Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Top Twenty Movies of 2016, Part 1 (#20-11)

It's always interesting for me to see how the overall quality of the year in film affects my selection process for annual "Best of" lists. Strong years can make it easy to decide on a top twenty, but makes ranking them a chore. Years such as this, on the other hand, feel pretty settled in terms of what's the best (don't expect me to deviate too much from the median when it comes to my top two), but then fleshing out the rest of the list is more taxing.
For me, my #14-9 slots were constantly shifting as the year progressed, and will likely continue to do so long after this publication. #20-15 feel almost arbitrary, as all of them are largely flawed efforts that wouldn't even figure into my consideration during a stronger year, but boast specific assets and memorable hooks that help them to stand out.

I don't mean to cast shade here. The point of articles like this are to celebrate, not to denigrate. And anyone who claims that there aren't at least 20 movies worth celebrating any given year clearly doesn't watch enough movies.

First, a few shout-outs to titles that just missed the cut:
-To The Lobster for the originality of its deadpan dystopia
-To Moana for its grand musicality and gorgeous Pacific scenery
-To Queen of Katwe for its earthy slice of life wrapped in a sports movie
-To The Red Turtle for its painterly magic realism
-To The Salesman for its gripping moral complexity
-To Tanna for its vibrant cultural snapshot of native Melanesia
-To Toni Erdmann for its droll father-daughter absurdism
-To Tower for its powerful alchemy of testimonial, reenactment and animated abstraction

A now, the back half of my Top Twenty[-one] Movies of 2016 [UPDATED]:

#21: ELLE (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
It's hard to describe exactly what makes this sexual Rorschach such a durable one. As off-putting as its provocations on rape, misogyny and self-victimization are, it's impossible to turn away; Verhoeven tees them up with such perverse precision for his muse Isabelle Huppert to absolutely knock out of the park with her frosty frankness. Even the most twisted stories can be artfully told.

#20: THE WITCH (dir. Robert Eggers)
If thou wouldst desire jump scares and other unholy concessions of pop horror, deliver thyself from this film! But mayhaps if thou wouldst like to live deliciously, to chilleth thy bones in the immaculate paranoia of Puritans beset by unnatural providence, cultivate seeds of dread sown upon the most commonplace of images, then prithee, permit thyself to be seduced by its whispered devilry.

#19: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
This tragicomic teen flick treads a fine line between jadedness and empathy, capturing the hormonal push-and-pull of youth with wry emotional intelligence. While it announces the arrival of a fresh and promising voice in Kelly Fremon Craig, true ownership goes to Hailee Steinfeld, who elevates the entire project with a salty star turn that's as heartbreaking as it is caustically funny.

#18: THE SHALLOWS (dir. Juame Collet-Serra)
Or: “Jaws Meets Gravity: A Guerrilla Thrilla for Millennials”. In an otherwise arid summer at the multiplex, this satisfying B-movie blend of tight thrills and self-aware shark horror silliness stood out like a shimmering blue (and red) oasis. At last Blake Lively has a bona fide top billing upon which she can proudly hang her surfer suit, working both suspense and camp with sheer star charisma.

#17: ZOOTOPIA (dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore)
A rare message movie that succeeds in spite of being a message movie, hitting the sweet spot between sincerity and satire. Adorably packaged as a brightly coloured L.A. noir but with talking animals (the world-building here is as wily as it comes), it nimbly probes ideas of racial profiling, politics of fear, systemic bias and other such topical themes while neither sermonizing nor trivializing them.

#16: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Lonergan strikes a courageous tone in this comedy of manners built upon grief. He's less interested in a tight, tidy story than he is in sitting us down with his characters and trusting us to be fascinated by the varied ways they respond to tragedy (which of course, is never tight and tidy). Casey Affleck's face is like a living oil-on-canvas, with layers and textures worth exploring in every corner.

#15: I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (dir. Raoul Peck)
This thought-provoking extrapolation of the unfinished manuscript of social critic James Baldwin grants posthumous voice to his often overlooked point of view on race relations. With punctiliously curated film clips and archival footage, presented in a manner as carefully articulated as Baldwin was himself, it challenges viewers to confront their own ignorance and reconsider their understanding of what it means to be black or white in America.

#14: SING STREET (dir. John Carney)
The third in Carney's incorrigible 'stealth musical' trilogy may lose the ragged soul of Once and Begin Again, but it does gain a more polished, humourous screenplay (his finest yet) and a healthy dose of romantic 80s nostalgia, however sanitized. It's impossible NOT to adore this tale of hopeless youths learning to drown out the noise of their shit lives with creativity, brotherhood, and rock n' roll.

#13: JACKIE (dir. Pablo Larrain)
You have to give yourself over to its meandering psychological vibe to get the most out of this anti-biopic. It's less a historical record on America's most fashionable first lady than a chilly essay on image, legacy and the mirage of Camelot, scaffolded around a wrought iron performance from Natalie Portman. Mica Levi's suite of funereal dirges lends unique voice to its hazy mise-en-scene.

#12: WEINER (dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
The funniest movie of the year was not wrenched from the minds of comics, but from the sordid headlines of yesterday in this political-lite documentary that chronicles the doomed NYC mayoral campaign of a disgraced congressman. Though edited as a 'reality show'-style farce, there's a profound sadness to its account of how ideals can become undone by ego and tabloid superficiality.

#11: SILENCE (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Its glacial pace and tortuous depictions make it a trying sit, but patient audiences will find lots to unpack in Scorsese's complex meditation on faith and doubt, wherein the act of a single step bears symbolic weight as painful as any physical brutality. This is an epic of introspection, offering lovely frames but no easy answers or sides to take in the quandaries it presents on religion and imperialism.

Come back tomorrow for the top ten.

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