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Movie Blog: Top 10 Movies Of 2016

(credit: A24)

"I've believed it more times than I care to remember because I don't want to think that I'm that big of a sucker … There is no moment anymore when we could come together." So speaks Richard Burton as George in Mike Nichols' movie adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was released a half century ago this year. The declaration comes almost immediately following his wife Martha's (Elizabeth Taylor) declaration that the moment, the second where she believes she could've gotten through to him and they could've cut through the crap. "But that's past and now I'm not going to try."

Join the club, George and Martha. Movies, much like any number of other aspects in this nation circa 2016, all too often seem to exist for a moment that's now past. That their usefulness in helping people come together seems to fade with each successive week of box office results indicating that the world almost unanimously agrees that movies are a tool for escapism and nothing more. Globalism may be the pressing issue of the moment, and action spectacle is increasingly the universal language.

But all is not lost, so long as representational filmmaking continues to persist in the trenches, if not the underground, as is clearly the case with some of our favorites listed below. And maybe, just maybe, there's still a glimmer of potential for the medium yet to sustain collective understanding. Given the movie that both Jonathon Sharp and I picked as our unanimous #1 (the first time that's ever happened in our history of splitting year-end duties here), there will always be some things that remain consistent in life -- love and loss, endurance and failure, isolation and community. -- Eric Henderson.

(NOTE: Here are our top 10 lists from 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

Jonathon Sharp

Eric Henderson

01. Manchester By The Sea

(Kenneth Lonergan; U.S.)
And the tears flowed ... Not those pulled out by cinematic sentimentalism, the bigger ones, the ones from deep down. This portrait of loss by Kenneth Lonergan is so emotionally poignant that it feels as though it must already be timeless. Truly, no other film this year felt as alive, from moment to moment, as this one. It's a gem, flickering with humor and as it lays out and refracts the misery of a single New Englander, played by an incredible Casey Affleck. To see it is to weep. And yet, there's an also an absurd about of laughs (with one recurring joke at the expense of Minnesota) and a glimmer at the end, however faint, of hope.

01. Manchester By The Sea

(Kenneth Lonergan; U.S.)
When people say this movie is "depressing," what exactly do they mean? That it made them feel bad? That it overwhelmed their emotions? That it inspired pity for the characters? Perhaps. And yet, why then is so much of Manchester by the Sea so funny? At the risk of boiling this meticulously crafted masterpiece down into a trite descriptor, it just feels real. It's a quintessential "life and nothing more" film. Casey Affleck indeed works wonders depicting the debilitating and oftentimes permanent scars left by grief, and as his ex-wife, Michelle Williams proves his equal in a heartbreaking moment of thwarted connection. But writer-director Kenneth Lonergan knows the stakes wouldn't he remotely as high if he didn't also respect grief's antithesis: hope.

02. Elle

(Paul Verhoeven; France)
There's probably more to be said about this film than any other in 2016. From Isabelle Huppert's brilliant, unforgettable performance to the shocking rape scene that starts the film, Elle pushes us to consider more of human nature, particularly that which lies in the dark. It's as though director Paul Verhoeven is putting a block of C-4 to the now-common language of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings." No doubt, the 78-year-old filmmaker was brave to attempt Elle, but his skillful work -- perhaps at its highest here -- shows the importance of probing the troubling and contradictory aspects of our nature.

02. O.J.: Made In America

(Ezra Edelman; U.S.)
Ignore the debate over whether this documentary counts as TV or a film. People shotgun entire seasons of shows over the weekend, and Ezra Edelman's ESPN-sanctioned glance back at a chapter in American history that continues to resonate with each chant of "black lives matter" easily bests many a talking head doc. Though Simpson's life and times serve as the focal point throughout, it quickly becomes clear that Edelman has nothing less than society itself under the microscope. Connecting the dots between celebrity, racism, class, gender, and mass media, O.J.: Made in America is a vital epic of pop culture scholarship.

