The Best Films of 2016

By Zeke Trautenberg

Like every year, 2016 was chock full of movies, some good, some bad, some starring Steven Seagal. My list of the ten best films of the year is an imperfect, unabashedly subjective look back at the year in film. It reflects my preference for art and genre cinema, as well the mundane need to balance my movie-going with work and life. Go watch these movies, and then see them again before the films of 2017 take over the marquee.

10. Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

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Like his previous film, the prison drama Starred Up (2013), Hell or High Water depicts masculinity at its most toxic and self-destructive. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of bank robbers in dusty West Texas amid the Great Recession of 2008. The film is a portrait of a depressed economic landscape: the robbers pass houses in foreclosure, vacant store fronts, and deserted main streets. The film plays its genre trope straights, while the film’s Janic point of view—following both the cops and the robbers—foments a slow-burning tension that erupts in violence. Mackenzie’s decision to withhold the outlaws’ motives until the second half of the film and instead let viewers unravel the pattern underlying their robberies makes for a smart and exhilarating ride.

9. The Treasure

Director: Corneliu Poromboiu

Economic precariousness is the impetus for the characters of Corneliu Poromboiu’s The Treasure, a black satire of bureaucracy, inequality, and austerity politics in contemporary Romania. The film is a tale of two neighbors, both members of the country’s vulnerable middle class, who search for treasure that is supposedly buried at an old house in the countryside. With the help of a hapless metal detector operator and armed with patient resignation, the neighbors dig up red earth deep into the night. The film’s sardonic epilogue culminates in a playground, where the banal pursuit of riches collides with children at play.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director: Taika Waititi

Like Taika Waititi’s previous films Eagle vs Shark (2007) and Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a coming-of-age film that trades in the earnest humor and self-awareness, and centers on the theme of family. The film follows Ricky Baker (the magnetic and charming Julian Dennison), an incorrigible orphan sent to live with foster parents in the New Zealand countryside. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky flees to the woods and his foster father chases after him. The adolescent’s disappearance sets off a national manhunt led by an overzealous social worker, who fashions himself a kiwi Sarah Connor. The film plays with the action film genre, but keeps the action proportional to peaceful New Zealand—where Ricky quickly becomes a legend. The funniest film of 2016, it will leave you smiling for the lonely boy, who was “once rejected, now accepted.”

7. Demon

Director: Marcin Wrona

Demon is the final film of Polish director Marcin Wrona, who committed suicide shortly after the film’s premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival (the film was released theatrically in the U.S. in 2016). This posthumous work depicts twentieth and twenty-first century Poland through the genre of the horror film. Demon is set in an isolated farmhouse where the film’s expatriate protagonist celebrates his marriage. The festivities go awry before the wedding even begins, with fleeting apparitions and the unearthing of bones next to the long-abandoned house. As the wedding night unfolds, the ghosts of the past join the party. The drunken revelers struggle to take stock of the recent history that rolls in like a heavy fog. Memory, national identity, and family are unearthed in this muddy and gorgeous nightmare of a film.

6. The Lobster

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Quite a few patrons walked out of the screening of The Lobster I attended in May. What were they expecting? Anyone who has had the queasy pleasure of seeing or maybe just hearing about Lanthimos’s debut film Dogtooth (2009), should have been primed for weirdness. The Lobster continues Lanthimos’s exploration of people in enclosed environments subject to laws and pressures outside of their control. The premise of the film is that men and women have forty-five days to find a romantic partner. Should they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choice. An esoteric exploration of marriage and friendship, with a talent show thrown in for good measure, The Lobster is the best date movie of 2016.

5. Neruda

Director: Pablo Larraín

Like Jackie, Larraín’s other 2016 biopic and an honorable mention, Neruda eschews the traditional tropes of the biopic. The film is a metacinematic portrayal of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) through the eyes of a fanatical detective (Gabriel García Bernal) tasked with hunting down the poet. The film is a playful fiction that weaves together detective novels, Cold War paranoia, and Neruda’s mythic stature in Chilean politics and culture. The film’s climactic final sequence unfolds amid the snow-capped Andes, where the hapless inspector calls out in vain for his poet. This snowy landscape, like the film itself, embodies the pensive lines from Neruda’s Canto General, in which myth and history intertwined: “Puede ser solo el viento/ Sobre la nieve/ Sobre la nieve, sí [. . .]”.

4. Elle

Director: Paul Verhoeven

The actress Isabelle Huppert has few peers. In 2016, she had memorable roles in both Elle and the honorable mention Things to Come. In Elle, Huppert plays a woman who is raped in her apartment by a masked assailant. In Huppert’s skilled hands and under Verhoeven’s campy sensibility (this is a Christmas movie after all), this original trauma set off a chain reaction of vengeance. The film is a sharp satire of Paris’s pleasure-seeking upper-middle class, video games, and melodrama. Verhoeven’s subversive humanism invites viewers to turn away, or better yet indulge in the madness.

3. The Handmaiden

Director: Chan-wook Park

In Chan-wook Park’s film, things are not as they appear. Like Elle and the next film on this list, The Handmaiden playfully subverts the conventions of cinematic narrative and genre. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century, the film is a madcap chamber piece featuring a small-time thief disguised as a chamber maid, a hysterical noblewoman haunted by ghosts, and a lecherous uncle who makes his living fabricating pornographic novels. The film’s screwball qualities are complemented by the ingenious use of multiple points of view. Things here are not what they seem.

2. The Love Witch

Director: Anna Biller

The Love Witch is the most fun film of 2016. Anna Biller’s film is the apotheosis of campy cinema. The saga of the love witch unfolds in forested cabins, a renaissance fair, and an all-women Victorian tearoom. Biller’s film is a subversive and sexy work of feminist cinema. Like its chameleonic protagonist, the film is a polyamorous cinematic experience, part late night movie, part cerebral art film, part technicolor explosion. The film’s extravagantly kinky costumes merit special mention and are far and away the best of 2016.

(As a side note, this critic kindly requests a midnight double feature of The Love Witch and Elle. Few films would make for a more twisted evening at the cinema).

1. Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is a coming-of-age story of limited choices and difficult circumstances. Barry Jenkins’ film is divided into three acts, each of which focuses on a different period in the life of Chiron, the film’s black and gay protagonist. The film depicts race, poverty, and sexuality with unflinching candor, and its humanist portrayal of its enigmatic protagonist erases cinematic clichés. Chiron’s on-screen transformation from a truculent child learning to swim to a hardened man sheathed in gold jewelry is a vital portrait of American life in the early-twenty-first century.

Honorable Mentions

Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt

Hail, Caesar! – Ethan and Joel Cohen

Jackie – Pablo Larraín

Manchester by the Sea –Kenneth Lonergan

The Measure of a Man – Stéphane Brizé

Morris From America – Chad Hartigan

Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Løve

Weiner – Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg


Photos: Film 44/OddLot Entertainment/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment; 42 Km Film/Les Films du Worso/Rouge International; Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film; Telewizja Polska; Film 4/Irish Film Board/Eurimages/Netherlands Film Fund/Greek Film Center/British Film Institute; AZ Films/Fábula/Funny Balloons/Participant Media/Reborn Production/Setembro Cine; SBS Productions/Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion/France 2 Cinéma/Entre Chien et Loup; Moho Film and Yong Film; Oscilloscope/Anna Biller Productions; A24/Plan B Entertainment.

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)