the-best-films-of-2016

The Best Films of 2016

PopMatters presents a list of the best films that surfaced in 2016 and impressed us with their cinematic visions of where we’ve been.

Films don’t materialize overnight. Most take months or years to move from pitch or page to screen. For that reason, it’s not particularly useful to view movies as products of their release year. Most likely the films being developed at this moment will be the ones that later communicate the ideas that are most topical right now. Films are always slightly out of time.

Here PopMatters presents a list of the films that surfaced in 2016 and impressed us with their cinematic visions of where we’ve been. Last year’s list included a film that screamed “Witness Me” (Mad Max: Fury Road), but many of this year’s efforts dramatize that feeling in ways that respond to recent calls for more diversity in film production, distribution and accolades. Unlike the Academy Award for Best Picture, which has for years been on a predictable cycle of rewarding one or two violent and/or war films followed by one or two light-hearted or escapist films, the array we highlight here has no dominant style or genre. There are thrillers, comedies, documentaries, road movies, animations, musicals, action films, and dramas.

What most connects these films to 2016 is that they offer willing viewers a chance to see, and a means to discuss, many of the subjects that were subsumed into contentious politics. Here are films about war and peace, crime and punishment, the effects of historical trauma, and identity formation. Here too are films that imagine vastly different worlds from our own, but communicate themes relevant to the world we’re in. It’s doubtful that any single viewer will enjoy all of these movies, but every viewer stands to benefit from spending a couple of hours at a time considering a wider range of human lives, as offered here. — Thomas Britt

 

Film: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.

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10 Cloverfield Lane

With Hollywood deep into a safety zone of remakes, reboots, and general avoidance of original stories, the Cloverfield films stand out for generating new thrills from mashed-up genres. Matt Reeves’ first installment from 2008 combined a Godzilla-type monster with the discovered footage shooting technique. Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, originally called The Cellar, has been categorized as a “three-hander” with a trio of characters sharing a bunker during a disaster. It’s also a film in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead, about a retreat from danger that proves to be fraught with interior conflict.

It’s also a film about — oh, to say more would spoil the surprises. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. play the young characters assessing their chances of surviving threats unknown. Mostly they want to stay on the good side of Howard (John Goodman in his most memorable role outside of a Coen Brothers film). In 10 Cloverfield Lane, the worst thing you can imagine might change in an instant to another menace entirely, and the person you come to fear the most might have some good advice to offer about always being prepared. — Thomas Britt

Read the full review here.

 

Film: 13th

Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: Angela Davis, Corey Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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13th

Delivered in a breathlessly paced tapestry of interview clips, statistics presented over somber black and white graphics, and historic footage continuously juxtaposing early 20th century forms of nakedly violent racism with more latent (and overt) contemporary forms of the same, 13th captures severe racial injustice not so much as a series of separate events than as a smothering inferno singed deep into America’s economic, social, and legal systems. The effect is an immersive feeling that preconceived notions of progress must be severely re-examined. 13th is a powerful entreaty for Americans to get to work on fighting racism — Argun Ulgen

Read the full review here.

 

Film: American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold

Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough

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American Honey

Andrea Arnold’s first American feature sticks with her stories of the disenfranchised, this time expanding the frame to the dusty emptiness of the Midwest. Eschewing narrative, a collection of lost teenagers live from town to town, flogging magazine subscriptions any way they can. It’s a voyage of discovery for new arrival Star, with no comfortable beginning or clear end. Such luxuries don’t exist for the kind of people stuck in this world. Debutant Sasha Lane lights up the screen as Star, and Shia LaBeouf puts in a career best performance as the turbulent lead salesman. In a year that has shown a country split apart, American Honey is a beautifully shot glimpse of the people stuck in the cracks. — Stephen Mayne

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

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Arrival

Just when it looked like the studio system had abandoned forward-thinking sci-fi to the realms of indie film and cable TV, up cropped this welcome surprise. At first glance, it’s a first-contact story in which a language specialist (Amy Adams, rarely better) is called on by the US military to attempt communication with an alien orb hovering silently and ominously over Montana. She and her physicist partner (Jeremy Renner, a warmly resilient presence throughout) untangle the complexities involved in speaking with a species whose entire concept of language and possibly time itself are utterly different from ours. Meanwhile, their army handler (Forest Whitaker) pressures them to hurry up, as other nations are trying to do the same with the aliens hanging in their their airspace. Denis Villeneuve’s eerie screw-tightening suspense is balanced almost perfectly with the mournful moodiness and China Mieville-like knotty philosophical and linguistic implications of the script. Appropriately for a film so resonant with unavoidable echoes ranging from Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to Zemeckis (Contact), the human touch embodied by Adams’ soulful heartache of a performance wins out in the end. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

