2016 was a landmark year for cinema, because it was truly the worst year ever. That’s what a lot of people on the Internet said: it was the year movies stopped mattering, it was the worst year for summer movies, and it was the worst year—period–for movies. (That last link is particularly bold, its claim being made in February of 2016.) Of course, now that the year is finally, mercifully wrapping up and 2017 is shortly upon us, it’s just as easy to argue that 2016 was one of the best years for movies since the medium began over 100 years ago. Yes, this was the year of Suicide Squad, Trolls, and Independence Day: Resurgence, but it was also the year of Moonlight, Kubo and the Two Strings, Fences, and more. All week long at Movie Mezzanine, our writers and editors have been bidding a fond farewell of the year of film that was 2016. On Monday and Tuesday, we had superlative categories aplenty in which to award various films, filmmakers, and more, as well as our writers’ picks for the best discoveries of older films that they made in 2016. Today, we begin counting down our choices of the 25 best films of 2016, based on ballots from our writers and editors. The list will conclude tomorrow with 10-1; for now, let’s get to it, starting backwards at 25.
A quarter-century in the making, Silence feels like a true encapsulation of everything Martin Scorsese might ever want to say about Catholicism, if not the whole of organized religion, in film. This story of two Jesuit missionaries from Portugal (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, the former giving the performance of a lifetime) searching for their lost mentor (Liam Neeson) depicts the genuine horrors suffered by Japanese people in the 17th century who dared to follow the teachings of Christ, at the hands of the violent, Buddhist-led government of the time. Such a tale of cruel religious persecution, originally based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel, has haunting and inescapable corollaries to the modern moment; watching the suffering of the Japanese through the eyes of Garfield’s missionary not only compounds his own confusion and anger–why does God not respond to those in need at such a time? What’s the point?–but it adds a layer of unavoidable subtext to the way political leaders treat Muslims in this country and abroad. Silence is a punishing, overwhelming experience, but a necessary one too. — Josh Spiegel
24) The Love Witch
Don’t call it a pastiche: Anna Biller’s fantastic second feature draws inspiration from Victorian-era interior design, 60s sexploitation films, and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, but it’s much more than the sum of its influences. Writer, director, producer, and hands-on production/costume designer Anna Biller has shaped these seemingly disparate styles into a singular vision deconstructing patriarchal notions of femininity, male fantasy, and romantic love. Though nearly every frame of The Love Witch is vibrant and painstakingly crafted, Biller’s interests go far beyond the aesthetic. Samantha Robinson’s lead performance is so captivatingly precise, it seems to have come from an earlier era of film acting entirely – her strikingly made-up face registers the slightest arch of an eyebrow. Wryly funny (a joke on men unable to recognize a used tampon finds a perfect payoff) but far from parody, draped in trappings of occult horror but more akin to psychological character study, The Love Witch thrillingly exists outside genre and time in a self-contained, fully realized world. (Rarely has the sudden appearance of an iPhone had such a jarring effect.) Seen on 35mm, as Biller and cinematographer M. David Mullen intended, the experience is all the more pointed, a sort of formal challenge to resist being seduced by the bountiful aesthetic pleasures and recognize the cutting satire and insight hand-woven into the fabric of Biller’s creation. — Alex Engquist
23) Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika has now made four stop-motion animated films, and continues to suggest itself as the true competition to big animation studios like Disney and Pixar, with its blend of prickly characters, striking visuals, and unexpectedly tender emotions. Kubo and the Two Strings is no different, standing as the best film from this Portland, Oregon-based studio. First-time director Travis Knight and his animators weave the story of a boy named Kubo, who goes on a quest that will hopefully bring peace to his family, rent asunder by some mysterious tragedy in the past. Kubo’s joined by a firm, but loving Monkey (voiced wonderfully by Charlize Theron) and a more fun-loving Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). It remains indefensible that this Asian-set film is woefully light on non-White actors; that said, the story of letting go of family members, presented with such sharp clarity, jaw-dropping colors, and terrifying villains, is arguably the best animated film of 2016. And that really is the least of it. — Josh Spiegel
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a dizzying portrait of a public woman in grief. Natalie Portman, in the performance of a career, portrays the widow of President John F. Kennedy, alternating between fragile, half-sobbing breaths and slow, confident drags of a cigarette (but remember: she doesn’t smoke). Fragments of memories of her deceased husband blur with tired, tedious conversations with those around her: reporters, her aides, President Johnson’s new staff, and her devastated brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard). Who do we grieve for, really, in the wake something tragic? Jackie asks. Is it for the deceased? Is it all really so vain? In addition, Mica Levi provides what is easily the best score of 2016––a haunting, gorgeous orchestration, giving an otherworldly feel to the film. Jackie redefines how we think of a biopic: this is a meditation on narrative, on storytelling, on how we preserve a legacy that may not really exist. — Fran Hoepfner
21) Hail, Caesar!
