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My Favorite Directorial Efforts of 2016

Every January, I make myself pick out specific performances I loved from the previous year. I spend so much time talking about movies, but I don’t actually give credit to specific performances. The only time I’ll talk about them is when I’m going over the Oscars. Which isn’t the same thing.

The great thing about lists like this is that it forces you to consider everything. You immediately start thinking of the performances that are nominated for the awards. But if you consider each and every movie you saw from the year (and I did. All 350 of them), and think about how you really felt about all the specific performances, you’re gonna be surprised which ones you actually liked best. (Especially if you can be honest about it and don’t think about what’s already out there, which few people are willing to be.)

Today I’ll be covering all the directorial efforts I loved. They’re in order, but they’re not really in any order. The numbers don’t matter. These are just the ones I enjoyed the most. We’re not talking about awards-worthy or whatever.

So here are my favorite directorial efforts of 2016:

1. Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Yeah, I know. But what do you expect? One of my three favorite film genres is the musical. I was gonna love this no matter what. This was gonna be #1 no matter what. Not only did Damien Chazelle get a musical made today — an original musical — but he got it to be considered one of the year’s best films. I loved Whiplash, I love this. This was my favorite movie of the year, and in totality, I think this was the best directorial effort of 2016.

2. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Goddamn, this was impressive. The two most personal films I saw in 2016 were Other People and Moonlight. Other People because it felt like this one person’s experience with his mother dying. This movie, while likely not 100% autobiographical, felt like the most personal film I saw this year. It’s so personal that I felt a part of it as I was watching. This is a staggering feat, what Barry Jenkins accomplishes with this movie. I tried to go in and go, “Oh, no, this is overrated. It’s good, but it’s not that good.” But this movie really is that good. Honestly, were it not for personal tastes, this would be my #1. Astoundingly good work.

3. Pablo Larrain, Jackie

I loved everything about this, from the decision to focus on the woman and nothing else, to the filming style, which mixes a handheld sort of verité along with biopic-type recreations of moments and scenes to really paint this wonderfully styled portrait. I loved the decision to make it look like 60s film stock, and I loved how often he’d hold on Natalie Portman’s face rather than give you alternate perspectives. Truly one of the best efforts I saw this year. Pity the film didn’t catch on.

4. Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings

Just watching the first ten minutes alone, it deserved a spot on this list. The artistry that went into this movie — the waves, the way the characters’ hair moved — breathtaking. I get that not everyone will automatically think of this as one of the best directed films of the year, but watch it. You can tell.

5. Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special (and Loving)

He had two great films this year, but my preference is Midnight Special, since it takes what could have been a hundred million dollar movie and turns it into something made for under 20. The stakes feel big and the drama is big but the scale is small. And I loved that. And Loving is such a beautiful little drama, well told by him. Great work all around, by one of the most consistently solid  filmmakers working.

6. Andrea Arnold, American Honey

I was blown away by what she captured in this movie. I say it every time I talk about this, but there was no reason for me to be interested in this movie. Yet she had me from the opening shot. And you can tell there wasn’t even really that much of a script for this movie. And I still loved it. That’s all direction. Part acting, but mostly direction.

7. Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Denis Villeneuve is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. He takes what could be generic movies and turns them into something special. And that’s all due to his direction and the choices he makes as a filmmaker. This is also a really tricky film to put together, and Villeneuve manages to both keep you invested while hiding the “reveal” behind a curtain for much of the film and also making the whole thing feel lyrical. Great stuff.

8. Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge

Some people might have problems with the first half of the film. I think it’s fine. It’s a throwback to 50s era filmmaking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the second half you can’t argue with. That’s truly impressive filmmaking. Those battle scenes are really well done. Mel Gibson reminds us again why he’s such a great director.

9. Martin Scorsese, Silence

Just because I didn’t love the movie doesn’t mean I’m not immensely respectful of the effort. Scorsese is a master filmmaker, and even if I didn’t engage with the story, his technical expertise shows in every frame of the film. This might be considered a “minor” entry in his filmography because it’s not gonna have the profile of Wolf of Wall Street or something like that, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a wasted film. There are times when his expertise as a director can take an okay film and make it very good (Shutter Island), but it doesn’t feel like he needed to make it. This isn’t that. This feels like he needed to make it, and there was a lot of care and thought put into this.

10. Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room

Oh, this movie was so good. Gripping from start to finish. Saulnier knows how to direct a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Here’s hoping to many more as good as this.

11. David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water

I was impressed by the effort here, though I do think a lot of it is accomplished by the screenplay. So instead of being top five, he’s here. Still, very great job out of him. No matter how good a script it, it still takes a good director to get the most out of it. And Mackenzie gets the most out of this movie.

12. Robert Eggers, The Witch

Had to shout this out. This is a very impressive first effort. You don’t watch this movie without being impressed by the effort. The amount of sound design that went into this, and the pacing — he creeps you out without anything happening. And the performances he gets out of his actors are fantastic.

13. Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals

Loved this. Looked gorgeous, well told, and I love that Ford was focused on telling the story he wanted to tell and not feeling constrained to fit certain “studio” requirements. Specifically that ending. Great job out of him that might result in a Best Director nomination next week.

14. Garth Davis, Lion

They nominated a first time director for the DGA Award. That’s impressive. And I was really surprised by how much I liked the direction of this movie. It’s very sure-handed and gets the most out of a story that could be really hokey if in the wrong hands.

15. Colm McCarthy, The Girl with All the Gifts

Very impressive first time effort from a TV director. Not gonna say too much about it since no one’s seen it in the US yet, but this hopefully should be out this year, and I will reiterate my feeling that this is the best dramatic zombie movie since 28 Days Later.

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