Have you heard the refrain that cinema is dead? Because it seemed to pop up in the cultural press with rather alarming frequency throughout 2016. From the Huffington Post to the New York Times (where critic A.O. Scott aimed to debunk all the dreary hypothesizing), the topic of film’s longevity as an art form was a hot topic of conversation this year. Even directors Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, whose legendary Taxi Driver remains incendiary and incisive 40 years after its release, criticized the new output from studios and the increasing trivialization of the multiplex this year. (Both filmmakers’ most recent efforts, released late in the year, couldn’t capture many eyeballs. Their opinions will likely remain unchanged.)
One can blame a dire summer of filmgoing, which featured the usual glut of noisy sequels and unnecessary spin-offs without giving mass audiences much in the way of a fresh pop blockbuster (like 2015’s Inside Out or Mad Max: Fury Road) or plucky indie success. (Fewer than a million people in North America saw Swiss Army Man or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, both wildly entertaining efforts.) One can also blame the major studios, which, to incentivize profits and minimize risk, have largely trimmed the projects in the middle – ones usually aimed at adults that cost a fraction of sure-fire blockbusters or way more than cheap genre tricks. One can try to blame the exceptionally high quality of many television programs, although virtually none of the shows crowned by guilds and academies this year (like The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Americans) have anything close to the big audiences of hit movies.
However, 2016 was only a difficult year for the cinema if your moviegoing diet consisted of a few processed choices, which felt more like obligatory duties due to one’s investment in a franchise or studio (Batman v. Superman; The Jungle Book; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). This was the year when a superhero movie gloated about its R-rated credentials (Deadpool) and managed to outgross most of its PG-13-rated genre compatriots. This was the year when a bright family entertainment (Zootopia) and a dimly lit alien invasion flick (Arrival) both found staying power in theatres by relating directly to the sociopolitical zeitgeist, even if their sums were less than the films’ many unique parts. This was the year where horror fans gave the box office a jolt, picking original choices (Don’t Breathe, The Shallows) over stale leftovers (Blair Witch, anyone?).
And these were just the big studio successes. On the art-house circuit, newer distributors like Bleecker Street (Eye in the Sky, Captain Fantastic), Broad Green Pictures (Knight of Cups), The Film Arcade (Don’t Think Twice) and The Orchard (Christine) had stellar outputs that indie film lovers could eagerly anticipate. The stream of hot festival purchases by A24, Magnolia, and Sony Classics, among the other usual suspects who crowd repertory theatre schedules, enlivened the year when mainstream studio filler could not.
We’re heading into an Academy Awards where most of the big contenders are likely to be a collection of niche titles that built up an audience after weeks of limited release-play and exorbitant festival buzz. (Odds are good that only one or two of the six major studios will be represented among the slate of Best Picture nominees.) This is not a sign of cinema’s diminishing quality, but of the dropping quantity of moviegoers cognizant of the more fascinating films of the moment. The list below, a compendium of Canadian, American, and foreign fare, does not contain a single title that grossed more than $50 million at the North American box office – a shame, especially when one considers how essential many of them are as enrapturing, audio-visual experiences, meant to be watched off the largest screen. Cinema certainly isn’t dead, but those seeking greatness may have to dig a little deeper to find the gems.
Here is a list, in descending order, of my top 10 favourite films of 2016. It is not the definitive list, though. Cannes favourites like Paterson and Toni Erdmann are still a few weeks away from theatrical release in my current city, while new efforts from auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, Asghar Farhadi, Michel Gondry and Kelly Reichardt have eluded my sight as well. Nevertheless, I saw 139 films from the past year, and narrowing down those offerings to just 10 was not easy. (12 worthy honourable mentions will follow this list.)
Enjoy, and I’ll see you at the movies.
10. Off the Rails
The best non-fiction film I saw at the Hot Docs festival this spring, Adam Irving’s powerful portrait centers on Darius McCollum, a man obsessed with New York City transit. McCollum would like nothing more than to be employed as a conductor – he knows the routes perfectly and has even stolen trains and buses, impersonating their drivers. But he has also gotten caught more than 30 times; with each subsequent arrest, McCollum’s dreams slip further away. The subject, who is black and has Asperger’s, explains that his skin colour and health struggles have exacerbated the negative attention he receives from the press and city authorities. Irving’s doc reveals the boundless humanity of its funny, friendly, articulate subject, while dancing through tough topics – racism and mass incarceration, for instance – with ease. Endlessly fascinating, Off the Rails is like a feature-length version of the finest “Humans of New York” story.
9. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s absorbing look at the world of fashion is a film that, appropriately, begs to be looked at. (Its icy, glittery soundtrack, courtesy of Cliff Martinez, is a perfect aural counterpart.) The horror-comedy-backstage drama focuses on Elle Fanning’s Jesse, a pale-skinned beauty who comes to Los Angeles to make it as a model. Her sharp ascent attracts a close friend (Jena Malone) and a pack of plastic enemies (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), who always seem ready to pounce on the fresh meat. Tales of young arrivals in L.A. striving for fame are nothing new, but Refn’s aesthetic (bursting between minimalism and excess, just like the city he films) and Fanning’s layered performance, which constantly hints at Jesse’s darkness, intoxicate. With such overwhelming opulence and a few shocking bursts of, ahem, body horror, The Neon Demon reaches the same trance-like power as its protagonist. Just try taking your eyes off of it.
8. Hell or High Water
Finally, a runaway indie hit that earned its success. David Mackenzie’s drama about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both superb) robbing banks in financially despondent West Texas and the two Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, a dynamic duo) on their heels captured a post-Recession zeitgeist with clarity and surprising humour. The screenplay (from Taylor Sheridan, who made this list with Sicario last year) makes adept use of the setting, finding heart in the cash-strapped and suspicious locals who interact with the main characters. The dialogue crackles, and a few expertly staged action sequences arrest our attention. But the four main performers, each indelible and indispensable, find original ways to play with these archetypes (such as Bridges’ sheriff a week away from retirement and Foster’s take on the loose cannon ex-convict). Textured and thematically rich, Hell or High Water is a contemporary Western that feels like an instant classic.
The final entry in Martin Scorsese’s unofficial trilogy about faith, Silence is an astonishing feat of filmmaking and one of the purest explorations of religious struggle to ever come to the screen. Based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel, the Japan-set epic follows two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who are trying to find a religious leader (Liam Neeson) who may have apostatized amidst the mass persecution of Japanese Christians. This is a deeply moving – and depending on one’s tolerance for depictions of suffering and more leisurely pacing, difficult – film, which takes Scorsese’s longtime interest in Catholic guilt and anguish, and amplifies these themes. The intricate period details, bravura images (courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto) and expressive performances recall the finest works from Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Beyond these technical proficiencies, Silence’s many moments of quiet gravity stick with you. A passion project several decades in the making, this 160-minute drama has been mostly ignored by audiences, even with a recognizable ensemble and director. You may not have much time to rectify these sins: it will not be in theatres for long and demands your patience and attention.
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Like Silence, Kubo and the Two Strings is set in Japan many centuries ago. But whereas Scorsese’s epic is contemplative, the newest film from the stop-motion masters at Laika dazzles endlessly – probably more than any animated feature in recent memory. A paean to the power of storytelling, this adventure follows Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy with magical powers who cares for his ill mother and entertains the nearby village with his stories and sorcery. After mischievous spectres (Rooney Mara) threaten the boy, Kubo goes on the run to reclaim three sacred items to defeat them, with the help of two sidekicks: wizened guardian Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the sly, Herculean Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s latest, helmed by studio staple Travis Knight (in his directorial debut) is busy with plot but also bursting with imagination. (It takes more than one viewing to catch all of the symbols and visual details.) Kubo’s action sequences thrill with furious pacing, and inspire awe with a seamless blend of handmade puppetry and digital splendor. Beyond its captivating images, though, the adventure’s big emotional stakes and mature insights about coping with loss make it resonate with an undiminished power.
The sophomore feature from director Barry Jenkins has the depth and delicacy of a great James Baldwin work, as it explores themes around black bodies and masculinity. This triptych, adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, examines pivotal chapters in the young life of Chiron, as he grows up in the Miami projects to a drug-addled mom (Naomie Harris). The three iterations of this character – played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – have a different stature and physicality, but share a terseness, curiosity and melancholy that thread into a seamless whole. The thoughtfulness of the writing, which looks at how young black men adopt poses and patterns based on their social milieu, is graceful. The performances, from a conflicted drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) to a friend of Chiron hoping to mend regrets from a decade earlier (Andre Holland), astonish. Each shot of Moonlight is gorgeous, with James Laxton’s camera offering a rich sense of place, while using varying shades of stormy blue to capture the changing (or unchanging) moods of the protagonist. Like the taciturn hero, Jenkins’ film drifts between hardness and softness, enthralling us with a character both angry and vulnerable who doesn’t always know how to express these feelings. It is a shattering and unforgettable character study.