 

Film: The BFG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton

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The BFG

Steven Spielberg delivers one of the best Roald Dahl adaptations with this film. The tale of young orphan, Sophie, and her friendship with the gentle behemoth of the title, a “dream-catcher” with whom she travels to Giant Country, The BFG published in 1982 and soon became among the most beloved of Dahl’s books, with an animated version made for British TV in the late ’80s. This movie’s greatness lies, in part, in the way that it chimes with established Spielberg preoccupations — lonely kids, the consolations and terrors of dreams and imagination — while also remaining true to Dahl’s vision. Intelligent, huge-hearted, and as rich in its dialogue as in its visuals, The BFG is an enchanting adaptation — Alex Ramon.

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

If a filmmaker revolutionizes cinema in an empty theater, where go the sights and sounds? For several months, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, was expected to dominate the box office and movie accolades season with visionary technological innovations promising audiences unprecedented immersion. Industry and critic trepidation following initial screenings turned into muted marketing and a release marred by the inability of most venues to show the film in its intended exhibition format. The film fell short of $2 million at the domestic box office and was in and out of theaters in a month. For this film to meet such a fate is a shame. Not only is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk a 120 fps stunner, but the technology and the form of the film serve the content so well that the movie could be Exhibit A in the case for the necessity of the theatrical movie-going experience. With a narrative following the men of Bravo Squad on their short “victory tour” in between serving / fighting in Iraq, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a movie about seeing others, about image-making, and differing realms beyond the real into which soldiers escape. The visual approach affects every component of the film’s production, from performance to production design to makeup to sound, connecting the viewer with the sensory overload of Billy Lynn. It’s an excellent satire about how war is marketed as well as a moving drama about duty and fate. Lee’s film is perhaps too clever, with references to Hollywood’s capriciousness throughout. So maybe his film was destined to fail. But what a spectacular moonshot it was for those of us who paid to see it. — Thomas Britt

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Film: Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson

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Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War reflects current global issues in a surprisingly personal way. Whether the perceived physical or ideological threat is from ISL, Russia, North Korea, China, or elsewhere, the film offers an opportunity for self-reflection. Civil War holds up a mirror to the audience and brazenly reflects back our foibles and flaws, along with the dysfunctional ways even the smartest, richest or the bravest amongst us deal with them. The film offers viewers a glimpse into a new world order, but not just in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the world inhabited by real people sitting in a darkened theater thinking they bought a ticket just to be entertained. — Daniel Rasmus

Read the full review here.

PopMatters’ Best Films of 2016: Page 2

Film: Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone

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Certain Women

Reichardt seems to have a freakish understanding of human nature, spotlighting moments in her characters’ lives that some filmmakers may deem too mundane to linger on or even show at all. What she sees that others don’t is the invisible weight of loneliness felt by people trapped in the drudgery of a quiet daily routine, longing for something more. Each character is alive with complexity and humor and fascinating things to say, and Reichardt bares their souls completely, as uncomfortable as that can be at times. Reichardt is one of the most important American filmmakers working today, and this may be her best work yet. Quiet and beautiful, Certain Women is observational storytelling at its best. — Bernard Boo

Read the full review here.

