The Roger Ebert contributors each submitted our own individual Top 10 Lists for 2016 – compiled here. As mentioned in the introduction, the NUMBER of titles – all total – that show up on this list is a testament to how strong a year 2016 was.
Here’s a short elaboration on each of my Top 10 choices, with links to reviews, if I reviewed.
1. The Fits, directed by Anna Rose Holmer
In a year filled with extraordinary debuts from first-time directors, “The Fits” is the standout. Anna Rose Holmer pitched the idea to the Biennale College Cinema, who awarded her a small grant to make the film. “The Fits” is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. Its story is creepy and expansive. Its mystery echoes through every unforgettable shot. It throws the questions it poses out into the audience, and refuses to provide answers: an act of deep respect. Grounded by a stunning performance from a young actress with the best name in show business, Royalty Hightower, The Fits is a miracle of a film. You watch and think: “Wow. I’m just glad that this exists now.” My review.
2. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is in the format of a triptych. Each part shows a different phase of the lead character’s life: each time he is known by a different name, and each time he is played by a different actor. The child is known as “Little,” played by Alex R. Hibbert. As a teenager, now known by his actual name “Chiron,” he is played by Ashton Sanders. Meeting up with him again in his 20s, he is now known as “Black,” and he is played by Trevante Rhodes who – for me – gives the performance of the year. It’s difficult to describe just why this film is so unique, so powerful. The plot sounds like an ABC Afterschool Special. It is Jenkins’ handling of it – the mood he deliberately creates – his understanding that silence can be as loud as dialogue, and far more eloquent – that really makes the film. I rarely say this, but Moonlight is not like anything else. The final scene was so quiet and powerful that I don’t think I breathed the entire time.
3. Elle, by Paul Verhoeven
A deliriously spiky and outrageous movie, funny and violent and disturbing, so off-the-rails of what one expects that the experience (I’ve seen it three times) is no less than exhilarating. To say that about a film that deals with rape, that opens with a violent rape scene, gives you some indication of how crazy this movie is. There is precedent for it, of course, and it reminded me a lot of films from classic Hollywood. There has been a lot of outrage about the film, and its handling of rape. I have heard people say that men have no business making movies about rape, and – worse – some commentary along the lines of “ohmyGod look at the kind of sex she likes and WHO SHE’S HAVING IT WITH … this CLEARLY has to be a male fantasy because no woman in her right mind would have sex with that man and IN THAT WAY” … and it’s that last bit where I stop listening. I do not judge the kind of sex that other people want to have. I do not judge other people’s fantasy lives. I do not judge what people choose to do in their private life. I had a boyfriend once who used to break into my house in the dead of night and crawl into bed with me, while I was still sleeping. It was terrifying … and awesome. Not everyone is into conventional traditional courtship/sex-rituals, people. Unfortunately, when I have tried to discuss the film with those who feel this way, there’s a lot of huffy “Well, I’m just telling you how I feel” stuff coming back. So okay, fine, let’s NOT discuss the film then. And you just keep on ascribing bad faith motives to those of us who like it. One person Tweeted that the positive reaction to Elle explains why Trump was elected. Okay. Uh-huh. (To be fair: I have had a couple of wonderful conversations with other critics who disliked the film and these conversations were interesting and thought-provoking, and nobody blamed anyone for electing Trump, for God’s sake.) Someone said on Twitter, I can’t remember who, that the film made them “extremely uncomfortable” and they said this by way of criticism. The film is SUPPOSED to make you “extremely uncomfortable.” I wonder what reaction will be to Something Wild, released on Criterion in January (I wrote the essay in the booklet). Paul Verhoeven, of course, was counting on all this outrage. Mission accomplished. For me, it was a HOOT. An exhilarating HOOT. And super smart about consent, coming at the very moment when people are so confused about consent that it’s somehow up for debate whether or not “pussy grabbing” is consensual. Elle GETS consent. Because watch what happens when she DOES consent. Watch his reaction to her consenting. I thought: YES. THAT’S IT. There it is: RIGHT there. That’s the issue’s essence. What happens when a woman says “no” isn’t as big a problem as what happens when she says “yes.” And maybe we’re not ready to talk about that quite yet. But Elle barrels right on out into that dangerous landscape. Who better to walk us through it than La Huppert? My review.
4. Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch
The film is a miracle of control. Every moment, every detail, every casting choice … is so perfect, so carefully considered, and yet the end result feels effortless, easy, lifelike. It’s a movie about synchronicity. About how humans are pattern-making machines. It’s a movie about meaning itself. It’s also sweet and tender and kind, without any manipulation of the material, or any sense that Jarmusch is going after your heartstrings. Paterson is another one where I’m like, “Wow. I am so glad that this exists now. That someone made this.” Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite living filmmakers. Paterson is one of his best. I wrote up Paterson here.
5. OJ: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman
There was some conversation about whether or not this magnificent 5-hour documentary on the O.J. Simpson trial should be counted as TV or film. It ran on ESPN, as part of their 30 for 30 series. But it premiered at Sundance. I decided to include it, because it was one of the most engrossing experiences I’ve had this year. It doesn’t feel like 5 hours. It is an in-depth cross-examination of the way race and class intersect and interact in America, a topic that could not be more timely. I practically had PTSD flashbacks watching it, because it brought that whole nightmare back. I thought I was OJ-d out, after seeing the beautifully done mini-series, and I thought to myself, “Wow. How bummed out is Ezra Edelman that the mini-series beat him to the punch?” But the way it ended up working was that the mini series just primed the pump for the Thesis Course of the documentary. It’s an amazing accomplishment. It’s difficult to watch at times, especially if you lived through it the first time. But it leaves no stone unturned.
