I submit this “best of 2016” list with some reservations. I still haven’t seen highly acclaimed films such as Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” Pablo Almodovar’s “Julieta,” Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women,” Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.” And I am particularly excited to eventually see Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship,” as I love the works of Jane Austen.
The film critic Gene Siskel liked to say that in writing about the movies, he was covering the “dream beat,” since we often confront our collective hopes and fears at the cinema. In a sense, the five disparate films on this list all respond directly to contemporary developments.
2016 was the year in which we learned that many of our conceptions about American identity, the culture wars and the workings of democracy were in less stable than we initially thought. All five films on this list deal with some aspect of illusion and delusion, ranging from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s pipe dreams in “La La Land,” Jackie Kennedy’s construction of the illusion of Camelot in “Jackie,” Casey Affleck’s realization that he did not know his nephew as well as he thought he did in “Manchester by the Sea,” Brian de Palma’s behind-the-scenes wizardry in “De Palma” and Troy Maxson’s disillusionment with life in “Fences.”
In 2016, the “dream beat” became the “delusion beat.”
Natalie Portman delivers a tour-de-force performance in Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic about the former First Lady. Personally, I love to read about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and yet this film still managed to provide me with new insight into how Jackie Kennedy created the Camelot mystique that surrounds her husband’s presidency to this day.
4. “La La Land”
Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is not the masterpiece some critics are making it out to be, but it is a delightful way to spend two hours at the cinema. I hope that Chazelle’s film will lead viewers to seek out some of the works that inspired him, namely the musicals of Jacques Demy and Vincente Minnelli, and the glorious masterpieces of Nicholas Ray.
3. “Manchester by the Sea”
At first glance, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” resembles a maudlin soap opera. A disaffected handyman, played by Casey Affleck, finds that he must care for his nephew after the death of his brother. Still, Lonergan manages to get extraordinary performances out of his cast, and he pens some of the most realistic and poetic dialogue I have heard in a long time.
2. “De Palma”
I might be cheating a little bit with this pick. “De Palma” consists of legendary director Brian De Palma sitting in front of a camera and talking about his career. His points are illustrated with clips from his films, but there is not anything really cinematic about this film. It is more like a very long DVD bonus feature. Still, I felt that I had to include it on this list because it is the finest interview with a filmmaker I have seen. De Palma is remarkably candid here, discussing everything from what it was like to use the Steadicam for the first time, to what it was like directing several notable actors – including other directors such as Orson Welles and John Cassavetes.
He talks about those artists that have influenced him, from Alfred Hitchcock to Sergei Eisenstein, and addresses the virtues and vices of working within Hollywood. “De Palma” is a must see for anyone interested in films and filmmaking, and it will certainly give you a new appreciation for De Palma’s craft.
Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 play contains two titanic performances — Washington as the washed-up baseball player turned garbage man Troy Maxson, and Viola Davis as his tireless wife, Rose. Washington’s direction here is not particularly noteworthy, but he lets the acting speak for itself. And Wilson’s classic play remains relevant and poignant today.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.