2016 was a really good year at the movies, particularly for independent film. Summer blockbusters and year end blockbusters generally disappointed me, but independent films released February thru December (January is always a stinker of a movie month) in the US were more solid than usual. This is just an opinion piece, I’m not claiming these are objectively the best movies of 2016, just the best ones viewed through my chubby eyes. So all you La La Land fanatics and Nocturnal Animals lusters and people who thought Arrival defined 21st century science fiction and American Honey I-like-20-minute-stretches-of-film-where-people-just-sing-in-a-van fans can just calm the shit down.
10. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
An incredibly impressive debut feature from filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch was the most terrifying filmgoing experience I’ve had in years. And they did it all without a single jump scare. Using atmosphere and soft sounds, The Witch slowly builds to terrifying moments much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Written using authentic texts from the 1600s, The Witch features unfamiliar dialogue spoken by mostly unfamiliar actors (all of whom are excellent) that significantly adds to the creep factor.
09. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Viciously dark comedy about rape, gender politics and what it means to be a victim, Elle is a film that is almost impossible to describe without making it sound revolting. However, without giving anything away, it manages to be both intelligent and surprising, diverting our expectations of how a rape revenge movie or even just a standard thriller should play out. This is mostly due to an extraordinarily complex and nuanced performance by Isabelle Huppert, the year’s best.
08. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)
I’m usually pretty weary of biopics, but Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is anything but a typical one. Less like Lincoln and more like The Babadook, Jackie chronicles the deteriorating sanity of Jackie Kennedy in the weeks following the JFK assassination. With extremely claustrophobic and almost surreal cinematography, accompanied by a manic score, the film feels like a lucid nightmare. Natalie Portman was amazing in Black Swan, but here she gives the most complex and powerful performance of her career.
07. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park)
Completely unlike anything he has done before, The Handmaiden is Chan-wook Park’s best film since 2003’s Oldboy. Gorgeous cinematography and wonderful performances perfectly compliment an extremely layered and unpredictable narrative. It’s surreal, shocking, but never for a second unbelievable.
06. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
Speaking of “completely unlike anything he’s ever done before”, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water couldn’t be more different than his last film, the excellent but little seen Starred Up. That movie was about a horribly unloving and manipulative father/son relationship in prison, while this movie is all about fulfilling family obligations. Chris Pine and Ben Foster give career-best performances as brothers robbing Texas banks to save their mother’s farm, while Jeff Bridges is wildly entertaining as the eccentric lawman hot on their tail. However, the real star of the movie is screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who provides some of the year’s best dialogue for wholly realistic characters.
05. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
A technically perfect thriller from the new up and coming genre genius on the scene, Jeremy Saulnier. While not as “scary” as The Witch, Green Room might have it beat for intensity. How refreshing it is to see basically a home invasion movie with characters as clever and three-dimensional as real people. Featuring powerful performances from everyone involved. The stand-out is clearly Patrick Stewart playing a villain so mundane it will make your skin crawl.
04. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)
Hands down, the best comedy of 2016, Toni Erdmann is the hilarious, bitter-sweet story of a stressed-out workaholic (Sandra Huller) who’s distant practical joker father (Peter Simisischek) rolls into Bucharest to try to mend their relationship. When things don’t work out, he refuses to leave and follows his daughter to all of her business functions sporting a ridiculous wig and fake redneck teeth as his alter ego, Toni Erdmann. Maren Ade brilliantly balances the outlandish physical comedy sequences with poignant human drama. Huller and Simisischek’s amazing chemistry keep the proceedings real and relatable even when one has to don a nine foot sloth costume during what is possibly the funniest nude scene ever committed to film.
03. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonnergan)
God, I wish I could write like Kenneth Lonnergan. I wish I could create characters that were so painfully real and weren’t profound every time they opened their mouths but were profound in how they just existed. I wish I could blend comedy and drama so seamlessly and resist the urge to provide my characters with absolute closure. Lonnergan displayed this talent in the underrated You Can Count on Me and the little-seen but severely flawed Margaret, but Manchester by the Sea is where all of it works perfectly. He takes you on a journey with Lee Chandler, and by the end you kind of feel like you are the guy.
02. OJ: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)
A staggering piece of work, this near 8-hour documentary chronicles OJ Simpson’s life in three parts — before the murder, the murder trial and after the murder trial. But it’s really about race relations in America and how a celebrity murder trial became a fight for civil rights. Never glamorizing OJ Simpson, the doc simply just attempts to understand him in the context of what was going on in the country at the time of his rise and fall. It’s one of the best documentaries ever made, and you can watch it on HULU.
01. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
No film moved me more this year than Barry Jenkins’ beautiful, cerebral and ever so timely Moonlight. Rarely is something this effortlessly compelling and truthful. Perfectly acted by an amazing ensemble cast, Moonlight tells the story of a gay black male with three strikes against him, growing up in 1980s Miami while struggling to come to terms with his identity. Moonlight never offers any easy answers and while it has every opportunity to be saccharine or ham-fisted with its’ message it always resists the temptation in order to be honest. The Academy would be real fucking assholes to pass this one up.
13th, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Midnight Special.
Maren Ade – Toni Erdmann
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Pablo Larrain – Jackie
Kenneth Lonnergan – Manchester by the Sea
Amy Adams – Arrival
Sandra Huller – Toni Erdmann
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Adam Driver – Paterson
Jesse Plemmons – Other People
Peter Simonischek – Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington – Fences
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Andre Holland – Moonlight
Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Min-hee Kim – The Handmaiden
Molly Shannon – Other People
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Arrival – Eric Heisserer
Elle – David Birke
The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park, Chung Seo-kyung
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Silence – Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier
Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
The Lobster – Yorgos Lathinmos, Efthimis Filippou.
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonnergan
Toni Erdmann – Maren Ade
Arrival – Bradford Young
The Handmaiden – Chung-hoon Chung
Jackie – Stephane Fontaine
La La Land – Linus Sandgren
Moonlight – James Laxton
BEST FILM EDITING
Green Room – Julia Bloch
Jackie – Sebastian Sepulveda
La La Land – Tom Cross
Moonlight – Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
OJ: Made in America – Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Arrival – Johann Johannsen
Jackie – Mica Levi
La La Land – Justin Herwitz
Moonlight – Nicholas Britell
Nocturnal Animals – Abel Korzeniowski
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST
Fences – Jovan Adepo, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Denzel Washington, Mykelti Williamson.
Manchester by the Sea – Casey Affleck, Anna Baryshnikov, Matthew Broderick, Heather Burns, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Kara Hayward, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Michelle Williams, C.J. Wilson.
Moonlight – Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monae, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders.
Other People – Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty, Paul Dooley, John Early, Mike Mitchell, Paula Pell, Jesse Plemmons, Retta, Molly Shannon, June Squibb, J.J. Totah, Matt Walsh, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods.
The Witch – Lucas Dawson, Kate Dickie, Ellie Grainger, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw, Anya Taylor-Joy.