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The 25 Best Films of 2016

Among Slant’s best films of the year are numerous works that challenge a static definition of personage.

The 25 Best Films of 2016
Photo: A24

Celebrating great art amid the transition to political catastrophe can feel like, to paraphrase the title of poet Ocean Vuong’s recent collection, a moonlit sky with exit wounds. But the phlegm of post-truths shouldn’t get caught in our throats, let alone our eyes and ears, because films from across the globe continue to present a portrait of resilience in the face of international turmoil.

Among Slant Magazine’s best films of the year are numerous works that challenge a static definition of personage. In the realm of documentary, self-portraits of varying shades included both a remarkably unique memoir-as-collage from a longtime cinematographer (Cameraperson), and the final film of cinema’s greatest explicator of domestic malcontent (No Home Movie). In other cases, personal experience was tied directly to place, as in Chiron returning home to Miami in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s three-act portraiture of self-discovery, or the singular Lady Susan of Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s raucous Jane Austen adaptation, bringing some uninvited chaos to Churchill.

Connections between and across films abounded. Where one searing, unofficial trilogy cropped up, another equal but opposing trilogy appeared to provide a staunch counterpoint. Thus, the latest films from José Luis Guerín, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Terrence Malick are about men enticed by power and feminine beauty, whereas Anna Biller, Kelly Reichardt, and Maren Ade each made films about women rebuffing precisely those male advances.

If faith wavers during trying times, remember that reality can be wrong now, right then, and vice versa, ad infinitum. Cinema can be a mirror of reality, but it can also be a window into desire, either for the past or, hopefully, the realization of a better tomorrow. Since most of our names are not on towers, we should follow the lead characters in Certain Women and Moonlight and ride on horseback to our favorite diner for the chef’s special and several cups of wine. The complexities of the human spirit must be kept alive with precision and conviction. Great cinema has always been good that way. Based on the best films of 2016, it still is. Clayton Dillard

Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The 25 Best Films of 2016

25. The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

24. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero comes into focus like a half-remembered nightmare, as the heartbreaking events it depicts have long since been eclipsed by subsequent conflicts and catastrophes. Split neatly in two parts, Abbas Fahdel’s 334-minute documentary covers the gradual lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the United States’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, as children go from playing war games with imaginary machine guns to collecting empty tank shells and mortar rounds. Each half is freighted with its own specific sense of foreboding, qualities only heightened by the early revelation of a looming personal tragedy, the likely impetus for this voluminous footage remaining packed away for so long. Yet it’s this span of time, along with the complete, slow-burn immersion into Fahdel’s extended family, that helps grant the film it’s marvelous time-capsule quality, a monument to fortitude and perseverance illuminating the often unseen costs of war. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2016

23. Fire at Sea

The quietly intense Fire at Sea captures life and death on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which serves as a crucial waystation for refugees due to its location between Africa and Europe. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi penetrates deep into the world of 12-year-old Samuele, a fisherman’s son whose daily life, which runs along a path laid down generations ago, seems almost completely untouched by the tragedies playing out a few kilometers away. When Rosi isn’t watching Samuele do things like make and master a slingshot or head into the brush for a tender encounter with a wild bird, he’s observing the process by which refugees enter a fenced-off holding camp on the island, shooting close-ups of loss-ravaged faces and vignettes about some of the trials they’ve endured. The bifurcation between their world and Samuele’s, a metaphor for the gulf between the dispossessed and the rest of us, might feel too on-the-nose if only it were not the awful truth. Elise Nakhnikian


The 25 Best Films of 2016

22. The Academy of Muses

In The Academy of Muses, a University of Barcelona professor (Raffaele Pinto) teaches a seminar which is entirely attended by actresses. Writer-director José Luis Guerín melds pedagogy with cinema while replacing the border between documentary and fiction for the exact (G-)spot where the desire for knowledge meets desire tout court. Cinematic cuts have rarely felt so disturbingly premature as they do in this film, suggesting romantic ruptures. Passion for erudition has never felt so alive and contagious. Never has literature felt so delectable, even haptic, on the screen. Never has scholarship been this seductive. Yet Guerín’s seduction isn’t merely carnal, as it’s drenched in desire’s most inexorable ghosts: anxiety, desperation, mourning, and masculinity’s ostensible shield from heartbreak. This is a bold and ruthless film that expands the limits of cinema and academia alike, daring to expose the necessarily erotic side, if not purpose, of any teaching experience. Diego Semerene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

