Yeah, you should know the rules by now. If what’s on my Top 10 isn’t on yours, write your Top 10. These are the films that meant the most to me this year, that made me sing their praises at the top of my lungs, that made me laugh and cry and feel so deeply. I hope you love them as much as I did.
If you’re so inclined, feel free to click here and participate in a little contest.
10) Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! is the rare ode to Hollywood that actually understands the significance that the institution can hold. The Coens immerses themselves in the styles, the gossips, and the concerns of old Hollywood. They’re mocking religious epics, westerns, manners dramas, and musicals while absolutely feeling free to indulge in the fun of getting to make those. It delves deep to find the power of Hollywood, which Hail, Caesar! views as something akin to religion, with the film as its sacrament and the producer as a God. Indeed, the faith of Brolin’s Mannix becomes an avenue to explore faith and the meaning of the all-powerful and unknowable, a film as Catholic as the A Serious Man is Jewish. The fact that all that couched in a movie that’s a barrel of explosive comedic fun with great performances from Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Josh Brolin is just icing. The fact that Alden Ehrenreich still manages to steal the movie out from under them is even more amazing. Hail, Caesar! is about as enjoyable as it gets to confront the unknowable and powerful God.
Best Scene: “No Dames”
Scorsese’s great passion project, in development for 26 years, adapted from one of the greatest novels of faith ever written. Silence is an epic of doubt that manages to live up to all that weight and more, boldly forging a film art that’s sweeping and ambiguous and difficult and from a voice of faith that we’re never going to appreciate. Of a kind with the work of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, Silence is a technical masterwork, impossibly confident with shot after shot that makes you gasp. But it uses that masterworking to think through the toughest questions of God. What does it mean when we can’t hear God, what does it mean when our prayers and our suffering seem to go unanswered? What does faith mean when I’m in so much pain? Silence‘s most amazing quality is how it pokes and prods and tries, but it knows that as long as we live, we may never find the answers.
Best Scene: Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) makes one final decision over whether or not he will apostatize.
The secret of Manchester by the Sea is that for all of its crushing and bleak portrayals of the depths of grief, it’s possibly one of the funniest films of the year. Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea portrays the process of loss and it really can be, blending the quiet humor and real humiliations of family and moving on with its more outright breakdown moments. What awes about Manchester by the Sea is its specificity, the way it feels so couched in a specific time and place with people plucked from the world it’s showing. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is one of the best performances of this year, using Casey’s natural reticence and mumbling to his advantage, letting the silent gaps of grief speak the loudest. Manchester by the Sea is a healing film, one that shows in loss, you’re not alone.
Best Scene: One last conversation between Lee Chandler and Randi (Michelle Williams)
This is about as good as family filmmaking gets, full of wonder and awe at the world and curious about the limitless possibilities that childhood holds. David Lowery found a way to tell this story as a deeply human fantasy, a story of a boy and his dog that will keep you in tears from the sheer beauty and awe that it inspires. It’s a story that knows we all deserve a chance and we all deserve to see something better in our futures. Disney’s still got it.
Best Scene: Elliot’s New Family
6) The Witch
There are few debut features as confident as The Witch, a psychological horror film that figures it might as well let you know its title is literal in the first 20 minutes. From there, The Witch becomes a swirling horror of the first sins of America, of the fear and the hate that laid under the surface of our early days. Shot like a Hudson River School painting of Hell, it’s a film that feels all the more horrific for its authenticity, from its dialogue ripped from journals of the day to its immaculately recreated sets, like you’re looking into a Pilgrim nightmare. It all leads up to one of the most bone-chilling finales in years. The Witch is a nightmare of the fears of religion and the dark underbelly of the myth of pure Americana.
Best Scene: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
I will state that part of my impression of this film was formed by two outside sources. First, my previous knowledge of Villeneuve certainly didn’t make me think he would be capable of something so emotionally open and immersive, so being taken off guard there should certainly be taken in account. The second I won’t spell out here, but perhaps a quick Google of the release date should tell you all you need to know.
In that, understand my viewing of Arrival as a beautiful clarion call to find unity in the darkest hour and to understand the brief time we have on this planet. Arrival resonates as a film that shows the understanding we must attain of how fragile we are and how all we’ve done and the possibilities of what we will do inform who we are. Arrival is fundamentally hopeful for the future, showing the objects and the people who carve it in glowing and heavenly light, making decisions that strike deep into our own fears of what we may be asked to do.
