The incapability of many to consider 2016, now a week dead, as anything other than “teh worst year evar” gives yours truly an inclination to run positive and say, with no insincerity, that it offered one of the best collection of films I’ve encountered in some time — better yet, speaking not for quantity so much as the breadth and plurality of options. A good litmus test: group your bottom five with your five honorable mentions and ask, “Would this have made a proper top ten?” The answer to this year, perhaps more than any other I’ve been making countdowns, firmly leaned towards an affirmative, in no small part because it’s futile to consider one individual work — among nine-to-fourteen other works of such utter individuality — as inherently superior to another. This isn’t even to account for those that slip just out of reach: Paterson, The BFG, De Palma, Elle, No Home Movie, or Cemetery of Splendor — all works that, most years prior, I’d be glad to throw on the top ten.
As for this particular ten: there exists no unifying factor, no concrete statement about “how we live now” (perhaps excepting #10), and, I hope, nothing to suggest my unwillingness to mentally adjust the ranking as unseen titles are discovered and assessments alter over time. As one friend of mine likes to say, “A 10. Not the 10.”
Without jumping ahead before getting to the selections, allow me to say the cinematic future looks bright — at least if greats such as Personal Shopper, The Salesman, The Lost City of Z, The Unknown Girl, The Son of Joseph, and a handful of (currently) undistributed titles have anything to say about it.
10. Sense8 Christmas Special (Lana Wachowski)
Not quite cinema, not quite television. Not quite narrative, not quite avant-garde. Never content to settle in a present moment (does it eclipse Rocky IV in montage-to-runtime ratio?), yet so bursting with life — so bursting with a love of life — that it makes the world outside seem like a better place by virtue of containing actual people like its (drumroll!) diverse group of characters. A globe-spanning, conciousness-defying work from a pair of sisters who’d become famous for this sort of mind-bending sci-fi when they were brothers. By far both the messiest work herein — a mess both intentional and, I think, the unfortunate end result of it being stuck halfway between feature and episode — and the most daring, at least in terms of its seeming inability to care even one iota what criticisms its form, story, and tone might incur. If the boundary between mediums will continue proving harder and harder to define, it’s fitting that a work this rich might stand tall as the walls crumble.
9. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
You know the deal: “Late” Terrence Malick — a period that ostensibly begins with The Thin Red Line and truly begins to bloom, stylistically speaking, once Emmanuel Lubezki came aboard for The New World — looms too large to simply divide cineastes into “pro” and “con” camps, the debate instead driving at the heart of anything and everything that could remotely be considered “cinematic.” (And perhaps whatever else a person feels like fitting into their argument.) Knight of Cups was far from an exception; rather, it broke that chasm open only further, and at this point there may be no turning back to consensus masterpieces of the ’70s. But most criticisms seem feeble when facing this movie’s grandest moments, which can render our contemporary world’s most banal components into something altogether new — has a drive down an L.A. street ever felt so majestic? — just as its reaches towards pathos reveal an eye for experiences far outside the hermetic world of Christian Bale‘s central character. (Claims of sexism are especially strange when the most piercing sequence is couched firmly in female perspective and experience. It’s almost as if considering this possibility is harder than simply pointing towards nudity as proof-positive of an artist’s “misogynistic impulses.”) Knight of Cups is not Terrence Malick’s best film — its occasional lapses into narrative monotony stand in clear opposition to the thrill of a stray shot or sound effect — and that’s fine. An artist daring to go further into the depths of human feeling and emerging with something new should never be considered a failure; how convenient that much of his latest work is actually a triumph.
8. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
Photographed with the eye of a super-sharp formalist, scripted with the care and depth of a great novelist, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party lacks a single false note in its evocation of youthful lust, resentment, and vocation, nor lacks for wisdom in its intelligently didactic portrayal of midwestern Christian values, all of which converge over the course of a single day. Conflicts emerge, few resolutions set in, and the final scene only leaves us with more questions as to how a young man finds himself in constraining environments — which doesn’t account for the fact that it’s almost all so remarkably funny.