03. Moonlight

(Barry Jenkins; U.S.)
While Moonlight could be described as a coming-of-age film of a black, gay man, it's so much more than that. Barry Jenkins presents to us the fragments of a young life, piecing together a portrait of a man shaped by several events, forces and people, many of whom are both benevolent and dangerous. Probably no other film this year is as graceful in dealing with its subject and subject matter. Each moment is fraught with a deep sense of humanity, and while the work is, in a sense, fleeting, its focus is always on the right place.

03. The Love Witch

(Anna Biller; U.S.)
I'm not 100 percent sure that this one screened in the Twin Cities this year, but at this point in the game, I fully accept that the lines of eligibility are irrevocably blurred. Then again, the fact that I'm not fully aware if the movie played at all may just play into Anna Biller's hands here. The Love Witch, a pitch-perfect retro romp, has marginalization on its mind (and other areas of the body too). With a look that pristinely mirrors the era of aspic and fondue, and an unapologetically jaundiced point of view regarding sexuality, it certainly feels contemporaneous to any year in which "Lock her up!" could become a catchphrase.

04. The Handmaiden

(Park Chan-wook; South Korea)
Gorgeous and intricate, sensual and strange, the latest from the creator of Oldboy is a 1930s-set love story that plays trick after trick on you while beaming beautiful image after beautiful image into your eyes. The playfulness, indeed, is what makes The Handmaiden unforgettable, for even as the first two parts of the movie feel like melodrama, when it all comes together, with a dash of hyper-violence, it "clicks" in a way few films do. Just try not to like it.

04. Happy Hour

(Ryûsuke Hamaguchi; Japan)
I counted Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour as a 2015 film, owing to its premiere at Walker Art Center. Thus, this five-and-a-half-hour Japanese drama about four friends earns this year's slot for "most meditative experience." While on one level unfurling with the feel of a particularly calming novel (think Edward Yang), Happy Hour also calls to mind some of the duration experiments of filmmakers like Jacques Rivette or, more recently, Lav Diaz. The movie even comes with something like its own tutorial when, for a languorous half hour early on, a calm-voiced man leads the four women through a workshop on realigning their inner compasses. See if you don't feel a lift in your crown chakra.

05. Neruda

(Pablo Larraín; Chile)
I really should have trusted Pablo Larraín more. The filmmaker's work on the Goliath literary figure is, at once, an ode to the great Chilean writer-politician's life and to the idea of a "poet" in general. In no way is this a boilerplate biopic, as I had feared. This is, at its core, an artist reflecting on another artist. Going forward, any film, biopic or otherwise, on a writer's life should be judged against this one.

05. The Neon Demon

(Nicolas Winding Refn; U.S.)
Or Nicolas Winding Refn's Maps to the Stars. Maybe that's a little glib, but then again, so is Refn's satirical voice. Interesting to see the disparity between how well-received the outrageously masc Drive was compared to how thoroughly raked its femme counterpart was over the coals. And by "interesting," I really mean "totally predictable." Bad faith is overrated in just about every other faction of pop culture these days, which is why I feel particularly compelled to defend it in movies like The Neon Demon.

06. The Seventh Fire

(Jack Pettibone Roccobono; U.S.)
If you consider yourself a Minnesotan, watch The Seventh Fire. This deep and often difficult documentary unflinchingly follows the lives of two Ojibwe men in northern Minnesota, focusing on gang life, drug culture and prison. Yet what Jack Pettibone Roccobono explores up north is more than mere crime and punishment, what he's truly after is capturing a culture in flux, one that's working to find a way forward amid obstacles and injustices while simultaneously keeping true to a heritage.

06. In Jackson Heights

(Frederick Wiseman; U.S.)
Technically a 2015 that only played in the Twin Cities this year -- alright, I'll stop with this bit -- documentarian-lion Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights arrived just in time. In a political year that left many uncertain about whether basic, core American values would remain fixed, Wiseman's film presents the teeming, vibrant complexity of the nation's most diverse neighborhood. And, what do you know? It also arguably appears to be one of the nation's most interesting neighborhoods, as well.

