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Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2016

2016 is in the process of closing at last, like the lid of a vampiric coffin. A calendar year that was being characterized in the discourse of progressive-leaning media and socio-cultural discourse as a nightmare march well before its now-imminent end, 2016 certainly had its share of tragedies, horrors, and collective agonies.

There has been a swelling tide of political darkness: Brexit, President-Elect Donald Trump, a rising tide of white nationalist authoritarianism on both sides of the Atlantic, the wrenching, destructive Syrian War and its attendant refugee crisis, which has been met with increasing, disheartening xenophobia in the West. As if a consequence of this rapid slide towards dangerous outcomes as well as a grim reminder of shared ephemeral fragility, a relentless litany of cultural icons has departed this mortal coil, many of whom were understood as representing symbolic or actual resistance to oppressive forces of rigidity and backwardness that appeared ascendant. Losses included David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, George Martin, Alan Rickman, Gordie Howe, George Michael, and most recently Carrie Fisher (followed, heartbreakingly, a day later by her mother Debbie Reynolds). Death was not the only way to wound the world, either: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (although he decisively took that sad song and made it better) and Monty Python’s Terry Jones was revealed to be suffering from dementia.

Still, 2016 was a fine year for film. This year’s cinematic highlights sought bruised solace in simple, connective communication, plumbed the darkened depths of the American character, lightly riffed on religion, politics, and pop culture, considered loneliness and gendered pride, and challenged the arrogance of power and the injustice of prejudice. Above all, they left us with indelible moments and images, and alternately comforted and challenged us in fraught times. Here are ten highlights that rose above all others. Picks for last year’s top films can be found here.

1. Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival is not only a resonant philosophical work but a keenly-felt tear-jerker, and it summons general political subtexts in the best provocative science fiction tradition. In a modern age of alienation and mass miscommunication, it employs aliens to emphasize the value of mass communication, of cooperation, of striving for understanding and empathy rather than settling for the easy escape hatches of inchoate resentment and hateful force. […] Arrival recognizes that language is both a tool and a weapon and fervently hopes that it can be used for good rather than ill. It also handsomely demonstrates that cinema as a language is both a tool and a weapon, and shows how it can serve the good in the human world.”

Review – 16 December 2016

2. The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)

” [The Witch] is both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria. If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion.”

Review – 24 September 2016

3. Hail, Caesar! (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

“The surprisingly wonderful new comedy from the Coen Brothers is a triumph of referential subtext over surface text, over rounded characters, over even narrative itself. A deceptively light but truthfully rich and thoughtful position-taking on the symbolic and spiritual function of Hollywood cinema, it compares and contrasts the sparkly bauble of Studio Era film product to the totalizing ideologies of Communism and Catholicism and, with a peculiar twist idiomatic of Joel and Ethan Coen, finds it much more analogous to the latter. The ideological angle is so overt as to nearly transcend the subtextual, but it doesn’t prevent Hail, Caesar! from indulging in masterful sequences of craft and entertainment that are homages to the skilled delights that Old Hollywood deployed with such regularity.”

Review – 23 February 2016

4. Rams (Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)

Rams is no mere critique of tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. […] Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.”

Review – 12 October 2016

5. Zootopia (Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

“For a lovable animated feature film about talking anthropomorphized animals and the human-like civilization they inhabit, Zootopia feels as urgent and politically timely as a year’s worth of Frontline documentaries. It’s a subtly forceful allegory of warning against the destructive consequences of prejudice and racial profiling […] that only gains resonance in the face of the election of a U.S. President who cynically utilized those forces for his benefit. […] When it’s said that popular discourse would ideally avow responsibility for past wrongs and work intelligently and openly to forge a better path, Zootopia is what that process looks like.”

Review – 9 December 2016

6. Midnight Special (Directed by Jeff Nichols)

“For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.”

Review – 11 August 2016

7. The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is a parched satire on the social pressures that buttress romantic love, even if the valences of its critique of such pressures are often missed in the (admittedly hilarious) deadpan tone of the whole piece. […] The Lobster is all a metaphor for the mechanisms of social control, but it’s also a pretty direct depiction of them in all of their stark absurdity. It’s an obvious dark fantasy that can, at times, feel all too awkwardly real. It shimmers with the patina of subtle brilliance; it suggests some form of spectrum-placed genius to sincerely curate and maintain such an exquisitely mannered tone that is, in and of itself, also the target for such biting satire.”

Review – 6 December 2016

8. Amanda Knox (Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn)

“A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. […] Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug [Italian prosecutor Giuliano] Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions.”

Review – 2 October 2016

9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Directed by David Yates)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy[…]. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters […] in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination.”

Review – 22 December 2016

10. Captain America: Civil War (Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

“Marvel has built to the central dialectical conflict of Civil War over twelve films, and has done so with patience and intelligence while adhering to an overriding house style that has discouraged some distinct film artists from playing in their creative sandbox […] but has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interweaving series of films to maintain tonal and narrative consistency […]. It’s galvanizing proof of Marvel’s growing expertise that the film runs [a victory] lap at full speed and capability.”

Review – 17 May 2016

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