 

Film: The Childhood of a Leader

Director: Brady Corbet

Cast: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Stacy Martin

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The Childhood of a Leader

In The Childhood of a Leader, old Europe rises on the shoulders of a psychopath. The film is certainly overwrought as fascist analogy, what with the clueless diplomats fussing with their maps and treaties while evil seethes right under their feet. But with its precisely calibrated chill, The Childhood of a Leader is nevertheless a macabre and even thought-provoking piece of operatic doom in which great historical shifts take a back seat to a more individual view of evil. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Counting

Director: Jem Cohen

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Counting

In Counting, observation is transformed into a set of questions, ethical and aesthetic, political and practical. Counting pulls together pieces of stories, arranging them so you make sense of them, so you create stories even as you reflect on them. The film observes patterns and behaviors, offers images and ideas that you might in turn rearrange. At once immediate and fragmented, ongoing and intricately connected, the movie’s many stories intersect and swerve off, seduce with incredible light and exquisite composition, and reveal your responsibility in the process. Counting is a gorgeous meditation on time and place — Cynthia Fuchs

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Do Not Resist

Director: Craig Atkinson

Cast: James Comey, Rand Paul

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Do Not Resist

The ramifications of the 2016 presidential election are now and will continue to be so disruptive to the body politic that they threaten to turn attention away from issues that were already critical before an autocratic kleptocrat with a fervent white nationalist following is allowed into the White House. One of those issues, the militarization of American police forces, is explored with alarm-bell urgency in Craig Atkinson’s shiver-inducing documentary. Atkinson, a cinematographer on such visually impressive and politically films like Detropia, starts with the 2014 Ferguson riots, where armored personal carriers and stormtrooper-equipped cops faced down protesters. He then looks at how the surplus from America’s unending overseas wars sluices homeward, with the Pentagon unloading billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment on police departments. Many of those departments have no need for up-armored Humvees or sending out SWAT teams on routine arrests (the latter usually in poor and/or minority communities). But given the police training sessions Atkinson captures, where the cops in attendance are educated in being us-against-them warriors first and peace officers last (if at all), it’s easy to see how the line between the military and law enforcement was already becoming blurred before November 2016. Given the authoritarian and anti-civil rights bent of a leader like Donald Trump, the implications of Atkinson’s film are frightening but necessary to consider. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Don’t Breathe

Director: Fede Alvarez

Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette

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Don’t Breathe

Sometimes the best things are the simplest things. Don’t Breathe masterfully wrings every ounce of tension from its simple home-invasion premise. Director Fede Alvarez pins his characters into tighter and tighter corners, even as the action is spinning out of control. The result is a nerve-wracking rollercoaster ride that never turns in the direction you’re expecting. Don’t Breathe is the kind of white-knuckle thriller that adrenaline junkies crave. With surprises and scares, Fede Alvarez’s thriller keeps everyone but The Blind Man unnerved. — J. R. Kinnard

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Everybody Wants Some!!

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Will Brittain, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman

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Everybody Wants Some!!

Dazed and Confused is about how to find your place on the totem pole of high school socialization and fit in somewhere. Everybody Wants Some!! is about life as a long series of competitions, the shadow of Reaganomics or capitalism or postmodernism or whatever your preferred signifier of evils. The films are similar in characterization and often in getting just right the vibe of the times, but ultimately opposite in the lesson. The original is not driven by such an existential crisis of purpose, however, compared to the cutthroat nature of the sequel. Everybody Wants Some!! is Linklater’s take on competitiveness during the ’80s. — Megan Volpert

Read the full review here.

 

Film: The Fits

Director: Anna Rose Holmer

Cast: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Da’Sean Minor

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The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature is surprising and a bit unnerving. Following 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower), The Fits observes her efforts both to fit in and also resist other people’s expectations. Growing up in Cincinnati, she’s training as a boxer with her older brother (Da’Sean Minor), a girl in a boys’ world, when she discovers a girls’ dance squad. Here she discovers harmony and rigor, challenges and frustrations, while the film offers a vivid, spare soundtrack and gorgeous, restless mobile frames, as one by one the girls are subject to “fits” — convulsions that no one can explain. The metaphor and the reality are equally compelling, as young bodies writhe and the girls fret, seek order, and find themselves. The Fits is a brilliant exploration of what movies can do, through movement, sensory experience, and the process of identification. — Cynthia Fuchs

Read the full review here.

PopMatters’ Best Films of 2016: Page 3

Film: Green Room

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia

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Green Room

When a rowdy gang of punk rockers, The Ain’t Rights, run afoul of a brutal neo-Nazi club owner, their only way out is through a scenery chewing Patrick Stewart. The delightfully wicked Green Room is packed with sharp dialogue, unbearable suspense, and buckets of blood and grime. With this and his previous outing, the masterful revenge drama, Blue Ruin, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has deservedly become an indie darling. He delights in throwing desperate characters into a corner and then watching them punch (or stab) their way to freedom. Saulnier’s taut script perfectly balances the inevitable with the surprising. The result is a tense psychological thriller that forces each of the punks to find untapped reserves of determination and brutality within themselves, while challenging the audience to endure unbearable levels of suspense. Claustrophobic, remorseless, and wickedly funny, Green Room is an endurance test of wrecked nerves and shattered eardrums. — J. R. Kinnard

Read the full review here.

