Film Feature: Carrie’s Top 10 Films of 2016

by Carrie Kahn on December 31, 2016

Spinning Platters film critics present their top 10 films of 2016

Spinning Platters film critics Carrie Kahn and Chad Liffmann each share their ten favorite films of 2016. Here is Carrie’s list, presented, unlike last year’s alphabetized list, in descending rank order. And you can check out Chad’s list here to see which one of us you agree with more!

10.) Nocturnal Animals

Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal, middle) arrives at a possible crime scene with lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, r.).

Sometimes the story-within-the-story convention can be confusing or feel gimmicky, but in this visually stunning picture from fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, the technique works to terrific effect. Amy Adams, as a woman haunted by a decision she made years ago, reads a manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and that story comes alive on screen in the form of family man Tony (Gyllenhaal again) and his confrontation with some dangerous, deranged miscreants. Ford’s keen aesthetic vision and sharp performances by Adams, Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon as a tenacious lawman combine to make this brutally poetic but utterly captivating film one of the year’s most definitively unusual. (You can also read my full-length review here.)

9.) Certain Women

From left, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone, and Michelle Williams portray Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women.

Short stories come to vivid life in writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s masterful hands. Based on a collection of stories by Montana writer Maile Meloy, Reichardt’s picture is an outstanding showcase for three of our best actresses working today, and a fourth newcomer of equal talent. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone are superb in Reichardt’s loosely connected vignettes, each gorgeously filmed on location in Montana. With its themes of loneliness, longing, and, heartache, Reichardt’s subtly disquieting picture examines the challenges and stresses of being a woman in often unforgiving landscapes– both physical and spiritual. (You can also read my original capsule review from its Sundance Film Festival premiere here.)

8.) Loving 

The Lovings (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) in a peaceful moment.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has long been one of my favorites (Mud was on my 2013 Best Of list, and I enjoyed Midnight Special, his other film from this year), and, now with Loving, he again doesn’t disappoint. Here he delivers a film so finely calibrated and tonally low key that its emotional resonance almost sneaks up on you. Based on the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), an interracial couple living in 1950s Virginia, the film chronicles their long and arduous fight to overturn the state’s racist law against interracial marriage. Reluctant heroes who neither sought nor wanted the spotlight, the Lovings simply wanted to be free to live their life in their hometown; Edgerton and Negga portray the couple’s unwavering determination and quiet exhaustion in remarkable, nuanced performances. Deeply affecting and touching without being sentimental, Nichols’s film exquisitely exemplifies that the personal is indeed political.

7.) Moonlight 

Kevin (Jharrel Jerome, l.) and Chiron (Ashton Sanders) find connection despite the odds.

A film that speaks volumes with its silences, Barry Jenkins’s second film is a breathtaking and eloquent ode to self-discovery and communion. A trio of top-notch actors (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) give tender but forceful performances as the shy and conflicted Chiron, a young African-American man coming to terms with his sexuality in a rough neighborhood in 1980s Miami. Similarly powerhouse work by Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as a drug-dealer turned mentor help bring Jenkins’s singular vision of love, beauty, and connection to the screen. Alternately heartbreaking and hopeful, Jenkins’s film offers us an extraordinary view of the human experience. (You can also review my original capsule review from its Mill Valley Film Festival premiere here.)

6.) Hell or High Water 

Toby (Chris Pine, l.) and Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) warily confront each other.

The dusty, windswept vistas of New Mexico stand in for West Texas in this beautifully shot and beautifully acted neo-Western-noir thriller. Director David Mackenzie and Sicario writer Tyler Sheridan have crafted a stick-it-to-the man modern day crime tale in which the good guys and the bad guys aren’t always so easy to tell apart. Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are hot on the trail of bank robbing brothers Toby and Tanner (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), slowly developing a begrudging respect for each other in a Sam Shepard-meets-Victor Hugo kind of way. Jarring, thoughtful, and highly relevant, Mackenzie and Sheridan’s picture belongs in the same canon as the Coen Brothers’ 2008 Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. (You can also read my full-length review here.)