Best Scene: Louise learns the cost of understanding the Heptapod language.
Cinema is important not just for the grandiose visions it shows us of other times, places, and worlds, but for the empathy it generates for the ordinary and everyday. Paterson is a film that elevates the ordinary to extraordinary by showing us just how beautiful the everyday is. Seeing the world through Driver’s extraordinary performance as the titular character driving a bus through the titular character transforms everything.
The city, the people and their conversation, the natural world all becomes a poem, a place full of art and meaning and juxtapositions that are extraordinary and beautiful. Through him, we experience his wonderful wife (Golshifeth Farahani) and her caring ambition, the artist trying to share what she has with the world. Through him, we see the value of art and those who try everyday to reach for it and find meaning through it. The fact that all of this story is told with wonderful heart and humor is simply more indicative of how much Jarmusch deeply cares for these people and for the world around them.
Best Scene: We find out why Paterson’s mailbox tips over everyday.
No, really, this movie happened. Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter, played a farting corpse that helped a guy played by Paul Dano come to grips with humanity AND adventure around an abandoned island. We’re all the luckier for it.
Swiss Army Man is one of the most human films of the year, a film that uses its vulgarity and audacity to break deep into the human fears of raising children, of explaining the meanings of life and trying to figure out why we do what we do. It’s a film that tries to understand the outcast and the downtrodden, but is fully aware of why they’re in that position. It’s a bold, daring work that actually feels like it’s putting everything it has out there. Directors The Daniels, most famous before now for the “Turn Down For What” video, feel like they’ve tapped into another world, two people who know the rules and know how to bend them for their own twisted and wonderful ends. Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, cry, and cry laughing. And maybe you’ll come out having learned a little something at the end.
Best Scene: Just pick a montage. Any montage.
Moonlight is a minor miracle of filmmaking, one I’m still not sure we deserve, but that is vital to understand. Barry Jenkins has tapped into a world that feels like a dream but is all the more remarkable for the reality it portrays. This is a film of specific experiences, of the black experience, of the queer experience, that finds such deep empathy to map onto every single viewer. Heartbreaking and affirming in equal measures, Moonlight is a work of cinematic power in that it trusts its filmmaking to do all the talking, to capture the amazing work that the actors do, and always trust its audience to understand.
Its secret is how sweet of a film it is too, Jenkins has affection for the characters he creates. No matter what he puts them through, he wants them to be happy, and he makes sure that we see them in the smallest moments. An attempt to act tough, a quick bit of grooming before meeting someone you haven’t seen in a while. And no one short of Wong Kar-Wai has ever made romance this stylish and gorgeous and arresting.
Moonlight is an important work. It’s important as a beacon for the future of cinema, it’s important as a guide to the stories that cinema can tell and the empathy it can generate.
Best Scene: Everything in the diner between Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland), but specifically the moment where Kevin puts “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox.
AND THE TOP OF THE TOP IS…
1) La La Land
If La La Land was simply the technical masterpiece that it is, it would have a firm and high place on this list. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s dizzying Technicolor whirlwind is perhaps one of the most beautiful reminders of why we go to the theater to see movies. The gorgeous primary colours, the lavish and dazzling musical numbers, the costumes, the score, the mood lights. It’s a nonstop feast for the senses, not even getting into the sublime pleasures of watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling be as charming as they’ve ever been in their most intimate romance yet.
Why it places up top is that it understands in the most purely cinematic way how a break from the real world makes the difficult parts of human love and ambition feel all the more real. It’s bringing us up to crash us back down. La La Land is a film that knows the personally dark parts of ambition, of the compromises that we must make, the fears that we feel. The call that it’s not working out just yet, the dream slipping away because we can’t afford it, doing what you have to so you can cling to the hope of what you can. And the fact that you will have to say goodbye to the ones you love, that you’ll have to leave others behind for ambition.
There’s a lot people seize onto about jazz and Hollywood and all that. But for me, that’s all cursory to La La Land. La La Land is a movie about the dreams we make and the hearts that ache to achieve them. It’s a clear reminder of the power of cinema to show what lies inside, to reminds us of the aching pains and glories that being human comes with. It does it in a beautiful world that you want to reenter as soon as you leave.
La La Land is an escape that helps you to confront yourself and your pain, a film that’s been there and it understands. Empathy in a musical number.
Best scene: The reunion in the jazz club, a scene that has managed to make me cry 4 times.