Combustible Celluloid

2016: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What can one say about this ridiculous year? It was a year in which some of our greatest artists seemed to die off every few days. It was a year in which most of our worst and most monstrous political nightmares came wretchedly true. It was a year in which, in no uncertain terms, hate and fear won out over logic and compassion. And it was a year in which there were very few movies to recommend for the first eleven months.

At the very end, a few good things finally came along, and I formulated a ten-best list that could compare with past years, but it was a hard-won list, and one that required the most work with the least amount of faith. Undoubtedly we have some awful, appalling, testing times ahead, and the very fabric of the world is at stake; maybe, as a result, the movies will be shaken up in a good way, or maybe they will retreat into the shadows for good. But this year was a shocking, dismaying turning point that ought to make all of us — artists, writers, and viewers alike — sit back and take stock. Let's hope and pray for better luck — or whatever force is out there in the universe — next year.

Following my top ten films, please find my ten runners-up and my ten honorable mentions, followed by great performances, my favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases, and, lastly, my list of the year's worst.

- The Top Ten -

10. Loving
This kind of movie, based on a true story and documenting the bravery of a few souls that became the first baby steps to overcoming racism in our country, is usually the kind of thing that becomes an Oscar-contender, full of white guilt and congratulations for not being as racist as the characters onscreen. However, with Loving, director Jeff Nichols pushes aside all the social and political hullabaloo and simply presents two characters who, raised in a world where race was not terribly important, loved each other very much. It's a small film, but profound and moving.

9. O.J.: Made in America
This incredible documentary, running 7 and 3/4 hours, could have been a re-hash of the interminable, soul-numbing media circus that was the trial of O.J. Simpson, but director Ezra Edelman figured out how this tabloid trash was actually the story of America itself, the story of how racism and celebrity affects absolutely everything in our history. Weirdly, O.J.: Made in America is even more relevant after an election season that it could not possibly have foreseen.

8. Silence
This religious epic, a dream project of director Martin Scorsese that has gestated for decades, has emerged somewhat difficult and unwieldy, a bit gory, but also magnificent, beautiful, and masterful. Like his previous, great films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, Silence is about a spiritual conundrum; it's about whether totems, oaths, and duty is more important than simple, private faith. It's brave enough to illustrate what religious belief looks like from different cultures and angles, coming down to a possible suggestion that faith is more a personal than a communal choice.

7. Certain Women
It always seemed like Kelly Reichardt was more of a filmmaker of short stories, smaller and more intently focused on detail and atmosphere, and so here she is, adapting three tales by the great, underrated writer Maile Meloy. The stories in Certain Women were culled from two different collections, and my brain still reels at just how Reichardt put them all together, but she did, and magnificently. The stories are, on the surface, different, but they are all about women who are searching for something in the world, perhaps a place, or a little control, or just a little bit of love.

6. Everybody Wants Some!!
This is the fourth film in a row from Richard Linklater to make my ten-best list, and he doesn't even seem to be trying. His Boyhood was a groundbreaking masterpiece, but Everybody Wants Some!! is merely a really good comedy, zeroing in on characters who are feeling freedom for the first time, celebrating their naiveté as well as their bad behavior. The discussion is as much about identity as it is about girls and sports, and it's positively immersive; it revels in time and place and not a moment of it is wasted. I didn't want it to end.

5. Moonlight
For a time, it looked as if the African-American experience this year would be represented by The Birth of a Nation; now, instead, it's happily represented by Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, a film so poetic, gentle, and simple that it has the power to feel universal to a wide audience, and not just a lonely black, gay, black kid from Florida. (Unfortunately, it's still a little too alternative for the Oscars.) The film is presented in three segments and three time periods, and although Mahershala Ali appears in only one, his presence is felt in all three; it's a breakout performance of great compassion in a deeply compassionate film.

4. Sully
The shortest movie ever directed by Clint Eastwood, Sully did not look like much going in; it looked closer to a trifle than a feature film, but the legendary filmmaker and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki turned it into a complex meditation on the gray areas of heroism, perhaps even simpler and more subtle than American Sniper. The brilliantly edited movie dissects the story, looking at its different components from different angles, and even the angle inside of Sully's head, as he questions his own actions. To be sure, Tom Hanks gives a great performance in the lead role.

3. Arrival
It might have been enough for Arrival to merely be a beautifully accomplished film, with exquisite design, cinematography, editing, and music, but there's more here. And certainly the up-and-coming French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve generally gives a bit more to his films (his Sicario found a place on my 2015 best-of list). The screenplay by Eric Heisserer — who also wrote my favorite horror film of the year, Lights Out — manages to overcome one of the toughest storytelling stumbling blocks, by revealing the big "surprise" (i.e. the reason the aliens are here), and then makes it more interesting. It's also a film of genuine compassion, understanding, and empathy in a time when such things are in frighteningly short supply.

2. Paterson
While watching Jim Jarmusch's previous film Only Lovers Left Alive, I realized that I liked his films best when they were quieter; he does not seem to be able to do excessively chatty well. So here comes Paterson, a gorgeously quiet film in the tradition of Dead Man and Broken Flowers, and the year's best American film. It's a movie about life at a different pace, about observing. It observes things that are static, but also things that are in transition, things that move in and out of our lives, finding a zen-like acceptance of this flow. American actor Adam Driver and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani won't win any awards, but their performances are among the most honest I've seen.

1. Cemetery of Splendor
The best film of 2016 is very simply a good film by a great director, and one that did not warrant much attention. My choice is partly a form of protest over the lack of distribution foreign-language films get today (they all seem to be "official Oscar submissions"), but also over the loss/lack of great directors from other countries. Someone recently wrote that Apichatpong Weerasethakul's are difficult to describe, but very easy to watch, and I found Cemetery of Splendor among the easiest of his films; I think it's my favorite. So it may not feel quite as profound as his big award-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but I found it to be as deeply poetic as films by Ozu, Bresson, or Bergman.

Ten Runners up (in alphabetical order):

Ten Honorable Mentions:

Great Performances

  • Michael Shannon (Complete Unknown, Elvis & Nixon, Frank & Lola, Loving, Midnight Special, Nocturnal Animals)
  • Amy Adams (Arrival)
  • Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
  • Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga (Loving)
  • Adam Driver (Midnight Special, Paterson, Silence)
  • Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship)
  • Jeff Bridges & Ben Foster (Hell or High Water)
  • Michelle Williams (Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea)
  • Patrick Stewart (Green Room)
  • Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)
  • Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)
  • Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson (Fences)
  • Susan Yeagley (Mascots)

  • Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases

    I no longer review DVDs and Blu-rays with the same regularity that I once did, and there were several worthy releases this year that I did not get a chance to see. This list, while not comprehensive, comprises my favorites of the ones I did see.

    Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

    The Year's Worst Films

    1. Warcraft
    2. Yoga Hosers
    3. London Has Fallen
    4. Anthropoid
    5. Clown
    6. The 5th Wave
    7. Term Life
    8. Lion
    9. Assassin's Creed
    10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
    11. Morgan
    12. Shut In
    13. Ma Ma
    14. Creative Control

    Thanks, and sending wishes and prayers for a better 2017! -- JMA

    Movies Unlimtied