by Mark Ahn
One of my favorite end-of-December customs is to watch the supercuts on YouTube of the year’s movies. It doesn’t even have to be a ranking (although I would say that critic David Ehrlich does the best of these); it brings me such joy to run (or run again) through the poignant or cool moments, even from the ones I didn’t love. Our very individualized culture is narrowing down our common experiences, but movies still offer that to us, and more and more, I find that important. What are the stories that we want to share with each other? From the conversations in the theater lobby or the car ride or the comments section or through YouTube supercuts, we think about and share and reflect back to each other about the stories that meant the most to us, and that is worth celebrating.
Honorable mentions: I have tremendous respect for these movies; they just didn’t quite make it into my top ten. I definitely plan on revisiting them soon:
Hell or High Water
The Neon Demon
The ones that got away: I wish I could’ve caught these as I considered my favorites of this year:
10) I Am Not A Serial Killer
What do you do with other people’s expectations, especially when they are not particularly high? It is a consideration pondered over by John, the distinctive protagonist in Billy O’Brien’s story who spends particularly indistinctive days in his small, nondescript hometown. John does not find the complexity within himself reflected in his surroundings, and wonders what interest life could hold for him, until his thoughts are cut short the day the body comes into the morgue.
The hardest part of grief is that nobody can tell you how to do it. Tears? Anger? Silence? Almost any reaction is possible when the natural arc of human relationships is interrupted. Kenneth Lonergan’s story isn’t about a plucky, bright-eyed survivor, but it also isn’t about reveling in pure gloom either, although it includes moments of both. It’s more about the difficult but necessary choice to continue forward, even when every instinct says that you’re stuck, to combat the shriveling of life that accompanies grief.
8) Kubo and the Two Strings
There has been discussion on this site about Laika Entertainment and who exactly they are making movies for, but I’ve finally figured it out: overgrown children like me. I don’t know how successful a studio that relies on mostly stop-motion animation can be, but what I do know is that a child of the '80s like me who grew up on cel animation and Ray Harryhausen loves the realistic feel of the models as opposed to the comparative weightlessness of computer generated images. The technology means nothing unless it’s in the service of a story, and Kubo’s quest to make real what he has only dreamed of until now is worthy of the studio’s time- and labor-intensive approach.
Love & Friendship
Who cares what everybody expects out of you? Do what you want anyway! Play off the foolishness of entitled idiots! Lady Susan Vernon lives the aforementioned sentiment to the hilt; Kate Beckinsale is at her playful, energetic, ironic best in Whit Stillman’s comedy, and if that is a sentence which confuses you, then stop watching Underworld movies.
6) The Nice Guys
Shane Black is so good at having us live in a world where everything gets screwed up, but we still have a great time. What’s not fun about Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling playing awkwardly funny but surprisingly adept detectives? Or Los Angeles in the ridiculous '70s? Or kids saying inappropriately mature things, and stuff? Noir might be dark, but it doesn’t always have to feel dark.
4) and 5)
10 Cloverfield Lane/Green Room
It’s a little bit of a cheat, but I didn’t want to choose between two excellent movies with so much in common. There is plenty of horror to be derived from the idea that perfectly ordinary people, dealing with perfectly ordinary struggles, are grabbed and thrown headlong into a nightmare that completely recontextualizes what struggle is. But, what is admirable, maybe even inspirational, is that the characters immediately fight back, in the smartest and best way they can. Our protagonists didn’t ask to be in their situations, but they’re going to put aside their fear, not wait to be rescued by someone else, and do whatever is necessary to try and escape. Dan Trachtenberg and Jeremy Saulnier control the proceedings with nearly Hitchcockian mastery of space and tension.
Is it good or is it bad that almost any adjective can apply to this movie? All the trademark Park Chan-wook goodies are here: blended genre touches, simmering tension, richly textured style everywhere in the frame (if there is something that Park is the best at, it’s definitely making every moment in his movies look cinematic). It all starts with a poor girl taken in as a rich woman’s servant, the story unraveling and raveling in unexpected ways as the characters (and audiences) try to figure out what truths are being discovered and which lies are being bared. It wasn’t widely available during its theatrical run, but I hope in 2017 everybody who was interested can track this one down.
Denis Villeneuve just keeps building a resume that engenders trust, which feels like a rare commodity in our cultural landscape obsessed with the empty calories of “pre-existing IP” (barf). Science fiction can be so powerful (and terrifying) because it expands our way of looking at the world, giving a glimpse of what could be real. With a gorgeous, eerie score, and some understated performances, the movie challenges us to consider seeing our existence differently, to consider that their might be a better way, to consider trusting someone else’s words.
La La Land
The movie loves so much. It loves its lead actors. It loves music (especially jazz). It loves the tradition of movie stars being triple threats of acting, dancing, and singing. It loves the myth of Hollywood and Southern California as magical places where dreams become reality; perhaps it even believes the myth that dreams come true at all. The movie knows, despite the pizzazz and the showmanship, that whatever it’s selling is fantasy (it is a musical, after all), but I cannot reject the goodwill and charm of a movie that loves so much. In a year where I was reminded often of the ugliness that resides within our culture, I’m happy that Damien Chazelle told a story that reminded me of the beautiful things as well.