21. Kate Plays Christine

Actors frequently discuss in interviews their creative process in constructing a character, but how often do we actually see this process? Robert Greene’s not-quite-documentary Kate Plays Christine begins as such a showcase, in that we observe actress Kate Lyn Sheil roaming around an otherworldly vision of Sarasota, Florida as she develops the physical and emotional nuances of her role as Christine Chubbuck, the WXLT-TV newscaster who took her own life on live television on July 15, 1974. But as Sheil’s oscillation between herself and her Chubbuck persona become as slippery as the film’s depiction of reality and fiction, Greene’s impossibly multifaceted whatsit unfolds into a discourse on the ethical quandaries in repackaging Chubbuck’s struggle with female identity as mass media. In this sense, and due partly to the concerns Sheil voices to Greene over his desire to tell Chubbuck’s story, the film engages in critical self-analysis and (especially in the climax) deadpan self-deprecation. Yet this dose of humility shouldn’t mislead from the simple fact that Kate Plays Christine is one of the most profound and necessary commentaries on the filmmaking process. Wes Greene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

20. Homo Sapiens

If we want cinema to look forward, and not merely function as a diagnostic tool for our zeitgeist-focused selves, we must ask it to conceive of contemporary life both beyond the present and with a clear view of the past. Such is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s achievement in Homo Sapiens, a futuristic-seeming document of dilapidated vistas from across the globe that forgoes time stamps, title cards, and explanations of any sort. Stripped of speech and even the presence of a single human being, the film gradually becomes a meditative sanctuary for the spectator to contemplate her place within the increasingly unwelcoming Anthropocene. By paying homage to Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma with a concluding image of a blizzard that gradually whites out the frame, Geyrhalter acknowledges his film’s structuralist dedication to grasping the strangeness of human activity, including its amnesiac pursuit of deleterious forms of newness, through experimental visual means. Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

19. The Illinois Parables

At a time when America’s marginalized once again face an uncertain future, Deborah Stratman’s wise, rueful essay The Illinois Parables serves as a timely reminder that history has always pressed hardest on the disenfranchised. Stratman’s approach is akin to a precise archeological excavation performed on the oft-ravishing landscapes of the Prairie State that pepper her film, as layer upon layer of thick Midwestern soil is removed to reveal the whole strata of suffering and displacement beneath. Yet while the testimonies linked to punishing Native American treks, Icarian repression, and tornado devastation heard in voiceover are frequently grueling, the film itself never succumbs to doom and gloom, with the airy heterogeneity of the material unearthed setting a tone that veers between the serene, the shocking, the surreal, and the elegiac. And it’s the latter tonality that comes to dominate and ultimately convey the weight of Stratman’s endeavor: to erect a glorious monument to all those cast by the wayside. James Lattimer


The 25 Best Films of 2016

18. Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman’s films use the romantic-comedy format to, like Jane Austen’s novels, ironically scrutinize the bizarre social rituals and pitiless economic codes of the upper class. So it was in some ways inevitable that Stillman would eventually turn directly to Austen’s work. A perfect marriage of source material and directorial vision, Stillman’s Love & Friendship is a sumptuously designed depiction of Georgian England that employs its extravagant costumes and opulent settings to comment on the massive economic stakes at play beneath the plot’s surface melodrama. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) might appear to be in control of her complex web of romantic entanglements, but Stillman understands that the only tool she really has at her disposal (besides her ephemeral beauty) is her wit, while the men she hopes to manipulate into marriage have the wealth of the world’s greatest empire at their fingertips. In this Machiavellian society where wordplay opens the door to status and power, Lady Susan is a social assassin that wields bon mots as weapons on the battlefield of love. Oleg Ivanov


The 25 Best Films of 2016

17. Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater is a free and exacting talent, but he can be awfully smug and precious. In Everybody Wants Some!!, the filmmaker rediscovers his greatest gift as an artist: an awareness of an individual’s poetry of being. He riffs on the structure of his Dazed and Confused, following another scruffy, sexy assortment of young and entitled American hedonists over the course of a compact time, but 23 years has passed and Linklater has mellowed out. The snide-ness of Dazed and Confused has washed away, leaving a bruised empathy that’s counterbalanced by a remarkable sense of rowdy comedic force. Linklater can still swing, his sweeping camera pirouetting around his large ensemble in fashions that simultaneously bring to mind the fluidity of Max Ophüls and Howard Hawks. Mounting a semi-sweet parody of masculine force, Linklater grants himself permission to play again, in the process making one of his greatest and most resonant films. Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2016

16. Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a modern exploration of the role of feminine certitude within the context of the dyed-in-the-wool codes and attitudes of the American West. Three strivers embodying gradients of progressive womanhood—a headstrong lawyer (Laura Dern), an eco-conscious homebuilder (Michelle Williams) managing her own husband, and a solitary rancher (Lily Gladstone, in a breakout performance) harboring inchoate lesbian longings—all carry the titular quality, and yet the film dramatizes, in Reichardt’s characteristically sobering manner, the clash of that conviction against obstacles that invariably thwart the fulfillment of desire. The film is thus a delicate rejoinder to the all-American bromide of self-sufficiency and will power as routes to fulfillment, the defining thematic constellation of the western in its classical form. That Reichardt emulates the genre’s components just cannily enough (expansive landscape photography, a climactic horse ride) while also subtly defamiliarizing them (plentiful dead air, unnervingly detuned ambient sound) makes her persuasions—her certainty—that much more revelatory. Carson Lund


The 25 Best Films of 2016

15. The Love Witch

No aspect of humanity in 2016 was left unmarked by men’s rights activists lifting their legs on the tree of life. Among their accomplishments: tackling the corporate-engineered summer-franchise product Ghostbusters and focusing their bottomless rage against any non-topless cinematic depictions of women. The stacked deck that is the American movie marketplace should be obvious to anyone, but—to unscrupulously reverse Michelle Obama’s bad advice at the DNC—when the craven cultural gatekeepers aim high, it’s a pleasure to see everyone else get low. In a masc4masc world, few “specialty” filmmakers wear a Cheshire grin as cunningly as Anna Biller, who knows exactly the distance between “Burn the witch!” and “Lock her up!” Her debut feature, Viva, was a retro aperitif; The Love Witch is a subversive seven-course manifesto with a ’70s Dinner Party menu. Beautifully shot on 35mm, the film would be essential even if all it had to offer were its pitch-perfect period details. But it’s also a feminist Trojan horse that both embraces and upends the aesthetics of the very genres—horror, porn—that have long been accused of holding women down. Eric Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

14. Sunset Song

That most punctilious of auteurs, Terence Davies never led an audience across a more dizzying emotional crevasse than in this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’s 1932 novel Sunset Song. Like the farmland practices embossed in borderline-hallucinogenic 65mm glow by cinematographer Michael McDonough, the film’s narrative is deceptively simple: A Scottish girl, Chris (Agnes Deyn), grows up under the thumb of an inhuman patriarch (Peter Mullan), whose death is the sole liberating fact of her adulthood. She takes a husband (Kevin Guthrie), their love blessing her still-young life with the plot twist of domestic stability. He’s drafted in the Great War, and returns an alien presence: traumatized, paranoid, proud, vindictive beyond explanation. Chris’s struggle to maintain herself against still more excruciating odds unifies Sunset Song’s devastating dual testimonies: One speaks to the cruelty of time’s relentless forward march, the other to the grandeur and fragility of a life’s defining blisses. Steve Macfarlane


The 25 Best Films of 2016

13. Knight of Cups

A Hollywood player roots around the hollows of his soul in Terrence Malick’s most brashly experimental film to date. A wayward romantic on an inverted hero’s journey, Christian Bale’s Rick is the director’s Don Draper, visited by a series of spectral lovers and tortured family members who attempt to prod him out of his torpor. Many of Malick’s great films cast a metaphysical eye on a masculinist historical narrative, but after To the Wonder, Knight of Cups feels like the next step in a reckoning with that conceit. Dynamically shot by the peerless Emmanuel Lubezki and stitched into a seamlessly impressionistic collage by editor Billy Weber, the film gives Rick’s structuring absence a visual mirror in the environmental dislocation surrounding him. Endlessly jolting iterations of a teeming, defiantly unnatural city surrounded by an unforgiving desert strike at the film’s resounding theme, an ecstatic simultaneity of awe and dismay at the world we’ve built and the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the process. Christopher Gray


The 25 Best Films of 2016

12. No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman’s final feature is irrevocably haunted by its maker’s ghost, sensed most palpably in her off-screen sobs in the final shot. But the entire film is a ghost movie in progress, albeit one meant to chart the director’s uncomfortable anticipation of her mother’s death. Akerman splits the document of her mother’s final months between trademark shots of the woman’s cluttered domestic space as it gradually forms the walls of her coffin and moments of direct confrontation over the mother’s repressed Holocaust memories. If cinema typically gains its poetry through editing, Akerman finds it in duration, as in a shot in which an empty recliner seems to animate with its owner’s spirit as a window focuses fluctuating sunlight onto it. No Home Movie is the fraught culmination of a master’s career, tying together all of Akerman’s thematic and formal innovations into an anguished howl. Jake Cole