07. Do Not Resist

(Craig Atkinson; U.S.)
The militarization of police has been on America's mind since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of Black Lives Matter. This doc, made by the son of a longtime SWAT team officer, is a cold look at how we got to the point where everyday police departments have military-grade weaponry and SWAT teams that are used routinely against petty drug dealers. At a time when violence has dropped steadily in America for decades, he shows us how absurd it is that we've let our local police officers become "warrior cops."

07. Cameraperson

(Kirsten Johnson; U.S.)
Inside baseball, to a degree. Cameraperson is both a masters class in film form as well as a reflection of an image-maker's respect for her craft. Composed of unused footage cinematographer Kirsten Johnson shot for various projects, and assembled intoxicatingly, Cameraperson sometimes carries a tinge of the essay films of Chris Marker to it, which is about the highest compliment I can imagine affixing to any film, to be honest.

08. Louder Than Bombs

(Joachim Trier; Norway)
Another Isabelle Huppert vehicle. Here, she is a ghost, the dead matron of a family of boys that has to learn to live without her. With an uber-poetic and yet piercing visual style, filmmaker Joachim Trier is able to convincingly show men coming to terms with the loss of the woman who defined their lives without descending into a swamp of sentimentality.

08. Elle

(Paul Verhoeven; France)
Even in this "prestige" phase of his career -- first Black Book and now this unexpected potential Oscar contender -- no one screws with audiences quite like auteur Paul Verhoeven. He may be long past the Hollywood gadfly days of Robocop, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, but he's certainly not down for the count. If anything, he's getting away with even bigger philosophical risks away from the pressure of the marketplace. Either way, political correctness takes a back seat, while Isabelle Huppert grabs the wheel with both hands.

09. Things To Come

(Mia Hansen-Løve; France)
... And here's yet another film starring Isabelle Huppert, whose talents, after this year, are nearly impossible to overstate. In Things to Come, she is a woman encountering the terror of freedom following the crumbling of her marriage and the loss of her literary job. Yet, she takes the existential crisis head-on, embracing uncertainty without abandoning a her sense of self. The character contrasts delightfully against Huppert's role in Elle, and, when taken together, we indeed see two faces of the same woman -- the heroine who masters madness.

09. Toni Erdmann

(Maren Ade; Germany-Austria)
The weirdest thing about Toni Erdmann isn't that it a 2 hour, 45 minute comedy featuring virtually no "punchlines," per se. It's that people like it at all. But since I'm among them, I'll also highlight how wonderfully it embodies the slow burn principle, how clear-eyed it is about the duality of living at all in this business-driven world, and how brave Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are portraying an irritating prankster father and his buttoned-up, neurotic daughter. I don't personally know if this is what parenthood's all about, but it could be worse.

10. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

(Werner Herzog; U.S.)
Just as Werner Herzog took on the Amazon and the arctic, he's stared down the Internet. In "Lo and Behold," the Bavarian filmmaker focuses his ferocious curiosity on technology of the future, and while he predictably introduces us to some of the most fascinating and neurotic minds of the internet age, his message is one to heed seriously: That human nature, not self-driving cars or artificial intelligence, is what our civilization truly needs to fear moving forward.

10. The Fits

(Anna Rose Holmer; U.S.)
The sleeper surprise of the year, The Fits marks one of the most auspicious debuts in recent memory. Director Anna Rose Holmer demonstrates astonishing control telling the story of Toni (played radiantly by Royalty Hightower), a young girl desperate to fit in and with a thirst to join the girls' dance team. Part of the thrill of The Fits rests within the surprises it contains, so expect no further spoilers here. But also know that when I call it one of the most unsettlingly uplifting films I've seen lately, I mean that quite literally.

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