When making a top 10 list for a year in cinema I like to think of the themes that seem to inform the year. Not that every film needs to fit a specific theme, but each year does seem to kind of speak to something in the time period in which it was released.
For 2016, that theme seems to be identity. Which is appropriate for the year itself. Identity politics is what people around the world are voting for or voting against; it’s individual groups of marginalized people vs. national flags blanketing populaces. The best films of 2016 chose to focus on how someone identifies himself or herself or how communities choose to identify them. Whether it’s by their religion, their sexuality, their victimhood or their shedding of victimization, their gender, their race, their artistry or their vocation, the concept of identity was massive in my favorite films of 2016.
It wasn’t just prevalent on my top 10 list. For films that almost made the cut, they too played with identity concepts. For examples from my runners up, there’s the required marital status of Kate Beckinsale and her daughter in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship or the Communist sympathizers in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! The desire to be seen as more than a jock in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! versus the desire to be worshiped as a goddess in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. And the attempts to maintain a familial legacy in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie or merge a family darkness with the family religion in Zach Clark’s Little Sister. Then there are the switching femme identities for power and subservience in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and Sophia Takal’s Always Shine. Then there’s a character who identifies as a private detective so in his bones that he discovers he’s a figment of the imagination of an author in Larrain’s Neruda; and finally for my runner ups, the identity of the very land being swapped from Mexico to the USA to the banks gets its due in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.
Additionally, I cannot not mention a few films under this guise. Although I’m not as over the moon about Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land as most of my colleagues, I was totally enraptured by many moments and consider the audition-segue-into-the-epilogue section to be one of the most emotional moments of the year—and absolutely the best visual stretch ever done by a musical. And that film is all about saving the identity of jazz and fighting for your artistic identity against selling out. But it’s Ezra Edelman’s O.J. Made in America, which chronicled O.J. Simpson’s decades of denial of his own racial identity to benefit his acceptance by corporate America which then warped into his acceptance of a black identity when he needed juror sympathy for a murder acquittal, that makes my year-end list difficult. Edelman’s mini-series was probably the best thing I’ve seen all year, but I did watch it on TV with commercial breaks and separate credits for each episode. Despite playing at Sundance in a full 7.5-hour format and receiving a brief theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles to become eligible for the Oscars, I cannot bring myself to include it on this list because I viewed at as a televised experience and can’t separate it from that. In that manner I’m identifying it as a mini-series. A monolithic mini-series that everyone should see. But in the debate on whether it’s a movie or not, I personally can’t label it as such. And I suppose I’m identifying myself by doing that.
It is not surprising that the narrative format of film largely favors individuals more than blanket groups, of course. However, in 2016 although identity politics is being roundly defeated around the world, it does seem worth noting that it’s still primarily the best way to focus a film: on the individual as they seek an identity. And that that’s what audiences want, even if the world is shifting its axis the opposite way. Nonetheless, here are my choices for the best individual stories of 2016.