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The Best Films Of 2016

2016 was a great year for movies - check out my top picks for best movies of the year!

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1) Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins)


Moonlight is not only the best film of the year, but also one of the most important films of all time. A rare film about identity, Moonlight tells the story of a boy in Miami told in three acts (i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black). The story is separated into three distinct aspects of his life, his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Little (Alex Hibbert) struggles with fitting in with the other boys in his school, and finds sanctuary from his drug-addicted mother with Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). “Am I a faggot?” he asks them after being chased down by bullies once again. It is a stunning and bold interaction, in which Juan replies “No. you’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.” To which Little does not reply, and sits in silence, just like he does for most of the film. Juan becomes a positive father figure in Little’s life, shaping who he later becomes as a man. In his adolescent years, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has his first sexual encounter with another boy. It’s transformative - a consensual sexual encounter between two young black men is almost never seen on the big screen. Moonlight is a visibly rich movie, the colors are bright and warm, and the music mixes classic R&B with a spine tingling score by Nicholas Brittel. The film is fuelled by the performances given by the three leading men. Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes keep Chiron consistent and their performances flow with one another effortlessly. There is no doubt why Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s awards, a film that will be talked about for years to come. As Barry Jenkins said in his acceptance speech, this film is for both the black and queer community, but more importantly where both groups intersect.

2) Hidden Figures (Dir. Theodore Melfi)


The most commercially successful film of the year, deservedly, proves that stories about people of color are not only the stories that need to be told, but also the stories that the public wants to hear. The film chronicles the stories of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), as they work behind the scenes on NASA’s mission to get the first man in space. It is a crime that the story of these women has never been told, and that so many of us are just now learning about it. The film never shies away from dealing with the horrors of racism in the 1960’s, and watching the three leading women break rules and tear down barriers is empowering and oh so satisfying. I found myself cheering throughout the movie, watching Dorothy clapback at Vivian Mitchell’s (Kirsten Dunst) blatant discrimination, or Mary stand up against systemic racism stopping her from going to an all white school.

The film’s life comes from the performances given by the leading women. Janelle Monáe, first time actress this awards season (who also stars in Moonlight), is a standout. After #OscarsSoWhite, it’s finally time to for people of color to take the spotlight, and to show the world that it’s not always going to be the rich white man in a suit who wins, but the hardworking “hidden figures” who are most deserving.

3) Closet Monster (Dir. Stephen Dunn)


Stephen Dunn’s directorial debut is a colourful coming of age story about a young boy unsure about his sexuality. Oscar (Connor Jessup) is a teenager burdened by the toxic masculinity that finds its way into his life. In his childhood, Oscar was witness to a violent hate crime against a young gay boy. As well, Oscar’s sleazebag father Peter (Aaron Abrams), flaunts his sexual exploits, spends his time doing “manly” activities such as fixing his car, and is openly homophobic. These instances of performed masculinity and hate inspire Oscar to find sanctuary with the women in his life – be it with his mother (Joanne Kelly), his best friend Gemma (Sophia Banzhaf), or his pet hamster Buffy (voiced by Isabelle Rosslini) (and yes, there is a talking hamster in the film, but funnily it all makes sense). It’s a rare film that successfully captures the fear that many teenagers have in coming out and embracing their sexuality. There is an emotional depth that works within the film as we go through Oscar’s journey and how he traverses the complex relationship he has with other people and more importantly, himself. The film is accompanied by a boosting 80’s inspired soundtrack, giving a haunting and somewhat nostalgic feel to every scene. Connor Jessup gives an emotionally vulnerable and honest performance, much beyond the expected talents of a young actor. Unfortunately, Closet Monster did not get much attention from award ceremonies, so hopefully this one doesn’t slip away from you!

4) 20th Century Women (Dir. Mike Mills)


Dorothea (Annette Bening), is a chain-smoking single mother in the 70’s, trying to figure out how to raise her fifteen year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). 20th Century Women tells us the story of women from different walks of life coming together to raise this young boy while teaching him about life. Dorothea asks Abbie (Greta Gerwig), one of the tenants in Dorothea’s fixer-upper of a home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s childhood best friend, to help Jamie in his process of growing up. Abbie takes Jamie to punk clubs and gives him radical feminist literature, while Julie goes on to teach him about what men want sexually. Jamie learns to respect and appreciate women and their different experiences and journeys. The screenplay by Mike Mills is witty and smart, given a beautiful nuance by Annette Bening’s performance. What is so transfixing about this film is that it works as a snapshot of time. It’s not just about these women and a young boy, it’s about the music they listened to, the clothes they wore, and the politics of the time. It’s a real story about real people, and it’s told with a rawness that doesn’t seem cliché or corny.

