It's hard to know what to make of Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash at first glance. It's a film where many of the important events take place off screen, that seems determined to look just off to the side of the story rather than directly at it. The film is as shrouded in mystery as the characters are exposed (this may very well be the "nakedest" mainstream movie of 2016). It's only when it gets to the end that you begin to see it for what it really is, which is a story about how the wealthy and privileged can run roughshod over everything around them while the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are treated like the real dangers to society. An opaque film to be sure, A Bigger Splash is the kind of work that grows on you with subsequent viewings.
David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, which tells the story of two bank robbing brothers and a patch of America that's economically dying, feels undeniably like a "movie of our time," even though that story is hardly unique to this period of time and is in fact part of a pattern that's been repeating itself at least as long as movies have been around. Stunningly photographed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and excellently acted by as a cast that includes Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham, this tale of two brothers doing a series of wrongs in an attempt to set things right and the lawmen trying to stop them makes an old story seem new again.
La La Land is the feel good movie of Oscar season, a movie that loves movies and invites the viewer to love them, too, a story about dreamers so romantic that the characters regularly break into song and at one point literally dance among the stars, a film with a soundtrack so irresistible that it'll leave you humming its tunes for days. At a time when all the news of late is bad, La La Land, with its inherent sweetness and its belief that art isn't just a worthy pursuit but an essential part of life, is the kind of movie that hits the spot and puts a smile on your face.
Sure, the resolution to the film's crisis is just a bit silly, but that alone doesn't keep Arrival from being one of the most thoughtful and engrossing films of the year. Even laying aside the sheer novelty of a movie where a woman gets to save the world (with her brain!), Arrival is an utterly enthralling film thanks to its production elements, its seamless visual effects, its leading performance, and its story about the need to communicate with each other rather than self-destruct under the guise of self-protection. It wasn't just one of the best films of 2016, it ended up being one of the most relevant as well.
An intricate puzzle box of a movie, full of explicit sex, gruesome violence, exquisite costume and production design, and dark humor, The Handmaiden is a film with a little something for everyone. But take away the twists, the reversals and the reversals of reversals, take away the excesses and the very particular perversions of the film's most odious character, and what you're left with is a charming, surprisingly sweet, love story between two women who could not appear to have less in common until they discover a shared desire for the power to decide their own path.
The first time I watched Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's documentary about Anthony Weiner's failed 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York, I found myself compelled to immediately watch it again, its depiction of hubris and narcissistic self-delusion was so fascinating. That was in August. Given everything that's happened since then, I imagine it will be a while before I can bring myself to watch this documentary again, though I still admire the skill with which Kriegman and Steinberg tell this story of a comeback that wasn't, of a man who seems compelled to set himself up for a failure, and of a marriage pushed to its limits as its players navigate on the fly some kind of compromise that will allow them to remain united both publicly and privately.
A portrait of grief, of grace under enormous pressure, and steely determination broken up into fragments, Pablo Larrain's Jackie was one of the year's great surprises for me. Built on the solid foundation of Natalie Portman's performance as Jackie Kennedy, the film explores the hours, days, and weeks after JFK's assassination as she makes the protection of his legacy her top priority and in the process cements her own legacy as a crucial part of "Camelot," that brief era of an innocent and elegant America which may only have existed as an idea after the fact. It's one of the year's great films.
An emotionally piercing story about identity and sexuality told in three distinct parts. Following its protagonist as a young boy, an adolescent, and then a young man as he struggles to figure out not just who he is, but who he's allowed to be in a world where all around him are people telling him that the things he desires are wrong, that they make him weak, that they make him less than everyone else, Moonlight is a film that makes the most of silence, marking it out as the space that belongs to things that can't be said aloud. Moonlight is the kind of timeless film that will have an emotional impact whether you watch it today, tomorrow, or ten years from now.
Ava DuVernay's 13th was the film that 2016 needed, but it may have come out too late. A documentary about the history of how the United States has grappled with its black population since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, finding new ways to stack the deck against an already disadvantaged people including by recreating the circumstances of slavery in a different form via the prison and justice system, 13th is arguably the most vital film of 2016. Taking politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties to task (though reserves much of its vitriol for the President-Elect, who so richly deserves it), the documentary pulls no punches in its examination of how racism is thoroughly ingrained in the fabric of America as an institution.
Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster is a film of winning absurdity. Set in a world where people are forced to form romantic partnerships in order to earn the right to remain as human beings, and where the rebels against the system live by a code which requires them to have no romantic or sexual attachments at all, The Lobster is a brilliant satire of the ways that governments and other groups attempt to legislate the bodies and private lives of others, and of the rise of dating sites and hookup apps that reduce people to their most basic qualities. Played with deadpan sincerity from beginning to end, The Lobster is dry as a bone but all the more hilarious for it.