Mark Reviews Movies

The 10 Best Films of 2016

GleasonGreen RoomThe HandmaidenHell or High WaterJackieKrishaManchester by the SeaMoonlightSing StreetTower

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Article by Mark Dujsik | December 26, 2016

Here are the ten best films of 2016:

10. The Handmaiden
This invigorating exercise in shifting perspectives and sympathies tells the story of con artists in Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. These are characters who attempt to lie, cheat, and steal their way into the heart of another person, only to discover that they have cheated—or have been cheated—themselves. It would be unfair to disclose the exact number of con artists in The Handmaiden. Part of the enjoyment of co-writer/director Chan-wook Park's film is discovering the extent of deception happening in front of us and behind the scenes. What can be revealed without giving away too much is that Park and Seo-kyung Chung's screenplay (based on Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith) is divided into three parts. Each part reveals a new layer deception, as well as an assortment of moral and emotional contradictions. It's a sensual film, not only in terms of its frankness about sex but also in its gorgeous aesthetic qualities. The film's central concern is with the motives behind the overlapping cons, allowing us to see these characters as the paradoxical entities that they are—capable of both giving pleasure and inflicting pain. In this film, those two states are interchangeable. It all depends on one's perspective.

9. Tower
Everything one would expect from a film about a historical event is present in Tower: talking heads, archival photographs, news reports, and dramatic recreations to fill in the narrative gaps. Even so director Keith Maitland's film is a daring piece of documentary filmmaking. The recreations have actors play the people involved in the 1966 murders at the University of Texas, where a man killed 14 people (including the unborn child of an 8-months-pregnant woman) and wounded 32 others while holding a position on the observation deck of the tower in the university's main building for over 90 minutes. Those actors are then animated through rotoscoping. The effect is intentionally unnatural. It is distancing but never distracting. That distancing effect is clearly intentional, too. We are witnessing something that we could never truly understand what it's like to experience. It also challenges the notion that violence like this, which happens with more frequency now, is seen as normal. The narrative jumps between the accounts of the survivors, as we hear and see harrowing stories of pain and courage. The film's power is in its clear-eyed documentation of what happened that day, and it's also in the deliberate juxtaposition of cinematic form and reality.

8. Hell or High Water
The combination of desperate men and desperate times leads to an inevitable result in Hell or High Water, a cops-and-robbers drama that makes room for sympathy for both sides. This is a film about life-and-death situations, a race against time, and the effects of the financial crisis on ordinary folks. It's also a film, though, that will put all of these concerns on hold in order to portray the mood and tenor of this place—West Texas—and the people within it. Billboards announce "debt relief" and other promises of returning to financial normalcy. A waitress at a local diner has a particular way of taking orders, while a man at another diner waxes philosophical about the absurdity of robbing banks in this day and age. The robbers are brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). The cops are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gives us a sense that the parties could have a pleasant conversation over a steak dinner under different circumstances, while director David Mackenzie establishes an inescapable backdrop of small-town poverty, based on a broken a system and shattered promises. This is a simple but perceptive, morally ambiguous, and detailed piece of storytelling.

7. Krisha
Nobody sets out to become the villain, and no one sees himself or herself in the role of the villain in one's own story. Krisha (a tremendous Krisha Fairchild), the eponymous central figure of writer/director Trey Edward Shults' debut feature film, is about as close to fulfilling the role as a person can when at a family Thanksgiving dinner. The character was an addict, who has been away from her family to get healthy. Now, she has returned into the fold, and Krisha follows the increasingly uncomfortable events from her perspective. Shults' camera simply, expertly moves with Krisha as she attempts to maneuver her way into a sense of normalcy with her family again. It's a dizzying experience, as the character's paranoia about the family's thoughts about her become our own suspicions about them and Krisha. There's a connection between the film's fiction and the reality of Shults' life (various family members play the family members in the film), which might explain why all of the film's elements are so deeply felt and clearly communicated. We can understand the family's trepidation about having Krisha around, and but we're invested in and sympathetic toward Krisha's gradual realization that she is both the destructive antagonist the wounded protagonist in her own story.

6. Green Room
Here is a ferocious, relentless thriller. Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room gives us characters who are capable of mistakes and puts them into circumstances in which one mistake can have lethal consequences. The plot is simple: A struggling punk rock band takes a gig at a neo-Nazi club in the middle of nowhere, because they are in desperate need of money. Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) comes across the scene of a murder in the club's green room, leading the band to be imprisoned in said room. What unfolds is more or less a battle of wits between the quick-witted prisoners who have limited resources to employ, and their captors, who possess seemingly unlimited resources but are cautious to use them immediately. That's because Darcy (an icy Patrick Stewart), the gang's leader, wants to stage the witness' murders as accidents. With this film, Saulnier shows himself to be in the process of becoming one of our more effective and considerate filmmakers when it comes to violence. There are always repercussions to the story's brutally violent acts, so while, on the surface, the film is a crackling potboiler with a fatalistic sense of forward momentum, it also deals with the inconsistent beliefs of the senselessness of violence and the at-times necessity for it.

5. Gleason
Former professional football player Steve Gleason was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease.  The effects of the disease are terrifying: As it progresses, voluntary motor functions shut down, inhibiting and eventually stopping one's ability to move and speak. Gleason is an example of how multiple layers of courage can exist in one individual, and the mere existence Gleason, a documentary from director Clay Tweel about Gleason's life with ALS, reveals a significant layer. Through a series of video journals and footage of Gleason's home life, Tweel assembles a portrait of a man—a husband, a father, a son, a celebrity, a philanthropist—that does not intentionally hide or inadvertently obfuscate a single detail of Gleason's life. That includes the effects of the disease. Shortly after his diagnosis, Gleason learns that his wife Michel is pregnant, so he records video diaries as a way to pass on lessons to his son. The journals are where the film is at its most intimate. Gleason doesn't hold back on expressing his doubts and fears. He wants his son to know him—all of him. This includes him breaking down in tears after he watches some of his old entries, realizing that he sounds "ill." The film doesn't sugarcoat any of this. There's nothing noble about illness, but there is nobility in how some people approach the reality of it.

4. Sing Street
Sing Street may only be about "this kid, a girl, and the future," but that's just a simple way of saying it's about everything that matters. Writer/director John Carney's equally delightful and insightful film delves into the constant pangs and limitless possibilities of adolescence. The setting is Dublin in 1985. Ireland is in the midst of an economic crisis. These are the trying times in which the 15-year-old Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself, as his parents, in order to save money, send him to a local Catholic school filled with strict rules and rough bullies. Connor's only escape is music—namely the new wave bands of the decade. The girl is Raphina (Lucy Boynton). He decides to start a band in order to impress her. Carney starts with nostalgia for this place and time, but he doesn't stop there. The film allows its characters to live and breathe as far more than just representations of a lovingly recalled time. Carney's affection and empathy for these characters seems to have no limit, as Connor slowly realizes that there is much more to the people he knows—himself included—than what he sees on the surface. As for the film's music, the original songs accurately ape the style of the era and are especially catchy. Like the characters, the music evolves, and Carney effortlessly uses it as a way to communicate what's happening in these characters' lives.

3. Moonlight
Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about one person within the context of three, specific stages of his life: as a boy, a teenager, and a man. Writer/director Barry Jenkins' film is uncommonly attuned to the way that experiences shape everything about a person. Through three tremendous performances—one for each of the stages of the man's life—that somehow coalesce into a singular whole, we can spot the obvious differences and the subtle similarities in this individual as his life progresses. The character's name is Chiron. As a boy, he is called Little (Alex Hibbert). As a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), he has reclaimed his birth name. As a man, he calls himself Black (Trevante Rhodes), after a nickname someone else gave him as a teenager. This is a story of definitive moments and influences that only become so in retrospect. Some of these influences include his mother (played by Naomie Harris), who is only as present in his life as a drug addict can be, and Juan (Mahershala Ali, whose performance makes such an impact that the character's presence remains even after he is absent from the story), a drug dealer who imparts crucial lessons and an even more influential example. The film is filled with a sense of constant discovery—of the character learning about himself and the world, of us witnessing that character's evolution in unexpected and delicate ways, of seeing the emergence of Jenkins' uniquely bold and boldly confident voice as a filmmaker.

2. Jackie
President Kennedy has died. Mrs. Kennedy remains. It's a simple question at the heart of Jackie: Now that her husband is dead, who is Jackie Kennedy? The Jackie of director Pablo Larraín's film, played with courageous emotional honesty by Natalie Portman, certainly doesn't know. Even in death, her husband and his influence still hold a tight grip on this woman. Noah Oppenheim's screenplay is not a biography of the former First Lady. It's a character piece that takes three moments in Jackie Kennedy's life and plays them against each other. The first is an interview with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) about a week after the President's funeral. The second is a filmed tour of the White House in 1962, after the completion of an extensive restoration of the residence overseen by the First Lady. The third is the three-day period between Kennedy's assassination and his funeral.

That section of the story is the film's central one. It is about Jackie's shock, grief, and uncertainty, as well as her determination to ensure that her husband's funeral is the one she believes the man deserves. The conversation around Kennedy has turned from policy to legacy. The film is wise in the way it sees Jackie as a constructor of narratives, building her husband's legacy despite the knowledge that his presidential accomplishments are slim, and it's tragic in its recognition that those narratives have little to do with her. She has become a symbol of grief. Portman's performance and the film as a whole chip away at the shell of that icon of decorum and pity, presenting us with a more comprehensive understanding of her grief, strength, and foresight.

1. Manchester by the Sea
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's exceptional Manchester by the Sea, the best film of 2016, isn't just about grieving. It's also about how we avoid grieving—or at least try to avoid it. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, revealing a meticulous understanding of how fear can look like stubbornness, anger, and apathy) has lost his brother. He wants to avoid this pain, because this death raises the terrible memory of the worst pain of his life. Patrick (Lucas Hedges, in a performance so understated and with such a seemingly unflappable sense of confidence that the character's displays grief are all the more potent) has lost his father. He wants to avoid this reality, because, as a teenager, he's not supposed to be experiencing this at this point in his life. Lee's brother (played by Kyle Chandler) has made him Patrick's guardian. Lee does not want the responsibility.

Lonergan's screenplay is more or less a series of such vignettes, tied together by Lee and Patrick's respective reactions to Joe's death, as well as the ebbs and flows of their new life together under one roof. It also gradually reveals Lee's life before the events of the present-day story, with a seamless structure that intercuts the characters' current trials with an unthinkable tragedy from the past (Michelle Williams plays Lee's ex-wife, and her performance within only a handful of scenes is heartbreaking). What Lonergan focuses on is the strange sense of socially prescribe routine that accompanies the grieving process—the hospital, the funeral arrangements, the visitations and services and receptions. The empathy displayed by the film—for these characters' struggles with new pain and old heartbreak—is abundant and seemingly endless. Lonergan's film is a marvel of compassion and character-specific observation.

Special Mention:

Only Yesterday

Twenty-five years is a long time for a film from a studio as prestigious as Studio Ghibli to finally receive a theatrical release in the United States, but such was the case with Only Yesterday. Isao Takahata's animated film is a lovely examination of the difficulties of childhood and the struggles of adulthood, as seen through the eyes and memories of a woman who is still figuring out her life. The lessons she learned from childhood and the realities of her life as an adult don't exactly match, but they rarely do. That's the protagonist's predicament, as the film's story shifts between two times in her life. Takahata differentiates the two visually, with brighter scenes of the past that play out against incomplete backdrops and naturalistic present-day scenes that are boldly colored. The memories are of fairly ordinary concerns—young romance, puberty, and familial dynamics—while the woman in the present attempts to piece together some meaning from them. The film positions all of these events, not as answers or explanations, but as a reminder that the process of growing up doesn't end with the end of childhood.

Honorable Mention:

Arrival, Cameraperson, The Conjuring 2, Embrace of the Serpent, Fences, The Invitation, La La Land, Land and Shade, Little Men, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Louder Than Bombs, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Silence, Southside with You, Weiner, Zootopia

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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