best film: La La Land from Damien Chazelle

2016 was struggling a little until La La Land came along (debuted at Venice).  Chazelle’s Whiplash is brilliant- but it was impossible to see this stylistic sonic boom coming.

The opening shot, the traffic jam—the tracking shot that also introduces the two characters. This is a highly ambitious long take with camera movements, choreography, humor.

  • Very intentional in the believable color design in the mise-en-scene- green straws at the coffee shop where Emma Stone’s character works. Blue parka she wears, yellow umbrellas, purple trash cans outside her apartment, red light in the corner of their bed.
  • Whip pans galore
  • The song- “Someone in the Crowd”- the camera is flying through their house in perfect rhythm. This is Scorsese shooting Singin’ in the Rain. 
  • Ambitious and personal drive—themes consistent from Chazelle’s films—compromises, determination

The purple sky- —again later with “City of Stars” song at the magic hour- pier at dusk- stunningly beautiful picture frame on a wall

  • Their fight during “Fall” season- no long takes or shared mise-en-scene between the actors- they are edited separately and apart.  it is cliché maybe with the editing- but is exemplary. The execution is perfect.



most underrated:  It is becoming tiresome to have to mention Nicolas Winding Refn again in this category but here we are with The Neon DemonIt sits at the #39 slot for the year 2016 on the TSPDT consensus list. However, there is a silver lining- it actually jumped up last year which means it is gaining some momentum. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! is the next closest as it sits at #34 on the TSPDT list. This film is as underrated as Dazed and Confused used to be (Everybody Wants Some!! is the spiritual sequel to that 1993 film).  This one may take awhile- it took decades for Dazed and Confused to be properly recognized.


The Neon Demon from Refn- here Refn is working with Elliott Hostetter on the production design. Hostetter’s accomplishments include Spring Breakers (2012) and Waves (2019)

a sublimely staged cinematic painting

it is remarkable how prolific Refn is able to be while still clearly designing every stitch in every frame


most overrated: Toni Erdmann as the number one film of 2016 is a small tragedy. It is a fine story with a unique dramatic/comedic blend, solid writing and performances- but there is no dedication to an aesthetic — nor is there any sort of thundering formal achievement at all.


trends and notables:

  • Young talents Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins (both under forty years old- Chazelle’s third film and Jenkins’ second) help buoy a rockier year
  • It is worth pausing to admire the year of Jim Jarmusch- Paterson gives him a top ten film of the year in 2016- making it the fourth consecutive decade Jarmusch has had at least one top ten of the year film.

Paterson– the days of the week in an overhead shot in bed (overheads used very often in Only Lovers Left Alive– Jarmusch’s previous effort from 2013). Driver checks his watch, kisses his wife, she tells him her dream, cereal, work, he fills his deal with poetry and the creative process (through text on the screen, elliptical editing of his daydreaming), dinner, walk, bar… fade to black… repeat)… starts and ends on Monday morning as bookends. Unlike La La Land, The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity , The Social Network and some others from this decade- Paterson takes the entire running time length of the film to appreciate. One will not be that impressed twenty minutes in or even forty minutes in– as Jarmusch is building this thing- it takes the completion for the formal precision sinks in.  It is awe-inspiring in its own slow burn, sort of way.


  • Mostly here this section is here to accentuate the positives- but it is worth noting the rare semi misfire 2016 was for Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers. The expectations are so high so when they fail to come close to a top ten, even in a down year, it does seem to echo a little.
  • Finding Dory and Rogue One dominate the box office with Captain America: Civil War not far behind.
  • For Nicolas Winding Refn 2016 and The Neon Demon marks the fourth time in the last eight years where he has made one of the best ten films of the year.
  • Chazelle already had an archiveable film under his belt coming into 2016 so one could argue, certainly, that Barry Jenkins (archiveable debut here with Moonlight) is the true breakthrough as far as directors go.

Moonlight – a loud proclamation of a new voice in cinema- Jenkins’ Moonlight is his arrival.  It is a meditation on masculinity—and, quite miraculously,  one of the 21st century’s best cinematic character studies. It is about a shy character- so rare and refreshing- a counter-point. The painterly pastel tones from James Laxton as cinematographer deserves praise.

  • Florence Pugh is the story on that front from an acting standpoint- Pugh seems destined for great things and Lady Macbeth is her first archiveable film

Florence Pugh captured in a great shot of production design decor in Lady Macbeth



gems I want to spotlight: The answers here in 2016 are Certain Women from Kelly Reichardt and 20th Century Women from Mike Mills and I am not even trying to be thematic in these choices. These films barely missed the top ten of the year and with another viewing could easily land on the back half of that list.


Certain Women – another tale set in the Pacific Northwest from Reichardt where the setting (train to open the film, mountains, the ranch, Native Americans in mall in Billings)  is very much a character in the film. The 16mm graininess works with this approach as well. Reichardt emphasizes patience and dedramatizing big moments. There is realism here- just like her previous works- she shows the Gladstone (and Lily Gladstone is the best performance here and her and Kristen Stewart’s story the best of the three stories of women that are loosely connected in this anthology film) character going back to work after her meeting—cleaning horse stalls. The big scene with Gladstone and Stewart is so awkward, realistic and perfect- neither actress flinches. The film holds on many scenes and moments past the point of comfort in a 106 minute film- and this is a good thing.