The 25 Best Films of 2016

11. Right Now, Wrong Then

Hong Sang-soo may have his pet themes, character types, and stylistic tropes, but the differences between his films lie in the telling, and in Right Now, Wrong Then he’s hit upon one of his most fascinating structural gambits yet. It’s a two-part film detailing two totally different outcomes of an encounter between the two same people: one a macho art-house filmmaker (this is a Hong film, after all), the other a shy female artist he tries to pick up. But while one could see the second half as the more optimistic wish-fulfillment version of the disastrous first half, Hong’s film actively resists such pat interpretations. What’s brilliant about Right Now, Wrong Then is that the structural gimmick not only reveals the troubled souls of its characters, but opens up real philosophical and moral questions regarding the ways human beings interact with each other. In other words, this is Hong at his most deceptively droll, observant, and incisive. Kenji Fujishima


The 25 Best Films of 2016

10. The Treasure

A (literal) excavation of Romanian history, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure explores a single, unremarkable plot of land (it had previously served as a kindergarten, steelworks, brickworks, and bar, but now lies empty and abandoned) as a microcosm of a nation’s variegated past and desultory present. With meticulous pacing and rigorously composed long shots, Porumboiu develops an ever-so-subtle suspense as we observe a trio of down-on-their-luck men equipped with metal detectors comb the land for loot supposedly buried there by a wealthy ancestor before the country’s communist takeover. The meticulousness of Porumboiu’s form provides ironic contrast to the hapless bumbling of his characters, creating an abiding air of melancholy deadpan that’s relieved only by the film’s jarringly triumphalist final image, a swooping crane shot that soars up to the heavens. After so long staring at the ground, simply looking up can feel like liberation. Keith Watson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

9. Manchester by the Sea

The broadness of scope in Kenneth Lonergan’s raw post-9/11 New York melodrama Margaret, along with the writer-director’s legendary struggle to reach final cut only to see it dumped by its distributor, turned the film into one of the true causes célèbres for Film Twitter™. Manchester by the Sea, his comparatively brisk follow-up, arrived with no such triggers to help its cachet. If anything, its top prize from the incurably square National Board of Review suggests quite the opposite. But, unfashionable and ill-timed as its depiction of raw-nerve masculinity in a state of inveterate crisis may seem in this moment, Manchester by the Sea’s articulation of grief not as a cycle but as a hardening—a pitiless freeze that won’t even allow you to bury your dead—will only continue to resonate so long as there remain shreds of evidence that things may indeed never get better. Life’s daily pinpoints of humor and twists of fate are deftly balanced by Lonergan, but by the end of the film, the fog still hasn’t lifted. Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

8. Cameraperson

Assembled from the detritus of a peripatetic cinematographic career, Kristen Johnson’s collage of outtakes, test footage, and idle between-scenes documentation forms an unsettling portrait of a life lived adjacent to violence. Johnson bridges the personal fury of a boxer to the scarred façades of Bosnian buildings, evoking the consequences of rage on a broad scale. Cameraperson gathers together many of the cinematographer’s offhand observations, like the mirthless chuckle of the prosecutor of the James Byrd murder case as he lays out an ironclad amount of evidence before court is in session, or Afghan soldiers merrily cutting watermelon before dropping everything for an assignment. Johnson finds a simple thesis in her past self talking about sifting through material until finding something interesting, though the true summary comes from Jacques Derrida, who stops Johnson from tripping in the street while filming him only to say, with only the faintest wit, “She sees everything.” Cole


The 25 Best Films of 2016

7. Moonlight

In Moonlight, masculinity is brittle yet resilient—too puny to drown. His name is, fittingly, Little (Alex Hibbert), the fatherless, and largely motherless, black boy who instead of growing up, grows inward, as if burying his broken child’s body into a muscular corset in order to make trappin’ practical and lovin’ impossible. Many other films have exposed masculinity as a violent response to its very own frailty this year, but only in director Barry Jenkins’s tripartite coming-of-age story have race and sexuality so aptly appeared as the inseparable entities they inevitably are. Chief among Moonlight’s many groundbreaking properties is its ability to engulf the viewer in an ocean of empathy for the main character as he grows up. Throughout, it’s as if we can’t breathe watching this growth. Jenkins does such justice to the complexities of Little’s life story that to call his desire gay and his condition closeted would mean to have misunderstood absolutely everything. Semerene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

