Cinema, for all its glare and ego, is still one of the best ways to escape the horrors of the world. Even when our stories aren’t directly mirrored on the big screen, films are a vehicle for empathy. We see ourselves in strange characters and it can be a hugely cathartic experience. Sitting in the dark movie theater, I find comfort in sad stories and melodramas with a slight twinge of fantasy.
2016 has been an interesting year in cinema, but not a particularly exciting one. There are so many films I’ve yet to see (20th Century Women and Christine) that I’m sure would have made a run for any of these spots on my top 10, but what we got this year was an array of fresh, new talent in a sea of sequels and adaptations.
One of the most surprising disappointments this year was the painfully vanilla, La La Land. I couldn’t get past the preciousness of the film, which could have been elevated with better costumes and a more exciting story. More tap dancing, maybe? I thought this would be the perfect escapist picture, but I couldn’t stop checking my watch.
So this is my top 10.
I like sad things.
10. PETE’S DRAGON
Although flawed, the original Pete’s Dragon is a childhood classic that many Disney fans still hold sacred. David Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon is almost nothing like the original, and that’s okay. It was a thrilling, heartwarming movie that pulled on all the same strings.
9. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
A perfectly crafted film that portrays the pain of going home and being confronted with the skeletons in our closet. It’s tender and heartbreaking story of how it is hard it can be to draw a line between the past and the present. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career, but most people will find it hard to look past the sexual assault allegations that have recently resurfaced.
8. GREEN ROOM
There is nothing better than a genre film done right. Green Room follows a punk band who find themselves locked inside of a venue with a bunch of motherfucking Nazis after witnessing a murder in the green room. Watch this movie late at night with a group of friends.
7. OTHER PEOPLE
If you are in the mood for an ugly cry while you choke on your own laughter, this is your film. Molly Shannon deserves more attention for her knockout performance. Available now on Netflix.
6. OJ: MADE IN AMERICA
Watching this 5-part ESPN documentary about the most famous trial in American history may sound daunting, but someone the entire thing breezes by. What’s so fascinating about this nearly eight-hour masterpiece is that it dives straight into the racial tensions that informed so much of what happened in the OJ trial and adds even more context to the social landscape of America today. Filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s portrait of a likeable sociopath should be required viewing for all.
If you haven’t seen Ryan Murphy’s The People v. OJ Simpson, also watch immediately.
Moonlight chronicles the life of a young, gay black man growing up in Miami with more grace and compassion than we see in most films today. The film’s protagonist is played by three actors at different points throughout his life, each with a distinctly different physical presence. Director Barry Jenkins ties these moments together through tight closeups and a careful control of light that paints each scene. The film concludes in a romantic, Wong Kar-Wai like diner scene that will stick out in my mind as one of the year’s best.
A story about an awkward-as-hell Thanksgiving reunion, where the title character struggles to prove that she has overcome an addiction that drove a wedge between her and her family. Trey Edward Shults’ debut family drama reads mostly like a horror film in the sound design and camerawork, making the audience feel just as unnerved as if we were suffering through our own family gathering. Shults cast himself and many of his own family members in his film, creating a palpable tension on screen.
3. THE WITCH
The Witch was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and somehow managed to exceed my expectations in every way. The attention to detail in the costume and set design were extraordinary and elevated the already perfect performances by the entire cast. A moody film soaked in the religious fervor and paranoia of 17th century New England, The Witch will polarize some viewers with its finale, but I totally ate it up.
In a year where NO ONE lived deliciously, the themes of this film ring even more true. I cannot wait to see what’s next from director, Robert Eggers.
2. THE FITS
A deceptively modest film about gender and a young girl caught between two worlds. Royalty Hightower plays the tomboy protagonist, who takes a break from boxing with her brother to join a dance troupe of mostly older girls. The film quickly takes an ominous turn when one-by-one the older girls begin having seizure-like “fits”. It’s a coming of age story unlike one I’ve ever seen before, recalling with horror those adolescent moments where our bodies feel unlike our own. The film’s score clicks and screeches wildly, mimicking the dance moves and wild fits that take over the team. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Natalie Portman nails it as the elegant and complicated Jackie Kennedy. The film follows her moments of grief directly after the assassination of JFK - from refusing to remove her iconic blood-stained coat to planning the grand funeral procession. Jackie humanizes the title character, challenging the notions of luxury and grandeur that she herself set in motion.
The film is lush and melodramatic, while never feeling exploitative. The camerawork is hypnotizing, following closely behind Jackie through the halls of the White House, reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s high school shooting drama, Elephant.
One of my favorite scenes of the year has to be a grieving and drunk Jackie listening to the 1960 Broadway classic “Camelot”, all while chain smoking and trying on an array of cute outfits.