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(Cover page illustration credits: The Invitation by We Buy Your Kids; Moonlight by Shawna X; The Fits by Erika Rossi)
Black American culture has cultivated a tendency to flourish in the face of tragedy; grinding lemonade out of strange fruit has been a staple practice for radical renewal since we got dragged here. So much so that nobody blinks when even our billion-dollar pop idols fall into protean, resistant formation.
Beyond Queen Bey's visual album, 2016 has yielded a bumper-crop renaissance for those who savor cinematic portrayals of the culture's Adult Contemporary register — Black flicks that ring with vernacular specificity and confidence while offering modern-day takes on the national body politic, grown-ass sexual manners, alienation, and rage: the rerelease of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust; Nate Parker's assault-checkered Birth of a Nation; Cheo Hodari Coker's adaptation of Marvel's Luke Cage; Raoul Peck's James Baldwin doc, I Am Not Your Negro; Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar for OWN; Ezra Edelman's epic doc-series, O.J.: Made in America, for ESPN; Issa Rae's Insecure; Baz Luhrmann and Nelson George's Netflix escapade, The Get Down; Arthur Jafa's widely celebrated video-art essay Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, now at Gavin Brown Enterprises in Harlem; and Donald Glover's Atlanta.
All these productions have fed a ravenous Black spectatorship hungering for a cinema resonant with this #BlackLivesMatter millennium. Motion pictures as stridently moody and adventurous as this period's best hip-hop, r&b, and Black rock. (Take notes if you've spent the year unhip and in a bathysphere re: Kendrick Lamar, D'Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, Childish Gambino, Gary Clark Jr., Solange, Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monáe, who also co-stars in two major films this awards season, Hidden Figures and this article's featured subject.) The social-media threads provoked by these projects have proved as elucidating and enlightening as their narrative arcs. None, however, has garnered as much pre–awards seasons buzz as director Barry Jenkins's Moonlight.
Full-frontal Black expressivity is generally what pays the bills out here. The poignant brilliance of Moonlight derives from the many-splendored ways it enshrines something rarer: Black male erotic repression and unconsummated desire in the face of bullying and familial breakdown. Which is to say that Moonlight's luminously dark and lovely palette mirrors the aesthetics of Miles Davis, a graphic and tonal conceptualist who long ago established the high bar for implosive, convulsive blues revelations drawn from Black America's existential interior. As shot by DP James Laxton, Moonlight serves up a polychromatic bouquet of Milesian tension and restraint — especially in rendering how brothers love on those subvocal "lower" frequencies Ralph Ellison famously tapped for Invisible Man. Like that novel and the Prince of Darkness's Kind of Blue, Jenkins's Moonlight revels in elegant shadowplay and illuminated shadowboxing.
Jenkins learned a lot about notes one didn't get to play in the years between Moonlight's slam-dunk and his much ballyhooed 2008 debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a Sundance breakout that found him touted as the latest Next Big Directorial Thing in American indie circles. But Jenkins's proposed follow-up project prompted only crickets: a script titled Wonderland about a time-travel device powered by Stevie Wonder's music. Jenkins's casting for that aborted mission was as visionary as the notion itself — Solange Knowles and fellow Black-indie auteur Terence Nance (of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty renown), who would've played a couple sent back to the combustive Afrofuturism of 1972.
The route by which Jenkins came to make Moonlight for A24 after that disappointment found him popping out a couple of wistful and whimsical shorts and dallying with schemes for a big-budget cop movie. His friends Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, of the Miami film collective, the Borscht Corporation, brought him the lyrical and mythopoeic plays of MacArthur recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney — a rocketing young creative who, like Jenkins, had artfully outmaneuvered the 'hood traps of Miami's Liberty City. For both artists, that included mothers fallen prey to the Reaganomic scourge of crack cocaine.
The future collaborators never crossed paths as youths, though they lived just blocks apart and attended the same elementary and junior high schools. The addiction-tormented mother character played by Naomie Harris in Moonlight is a hybrid figure: McCraney's mom perished from HIV-related complications; Jenkins's survived (and, according to him, plans to see the film only when she's ready).