6. No Home Movie, directed by Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman’s rhythms are slow, even stately. She requires submission from her audiences. (Akerman died in 2015, apparently by her own hand. It still feels wrong to write of her in the past tense.) You cannot meet her films halfway. In an industry that is increasingly about fan-service, Akerman’s work is a welcome blast of cold clear air. “No Home Movie” is documentation of the final years of the life of Akerman’s mother, and features (among many other things) the minutia of everyday tasks (food preparation, cleaning, minor chores), making it a companion piece to Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made when she was only 25 years old. No Home Movie opens with a lengthy stationary shot of a lone tree buffeted by strong winds. Sere barren fields stretch into the distance. An image of brute survival. The unthinking hearty life force. The cumulative effect of No Home Movie is devastating, even more so since Ackerman is no longer with us.
7. The Love Witch, directed by Anna Biller
I cannot say enough about this glorious film. Anna Biller wrote, directed, production designed, costume designed, composed. She is a breathtaking visionary: she knows what she wants, she sees it in her head, she does what needs to be done to make her vision a reality. She works very closely with her actors: everyone is so on the same page that the performances, too, emanate the sensibility of the director. Samantha Robinson, as the “love witch”, gives one of the performances of the year. The Love Witch is full of call-backs to the past, its look, its feel, the line-readings, the awkwardness that has sincerity in it, its music and lights, Biller’s use of closeup, and makeup, and clothes, every single detail redolent with associations. But make no mistake, this is an extremely modern film: insightful, funny, and biting in its socio-sexual critiques. Glenn Kenny’s review is great. This is one of the movies that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it.
8. Cemetery of Splendour, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
No word of a lie, I have thought of this film probably every day since I first saw it. It comes up repeatedly. Sometimes it’s because of how the light falls on buildings at dusk. Sometimes the world itself becomes an optical illusion. And what might that mean? Is it just beauty revealing itself, or is there a deeper architecture going on somewhere, something I can’t see? Weerasethakul’s vision of the porousness between the living and the dead also stays with me, because it’s something I WANT to sense, but really don’t. I wonder if I listen harder, if I cultivate stillness more, I might be more open to any messages that might be trying to come across. Cemetery of Splendour is not like anything else. My review.
9. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, directed by Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme’s concert films are already a magnificent archive, and “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids”, documenting the final show of the pop megastar’s two-year tour, is one of his best. I’d put it up there with Stop Making Sense, and I realize them’s fightin’ words. What Demme does that is so unique is show the performer in his natural habitat – onstage – giving us a sense that we are there at the show (often he pulls back, way back, so we get a sense of the spectacle), but also putting us right up there onstage with him, so that we can see his interactions with the dancers, his musicians, the audience. It’s an extremely intimate approach. There are some scenes of the load-in, of Timberlake preparing, of the whole team – costumes, dancers, roadies, musicians – getting ready. These people are family to one another. In a lot of ways, the film is about collaboration. The collaboration of process, and what it’s like to be surrounded by only A-Gamers. Which is what they all are. Demme revels in that. But he also revels in the effect that Timberlake has on his audience. One shot in particular stands out as my favorite: Timberlake and some of his band members come out into the audience at one point, spreading out through the arena. A guitarist stands with a fan, who can’t believe she is this close to the show, this close to the event itself, and her face explodes in shock and joy, and the guitarist stands with her, playing TO her, involving her. Demme holds the shot. He doesn’t move on. He knows it’s a moment, maybe THE most important moment of all: how all of this collaboration and work and process eventually translates into audience identification and love. This is Demme’s great sensitivity at work. I’m a Timberlake fan, so factor that in, but Demme’s filmmaking is so immersive that for the final 15 minutes of the film I was practically in tears I was so swept away, so caught up in the emotion that was on that stage and out in the audience. And that’s on Demme to create, to translate: the feeling in the room MUST be made palpable to those who were not there. Demme does that like almost no other. One of the most enjoyable audience experiences I’ve had all year.
10. Under the Shadow, directed by Babak Anvari
Another feature debut, this time from Babak Anvari, “Under the Shadow” is a Farsi-language horror supernatural tale, set in 1988 Tehran, as bombs from Iraq rain down on the city. Effective in all of its particulars, “Under the Shadow” represents the best of the horror genre as well as adding new twists to old familiar tropes. Best of all is the complicated mother-daughter relationship at the heart of it, rich with political and cultural implications reverberating through post-Revolution Iran. It’s an extraordinary film. My review.
Because, for me, any list is whimsical to the point of meaninglessness – (i.e. I made up no less than 10 different versions of my Top 10, swapping titles in and out), here are the other candidates. Keep in mind that I have not seen Toni Erdmann or Hidden Figures or The Handmaiden or Fences yet. They may very well be added later once I get to them, which I will. It’s been a great year.
Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie
A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino
I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach
Disorder, directed by Alice Winocour. My review.
Love & Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman
The Nice Guys, directed by Shane Black
Krisha, directed by Trey Edward Shults. My review.
Hail Caesar!, directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Everybody Wants Some!!, directed by Richard Linklater. My review.
The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers. My review.
Childhood of a Leader, directed by Brady Corbet
Always Shine, directed by Sophia Takal. My review.
13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
Tower, directed by Keith Maitland
Things to Come, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. My review.
Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt
Fireworks Wednesday, directed by Asghar Farhadi (made in 2007, not released until now)
Another list: Performances I loved this year.