In lieu of the customary best-of-the-year listcraft, an accursed process which the last few Decembers just about turned me into a rabid lunatic, spouting random numerals at innocent passersby and scrawling the name of the latest Kendrick Lamar project on every available surface, I decided this year to experiment with my own, also deeply flawed scheme of year-end reflection. The following lists are assembled from the best albums and movies (in my biased and ever-fluctuating opinion) not of the last twelve months, but that I personally became acquainted with during that time. The idea is that this will give some exposure to both the old and the new (considering how many, many more non-new movies I watched this year, I’ve weighted the contemporary releases a bit), and give a better representation of my own 2016, and how it was flavored and influenced by what I saw and heard on record. I’ve also spared myself an aneurysm by presenting the lists alphabetically rather than by preference; if I tried to order these things according to how I honestly feel they compare, the roster would come out looking more like the Fibonacci sequence than a reasonable list.
This Year In My Ears
The 10 albums I most liked hearing for the first time in 2016:
Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, 2016
★ (Blackstar) by David Bowie, 2016
The Crow by Steve Martin, 2009
Diamonds in the Rough by John Prine, 1972
“Heroes” by David Bowie, 1977
Night Lights by Gerry Mulligan, 1963
Return to Forever by Chick Corea, 1972
Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, 2016
Splendor & Misery by clipping., 2016
Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest, 2016
I beat my eardrums bloody on these other great 2016 releases, too: The Bible 2 by AJJ, Black Terry Cat by Xenia Rubinos, Blood Solo EP by Lianne La Havas, Bonito Generation by Kero Kero Bonito, Bottomless Pit by Death Grips, Emotional Mugger by Ty Segall, Feelin Kinda Free by the Drones, Floss by Injury Reserve, Goodness by the Hotelier, The Impossible Kid by Aesop Rock, The Long Dark Blue by Swain, Sings Favorites by Mark Kozelek, Spirit Phone by Lemon Demon, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by a Tribe Called Quest, WORRY. by Jeff Rosenstock, and Wriggle by clipping.
This 365 In Front Of My Eyes
The 10 movies I most liked watching for the first time in 2016:
Arrival (2016; directed by Denis Villeneuve)
Stoking the ebbed-out tradition of classical SETI dramas (meaning let’s pretend I’ve seen Close Encounters and know what I’m talking about), Arrival was a pleasant surprise this year—a stunning one, even. With impeccable pacing, refreshing E.T. design, and what looks to a layman like me to be basically sound linguistic method, the movie makes weighty and touching observations about humanity and life generally, separately and intertwined, as we know them and as they might stand elsewhere in the universe. It is more elegantly cinematic than predecessors like Contact, with a sneaky elliptical structure that reveals itself with soft beauty, and, I would argue, is no less invigorating a piece of speculative fiction than its antecedents of legend.
Breaking the Waves (1996; directed by Lars von Trier)
The more Lars von Trier disregards his own professed credo of minimalistic filmmaking, the more I seem to like the result. The impish Dane has been responsible for some of the more infamously audacious and button-crushing pictures of recent decades, and while I understand the points of his detractors fundamentally, I find the bombastic and colorfully macabre style of movies like Antichrist to be, on the whole, thoughtful and sure-handed enough to work. Breaking the Waves is less garish than von Trier’s latest efforts—closer to the grainy, corporeal atmosphere that he and his cronies once upon a time championed—but, for its dangerously potent story of faith and fidelity, it ranks with his best.
Captain Fantastic (2016; directed by Matt Ross)
Parents were put in a petri dish by more than one film this year (and reaching back into 2015 with movies like Room and Inside Out), but nowhere was the study carried out with the same poise and vivacity of second-time writer-director Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic. Featuring a tremendous Viggo Mortensen and a cadre of gifted young actors as the Computer-Age Family Robinson, the movie juggles its brains, hearts, and guts fumblelessly throughout its interrogation of traditional and alternative child-rearing attitudes. The director (a father of two) is keen and passionate in questioning what conditions and freedoms are best for his kids, and unafraid to admit that he’s vastly unsure.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016; directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)
If this is all that Hailee Steinfeld has been working on since the Coen bros.’ True Grit, it was worth the wait. Thoroughly wonderful, with an all-around radiant lead performance, Ms. Craig’s debut feature is one of the most enlivening high-school dramedies to come along this decade. No movie will ever have enough Woody Harrelson, but for the few scenes where he’s penciled in, I thought his was maybe the most ideally cast role of the year, topping off an absurdly well-cast picture.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016; directed by Travis Knight)
Either its blisteringly precise animation or its story—a robust bylina about community and loss and heroism and samurais and ghosts and stuff—alone would likely have landed Kubo among my favorites of 2016. Together, they make for one of the halest marriages of substance and style I saw on the big screen this year. For a full review, I’d recommend trying someone else’s, but you can take a stab at mine right here.
