Grain of Salt: Matt’s Top 10 Films of 2016


2016 in cinema was 75% whimper and 25% bang.
But what a bang! And luckily said bang came late, all but erasing the bad taste that the first 8 months left lingering in our collective mouths.
If only the cinema of 2016 could also erase the bad taste left over from what was happening outside of the movie theater...
Que sera. Movies are magic but they can't solve ALL of our problems.

Let's leave our cares and worries about the state of the world behind for the moment and take a brief little hopscotch down the memory lane of the last 12 months, shall we? If nothing else, the films of 2016 proved that "television" may have the more attractive business models and profit margins, but movies still have Herzog, Chazelle, Lanthimos, Verhoeven, and Villeneuve. So... for now at least... movies still win.



"You got anybody who's gonna miss you?"

Part EASY RIDER-inspired road trip odyssey, part KIDS-induced “do you know where your children are” cautionary wake up call, and part Dickensian fable of discovery and forced-maturation, AMERICAN HONEY is a rich tapestry of influences. In fact, if I were to take the Oliver Twist comparison to its logical, metaphoric conclusion you’d find newcomer Sasha Lane (every bit the revelation she’s been championed as) in the role of the titular urchin- penniless, parentless, looking to escape a dead-end Oklahoma existence of caring for 2 children who aren’t even hers. When she’s wooed by the Fagin-esque Shia LaBeouf into joining a group of ragamuffins on their merry mission of kinda sorta selling magazine subscriptions between spliff consumption, she jumps at the opportunity to hop in a van headed for anywhere but here. But spray-tan dripping, white trash goddess Riley Keough (the group’s matriarch and de facto Bill Sykes) is waiting in the wings to make life hell for our heroine. Particularly when the charismatic LaBeouf (I said it!) takes a shine to the gang’s new, young acquisition. AMERICAN HONEY’s long and open road runs a sprawling 163 minutes yet is never feels padded. The narrative wanders, wistfully, yet the film never feels lost. British director Andrea Arnold is completely in control of this party monster of Americana that threatens to overindulge but never does. Arnold seems to have an innate ability to give us the sense that she’s “capturing” events as opposed to staging them. Not an easy feat. Many try, few succeed.   



“I killed you by coming here.”

Paul Verhoeven made a reputation as a “provocateur” early in his career and worked for years in a corner of the studio filmmaking sandbox even his fellow European directors were too apprehensive to go into. Concurrently, Isabelle Huppert, though 15 years Verhoeven’s junior, also came up in the mid 1970s. She would eventually establish herself as not only one of the finest actresses of her generation but someone willing to take risks and explore subject matter few other actresses had the courage to. In that regard it’s amazing that it took 4 decades for these 2 artists to finally end up on a project together. Their envelope-pushing sensibilities and lack of inhibition makes them a perfect match. So, it’s of no surprise to me that they bring out the best in one another in the pitch-black comedy of manners known as ELLE. Reductively referred to as the film about “the aftermath of a sexual assault”, ELLE is really so much deeper, complex, and acute in its ambitions. At its core the film is, for me, truly about nihilism and the defensive benefits of that worldview. The film opens with the infamous assault. Then it peels, like the proverbial onion, over 130 deliberate minutes to reveal what kind of a woman could respond so callously to an event like this, what sort of a life has she led that's hardened her to such density, and how someone like this responds in kind. Spoiler- there will be a response. But not the predictable kind.  



“This machine is so ugly that it's beautiful.”

