In 2016, I was struck by how many stellar horror and thriller films hit theaters. These are movies that transcend their genres, and they’re also what primarily comprised my Top 10 list for this year. But for how many times people ask me, “What should I see right now?” I couldn’t just stop at 10. So here’s another bundle to get you through the next year. You’ll need them.
Every single person in America should see August Wilson’s play Fences. And because playhouses seem to be pulling a vanishing act these days, Denzel Washington has conveniently brought a national treasure to the big screen with some of the most moving, dynamic performances I’ve ever seen. The love, laughter and emotional terror of being black in America is on full display in this film, which Washington also directs. I guarantee you will traverse the spectrum of emotions when you watch Fences.
Yes, you’ve probably heard of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight by now, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re probably just waiting until you’ve got a night free. Or you’re already turned off by all the hype, because, seriously, how could so many people love this one movie? Don’t think. Just go see it. Moonlight is an explosion of saturated color glazed over a quiet story of simmering passion and anger. A kid named Chiron comes of age in a poor Florida town, and toxic masculinity dissolves to reveal an unrivaled tenderness.
Anna Rose Holmer’s debut is as peculiar as it is kinetic, spinning a tomboy’s quest to fit in with the girls on the dance team into a kind of Crucible story. One by one, the girls fall victim to convulsive trances, imbuing them with adult knowledge — it’s never clear if the fits are real medical issues or self-induced and spread through hysteria. Lead actress Royalty Hightower beautifully embodies the insecure child who must kick and clap and sway her hips as if she’s possessed to find her way, and the filmic style of these dance scenes is haunting, aggressive and original.
A young Korean woman thinks she’s conning a wealthy Japanese lady but ends up falling in love with her instead through a series of intimate, achingly passionate encounters. Only, she might be getting double-crossed. Or, maybe everyone’s getting double-crossed. Watching Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous, twisty thriller is like eating through a box of luxury, artisanal chocolates, every color and texture in every rich frame a sensorial delight.
Kelly Reichardt captures the lives of Montana mountain-town women in this powerful film about love and getting by in the middle of nowhere. Laura Dern is a lawyer with perhaps the worst luck in the world, and she shines here, but not as bright as newcomer Lily Gladstone. As a lonely ranch hand tending to a farm during a blistering cold winter, Gladstone’s character seems to be swallowing a laugh or a cry in every word she speaks, so much emotion is bubbling beneath the surface. The entire film is a Pandora’s Box of sensitive, subtly hilarious performances and will have you feeling the heartache if you dare to open it.
Paul Verhoeven does not fuck around. He ditches the guns and robots of his American blockbusters here but still sears with dark humor and sociopolitical commentary embedded in an eyebrow-raising story about a woman (Isabelle Huppert) who’s raped, who then seeks vengeance in bizarre twists. God bless the French for making such an emotionally complex film.
I don’t know how to talk about this film without saying that I started screening my calls after reviewing it. On the surface, it’s a quirky doc on some tickling-fetish videos, but as filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeves quest for the origin of the videos, they’re quickly swept up in the kind of Wall Street, big-business conspiracy theories you’d find in a Hollywood blockbuster. Only this is all too real, and whatever’s going on with these tickling videos is ruining people’s lives all over the globe to satisfy the appetites of one truly strange and powerful man.
In the penthouse lives the architect, and all who live under him in this ultra-modern high-rise are subject to his rule in descending order, with the most powerful at the top and weakest on the ground floor. When the power goes out, it’s every man for himself, as the tower devolves into cannibalism and chaos. Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump take this premise from the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, spinning out one of the trippiest statements on socioeconomic class structures in the history of cinema.
Ava DuVernay’s sprawling Netflix documentary on the origins of our current massively incarcerated African-American population is illuminating, engrossing and somehow exciting — not just depressing — to watch. It’s the kind of film that leaves you feeling energized to do something, like the most well-researched, filmed PSA ever. Public figures from Van Jones to Angela Davis weigh in on slavery’s lingering malice in our prison industrial system, while Newt Gingrich gleefully recalls how the Republicans developed racist dog whistles that helped them sway the entire country to an aggressive anti-black agenda.
In this near-future dystopian love story, Colin Ferrell plays a man who must find his match within 45 days or get turned into the animal of his choice. Director Yorgos Lanthimos takes social niceties and rules to their extremes, and this world where everyone must be paired or risk their humanity is a searing statement on the pressure to fall in love before you age. His earlier films Alps and Dogtooth mine similar territory, with a magical-realist bent that is so dark it becomes funny — he made me cackle uncomfortably at a murdered dog, and I’ll never forgive him for it.