Jenkins's swan dive into the open wound of confessional family drama places him on new narrative ground; McCraney's plays thrash around there with seductive, metaphoric relish. The play on which Moonlight the film is based is an early McCraney effort that went unproduced for twelve years. In the interim, the playwright became one of the most frequently produced young dramatists in the nation.
McCraney self-identifies as gay, Jenkins as straight. The former was a grade-school Drama Club draftee whose résumé includes work with Peter Brook and a degree from the Yale School of Drama. Jenkins once had NFL gridiron dreams that derailed into English-major pragmatism.
Filmmaking is a discipline whose adoption Jenkins attributes to boredom and a gaffe in his elective's program. It almost seems cinema discovered him instead of the other way around. Asked when he first caught the storytelling bug, Jenkins is quick to confess, "Tarell was the one who did drama class, which is why he didn't go to the high school depicted in the film, where I went. The arts never occurred to me; I didn't really think about doing anything with filmmaking or writing until I was at Florida State. I went to school to become a high school English teacher, but didn't do much reading when I was coming up. People don't think of Miami as an outdoorsy place, but I just remember being outside playing all the time. Miami is absolutely gorgeous — a rough place overflowing with beauty. Great art has that quality of coming from dire places full of darkness that can't be approached with saccharine methods. Moonlight is our attempt to pay respects to Miami's ability to create people like Tarell, myself, and Robert Battle of the Alvin Ailey company."
How Jenkins became an arthouse director was partly by default, and partly by deciding to be a late-blooming contrarian among classmates with more Spielbergian ambitions. "In the film program I got into, there were a lot of kids doing interesting work, but it was all in the same kind of voice. Nothing wrong with making more Hollywood fare, but everybody was making films that looked exactly like what they were watching. Because I was starting from scratch, I decided to take my cues from elsewhere, which pretty much meant films from outside American borders. The other thing was that all of the American films were always checked out of the film library, so I decided to work with what was there. French New Wave and Asian New Wave: Godard's Breathless, Claire Denis's Beau Travail, Wong Kar-wai's Chunking Express. Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times definitely influenced the three-part structure of Moonlight."
Not until he graduated was Jenkins exposed to the Black indie pioneers of the UCLA group, now monikered into legend as "The L.A. Rebellion," after scholar Clyde Taylor's coinage: Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, Larry Clark. Only after college, Jenkins confesses, did he become curious about the canon beyond Spike Lee.
"The one filmmaker I did grow up seeing was Spike. Spike was everything. Everybody went to see School Daze and Do the Right Thing and, of course later, John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, the Hughes brothers' Menace to Society. That's what Black cinema was to me until I got out and started wondering where Spike had taken his cues from. That's when I got exposed to this whole other world of filmmakers."
Of the current zeitgeist moment in Black film production, Jenkins is practically giddy. "I think this is an amazing time to be a Black artist, not just for the reception of the work, but because I didn't have to look far to find other Black artists to take inspiration from, or to take counsel from. In that way we are working informally together towards — I don't want to say for common goal — but we're all adding to the complexity of what it means to be a Black person in America, a Black person in the world. It just feels right to be a part of it."
Those membership privileges proved essential in advancing the locked version of Moonlight to prominent festival screens like Toronto's. "I wanted to have a rough cut of the screening right after I moved to Los Angeles, and was trying to find folks to offer a sharp perspective. Within eighteen hours I had Terence Nance, Justin Simien, Kahlil Joseph, Radha Blank, Ryan Coogler — who came down from the Bay while he was working on his Black Panther script — and several other young directors. All these people just showed up on a free afternoon to give me feedback."
Jenkins gives Lee his due for having built the present generation's filmmaking foundation. "Because Black independent cinema is very strong right now, it makes me think of the burden Spike took on, carrying the torch for everybody, how he carried that weight. Because of what he did, none of us now has to speak for the entirety of the experience. We can all speak in very individual ways."