 

Film: The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo

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The Handmaiden

No filmmaker has indulged and delighted in the nature of madness more audaciously and eloquently than South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, whose twisty mind-benders (2003’s Oldboy, most notably) have cemented him as one of the most singular auteurs in recent memory. Exquisitely conceived and epic in scope, The Handmaiden is arguably his greatest achievement yet, weaving an intricate tale of deception and seduction set in Korea in the ’30s. On top of the ravishing cinematography and immaculate production design, the film is also one of the richest depictions of the effects of colonialism ever put to screen. — Bernard Boo

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine

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Hell or High Water

Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) get chewed up and spit out by the American outlaw lifestyle in David Mackenzie’s rollicking, crafty life-of-crime drama Hell or High Water. Robbing banks to save their late mother’s farm from foreclosure, the duo’s old-school, pistol-totin’ antics fall victim to the trappings of modernity (security cameras and the like) and a grizzled Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who’s got one last case left in him. The performances are sizzling across the board, with Mackenzie basking in the characters’ talky moments of respite as much as he does the thrilling, impeccably staged car chase and shootout scenes. This is tough-guy cinema at its most sensitive and emotionally attuned, and while its genre trappings may cause it to be overlooked by some, those who go on Mackenzie’s ride will find a character-driven tale that’s as captivating and inspired as any other 2016 offering. — Bernard Boo

 

Film: Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy

Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

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Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy

“It was then that I learned that hell could exist on earth,” says one of the interviewees in Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy. The man is talking about his experiences during the reign of the Chadian dictator, whose eight-year rule (1982-1990) was a catalog of atrocities visited on his own people by his secret police force, the DDS. The film’s power lies in the way in which it creates a quiet, respectful space for the victims to tell their stories. As the film progresses, it becomes a wider reflection on remorse, justice, and the possibility of forgiveness, but it accomplishes this without ever losing sight of the individual stories of its subjects. Habré’s atrocities and trial have received disgracefully little attention in Western media, and it would be a crime if this film were similarly overlooked.

Alex Ramon

Read the full review here.

 

Film: I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck

Cast: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck

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I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro begins in the middle of a conversation. It’s 1968, and Dick Cavett, playing devil’s advocate, asks James Baldwin why “Negroes” aren’t optimistic, even though “There are Negro mayors, there are Negroes in all of sports, there are Negroes in politics, they’re even accorded the ultimate accolade of being in television commercials now.” Cavett pauses, asks why Baldwin is smiling. His answer is as resonant now as it was 48 years ago: “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here, the black man here,” Baldwin says, “That’s a very vivid question for me, you know, but the real question is what’s going to happen to this country? I have to repeat that.” — Cynthia Fuchs

Read the full review here.

 

Film: I, Daniel Blake

Director: Ken Loach

Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Dylan McKiernan

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I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake confronts the British welfare state with emotional force. The story of an ill, unemployed carpenter sounds like a 21st-century dystopia, a Brave New World of austerity politics. But Loach bases the situation and the bureaucratese on life. He visited food banks and disabled workers’ organizations while researching the movie, and includes real-life food bank volunteers and welfare office workers in the cast. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does not enhance the dreary grey and brown hues of Newcastle’s streets, construction sites, and welfare offices. The filmmaker’s anger at systemic, interminable inequities threatens to overcome his optimism.