The fact that Werner Herzog directed 3 films last year is impressive. The fact that he’s directed 7 documentary films in the last 11 years (not counting short subjects and TV series) is even more impressive. The fact that he’s travelling into volcanic craters, the bowels of death row, ancient limestone cavern depths, and the south pole in search of his art is more impressive still. But I think the thing that impresses me most about Herr Herzog is how incredibly accessible his documentary projects are, how comprehensive they always feel, and just how damn fascinated he always seems to be about the subject matter. LO AND BEHOLD is no exception and it just might be my favorite example of his documentary work. The jumping off point this time around is simply humanity’s relationship with the internet- how it sets us free and how it imprisons us. Traversing the globe, talking to scientists, engineers, futurists, internet addicts, and Elon Musk (natch), Herzog’s trademark objectivity keeps things breezy and inquisitive, even during dark forays into online trolling (the kind where depraved sadists email pictures of maimed, dead children to their grieving families) and A.I. sentience. As usual, Herzog narrates- that Bond-villain accent, enunciating each syllable with such care and precision. Herzog appears just as affectionate and passionate about his words as he is about the subject matter he chooses to study in his films.



Penelope: Do you want some?
Paul: No, I don't smoke.
Penelope: That doesn't mean you don't want some.

A sexy, 4-hander, set on a remote volcanic island, featuring Tilda Swinton as a former glam rocker who’s lost her voice and Ralph Fiennes as her unhinged, music producer ex-lover who can’t help from hurdling into gleeful convulsions when the needle drops on the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”? Yes, please! But A BIGGER SPLASH is so much more than just a travelogue film with spastic dancing. Stylistically it’s all over the road- sometimes channeling holiday ennui ala Antonioni’s L'AVVENTURA, veering off into dreamy, poolside reverie as if the film has wandered into Glazer’s SEXY BEAST territory, even cribbing affectionately from Linklater’s BEFORE MIDNIGHT once or twice. But considering that this film is a remake of the French thriller LA PISCINE, Sicilian director Luca Guadagnino seems to be embracing pastiche and re-appropriation as if inviting all of his rowdy friends over for a clothing-optional pool party. And what a game group of troublemakers he’s found in his tanned, ménage à quatre… Swinton, in particular, in a practically mute turn, brings the force of nature nuance we’ve come to take for granted in her performances. During a concert flashback in which the Bowie-fied rock goddess attends to her howling fans, I couldn’t help but fantasize about the potential of an ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE prequel… If Jarmusch won’t do it maybe Guadagnino will?



“Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed!”

As with LA LA LAND, the other great musical discovery of 2016, SING STREET sounds deceptively simple on paper while disguising a deep reserve of originality and pathos beneath the wafer-thin premise. John Carney, a filmmaker often accused of lapsing into schmaltz traps would seem to have taken on this project as a way of daring his detractors to come at him again. But in tackling the story of an identity-seeking teenage Dubliner who channels his inner rock god in order to woo his dream girl, Carney chooses to champion the time period and its misunderstood music as opposed to force the premise. In doing so he liberates the love story, allowing it to blossom organically. But, lest the film become just another in a groan-inducing roll call of “hey, remember the 80s?” jukebox musicals, Carney and songwriting partner Gary Clark curate a soundtrack filled not only with the usual period winners (although perhaps we could have done without the Hall and Oats…) but also 8 outstanding, original earworms as well. “City Of Stars” from LA LA LAND will take the original song Oscar and it deserves it. But wouldn’t it be fun to see the boys from SING STREET performing “Drive it like you stole it” on Oscar night in support of a ceremonial nomination? Damn right it would.



“I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope.”

There’s been so much hyperbole used to gush over Damien Chazelle’s love letter to his hero, Jacques Demy that it’s nearly impossible to find an original way in which to praise it. But the word I keep coming back to every time I watch LA LA LAND is miraculous. It’s miraculous that the film exists at all, it’s miraculous how [uniformly] catchy and sophisticated the original songs are, and it’s miraculous how Chazelle manages to swing the emotional pendulum from the heights of ecstatic fervor to the depths of melancholy heartache. Sometimes within a single scene! It might be tempting for someone unfamiliar with Chazelle’s other work to dismiss his approach to this film as loose or whimsical. But anyone who has seen WHIPLASH knows, Chazelle is, above all things, precise and deliberate. LA LA LAND feels like a breezy affair because Chazelle has designed it that way. Inside of each extended one-shot are steadicam moves choreographed with the same precision as the dance movies. Inside of each whip-pan over the 105 freeway are compositions painstakingly designed to fit seamlessly across the cut so that the frame will land at the next rowdy traffic dancer on the proper lyric. If the second act shifts downward in trajectory from the breakneck first half it is by design. How better to bring the house down when the boffo final number arrives, spreading goosebumps across the theater before delivering the final, wholly-earned gut punch? Things in his films don’t happen by chance. They happen because he designed them that way. That’s what confident filmmakers do. Chazelle’s confidence, 3 films in, makes an awfully good case that he’s well on his way to becoming one of the most exciting and important filmmakers of his generation.  



