2016 may not have been a great year for a multitude of reasons, but if you spent a substantial portion of it inside a theater — more precisely, an arthouse one — there was no shortage of marvelous cinematic experiences to be had. Out of the 200+ plus releases from this year I watched, I’m at least positive on over half, and, as such, it was near-impossible to narrow it down to a top ten, plus five honorable mentions.
Missing the cut are a number of great dramas (Moonlight, The Handmaiden, Elle, Things to Come, My Golden Days, Embrace of the Serpent, Mountains May Depart, Wiener-Dog) and documentaries (I Am Not Your Negro, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, Kate Plays Christine, O.J.: Made in America, One More Time with Feeling) that could’ve made the list in any other year.
When all is said and done, here are the 15 films that most resonated with me this year. Along with the below feature, one can see a vague ranking of all (203) 2016 films I’ve viewed here, as well as my 100 favorite non-2016 films I watched for the first time here.
10. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
Say what you will about comic-book adaptations and the like, but there may not be a genre more tired in Hollywood than the coming-of-age film. Thanks to their relatively cheap budgets and aims to connect with a pre-determined movie-going (though even that is up for debate) audience, many often feel like they are hitting checkboxes and not much else. Enter The Edge of Seventeen, which depicts teenage angst with such pinpoint accuracy one wonders why it’s never been handled precisely this way before. A debut no less, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig‘s script — which never dumb downs or generalizes the high school experience — is brought to life perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld in an emotionally honest performance that even outpaces her break-out in True Grit.
9. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)
It’s not rare for an adjective such as “dreamlike” to be attributed to any number of films each year, but recalling the experience of seeing Kaili Blues many months ago quite literally feels like a dream I had rather than the memory of sitting in the cinema, watching a movie unfold. Bi Gan‘s debut is not just impressive for its 41-minute single take, but the serene, affecting way in which it is able to depict this specific landscape of contemporary China. In a world of cinema that aims to satisfy with every rapid new cut, Kaili Blues is one of the most refreshing, bold films of 2016. Sit back, let the images wash over you, and your worldview will feel anew.
8. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
With a relatively small theatrical roll-out earlier this year, it’s likely you haven’t heard of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, but Stephen Cone‘s drama is one of the best films of 2016. Authentically capturing a conservative upbringing and the repression therein, it takes place over one day as we follow Henry (Cole Doman, in a wonderful break-out performance) and his group of friends — as well as adults from the local church — as they skirt around trauma, burgeoning sexuality, and more. Directed with a level of intimacy and emotional truth by Cone simply not present in most dramas — regardless of budget — it’s an essential watch.
7. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
For being perhaps the most consistent American filmmakers working together, the Coens‘ relationship with Hollywood has been depicted in atypical ways throughout their career, most notably as a life-threatening nightmare. With their latest feature, Hail, Caesar!, they head back to a time in which they were never able to make movies to do just that. All while poking fun at the perpetual machine-like grind of studio output, we get to witness a handful of genres lovingly brought to life by the brothers. Some may call it scattershot storytelling, but every piece of this tinseltown puzzle works so impeccably well on its own that the cumulative effect makes for one of 2016’s most entertaining films.
6. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
As with the rest of Terrence Malick’s filmography, especially as of late, I already fear I’m undervaluing its staying power upon first glance — or, as in the case of Knight of Cups, after a handful of viewings. The charges against its supposed lack of plot continue to baffle, as an entire film’s worth of storytelling can be found in each of the eight chapters, ranging from one of the more articulate renderings of Hollywood on film to the power of femininity. A recent rare public appearance is likely all we’ll directly glean from Malick for some time, but, with his last few features, he has bared open life’s deepest pains and offered up his interpretation of potential salvation. This sort of filmmaking audacity should be cherished.
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