Is it too late to crank out a top 10 films list of 2016? Well, the Oscars still haven’t aired, so I guess not entirely.
A quick author’s note before we dive in: some of the entries on this list will surely rub people the wrong way. Not necessarily because of their merit, but because of me classifying them as “movies.”
My definition of a movie is admittedly liberal; any cinematic work that exceeds a length of 40 minutes, and is the cohesive vision of one singular director is a film, no matter how long it is and in what format it is released.
With that out of the way, we begin with …
10. American Honey
Andrea Arnold’s sprawling epic about those American youths native to Walmart parking lots manages to take a class of people so easily lampooned and turn them into wholly realized and sympathetic characters. Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf give two of the best performances of the year in this beautifully entrancing and darkly sweet road trip film.
9. Sausage Party
Please hear me out, because this is a genuine work of art. This film continues a tradition spanning from The Producers to Borat of transgressively funny cinema, and those two got Oscar nominations! Seth Rogen and friends manage to take sexual repression and the absurdities of religious warfare and turn those topics into a laugh-a-minute joyride of absurdity. The last 10 minutes alone are worth your time; you will never forget them.
8. 20th Century Women
The most humane film of the year. Set in the sunbaked California ‘70s, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and the incomparable Greta Gerwig try to navigate each other’s lives while discovering themselves in a world of Carter, punk rock and second-wave feminism. Mike Mills has an uncanny ability to create characters that he loves, and that you in turn are able to love, without forgetting to ask probing moral questions of those characters.
7. O.J.: Made in America
Sporting a runtime of over seven hours, this documentary takes a look at iconic American fascinations (i.e. race relations, celebrity, sexuality and success) through the lens of O.J. Simpson. Never dragging for a moment, Ezra Edelman crafts perhaps the most essential American film of the 21st century. Don’t let its length scare you.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
This movie is straight up fun. The spiritual sequel to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, we follow a freshman named Jake as he and his baseball buddies drink, smoke and try to get laid before classes begin. The entire ensemble cast gels effortlessly, and you can’t help but fall in love with these hilarious frat bros … I can’t believe I just wrote that last clause.
5. Horace and Pete
Louis C.K. proves that he is, perhaps, the best American tragedian since Arthur Miller. Featuring fantastic performances across the board, we bare witness to the hilarious and miserable lives of cousins Horace and Pete in the bar their family built in the early 20th century. This work of art resists simple categorization, often feeling like a stage play accidentally caught on camera, but this seven-hour odyssey deserves your attention, no matter what you want to call it.
4. The Night Of
Yeah, it’s technically a mini-series, but it fits my criteria and it’s worth your time either way! In turns a rigorous police procedural, a probing look at the American prison system, a commentary on race relations and a sincere character study, The Night Of is a simple story of a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where Steven Zaillian goes from there will keep you glued to your screen for the next eight hours.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck plays a janitor in Boston whose brother has suddenly passed away. What happens next are two of the most relentlessly heartbreaking hours ever committed to film. Kenneth Lonergan pens the best script of 2016, that fearlessly and honestly intermingles brutal hilarity, genuine characters, and dour realism. Have some tissues ready.
Imagine how good a film about a black gay man must be for it to receive eight Oscar nominations. Barry Jenkins’s beautiful, melancholic observations on the existence of black, gay men in the south is that film. Told through an unconventional three act structure, we follow Chiron as he struggles to live in his own skin. It is a cinematic experience; words are insufficient in describing it. It plants a seed in you that grows as you engage with it. Do yourself a favor and watch this masterpiece.
1. La La Land
This unironic love letter to old Hollywood and musicals is exactly the medicine we need for a Trump presidency. The songs are jubilant and catchy, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are effortlessly charming, and Damien Chazelle continues to show why he is one of the best young directors now.
I saw this film over a month ago and I still can’t stop listening to the soundtrack. People looking for a simple love story will be enraptured, and cinephiles will have plenty of homages and references to pick up on.
Is the hype obnoxious? Yeah, but it’s well deserved.