Read the full review here.Elena Razlogova

 

Film: Jackie

Director: Pablo Larraín

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig

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Jackie

We’ve had more than half a century to process the violent event of President Kennedy’s assassination. The next 50 years could be spent sifting through documentaries and dramatizations about that moment. Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, written by Noah Oppenheim, imagines how the film’s titular character, Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline, processed a national and personal tragedy in a few days of a world changed. Interweaving the plots of the First Lady’s White House restoration project and her efforts to shape the memory of her husband with pomp and honor, Jackie is a film whose central character is revealed between private disclosures and media displays. The memory of Robert Drew’s Primary hangs over Jackie, as Natalie Portman brings to life this woman quite aware of what’s won and lost by being observed. Larraín’s visual approach (realized by director of photography Stéphane Fontaine) is to keep Portman up front in a conspicuous manner that highlights how Jackie shifted to the center of her late husband’s political world for a short span of days that would establish an official story of life, death, and mourning, as well as several off the record accounts that complicate the official story. Portman’s Jackie, walking through corridors and rooms and sitting for conversation against a backdrop of Mica Levi’s overwhelming musical score, is trying to keep it all together for herself, for her kids, and for a nation. Jackie finds herself stuck in a moment that would define cultural memory. This film offers new ways of looking at the moment and memory. — Thomas Britt

PopMatters’ Best Films of 2016: Page 4

Film: The Jungle Book

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris

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The Jungle Book

Disney called on the talented Jon Favreau to bring one of its favored properties, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, to life in a live-action version using the latest in CG and 3D technology and the results are simply breathtaking. Think of the animals in Life of Pi or the wholly immersive world of Avatar stretched out through one of the most familiar boy’s adventure tale ever, and you have some idea of this movie’s magic. Then take all this to a new, almost unbelievable level, and you’ve got what the House of Mouse excels at: timeless entertainment. — Bill Gibron

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

Director: Travis Knight

Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey

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Kubo and the Two Strings

The moviemakers at Laika continue to vindicate those who believe that the classical aesthetic philosophies of George Méliès and Carl Theodor Dreyer are still viable in today’s CGI-dominated cinema sphere. Off-kilter, dark gems like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014) have made the Oregon-based independent studio the modern-day standard-bearer for hand-crafted, stop-motion animation, and with Kubo and the Two Strings they raise the bar yet again. It’s their most ambitious feature yet: a sprawling, Kurosawa/Harryhausen-inspired fable about, well, the power of fables. — Bernard Boo

Read the full review here.

 

Film: La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt

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La La Land

It starts joyously, on a car-choked freeway, and ends in Hollywood, with a kind of heartbreak. In between those moments, La La Land conjures up the Golden Era of musicals. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel constricted by the rules of those old studio vehicles, but instead, stretches their possibilities. Chazelle uses the formula as a springboard for a fresh take on movie romance, a story about a guy and a gal trying to make it in the City of Angels. A delight in just about every way, La La Land deserves the praise being hurled its way. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

 

Film: The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina)

Director: Jan P. Matuszynski

Cast: Andrzej Seweryn, Dawid Ogrodnik, Aleksandra Konieczna

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The Last Family

The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina) is a rich, surprisingly funny and achingly poignant drama based on the last 25 years in the life of Zdzisław Beksiński, the highly revered Surrealist painter and photographer. Beksiński’s art was known for its apocalyptic visions of death and decay. As its title indicates, The Last Family is also deeply concerned with loss and mortality, but it approaches those issues in a relatable way that’s as humble as it is insightful. Eschewing obvious attention to sociopolitical context, the focus is firmly on family dynamics and the rhythms of domestic life, from which wider resonances emerge. — Alex Ramon

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Love & Friendship

Director: Whit Stillman

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel

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Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship roils through Georgian England’s aristocratic prattle with unctuous yearning. There’s clear affection for the language and the period. Characters orate in near Shakespearian tropes in rooms appointed with gilded detail, and in countrysides and courtyards are awash in dulcet grays. The film, derived from the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, (while borrowing its title from another Austen work) transforms the epistolary into a tight portrait of a woman of no fear in a country on the edge of upheaval. Stillman has crafted a marvelously modern tale from the narrative found in Austen’s knowing fictional correspondence. The writer/director paints his play on the front of old postcards seemingly with the exactness of a fine-tipped brush dipped in sepia-loosening words upon his unlikely canvas. — Daniel Rasmus