5.) Indignation 

Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts, l.) and college student Marcus (Logan Lerman) have it out in an epic battle of will and intellect.

Philip Roth novels have a reputation of being notoriously difficult to bring to screen, which is why James Schamus’s accomplishment here is all the more impressive. Based on Roth’s 2008 book of the same name, Schamus’s picture elegantly captures the Rothian themes of alienation, assimilation, religion, and mortality. Logan Lerman, as Marcus, a New Jersey Jewish transplant to a small, conservative, Midwestern Christian liberal arts college in the 1950s, hits all the right notes of conflicting intellectual and sexual confusion and confidence. His tête-à-tête with the college’s imposing dean (a formidable Tracy Letts) alone justifies the film’s inclusion on this list. A powerful meditation on heady themes, Schamus’s picture keeps us engaged and entranced at the same time it allows us to reflect on what it means to be young and yearning for acceptance and connection. (You can also read my original capsule review from its San Francisco International Film Festival premiere here.)

4.) The Edge of Seventeen

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and Erwin (Hayden Szeto) together navigate the rocky waters of high school.

In a wholly original take on the ubiquitous teenage angst movie, relative newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig’s story subverts expectations and offers us a strong-willed and altogether unique protagonist in the form of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a 17-year-old still reeling from her beloved father’s death years before. Aside from giving us a fresh take on the coming-of-age picture, Craig has also made what is quite possibly the best, most moving film about brothers and sisters since Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me. Blake Jenner, as Nadine’s popular brother Darian, proves here he’s more than just a pretty face, turning in a complex, richly layered performance that easily matches Steinfeld’s. You’ll be laughing through your tears as Craig and her fantastic cast (Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson are spot on in supporting roles) deftly take us back to one of the most awkward, painful, but gloriously free and open times of our lives.

3.) 20th Century Women

Single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening) tries to guide her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) through the travails of growing up in 1970s Santa Barbara.

A coming-of-age story in more ways than one, Mike Mills’s sun-dappled, smart, and offbeat film based on his upbringing with his free-spirited single mother in 1970s Santa Barbara offers us both a teenage boy and a middle-aged woman trying to find their place in a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Annette Bening nails her best role in years as Dorothea, who recruits two of her tenants and a neighbor girl to help raise her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, also excellent), with consequences sometimes funny and sometimes bittersweet, but always emotionally authentic. Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and Billy Crudup round out the marvelous cast of this wry and lovely picture.

2.) Other People 

David (Jesse Plemons) shares a few final, bittersweet moments with his beloved, terminally ill mother Joanne (Molly Shannon).

Local boy makes good, as Sacramento’s own Chris Kelly makes his feature film debut with this unflinching – and often very funny – loosely autobiographical story of a struggling young comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) returning to Sacramento from New York to help care for his cancer-stricken mother (a stellar Molly Shannon). By turns achingly poignant and side-splittingly funny, Kelly’s picture never shies away from examining hard truths about familial bonds, resentments, and, ultimately, love during moments of both deep sorrow and pure joy. (You can also read my original capsule review from its Sundance Film Festival premiere here.)

1.) Manchester by the Sea

The most powerful scene in film this year is this one between exes Randi (Michelle Williams) and Lee (Casey Affleck).

One of the most honest depictions of loss, grief, and guilt ever seen on screen, Kenneth Lonergan’s wrenching family drama will leave you shattered. It was my favorite film of the Sundance Film Festival when I saw it there back in January, and it remains my all-out favorite picture of the year, despite some stiff competition. But no other movie this year can even come close to matching the emotional intensity brilliantly expressed here. Fiercely raw, absolutely devastating performances from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges cement this picture as one of the greats not only of 2016, but of all time. (You can also read my original capsule review from its Sundance Film Festival premiere here.)

Honorable MentionsSing Street, The Eagle Huntress, Christine, De Palma, Patersonand Hidden Figures.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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