The good did not outweigh the bad in 2016, whether onscreen or off. But trying times only make art and escapism more important, and a great many movies helped make this annus horribilis more tolerable — at least in the time between the lights going down and the final credits rolling.
As year-end lists are published and award nominations announced, live deliciously and take a moment to consider some of the more unusual achievements of the year.
Most Romantic Anti-comedy
Part of what makes the year’s best films — The Lobster, The Handmaiden, and Manchester by the Sea — so entrancing is the way in which each of them nimbly subverts expectations. The Lobster, for instance, stars Colin Farrell as a newly single man who gets sent to a hotel where, should he fail to fall in love within 45 days, he’ll be turned into an animal of his choosing. (He arrives with his dog, who used to be his brother.) Such is the plight of all singletons in this world, and the film that grows out of that off-kilter premise is dark and disturbing, yes, but also curiously romantic and insightful. Farrell does eventually meet someone (Rachel Weisz, aka the Nearsighted Woman), and the final dilemma he’s faced with proves that love may in fact be blind.
Least Romantic Comedy
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mother's Day, the third in a loose trilogy of ensemble rom-coms revolving around increasingly unromantic holidays. (Valentine’s Day? Yes, obviously. New Year’s Eve? Sure, okay. Mother’s Day? Wait, why?) Set in the suburbs of Atlanta but featuring nothing distinguishing about that city, the film is neither funny nor romantic — at least not until the blooper reel, when the likes of Julia Roberts, Jason Sudeikis, and Jennifer Aniston go off-script and actually elicit a few laughs.
“It Takes a Village” Award for Best Non-Nuclear Family
Speaking of mothers, 2016 will see at least one worthy ode to them: Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, the writer/director’s first film since he explored the father/son dynamic in Beginners. Annette Bening stars as a modern matriarch circa 1979, doing her utmost to raise her teenage son into a man as a single mother. It’s a group effort that also includes Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup as two lodgers in her boarding house and Elle Fanning as the object of her kid’s affections. This is a winsome, lived-in tribute to the bonds we form through both blood and necessity.
Most Authentic Coming-of-Age Drama
We haven’t seen much of Hailee Steinfeld since she received an Oscar nomination for her auspicious debut in the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. That makes The Edge of Seventeen welcome on two fronts: In addition to being another showcase for its talented lead, Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut is also an exception to the stifling rules established by most high school movies: It’s about a girl, for one, and features none of the reductive characterizations we’ve grown to reluctantly expect of such fare. Steinfeld plays well against her peers, but her scenes opposite Woody Harrelson (as the teacher she both annoys and endears herself to) are where The Edge of Seventeen most reveals itself as something worth celebrating.
Least Obnoxious Franchise
There’s no reason for the Purge movies to be as decent as they are, but if the last couple months have taught us anything it’s that basic competency is worth celebrating. The latest in this anarchic, dystopian series was July’s aptly titled Election Year, whose vision of a near-future in which all crime is legal for 12 hours per annum seems a lot less outlandish now than it did when we were first introduced to Purge Night three years ago.
Best Secret Sequel
In the age of hype, constant casting updates, and five-film franchises planned years in advance, there’s a real value in genuine surprise. That’s something few do better than Lost maestro J.J. Abrams, who most recently opened his mystery box to reveal 10 Cloverfield Lane. The film didn’t actually become a spiritual successor to Cloverfield until late in production — it was based on a script called The Cellar — so it makes sense that John Goodman’s paranoid survivalist ends up being more frightening than the city-sized monster he’s hiding from. If the “under promise, over deliver” approach were more common among tentpole fare, going to the multiplex between May and August would probably be a lot more enjoyable.
Bummers of the Summer
This summer, for instance, saw two sequels-come-lately that fell far short of expectations: Jason Bourne and Independence Day: Resurgence. There was never any reason to get excited for, say, Now You See Me 2, but these two sequels actually had the strength of genuinely good movies behind them — a legacy they both failed to live up to.