In conversing with Jenkins about the making of Moonlight, you realize how off the scale his emotional IQ is for an American male of any stripe. That grasp of how to create seismic soulful moments is a marked quality of the class-fraught exchanges between Medicine for Melancholy's hipster outsiders. The director's tendency to flip social outliers into onscreen insiders was already intact in his college short My Josephine, a project narrated almost entirely in Arabic by its Middle Eastern husband-and-wife laundromat owners.
"I went to school in Tallahassee, Florida, and it's different from going to school in New York, where you have the whole city as a backdrop. Down in Tallahassee, you have to work to make the background interesting. 9-11 had happened, and it was on my mind as something I wanted to make a film about, in Florida. Through watching all those foreign films, especially as someone who didn't speak any foreign language or know any foreign people, I got opened up to the possibility of language in cinema. At the time, people were saying being a Muslim or an Arab was 'the new Black.' So I decided to take my experience of feeling like an 'other' as a Black man in the South, and use that as a way to empathize with my characters. That's where I discovered that there was a different way to approach the form, and it all came together in that short, which is kind of out there."
Black males are American cinema's perennial outsiders and antiheroes, as well as its most stereotypically depicted ones. This gives Jenkins's generation the grand opportunity to refresh viewers' eyes and our sense of hackneyed masculine conventions. Moonlight's powers of seduction repeatedly derive from the heartbreak of placing us behind the mask of its brother-men's hyper-machismo. The paternal relationship between Mahershala Ali's drug dealer, Juan, and young Alex Hibbert's urban castaway, Little, undoes decades of the cliché and complacency traded on by audiences and filmmakers alike.
"It's not like we're trying to subvert audience expectations, but as a filmmaker it's not hard to anticipate audience assumptions," Jenkins says. "These characters draw on people Tarell and I knew, and so we knew we were going to defy those assumptions. I tip my hat to the cast for carrying those intentions through with their bodies. They make a formal critique of those expectations with their bodies in the film."
Moonlight leapfrogs in time across central character Chiron's evolution, from bullied moppet to enraged teen to outlaw adult, in a way that comes off as remarkably seamless. It's a quality made even more striking when Jenkins reveals that the three actors who perform those journeys never met one another, nor saw each other's work in the role, until the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, almost a year after filming. It's another of those Miles Davis–like gambits that Jenkins deployed to draw something unique out of his players.
"They didn't cross paths until Toronto because I felt that, at each chapter, Chiron had been so affected by the outside world that he'd become a different person. So we made sure when we cast the guys that they all had that same feeling, that same heaviness in their shoulders and in their eyes. They all knew the full scope of the film, but I didn't want them to shoulder the burden of bringing the other actors' performance into their performance.
"I let all the actors know what the deal was in the beginning — that so much of the dramatic currency wasn't going to be in the dialogue. That a lot of it was going to be in their reactions, and how they processed things.
"I wanted the audience to feel the externalization of this interior voice as it played out on their faces. The script's about a hundred pages, and the running time of the film is about 105 minutes. A lot of that is taken up by the moment between the lines, the spaces between the beats. I told them all to take as much time as they needed to process things, and if you needed more time to process, then you go ahead and take that moment. Because the camera is just going to roll. The more seasoned actors, Mahershala, Naomie Harris, André Holland, all relished the freedom to actually be human on camera, as opposed to being this thing that has to follow coordinates and hit this or that mark at a particular time."
As always with serious productions where the youngest member must simultaneously supply innocence and gravitas, Hibbert steals the show when it comes to generating empathy.
"The casting process took time because I wanted the younger actors to be from Miami. Over the course of about fourteen to sixteen months, I'd go down with my producer and we'd have open casting calls at community centers. We just felt like we were going to see every kid down there until we found the right ones. But we were actually down to the wire, about a month out, when we finally found Alex Hibbert. I don't mean this as a joke, but he's a little dude who acts like an old man. He just has this old soul, and I could feel it when he walked into the room. Then you switch on the craft hat and he could take direction. He could take a very simple direction and give a very complex performance. Without any experience or training, he could externalize and modulate on a dime, emote the difference and the nuance between playing not-so-sad and not-so-happy. I thought, here's a person with a real raw cord that we can work with. I knew I was going to learn things about the character through him."
We straight-up told Jenkins that his choice of the British Harris for the addicted mother threw us for a loop, even though she's an actor we've found spectacularly credible in just about everything else she's done since 28 Days Later. British portrayals of Black Americans frequently come off to this viewer as less than embodied, given our phenotypically distinct and ethnographic ways of carrying the weight of American history, no matter how good the dialogue coach. But Jenkins felt Harris had the skill set necessary for the only character seen in all three sections, and found that Harris's Jamaican background corresponded with Hibbert's own in ways that made her casting seem less of a stretch. All the same, we give Jenkins props for even Going There in telling the story of one's parent — nearly a taboo among African-American storytellers in all disciplines.
"I had a conversation with myself about that. 'Why would you censor that part of yourself, since that character is clearly your mom?' A person who shaped who I am as a person, same as Tarell's mother affected him. That said, directing those scenes was the hardest thing I've ever done. I don't know what I'm going to do from here, but it'll be hard to top that in terms of difficulty on set. But it had to be done, because to omit that character would have been caving to shame about that part of my biography. And that just wouldn't be acceptable."
The simplest tag you can put on Moonlight is that it's a queer coming-of-age story set in a Negroidal Southern galaxy far, far away from the places it's received world-cinema accolades from. Black and queer romantic feature films are no staple of the canon noted above, though mention should be made here of the work of Bill Gunn, Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Michelle Parkerson in establishing a resolute queer presence in Black indie history. Still, Moonlight's mass-culture prominence in the now is nothing short of a real breakthrough.
"After having many conversations with Tarell, my goal was to present very authentic representations of Black queerness. Because if these characters didn't make it to the screen in ways that rang true, I felt like it would do more harm than good. When you insert the presence of these kinds of characters into a film, their absence elsewhere becomes heightened. Yet in my naïveté I didn't realize what we were doing was important. A lot of my conversations with Tarell were about trust, because I felt like he was blessing me in trusting me with his characters.
"We're talking about the movie intellectually now, but he and I talked a lot about how the movie was going to work emotionally. Then it became about trying to find the simplest gestures to carry this intimacy and tenderness amongst men."
Talking about the film's narrative resolution requires a bit of a spoiler alert. Moonlight's denouement has occasioned a fair amount of debate among even gaga viewers, so consider yourself warned. For his part, Jenkins is sanguine and wry about those reports, while appreciative of the social effect the film has already engendered.
"I get a ton of messages on Facebook and Instagram from young Black men, 95 percent of which say what Hilton Als said in his New Yorker story — that he never thought he'd see himself represented onscreen. That means the world to me, because I know what it's like to feel voiceless and unseen. When we don't see images outside of ourselves, we feel invisible. So now there are all these young men who feel like they are finally being seen."
With respect to the debate over the ending, Jenkins says, "I try to stay out of it, because I'd much rather people who lived the experience talk about it amongst themselves. The physical consummation of the 'relationship' — which I'll put in air-quotes — between Kevin and Chiron that you see onscreen is in keeping with the pace of the evolution of that character in the last thirty minutes. Something which takes place, more or less, in real time. It was what he seemed prepared to accept, at that point, from my perspective." Then, with what seems like a mock pearl-clutching grin, Jenkins adds, "But, man, Facebook is the place to go if you want to find some riveting, electrifying conversations about the ending."
In the end, in shaping the awkward, haunted choices that give Moonlight's Chiron-narrative closure, Jenkins submitted to his least sentimental artistic instincts.
"The way the released film depicts that last act is the way it was scripted. We did shoot and then withhold some things, though. You make a movie three times: when you write it, when you direct it, and when you edit it. As you edit stuff away, the film reveals itself more and more, and the actors get to reveal who the characters actually are, as opposed to who I think they are. As a director, all I can do is to keep feeling what the characters are telling me. And I think the ending we have is true to the experience of the characters, not myself. Because I love happy endings, and even obviously happy endings. But I can't force one upon my characters."
This year, the contentious question wasn't "What is the best film?" It was "What is a film?" Barry Jenkins's delicate, luminous Moonlight easily swept our annual film poll, appearing on 87 of the 124 ballots cast by critics ranking the year's best — that's 36 more than the runner-up, Kenneth Lonergan's piercing Manchester by the Sea. Moonlight also won best director and best supporting actor; Manchester's Casey Affleck took best actor by a comfortable margin, with Paterson's Adam Driver in second, and Michelle Williams represented Manchester with a second-place showing in the supporting actress category, ranking just below Certain Women's Lily Gladstone.
So no controversy there, except maybe that the only category La La Land placed first in is "Movie Everyone Is Wrong About." (It won with just 14 votes.) Moonlight, Manchester, Certain Women — these are excellent films. But look at #5 on the best film list, and at the winner for best documentary: O.J.: Made in America is an excellent eight-hour ESPN miniseries. Thirty-five critics voted it one of the year's best movies, and since it received a theatrical release, it qualifies. (After its initial run, it's enjoyed a return engagement at Metrograph, and the Voice's Melissa Anderson includes it on her top ten list in this issue.)
The film just below O.J. in our final tally, Paul Verhoeven's Elle, is well represented here with Isabelle Huppert's commanding win in the best actress category, but it's worth reflecting on whether some lesser-known entries a couple notches down the list — Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (#9) or Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour (#11) — might have placed better if they also constantly showed on the TVs at the gym. The producers of all our winners should be thankful Beyoncé didn't rent a screen for a week to show Lemonade. (It got three votes anyway.)
Moonlight (613 points, 87 ballots)
Manchester by the Sea (380 points, 51 ballots)
Toni Erdmann (376 points, 53 ballots)
Paterson (280 points, 43 ballots)
O.J.: Made in America (249 points, 35 ballots)
Isabelle Huppert, Elle (148 points, 60 ballots)
Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann (57 points, 28 ballots)
Rebecca Hall, Christine — (46 points, 25 ballots)
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (151 points, 62 ballots)
Adam Driver, Paterson (83 points, 40 ballots)
Colin Farrell, The Lobster (49 points, 27 ballots)
Best Supporting Actress:
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women (125 points, 51 ballots)
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea (93 points, 46 ballots)
Viola Davis, Fences (65 points, 26 ballots)
Best Supporting Actor:
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (147 points, 61 ballots)
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship (57 points, 26 ballots)
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water (44 points, 25 ballots)
Best Undistributed Film:
Nocturama (8 votes)
O.J.: Made in America (26 votes)
Best First Feature:
The Witch (18 votes)
Best Animated Feature:
Kubo and the Two Strings (22 votes)
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight (29 votes)
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (31 votes)
Suicide Squad (7 votes)
Movie Everyone Is Wrong About:
La La Land (14 votes)
In a profile early this year, the novelist Dana Spiotta told the New York Times, "That's seductive, being paid attention to." Several of the films below — those that seduced me — feature pivotal scenes, whether at kitchen tables, in diners, or at outdoor eating spots, of one character raptly listening to the other. These were some of the simplest moments onscreen but also the most transporting, dramatizing qualities that are now endangered resources: compassion, curiosity, humility.
1. Moonlight. Love between black men — whether carnal, paternal, or something else — is explored with specifics and expansiveness, not foregone conclusions, in Barry Jenkins's wondrous, superbly acted second film.
2. Toni Erdmann. Social studies at its finest, Maren Ade's piquant dissection of father-daughter bonds and the sinister banality of corporate consultancy meticulously lays bare the comedy of mortification.
3. O.J.: Made in America. Assiduously researched and seamlessly assembled, Ezra Edelman's nearly eight-hour documentary about the disgraced football star is also a treatise on race, celebrity, the pathologies of sports culture, and the criminal justice system — it is, in other words, a potent précis on this country's past half-century.
4. Happy Hour. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's spellbinding epic, centered on a quartet of female friends in their late thirties, reveals the latent drama in the most seemingly mundane moments.
