2016 may have been a long and unpredictable ride, yet for all the troubles occurring in the world, it was a fine year for cinema, boasting dynamic new films from established veterans like Martin Scorsese and Isabelle Huppert to proving the prowess of new talents such as Jeremy Saulnier and Robert Eggers. Moreover, 2016 provided a great diversity of films, with genres like comedies (Toni Erdmann), musicals (La La Land), and horror (The Witch) often ignored by the critical mainstream are coming back into the limelight. There were so many compelling films over the past year that I plan on writing a secondary post just to list all of my favorite recent films. But without further ado, here are my ten favorite pictures of 2016.
- Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
This quiet film about a philosophy professor trying to rediscover herself after a divorce isn’t quite as provoking as the other Isabelle Huppert-domestic drama of the year (which appears later on this list), yet Things to Come is an inspiring and thoughtful portrayal of familial boundaries.
- Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s satire of the studio system was badly marketed to the public, depicted as a screwball comedy in the vein of O Brother, Where Art Thou? instead of the more intimate analysis of Hollywood the duo had conceived. But despite the poor promotion, Hail, Caesar! is an uproarious comedy that wonderfully parodies everything about Hollywood in the 50’s, from fixers to secretive Communist screenwriters. It may not be the brothers’ most accessible film but it proves that the two’s funny bone is as sharp as ever.
- La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
If Chazelle’s Whiplash was about testing the dedication to jazz, La La Land is a celebration of it. An ode to the classic Fred Astaire musicals of the 50s, La La Land picks apart the fantasies and dreams of Los Angeles and what it takes to achieve stardom. The film’s final scene also acts as a wry and bittersweet commentary on the meaning behind success, inverting the trope behind Hollywood endings.
- Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World (Werner Herzog)
It’s become easy fodder to parody Werner Herzog documentaries, and Herzog is well in on the joke (those who have seen in guest appearances on Parks and Recreation or Rick and Morty can attest to that). But Lo and Behold demonstrates that Herzog still has the capability to divulge profundity from ordinary life as he examines the impact of the Internet on human interaction. Whether or not you think Herzog has become too self-aware, no one makes documentaries quite like him.
- The Witch (Robert Eggers)
The recent wave of psychological horror has provided plenty of solid films in recent years but The Witch may be the best of the bunch. A stirring take on Puritan faith and sin in 17th century New England, The Witch is truly frightening in the way the best horror is through punctuating the limits of human morality and depravity.
- Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
Within the past seven years, we’ve had the fortune of receiving several new Terrence Malick pictures, with his next feature slated for a March release. Some may argue that as Malick grows more prolific, his films lose their overall coherence, but I found Knight of Cups to be in line with some of the director’s finest work, an intimate and surreal depiction about life, love, and loss in Los Angeles.
- Silence (Martin Scorsese)
A film 25 years in the making, Silence was worth its long wait, arguably Scorsese’s most satisfying and fulfilling movie since GoodFellas. Despite its gigantic setting and hefty budget, Silence recalls the intimacy of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, presenting the moral conundrum of God’s silence to human suffering and pressing the true meaning of faith.
- Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Paul Verhoeven’s big comeback feature takes the director’s signature black humor to domestic abuse, as a Parisian woman tries to get her life back on track after being raped in her home. Wickedly funny without resorting to bombastic sentiment or bad taste, Elle is a fascinating depiction of psychosexuality and features one of Isabelle Huppert’s finest performances.
- Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
No film I saw in 2016 was more gripping and all-out thrilling than Green Room. Jeremy Saulnier’s tale of punks versus skinheads captures the grittiness and roughness of the hardcore scene, containing some of the most shocking and graphic feats of violence over this past year. This raw account of revenge and sadism is essential to all fans of extreme music and boasts magnificent performances by Patrick Stewart and the recently deceased Anton Yelchin.
- Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
The most raucous epic satire about capitalism since Tati’s Playtime, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a delectable German comedy about a prankster father and his workaholic daughter. Ade directs her movie with both flair and subtlety; although Erdmann is filled the brim with boisterous gags, she never lets her movie become bombastically contrived or comically excessive, preferring to let the jokes stem from the uneasiness behind daily routines. Although Erdmann is nearly three hours long, it is the only film of this past year that I wanted to watch immediately again after first viewing it.