“Treat this world as it deserves. There are no principles, just circumstances. Nobody's home.”

As Terrence Malick goes further and further down the “Malick Hole” of self-indulgent pretension he seems to be alienating audiences and critics alike with each subsequent film. Indeed, if you graph the Rotten Tomatoes scores chronologically over his career (7 films in 42 years, not counting his recent foray into IMAX documentaries) the positive reactions seem to drop precipitously with each passing film. Culminating with the worst reviews of his career on his latest. Now, perhaps preferring late period Malick to his vaunted work of the 1970s makes me some kind of cinematic Philistine or maybe I’m just not smart enough for BADLANDS. But I can say with no reservation that not only am I more apt to revisit THE NEW WORLD or TREE OF LIFE over the "early" stuff. I’ll even go out on a very thin and brittle limb and say that KNIGHT OF CUPS is my favorite Malick work yet. Somehow, as Malick’s films become more stylized and alienating they appear more personal and cinematic to me. In his work with Emmanuel Lubezki (KNIGHT OF CUPS being the duo’s 4th collaboration) Malick seems to have finally happened upon a style and an approach, decades in the making, that is so distinct to him it is virtually inimitable (though a great many try). In KNIGHT OF CUPS, his semiautobiographical polonaise of Hollywood hedonism, Malick’s approach has been honed to the sharpest it’s ever been, allowing him to craft his strongest, saddest, and most tonally consistent film yet. 42 years in I think he’s truly hit his stride.



“We dance alone. That's why we only play electronic music.”

Yorgos Lanthimos’s THE LOBSTER is a film with so many moving parts, such emotional complexity, such a bizarre, macabre, even disturbing worldview that I hardly know where to even begin to write about it. Indeed, I dragged my feet for months before even seeing the film, catching it only days before it withdrew from American theaters. But when I finally did stumble into it, somewhat begrudgingly, I not only found myself laughing harder and more consistently than I had during any other film in recent memory, I also felt like I was witnessing something filmgoers spend their lives searching out but too rarely discovering- that thing, that Holiest of Holy Grails: The “original vision”. If THE LOBSTER truly is a treatise on dating and mating in the modern age, then it might be the most complex and important film ever made on the subject. Lanthimos and writing partner Efthymis Filippou skewer and lampoon every romantic ritual and societal pressure from the marital band aid of child-rearing to the engineered compatibility of Tinder culture to the risks of dating in the workplace. By couching it all in a bizarrely Orwellian near-future and approaching each nightmarish layer so matter-of-factly, these Greek visionaries are free to mine the gallows humor in this prison of social hierarchy humanity has chosen to lock itself in. There are moments so absurdly hilarious in this film that l might never be able to shake them: John C. Reilly’s lisp-lipped schlub having his hand inserted into the corporal toaster as punishment for masturbation. Ben Whishaw’s limping opportunist, banging his head repeatedly against the table to induce the bloody nose that will get a beautiful girl’s attention. Colin Farrell’s sad sack protagonist kicking a little girl in the shin… just… just because. Like all great satire, this film will haunt me and cause me to chuckle in spite of myself for a long long time.    



“Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle."