5. Fort Buchanan. The first feature from Benjamin Crotty, a riotous military-spouses comic melodrama, is as indebted to the Lifetime channel as it is to French auteur cinema. It also announces the writer-director's wholly distinct sensibility: playful, fruity, mercurial, sexed-up.
6. Sunset Song. At once solemn and lusty, Terence Davies's adaptation of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel depicts, with typical steely compassion, human fragility: the slow corrosion of bodies and minds wrought by the brute indifference of nature or war — or by the cruelties inflicted by spouses and kin.
7. No Home Movie. Chantal Akerman's tender, at times deliberately agonizing portrait of her endearing, fragile mother stands as a wrenching summa of the most prominent themes explored over five decades by the monumental filmmaker, who died in 2015, a year after maman did: filial devotion, exile, evasions, appetite, and interior spaces, among so many others.
8. Certain Women. Each of the three discrete vignettes in Kelly Reichardt's lucid page-to-screen transfer of a 2009 collection of short stories by Maile Meloy incisively probes loneliness — most movingly in the final chapter, between Kristen Stewart's adult-ed teacher and Lily Gladstone's crushed-out ranch hand.
9. Cemetery of Splendour. The latest sensory delight from Apichatpong Weerasethakul allegorizes the history of Thailand as deepest REM slumber, as comatose soldiers are hooked up to glowing neon light fixtures to help them have "good dreams." This is a film about unconsciousness that always stirs to life.
10. Elle. Paul Verhoeven, making his first narrative feature in a decade, may be credited as the director of this constantly bewildering, obsidian-black comedy about a video-game exécutrice who gets revenge — sort of — on the man who rapes her. But the film would be an obscenity without the authorial stamp of Isabelle Huppert, its indomitable, hyper-alert star.
Other treasured titles, in alphabetical order:
Bad Moms, if only for Kathryn Hahn's performance and Christina Applegate's ISIS joke (directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore); Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari); Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater); The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer); For the Plasma (Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan); In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel); Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar); Neruda (Pablo Larraín); Neither Heaven nor Earth (Clément Cogitore); Summertime (Catherine Corsini).
Best revivals/repertory programming:
1. "An Early Clue to the New Direction." Spanning decades, nations, and genres, this revelatory survey, which ran at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, reminded viewers of the abundance of lavender screen imagery, not all of it ghastly or baleful, that preceded the insurrection of 1969. The FSLC series was the capstone of a year filled with illuminating retrospectives dedicated to excavating homo lives and history, which also included, to single out only a few, Anthology's tributes to Curt McDowell, Tom Rubnitz, and Lionel Soukaz, and the U.S. premiere of Hervé Guibert's Modesty, or Immodesty (1991), at Light Industry.
2. To Sleep With Anger and Daughters of the Dust. These indispensable works from the 1990s, both digitally restored, are by two of the most distinguished alums of the L.A. Rebellion movement, a constellation of black auteurs who studied at UCLA Film School between the late 1960s and late '80s. Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger (1990), set in a solidly middle-class home in contemporary South Central L.A., sharply explores city versus country, old ways versus new, kin versus kin. Some of those themes are also taken up in Julie Dash's immensely sensuous Daughters of the Dust (1991), a nonlinear tale of past, present, and future, and a film that abounds with stunning motifs, the iconography seemingly sourced from dreams as much as from history and folklore.
3. Born in Flames and Regrouping. Lizzie Borden's landmark radical-lesbian-feminist sci-fi vérité from 1983, Born in Flames, now looks better than ever, thanks to the restoration efforts of Anthology Film Archives, where the director's rarely shown first film, Regrouping (1976), a chronicle of a women's collective, also screened. Essential studies of opposition, both were balm in this miserable year; invested as they are in plotting how to bring down the patriarchy, maybe they also offer an early clue to the new direction.
4. "Maggie Cheung: Center Stage." One of the most radiant performers of the past thirty years is also one of the most diverse: Cheung has starred in wuxia marvels by Johnny To; meta-movies and melodramas by Olivier Assayas; and languid, oblique romances by Wong Kar-wai. The actress, whose last major role dates to 2004, has rarely, if ever, been saluted as extensively as she has been in Metrograph's twenty-film retrospective. The series exemplifies the commitment of the Ludlow Street theater — which has greatly reinvigorated the city's repertory scene since opening in March — to disinterring titles too little seen, reminding audiences of the unlimited pleasures of adventurous, unpredictable programming.