20th Century Women is clearly a companion piece to Beginners (2010) from Mike Mills.  Beginners was about his father and this is about his mother. Mills is an absolute master of tone and intimacy. The film is filled with great montages (more on that in a second) breaking up small honest moments between superb characters acted out by a top-notch cast (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning, newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann. A gorgeous opening over the coast of Santa Barbara- a sort of a rag-tag makeshift family of supporting characters with Bening doing great work as the matriarch. Bright 1970’s California colors—yellow kitchen. Punk music photography montage. No less than three Talking Heads songs-  inspired curation.



best performance male:   Ryan Gosling has already put together an impressive career up to this point in 2016 but it seems unlikely that he will top La La Land.  Gosling shows off some impressive piano playing skills- suspending our disbelief- and that Chet Baker-like voice is not bad either. Gosling is pitch perfect for the silent finale where his heart is just about removed from his body- he is stoic, an actor that underplays almost everything. There is no better cotemporary actor for this Steve McQueen “I’ll say it with my face” style. Emma Stone may give the better performance overall– but Gosling wins the big last moment of the best film of the year. Mahershala Ali is a revelation in Moonlight – a character of almost overwhelming goodness in his soul. Trevante Rhodes is one of three actors playing Moonlight’s Chiron/Little. Rhodes brilliantly pulls off playing a shy character– not easy to do. Adam Driver was in so many great films in the 2010s that they may all start to run together– but it is important to mark just how important Paterson was to his career. His first great performance in one of the best films of the year. Shia LaBeouf rocking a rattail slides into the final slot here for 2016- he does the best work of his career thus far in American Honey.


Trevante Rhodes in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Rhodes quietly steals the film in the final chapter.


best performance female: Emma Stone gives her second great performance in a major 2010s masterpiece in 2016’s La La Land. The audition scene is Stone’s Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive moment.  The comedic talents of both Stone and Gosling are readily apparent. This is their third time working together and their chemistry is undeniable.  There’s a sizeable gulf between Stone and anyone else here- but one would be remiss to overlook Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden, Natalie Portman as Jackie O in Jackie, or Elle Fanning in Neon Demon (with some supporting help in 20th Century Women).


Emma Stone in Chazelle’s La La Land. Stone shows off her musical talents, comedic chops, and certainly dramatic acting abilities — all in a big, bold, heavyweight masterpiece.


top 10

  1. La La Land
  2. Moonlight
  3. Paterson
  4. The Handmaiden
  5. Jackie
  6. American Honey
  7. The Neon Demon
  8. Hell or High Water
  9. Everybody Wants Some!!
  10. Manchester by the Sea


a great composition from Cristian Mungiu- feels like a nod to the final shot from Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation


Andrea Arnold (finest film to date easily)’s American Honey- wonderful use of music while riding in the van- a modern day Easy Rider in many ways – non professional actors used throughout including lead role- Sasha Lane.

Epic in scope (163 minutes) and stylistic ambition– cinema verite handheld– heavy closeups, fuzzy focus throttling, reoccurring use of sun spots. Some critics were down on the over the top social commentary and statement on poverty (a la Korine’s film– the stunning 2012 Spring Breakers film– also from A24)- but Arnold has some real sincerity here and this is a good love story. There may be some overlap- but Arnold and Korine are vastly different voices –American Honey is quite moving.

The Handmaiden was a reminder that Park Chan-wook is still one of the finest auteurs in contemporary cinema

again from Park Chan-wook’s work- a fine candidate for the greatest of all of 2016’s images and sequences

Arrival marks another resume-builder for auteur Denis Villeneuve and actor Amy Adams- both compiling an impeccable decade of work.

from James Schamus’ Indignation- David Bordwell has a must-read piece on the film

setting the frame- symmetry and décor splendor from Pablo Larraín in Jackie

Larraín’s work is bolstered by his 2021 companion piece- Spencer. Both films are from the Todd Haynes’ (Safe, Carol) lineage.


Archives, Directors, and Grades

20th Century Women– Mills R/HR
American Honey – Arnold HR/MS
Arrival – Villeneuve R/HR
Café Society- Allen R
Captain America: Civil War- Russo R
Certain Women– Reichardt R/HR
Elle – Verhoeven R/HR
Everybody Wants Some!! – Linklater HR
Graduation – Mungiu R
Hacksaw Ridge – Gibson R
Hail, Caesar!- Coen R
Hell or High Water- Mackenzie HR
I, Daniel Blake – Loach R
Indignation – Schamus R
Jackie- Larraín HR/MS
Julieta – Almodovar R/HR
La La Land – Chazelle MP
Lady Macbeth – Oldroyd R
Love & Friendship – Stillman R
Loving – J. Nichols R
Manchester By the Sea– Lonergan HR
Moonlight – B. Jenkins MS/MP
Nocturnal Animals – T. Ford R
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – Cedar R
Paterson – Jarmusch MS
Raw – Ducournau R
Silence – Scorsese R
Split – Shyamalan R
Sully – Eastwood R
The Conjuring 2 – Wan R
The Handmaiden- Chan-wook Park HR/MS
The Jungle Book – Favreau R
The Light Between Oceans – Cianfrance R
The Lost City of Z – Gray HR
The Neon Demon – Refn HR/MS
The Salesman– Farhadi R/HR
Things To Come- Hansen-Løve R
Toni Erdmann – Ade R
Train to Busan – Sang-ho Yeon R
Under the Shadow – Anvari R


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives