The Lobster and 10 other ways of looking at the movies (and ourselves) in 2016

One look at the best performers at the box office and you might get the idea that 2016 was a weak year for movies. The Top 25 (each of which grossed at least $100 million) contains the usual mix of animated movies, superheroes, franchises, sequels and remakes.

But the glut of mainstream escapism — whether effective (Doctor Strange) or offensive (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) — shouldn’t obscure the fact that 2016 was a great year for creativity. The best movies made far less money, of course, but took big storytelling risks, pushed boundaries, sparked conversation, and will continue to make waves in the ever-enlarging afterlife of streaming video.

In fact, an out-and-out masterpiece — the documentary O.J.: Made in America — can be seen for free on ESPN.com right now. Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour film isn’t simply a recitation of the O.J. Simpson story; it’s a scorching portrait of the latter half of the 20th century in this country, framed by the civil rights movement and centering on one man’s self-destructive push to live the American dream. With its searing urgency and epic scope, it towers over all other docs, even in a year filled with extraordinary work (Weiner, Into the Inferno, Cameraperson). It’s not included in the list below because there simply was nothing else like it this year, in terms of content as well as consumption. It blurs the lines between television and movies, reflecting in the process our changing viewing habits — and how those habits influence our larger sociopolitical conversation.

Not that my traditionally arranged list is apolitical or provides respite from this most distressing of “made in America” years.

10. Elle

Isabelle Huppert is a goddamn force of nature in this provocative psychological thriller from Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers), which gleefully flips the bird at pretty much every modern societal convention. She’s the Parisian CEO of a video-game company that specializes in violent, first-person shooter games, and she also happens to be the daughter of a convicted serial killer. I won’t reveal anything else, except that you’ve never seen a crime “victim” react this way before. It opens in KC January 13 at the Tivoli.

9. Jackie

Pablo Larrain’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy during the torturous week of JFK’s assassination is a remarkable balancing act. With its unsettling score and sweeping cinematography, it immerses us in a world of sudden pain, confusion and tragedy. Yet it also keeps us at arm’s length, demanding that we conclude for ourselves just who this complicated, formidable woman is. (Jackie opens this week at Glenwood Arts and the Tivoli.)

8. Green Room

In the next four years, we will no doubt all learn some hard lessons about how one bad choice can lead to even more desperate situations. The young hardcore band in Jeremy Saulnier’s electrifying Green Room takes a gig at a skinhead compound and is soon trapped and hunted down when they see something they shouldn’t see. With this and his previous film — the revenge thriller Blue Ruin — Saulnier proves he’s an expert at balancing exploitation-movie shocks, unbearable tension and real-world regret.

7. Swiss Army Man

If you remember this title but haven’t seen the movie, you may have dismissed it as “the farting corpse movie.” Well, this is not any old farting-corpse movie. What’s admirable — in fact, downright brilliant — about writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s decision to cast ex-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as a dead man with magical powers (such as jet-powered flatulence) is that they double down on it. It’s not merely a gimmick, good for a steady stream of laughs. It’s the dead-serious metaphor that illuminates the formally challenging whole. 

6. Krisha

The third of five movies on this list that express the inner life of a powerful female character, Krisha is the debut of Trey Edward Shults. Shot in nine days at Shults’ parents’ house, it stars his real-life aunt Krisha Fairchild as the fictional title character, a 60-something addict reuniting with her family for a tumultuous Thanksgiving after many years away. With elegant camera movement and impressive POV shots that belie its micro-budget, Krisha embeds us in its main character’s fear and anxiety, but generates an enormous amount of empathy as well. The movie is intense, heartbreaking, and a true wonder of creative will, so it’s no surprise that it won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

5. American Honey

From Krisha’s brisk, 81-minute extended-family nightmare, let’s head to the 160-minute wanderlust of Andrea Arnold’s impressionistic road-trip movie, in which an aimless but resourceful young Midwestern woman finds support and love in a family of a different kind. First-time actress Sasha Lane takes up with a hard-partying group of traveling magazine sales kids, headed by Shia LaBeouf — who has never been better — and learns all the life lessons you’ve seen a million times in other coming-of-age movies, but never before with such aching realism.

4. Moonlight

This beautifully rendered drama is considered a front-runner for Best Picture come February, and rightfully so. Writer-director Barry Jenkins has created a deceptively simple and lovely portrait — told in three stages with three different actors playing the part — of a young African-American boy growing up gay in Miami with a drug-dealing mentor and a drug-addicted mother. It sounds overbearingly “indie,” I know, but Moonlight avoids every cliché and is sophisticated beyond its budget.

3. Toni Erdmann

A stressed-out German businesswoman in Bucharest (Sandra Huller). Her untethered father (Peter Simonischeck), a semi-retired music teacher who likes to play practical jokes. The unspoken back and forth between them as they play various roles during her business dealings. These elements make up Toni Erdmann, a truly original comedy with a hugely absurd premise that stays on the level of realistic human compassion and relatability. Writer-director Maren Ade takes 162 minutes to flesh out the strained relationship at the story’s center, and it feels long sometimes; still, there isn’t a moment I’d cut out of this sublime movie. (It’s slated to open in KC sometime next month.)

2. Manchester by the Sea

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan cements himself as the heir to the long-vacated throne of James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) when it comes to blending a big helping of godawful tragedy with a smaller dose of inappropriate comedy in this multilayered exploration of one man’s grief. Casey Affleck is at his career best as a reluctant father figure to his recently deceased brother’s teenage kid. All around the pair are reverberations of small-town attitudes that play by turns brutally funny and agonizing. Manchester by the Sea thrills in the incongruities of human beings and thwarts the fake-redemptive narratives of so many movies before it to become brilliantly alive.

1. The Lobster

This is the most romantic, delicate and perceptive movie about intimate relationships since Spike Jonze’s Her. Yes, it takes place in a dystopian alternate reality, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut is humanist in a Kurt Vonnegut way, and the filmmaking envelops you within its own firm logic. The premise: Citizens have 45 days to find a perfect romantic match or be turned into an animal. Colin Farrell is in full schlub mode as he navigates this no-win situation, and Lanthimos pokes fun at every modern notion of what a successful relationship looks like. When Farrell finds a kindred spirit in Rachel Weisz, it’s a sweet antidote to the sourness of their situation, and the desire to see them happy overrides everything. No other film this year so eloquently points out the flaws in our interpersonal ideals while so movingly embracing them. It deserves to be revisited over and over. 

Categories: Movies