The Lobster is one of the weirdest, funniest, and dazzlingly good-looking movies of the year, and the best for me.
This was a pretty wild year for movies. If you read my list last year, you might remember where I said many of the films had themes of oppression, containment, and entrapment. I found that, both at SLIFF and in all major releases in general, there weren’t such easy words to define the year. There was a lot going on. Most agree that 2016 is possibly the worst year of the new millennium, and also the craziest. Luckily, we’ve gotten to see movies that reflect those feelings—or at least distract from them.
1. The Lobster
Yorgos Lathimos has made a career of building strange and strictly rule-driven worlds to analogize our own world. For some people, the symbolism in The Lobster might seem too vague. For those of us who are tired of modern conventions of romance and love, it’s a painfully true metaphor. One of the weirdest, funniest, and dazzlingly good-looking movies of the year, and the best for me. Without question.
Sure, it feels somewhat wrong to not have the new Todd Solondz film in my number one spot. Easily one of my absolute favorite modern filmmakers, even his less popular, alienating films like Dark Horse put stars in my eyes for their confrontational humor, tragic undertones, depraved characters, and intermingling of bright, sunny rom-com aesthetics with disturbing subjects such as rape, pedophilia, abortions, and more. With Wiener-Dog, Solondz ruffles our feathers more than ever. He spreads out his abilities among several different stories and characters, all connected by the adventures of an old and sickly wiener-dog. He brings back Dawn Wiener, the awkward and gangly protagonist of his debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and despite being played by the beautiful Greta Gerwig, she still embodies the defeated, shy ugly-duckling type—in the writing and in Gerwig’s great performance. Starting with a child and ending on the twilight hours of a disenchanted film teacher and an old blind woman (played by Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn, respectively), the film charts a journey to death, and suggests maybe even from our youth that life might just be a long, sick swan song. It’s an omnibus of Solondz’s best sensibilities, including satire, surrealism, irreverent comedy, and the flat-out bizarre.
My review of Arrival said just about everything there was for me to say. It’s the definitive sci-fi installment of 2016 and, along with Ex Machina, takes a slower and more poignant approach to the genre than the big-studio spectacles. Denis Villeneuve, proving time and time again to be one of our most valuable current filmmakers, takes a frequently done premise and instills in it a his trademark personal touch, humanity, and elegance. The climax of this alien invasion movie is someone making a phone call in Chinese to someone who will understand the message. This speaks to the theme that works so well in the film, and one of the most important insights to take out of movies from this year: Communication is our greatest tool.
I was extremely fortunate to catch Harmonium at this year’s SLIFF. The fatalistic, tragic downfall of this working family is impossible to look away from. It’s one of the most shocking and devastating movies of the year. You will fall to the floor in amazement and grief by the end, but feel a strange and unexpected satisfaction, as well. Using abruptness and directness to portray uncertain and confusing outcomes, Harmonium will stay in your thoughts for some time.
5. Swiss Army Man
Zany, surreal, absurd, and musical, Swiss Army Man is an adventurous mixture of the whimsical and the macabre. Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse, Manny, is one of the best funny men of the year, and Paul Dano turns out yet another strong performance as the suicidal castaway Hank, whose obsession with a girl on his bus can speak to either his failings as a lover or his discomfort as a man. There have been a number of interpretations of the film: for its apparent and strong insights into life and death, depression and stagnancy, and even gender identity and homoeroticism. The vivid magical realism is the perfect style for a movie so hopeful and yet so sad.
6. La La Land
Another film I reviewed recently, La La Land has already gotten an embarrassing amount of giddy praise on my end. Plucked right out of the 1950s but updated in the facets of performance, camera work, and scale, it feels like it’s been waiting around for almost 70 years to explode in our faces. More so, despite its magical and romantic qualities, La La Land still manages to take an honest look at relationships and the price of achieving your dreams.
7. The Witch
A frequent compliment for a good horror film is that it slowly builds a feeling of dread. If this is one of the major keys to success in building terror, The Witch functions almost as a blueprint. But aside from the methodical, precisely crafted progression into evil and disorder, director Robert Eggers instills richness and impressive authenticity into the 17th century New England setting. With no technology or abundance, this troubled family begins to feed on itself, and in the midst of their downfall become sustenance for an unexplainable and bizarre entity. The intermingling of unreasonable and sublimely malicious evil and the fragility of the human mind in isolation is the perfect combination for horror.
8. Toni Erdmann
Probably one of the best feel-bad movies I’ve seen all year, the fact that it’s a dark comedy containing brief moments of levity and absurdism only strengthens the many heavy moments the film lays down. Sometimes individual scenes contain moments that are layered with silliness on top and heartbreak on the bottom. The jokes all come in moments of tension. The dark comedy is a subtle as can be, taking the subgenre to a whole new level where the jokes make you chuckle at first, and then leave you with an undeniable, persistent melancholy—all without lurid or violent subject matter.
9. The Witness
There’s a lack of documentaries on this list. The truth is, there were many great films to come out in this area that I never got the chance to see (Tickled being one of them, which is on the Top 10 lists of many critics and filmmakers, including John Waters). The Witness was released to Netflix earlier this year, and I was so fortunate to see it. The widely known story of Kitty Genovese is told through the eyes of her paraplegic brother. We learn how the narrative of all the bystanders failing to help her during her death was widely overblown, but mostly we see the emotional journey her brother goes on. Containing one of the most heart-wrenching recreations (the brother looking on during the attack), this film is not just about how violence is covered in the media, but how a family deals with grief.
10. Knight of Cups
It was a struggle to decide what would be my #10 this year. There were many films not released or yet to be released that I wanted to see, and would have considered for this list. Terrence Malik’s latest film is a suitable enough choice, if not for its caliber of storytelling but in the pure audaciousness and poetry of its visuals. Easily the best-looking film of the year, even though I didn’t get the satisfaction out of its themes in story that I got out of other films this year, Knight of Cups more than made up for it with its dreamlike landscapes, set design, and cinematography.
Other films I hope to catch in the near future are Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden, which got a small release in October, and Martin Scorsese’s The Silence, which won’t hit theaters in St. Louis until right before Christmas. There may be more beauty and cinematic excellence yet for me to feast my eyes on. The good news is there’s been plenty to see all year that I think I’ve reached my quota, as it were. | Nic Champion