5. “Midnight Special”
I’ll be honest, despite the internet’s opinion that 2016 was the worst year in all of recorded human history, it wasn’t that bad when it came to film. There were a decent number of stellar works this year that could have taken this first spot – and if I had been in a different mood, “Green Room” or “The Witch” could easily be here instead. But this list is my top five films of 2016, and ultimately “Midnight Special” deserves this spot — not just for being an excellent film, but for illustrating how lost every other film of its kind was. It’s as if “Midnight Special” looked around at its fellow superhero films and just decided to do everything better. Locations that feel actually lived in instead of generic glass and steel structures? Check. Dialogue that keeps tiresome exposition and dour, cliché statements to a minimum? Check. A hero who derives his power from inspiring hope and awe instead of catastrophic urban destruction? A very much appreciated check.
4. “The Lobster”
I liked “The Lobster” a lot when I first saw it this summer. It was impeccably made and immensely amusing. But at the time, it seemed like writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos was wasting his prodigious talents on something rather trifling. Out of all the absurd elements of life in 2016, he chose dating as the thing that needed to be satirized?
But then I became single again. And I realized two things. First, modern dating is actually pretty absurd and deserving of all the mockery it can get. Second, “The Lobster” is about far more than the absurdity of modern dating. It’s about the absurdity of any and all human communication — the way in which we as human beings constantly and futilely try to establish authentic connections by conforming ourselves to better fit in. It’s a topic that would be tragic if the film weren’t so damn funny.
3. “La La Land”
I have recommended this film to practically everyone just because I can’t imagine someone not liking it. I can imagine someone not loving it, especially a particular type of film snob who wants to talk about how the camera work is derivative and the ending is trite. But how can the sight of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling toe-tapping their way into each other’s hearts not put at least a brief smile on your face? What’s impressive, though, is how beneath this giddy artifice of swooping camera movements, dazzling Technicolor and two of our most adorable living movie stars, Damien Chazelle has hidden a remarkably caustic film.
Listen to “Another Day of Sun” again. It’s a stunning opening number with a remarkably upbeat tempo. But the lyrics are almost frightening, the song is about a group of very damaged human beings — people that believe success will not only fundamentally change them, but deny them many types of happiness. And yet, they strive for it anyway.
2. “Manchester by the Sea”
This is a sad film. There’s no way around it. It’s a work about tragedy. Specifically, it’s a work about two very different coping mechanisms for tragedy. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler responds by withdrawing from any other form of human contact. Lucas Hedges’ Patrick responds by attempting to deepen the ties with the loved ones he still has left. The film isn’t a neutral observer in this divergence, it has strong opinions about which approach is ultimately healthier. But, even though all the other films on this list are bittersweet to some degree, this is the only work that fully admits that sometimes there are just certain personality types that will not change, even for the better.
First, I need to say, I enjoyed the top three films on this list on a deeply personal level. They were remarkably well crafted without being pretentious or purposefully obscure, and they had a deep love for both their characters and the audience. I would want to spend hours with all of them — and I already have at this point. But ultimately, “Moonlight” was always going to be my favorite. It hits too close to home. Literally in my case, as it was shot in my hometown of Miami. And after years of the city being used as nothing more than a sunny, disposable backdrop for music videos and action-thrillers, I can’t express how much of a relief “Moonlight” was. But it spoke to me on much more subtle level too. The episodic story of a poor African-American male struggling to come to terms with his own homosexuality, “Moonlight” is an elliptical, haunting work that understands what it is like to regard a part of yourself as fundamentally unknowable and alien.
Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm ‘at’ stanford.edu.