When we weren’t busy watching sports contests, we watched some things. Here are the best things we saw this year.
Don’t Breathe boasts an absolutely perfect concept. Three young burglars break into an old blind man’s house and the tables are turned almost immediately. He locks them in, presents a proficiency with weapons and a secret he’ll kill to protect, and then hits the lights. If all horror movies are on some level about the fear of the dark, this is the purest distillation of horror. You are trapped in the dark, you cannot leave, and you cannot see—and you’re trapped with something that can.
The execution is flawed. There is a second-act twist which introduces unnecessary, discomfiting overtones to the film even as it removes any sympathy viewers might still hold for the blind man. (Moral grayness would’ve been way more interesting. After all, up until the twist, the “bad guy” is just a blind man minding his business and protecting his home.) And the movie keeps whipping out a big mean dog just when you think the kids might have made it to safety, a plot device that might work once, but just feels overused here.
But Stephen Lang as the blind man is an epiphany. Lang, a longtime theater player and prolific character actor who only rarely goes big-budget (Ike Clanton in Tombstone, Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals, the only good thing in Avatar), is unpredictable, menacing, capable, and most impressively, he’s able to convey all those things without being able to make eye contact. This is an intensely physical role, and if awards juries didn’t disdain genre pictures, Lang would receive far more recognition and praise than actors in biopics do for playing “ugly.” Lang can carry a movie. Between his work and a handful of unbearably tense, dead-silent sequences, Don’t Breathe was the year’s most uncomplicated, most watchable thriller. - Barry Petchesky
Darth Vader in Rogue One
Before Dec. 16, I was pretty sure that Game of Thrones had easily locked down this slot for me. This year’s film offerings were strong and made for some good Art, but GoT still had my heart. The past season contained “Hold the door!”, Jon Snow getting caught in a man crush at the climax of the show’s most impressive battle scene, and Cersei blowing her kingdom to shit. I was ready to take the easy way out and just claim the entire season as the best thing I watched this year, until Darth Vader reentered my nightmares.
The latest Star Wars entry did not usurp GoT on the basis of the film’s quality—I would prefer to re-watch the at least three episodes from the sixth season than watch Jyn and Co. bite the dust for a third time. But there was nothing I saw this year that gave me goosebumps like that final Vader scene. Jon Snow unsheathing his sword in front of an oncoming Bolton army was cool, but your bastard still needed Sansa to save his dumb, emotional ass. Once Vader lit up the hallway on the Rebel command ship, the fate of the trapped soldiers was clear; the result still resulted in at least three dick-shittings on our staff. I know: Vader has been remade a badass in comics and on television, and we got plenty of sweet saber action in The Force Awakens. But watching a fully realized terrifying, wheezing, film-version Vader slice through a hallway of helpless Rebels tops them all. I’m still shaking. - Nick Martin
I have this incredibly modern and obnoxious habit of listening to podcast reviews of culture I haven’t consumed and intentionally never will. This isn’t some shortcut to keeping caught up on the TV and movies I miss because of time constraints—I’m hardly a connoisseur of either—it’s just the minimal effort I’m willing to put into staying passably current.
This is to say, I knew all about Fleabag—the reveal at the end of the first episode, the broken fourth wall, the stellar performances, the stage history, and even the shallowness of the secondary characters—before I sought it out. I knew so much that I was practically preemptively resentful about how much I assumed people would soon start suggesting it to me.
I almost didn’t want to watch it just in case I found the artiness or affected unlikability off-putting and was forced to admit to myself that I am only emotionally equipped to handle old Friends reruns. But it’s not only smart and funny, it’s also narratively engaging. In particular, I still care deeply about the relationship between Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character and her sister, and find myself sometimes hoping these two fictional figments worked it out in the end.
A self-deprecating protagonist is not so new, and so it took me a few episodes to figure what felt fresh about the sharp, dark humor of Fleabag. What I settled on is the fact that while titular character is struggling with self-punishing behavior and loneliness, she’s not, as is so often the case with funny female leads, actively apologetic or insecure about the quirks that make her if not likable, at least incredibly charming. If nothing else, the show was worth watching just to see Waller-Bridge’s incredible ability to emote. - Hannah Keyser
Moonlight is a few minutes shy of two hours, but before I checked the time after leaving the theater, I could have sworn it was at least twice as long. Director Barry Jenkins used every single moment of his film to tell its story, and the resulting product was compelling and fully absorbing.
Read Hilton Als’s essay on Moonlight if you have not. It will tell you many things about the film that I cannot. But, I chose Moonlight as my favorite movie, television show, or whatever other visual medium of the year because to me it felt honest, and closer than comfort.
The movie makes no concessions to which outcomes would be the most palatable or tidy. Instead, it puts its difficulties in your face, and in doing so, shows respect for your intellect and experience, no matter how it may or may not intersect with that of Chiron, its main character.
Moonlight portrays the reality of life outside of (literally) white-washed narratives—and central to its power is how it exhibits instead of conceals the disproportionate lack of comfort afforded to the most vulnerable members of our society. - Lindsey Adler
I went to see Arrival in theaters a few days after the election, partly because thought it looked good and partly because I was already tired of thinking about how fucked everything was about to be.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to discuss Arrival’s merits and failures in objective terms, because I think it will always exist in my brain as The First Movie I Saw After Donald Trump Was Elected, and my feelings toward are always going to be tied that event.
It’s no wonder then that the one scene that has really stuck with me is the one in which the alien heptapods finally explain their reason for visiting Earth to Amy Adams’s character. They are there to pass along the gift of their language—which allows those who can understand it to unstick their consciousness from time—to humanity, and in return humanity will assist the heptapods with a problem 3,000 years in the future.
What I felt during that scene, and during the scenes in which Adams’s character begins to “see” into the future as moments she hasn’t yet lived surface in her brain like memories, was a profound jealousy. Call it melodramatic if you want, but in that moment I wanted nothing more than a glimpse at the full expanse of my life, and to have been assured that we’ll still be here in 3,000 years. - Tom Ley
It’s an homage to 80s shit without being cutesy and annoying about it. - Drew Magary
The week after Vine supposedly died was the most fun week I’ve had on the Internet since the halcyon days of Heli Attack. Here are my favorite Vines:
Good night and God bless. - Patrick Redford
Patti Smith singing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
You can’t be afraid of failing. It’s great advice I got from a wonderful editor that, on my best days, I embrace. And on my worst days, covers pulled over my head, I ignore in favor of going over all the endless ways in which things will go wrong and in which I will fail or I will cause someone else to fail and every good thing in my life will turn to dust. This year’s election did not help.
And yet it’s the imperfections that convince me Patti Smith’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is a performance for the ages, one I will watch again and again in times of need. Because Smith loves Dylan’s work so much and wants to get it just right. Because her rendition is so glorious. Because when she flubs and says, “I apologize. I’m sorry I’m so nervous,” I want to hug her and tell her everything will be alright. Dylan has famously and fabulously not given any fucks. Why should she? Because of course she does. She can’t help but care. Then she picks up, and keeps on singing.
Smith later penned an essay for the New Yorker on her experience and the reaction from everyone there.
When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles. Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?
It’s okay to care and it’s okay to fail so long as you get back up and get back to singing. I needed to remember that in 2016. - Diana Moskovitz
It’s a testament to the power of great art that you can come back to it over and over and over again and still take away something new each time. Wong Kar-wai is probably my favorite filmmaker ever, and 2046 and its companion In the Mood for Love are my absolute favorites of his. I regularly watch them in conjunction two or three times a year just to be returned to what is my favorite emotional state that the greatest movies take me to: total, annihilatory emotional devastation. I’ve seen 2046 roughly 2,046 times, and I can count on each viewing to be as soul-battering as the first.
Earlier this year, during a particularly down period in my life—or what counts for “down,” given that I’ve generally tried to prevent my feelings from ranging too far outside the safe confines between “Damn, this is pretty good!” and “Well, damn, this is kinda shitty”—I found myself once again drawn to 2046. If there were any cinematic universe that I could most see my own, idealized experience reflected in, it was that of In the Mood for Love and 2046, and my feelings around that time were probably the closest as they’ve ever been to those of the main character, with whom I’ve long and very strongly identified, so I figured it would be worth my time to revisit the movie to see how it hit me then.
I’m not trying to tell you that 2046 is a perfect movie (though it is) or why I think it achieves perfection. What I am trying to say is that in the right state of mind, it can be a revelatory experience. Watching it this year, I had something of a personal epiphany, realizing that I’m actually much less like Tony Leung’s self-protectingly distant, wounded-and-hiding-it character, whom I’ve historically seen myself as, than I am like Zhang Ziyi’s, with her affectations of carefree hedonism and inability to honestly admit her emotional wants to herself (and consequent failure to get what she needs). Maybe it was just the timing, or maybe it really was the movie itself, but I learned something fairly profound about myself while watching it, and have tried to (and been somewhat successful at) acting on this and behaving differently—better, even. If art is supposed to teach you something about life, to help you see yourself and others in a way you hadn’t before, then 2046, even on the 2,046th viewing, was definitely the best I encountered this year. - Billy Haisley
These Razor Clams
This gang of razor clams was taunting me from across the grocery store. So me and my pals shut them all up, and it was the most satisfying thing I saw all year. Just rows on rows of smug tongues sneaking away. - Giri Nathan