adults was released in Chicago on Dec. 30, 2015, but I won't exclude Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's often-brilliant film on that technicality. Puppets with identical features and near-identical voices (with important exceptions) convey the empathy lacking in the main character—a depressed customer service guru. Despite its bleak theme, the movie is quite funny at times, especially in the vocal performance of Tom Noonan as "Everyone Else."

    1. 6. Midnight Special - The year ended well for writer-director Jeff Nichols, as his historical biopic Loving earned widespread acclaim and Oscar buzz. Loving is a very fine movie (see below), but Nichols' other 2016 release was even better—a blend of suspense, sci-fi and spirituality that plays like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind reimagined as a '70s political thriller. Nichols retains his touch for regional atmosphere and small-town characters even as he brings in elements of the fantastic. With faith and science often pitted against each other in society, Midnight Special dares to suggest some things can't be understood via either path.

    1. 7. Certain Women - The latest work from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves) features intersecting stories of several Montana women, played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone in a breakout performance. From Chicagoist's review: “Reichardt finds unvarnished beauty in life's lost moments, dissatisfactions and heartbreaks, and this is one of her very best films.”

    1. 8. The Autopsy of Jane Doe - More original and more ambitious movies could have taken this slot, but aside from A Bigger Splash, I didn't see anything as flat-out entertaining as this skillful, spooky horror film about father and son coroners trying to crack the seemingly impossible mysteries of the latest corpse on their table. Director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) makes the familiar tropes feel fresh and thrilling. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsh create a genuinely affectionate and mutually respectful father-son bond through their performances and Cox in particular is simply terrific. (Shown at the Chicago International Film Festival; local commercial release date not available.)

    1. 9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople - A troublemaking orphan (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father (Sam Neill) are pursued by militant child welfare officials, bounty hunters and police in this charming and damned funny buddy comedy from New Zealand. Writer-director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, TV's Flight of the Conchords) is directing the next Thor movie and that unexpected choice is almost enough to reignite interest in the nonstop onslaught of superhero movies.

    1. 10. Valley of Love - Underground film legend John Waters billed the stars of this offbeat French drama as "Isabelle Huppert and the fattest Gérard Depardieu you've ever seen." But Depardieu doesn't merely show his obesity here—he owns it, in a deeply personal performance. Huppert is also excellent in a story of ex-spouses and actors (the leads use their real first names for their fictional characters) meeting in Death Valley, as directed in letters left behind by their dead son. Despite a hint of the supernatural, the movie centers on the complexities of the couple's relationship. Fluid camera movements, unexpected humor, and some trippy stylistic detours make this an uneven, but curiously compelling experience.

    Runners-up (in alphabetical order):

    9 Rides - An Uber driver grapples with his personal problems and those of his passengers as he works a New Year's Eve shift. This is the latest DIY film to be shot with an iPhone...and it looks great. (Shown at the Chicago International Film Festival.)

    All Mistakes Buried - A stylish southern film noir about an addict getting in too deep with local drug dealers while hiding from his heartbreaking past. Read the full Chicagoist review.

    Another Evil - The owner of a haunted house finds the exorcist he hires more troubling than the ghosts in this hilarious deadpan comedy. (Shown at the Chicago Critics Film Festival and Music Box of Horrors.)

    Christine - From our Chicago International Film Festival coverage: "Rebecca Hall delivers an intense and discomforting performance as Christine Chubbuck, a Florida newscaster who shot herself on live TV in 1974, in this uncompromising portrait of depression taking its ultimate toll."

    Embrace of the Serpent - This visually stunning, black-and-white odyssey from Colombia draws from real history for an epic of exploration and misadventure on the Amazon. A native shaman guides two white men on separate journeys decades apart, with the shadow of colonialism looming large.

    Green Room - A white-knuckle thriller with a touch of tragedy under its violent, kill-or-be-killed intensity. Members of a cynical rock band (led by Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles) fight for survival after playing a gig for neo-Nazis and stumbling upon a murder.

    Loving - Jeff Nichols' film about the couple at the center of a landmark Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage determinedly avoids big "Oscar bait" moments. All the more moving for its intimate, low-key approach.

    Neruda - Pablo Larrain (also getting year-end attention for Jackie) presents a cynical but playful portrait of Chilean poet and Communist activist Pablo Neruda. From our Chicago International Film Festival coverage: a "dynamic blend of biography, fanciful suspense and caustic historical commentary."

    Sully - Clint Eastwood's best film since Letters from Iwo Jima eschews the expected Hollywood treatment of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and "the Miracle on the Hudson" in favor of a restrained and quietly inspiring portrait of the anxieties that accompany real life heroism.

    The Witch - Heavily researched historical details make Robert Eggers' movie about a Puritan family tormented by evil wholly unsettling. Though it would have been better with a more varied emotional arc, this is still one of the more convincing period horror films ever made.


    Honorable mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Always Shine, Born to be Blue, Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Complete Unknown, The Conjuring 2, Demon, Disorder, The Edge of Seventeen, Eye in the Sky, The Fits, Gimme Danger, The Handmaiden, Hunter Gatherer, In a Valley of Violence, In Transit, Into the Forest, Lion, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Long Way North, The Love Witch, Manchester by the Sea, Missing People, Moonlight, My Journey Through French Cinema, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Nuts!, The Oath, Sing Street, The Smart Studios Story, Southbound, Train to Busan, Under the Shadow, Weiner, The Witness.