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Loving

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon

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Loving

Filmmaker Jeff Nichols doesn’t write stories in three acts. His films aren’t overly didactic. Though he does arrive at themes through personal means, his plot lines are so thoughtfully drawn and his characters so well-defined that his authorial voice cedes to the lives being dramatized. Though his characters are creations, their story worlds feel real. Loving is a breakthrough for Nichols because with this film he shows an account of two very real individuals whose lives have affected incalculable others in the period of time since the events of the film took place. In 1967, Mildred and Richard Loving were at the center of the Loving v. Virginia United States Supreme Court case that considered the constitutionality of a scheme “to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications.” The Court concluded “that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment,” overturning the Lovings’ convictions and canceling the enforcement and existence of anti-miscegenation laws. While such a milestone decision might result in a courtroom drama, Nichols takes his cue from the quiet, unassuming characters who wanted nothing to do with the drama of activism. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are remarkable as Mildred and Richard, each embodying a distinct opinion of what to do with an opportunity to be heard in court, but both primarily committed to caring for each other and their kids. Loving covers about a decade of this relationship, envisioning the ideal of a patient love that endures many things and in so doing forever changes a nation. — Thomas Britt

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Maggie’s Plan

Director: Rebecca Miller

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore

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Maggie’s Plan

Maggie’s Plan looks like the screwball comedy that Noah Baumbach has been trying to make with Greta Gerwig. Both Mistress America and Frances Ha tilt toward this movie’s focus on questions of purpose and permanence in an uncertain age. With its brightly generous mood and assured feminism, Miller’s movie doubles down on the strength and resilience of its women. Maggie’s Plan is a genuinely satisfying romantic comedy. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

PopMatters’ Best Films of 2016: Page 5

Film: Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

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Manchester by the Sea

Lonergan’s profane and bracing script refuses to leave life to the side. It manages the pivot from mournfulness to humor without making either seem like an easy out. Surprisingly, this is a genuinely funny film, helped along in large part by Casey Affleck’s pinpoint deadpan and also Lucas Hedges’ affecting performance. Affleck’s performance forms a remarkable center for the film. If some viewers may resist his cool distance in the present-day scenes, his roustabout energy and sarcastic verve in the flashbacks are infectious. They help to underline that the quietude Affleck deploys through most of the film is far from flat; he plays the silences like a fiddle. In Lonergan’s intricate character study, Affleck’s deadpan grief and humor remind us that he is among America’s best actors. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton

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Midnight Special

Watching Nichols’ compelling sci-fi thriller is like taking a masterclass in mood and style. This spiritual cousin to Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. is a realistic affair that barely slows down long enough to breathe. Part road movie, part mind-screw, Nichols’ brooding character study makes judicious use of special effects to punctuate the emotional drama. Impressive child actor Jaeden Lieberher continues to amaze as a telekinetic kid who knows too much, while Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon anchor the frenetic action swirling around them. Nichols packs plenty of detail and misdirection into a story that tantalizes with unanswerable questions. Sure, the script has plot holes big enough to drive a spaceship through, but Midnight Special is the kind of thoughtful sci-fi that helps keep the genre alive. — J. R. Kinnard

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert

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Moonlight

Identity lies at the heart of Barry Jenkins’ astonishing sophomore feature. Working through three stages of the life of a young black man from Florida, he tears stereotypes to shreds in a whirl of woozy visuals and haunting isolation. Chiron the kid, Chiron the teenager, and Chiron the young man (played brilliantly by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in turn) struggle with a host of issues from race to family, crime and sexuality. In a lesser film, any single signifier could have been used to define Chiron. Instead, Moonlight presents a person who is all the things we might lazily expect, and a thousand more besides. — Stephen Mayne

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon

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Nocturnal Animals

Near-naked ladies cavort on the enlarged frame in slow-motion close-up. The sizeable sirens brazenly fill the dimensions of our headspace with their Rubenesque, carefree side-shuffling and baton twirling. They seem to seductively dance for our pleasure, irrespective of how uncomfortable the close proximity of the over-sharing spectacle may make us feel. The camera then shows us they are the latest video installation at Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) achingly trendy L.A. gallery, where the staff dress like deconstructed asterisks, punctuating their own lives with unspoken disclaimers. You have been watching A Piece of Art. If you can get on board with those knowingly reflexive opening scenes, in which the notions of conventional beauty and desire collide with the darker impulses and repulses coursing through our collective consciousness, then you’ll be fine with director / fashion designer Tom Ford’s tale of Morrow’s wispy midlife crisis, onset by the delivery of her ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) potentially auto-metaphorical manuscript. Discussions surrounding Nocturnal Animals may focus on Tom Ford’s apparent rejection of the glamorous world that afforded him recognition, but the film offers us much more than just surface depth. — Carl Wilson

Read the full review here.

