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The 15 best movies of 2016

A throwback musical, an erotic Korean drama, and many unique and stylish coming-of-age tales top the year’s list

La La Land

La La Land’s immense popularity with critics and industry insiders isn’t hard to understand: Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, and cinephiles love movies about loving movies. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is both. His swoony, playful, often deeply melancholy musical fantasy about two Hollywood up-and-comers (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) echoes the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, imitating their energy, then stepping back to enjoy a warm, longing nostalgia for their heyday. Choreographer Mandy Moore deliberately quotes Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins, so the dance sequences feel comfortingly familiar. But Chazelle’s film has its own visual verve, and its own tragic reflection on the struggle for fame, and the cost of winning it. It’s also one of the year’s most intense emotional roller coasters, zooming from joy to sorrow while making both look beautiful.


The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ fantastic romantic novel Fingersmith moves the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, and brings in the obsession with bloody revenge that Park explored in Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, and other films. But it’s still a remarkably close adaptation. Park preserves the surprise romance, the creepy mystery, and the startling twists, as a young Korean criminal agrees to help a con man seduce a rich, sheltered shut-in. But Park plays up the erotic horror, and the pain and satisfaction of first loves, until the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The performances are elegant and startling, and the composition is endlessly striking — this is a lavish banquet of a film — but the compelling story is what makes all the agony and ecstacy meaningful.


American Honey

American Honey

The story behind Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is just as compelling as the film: She assembled a cast of young amateurs she found by haunting Walmart parking lots and spring-break hangouts, then took them on a road trip across America, filming as she went. The results are loose-limbed and easygoing, and entirely immersive. First-time actress Sasha Lane plays a trailer-trash runaway who joins up with a crew of magazine peddlers run by a mercenary monster (Riley Keough) and her pet sales head (Shia LaBeouf), and all three vie for dominance during the cross-country trip. Music, alcohol, the uncomplicated affection of pets, and the complicated affection of hookups all loom large in the story, which tracks how people with no money and no future find pleasure in the moment. American Honey is thorny and wandering, but it’s a pure pleasure itself.


The Lobster

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ endlessly bizarre fantasy takes place in a world where single people are rounded up and confined to an eerie hotel for 45 days, then changed into animals if they don’t fall in love before their time runs out. It’s a strange premise fit for a fairy tale, but Lanthimos plays it straight-faced and tragic, using strange metaphors and a dose of looming inevitability to mock the ways society judges people who aren’t in relationships, and enforces a limited set of norms around what “relationship” means. Colin Farrell gives the kind of egoless, flashless performance that tends to confuse awards voters — his charisma and self-awareness are entirely buried under the doughy, desperate surface of his frustrated protagonist. Like his performance, the entire film around him is precise, thoughtful, and subdued. It’s one of the year’s most uncomfortable films, but one of its most surprising, creative, and compelling as well.


Hell Or High Water

Hell or High Water

American movies love their outlaws, but the best American movies examine why we love outlaws, and what it means to become one. David Mackenzie’s taut Western crime drama Hell Or High Water does that from both sides. On one hand, it follows a pair of desperate, empathy-inducing brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) robbing banks with a specific agenda. On the other, it tracks the Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) on their trail. It’s one of those lean, efficient movies that doesn’t waste a line or a moment. And it uses its efficiency to great effect, powering breathtaking action scenes, and depicting a hungry, despairing part of West Texas where the relationship between predatory banks and desperate farmers parallels the government’s predatory practices against Native Americans generations earlier. Mackenzie doesn’t blatantly spell out the film’s subtexts — he lets stellar performances and low-key charisma tell the story — but he builds his visually gorgeous, emotionally racking movie around the fundamental idea that outlaws are necessary in a system that outlaws survival.


