Christopher Schobert’s Top 10 Films of 2016 (for The Film Stage)

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It’s always exciting to see my personal top 10 list for 2016 posted at The Film Stage. But it’s always difficult to call it “finished.” Here’s how things stand … at the moment.

Ignore any suggestion that 2016 was not a fantastic year for cinema. Moments linger (the campfire dance in American Honey, the final encounter in Certain Women, the Tracy Letts–Logan Lerman debate in Indignation, the first ten minutes of High-Rise, both “Camelot”-soundtracked sequences in Jackie, any scene that featured Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash) and performances resonate (everyone in Moonlight, Emma Stone in La La Land, Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters).

Choosing ten favorites and five honorable mentions is nasty business; I wish I could have included Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, a ridiculously underrated film that does not deserve to be remembered as a flop. But it just missed the cut. (Also, I was unable to see Silence in time for end-of-year consideration.) What these fifteen films have in common is the ability to surprise, confound, and delight in equal measure. Let’s see 2017 top that.

Honorable Mentions

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10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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The finest film of summer was Shane Black’s non-blockbuster The Nice Guys, a wildly funny, seriously involving slice of 70s noir. Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and (soon-to-be-a-megastar) Angourie Rice are perfectly cast, and somehow the plotline seems fresh. It is such a satisfying viewing experience, in fact, that I found myself desperately hoping that it would kick off a franchise. That’s not to be, but that’s OK — we have The Nice Guys to enjoy forever.

 

9. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

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From start to finish, A Bigger Splash is beautifully disorienting. This tangled web of relationships and insecurities is highlighted by Tilda Swinton’s (voice-resting) rock star, and, of course, by Ralph Fiennes. He is a delightfully gyrating force of nature who is somehow not a lock for an Oscar nom. You’ll never hear “Emotional Rescue” again without picturing his moves. Even when offscreen, Fiennes’s aging record producer feels deeply involved. Clearly, Splash cements Luca Guadagnino’s place on the list of the world’s most exciting filmmakers.

 

8. Sing Street (John Carney)

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Like La La Land, the best moments of John Carney’s Sing Street felt charged by an almost relentless sense of positivity. What makes that accomplishment so remarkable is that much of the film is rooted in poverty, heartbreak, and sadness. That sadness, however, is balanced by some gobsmackingly fun music. And in the “Drive Like You Mean It” sequence, Sing Street truly achieves emotional liftoff. The film also takes the crown for must-own soundtrack of 2016.

 

7. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

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Where did American Honey come from? It’s hard not to ask that question while watching Andrea Arnold’s film, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie. A cast of unknowns (and a never-better Shia LaBeouf) excels at making this crew of magazine-hawking teens seem startlingly real. It’s a long journey — over two and a half hours — but never drags. In fact, Honey seems to fly by, so intoxicating is its mix of fiction and (quasi) reality.

 

6. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

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In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch makes the everyday riveting. And much of the credit has to go to Adam Driver, whose bus driver-poet is quite unlike any artist we’ve seen onscreen before. The same can be said of his wife, Laura, played by a luminescent Golshifteh Farahani. It’s the most effortless film of Jarmusch’s career, and certainly the most moving. It also features the most unexpectedly heartbreaking scene of the year, involving Driver, Farahani, a poorly behaved dog named Marvin, and a book of poems.

 

5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

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The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Jo Yeong-wook, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound.

 

4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is wise, funny, and wholly original. This is the family drama reimagined, in visually intoxicating fashion. The performances stand out, especially Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Yet it’s Mills’ script that resonates strongest; there are a few lines from Bening that seem to capture what it truly feels like to be a parent. Interestingly, it seems 20th Century Women is already underrated.

 

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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Watching Moonlight is a wondrous experience. This coming-of-age drama following a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life never strikes a wrong note, and it always surprises. Barry Jenkins has crafted something extraordinary here, and it will be fascinating to see what he does next. In the meantime, let’s rewatch Moonlight, a film to be treasured and analyzed for years to come.

 

2. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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Pablo Larraín’s Jackie upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a piercingly smart, emotionally probing script. The film belongs to Natalie Portman, but the entire cast stands out, especially John Hurt. With Jackie (and his other late-2016 release, Neruda), Larrain has deconstructed the film biography, and it’s thrilling to watch. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent historical figure that feels as emotionally affecting.

 

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

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Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles-set musical lives up to the the fall festival hype. And my goodness, that’s saying something. Wonderfully unrealistic, even its flaws (and there are a few) are endearing. The songs, the performances from Gosling and Stone (the look on her face when the Messengers’ burst into life in concert might be the most perfect reaction of 2016), and that opening are unforgettable. But these are all topped by its dazzling final sequence, which sees La La Land practically explode with a mixture of joy and melancholy. The result is a film that leaves the viewer in a state of bliss — high on the feeling that comes from great cinema.

My top 10 films of 2015: Carol, Phoenix, The Force Awakens and more

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It was a strong year in cinema, so strong, in fact, that I could not include many of my 2015 favorites on my top 15 list. Consider a few of the films that did not make the cut: The Duke of Burgundy, What We Do In the Shadows, ’71, While We’re Young, Eden, Paddington, Saint Laurent, It Follows, When Marnie Was There, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Brooklyn, Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Inside Out, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, Mistress America, Goodnight Mommy, Breathe, James White. (If I’d seen The Revenant in time, it’s possible it would have made my top 10. At the very least, it’d be in the top 15.)

Here’s what did make the cut — my top 10 list as submitted to The Film Stage, along with five honorable mentions. My top 15 films are followed by the write-ups I contributed to the site’s top 50 list: The Look of Silence, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Phoenix.

Individual Ballot:
Honorable Mention: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Tribe, Straight Outta Compton, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. Anomalisa
8. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Room
6. Son of Saul
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. Spotlight
1. Carol

Top 50 write-ups:
19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.