I Hate Lists, But … The Best Movies of 2016

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.

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15 Responses to I Hate Lists, But … The Best Movies of 2016

  1. DBW says:

    Personally, I think Trump was elected because you hate lists…but that’s just me.
    This is a great list, full of so many movies I haven’t seen. Your descriptions have me excited to see almost every single one of them.

  2. Sarah says:

    Ahhhh, this list is a thing of beauty. Together with your “other candidates,” I plan to make this list my personal to-do-before-the-Oscars list. I’m late to the party for many of these, but I’m crossing off Love & Friendship today. I’m a UT alum, and I live in Austin, so Tower was so very personal, it shocked me. I was all of 7 years old when it happened, but as the first “terrorist” act this country experienced (or one of the first, I can’t remember if the Alabama church fire that killed the four children had happened by 1966), the details have been exhaustively told and retold down here. However, NOTHING could’ve prepared me for the emotional impact of this director’s combination of animation plus archival footage plus survivors’ accounts. I hope it wins an Oscar for Best Documentary.

    I loved Hell Or High Water, too, not because it was set in Texas, but for the other, more obvious reasons—great script, great cinematography, great acting, great story.

    I NEED to see Cemetery of Splendour, like, yesterday. And I’m seeing Elle this weekend—can’t wait!

    Thanks so much for doing what you do ❤️ for fellow cinemaphiles, Supernatural lovers, and humanity as a whole every day but particularly post-election.

    • sheila says:

      // However, NOTHING could’ve prepared me for the emotional impact of this director’s combination of animation plus archival footage plus survivors’ accounts. I hope it wins an Oscar for Best Documentary. //

      Wow – one of the things that really struck me in watching the documentary is how the attack left a scar that has not healed. It felt like making the documentary was helping those survivors heal – many of whom had never talked about it, not really – it was a different time then. You just suck it up and go back to school the next day. Like: the guilt that that one heroic student who ran out and helped pull the pregnant woman to safety – the guilt he felt that he couldn’t do more … I am so glad that this story has been told and in what I felt was a really respectful and beautiful and elegiac way.

      SUCH a painful memory – I only knew the bare bones of the story, did not know all the details at all.

      Is the Jefferson Davis statue still there?

    • sheila says:

      So glad to hear your thoughts on Hell or High Water – every detail was perfect. You know who I really loved? The sassy black-haired waitress at the diner. I looked her up and if I’m not mistaken she has no other credits. I felt like she was such a real person – such a recognizable “type” (not in a derogatory way) – a friendly and nobodys-fool Southern girl, with the makeup and the hair and the smile. I loved that scene she had with Chris Pine!!

      Cemetery of Splendour is way WAY out there. :) I had to just go with it – I’ve seen his other stuff, so I was prepared. But the one scene I described in my review – where all of these different scenes become flooded with different colors of light … I can’t tell you how often it comes to mind. I’m not not even sure why.

      Elle is crazy. Let me know what you think. I’ve been arguing about it ever since it came out. :) Those of us who love it have had to take a lot of flak from the pitchfork-brigade!!

      Sarah: It is totally my pleasure, and I love having conversations with everyone who shows up here! I am particularly glad that I started up those SPN recaps because otherwise the cluster-f*** that is Season 12 would be even MORE disheartening. At least we can all come together and grieve/mourn/bitch/hold out hope, etc.

      Have a very happy holiday!!

  3. Sarah says:

    Yep, Jefferson Davis is still there. Are you kidding? That thing is never leaving! I’ve driven past it soooo many times, never knowing it once gave shelter to people in real danger, terrified and heroic alike. The fountain, that whole area means something different to me now. An important piece of my childhood history, for sure.

    The waitress in Hell or High Water is Katy Mixon—I recognized her immediately by her voice first, then her face. She has such a distinctive, little-girl voice. She was in HBO’s Danny McBride raunchy sitcom, Eastbound and Down, which is where I first saw her work. Now I think she has her own show, another sitcom, network I think, where she’s just a mom…it might even be called American Mom? Anyway, yes—her sass and strength and refusal to be bullied by the two men in uniform was great, and it was fun for me to see her in a role so different from the HBO one. I can’t imagine she doesn’t have any credits on her imDb though, weird!

    It’s going to be a daunting holiday season, imagining 2017, but I’ll give it my best shot! Happy holidays to you and yours, too!

  4. Patrick Wahl says:

    Lists are sort of fun, people like to see what others think, people kind of like to make them up, or you wouldn’t be doing it here. I thought of “Hell or High Water” as a modern day western. I think I almost laughed when they actually had a posse. And nearly a shoot out on the porch at the end of the movie. I didn’t see that many movies this year, so I don’t have anything like a list, but “Sully” was a good one, and I would also put “Arrival” up there.

    • sheila says:

      // people kind of like to make them up, or you wouldn’t be doing it here. //

      Thanks for explaining it to me. The worst part about lists is that inevitably someone says, “But what about …?” “No list is complete without the addition of …” “I can’t believe you left off ….” It’s a super boring conversation.

      Hell or High Water was so great. I also love how much money it’s made – that’s been one of the stories of the year. I love it when an indie film does that well, because hopefully it just encourages more of the same. Good year for independent film in general!

      I loved Sully, too, but then I’m biased. :)

      I haven’t seen Arrival yet – I have such issues with Villeneuve – I haven’t liked one of his films yet! But I do admit, the plot of Arrival sounds right up my alley!

      • Patrick Wahl says:

        You may not remember, but we went back and forth a bit on your year end review a year ago about “Sicario”, where we agreed on its faults, but I ended up liking it because I ignored them, you were a little more rigorous about judging it on the point it was trying to make. “Arrival” had a certain plot point that was key to the whole story, and I was wondering – is that really how things would play out? I wasn’t sure. Anyway, as you can see, I went with it and liked the other elements of the movie.

        The best movie I watched all year, probably in a couple of years, was “Spotlight”, of course, that was released near the end of 2015, but very good.

      • Patrick Wahl says:

        “I loved Sully, too, but then I’m biased. :)”

        I looked it up, that name did hit me when I saw the credits, forgot about it until I read your comment above, and the connection to you would be?

  5. Nicola says:

    I watched The Witch yesterday and can I just tell you, I have so many regrets now. Dear lord, it freaked me OUT. Could hardly sleep last night. I think it got me worse than The Babadook.

    • sheila says:

      Nicola – I know!! It freaked me out in such a huge way. I want to watch it again but I need to gear up for it.

      • Nicola says:

        Same. I’m actually embarrassed, I had to put my bathroom light on two nights in a row. And it wasn’t even that type of scary! Got right under my skin. Bravo to Eggers.

        • sheila says:

          Yes, it is truly eerie, truly unnerving. And that final moment … shivers.

          I hope that there is a nice featurette on the “making of” on the DVD. I know that Eggers built that set only with materials that would have been available in that time period – and the costumes were made out of only the types of cloth that were available at that time. He was all about the authenticity of the period and I think it really really paid off.

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