6. Paterson

At a time when certain doom seems to hover just above our heads, a film like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson becomes all the more essential, its understated, rhythmic rendering of ordinary existence feeling both timeless and entirely modern. Telling the most mundane of stories, the film recounts one week in the life of a bus-driving, happily married poet without resorting to high-stakes conflict, strained symbolism, or overwrought showmanship, featuring no villain greater than an ill-tempered bulldog or a frenzied spurned lover with a gussied-up squirt gun. Its aims may seem modest, but Paterson excels by operating in a register few films bother to touch, serving as an important reminder of the sanctity of the everyday, the pleasures of the routine, and the sacred rite of doing something you love without the expectation of reward. Condensing William Carlos Williams’s sprawling city-spanning epic poem of the same name down to a small-focus character study, Jarmusch constructs one of the most effortlessly lyrical films in recent memory. Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2016

5. Elle

Halfway through Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video-game company, discovers that a certain male employee is responsible for creating a harassing video of her. Faced with any number of paths for punishment, Michèle looks at him and says: “Take out your dick.” As in Basic Instinct and Black Book, Verhoeven finds ways to cap scenes with tense moments of “who’s the victim here?” through reversals of sexual power that undercut masculine pride. The scene distills the filmmaker’s aesthetics into microcosm; women are made into agents of power who use their sexuality as weapons against male oppressors, yet they may also actually be murderers in the same breath. Simultaneously a Buñuelian satire of the bourgeoisie and a Chabrolian thriller of manners, Elle is ultimately wholly Verhoeven’s own in its play with the limits of sexual delight and all of its irreconcilable contradictions. Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

4. Cemetery of Splendour

Sometimes the most obvious sign of greatness is familiarity rather than innovation. The defining features of Cemetery of Splendour are equally evident in Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s other films, while the more eye-catching narrative bifurcations and unruly shifts in tone of his previous work are notable by their absence. The past can still cast its spell on people and locations alike, the mythical can still intrude on the everyday, and boundaries between different states can still be suspended at the drop of a hat, yet all these shifts now occur with a newfound matter-of-factness, a calm, tender inevitability that approaches the sublime. This serene drama about how politics and history gently seep into life in a country hospital is at once a singular illustration of how any one place may contain the entire world and the sign of a director relaxing into a new phase of his career, where rigor and freedom, restraint and invention flow together as one. Lattimer


The 25 Best Films of 2016

3. Happy Hour

In Happy Hour, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke follows four intelligent Japanese women in their 30s as they discover that their dialectal beliefs are no longer adequate compensations for their emotional estrangement. Hamaguchi mounts an epic film of intimate gestures that unfolds in great lapping movements containing minute stanzas of heartbreak, in which a meditation class, a post-workshop happy hour, a divorce hearing, and a book reading are allowed to exist both as worlds onto themselves as well as links in chains comprising larger existences. The women debate with themselves, resenting and reaching out to the equally miserable husbands and lovers who disappoint them, attempting to rediscover the healing primacy of touch in the film’s overarching sequences. Hamaguchi is that rarity: a tough, exacting humanist who puts his characters through their paces, relentlessly pointing and counterpointing their actions, his elegantly tensile imagery serving to render them wholly explicable and mysterious in seemingly equal measure. Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2016

2. O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America clocks in it at over seven hours, but it’s about much more than O.J. Simpson, the national celebrity who rose to fame first as a football phenom and then as a murder suspect in “the trial of the century.” Director Ezra Edelman casts his net deliberately wide: The spectacular first 90 minutes of his documentary, in particular, cover systemic racism and the socioeconomic injustice plaguing this nation through the decades before O.J.’s time (and continuing to after). The film is one of the great works of American cultural history over the last half-century. But it infuses that imposing breadth with the singular, personal story of a man who, in effect, at the height of his public life, found his triumph and his tragedy iconographically representative of an American ideal, and the dissolution of it. Sam C. Mac


The 25 Best Films of 2016

1. Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann boasts a script that’s hyper-constructed yet always free-flowing, two faultless, effortlessly varied performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and a trenchant understanding of how late-phase capitalism hollows out the individual that’s as wryly funny as it is unbearable. Yet what’s most remarkable about Maren Ade’s third feature is the idea that the true essence of family relationships can only be revealed via performance. The father slips into the role of the embarrassing, yet brutally revealing Toni Erdmann and his daughter can’t help but respond in kind, as their game-playing and one-upmanship gradually carries them both into the realm of the primal and into each other’s arms. But much like in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, the final, devastating turn of the screw suggests that archetypical relationships are inherently ambivalent: There is so much solace in an embrace, but how much difference does it actually make? Lattimer

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