I was fortunate enough this year to be at both Sundance and Cannes, so it was something like agony for me to watch the litany of critics and commentators who spent the summer and early fall complaining about the year in film — all while movies such as Manchester by the Sea, Cameraperson, Paterson, Toni Erdmann, and The Handmaiden waited in the wings. The release schedule these days mandates that studio blockbusters dominate the summer, while the awards contenders (the supposedly "good stuff") rule October, November, and December. I can say that whittling the list of films I liked down to twenty — forget about ten — was a supremely painful experience. That's a good year.
But here's the thing: Even as the oh-noes-what-a-turribul-year hot takes were rolling in, the best and most electrifying film of 2016 had already come out. Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, a 71-minute, coming-of-age drama about an eleven-year-old tomboy who decides to join a dance drill team, premiered at Sundance and was in theaters by early summer. Released by Oscilloscope, it did solid business for such a modestly budgeted film. But that should emphasize, yet again, the importance of seeking out smaller titles. The Fits is a movie that pays less attention to dialogue and more to space, movement, composition, and sound.
My favorite documentary of the year, Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson, had a similarly aestheticized logline and approach: It's a personal memoir built out of unused fragments Johnson, a veteran doc cinematographer, has shot over the course of her career. Both works sound like cerebral oddities, yet they wiped the floor with me emotionally. Still, they are tiny films, and you have to know them to seek them out; there aren't going to be giant billboards or exhaustive Oscar-season campaigns piledriving them into your consciousness.
And, irredeemable vulgarian that I am, I must discuss Oscar season a bit. This has been a strong year for awards contenders, too; that's not always the case. Nominations and at least a win or two seem all but assured for films like Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, La La Land, and maybe even Hell or High Water and Silence. Many of my critic friends will spend the holiday season duking it out over the relative merits of each, and will surely be convinced that anyone who likes this or that title should be banished from the ranks of those worth trusting.
For my part, I'm excited by a landscape that can make room for Damien Chazelle's shambling, colorful confectionery alongside Barry Jenkins's understated coming-of-age drama, and Kenneth Lonergan's spectacle of irreducible grief alongside Martin Scorsese's decades-in-the-making meditation on faith. Cinema as banquet and cinema as prayer; 2016 gave us plenty of both.
Here are my top 20 films of 2016:
1. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
3. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
4. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
5. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
6. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
8. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
9. Tower (Keith Maitland)
10. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
11. Little Men (Ira Sachs)
12. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
13. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
14. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
15. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
16. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau)
17. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
18. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
19. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
20. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
In this, the harrowing year of 2016, I could jump into the Oscars talk. I could pick groundbreaking films that reminded me time and again that movies are alive and more vital than ever, like the heartbreaking Moonlight, the soul-stirring Queen of Katwe, the force-of-goodness 13th, the subtle and sweet Certain Women, the blissful American Honey, the transcendent The Fits, the fantastic The Lobster, the hilarious Toni Erdmann, the mind-bending Elle, or the punch-in-the-emotional-gut that is Fences — all of which should be on Top 10 lists (see what I did there?). But what I'll look back on and remember most this year is the horror of it all. Frankly, I'm scared.
Karyn Kusama's film about a handful of old friends invited under false pretenses to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills is flat-out chilling, a testament to how many blood-red flags people will overlook in the service of niceties. Kusama also unearths something deep and scary about the ways that cult figures test boundaries, saying or doing something outrageous and then walking it back and calling you crazy for thinking they might have had an ulterior motive. It's a tightrope walk right up until its heart-bursting final image.
Nazi punks fuck off, indeed. Jeremy Saulnier's PacNW-set violent shocker pits a good-natured punk band against the white supremacists who try to get rid of them after they witness a murder. Despite the machetes, guns, and trained attack dogs, the focus is only half on the gore. Saulnier is also attentive to the emotional and physical toll that other people's hate takes on everyone else — even the dogs.