7. In the Shadow of Women / Right Now, Wrong Then (Philippe Garrel / Hong Sang-soo)
In which two of our most emotionally incisive filmmakers make clear that the gap between male and female perspectives are too great for any single couple to overcome — a point that is made clear for the umpteenth time, actually, but rarely with such a clear head. Additional respect must be paid to the Garrel picture for evoking more truth about human deficiency, and in such a sharply defined package, than a 70-minute runtime should really permit.
6. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi)
Neon Genesis Evangelion and its feature follow-up, The End of Evangelion, stand as two of my best discoveries made last year, so I might have just been particularly primed for mastermind Hideaki Anno‘s Shin Godzilla, directed in conjunction with key collaborator Shinji Higuchi. But qualifiers run the risk of diluting this picture’s shocking effect: a Godzilla movie that is genuinely frightening in its monster’s destruction and humans’ authentic-seeming incompetence, all the more so because both areas find Anno and Higuchi working with such precision and assuredness in their staging. I found myself more exhausted by Shin Godzilla than any entry on this list, and only all the more grateful for the properly pulverizing effect.
5. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Having not revisited the film since last month, during which time it’s never quite left my system, I defer to the end of my review: “I don’t entirely know what to do with this work which has the capacity to play as both a definitive film about spiritual vocation and a sometimes torpid melange of concept and execution — all, mind, said after one viewing as often confounded by expectation as it was made joyous by the discovery of what had Scorsese so bothered for decades. My current exposure feels insufficient, but that I still can’t let go of so many — as well as the near certainty that I will go to my grave having never fully shaken off the effect of those final seconds and last image — is a reward all its own. I’m very glad to have this work, and perhaps even happier with the sense that Scorsese has finally been fulfilled.”
4. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
That thing we can’t take for granted: a film whose many parts – period piece, war picture, blood-spattered actioner, deception-fueled espionage thriller, compelling romance, and, at certain turns, witty comedy – can gracefully move in conjunction and separate from each other, just as its labyrinthine-but-not-quite plot jumps from one setpiece to the next with little trouble maintaining a consistent pleasure. Another late-career triumph for Robert Zemeckis, and one of the year’s few truly great American movies.
3. Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski)
In which notorious cinematic psychotic Andrzej Żuławski goes out on one last jittery, stark-raving-mad note. How fitting that the year’s most intelligently directed film – what zooms and glides and stops and starts that drive this thing forwards, backwards, and sideways – should so furiously chart the dissolution of rational thought and action, though to even say as much might inaccurately suggest that anything here was ever less-than-cracked. Special notice to Sabine Azéma for a supporting performance that plays as the entire picture in miniature.
2. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
If Richard Linklater has spent more or less his entire career trying to strike the ideal balance between ephemeral pleasure and quietly transformative emotional experience, Everybody Wants Some!! is, in certain ways, his defining work. (Alternately: I like a friend’s suggestion that this is Animal House as directed by Eric Rohmer.) Stakes-free — this film is almost profoundly plotless, and its sense of tension comes down to how well the first weekend of many might turn out — and more warm-hearted than its bro bacchanalia would imply, the film is a sprawl of major and minor pleasures that all point towards the same conclusion: if you’re going to be present, try to enjoy yourself. Simple and unshakable, it’s an ideal that shrinks Linklater’s decades-long career down to a sweet science.
1. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Cinema is: a title card that drops 40 minutes into a film, after the first of three segments have ended; aspect ratios shifting from one chapter to another for the sake of sensory pleasures and an obvious-but-nevertheless-intelligent comment on our ever-changing world; a rather serious, sometimes outright difficult artist ending their movie with a future-set story that’s essentially their Oedipal take on Futurama; and Zhao Tao dancing to “Go West.” That’s all cinema is – or, at least, all it ever needs to be.
Read More: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016