Proof this year wasn’t entirely terrible.
This year has been lousy for many, many reasons, including (on a less grave level than some of the others) the crummy state of sequels. And studios, you may have noticed, make a lot of sequels these days. That’s not to say there hasn’t been greatness out there in the movie theaters — you just had to look a little harder for it, amidst the indies and documentaries and foreign films and the occasional brilliant big comedy that flopped because we can’t have nice things.
Here’s a list of my personal favorites, one of which hasn’t reached theaters yet.
11. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Two scenes from the Lonely Island’s fizzy, terminally underappreciated ode to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and This Is Spinal Tap still make me laugh whenever I think of them. The first is a throwaway moment that’s comic perfection: After pop artist Conner’s (Andy Samberg) star has started plummeting upon the release of his second album, a news report features a glimpse of him drunkenly passed out on a moving hoverboard that promptly catches fire.
The second involves the movie’s TMZ-style show in which Will Arnett is the Harvey Levin, presiding over a newsroom staffed by Eric André, Mike Birbiglia, and Chelsea Peretti. They snicker and dish, and the cups they’re drinking out of get bigger and bigger. The whole thing looks fabulously like a previously undiscovered circle of hell.
10. Manchester by the Sea
For a movie that attempts to gut you with its portrayal of life-derailing tragedy and unshakable grief, Manchester by the Sea can be pretty funny. Credit its characters being a bunch of emotionally repressed Massholes who communicate largely via sarcasm and ball-busting. After Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) punches out a window in a burst of distress, the teenage nephew he’s been unexpectedly charged with caring for, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), asks what happened to his hand. “I cut it,” Lee replies curtly. “Oh, thanks,” Patrick sasses back. “For a minute there, I didn’t know what happened.”
Affleck’s gotten a lot of attention for his role as Lee, and a lot less for the sexual harassment claims from a few years back during production on I’m Still Here. Whatever the mysterious formula is involving severity of charges, skill of PR teams hired, and whiteness or lack thereof that determines whether allegations end up damaging careers, his don’t seem to be getting enough traction to slow his Oscar roll.
He is undeniably good in the film, as is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife who delivers the movie’s most wrenching monologue, as well as Hedges, particularly when Patrick’s feelings finally come welling up beyond his control like a bout of nausea. But it’s the film’s writer-director Kenneth Lonergan who deserves the bulk of the praise — in his third feature, his appreciation for the unpredictability of the human experience and the unknowability of the human heart continues to astound.
9. The Edge of Seventeen
Know what the The Edge of Seventeen captures about being a teenager that almost no teen movies ever get right? It’s that bone-deep certainty, even when you know logically that it can’t be true, that no one in history has ever felt the same wash of emotions that you’re experiencing, and so you will never be understood. The film’s angst-tornado of a heroine Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) isn’t shitty to other people by design, but she is, nevertheless, totally shitty because she can barely see beyond the maelstrom of her own adolescence-addled feelings.
And so Nadine snipes at and resents her seemingly perfect brother (Blake Jenner) and dumps her best and only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) when the two start dating. She’s obliviously cruel to the bashful dreamboat (Hayden Szeto) who has a crush on her. And she makes all sorts of assumptions about the amused teacher (Woody Harrelson) whose time she feels entitled to. Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut is so sharply funny and bright with the understanding both that empathy is something that has to be built up, and that being a teenager can feel like drowning in your own experiences.
8. O.J: Made in America
From the life and times of Orenthal James Simpson, documentarian Ezra Edelman managed to spin out what feels like a profound unified theory of race and celebrity in the United States. Most viewers encountered the 467-minute documentary as a miniseries when O.J.: Made in America made the leap from festivals and theaters to ABC and ESPN as the apex of the latter’s 30 for 30 series. But for the binge-warriors and endurance sitters who braved the nearly eight hours at once, O.J.: Made in America demonstrated a grandeur of scope and a richness of analysis that absolutely worked as a whole. Edelman examined such a wealth of topics through the lens of Simpson’s football career, rise to fame, marriage to Nicole Brown, murder trial, and aftermath that the doc feels, if anything, almost too short.