 

Film: O.J.: Made in America

Director: Ezra Edelman

Cast: Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti, Mark Fuhrman

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O.J.: Made in America

In a year filled with impressive films about the black experience in America — ranging from caustic documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro to heart-warming but steel-spined historical dramas like Hidden Figures — Ezra Edelman’s five-part, nearly eight-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson stands out. Originally broadcast on ESPN and given a limited theatrical run, Edelman’s rivetingly dramatic film uses the arc of Simpson’s life to trace an alternate racial history of modern America. What will surprise many viewers, such as the exponentially larger audience that watched the narrative cable miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson, is actually how little of the film covers the Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman murders and the trial that followed. Only two of the five episodes cover that part of Simpson’s life. Everything else here feeds into that tragedy. From his youth in the San Francisco projects, to being a star athlete at USC and later first black pitchman in a major advertising campaign, Simpson fought to transcend race in a society that never fully allows that. Edelman shows how, even while Simpson surrounded himself with white friends and chased after every dollar and moment of TV time, the drumbeat of race and America continued in the background. Ultimately the film reveals Simpson’s trial to have been less about the killings themselves than an encapsulation of all the racial tension and toxic celebrity worship that had been roiling Southern California for years. It’s no overstatement, in fact, to say that the story of O.J. Simpson is actually America’s story, for better and much worse. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Paterson

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Helen-Jean Arthur

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Paterson

This was a year that frayed and frazzled our collective nerves in all kinds of ways, leading many of us to seek out films that restored a sense of goodness, perspective, balance and belief. One such movie was Jim Jarmusch’s lovely latest, a portrait of a New Jersey bus driver/poet (Adam Driver) going about his daily routine. A wry, observant ode to the poetry of everyday experience that’s as unassuming and as delightful as its protagonist, Paterson ranks as one of Jarmusch’s best, and certainly most warm and loving, works. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: Sing Street

Director: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor

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Sing Street

When first glimpsed in John Carney’s newest musical confection, ruddy-cheeked teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) looks like the kind of kid who’s set to be chewed up and spit out by the music industry, not to mention life itself. The setting for Sing Street is Dublin, circa 1985, where the black-robed authority of the Church still rules all and the ferry to England carries more dreamers and strivers to London each day. Faith in the transformative power of music courses through Sing Street like an electric current. — Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

PopMatters’ Best Films of 2016: Page 6

Film: Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical)

Director: Alain Guiraudie

Cast: Damien Bonnard, India Hair

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Staying Vertical

The meaning of the title of Guiraudie’s film doesn’t become clear until its very final moments: a scene that, in its mixture of the hopeful, the humorous and the deeply discomforting, pretty much encapsulates the film’s bizarre and slippery tonal shifts. One of the most controversial entries into The Cannes Festival Competition, is a fascinating enigma: by turns beautiful and grotesque, funny and scary, tender and surreal, Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical) is a haunting trip into the psyche of its protagonist that keeps the viewer constantly off-balance but continually engaged and intrigued. Open-minded audiences willing to follow the weird twists and turns of Guiraudie’s latest will find much to haunt and reward them here. — Alex Ramon

Read the full review here.

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Film: Summertime (La Belle Saison)

Director: Catherine Corsini

Cast: Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky

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Summertime

When it comes to crafting intense, serious-minded movies that really do justice to the disruptive and soul-shaking experience of falling in love, few do it like filmmakers working in France do it, these days. Catherine Corsini’s sublime Summertime (La Belle Saison) is another case in point, delicately and intelligently presenting the romance that develops between two women in the early ’70s. Corsini judges her ending perfectly here, building the drama to a heart-rendingly poignant finalé that’s truly worthy of this most beautiful and believable of love stories. — Alex Ramon

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Things to Come

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka

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Things to Come

Although the Isabelle Huppert of this stark and percussive intellectual drama is miles away from the troubled and borderline sadistic heroine she plays in Paul Verhoeven’s psycho-noir Elle, the characters share a fierceness and courage that makes Huppert one of the greatest actresses working today. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, Things to Come follows the slow-then-fast ways that the comfortable life of philosophy professor Nathalie (Huppert) falls apart. Her husband flits off to a midlife crisis affair, her vain mother has one attention-seeking catastrophe after another, and her publisher keeps grinding away at her work to make it less, well, philosophical. But instead of falling apart herself, Nathalie dives into the headwinds that modern life throws at the single woman of a certain age, eagerly seeking out a new identity and purpose. Hansen-Love brings a keen intelligence to the film’s dialogue, particularly the combative exchanges between the pragmatist Nathalie and an idealistic former student, that makes each scene sparkle with ideas and possibility. Huppert’s showier work in Elle is garnering more attention this year, but it’s the rigorous smarts she brings to this seemingly quieter story that will likely stand the test of time. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Under the Sun (V paprscích slunce)

Director: Vitaly Mansky

Cast: Lee Zin-Mi

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Under the Sun

From its start, the film reveals in a title card that “The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Koreans. They also kindly provided us with a round the clock escort services, chose our filmmaking locations, and looked over the footage we shot…” Under the Sun (V paprscích slunce) is intently focused on eight-year-old Zin-mi, her fascinating face, her restrained gestures, her openness and also her caution, her obvious effort to please and her occasional and barely discernible frustration. She embodies and expresses the film’s essential dilemma, that no truth is singular, that no story is simple. — Cynthia Fuchs

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Visaranai (Interrogation)

Director: Vetrimaaran

Cast: Dinesh, Aadukalam Murugadoss, Samuthirakani

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Visaranai

Venturing into emotional realms where other Indian films fear to tread, Visaranai (Interrogation) is director Vetrimaaran’s treatise about the vulnerable trapped in a nebulous system. Four young Tamil migrant workers, arrested for a crime they did not commit, find themselves in a slaughterhouse of a police station. To extract a false confession that would placate higher officials, cops torture the youths who are implicated in a political struggle involving the highest echelons of wealth and power. The working class men’s insistence on maintaining their dignity despite the humiliatingly painful ordeal and their encounters with the ruthless functionaries of the state constitutes the main narrative. Abjuring the usual song-and-dance intrusions, Visaranai makes its intentions to be a serious film very clear. — Kumuthan Maderya

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Weiner

Director: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg

Cast: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin

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Weiner

“The punch line of me is true,” Anthony Weiner admits, “I did those things, and I did a lot of other things.” Made by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, Weiner shows its titular subject talking — a lot. He speaks in interviews, at press conferences, with his staff, and to New Yorkers, in crowds and one on one. If he’s not always assured, he is mostly quick and argumentative, ready to take on whoever comes at him, to answer questions, to make his case. The campaign, he says, is undertaken as a joint decision by him and his wife, a calculation to allow them to restore the rhythm of their lives after the sexting scandal that brought on his resignation from Congress. — Cynthia Fuchs

Read the full review here.

 

Film: Weiner-Dog

Director: Todd Solondz

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts

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Weiner-Dog

After more than 20 years in the art-house spotlight, it goes without saying that Todd Solondz’ standard mode of storytelling involves putting characters in agonizing socio-familial circumstances. But there is value in distinguishing his nihilistic efforts, which grind his characters down purposelessly, from more affecting films like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Dark Horse, which are marketed as comedies but use tragedy to explore human longing. Wiener-Dog continues a narrative established in 1995’s Dollhouse and is perhaps Solondz’ most diverse and perceptive expression of the woe of wasting life. A traveling wiener-dog links stories of a child who has survived cancer, an adult Dawn Wiener, a screenwriting professor, and an aged woman. Across the stories, the hope of life is frustrated by anger, self-destruction, resentment, and negativity. But in each one, there’s also a reservoir of hope that could brighten the world if only the central characters would pay more attention to the voices of optimism or joy inhabiting their lives. Through the dialectic of gloom versus hope, Solondz confronts his own reputation as an artist and more importantly advances the recurring theme of all his work: childhood is hard, but growing up is worse. Wiener-Dog is shocking not for its political incorrectness or general audacity (which we’ve come to expect), but instead for its suggestion that youthful idealism needn’t expire or be turned into a weapon. Where found, it should be protected and nurtured so that it doesn’t run away. — Thomas Britt

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