Best Summer Movie
Reboots and sequels like those two have increasingly been the norm during the summer months, but this year saw an especially uninspired crop. One unexpected exception to that rule was The Shallows, a straight-to-the-point tale of man against nature in which man is a woman and nature is the most imposing shark this side of Jaws. As she did in The Age of Adaline last year, Blake Lively proves an exceptional leading lady in what’s effectively a solo performance (save for a friendly seabird she named Steven Seagull, who would easily be the year’s best supporting animal were it not for our next honoree).
Best Supporting Animal
Worthwhile horror movies are a rarity, and each one feels like a gift from on high — or, perhaps more likely, somewhere down below. That was certainly true of The Witch, whose most memorable character wasn’t even human: Black Phillip, a potentially evil goat looked upon warily by the puritan patriarch of Robert Eggers’ folkloric tale set in 17th-century New England. The children sing creepy songs about him, the parents wonder what’s behind his gaze, and Black Phillip himself offers us all a chance to “live deliciously.” That might be a deal with the devil, but it beats the alternative in this unsettling vision of a past we’ve yet to fully move on from.
Daniel Radcliffe has made some bold choices since the Harry Potter days, a trend that reached its unnatural conclusion with this year’s Swiss Army Man — a Sundance standout in which the former Boy Who Lived plays a corpse who washes up on a desert island. Manny, as he’s known, announces that he may still be alive to the island’s sole inhabitant by breaking wind loudly and repeatedly. It’s as sophomoric as it is surreal, ditto the film as a whole.
Best No Country for Old Men Ripoff
Hell or High Water is a taut, effective thriller, and further proof that Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote Sicario and is set to make his directorial debut next year) is a screenwriter to be admired. It also bears more than a few similarities to another Texas-set drama in which there are no clean getaways and certain events, once set in motion, must be carried out to their logical conclusion. There’s no Anton Chigurh to contend with this time around, but there are more than a few down-home folks getting in over their heads and living to regret it.
Feel-Bad Movie of the Year
Nicolas Winding Refn has done a hell of a job erasing all the goodwill he inspired with Drive five years ago, but both Only God Forgives and this year’s The Neon Demon are better than they tend to get credit for. The Danish auteur’s attention to aesthetic detail remains a marvel, though it does at times come at the expense of narrative coherence; like some of the models in this candy-coated nightmare, The Neon Demon, set in the demoralizing fashion (under)world of Los Angeles, is easy on the eyes and a little dead inside. It may not be advisable to replicate that formula too often, but Refn has almost perfected it.
Highest Insight-to-Pretension Ratio
Richard Linklater continues to astound, not least because it never feels like he’s even trying to. After the massive undertaking that was Boyhood — a film that took 12 years to make and almost as long to watch, though every minute was worth it — he returned this year with, of all things, a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused. The result was, like most of Linklater’s relaxed filmography, casually profound: Everybody Wants Some!! looks at the first day of college with both in-the-moment joy and the kind of wisdom that only hindsight and experience can instill. The dog days of youth may have come and gone, but Linklater has preserved them on celluloid.
Most Painful Declaration of Love
Here’s all you need to know about Lily Gladstone’s performance in Certain Women: It’s the best in a movie led by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart. Not that the central trio isn’t great in Kelly Reichardt’s sparse adaptation of a short-story collection by Maile Meloy. But newcomer Gladstone, with her low-key charm and quiet expressiveness, is most at home in the film’s rural Montana setting. She plays a ranch hand who takes a liking to an out-of-towner played by Stewart, eventually making a lonely, hours-long drive to find the object of her affections and... not have any idea what to do once she’s found her. It’s a devastating scene, and almost singlehandedly elevates Certain Women from memorable to unforgettable.
Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is one of the most pleasingly strange films in recent memory, never more so than during a virtuosic 41-minute tracking shot that surveys the entirety of a Chinese village and features several characters who long ago departed this mortal coil. The first-time filmmaker is never flashy (nor, for that matter, is cinematographer Wang Tianxing). Bi merges timelines and moves forward in a vaguely Kafkaesque fashion, opting for a dreamlike playfulness rather than overt showmanship. The long take in question is so fluid and immersive that, for much of it, you’ll forget that what you’re watching is a technical marvel because you’re so focused on the world it’s allowing you to see.
Best Movie Starring Isabelle Huppert
With roles in four different movies — Louder Than Bombs, Valley of Love, Elle, and Things to Come — Isabelle Huppert achieved her status as the consensus choice for Best Actress in the World this year. Though not the most acclaimed, Valley of Love was secretly the best of these. It finds the performer opposite another icon of French cinema, Gerard Depardieu (with whom she’s twice shared the screen) as two grieving parents who travel to Death Valley in the hopes that their son will make good on a most unusual promise he made in his suicide note: showing up in a particular place at a particular time despite being dead. That intriguing setup results in one of the most affecting endings of 2016, the kind that feels both otherworldly and deeply human.
Most Mirthless Line Reading
When that Han Solo spinoff makes a bona fide movie star of Alden Ehrenreich, don’t forget that he first announced himself to the world by playing a dunderheaded actor who flubs the line “Would that it were so simple” in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!. That film is one of two old-school joys released this year, the other being Robert Zemeckis’ Allied. It’s one of those sequences that goes on for so long it momentarily ceases to be funny before somehow becoming even more hilarious.
Best Unofficial True Detective Sequel
Genre films have largely been a letdown on this side of the Pacific of late, with most worthy police procedurals unspooling on the small screen. In Korea, though, one truly out-there offering reigned supreme to the tune of more than $50 million at the box office: The Wailing, a supernatural detective story with enough occult oddity to convince you that True Detective may not be dead after all. Lasting 156 minutes and rarely lagging during that imposing runtime, Na Hong-jin’s film is genuinely too strange to accurately describe, but know this: The Gollum-like hermit living in the woods is the least of your worries.
Most Chilling Biopic About a Fictional Dictator
Brady Corbet has been a mainstay of the arthouse world for years now, but it’s always been in front of the camera. That changed this year with The Childhood of a Leader, the actor-turned-filmmaker’s loose adaptation of a Jean-Paul Sartre novella that plays out like The Omen. Only here, there’s a brief coda suggesting that the demon seed eventually becomes a despot in post-WWII Europe. Considering how the presidential election turned out, it may be more prescient than even Corbet intended.
“Quit Making Movies During Election Years” Award
Michael Moore gets a lot of flack, some of it justified, but credit where it’s due: Dude called it when it came to Rust Belt voters supporting Donald Trump. That said, he’s also 0 for 2 when it comes to releasing politically charged documentaries on the eve of important elections: Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t stop Bush from getting reelected, and Michael Moore in TrumpLand didn’t stop Trump from falling upward into the presidency. Maybe he can go for reverse psychology in 2020 and make a film about how evil the Democratic nominee is?
Most Ambiguous Faith-Based Drama
In the age of God’s Not Dead and Miracles from Heaven, simply hearing the words “faith-based drama” can elicit a negative reaction among all but the most ardent devotees. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, and for proof one need look no further than Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Long in the making and the tonal opposite of The Wolf of Wall Street, its faith is hard-won and well worth examining.
Norma Desmond Award
“We didn’t need dialogue,” Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) says of the silent era in Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces!” We have them now too, thankfully, and none told a more moving story this year than Natalie Portman in Jackie and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. That both films are explorations of the mourning process isn’t a coincidence — the loss of a loved one inspires the most wrenching of expressions. Manchester certainly has more dialogue than Jackie, but in both we see that while debilitating grief is life-altering it isn’t necessarily life-ending.
Most Transcendent Movie About the Truth and Beauty of the Universe
Were I allowed to curate a new Netflix category, it would have to be Movies About the Truth and Beauty of the Universe. Few movies fall under that rarefied umbrella, but Arrival certainly does. Though it presents itself as a sci-fi picture about aliens coming to Earth for potentially alarming reasons, Denis Villeneuve’s latest is at heart a story of connection, communication, and grief. Amy Adams does some of her finest work to date as the avatar of all three of those big ideas, a space-age love song unto herself.