Walt Disney

Moana

Walt Disney Animation’s latest musical feels like the logical end of 80 years of iteration on the studio’s most basic story: a fairy-tale-derived coming-of-age narrative about a young girl who leaves her family and heads out on an adventure. As formulaic and familiar as this story is, Moana finds new depths in it, thanks in part to songs by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Te Vaka frontman Opetaia Foa’i, and Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina. The lyrics of those songs keep circling back to the metaphor of oceanic navigation as self-awareness and self-discovery — “We know where we are / We know who we are,” a wayfinder sings in one joyous magical flashback — and Moana embraces the theme with a wholehearted joy. In an era where every film has to carefully tiptoe around issues of representation and diversity, Moana leaps fully into South Pacific culture (thanks to a carefully chosen brain trust of cultural caretakers) without making an issue of it, but while the film is aware of all the little important details — like finally creating a heroine who isn’t a wasp-waisted, doe-eyed princess — what comes across is the sheer verve of the visuals, the songs, and the storytelling. This is one rousing whoop of a movie.


The Witch

The Witch

Robert Eggers’ carefully planned and plotted directorial debut The Witch shows an astonishing level of attention to detail. But it all serves as a backdrop to a tremendously tense thriller about an exiled Puritan family trapped in the wilderness with a malevolent witch — or possibly, just with their own suspicions and judgments. Initially billed as a terrifying horror film, The Witch frustrated theatergoers who were expecting Don’t Breathe and got something closer to an Ingmar Bergman movie. But The Witch remains one of the year’s biggest and best surprises. It’s an almost unbearably gorgeous movie, soaked in dread and anticipation, and brought across by actors who make 17th-century dialogue sound natural, and religious awe and horror feel like a default way of life.


Queen Of Katwe

Queen Of Katwe

A terrific cast, a terrific real-life story, and a thoughtful angle on the usual underdog sports journey all help make Queen Of Katwe one of the year’s most uplifting and winning films, while keeping it from descending too far into familiar tropes. The story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi has its predictable share of triumphs and setbacks, but it isn’t about the Big Match, or some jerky rich rivals who need to be put in their places. Director Mira Nair (The Namesake, Mississippi Masala) draws out a more thoughtful plotline, about what it means for a poor kid from a Ugandan slum to step into an international spotlight, experience luxury and acclaim, and then have to go home again. Nair doesn’t try to turn Mutesi into a perfect poster child: She lets her be fearful, frustrated, and even bratty as she navigates growing up along with growing into her role as Uganda’s chess ambassador. Lupita Nyong'o as Mutesi’s mother and Selma’s David Oyelowo as Mutesi’s chess coach each get their own arcs, which helps give this story some depth to go with its programmed but thoroughly satisfying uplift.


Moonlight

Moonlight

Director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney have made one of the year’s most celebrated movies in Moonlight, but it’s one of the year’s most startling and artful as well. Told in three chapters, with a gay black protagonist finding his way in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, it’s part coming-of-age story and part love story, but it’s far moodier and more reticent than that description implies. Jenkins gets tremendous force out of his unusual soundtrack choices, wide framing, slow motion, and especially his casting, which ties together the movie’s segments by making his protagonist soulful, sad, and silent at all three ages. It’s an absorbing and empathetic experience, with some startling moments of physical and emotional violence, and a lived-in feel that comes from McCraney’s personal experience.


Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Writer-director Taika Waititi is fresh off What We Do In The Shadows and currently hard at work on the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok. The distance in concept and scope between those two movies and his 2016 film Hunt For The Wilderpeople is mindboggling, but Waititi is somewhat of a specialist in working his own angular sense of humor into different kinds of stories. Loosely inspired by a popular New Zealand kids’ novel, the film is about as different as it gets, which is much of the charm. Julian Dennison stars as a fat, lonely Maori kid regarded as a juvenile delinquent both before and after he goes on the lam through the bush with his adoptive father (Sam Neill), a crotchety loner who regards his new ward as a pain in the ass. Much as with What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi’s humor here is all about perverse good cheer in the face of self-created crisis, impotence in the face of disaster, and straight-faced laugh-out-loud surprise humor that frequently comes from unexpected places. It’s a wacky little charmer of a film, unpredictable and amiable at every turn.