Imagine a comedy as sharp and dexterous, as light and bouncy, as the sequence in the classic musical Singin’ In The Rain wherein Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor walk their way through a Hollywood soundstage, passing various pictures of different genres being shot like another day at the office. That comedy would be Hail, Caesar!, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, telling the story of a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) trying to keep his boss and all of his stars happy, even as one (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communist screenwriters, another (Channing Tatum) may be in league with said writers, and another (Alden Ehrenreich) isn’t able to make the transition from oater Westerns to high-toned dramas. Ehrenreich, soon to be the young Han Solo, has his star-making moment in Hail, Caesar!, with a scene for the ages, struggling to say “Would that it were so simple” to the satisfaction of his director (Ralph Fiennes). But the whole film is as fast-paced, as funny, and as knowing as that one scene; it’s a brighter, but no less intelligent, flip-side to the Coens’ brilliant Barton Fink. — Josh Spiegel
20) Everybody Wants Some!!
It’s the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused nobody knew they wanted. Revolving around the first days of college, this film is a testament to excited, untamed, boisterous youth, free from parental control. As he’s done in the past (the Before trilogy, Boyhood, Bernie) Richard Linklater has the unique ability to capture the texture of a moment. His portraits of life are prismatic; the details and shading are deeply important. While Everybody Want Some!! may lack the specificity of some of his other achievements, there’s something wonderful about a masterful artist just having a good time behind the camera. In a year that felt like one long, unending hellscape, this was a much-needed respite. — Sam Fragoso
19) Things to Come
Most movies about a sudden divorce would feature characters experiencing an intense life-altering event—one that robs them of their health, wealth, and/or sanity. In the case of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, however, Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie is certainly shocked to find out that her husband is leaving her for another woman, but it doesn’t stop her from continuing her life in almost exactly the same fashion as before. Indeed, the smart and capable philosophy professor finds a small modicum of rejuvenation from her newfound solitude. But the film is intelligent enough not to make the narrative a predictable arc. Instead, the woes Nathalie faces in her life—the financial status of her academic textbook, the increasing emotional needs of her aging mother, the introduction of a new, unwanted pet in her life, a reemerging friendship with her protege—all continue on in almost exactly the same fashion. In Things to Come, all events and occasions and relationships are dealt with in a fairly frank, straightforward manner, but to mistake them as neutral would be to underlook the film’s nuanced idea that not all life events, whether small, large, trivial or life-changing, are good or bad. Often they’re somewhere in between. It’s a radical idea, but one that Hansen-Løve is able to express in making Nathalie an empathic human being who is going through a hard time, who indeed struggles, but who finds the courage to keep trucking along. It’s a simple idea, but Hansen-Løve makes it profound. — Tina Hassannia
18) The Witch
A settler family is banished from their village. The father is accused of being too religious. Exiled with him are his wife, Katherine, his teenage daughter Thomasin, his pre-teen son Caleb, and his twin six-year-olds Mercy and Jonas. They find a desolate land near a forest, and make it their home. Before long, a fifth child, Samuel, is born, and shortly after, he mysteriously disappears. Was it a witch or a wolf? Was it Satan or Nature? How would you reconcile these questions if you believed that each was conceivable?
That’s the basic premise of The Witch, which follows this family as its situation grows more devastating. Because its plot is that simple, it gives director Robert Eggers room to play with the film’s atmosphere, and sow fear in ways that require little dialogue. The Witch doesn’t spend much time explaining things to its audience. It shows us the things that matter, and if we don’t believe or get them, that’s on us. If the sounds of The Witch tell us anything, in that tranquil forest, where raucous women and a hushed Devil reign, it’s that the family didn’t stand a chance. — Olivia Collette