I understand it’s a bit late, but due to living in Toronto and not LA/NY, not all the films I wanted to see before making my list had been released here. That being said, there are still probably a dozen films I wanted to see but I set a deadline for this, and here we are. As did last year, I wrote an honourable mention list and I’ll be doing the same at the bottom of the list.
But here it is, my ten favourite films of the year. In previous years, I’ve typically written them down alphabetically but this year I was able to make a loose ranking, meaning that I love them all and they are almost all interchangeable.
For anyone who says that film is dead or dying, I’m here to gladly scream back that they couldn’t be more wrong.
Directed by Mike Flanagan
I’ve written a lot about Mike Flanagan and his films, and I’ll continue to do so.
While sadly Ouija 2 was actually a great film (but not a great horror film) that doesn’t take away from what may be his best film so far, Hush.
The premise is simple, you have Maddie (played by Flanagan’s wife and co-writer, Kate Siegel) in the woods by herself, as she tries to isolate herself so she can do some writing. In the process, an unnamed man (played by John Gallagher Jr) finds her alone and a classic home invasion film ensues. She is also deaf, which gives him an advantage.
Mike Flanagan is the type of director who becomes a star of his own films. Expertly made, filmed and edited. He always brings a well-constructed film first. While other modern horror films are relying on jump scares and false scares, Flanagan understands that jump scares don’t matter when the running time is over. He gives us craft and excellent characters. He makes us care, and then he scares.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
As if the past few years haven’t been proof, Denis Villeneuve is a force that can’t be reckoned with. Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of his films prior to Enemy, but every movie he’s made since then has been something spectacular. Partially thanks to his work with the genius cinematographer Roger Deakins.
All of his English speaking films are gorgeous. While in theory, it’s easy to miss Deakin’s camerawork, but Bradford Young is now responsible for possibly the best-looking film of the year. What Villeneuve, Young, and Eric Heisserer were able to accomplish is simply remarkable. Yes, the alien invasion over the glove brings a sense of scale and urgency, but the precision of the camera’s shallow depth-of-field and indie sensibilities makes it far more personal. So, we are given one woman’s story as the world is invaded and that is all that’s needed.
A story of love that is complex as it weaves through time. A fantastical and ingenious way of using flashbacks.
Directed by David Lowery
David Lowery made a name for himself a few years back with his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which played at the Sundance film festival starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. He’s currently at Sundance again with a new film called A Ghost Story which again stars Affleck and Mara, but before that he was given Pete’s Dragon which is one of the latest films of the Disney live-action adaptation series they are doing. And as the most recent films in their series (ignoring the first ones that stumbled and even fell hard), this film is excellent.
At the core of Pete’s Dragon, we see Pete’s relationship with the dragon that saves him in the woods, whom he names Elliot. It’s fantastical because of the sheer addition of the dragon, but once you swap it out with something more normal like a pet (or in my situation a dog, since Elliot exhibits some very strong dog behaviour), it makes sense. We see Pete and his pet grow as they have bonded through some very tough situations and the only thing they can depend on, is each other. Sure, yes the film gets sidetracked when Karl Urban decides he rather be a cartoon villain than anything else, but there is something so real when Pete decides to get on Elliot’s back and leave the family he’s needed for the past five years because he can not walk away from the one thing that has been a constant in his life.
Pete loves his dog and would do anything for him. And both times I saw the film, I know I would have done the exact same thing in his position.
The Neon Demon
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Debatably the most divisive film on my list as I only found people who either hated or loved it. And the really ends up being because of the final moments of the film that pushes people over the edge. In comparison to Refn’s previous feature (Only God Forgives) this film is easily swallowable (no pun intended?).
Elle Fanning shines in her almost minimalist role (what is a Refn film without a minimal lead?) as Jesse, a model who isn’t of age but knows this is the one thing she is good at. It’s the only dependable thing she has. She thinks she has friends to depend on (played by Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee), but she really only has Dean (Karl Glusman) for a limited time until Jesse starts her transition into something she’s not.
What is an absolute given in any Refn film, is gorgeous cinematography and that does not change with cinematographer Natasha Braier. She comes in having previously worked with models in commercials and the images they make are breathtaking.
It’s hard not to mention the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. In previous films, Refn has worked with him in the past (Drive and Only God Forgives) and they’ve all been great and the soundtrack for The Neon Demon is no different.
What makes the film stand out more is that Refn makes it a love letter to his wife. Being a male, he makes a film in which he tries his best to understand the societal pressures of being a woman. What it means to always try and look your best (the fact that most shots of Jesse’s face are more often reflections is brilliant in showcasing this), and how women not only have to “compete” with the rest of the world, but also with their friends.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has been making a name for himself the past few years which includes the Oscar-nominated No which was my introduction to his work.
Since then I’ve seen The Club and both Neruda and Jackie at screenings at TIFF. Something has been obvious Larrain, he makes aesthetic choices to fit the movie he wants to make. For No, it looks as if it ‘s shot on an analog tape. He chooses these ways to make the film he’s making more real, and with Neruda, he did exactly that. Neruda felt like I was visiting the home I’ve never seen.
Neruda is a fake biopic of what could have happened to the poet Pablo Neruda as he was sentenced to be exiled out of Chile. We are given something both fantastical and realistic. The movie takes place in the 40’s and therefore is shot just like a cop noir from that time period. What’s brilliant is that the film plays with our idea of who’s our hero, who’s our protagonist and antagonist. Gael Garcia Bernal is impeccable (as you’d imagine) as is Luis Gnecco who plays Neruda himself.
