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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016

Written by on December 30, 2016 

20. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)


This exotic, hypnotic, perhaps psychotic film out of Colombia (and the country’s first nomination for the foreign language Oscar) takes us on a Conradian quest into the heart of the Amazon. Lusciously filmed in black-and-white 35mm, director Ciro Guerra gives us a transcendental vision of a community lost in time, wiped off the map by colonialist thinking that has robbed the Amazon of one of its most distinct cultures. Werner Herzog’s work might make an obvious comparison, but while Fitzcarraldo centered on a white European, Guerra’s film is significant in that its story revolves around Antonio Bolivar‘s indigenous shaman. His furious gaze as the final white man’s greed is revealed is haunting. – Ed F.

19. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)


Kelly Reichardt‘s mesmerizing triptych sees women battered by society and the bitter Montana breeze. Distant railroad horns and the epic Rocky Mountain scenery make it inescapably American, and, in a year in which one woman didn’t break the highest glass of all, the domestic struggles of these assertive, more “certain” women — including never-better Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and breakout Lily Gladstone — carry greater poignancy. I saw the film in January at Sundance, and the feelings it provoked haven’t left me. – Ed F.

18. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

Love Friendship

That it’s taken Whit Stillman nearly thirty years to adapt Jane Austen feels like a crime. Built from the novella Lady SusanLove & Friendship features Kate Beckinsale as the titular Susan Vernon, a mean, smart, and funny widower on the hunt for a husband for her daughter and a new suitor for herself. Sharp and biting, Beckinsale delivers her best performance since The Last Days of Disco, her previous outing with Stillman. Other stand-outs include Chloë Sevigny as Susan’s equally brutal American friend and Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a potential match and unbelievable dope. – Dan M.

17. The Witch (Robert Eggers)


Movies are meant to transport us to new and wonderful worlds and times, yet so often do they barely deign to show us something interesting in our own. What makes The Witch so wonderful is the manner in which it fully transports its audience — not only to another time, but another frame of mind. Thanks to the meticulous art direction and costuming and performances — not to mention the perfectly modulated tone and writing — Robert Eggers‘ masterpiece of horror and atmosphere is able to full immerse the audience in the mindset of an ultra-religious colonial family beset by a malevolent witch. One might think the superstitious mindset of a Puritan family would be impossible to fully empathize with, but The Witch makes it happen. – Brian R.

16. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

Sunset Song 2

The most beautiful film of the year for both its aesthetic and emotional range, Sunset Song is a grand, sweeping romantic epic the likes of which are otherwise absent in filmmaking today. The director I’m perhaps most thankful has never compromised his style — a notion to be repeated next year with the magnificent A Quiet PassionTerence Davies ravishingly adapts Lewis Grassic Gibbon‘s novel, and with all of its charm and heartache. One could write books on the dissolves employed here — after they are finished discussing Agyness Deyn‘s tremendous performance, of course. – Jordan R.

15. Silence (Martin Scorsese)


One need not have any background with faith to be enraptured in the philosophical questions at the center of Silence. Sure, having a theological familiarity with the soul-wrenching struggle of Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) will increase one’s appreciation, but Martin Scorsese‘s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō‘s novel succeeds as a lucid exploration for anyone who has been conflicted with a crucial decision. By meticulously placing us into the battle both internal (through voiceover) and external (how the basis of that voiceover wars with opposing views) raging through Rodrigues, Scorsese’s feat is his patient build-up to one of the most profound endings of his career. – Jordan R.

14. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Hang-soo)

Right Now Wrong Then 1

South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has built a formidable career with variations on the same thematic, structural, and formal choices, and Right Now, Wrong Then is another permutation involving his three favorite subjects — film critics, drinking, and pathetic men — but while the films almost always have a playful intelligence in their construction, they rarely feel this deceptively moving. Expertly shifting between naturalism and self-awareness in both its formal choices and performances (Kim Min-hee imbues every line with a crucial conversational purity), it becomes not only a great romantic comedy, but an examination of how we process the experience of watching a film. – Michael S.

13. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)


Terrence Malick‘s embrace of the modern has been one of cinema’s most thrilling evolutions. Rather than retreat further into the past and nostalgia in his older years, Malick has shifted his focus, and, with it, embraced contemporary technology. Watching footage shot in present-day L.A. on consumer-grade digital cameras and woven with his poetic, aesthetically gnostic vision is an experience not to be denied. That his stories have only become more personal, more heartsick, and more raw in their philosophical hunt for meaning only makes this aesthetic evolution more thrilling. Knight of Cups may be the apotheosis of this new phase in Malick’s career, and it stands as perhaps his best film ever. – Brian R.

12. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)


That emotional profundity most directors try to build to across an entire film? Mike Mills achieves it in every scene of 20th Century Women. There’s such a debilitating warmness to both the vibrant aesthetic and construction of its dynamic characters as Mills quickly soothes one into his story that you’re all the more caught off-guard as the flurry of emotional wallops are presented. Without ever hitting a tonal misstep, Mills’ latest feature takes place in a short period of time within relatively few locations, yet seems to pick up every wavelength of the human experience. There are also few funnier scenes this year than Billy Crudup‘s William attempting to explain the ending of a certain classic. – Jordan R.

11. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Cho Young-wuk, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound. – Chris S.

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