Most Promising New Actor: Lily Gladstone
Lily Gladstone has been appearing in films for a few years, but she’s never had a role as prominent, nor as revelatory, as Jamie in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. In a film packed with career-highlight performances from some of the finest working actors, Gladstone completely steals the film as a taciturn rancher smitten by the graduate student teaching at her adult learning annex. Each of the film’s stories revolves around the uneasy, awkward interactions of struggling workers and well-meaning but aloof middle-class professionals, but none of those interactions carries the same power as Jamie’s moments with Kristen Stewart’s Beth, which compound the class gap with one-sided affection. Gladstone maximizes Jamie’s halting, insecure body language, as well as subtle illustrations of status in the way she nurses a glass of water at a diner. All of Reichardt’s films are driven by naturalistic performances, but Gladstone’s may be the most real, the most wholly lived-in, that the director has ever captured. — Jake Cole
Best Discovery of 2016: Rosemary’s Baby
It can be tough not to conflate a work of art with an artist’s life, and as a tail-end Millennial who has never known the joy of listening to “PYT” or watching Annie Hall without quiet misgivings, I put off diving into Roman Polanski’s work for as long as possible. This year, my hunger for female horror finally drove me to devour Rosemary’s Baby, and I was pleased to experience what may be the most exquisite classic horror film this side of Hitchcock. Most folks know that Mia Farrow plays an ethereal young wife trapped in an apartment and a pregnancy (and perhaps a Satanic conspiracy) that seem to be stealing her life force, but in 2016, the adroit acting and unparalleled cinematography are both secondary to the film’s progressive political undercurrent. Farrow’s character is gaslighted at every turn, her fears and accusations dismissed as feminine silliness, and her body and well-being controlled by men who keep her in the dark under the guise of knowing better than she. The layers of gender commentary are astonishingly still applicable in modern America, and Rosemary’s final, weary submission only gets more horrifying with age. — Valerie Ettenhofer
Best Sex Scene: Hail, Caesar!
My favorite sex scenes are often not explicitly sex scenes; rather, extensions of Hays Code dilly-dallying that has often proved to be sexier than simulated coitus itself. In 2016, the honor goes to Hail, Caesar!, in which acclaimed, prestige director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) tries to teach dopey Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) how to say a particular line. “Would that it were so simple!” goes the piece of dialogue. Getting the amiable cowboy to say such a line is, of course, not. As Laurentz clearly reads as camp and gay, taking a cute underling beneath his wing reads a bit like many relationships within the industry. But it’s cute and funny because of their mutual determination. Laurentz wants to encourage the boy, validate him on his work even though he, as a slicker, doesn’t really fit within the confines of whatever fancy movie Laurentz is doing, and Hobie wants to do well, to make his director proud, to be validated. Isn’t that what sex is like? Two people trying to communicate with one another to and both get something out of it? There’s mirroring, a hand slap, and the bittersweet knowledge that sex, as a game of validation, is quite a gambit. — Kyle Turner
Best Discovery of 2016: The Executioner
There’s nothing funny about capital punishment, except when the person expected to carry out capital sentences is an accidental hangman who quavers at the thought of taking life. That’s Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner in a morbid nutshell, where manhood is on the line and government-sanctioned murder is a catalyst for punchlines at its protagonist’s expense. Who suffers more on death row? Those condemned to die, or the poor sap who just about faints when called upon to perform his grim duties in the name of the state? Such is the comic tension in The Executioner’s climax, which brilliantly pays off the running gag the film builds upon throughout its hour-and-a-half running time. As one joke movies go, The Executioner is a smash. As satires of institutional barbarism go, it’s utter genius. — Andy Crump
Best Chinese-Language Film: Mountains May Depart
Stephen Chow’s slapstick political allegory The Mermaid smashed records at home and became one of the rare Chinese films to make a splash in North America. Soi Cheang’s SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, boringly rechristened Kill Zone 2, boasted the best action of the year, outstanding work by the two greatest martial arts stars of their generation (Wu Jing and Tony Jaa), and a resonant story about the tenuous webs of chance and fate that bind human bodies together. Johnnie To’s Three garnered some attention for its audacious pseudo-slow motion finale, but it’s one of his most important works: a small-scale reverie on favored themes, his Wagon Master or 7 Women.
But Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart was the best Chinese-language film of the year. A generational melodrama, fusing social realism and surrealism, it’s anchored by a brilliant performance from Zhao Tao. Bi Gan’s debut Kaili Blues features a remarkable 45-minute sequence shot that moves through past and present as freely as it does through space. Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent follows a man and a woman on a hypnotic trip up the Yangtze and out of history. Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary, chronicling one woman’s tunnel-vision quest for justice in a labyrinthine political system, was one of the funniest tragedies of the year.
Milkyway Image’s showcase for three young directors, Trivisa, brought back memories of pre-Handover crime films, while My Beloved Bodyguard featured solid action and a moving Sammo Hung performance, and Chan Tze-woon’s Yellowing, about the 2013 Umbrella Protests, was one of the year’s finest and most immediate documentaries. Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes featured some bad CGI, outstanding action (Wu Jing again) and Lau Ching-wan in a Gary Cooper/High Noon role, while Cheng Er’s The Wasted Times was as beautiful and baffling as any motion picture made anywhere in the world in 2016. — Sean Gilman
Best Discovery of 2016: The Exorcist III and other horror movies
Horror has always been my favorite genre, but 2016 is the year I fell so far down that well that I have yet to emerge from my wonderland of blood, screams, and the uncanny. The below list isn’t necessarily reflective of the “best” films that I saw this year, but these are the ones that I am the most grateful to have discovered. I needed them.
- The Exorcist III
- The Return of the Living Dead I-II
- The Stepfather
- The Sentinel
- Eyes of a Stranger
- Cherry Falls
- The New Kids
- All the Boys Love Many Lane
- Poltergeist III
And a very special mention to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which exists on its own tier of cinematic wonder. As far as sequels to popular franchises that are built around the cult of one specific madman go, it’s hard to get more bugfuck weird than Season of the Witch. It cleanly tears away from the narrative fabric of Michael Myers and his knife in Halloween and Halloween II (the latter starting moments after the former ends). Season of the Witch was intended to give legs to the series outside of Michael, in which subsequent films would focus on a different Halloween-set story. It includes a plot to murder all children through exploding Halloween face masks, Celtic lore, evil wizardry, and a performance by Tom Atkins that is hilarious in its leading-man strain for seriousness. In a better universe than our own, there are 10 more Halloween sequels like this one. — Veronika Ferdman
Scene Most Likely to Inspire Viewers to Jump Off a Cliff: High-Rise
When Tom Hiddleston takes a plunge in High-Rise, duh. — Kyle Turner
Tomorrow: Our writers and editors begin counting down the 25 best films of 2016.