4. The Handmaiden
Perhaps the fastest 144 minutes one can possibly have at the cinema, the new erotic thriller from Park Chan-Wook is steamy, subversive and overwhelmingly satisfying. The filmmaker transfer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from Victorian London to pre-WWII, Japanese-occupied Korea. There, the young, innocent Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to work for Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-Hee, out of place at Hideko’s sumptuous mansion, has a plan to seduce her employer and steal the family’s fortune. To spoil any more of the mind games, temporal trickery and sexual exploits would rob much of the film’s tantalizing fun. The South Korean auteur, no stranger to skirting the wishes of the censors, is in full command here. Every scene is trimmed to its most precise, while the plush mise-en-scène – this film deserves every production design award that may or may not be thrown its way – demands the widest screen. But technique and style does not trump the substance: even with many lascivious asides, there is real, palpable feeling behind The Handmaiden‘s two main performances.
3. The Stairs
If the movies are like a machine that generates empathy, as the late Roger Ebert once wrote, then few films this year worked with as much capacity as Hugh Gibson’s affecting doc about recovering drug addicts doubling as counselors in Toronto’s Regent Park. The Stairs was a hit at TIFF and recently won Best Canadian Film by the Toronto Film Critics Association. There is a reason why the city’s cultural scene has gravitated toward this stirring portrait of men and women trying, step by painful step, to improve their circumstance. Gibson, who made the film over five years, focuses on three unforgettable subjects: motor-mouthed Marty, straight-shooting Roxanne and blemished bruiser Greg. These subjects open up to the director with ease, eager to share their moments of trial and triumph. Gibson’s grace and assured hand as a storyteller ensures we never pity these subjects, but are grateful to witness their generosity and hear their tales of light and darkness. The Stairs widens our understanding of a subject and milieu often hidden away from mainstream society, and the result is as powerful, compassionate and funny as any documentary in years.
2. 20th Century Women
Writer/director Mike Mills outdid himself with his newest film, an expansively warm and disarmingly funny drama inspired by his mother and sister. 20th Century Women focuses on five lost souls sleeping underneath the roof of a large Santa Barbara home in need of restoration, circa 1979. Dorothea (a wistful, winning Annette Bening) feels the gap growing between her and her only son, hormonal 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, achingly sincere). She enlists two other lodgers – Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young artist grappling with feelings of mortality, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s frank confidante who sleeps over every night but wants to remain “just friends” – to help Dorothea look after the boy. Mills’ screenplay is full of vibrantly alive characters, who reveal as much in irreverent comments as back-story vignettes, presented with period photographs and voice-over narration (like in his previous film, Beginners). The central mother-son relationship is piercing in its emotion, with both actors finding binds in this dynamic that feel thrillingly authentic. Bening gives a career-best performance as a woman finding her world on a tilt, as her son swings farther away from her, while Zumann is just as superb. Meanwhile, the film’s three feminine anchors – tough, tender, textured, and trembling with fear at what the future holds – glow with a humanity (and sly hilarity) that one seldom sees on a screen anymore.
1. The Lobster
Explain the plot of The Lobster to anyone, and the reaction is usually fascination and/or bewilderment. Set in a dystopian society where single people are pariahs, we follow the recently divorced David (a glum, paunchy Colin Farrell), who enters a seaside hotel with the purpose of finding a match. The contours of this resort stay are, however, strange: if David cannot partner up with someone within a couple of months, he will be transformed into an animal and released into the wild. It doesn’t take long for this deadpan comedy, from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos, to tickle and taunt viewers with its seemingly bizarre premise. However, the film’s sly social commentary about the pressures and pitfalls of attaining romantic love are hard to ignore. The first half, set within the resort walls, is full of dry, off-kilter comedy. However, it is in The Lobster’s latter half, where David finds friendship with another near-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz), when an unexpected poignancy adds urgency to the drama. The film’s various absurdities and comic set-pieces are a hoot until one realizes how rarely removed they seem from the conquests of those trying to find genuine love and companionship in the twenty-first century. By embracing the weirdness, Lanthimos and co-scribe Efthymis Filippou have created a satire of sustained brilliance, one that moves from brutal comedy to heartbreak without ever wavering in tone or losing its ingenuity.
And now, 12 Honourable Mentions:
The Club; High-Rise; La La Land; Love and Friendship; Manchester by the Sea; Miss Sharon Jones!; Neruda; Ninth Floor; Sand Storm; Sing Street; Weiner; The Witch