King Jack

King Jack

Felix Thompson’s debut feature shares a few things with Waititi’s movie — a pudgy, sullen kid; a story about loneliness and alienation; a tendency to regard adults as distant, dangerous, and more than a little crazy. Both films also have the benefit of standout performances from young actors capable of bringing nuance and emotion to their characters without overplaying their hands. But tonally, King Jack is an entirely different beast. It’s a small-town exploration of a 15-year-old boy balanced on the edge between living out his emotions — his crush on a schoolmate, his anger at a bully, his pride at being just a little more knowledgeable than his 12-year-old cousin — and repressing them to protect himself. The story sprawls out over one endless summer day in a small town that feels like a sunlit cage. It’s a small stage for small troubles and small confrontations, but Thompson ably captures the way teenage confrontations and connections can feel apocalyptic, and how every small shift in status can have crucial personal consequences.


Weiner

Weiner

After the latest sexting scandal and an unfortunate role in the 2016 election, Americans can be forgiven if they feel like they’ve had enough of repeatedly disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner. It’s just a pity that such an attitude might keep viewers away from the mesmerizing documentary Weiner, about the politician’s abortive run at New York’s mayoral seat in 2013. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg come on board to document what looks to be a tremendous comeback story, and it starts off that way. Then Weiner ruins it all, with the cameras there to watch as he torpedoes his career yet again. Weiner can’t fully explain the man’s self-destruction — what’s most missing from any story about him is a real, personal explanation of why his sexting habit gets the better of him over and over — but it does capture his candidacy candidly and intimately, with style and humor, and it makes for fascinating viewing.


Morris From America

Morris from America

Chad Hartigan’s charming new movie Morris from America feels like a minor movie next to the sturm und drang of the year’s big prestige films, with their big, performative wallowing in pain and grieving. This is just a story about a black teenager navigating the cultural alienation of life in an all-white German town, where his single dad (comedian Craig Robinson, who is terrific here) is a soccer coach. Casual racism, general teen disaffection, the inevitable crush and crash, and the usual journey toward identity all play a part in the story. But Hartigan finds unusual, surprising ways to navigate them all, and he keeps pulling the story away from expected routes, and onto paths that give his protagonist (played by Markees Christmas) a unique and specific identity. There’s some significant and touching dads-and-sons drama here, and some autobiographical humor (inspired by Hartigan’s adolescent forays into hip-hop and how Robinson’s own dad navigated the friend-vs.-father divide), but what stands out is the way Hartigan veers away from pat drama and pathos, and dives into his characters’ relatable day-to-day humanity instead.


Sing Street

Sing Street

Once and Begin Again director John Carney has made a short career out of the redemptive power of song, and in Sing Street — which heavily mines his own youth — he’s back on the theme, with a story about an uncertain kid forming a band to get a girl, and finding an identity for himself in the process. Not as raw as Once, and not as polished-and-processed as Begin Again, Sing Street still does what those films do best: it captures the joy of creating music with likeminded people, and finding an emotional footing in the music other people have made. The whole film is a bit of a weightless fantasy, an open evocation of 1980s music videos where a soulful, tousled boy meets a scowling, tousled girl, and they stroll off into a garish video effect together. But like those videos, and Carney’s other work, it’s riding high on a wave of good feeling about the place where music and romantic fantasy intersect, and Sing Street winds up being compelling in part because it’s so shamefully happy about songs, and the simple, satisfying places they send people.


Life Animated

Life, Animated

Roger Ross Williams’ documentary about autistic 23-year-old Owen Suskind feels a little like a too-good-to-be-true ad for Disney magic. Suskind withdrew from the world at age 3, then learned to speak and relate to the outside world through the intermediary of animated Disney movies, which helped him relate to people, absorb dialogue, and understand the emotions he saw reflected back on other people’s faces. Williams follows Suskind as he attempts to live alone for the first time, but he also tracks how the Suskind family relates to Owen, how they used Disney as a teaching tool and a bridge, and how Suskind’s childhood fantasies gave him a self-image and a sense of the world. It’s a surprising story with a little bit of sharp humor, but mostly it’s just deeply personal and unique. Williams’ access into Suskind’s life makes the film intimate and approachable, but there’s a larger story here — about how we relate to the world through art, about how everyone sees different things in familiar cultural touchstones, and how the simplest things can become lifelines when they speak to one person in a specific and much-needed way.

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