It found a way to make me ache to visit my parent’s country, a home I’ve never known. It made me miss a place I haven’t ever been.
Directed by Robert Eggers
In a year with very strong horror films, no film had a real fighting chance with this one.
The Witch brings a terrifying dread with nearly every frame, and the dread begins very early in the film. We are shown the titular witch and can feel the looming presence it has over the woods the family lives in. Add to that, we get Black Philip and to keep the spoilers to a minimum here, let’s avoid talking about the finale that shakes me to the core even after repeat viewings.
Anna Taylor-Joy may be the breakout star of the year as well.
Swiss Army Man
Directed by The Daniels
Swiss Army Man is the obligatory film that shouldn’t work but happens to work wonders.
Swiss Army Man becomes the perfect movie to show to new parents. Slowly by slowly, we are seeing Manny learn the difference between right and wrong. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe put in some of their best work (which is really saying something) and also takes huge risks in what they end up pulling off.
The movie taught me things about myself and life that I never expected to learn from that “farting corpse film.”
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Having gone to watch as many films as I was able to at TIFF for the last three years, I still always am left with a list of movies that I missed out on, and Green Room was definitely one of them. It became a more prominent one since in retrospect.
I still remember into my screening of this film and being excited to watch what everyone had been raving about, but still being unaware of what precisely that meant. I soon found out that Green Room is a masterclass in tension. With the very simple premise of “wrong place, wrong time”, the Ain’t Rights are put into a place that leaves them for a lack of a better word; fucked.
With Anton Yelchin in the starring role alongside Imogen Poots, Jeremy Saulnier gives us a realistic slasher where we finally care every character. Which is why it currently holds the spot for one of the most gruesome scenes in recent film history because of my attachment to the characters and genuinely care for their well-being. I squirmed in my seat through every viewing of the film, and that doesn’t typically happen as I’m essentially desensitized to gore in horror films as of late.
I’ll always remember that my screening was the same day that Prince passed away, and that will always bring an extra layer of love and appreciation to the film by seeing the audience cheering, clapping and getting choked up at the mere mention of his name in the film.
La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Cinema is not dead; classical joyful cinema isn’t dead.
Damien Chazelle took his love for the classic technicolor musicals of the 50’s and 60’s and made La La Land. Jacques Demy did the same thing when he made Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 (which is a huge inspiration for this as well), where he took the Nouvelle Vague sensibilities with the control and style of American musicals post-WW2.
La La Land opens with a warning to the audience, a massive big musical number on the highway. Damien makes the audience aware of what they’re in for, and for those who stay are in for something truly remarkable as the opening number is a work of pure art. And the rest of the film is as well.
We are shown two people living in L.A. that have ordinary day jobs while dreaming of being more. And that’s what the movie so beautifully captures in Emma Stone’s “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” solo number. We are living in a time when most of our twenty-somethings have fairly unrealistic dream careers (acting, jazz bar owner, filmmaker) and we fight for them even if we think we can’t or won’t achieve it. We have shitty day jobs because we can’t afford to wait around for it. We fight with ourselves on whether we should pursue our dreams because we know that in all likelihood, we won’t make it there. But we fight over, and over again.
It’s reasons like that that made La La Land speak to me on such a profound level. For me, the movie isn’t about the blooming relationship between our attractive leads but rather a way our dreams can take over us. And when people find someone who can help push the other to their dreams, and they’re able to make it, it’s beautiful.
The songs are so electric and joyful, they stay in your mind weeks after walking out of the cinema. Chazelle has studied the classical music so well that his belongs to stand side-by-side with them.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Here’s a film that if you heard me speak about it, you’d understand my love for the film. I’ve seen it three times in the theatre, and I’m ready to see it once more if given the opportunity.
Moonlight is unlike anything I’ve witnessed from beginning to end, I am entranced to the lush beautiful visuals that cinematographer James Laxton composes. An up-close and personal film, both thematically and visually.
We are given a miraculous work of art by Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film that is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Barry Jenkins is a name that needs to be known and will be even if I need to scream from rooftops.
He shows us the struggles of knowing oneself, the struggle of attempting to figure out one’s identity when living in a world that throws a blank image of what you’re supposed to become at you. This happens while Chiron also has to figure out his own sexual identity.
Movies rarely show these complex stories people discovering their sexuality that isn’t shown to us in a “sexy” way. Instead, Barry Jenkins takes three actors to portray Little/Chiron/Black and gives us a very meditative look at the situation. Along his journey, we see Juan who is given a short run time but never leaves your mind. And by his side is singer Janelle Monae who brings such warmth to every scene she’s in.
And then there’s Kevin, the reoccurring man that will change Chiron’s life. He makes an impact that causes Chiron to break himself down, and build himself as an entirely different man.
Moonlight is beautiful and is a movie that the world so desperately needs. It shows us a world that judges a little less often, and one that opens their arms more.
The following list of movies are a small handful of films I wanted to write about but felt these deserved it more. A few are also 2017 releases that have an opportunity of appearing on my list next year.
Sleeping Giant, Sing Street, Zoom, Jackie, American Honey, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Zootopia, The Nice Guys, Free Fire, Colossal, Bad Batch, and Raw