Kwaidan (1965; directed by Masaki Kobayashi)
Meticulously staged, achingly slow, and penetratingly scary, this three-hour quadtych of ye olde Japanese ghost stories surpassed even my most flamboyant nightmares. It might be a bad gamble to expect horror devotees to have the patience of Maya Angelou, but if you can bear with a tempo like a hibernating tortoise’s heartbeat, Kwaidan is more gorgeous and petrifying than nearly any movie I’ve seen.
Match Point (2005; directed by Woody Allen)
I have no stake or stance in the controversies surrounding Woody Allen’s personal life. For me, he epitomizes the principle of separating the artist from the art. Considering that he has produced at least two movies about desperate two-timers who plan to “silence” their mistresses, I have to suspect he’s guilty of one thing or another. But I have been, as best I can, a foulweather fan of his movies—namely classics like Annie Hall and (time willing) Midnight in Paris. In 2016, I finally knuckled down to screen the remainder of Allen’s 46 films (47 by the time I was through, and God knows probably 70 or something by the time you read this). In a nutshell, I loved fewer of the litter than I expected, but I disliked fewer than I was prepared for, too. I was consistently surprised by Woody’s ability to vary in inspired ways around a basically familiar formula. While I would love to find room on this list for under-sung gems like Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, the indisputable crown diamond is 2005’s Match Point, an engrossing piece of thrillerotica that is philosophically a quintessential Allen and cinematically a mesmeric outlier. This might be the only Woody Allen movie that is not just exquisitely written, but exquisitely made.
Million Dollar Baby (2004; directed by Clint Eastwood)
Don’t ask me how I went twelve years without seeing this thing, and definitely don’t ask me how I made it without having the late-game twist spoiled for me.
Nixon (1995; directed by Oliver Stone)
Another director whose body of work I fixed to consume en masse this year, Oliver Stone was previously a red-hot unknown to me. I’ve liked Wall Street since I was too young to understand it, and I think I repressed most of my original exposure to his pointed but debauched masterpiece, Natural Born Killers. If my recent viewing of NBK had been my first, it would certainly have made this list. Short of that, I had JFK, his epic and polarizing exploration of a Kennedy assassination “counter-myth,” pegged for the spot. Awed as I was by that flick’s construction and conviction, it ended up bumped in favor of Stone’s second presidential venture, a Shakespearean maelstrom that gets away with recognizing and then barreling through the problems that beset any representation of America’s most controversial political figure. Nixon fuses scathing and sympathetic depictions of Tricky Dick with the same finesse that JFK paper-mached its monumental self out of documentary footage, newsreels, recreations, and narrative scenes—and with, I would argue, a more resonant emotional thread. Bonus points for having James Woods; demerits for not having Joe Pesci in a custardy hairpiece.
Persona (1966; directed by Ingmar Bergman)
The babbling former-beauty-queen grandmother of today’s art cinema—breathtakingly shot, endlessly dissectible, and arguably more thought about by psychologists than film critics. Super highfalutin’, of course, but also kind of exhilarating.
I also loved, of the 2016 fare: Mike Birbiglia’s heartfelt Don’t Think Twice; Yorgos Lanthimos’s heartless The Lobster; Kenneth Lonergan’s heartbreaking Manchester by the Sea; Shane Black’s bone-breaking (but hearty) The Nice Guys; and Robert Eggers’s heart attack on celluloid, The Witch.
And, of years past: Fritz Lang’s revolutionary Metropolis, from 1927; Preston Sturges’s resplendently dark comedy Unfaithfully Yours, from 1948; Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s fatiguingly w0nderful Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952; Orson Welles’s exemplary film noir Touch of Evil, from 1958; Yasujiro Ozu’s characteristically simple An Autumn Afternoon, from 1962; Hiroshi Teshigahara’s hypnotic labor-horror trip Woman in the Dunes, from 1964; Robert Altman’s bleak, inaudible Western dirge McCabe & Mrs. Miller, from 1971; Akira Kurosawa’s red-drenched imperial epic Ran, from 1985; John Carpenter’s ridiculous Big Trouble in Little China, from 1986; Sam Raimi’s giddy prop funhouse Evil Dead II, from 1987; Spike Lee’s statuesque biopic Malcolm X, from 1992; Isao Takahata’s rambunctious deforestation parable Pom Poko, from 1994; Todd Solondz’s indecent Happiness, from 1998; Alfonso Cuarón’s spellbinding Dickens revision Great Expectations, from 1998, and honest-as-dirt road movie Y tu mamá también, from 2001; Patty Jenkins’s chilling and thrilling Monster, from 2003; Rob Zombie’s hellbilly’s delight House of 1000 Corpses, from 2003; Terrence Malick’s nature-minded (the man doesn’t just hug trees—he seduces them) Jamestown romance The New World, from 2005; Robert Zemeckis’s electrifying Flight, from 2012; and Lenny Abrahamson’s simply extraordinary Room, from 2015.
Now that that’s out of the way, I need to thank you all—readers, friends, records and flicks alike—to thank you, from the cockliest cockles of my heart, for everything you brought to my little old life this year. You made 2016 a survivable pass ’round the sun—for me, if not some of our heroes.