Perhaps the year's cinematic landscape was merciful, or perhaps my scrutiny's simply improved, as 2016 featured fewer outright stinkers than I've become accustomed to. Among the sea of "really good" there is an unusually large helping of somewhat undercooked offerings, as many films start well and falter along the way (The Girl on the Train, The Legend of Tarzan, Chevalier...) while others meander before cementing moderate memorability (L'avenir, Sunset Song, Aquarius...). Still others nearly give me qualitative whiplash as they bounce from excellence to dreck and back again (okay, I'm pretty much just referring to Nocturnal Animals). Plenty thoroughly strong titles are to be found, however, and are well worth your time.
For the full, updating rankings from best to worst, visit my "2016" list on Letterboxd.
Honorable mentions (#25-11)
Hail, Caesar! (Coens), The Fits (Holmer), Sully (Eastwood), Allied (Zemeckis), Hell or High Water (Mackenzie), Moonlight (Jenkins), Fences (Washington), The Nice Guys (Black), Queen of the Desert (Herzog), Wiener-Dog (Solondz), The Witch (Eggers), O.J.: Made in America (Edelman), 君の名は。 [your name.] (Shinkai), The Light Between Oceans (Cianfrance), Paterson (Jarmusch)
Top Ten (#10-1)
Childhood of a Leader, Corbet
One of my favorite intangibles in a great film is assurance. Experimentation is well and good (except when it's not), but if a filmmaker can provide a sense of confidence in their art from beginning to end I am all the more impressed. Such assurance is especially impressive in the case of a feature debut, which is precisely what we have with Brady Corbet's profile of a period in the youth of a future fascist leader. A daunting score charges through the carefully composed series of "tantrums", graced by a glass-cutting turn from Bérénice Bejo - ingredients enough that the compelling subject matter feels like icing.
Kubo & the Two Strings, Knight
Family fare that dares to challenge its younger audience members can be difficult to find anymore. Enter "Kubo" - an immediately heart-wrenching, often horrifying, and ultimately indelible (while occasionally cute) original tale deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Today's children will be proud to revisit this gorgeous stop-motion animation as adults and realize how excellent it truly is. Bonus: the innovation of the "Sword Unbreakable" sequence is worthy of standing alongside Ray Harryhausen's marvelous Dynamation creations.
Team Foxcatcher, Greenhalgh
As of this writing, my #1 of 2014 remains Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" - a haunting depiction of a mentor/protégé relationship in the vein of the core "Boogie Nights" narrative, or, more fittingly, that of Soderbergh's underseen Liberace film "Behind the Candelabra". Quite nearly as captivating is this documentary of the true events that led to Dave Schultz' murder at the hands of John du Pont. The amateur wrestling backdrop, the utterly fascinating character that was du Pont, and the looming consequence his fortune and misgivings culminated in, all presented primarily through actual home video footage from the Farms... it's an experience that had me pressing 'play' again as soon as the credits began to roll.
The biggest surprise of my year came when I decided to get drunk and laugh at how embarrassing Duncan Jones' alleged trainwreck based on a video game series I've never cared for turned out. Six Yuenglings and something with gin (the theatre called it a "Godfather") later, I wound up having a blast with what feels like a campy 1980s 'B' fantasy (think "Gor" or "Krull") was given a nine-figure budget boost. It's possibly an even bigger surprise that the fun holds up sober. Unique, albeit convoluted lore benefits an unabashed commitment to depicting in film a tumultuous and somewhat whimsical world where magic spells are as commonplace as Dunkin' in Boston. It's silly, but I'll sit down and rollick in this silliness any time. Give us the sequel China wants, Universal!
Knight of Cups, Malick
My Terrence Malick critique tank may still be empty from declaring "To the Wonder" a dream-like odyssey at TIFF12, which doesn't say much to combat the mentality that Malick has just been making mini versions of "The Tree of Life" since 2011, but... well, he hasn't. There's more to this continued departure from the random curves of nature to the sharp edges of manmade structure. Admittedly it took revisitation before I fully came around on this characteristically masculine journey through the relationships that define a man, which leads me to feel if you've never seen a Malick this might not be where you wish to begin. As a fan, I have come to regard it as one of ol' Terry's better outings. He can stay away from beaches for a while, though.
Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater
Richard Linklater has provided some of the defining films of our lifetime, yet we've been waiting since the middling and oft-forgotten "SubUrbia" for the auteur to truly return to the day-in-the-life ensemble hangouts he broke through with. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried this logical college-in-the-'80s successor to "Dazed & Confused" I've always wished for would fall flat. To my pleasure, "Everybody Wants Some!!" - while not instantly as iconic as "Dazed" - delivers signature Linklater goodness in droves. Complete with era-specific soundtrack and wardrobe, this snapshot of young men seeking definition between grade school and their careers gave me exactly what I wanted.
クリーピー 偽りの隣人 [Creepy], Kurosawa
During my viewing of this expert thriller that absolutely lives up to its name, you could have poured hot coffee in my lap and I would have stayed desperately still for need to remain trained on the screen to the end. On top of purely entertaining me more than many films do - while providing visuals that are nothing to scoff at - my first from Kiyoshi Kurosawa proved I would do well to quit inadvertently passing by the director's taut work.
Please forgive in advance my preferred description of one of Martin Scorsese's greatest achievements. Generally, one of the most impressive aspects of Scorsese's work is curiosity. The indisputably legendary director adores his craft so much, he is not satisfied to simply persist in creating new versions of what has worked for him in the past. Far more often than not this curiosity leads to results that would make anyone uninitiated believe he has spent a lifetime developing what are actually new ventures - the stunning and felicitous use of 3D in "Hugo" being the prime recent example. Not to discount ingenuity also found in "Silence", but the passion project completely blows me away for an entirely different reason. Rather than find one or two particular curiosities to hone in on, what Marty has done here is reach deep in to his black cashmere slacks of rarely rivaled filmmaking expertise, extract a gargantuan phallus from within and wallop it upon a marble display as if to exclaim, "Behold! Behold and cower before my unbridled cinematic virility!" He probably flexed, too. It's a very good movie.
山河故人 [Mountains May Depart], Jia
A familiar song. A soft, unbroken look. A single act three scene so out of place it nearly topples the entire piece, but we're not going to let that spoil our day. Jia Zhangke is a renowned filmmaker I've lazily allowed to linger in my periphery, and his deliciously titled "Mountains May Depart" changes that. Or at least it will, once I tire of rewatching it so I may explore his other works. It's certainly saying something when a film contains the line, "It's like Google Translate is your real son" yet still manages to hold me in a state of perpetually damp-eyed adoration. I'll never be able to listen to the Pet Shop Boys without weeping ever again.
Certain Women, Reichardt
You could probably travel through Montana's Paradise Valley filming two hours of passing bushes, and I'd love it simply for the setting. Kelly Reichardt has utilized those 50 sumptuous miles between Gardiner and Livingston to give us three vignettes that capture in their deceptive simplicity the swelling aspirations and bittersweet eventualities of our lives. And for all the everyday beauty we are party to, the whole can be summed up in its tiniest moments. An awkward silence. The sip of a milkshake. A pile of rocks. Seriously, I've never felt so much emotion looking at a pile of rocks. Reichardt has been a filmmaker to prioritize for over a decade now. "Certain Women" is by far her best work.