Matthew Lickona here. One of the painful things about looking back over the year in reviews is you get an eyeful of your unfortunate overuses. I’m going to try to excise “riveting,” “gripping,” and “fascinating” from next year’s efforts. Not sure what happened there. Maybe it’s just that This Modern Internet Life has rendered me more distractable than I used to be, and so when a film hooks me hard and drags me under, I’m both impressed and grateful — and out come those adjectives.
But you know what isn’t riveting? A critic musing over his own stylistic choices when he should be trumpeting his approval for other people’s. So! Herewith, Matthew “The Middlebrow Monk” Lickona’s Top Ten Movies for 2016. (Honorable mention/Number 11: Tobias Lindholm’s A War.)
Queen of Katwe
When I failed to fall in love with Moana, a commenter suggested that I “could just be someone that hates brown people.” I think maybe it was more that I’d already seen a feel-good, formulaic Disney flick featuring a young, female person of color who overcomes great odds with the help of an older male and so brings joy to her people in 2016, and it was just flat-out done better. Director Mira Nair managed a family-friendly presentation of a story with plenty of dark and difficult aspects, and did it without bowdlerizing. And there is great pleasure in watching really fine actors (David Oyelowo, Lupito Nyong’o) elevate their supporting characters from stock to special. Plus, chess metaphors for kids!
Elvis & Nixon
An admittedly minor film about a minor American moment, even if it did produce the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives. But it’s rendered with such care and compassion (Kevin Spacey’s Nixon is a marvel in this regard), and powered with such verve and heart, that director Liza Johnson’s look back on a weird time feels like a miniature masterwork. I left grinning, a painfully rare occurrence. Plus, Michael Shannon as Elvis!
Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)
The author David Foster Wallace once noted that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism...everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In other words, even a secular person has a religious bone, and this was a good year for seeing that explored on film. Knight of Cups, The Vessel, The Innocents, The Free World, The Witch — even the horror show that was The Eyes of My Mother. (And I haven’t even seen Silence yet!) Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent was my second favorite of these — the first shows up later in the list — a tale of desperate faith, broken faith, and clashing faiths set in the Amazon. The shaman Karamakate may be my favorite character of the year. Plus, gorgeous black and white photography!
The Neon Demon
Yup. I was utterly seduced by the beautiful surface of a film about the profound awfulness and danger of being seduced by beautiful surfaces (including your own). But not just the surface: this gorgeous and delicious cautionary tale from master of nastiness Nicholas Winding Refn goes for the gutso [sic] with a third act just batshit and trashy enough to keep it from being an afterschool special. Plus, almost as much L.A.-drenched color as La La Land!
This year’s documentary winner for right time, right place (rather like last year’s Cartel Land). Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg already have a compelling story on their hands: passionate Democrat Anthony Weiner’s attempt, in the wake of a sexual scandal, to mount a political comeback and in the process, remove his taint from his politically ambitious (but also hugely supportive) wife Huma Abedin. And then, in the middle of filming, the scandal re-emerges. Amazingly, Weiner lets the filmmakers stay on, and as a result, Weiner veritably throbs with energy and insight. Plus, bad puns in tabloid headlines!
Scott already picked Sully for his list, which I greatly admired for being a well-made movie that also perfectly expressed its director’s vision. I thought Hail, Caesar! did the same for the Coen Brothers, and it’s also my favorite religious picture of the year. My take on its message: God doesn’t exist any more than the fantasy world of the movies exists. But without those fantasies, it’s a rotten old world, so take comfort in whatever faith you can muster and try to live accordingly. It gets even better when you consider the story behind the real-life versions of the film’s pregnant actress and Hollywood fixer. Plus, homages to Old Hollywood!
Lotta good coming-of-age movies this year. The Edge of Seventeen was the highest profile, and possibly most winning, but also the slightest. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most charming and offbeat. Songs My Brothers Taught Me was the most hopeful in the midst of heartbreak. Coming Through the Rye was the loveliest. But James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel was the darkest, deepest, and best: the awakened awareness of sex linked fatefully to the awakened awareness of death, and death lending new significance to everything. Smart East Coast Jew heads off to a Midwestern Christian college, falls in love and finds himself. For him, that means finding himself in opposition to...just about everything. And every war brings casualties. Plus, one of the year’s finest dramatic scenes in the confrontation between our hero and the wily Dean!
Manchester by the Sea
“Oh, hell,” I thought as the camera held on Casey Affleck’s dead-eyed visage in the early going, “an entire movie’s worth of emotionally constipated Northeast Irish? And there’s a funeral in the offing? Where’s my whiskey and rusty razor blade?” And then Mr. Affleck and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan proved me wrong. A study in grief and learning to live with the wounds that never heal. Plus, Michelle Williams!
Probably my favorite movie of the year: a film about youth that feels young, a film about fringe living that feels fringey (but also absolutely assured), and most importantly, a film about the persistence of life, love, and hope that gives full voice and vision to their opposites. It’s long, it’s punishing, it’s beautiful, it’s enthralling. Writer-director Andrea Arnold and breakout star Sasha Lane proved revelatory right through the fantastic final scene. Plus, a revivified Shia LaBoeuf!
Hell or High Water
The film of This American Moment: a couple of angry American men set out to reclaim what’s been taken from them by an inhuman, corporatized system by turning outlaw. The plan is to throw a little monkey wrench into the machine that’s grinding them underfoot, and so gain the power to take care of their own. But their personal revolt has consequences beyond their own troubled world. Sound familiar? Allegories aside, David Mackenzie’s modern Western is tight, taut, tense, and just really good all ’round. Plus, secret favorite Chris Pine in another small-budget marvel!
That’ll do it for me. Scott and I are hoping to get together for a compare-and-contrast session in the very near future. Hopefully, we’ll have something to show for it. And speaking of Scott, here is my co-critic’s Top Ten for 2016. Maybe now I’ll sit down and watch some of them!