Judging 2016: The Lists, Volume 4, “The Cinema Edition”

I’d hoped to get this post out before the end of January but then life happened, so it was a scramble to watch as many 2016 films as possible, get this written, and also turn in my homework on time. I’m largely happy with the representation of films I saw last year, but if down the road I stumble across something new that captures my heart, I’ll be sure to let y’all know.

Before I start with my own list, every year Letterboxd posts their own Year in Review, complete with stats, quotes, and reflections about last year’s cinematic offerings. Always included is a beautifully edited montage sequence of David Ehrlich’s tribute to his top 25 films of the past year. It’s a great way to remember 2016 and then add some more films to your “to-watch” list.

But finally I bring you my own favorite films of last year and my last reflection list for 2016:

1. Captain Fantastic
While I don’t think this was the “greatest” film of last year, Captain Fantastic was certainly my favorite. Viggo Mortenson plays a father determined to raise his children outside of the reach of society’s rampant materialism, narcissism, and coddling. The children grow up in the wilderness, learning to raise and hunt for their own food, while also studying the humanities and sciences at a university level. The kids are brilliant and self-sufficient, but when they come into contact with their family and others from the “outside”, it’s a serious culture shock. The movie is beautiful, sad, funny, and a profound reflection on life, death, family, and humanity’s constructed ideas about societal norms and expectations. (Also if you happen to be a grad student….there are lots of wonderful nerdy references that will make you laugh a little too hard.)

2. Moonlight
Moonlight is the film that most film critics put at the top of their list and that most agree should have swept the awards this year. In some respects, the film is your typical “coming-of-age” narrative: we watch protagonist Chiron grow into a young man through three key episodes in his life. But the typical ends there. I really have no idea how to describe this film because it is like nothing I have seen before. Josh and I left the theater in awed silence. It is truly a masterpiece. Just go see it.

3. Jackie
I’m going to share the review of Jackie that I posted on Letterboxd here: “Two exhausting, painful and beautiful hours that offer just a glimpse into the lonely burden that was Jackie’s complicated grief. A powerful and historic performance from Natalie Portman, and absolutely brilliant and insightful editing. I’m going to need a few weeks to process this one.”
It’s a few weeks later . . . and I am still processing.

4. Always Shine
I saw Always Shine at the Denver Film Festival last year, and I posted about it then. Here’s what I wrote: “Always Shine is a psychological thriller starring MacKenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Caitlin Fitzgerald (Masters of Sex) as best friends whose relationship has recently come under strain. Both women are actresses trying to make it in Hollywood but with unequal success. In order to try to restore their friendship, they plan a weekend retreat in Big Sur; however, the weekend quickly falls apart. 
One might expect a cliché film capitalizing on the tropes of “female friendship drama”; however, the film brilliantly and directly tackles those tropes in the narrative. From the beginning, we see how the women are operating inside a world constructed for them by men, where the lines they speak either on set or in daily life are interpreted and understood from the male perspective. As the tension builds, the viewer quickly realizes that the struggle in the film is not between the female characters but, in fact, between the women and the patriarchy which tries to dictate their story. Takal cleverly plays with the traditional elements of the horror genre, subverting our expectations of the “virginal” and “promiscuous” characters. All this takes place against the perfect backdrop of the creepy but beautiful Big Sur forests and oceanscapes.”

5. Knight of Cups
The final of my top five is Terrence Mallick’s latest piece, which I was lucky enough to see at its Los Angeles Premiere at the Ace Hotel Theater. Knight of Cups in true Mallick tradition is an abstract, visually poetic piece that doesn’t follow a clear-cut narrative but rather draws you into an emotional journey through compelling cinematic landscapes. The backdrop to Knight of Cups is Hollywood and its dysfunction, but it tells a much larger story about the struggles of making art and wrestling with tragedy. If you like your films to fit an understandable structure, this is probably not the film for you, but if you want to try something that will ask you to let go of your preconceived notions about what “cinema” is and just go for a ride, try it out. At any rate, you’ll get to spend the whole time with Christian Bale, which is never time wasted. 😉

Special Mentions:

  • SilenceMartin Scorsese’s exquisite retelling of Shusaku Endo’s famous novel about Jesuit missionaries venturing into a feudal Japan determined to eradicate Christianity from the land. It’s complicated, painful, heart-breaking, and insightful. Not an easy one to watch, but one that should be watched. This is easily one of his greatest films.
  • The LobsterThis is a dark comedy starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz about a dystopian world where everyone is required to have a romantic partner. If you end up single, you get sent to this hotel to try make a match. If you fail, you get turned into the animal of your choice to try again for a match in the animal kingdom. Quirky, weird, and wonderful.
  • Rogue One: I can’t finish this list without a nod to the marvelous new Star Wars story, featuring my favorite actress Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a hero of the resistance. It was an amazing addition to the Star Wars canon, greatly enriching the narrative of Episode 4: A New Hope.

What were your favorite films? Shocked something didn’t make my list? Think I may have missed a fantastic film from 2016? Let me know in the comments and as always be sure to subscribe!

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