The Eyes of My Mother
What is scary is often unseen. Nicolas Pesce takes this idea to the nth level, crafting an aural masterpiece where Foley work and sound design sharply hint at violence, while the black-and-white imagery has so much texture and depth that the red of blood isn't even missed. The lonely daughter of a murdered mother grows into a curious, quiet homicidal maniac — who keeps the man who killed her mother locked in the barn like a pet. As a woman, that daughter comes to be more and more like the man who ruined her life.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller is at the top of my list of filmmakers I want to corner at parties to talk all things psychedelic Italian giallo horror. The Love Witch is faithful to the genre in terms of precise production design, makeup, and costuming, but Biller's also subverting cliché at every turn, making her heroine into a case study for uncomfortable but revelatory discussions about feminism. If that sounds dry, the movie's not. It's a total romp about a spell-casting woman whose men keep crying and dying on her. Is she a murderess? Are the men just weak? It's all part of the grand, alluring mystery!
Lucile Hadžihalilovic's Evolution hit me like a bolt of lightning. Well, an extremely slow-moving bolt, but a jolt just the same. She explores the sexual awakening of boys raised on a remote island by mysterious, alien-like women. These adolescents' depth and vulnerability is rare for male characters. This sci-fi tale offers some fantastic gender-flipping — what would happen if men evolved to birth children? — and the cinematography is as gorgeous as it is unnerving.
Under the Shadow
Horror filmmakers have a beautiful habit of crafting allegories for contemporary social issues. Babak Anvari takes a less subtle route with this tale set amid the 1980s' Iran-Iraq war: A woman is denied re-entry to medical school for practicing "left wing" ideology and is repeatedly admonished for not wearing her hijab, all while she stubbornly refuses to take her daughter away from Tehran amid Iraqi missile strikes. Oh, and there's an evil djinni spirit haunting her daughter. She refuses to see the spirit or the coming attacks, even when they're right in front of her; obsessive denial is dangerous in a hostile political climate.
Marcin Wrona's tale of a happy groom who's suddenly possessed by the spirit of a murdered Jewish girl is a vivid and haunting depiction of mental illness, but it also exemplifies the real horrors that seemingly good people can inflict on others when riled up by a dangerous demagogue. Wrona, who died before the film was released theatrically, researched a dark spot on Poland's past during WWII and turned the story into a gorgeous, elegiac piece with little flourishes of the darkest humor imaginable.
I welcome every argument with everyone who will tell me that Jackie is a drama, not a horror film. But I also respectfully disagree. Just listen to Mica Levi's Herrmann-inspired score! Pablo Larraín has created a haunting thrill ride through the mind of a singular, grief-stricken woman whose every move and word is analyzed by the world. It's psychological horror at its greatest. Jackie is both heroine and villain, and her all-too-famous mirror of perfection shatters the second a hunk of her husband's skull ricochets onto her pink Chanel suit.
This tight thriller truly shocked me by how much director Sophia Takal could do with little more than a remote location and two top-of-their-game actresses. With flourishes suggesting Robert Altman's camerawork, she shows us her two co-stars verbally whittling each other down to raw nerves, until no sign of sanity is left. And, somehow, Takal makes this a statement on the restrictions the entertainment industry places on women, who are always at the mercy of men who will make their careers if only they'll show a little nip in return.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
True, this isn't horror. But let's make room for the light at the end of the tunnel. Taika Waititi's under-the-radar gem of a family film is one I've recommended to every person I've met — no matter their age or tastes. Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison light out for a bush adventure that is as emotional as it is funny, which is very. Years from now, I'll remember all the horror and anguish of this time reflected in our movies, but I'll also remember that amid this, a story about a thirteen-year-old orphaned Native troublemaker triumphing over the system with willpower and ingenuity broke through all the darkness.
Vote for Your Favorite Films of 2016
(Illustration credits: The Invitation by We Buy Your Kids; Moonlight by Shawna X; The Fits by Erika Rossi)