Our list of the best films of 2016 is out now, and every year after all the ballots are counted, there are always some terrific films that get left off the list. So here’s a chance for our writers to stump for great cinema that didn’t make the top 20:
What’s missing from our list of 2016’s best films?
American indie debuts don’t come much more accomplished than Krisha, in which writer-director Trey Edward Shults casts a bunch of family members (including his aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who’s like a rawer Gena Rowlands) in a disquieting character study about an absentee mother coming home for a supremely awkward Thanksgiving. We’ve all seen plenty of dysfunctional reunion dramas and plenty more grueling addiction studies, but Shults redeems those overplayed genres by approaching them through the subjective anxiety of his heroine: From its disquieting open scenes, the film uses editing, composition, and music to lock us into the character’s frazzled headspace, while still adopting an ambivalent, sometimes even unsympathetic attitude toward her. I’m dying to see what Shults does next, with or without his kin in tow.
I already covered Sing Street for my “outlier” category on the film-list ballot, and I’ve written more than enough on this site about how much I love Star Trek Beyond. The rest of my ballot made it through, save for a single movie that’s easy to overlook: Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a delicate triptych of short-story adaptations set in Montana. There are several other quiet, reflective movies already repped on our list—Moonlight, Paterson, and Louder Than Bombs, all of which I like a lot—but none of them have a strong female point of view, something Certain Women has times three. The first two segments, starring Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, feature characteristically strong work from both performers, but it’s the third, with Lily Gladstone as a lonely ranch hand mooning over law school teacher Kristen Stewart, that turns the movie into something special, and especially heartbreaking. The other two segments build the groundwork for this heartbreak, and put together, they form my favorite Reichardt film so far.
The hardest part of making my ballot this year was filling the last three slots, as I agonized over a half dozen films that deserved recognition on our year-end list. One that came close—and wasn’t recognized by one of my colleagues in their “outlier” selection—was The Invitation, Karyn Kusama’s slow-burn thriller about an L.A. dinner party gone apocalyptically wrong. The film opens on an ominous note, as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), hit a coyote with their car on the way to a party thrown by Will’s hippie ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Will hasn’t seen his ex-wife in two years, which would be awkward under any circumstances, but things get downright weird when Eden and David start effusing about the self-help program (or is it a death cult?) they joined in Mexico, and Will slowly realizes that every door in the house is locked. In that claustrophobic setting, the tension steadily builds, until even the offer of another glass of wine begins to feel like a threat. Kusama deftly manipulates that tension, peppering it with acerbic satire of all things New Age until it finally explodes late in the second act, leading to shocking acts of violence and an unforgettably ominous final image.
Since Katie already nailed why Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation makes such an impression, I’m going to turn to the other master class in sustaining tension that manages to escape Green Room’s long shadow: Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe. For all the minor quibbles about the transition of Stephen Lang’s villain from hearing-impaired victim to near-superpowered badass, nothing gets in the way of the film’s true intent: maximizing every possible variant on its inspired locked-room scenario. Watching three kids in over their heads, trapped inside a house with a man eager to wreak bloody havoc on them, gets the kind of goosing that only works thanks to Alvarez’s brilliant sound mixing and editing. The idea that any noise could condemn you to death is almost the fundamental horror movie staple, but it rarely feels as thrillingly fraught as it does in this white-knuckle genre exercise. More impressive still is how the director flips the script on the usual weak spot in these types of films: Normally, any interlude or third-act escape from a confined area leads to a lackluster sapping of a horror film’s power, but in the case of Don’t Breathe, it inspires one of the best scenes of the year. It wasn’t the best horror film of 2016, but it might be the most formally satisfying—no creaky floorboard is left unturned.
No documentaries at all, eh? O.J.: Made In America likely would have made
the cut if not for a (totally defensible) editorial decision to classify it as television rather than film, but I voted for three other docs this year: Tower (addressed in the “outlier” section of my ballot), Author: The JT LeRoy Story (which correctly recognizes that letting Laura Albert expand on her own “myth” makes for better cinema than any objective investigative alternative), and Weiner… which ranked lowest on my personal list, but is the one I’m most surprised not to see on the collective list. This account of Anthony Weiner’s most recent (and surely final) run to be mayor of New York City was plenty fascinating pre-November, thanks to the uncommon access Weiner allowed to directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, even after another sexting scandal suddenly blew up in the media. Thanks to the James Comey letter, however, Weiner now serves as an in-depth examination of the self-destructive behavior that indirectly helped to make Donald Trump the next president of the United States.
