It’s that time of year again. And maybe for the first time ever, I’ve managed to get my list out before January 1st (albeit just barely). There are some films I really wanted to catch up with before making a top 10 (Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women, Jackie, 20th Century Women), but I’m willing to “settle” for the 10 fantastic films I’ve already seen. So let’s get on with it.
Very honourable mentions go to Little Men, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Invitation, Dheepan, The Bad Kids, and Green Room.
10. Hell or High Water
Director David Mackenzie took the grit and depiction of uneasy male family ties from his last picture, 2014’s Starred Up, and translated it into something that has had surprising resonance with American audiences with Hell or High Water. A lot of reviewers have honed in on the film’s geographic and economic perspective and dubbed it as something of “a film for Trump’s America” and while I see that argument, I think it sells the film short, or at least distorts some of the points that McKenzie is making. But even setting politics and social messages aside, Hell or High Water feels undeniably timely and reworks tropes of the western genre into something that feels fresh, which is no easy feat. Ben Foster and Chris Pine smolder on screen in just the right ways, and when the film kicks its plot into high gear, it’s both wildly exciting and an example of filmmaking at its finest.
9. The Edge of Seventeen
John Hughes comparisons have run rampant with this debut feature from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, and while I usually like to play the contrarian, I have to agree that The Edge of Seventeen is like a more modern and – dare I say it – more intelligent version of an ‘80s Molly Ringwald flick. The Edge of Seventeen perfectly captures the confusing, exhilarating, gross, and frustrating feelings that come along with being a teenage girl. Protagonist Nadine (played by a truly fantastic Hailee Steinfeld) is frequently unlikeable, but also thoroughly relatable. Her behaviour may not be excusable, but it is understandable, and Craig’s film explores how we can better relate to the people around us at any age. It’s heartfelt but never treacly, and funny but certainly never disposable.
Paterson is the sort of strange, plotless movie that seems like it would embody all the worst stereotypes of about indie film. But with Jim Jarmusch directing and Adam Driver starring this film that is seemingly about nothing becomes something quite moving and almost haunting, in a way. Driver plays the titular Paterson, a bus driver in a small New Jersey town also called Paterson. (This is what I mean when I say the film should be thoroughly annoying.) Paterson explores this man’s simple life, his poetic aspirations, and his relationships, all amounting to a quiet yet memorable entry from Jarmusch. I hadn’t been sold on Driver’s abilities on the big screen, but he more than proves himself here, giving a complicated and layered portrayal to a character who could have been quite flat in the hands of a less sensitive performer.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I can’t overstate how thrilled I was to encounter a big franchise film that is essentially a three-person chamber play. The fact that it made over $100 million at the box office is just icing on the cake, and I can only hope that it’ll encourage more blockbusters like this. And financial successes aside, I found 10 Cloverfield Lane completely gripping. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of the film’s claustrophobic setting and his fantastic trio of actors, perfectly crafting tension at every turn. Some people had a problem with the film’s third act, and while I don’t necessarily think the film NEEDED to go the direction it did, I understand WHY it did, and I found that part of the story compelling, too. More exciting leading roles for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, please.
6. The Wait
I’m still sad that The Wait has gone largely unnoticed this year, lovely and quietly complicated as it is. Co-leads Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage are completely enchanting to watch together on screen, and the careful direction from director Pietro Messina only adds more glorious tension to this simmering film. So much goes unspoken in The Wait, but it’s all the more powerful because of it.
5. A Bigger Splash
I think about A Bigger Splash possibly more than any other film I saw this year, and it continues to only goes up in my estimation on reflection. It’s not perfect and it’s definitely wacky as hell, but there’s something about it that really worked for me. Maybe it’s just Ralph Fiennes’ dance moves. Who knows. In any case, I think this is a film that’s sly in its social commentary, surprisingly moving, and a fantastic acting showcase for all four leads involved. Check it out if you haven’t already.
I don’t think Arrival is as smart as a lot of people say it is. It utilizes some clunky narrative devices, and I wish some of its plot points were less “movie trope-y” than they are. I don’t even think it perfectly hits all the emotional notes it goes for. But here’s the thing: I don’t think I saw a more beautiful film this year. Dennis Villeneuve’s sci-fi vision feels like the sort of movie I’ve always wanted to see. (Blade Runner 2049, please come faster.) It does feel a little bit stuck in between a blockbuster and Villeneuve’s more arty instincts. But I’m glad that a movie like this is getting shown in multiplexes and being seen by a wide audience. Thanks to Amy Adams’ brilliantly soulful performance, it has Villeneuve’s signature character-propelled core that have also elevated Prisoners and Sicario above the genre fare they could have otherwise fallen into. I love his twist on genre expectations, and Arrival is a particularly beautiful example at that.
This is the film that’s on every one of these damn lists, and here it is on mine. I had the opportunity to see Moonlight just before it screened publicly at Telluride or TIFF, so I was able to go in without expectations. What I found was a beautifully shot, uniquely structured, and wonderfully empathetic film. There is an elegance to Moonlight that is rare. Director Barry Jenkins unfurls the story so well that by the time the final third rolls around and Andre Holland (in my opinion, the standout performance of the film, though Mahershala Ali is also fantastic) shows up to charm the hell out of everyone, you feel like you’ve properly experienced the main character’s life along with him. I’m thrilled that the response to Moonlight has been so enthusiastic, and I’m keen to revisit it.
2. Blue Jay
So here we are at our final two spots. And first comes the film that was both one of the funniest and probably the single most moving movie I saw all year. Blue Jay was such a beautiful, heartfelt film. I absolutely adored it, and while I feel like I can’t succinctly articulate why, I attempted to do so at more length in my full review of it. It’s on Netflix now. Please seek it out.
1. Louder Than Bombs
So I still have the same #1 film as I did when I made my mid-year list? How boring, I know. But nothing topped Joachim Trier’s English-language debut for me. It is a simple story, and could be boiled down to “white people problems” for some. But I found Trier’s examination of a family dysfunction so honest. It is both quietly brutal yet strangely hopeful. This is one of the few examples of the genre that manages to strike that balance, never falling into mopey melodrama or twee sentimentality. It feels honest – almost mundanely so – yet completely riveting from start to finish.