Searching for — and Finding — the Best of 2016's Films 

click to enlarge The Handmaiden was one of Robert Hunt's favorite films of 2016.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures

The Handmaiden was one of Robert Hunt's favorite films of 2016.

As we swerved into the final quarter of this stress-filled year of 2016, something unusual began to happen. While our already coarsened political climate imploded, and adored historical and cultural figures continued to leave the earth in what seemed like record-breaking numbers, the current output of motion pictures, so stagnant for most of the year, suddenly began to show signs of improvement. Perhaps it was the predictable dawn of the festival and awards seasons, or the gradual relief that comes with the realization that the long parade of summer blockbusters had finally ended.

And what a relief it was. Were the film studios consciously obeying the old edict to "save the best for last"? If someone had asked me three months ago to name the best film of the year, I would have answered confidently. If they had asked me again two weeks later, that answer would have changed, just as it changed again one week or two weeks after that.

click to enlarge Sonia Braga in Aquarius. - CINEMASCÓPIO PRODUÇÕES
  • CinemaScópio Produções
  • Sonia Braga in Aquarius.

It was a strange year in film, a year of uncertainty, or maybe just one in which audiences simply lost enthusiasm for the banality of Hollywood's pre-packaged assembly-line products. When it came to actually pushing their money across the threshold of the ticket window, audiences no longer cared about Bridget Jones and decided that one round of Jack Reacher was enough, thank you. They may have known Jason Bourne's name, but they weren't interested in renewing the acquaintance. They decided that if Tom Hanks really needed to go digging through Renaissance ephemera, he'd have to do it on his own. Even familiar exercises in nostalgia-by-committee like the recycled Ghostbusters and the latest adventure of the Enterprise crew were met with indifference.

Meanwhile, the nature of film distribution — the way those images actually meet up with the millions of eyes in the audience — is changing drastically. Amazon and Netflix have become healthy competitors to the old studios, but at least they have had the old-school sense to open most of their prime releases theatrically before sucking up the profits from their streaming rights. The video on demand market has expanded exponentially, making it harder for individual films to stand out. The New York Times caused a commotion when it announced that it would no longer review every single film that opened in New York (many VOD films have a theatrical run in New York simply for contractual reasons). And hey, if even the NYT can't keep up, what can the rest of us do?

Amidst it all, the comic book spectacle remains untouchable, with one curious note. Even the fans grumbled that Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad were terrible — but they bought tickets anyway. (And if you need any evidence of the cultural bankruptcy of the self-proclaimed fanboy/geek world currently driving the film industry, here's how one prominent comics website chose to announce the passing of the incomparable: "Leonard Cohen: Genius Songwriter of Music from Watchmen Sex Scene Dead at 82.")

Through it all, a few films stood out, beacons of humanity in our debased times. The following list of the best films of 2016 is, like all lists, somewhat arbitrary. It's limited only to films that either opened in this area or were easily available on video or streaming services in the last twelve months. Is there a theme here? Notice the common feature of two-thirds of the list below. While the year's best male performances gave us only one unquestionable hero, Tom Hanks' modest Chesley Sullenberger, we had an abundance of great female performances, with Sonia Braga, Isabelle Huppert and Natalie Portman at the top of the list. These weren't super heroines or besieged victims. They were strong-spirited women facing adversities great and small, or merely holding their own in a difficult world.

click to enlarge Helen Mirren and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins. - © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • Helen Mirren and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins.

The best films of 2016:

1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

2. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

3. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

4: Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

5: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

6: Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

7: The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

8: Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)

9: Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

Also of note: Mia Madre, Hail Caesar!, Christine, High-Rise, Hell or High Water, Sing Street, Cafe Society, A Monster with a Thousand Heads, and two films that are easy to love and hate simultaneously, Elle and La La Land.

The best nonfiction films:

1: Notfilm (Ross Lipman)

2: 13th (Ava DuVernay)

3: Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)

4: No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)

5: DePalma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

6: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Ron Howard)

7: Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)

8: The Dying of the Light (Peter Flynn)

The best revivals/restorations: Jacques Rivette's rarely-seen, thirteen-hour experimental masterpiece Out One and Criterion's double dose of Orson Welles, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story.

As for the year's worst films, I'll try to stick to Thumper's Rule: If you can't say nothin' nice, don't say nothin' at all. I'm sure Thumper would have no problem keeping quiet about a bloated video game adaptation, the misanthropy of Todd Solondz, the crassness of Sacha Baron Cohen, the misguided revival of Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation or the continued decline of the once-gifted Terrence Malick. Lucky Thumper.


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