A tremendous amount of ink has been exhausted since HELL OR HIGH WATER first bowed at Cannes regarding the film’s enthusiasm at tackling timely issues like economic inequality and fighting for justice against financial or bureaucratic tyranny. Indeed, many critics intoned “themes ripped straight from today’s heartland headlines”. But while the film does feel timely and topical it’s important to keep in mind that principal photography took place in early 2015, the script was selected to The Hollywood Blacklist way back in 2012, and, depending on which source you believe, the original version (still named “Comancheria” back in those days) may have been written as early as 2010. So, what does this tell us? Well first and foremost is the sobering reality that the economic situation in this country is still in such dire straits that 5 years after being conceived this story still feels staggeringly relevant. But, to me, I’m particularly struck by the fact that it’s not the film’s topicality that led to it feeling so vibrant, electric, and quick to strike a chord with an audience. The strength of its characters, the integrity of its storytelling, and the authenticity of its universe is what makes HELL OR HIGH WATER feel like (no hyperbole) a modern genre masterpiece to this filmgoer. Taylor Sheridan’s aforementioned screenplay is a miracle of elegant exposition and dialogue-driven character-building that deserves a place in every film school’s curriculum from this point forward. Between his work here, last year’s SICARIO, and the upcoming WIND RIVER, Sheridan is setting himself up to be something of a boots-on-the-ground chronicler of the modern American Southwest. Of course, Sheridan’s dyed in the wool Lone Star cred finds a surprisingly nimble foil in Scottish director David Mackenzie who takes a no-nonsense, ground-level approach to facilitating the execution of the tight-as-a-drum narrative. Meanwhile the four leads all seem to have gotten the same, uniform “we’ll be expecting nothing less than your career best work” memos and all rise to the occasion. Ben Foster, in particular, who seems to have been honing the same kind of scruffy, certifiable, backwood outlaw routine for at least the last decade in preparation for this role, steals the film. 



“Believe me. You can understand communication and still end up single.”

Honestly, when it came to choosing between which of my 2 favorite films of 2016 would top this list I very nearly flipped a coin. Up until a few hours ago the order was even reversed as I hold the 2 films to near equal acclaim. I suppose what turned me to ultimately champion ARRIVAL above everything else I saw last year came down to 1 simple word: Emotion. No other film in the last 12 months went after my emotions so aggressively. I tend to take it for granted these days that it’s difficult for a film to truly get an emotional rise out of me. Some might say that I’m numbed to the experience or that a professional, academic investment I made in the medium decades ago has dulled me to the state of a purely analytic viewer and precludes me from truly being “swept away” very often. I suppose there’s something to that. But every now and then a film comes along… a LA LA LAND or an ARRIVAL for example… that achieves the thing great films are still capable of doing to me- stopping the “watching” and starting the “feeling”. I’ve always believed cinema was an inherently empathetic medium. That eliciting curiosity, identification, emotional investment, and eventual catharsis should be the goals of any real filmmaker. But I think what really helps filmmaking to stand head and shoulders above all other art forms is its ability to put you inside the emotional experience of someone, somewhere that you will never be. I’ll never be a mother. I couldn’t be a mother even if I wanted to. Yet, thanks to the sublime genius of Eric Heisserer, Denis Villeneuve, and Amy Adams I somehow found myself not only inside the journey of a mother, but a mother dissecting the implications of an existential decision that will define the lives of she and her daughter. ARRIVAL is a science fiction film, sure. But Heisserer and Villeneuve are far too ambitious to allow it to be only that. Instead they Trojan Horse the film’s true intentions in via a polished, mature, intimidating sci fi vessel. In doing so they smuggle in a feature length discussion about language, time, and the 4th dimensional ways in which they intersect. In that regard they are extraordinarily successful. But they don't stop there. In the final analysis, what ARRIVAL truly is, to me... vitally, staggeringly, beautifully... is one of the finest and most devastating films about parenthood ever made. That's why the very first thing I did after I saw it was call my mom. 

Honorable mentions:


Oscar’s Top 10: