We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
In 2016, the absurd and the almighty merged until you could no longer tell what was satire and what was deadly serious. We saw religion in a hot dog and beauty in a gassy corpse. The gasps of a ticklish man were terrifying, and a recycled commercial of O.J. Simpson, perhaps the first black athlete to become a corporate spokesman, sprinting to the Hertz Rent-a-Car counter felt like watching post–Civil Rights America's hope of unity get tackled just before a touchdown. And now, 'tis the season for gathering around the fireplace and squabbling over the best movies of the year. Throw that DVD of Dirty Grandpa into the flames and let's begin.
10. Swiss Army Man
Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. the Daniels, are music videos' new gift to movies. Their ecstatically raunchy clip for Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" has been streamed over 606 million times — numbers their first feature film, Swiss Army Man, deserves. Stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano give everything to this humanist gross-out comedy about a shipwreck survivor who discovers a corpse and jet-skis to shore on its decomposing flatulence. Sounds gross, but pair Swiss Army Man with their crotch-thrusting Lil Jon banger and it's clear the Daniels are brilliant dude-bros who spin their obsession with dicks and farts into a celebration of life.
9. A Bigger Splash
How powerful is Tilda Swinton? In Luca Guadagnino's seductive drama about a mute rock star, she commands attention without having to say a word. (Her yellow eyeliner and modernist summer dresses help.) Eventually, she whispers. Someone's got to interrupt her ex Ralph Fiennes from using up all the oxygen, especially since he's driving her boy toy Matthias Schoenaerts mad. A Bigger Splash traps you on their vacation island, for better and often worse. The sea looks like paradise, but the tide is violent and here swims Fiennes's newfound daughter (Dakota Johnson), the product of a forgotten fling, as immature and predatory as a baby shark.
Most coming-of-age films follow the arc of destiny. Something Big Must Be Learned. But Barry Jenkins's Moonlight tracks a boy-turned-teen-turned-man who's terrified of himself. Chiron is willing to grow up. He's not willing to grow inward. In the third act, when the scared child surprises us by becoming a dangerous, and deeply closeted, drug dealer, we realize he'd rather get arrested than admit he's already imprisoned in his own jail. It feels almost rude to yell about how good Moonlight is — Chiron would die of shame — and I fear its quiet footsteps will cede the Oscars stage to Damien Chazelle's dancing show pony. Yet Jenkins is a master craftsman, and if he's not going to brag about his talent, I'll do it for him.
David Farrier's exposé of the sordid, sensitive underbelly of erotic tickling sounds like a joke. Every year, there's a lightweight doc that audiences adore but awards voters dismiss as a trifle. (See also: last year's terrific Finders, Keepers.) Farrier, too, thought competitive endurance tickling was nonsense. Why would someone spend hundreds of thousands of dollars shooting videos of hunks play-torturing each other on mats? But don't let the subject distract you from the subtext. When the company denied Farrier's interview request for being a "homosexual journalist," he realized he'd stumbled on a serious story. What Farrier uncovers is a powerful millionaire who's successfully silenced the media for decades — and in the year of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump, that's no laughing matter.
In a year centered on the potential — and problems — of powerful women, all hail Dounia and Maimouna, the teen stars of Houda Benyamina's ferocious French flick about two Muslim girls from the Parisian slums, who decided they'd rather sell drugs for a neighborhood titan named Rebecca than put up with pathetic classes in how to be a mindless receptionist — their dreams are bigger than that. In one fantasy scene, they slide into an imaginary Ferrari and play-act cruising the strip. In reality, they drool over Rebecca's hot trophy boy, even though neither kid has even had her first kiss. Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena are 2016's best onscreen duo. Picture a female Abbott and Costello whose hobbies include spitting on male ballerinas. And then picture Dounia's smile when Rebecca gifts her the compliment we never knew we needed to hear: "T'as du clitoris." You got clitoris.
Hot dogs get no respect. They're literally made from the scraps superior food leaves behind. Yet Frank the wiener is the hero we need, an ordinary guy who suddenly realizes that the future he's taken for granted is a hellscape and something must be done. There is no greatness in the Great Beyond, the heavenly light behind the sliding doors where good food goes when chosen by the gods. The "gods" are simply human, and to be a human in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's merciless comedy means being a monster who ranks its appetite over others' suffering. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi — er, alt-right — sauerkraut plots the destruction of the Juice. Sausage Party skewers faith and passivity, two luxuries that lose their luster once you accept that the people in charge are trying to destroy you. This hot dog bites back.
Barry is the best film you never got to see in theaters. The key to first-time director Vikram Gandhi's biopic of Barack Obama's first year at Columbia is that it's the story of one compelling young man, not a polished future president. (This guy smokes a lot of weed.) Gandhi's interested in how a unique kid — half Kenyan, half Kansan, all Hawaiian — learned to use his singularity as a strength. We see him learn to blend into different groups, whether on the basketball court with his black friends or at dinner with his white girlfriend's parents. He's not smooth yet. He stumbles, and the last scene is a gut punch. Still, in a culture where we sort out our differences by screaming at each other on Twitter, watching this 20-year-old forge connections with kindness is persuasive. I caught Barry at the Toronto Film Festival and haven't stopped thinking about it since. Luckily, you can stream it on Netflix starting December 16.
Just try to keep up with Park Chan-wook's twisty thriller about a gorgeous thief hired to convince an heiress to marry the wrong man. Every frame of film is a stunner, from the wealthy woman's mansion, a creepy Victorian manor welded onto a rice paper pagoda, to the two beauties themselves, who wind up falling in love — and then betraying each other. In the second half, Park breaks out the high-class tentacle porn, and there's a stage scene so naughty you forget the characters are fully dressed. But The Handmaiden's pulse is powerfully female. It's guaranteed to steal your heart.
2. O.J.: Made in America
Forty years ago, O.J. Simpson was the nation's hero. Twenty years ago, he was its villain. Today, O.J.'s rags-to-riches-to-prison biography feels larger than both labels. He's a living myth, a tragic legend who represents everything good and bad about the role race plays in the American dream. This year, we saw storytellers shape him into a classic figure as complicated as Oedipus or Agamemnon. After 10 great episodes of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, I figured Ezra Edelman's nearly eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America would be a greatest-hits replay. Not so. Edelman's fascinating film is an epic achievement that startles (or infuriates) you every five minutes. I could have watched another 18 hours.
1. The Lobster
A cold-blooded masterpiece set in a near future where relationships are mandatory, or else. Get divorced, as Colin Farrell does in the opening scene, and you'll be sent to a reeducation camp where you have 45 days to find a new mate, or you'll be turned into an animal. At least you get to pick the species. Director Yorgos Lanthimos treats his absurd premise with deadpan solemnity. The production design is precise and the script refuses to hold your hand. Everyone talks in complete sentences like an alien, in part because they arguably all are — single men and women adrift in a society that rejects individuality. The Lobster, named for Colin Farrell's future self, says things that other films are afraid to say: that humans pair off for bad reasons, that coupledom can force you to hide your feelings, that some people are happier alone. Bold, bleak, and brutally funny, it's both the worst first-date movie of 2016 and the best movie, period.
The Next Ten
11. The Nice Guys
12. Nocturnal Animals
16. The Love Witch
18. Under the Shadow
19. The Invitation
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.