It’s easy to understand why Jeff Nichols’ Loving has been getting respectful reviews but very little “best of the year” love. On the surface, this true story of a landmark interracial marriage is the kind of earnest social history that critics file under “middlebrow Oscar bait,” and then don’t think about much after that unless it’s to throw a “year’s best performances” mention to someone like Ruth Negga, so good here as Virginia wife and mother Mildred Loving. But, as with Nichols’ acclaimed earlier films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special, Loving is sensitive to the particulars of its location, and refreshingly non-sensationalistic. It’s a powerful anti-racism statement that’s nearly devoid of big speeches until the brief Supreme Court scenes at the end. Instead, Nichols focuses on the everyday details of Mildred and Richard Loving’s families, emphasizing the normalcy of their daily lives while treating the threats from the authorities as something out of dystopian fiction. All the Lovings wanted was to be left alone to raise their kids. So, Loving honors what made them ordinary, not what made them historic.
I have to make the case for one of my personal favorites, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Mills’ semi-autobiographical film is a tender time capsule about family, gender, the end of the 1970s, and the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads. The writer-director is keenly aware of his place of privilege as a man writing about the women who shaped him, allowing that perspective to color the story without diminishing his female characters and ultimately resulting in a sensitive and savvy film. As was the case with Beginners, he loves putting the personal in historical context, which makes the simple story feel grand. The carefully wrought performances, however, imbue it with humanity. Greta Gerwig floods the screen with exuberance, but is so clearly in touch with the soul of her red-haired punk. Annette Bening, as the mother of the teenage Mills stand-in (Lucas Jade Zumann), conveys so much with so little: a glance, a modulated tone of voice, the way she holds a cigarette. (Watching her smoke is both enviable and painful.) And on top of all that, the film essentially provides its audience with a feminist reading list. What’s not to love?
I don’t think Nocturnal Animals belongs on our “best of the year” list, but I’ve spent a ton of time after watching it thinking about it and discussing it with people, so it’s got something. It’s tough to get too deep into its strengths and weaknesses without spoiling things a little, but I’ll try to convey some of each: There’s a paralyzingly scary nightmare of a crime scene at the beginning, which is shot and paced brilliantly. It’s hard to tell whether director Tom Ford was extremely good at telling his story within a story, or if he’s just not as good at directing a thriller as he is an austere relationship drama. But all of the actors—Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon—are pretty fantastic, and the twisty plots worth following. Again, not necessarily great, but one of those “you should see it anyway” movies.
In the late aughts, when I was completely immersed in the Chicago improv and sketch comedy scene, I often thought the inherent strangeness of improv comedy would make for a good documentary. I visualized an improv version of Darkon (a doc that covers fantasy live-action role-playing), filming twentysomethings huddled in theater basements playing Zip-Zap-Zop, the camera pointing out the absurdity of their lives. I never thought something heartfelt could be plucked from this lifestyle until I watched Don’t Think Twice. I joked after watching the trailer that it probably should have been accompanied by trigger warnings for former improv comedians. Boy, was I right. Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore directorial effort left my throat dry and my eyes welling up. Upon leaving the theater, I immediately texted my old troupe to tell them how special our time together was: dissecting TJ & Dave or The Reckoning’s improv sets, performing for crowds of four in empty bars, or traveling to improv festivals across the country in cramped rental cars. Don’t Think Twice is not a perfect movie, or even a movie for everyone, which justifies its exclusion from the top 20, but it revels in these formative moments (your time as a group offstage is just as important, if not more so, than your time onstage). Most performers will be able to see parts of themselves in Gillian Jacobs’ improv worshipper Samantha, Keegan-Michael Key’s stage hog Jack, and Birbiglia’s Miles—the last a surrogate for all us coulda-, shoulda-, woulda-beens.