O.J.: Made in America finds in Simpson both a deeply flawed man and an ever-shifting symbol, upon whom a nation’s fractured experiences with regard to racism and identity were projected. When the film gets to the trial and all it entailed, it feels like it should be hitting its high point, but the high point turns out to actually be the sad, tawdry episodes that come next — Simpson’s road toward the Lovelock Correctional Center, where he is today, all good will finally exhausted.
7 & 6. Things to Come / Elle
No matter how garbage 2016 has been, at least it gave us the opportunity to witness Isabelle Huppert cement her cinematic goddess status with two milestone performances in two excellent films. She’s terrifying and hilarious as a video game company owner recovering from a sexual assault in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It’s a risky flick that would have been a disaster in anyone else’s hands, but in hers, it becomes something bitingly terrific. And she’s warmly, thrillingly present in Mia Hansen-Løve’s bittersweet Things to Come, exuding vitality as a philosophy professor who finds her marital and professional ties dropping away at the same time. One of these movies is bold and outlandish, and the other is intimate and understated — but together, they make for an indelible double feature about two women of a certain age reshaping their lives in the face of unexpected freedom. They’re ventures into underexplored territory that Huppert makes downright entrancing.
5. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is a West Texas Western directed by a Brit (David Mackenzie). It’s an adrenaline-ridden bank robber saga fueled by the economic distress that may or may not have been pivotal to this year. It’s the best thing that Chris Pine, in the role of the broke, divorced, desperate, and newly criminal Toby Howard, has ever done. But what really makes Hell or High Water one of the best films of the year is its enjoyment in screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue — the movie takes time to showcase its characters shooting the shit, to the point in which this rangy crime thriller feels as comfy as a pair of broken-in boots.
There’s just so much delicious bickering, between Toby and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster), and between Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the Rangers tracking them down while they’re on their spree. For all the nail-biting merit of the movie’s chase and action sequences, nothing tops the moment in which the two law enforcement officials stop by a diner for lunch; Bridges and Birmingham get the scene stolen from them by the 88-year-old Margaret Bowman as a waitress who dares them to order anything but steak. It’s a segment that adds nothing to the story but everything to the dusty, lived-in world Hell or High Water so carefully lays out.
4. Mountains May Depart
Everyone who claims that the final segment of Jia Zhangke’s quarter-century-spanning movie is the worst makes the same points. So, sure: The last third is written in somewhat clunky English, a language which isn’t Jia’s first. It moves the film from the firmer territory of China in 1999 and 2014 and into Australia in 2025, where it acquires a light sci-fi sheen that could come across as silly. And it shifts the focus away from the winsome Tao (Zhao Tao), the movie’s soul, to follow the now-grown son, Dollar (Dong Zishan), she’s long been separated from.
But that last section, the end of a triptych in which the movie’s aspect ratio widens but its characters’ horizons seem to shrink, is also an achingly good rendition of rootlessness. It longingly closes out an epic saga about how much its characters have thrown away as they rush toward a promised expansive future. Tao lets Dollar go with his wealthy father (Zhang Yi) when the couple divorces because she thinks her son’s life will be better and filled with more opportunities that way. And yet, adrift in that last part, he feels like a casualty of modernization rather than a beneficiary of it, and he’s not the movie’s only one. Dollar feels neither Chinese nor Australian, and he and his depressive dad have no common tongue and share a house as strangers who happen to be related. The movie renders, in poetic terms, that diaspora can come with a price.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s absolutely fascinating documentary about Anthony Weiner’s doomed New York City mayoral run premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year and came out in theaters in May. By August, Weiner was embroiled in yet another sexting scandal, and his wife, Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin, had separated from him. By September, his laptop was seized after allegations that one of his online relationships was with an underage girl. By October, the FBI was announcing an investigation into a new round of Clinton emails they’d found on that computer, one that ultimately didn’t change their original findings exonerating the presidential candidate but that sure had some unfortunate timing. Just how much damage could one man’s obsession with his own penis cause? So goddamn much.