Best Movie About a Witch
Worst Movie About a Witch
Manchester by the Sea is, by most definitions, the most wrenching film of the year. It might also be the funniest — no small feat, considering the subject matter. Casey Affleck’s character loses a brother, yes, but newcomer Lucas Hedges plays a 16-year-old who’s just lost his father. It must be true what they say about laughter being the best medicine, or at least an effective defense mechanism, as the young man is a font of clever retorts and pithy one-liners. Affleck — who, it must be noted, delivers the most powerful performance of 2016 — is an excellent straight man, and even has a few zingers of his own when he isn’t overwhelmed by grief (which, to be fair, is most of the time).
Most Funereal Score
Other than Natalie Portman’s facial expressions, the most powerful element of Jackie is Mica Levi’s haunting score. The biopic marks her sophomore effort as film composer (the first being Under the Skin), and it’s easily the darkest (and best) soundtrack of the year — no easy feat, considering Scott Walker’s excellent work on The Childhood of a Leader and Gesaffelstein’s on Disorder. Chilean director Pablo Larraín, in his English-language debut, wisely moves Levi’s work to the fore and lets it do the talking when his devastated heroine can’t find the words.
Most Joyful Musical Cue
Andrea Arnold uses music to the opposite effect in American Honey, contrasting the at times desperate road trip with a thumping soundtrack made up of hip-hop and pop. This is never more joyful than when, early on, two people lock eyes in Walmart as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blares over the loudspeakers — prompting Shia LaBeouf’s character to hop on the checkout counter and dance until security removes him from the premises. This may not be such a hopeless place after all.
Best Unintentional Double Feature
In 1974, reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide live on air. In 2016, two different movies about her premiered at Sundance: Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’ Christine. In hindsight, what’s most surprising is that it took this long for someone to make a film about such a headline-worthy tragedy. These two — a quasi-documentary with a twist and a more conventional biopic, respectively — work better in tandem than they do in opposition, like two halves of a whole that may never feel complete.
Best Double Feature By the Same Director
Between 1973 and 2011, Terrence Malick directed just five movies. He’s made three more since then, including two that came out this year: Knight of Cups and Voyage of Time. They bear little resemblance on the surface, as one is a drama about a disaffected screenwriter (Christian Bale) living in L.A. and the other is an IMAX documentary about the birth of the universe. But in both we see Malick’s uniquely humanist worldview expressed as only he can.
Most Obscure Sports Movie
As someone who writes about movies for a living, I tend to have a pretty good grasp on even the most rarefied indies. But even I was barely aware that The Phenom existed until after it had come and gone from theaters, which is unfortunate: Noah Buschel’s film, which stars Paul Giamatti and Ethan Hawke opposite Johnny Simmons, is a cerebral take on the rocky transition from the minors to the majors. As much time is spent in a shrink’s office as on the baseball diamond, and Hawke breathes new life into the familiar archetype of an overbearing father pressuring his son to achieve what he couldn’t. Watch it online for less than the cost of peanuts and Cracker Jack.
Least Affected Prestige Picture
Here’s a setup straight out of awards season for you: a based-on-a-true-story account of the interracial couple whose marriage is responsible for the Supreme Court ruling that struck down miscegenation laws as unconstitutional. But Jeff Nichols’ Loving spends a grand total of five minutes in the courtroom and is far less concerned with the historical than it is with the everyday beauty of the couple in question. They’re embodied here by Joel Edgerton and a wonderful Ruth Negga, whose eyes offer more history than any straight reenactment ever could.
Sweetest Sapphic Romance
Over the course of 144 minutes, The Handmaiden vacillates between romance, conspiracy, torture, and then back again. It’s a sordid, steamy tale set in Japanese-occupied Korea circa the 1930s, yet what’s most remarkable about Park Chan-wook’s latest is that it mostly lingers in the mind as a moving love story between two women who never should have even been in the same room together. That isn’t an unfamiliar premise, of course, but every narrative twist and turn here — of which there are many — feels wholly original. Love may not have conquered all in 2016, but at least it lived to see another year.