5) The Edge of Seventeen (Dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)


The Edge of Seventeen is the wittiest, boldest, and realest teen coming of age story in recent years. Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is an awkward and cynical teenager, the complete antithesis to her golden child older brother (Blake Jenner). Her world comes crashing down when she finds out that her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins to date her perfect older brother. The film subverts common teenager film tropes by actually allowing their characters to sound and act like teenagers. Kelly Fremon Craig, a first time director, also wrote the screenplay for the film, and writes these teenagers with a reality to them. Nadine ends up dating Erwin (Hayden Szeto), her geeky Asian best friend, as opposed to the hunk from the school’s most prominent sports team. The script is witty and hilarious, one of my favourite moments is when she’s describing to her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), how she’s going to kill herself - “I’m probably gonna jump off an overpass in front of a semi or a U-Haul, just not a bus, I’m not gonna be a dick and make people watch.” It’s dark and self-deprecating but you can’t help but laugh at the raw honesty of Hailee Steinfeld’s character.

Over the past few years, Hailee Steinfeld has focused more on her music career. Releasing some of radio’s biggest hits such as “Starving” and “Love Myself”, it’s easy to forget that she is already an Oscar nominated actress for her role in True Grit in 2010. She successfully takes the script written by Kelly Fremon Craig and gives one of the best performances of the year. The Edge of Seventeen will most likely become a cult classic over the next few years, known for subverting typical teenage clichés.

6) The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)


It’s a shame that horror films rarely get recognition during awards season because The Witch has cast an eerie spell on me ever since I saw it. Even more surprisingly is that The Witch is the debut film from director Robert Eggers, who is masterful in his crafting of suspense. He expertly sets his scene in the woods of 17th century New England, a time plagued by the fear of witchcraft and the unknown. The film follows a puritan family living out in the woods, dealing with the disappearance of their youngest child. Aligned with the oppressive treatment of women back in those days, suspicions grow high that the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the witch responsible for the vanishing of her younger brother. The film is fascinated with ideas of a woman’s sexuality and how the patriarchy controls it. The family, so absorbed by notions of religion and sin, label their daughter as a witch, in the time of her budding womanhood. The film culminates in one of the most spellbinding final shots in horror history, a shot that still gives me nightmares to this day.

Eggers doesn’t rely on cheap thrills to tease us, it’s the foreboding atmosphere of what’s lurking in the forest that keeps the audience engaged, as well as the paranoia that turns the family against one another. The Witch creates one of the most intense atmospheres I have experienced in film, and it will forever be one of my absolute favourites of the genre.

7) The Love Witch (Dir. Anna Biller)


The Love Witch is the campy, kitchy, feminist horror film you never knew you needed. The film centers around the young sorceress Elaine (Samantha Robinson), looking like a mix between Lana Del Rey and Elizabeth Taylor, making her way into a coastal Californian town after murdering her previous husband. Exhausted with the way that men see her, she resorts to using love spells and potions (one including a very bloody tampon) to get what she wants. “What do men want? Just a pretty woman to take care of them”, Elaine explains. The most terrifying aspect of Elaine is that she is a product of the misogyny that surrounds her. She is a monster of the patriarchy. Samantha Robinson gives a haunting performance as Elaine, a woman determined to make men desire her. She gives a commanding performance of a woman who uses her sexuality for power, as a way to get what she wants. She represents the fear that men have with a woman who takes charge.

The Love Witch ups its camp factor with it’s Technicolor aesthetic and the lavish, gaudy costumes. Every shot is striking, ranging from naked Satanists chanting and dancing around in circles, to Elaine lying sprawled on the floor on a giant pentagram rug. It is one of the most visually interesting films I have ever seen, one that requires multiple viewings to appreciate every single level of detail that was put into it.

8) Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larrain)

One of the most well known and talked about events in American history, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is the centrepiece for Pablo Larrains biopic. Specifically, it follows the aftermath of his death told through the perspective of Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). Larrain recreates shot by shot iconic moments in this historic event, from the actual moment he was shot in the car, to Jackie’s tour of The White House. Natalie Portman breathes life into this American icon, offering one the best performances of her career, rivalling her work in Black Swan. The performance is so well studied, it was almost as if Jackie was on screen herself. There is a particularly striking moment where Jackie finds herself breaking down in front of a mirror, and the emotion that Natalie Portman channels in that moment is both thrilling and heartbreaking. Her performance is accompanied by a stunning soundtrack by Mica Levi, one that parallels the high level of emotion that Natalie Portman brings to the screen. Truly, the reason to see the film is to experience the masterful and awe-inspiring performance by Natalie Portman. She gives a performance of a woman who had to remain professional and diplomatic amongst men, in a moment in her life where she felt as if she had nothing left for her.

9) Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)


Arrival was a tricky one for me to place on this list. About ¾ through the film, I was in awe and amazed by what Dennis Villeneuve was accomplishing, however, I began to slowly lose interest after the “twist” was revealed. It seemed laughable to me. Upon a few re-watches, and letting the film sit with me for a while, I have without a doubt decided Arrival is one of the best films of the year. It follows the story of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she attempts to decode the language of extra-terrestrials that land on Earth. Watching Louise interpret the symbols that the aliens spew out in ink is fascinating, and is completely validated by research done by linguists from McGill University in Montreal (shoutout to my alma matter). The film “arrives” in a timely manner, given our current political climate, we are all scared of what the future may hold, and the importance of understanding one another is emphasized. It reminds us that communication is the key to peace, not loud-mouthed politicians and impulsive actions. The men in power around her want to make irrational decisions, however, Louise continues to push for a better understanding of the unknown.

The true shining star of this film however, is the performance given by Amy Adams. Throughout the film, she is plagued by visions of her late daughter, and the way Amy Adams navigates through the emotion is masterful. The cinematography makes the film feel claustrophobic, but Amy’s performance makes us safe and secure. What may look like a typical sci-fi flick at first glance, is a much more important film once you “arrive” at understanding it.

10) The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)


Director Park Chan-wook tells a beautiful psychological erotic drama, one that Hollywood lacks the nerve to make. It is one of the most beautifully made; yet disturbing films of the year. Set in Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930’s, Sookee (Kim Tae-Ri) is planted by a con man (Ha Jung-woo) as a handmaiden in an estate owned by a rich Japanese book collector (Cho Jin-woong). Sookee is meant to help the book collector’s niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) fall in love with the con-man, as he plans on marrying her, sending her to an insane asylum, and taking hold of her family fortune. You can tell there’s already a lot going on here in this story, however, as every act unfolds, newer and more exciting pieces reveal themselves. Sookee begins developing feelings for Lady Hideko, and the two fall passionately in love. The book collector forces Hideko into strange sexual situations, reading erotica to rich Japanese men, so the love that Sookee and her share is beautiful as they each find recluse from the abusive and manipulative men in their lives.

The story is originally based on the novel Fingersmith, which is set in Victorian England. However, this relocation of the story proves to be successful – giving it a certain richness and aesthetic that works. The details in the costuming and the set design breathe life into the story that is told. The twists and turns keep it a nail-biter, and the chemistry between the two female leads is both effortless and mesmerizing. If you’re familiar with Park Chan-wooks other work, you know that he is a master of psychological and disturbing film-making, and The Handmaiden is no exception.

11) Moana (Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker)


At its surface, Moana might seem like your typical formulaic Disney movie – a “princess”, musical numbers, animal sidekick, and some heartwarming ending. However, looking beyond that, Moana might just be Disney’s most groundbreaking film yet. It takes place in the Polynesian islands, where the titular character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is expected to uphold the duties of her father (Temuera Morrison) as leader of her people. Much to her father’s dismay, Moana just wants to explore beyond the reef of her island home. The island that she lives on, however, is slowly dying, because the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole and lost the heart from the goddess of fertility Te Fiti. In predictable Disney fashion, Moana takes it upon herself to find Te Fiti’s heart and protect the reefs that surround her. At the heart of the film is the necessity of protecting nature – and interestingly, it places a woman of color at the head of this movement. Arguably, marginalized groups of people will face the consequences of our ever-changing climate, having Moana, a woman of color, taking charge in saving her local environment, speaks volumes and is inherently political.

Rather than some cinched waist, high-heeled teenager along the likes of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, Moana is an accurately proportioned sixteen-year-old girl. Moana maintains that she is nothing like the other princesses we have been overexposed to. Although the narrative is predictable, you get sucked into what is easily the most visually arresting Disney film to date. The environments feel lush and they are brought alive with the stunning soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton. “How Far I’ll Go” is one of the catchiest and most powerful songs Disney has ever produced, and yes, it is better than “Let it Go” (sorry, Frozen). Moana was easily the most fun I’ve had all year while simultaneously bawling throughout the entire thing. I’m excited to see more of what this era of Disney films has to offer.

12) La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)


A story for dreamers, La La Land emotionally destroyed me this year. It’s jaw-dropping visuals and its cheery music alone makes it one of the year’s best films. A homage to the musicals of old Hollywood, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician, meet by some chance encounter and fall madly in love. It’s a heart-warming love story about two lovers who support each other’s dreams, and fall deeper in love as they learn more about each other’s passions. “People love what other people are passionate about”, says Mia. It opens with a choreographed sequence in the middle of morning LA traffic, singing about hope and what’s to come with a new day. It is an uplifting opener, extremely difficult to hold back a smile, maybe even tears of pure joy. The film continues it’s uplifting tone with its music and vibrant colors. In these dark political times, a movie like La La Land accomplishes exactly what so many love the movies for – escapism. Sometimes, we just want to let loose, watch a happy musical with bright colors and catchy music. You’ll find yourself singing along to the songs weeks after you’ve seen it. Emma Stone’s performance of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is the climax of the film in which she delivers the best performance of her career. It’s just a gorgeously made film, in which every shot feels like some dreamy painting depicting life in Los Angeles.

Now that you've seen my favorite movies of the year, what are yours? Let me know in the comments below if you have any other recommendations from the year!

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