But all of this only made the film more relevant and more excruciating, a too-good-to-be-fiction portrait of a man whose tireless desire for the spotlight is both his political superpower and ultimate weakness. Whether it’s from the public, the press, or online paramours he’ll never meet in person (until one of them, Sydney Leathers, tries to chase him down as a publicity stunt), he reaches for attention like an addict, while the miserable Abedin lingers in the background, wondering what she signed on for in marrying him. It’s the same all-consuming need that leads Weiner to let these documentarians and their cameras keep rolling long after any rational person would have made them stop, allowing them such excruciatingly intimate access that even they ask him what he’s thinking. It’s a film that slyly suggests wanting to run for office is a disorder unto itself.
There’s been so much talk about how important Barry Jenkins’ masterful coming-of-age film about growing up black and gay in Miami is — so much that it’s easy to overlook that it’s also both tender and totally hot. So a moment of appreciation: The scene in which teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) hook up on the beach at night is as headily sexy as it is giddy with lust and terror, Chiron’s fingers curling in the sand as he loses his virginity to a friend and gains a secret he knows could be used to destroy him at school the next day. When it is, the kiss Chiron got that night gets mirrored, in the bright sunlight, by the punch Kevin’s made to throw. Their fight is, in a darker way, just as grounded in sensory details — in Chiron continuing to stand up and take the hits despite Kevin’s pleas that he stay down, lifting his chin high and letting a terrible lesson about the price of vulnerability crystalize inside him.
When we next catch up with Chiron, he’s an adult played by Trevante Rhodes and kitted out with a grill and a set of muscles intended to broadcast to the world he’s not to be fucked with — untouchable and lonely in the hardness he’s sought out. It makes the way he lets his guard down when reconnecting with Kevin (André Holland) all the sweeter, allowing some hope, if not the assurance of a happy ending. That sequence of the two men in the diner is one of the most romantic of the year, and all of it comes from the way its leads look at each other from either side of a table or from across the room.
1. Toni Erdmann
The two most brilliant sequences in Toni Erdmann are masterpieces of timing. One involves a work party thrown by the uptight thirtysomething Ines (the incredible Sandra Hüller) that includes escalating comedic nudity on a level that Judd Apatow can only dream of. The other finds Ines getting manipulated into belting “Greatest Love of All” in front of a room full of bewildered strangers, a scene that made the theater burst into applause the first time I saw the film. I bawled through both of these sections, which shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they don’t work, but rather as one of how incredibly well they do, and on how many levels.
Toni Erdmann is the story of a shaggy-haired prankster named Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a man who never leaves home without his favorite set of false teeth. He decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter Ines in Bucharest in an attempt to repair a relationship that’s grown strained and distant. When it goes badly, he sticks around and shows up in her life by introducing himself as a stranger, a fellow worldly sophisticate who goes by the name of the movie’s title. It sounds like a comedy, but it feels like something so much more complicated — a movie that is, as German filmmaker Maren Ade has put it, more “about humor,” especially its uses and limitations as a buffer for emotional pain. It is heartbreak in the form of an extended practical joke.
It’s also a movie that engages with a particularly 21st-century awareness of the extent to which you’re being stepped on (Ines weathers unthinking sexism at work) and are the one doing the stepping (Ines also enables layoffs and corporate leveraging of the Romanian economy). It deftly explores the gap between a father’s experiences and a daughter’s, and between ’60s bohemianism and Gen X resignation. But more than anything, Toni Erdmann is about how someone can wound you with their best intentions, about the sting of being told by someone you love that they just want you to be happy, when happiness feels not just elusive but impossible. Love means really knowing how to hurt someone in Toni Erdmann, without even intending to. But what are you going to do, live without it?