Film critic David Edelstein estimates that he saw 400 films this year — more than enough to fill "a couple of 10-best lists," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. His favorite? The fantasy musical, La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
"Everything — the movement of the camera, the colors of the set and the costumes, the rhythms of the actors — harmonizes with everything else," Edelstein says. "It's a beautiful combination of an homage to the past and something entirely new."
But Edelstein notes that La La Land is just one of the releases that made 2016 "an excellent year" for movies. Below is his list of the best dozen films of the year. You can click each list item to learn more.
Click the audio link above to hear Edelstein discuss his 2016 selections.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, our TV critic David Bianculli is going to talk about the best TV shows of the year. And film critic David Edelstein is going to talk about the best movies. They both have their 10 Best Lists. Later, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will tell us about his choice for the word of the year. Let's start with David Edelstein and the year in movies.
Hi, David. Thank you for bringing your 10 Best list with you again this year. And I'm sure that, like most years, your 10 Best List has more than 10 films on it.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It does. I thought it was an excellent year. And as usual, even though I could only see maybe 400 out of, like, the thousand movies that got released in New York and LA, I had enough to fill a couple of 10 Best Lists. And I have, this year, a dozen best films. So if I may.
GROSS: Yes. You want to start from the bottom to the top?
EDELSTEIN: Well, sure. Coming in at 11 and 12 are two films, the deadpan German comedy "Toni Erdmann," which opens very soon, and Jeff Nichols' "Loving," which is the story of the couple that inspired the abolition of miscegenation laws in many states. Three documentaries - "The Witness," which focuses on the true facts concerning the death of Kitty Genovese in 1964 through the eyes of her brother; "Tower," an animated re-enactment of the random University of Texas at Austin shootings of 1966; and "Zero Days," yet another masterly Alex Gibney documentary and maybe his most urgent since it's about cyberwarfare.
"The Handmaiden" is next. That's Park Chan-wook's Korean transplant of Sarah Waters' lesbian novel "Fingersmith," which is so elegant and so perverse. Coming in at No. 6 is Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," which is an exploration of racial and sexual identity. It seems almost too delicate to bruise with hype, but it's just lovely. No. 5 is another documentary. It's "O.J.: Made In America," which was also made for TV. But it was shown in enough theaters to qualify. And given the scale of its ambition and its achievement, Ezra Edelman's film would have been hard not to recognize.
No. 4 is the debut of the year, "Krisha." It's Trey Edward Shults' micro-budget Thanksgiving family reunion movie starring members of his own family. And it's a virtuoso symphony of bad vibes. No. 3 is "20th Century Women" by Mike Mills. With Annette Bening giving the performance of her life - I'm not sure praise could be any higher - as an overbearing, single mother in the 1970s.
For me, it was a tough choice between my second and first film. Coming in at No. 2 is "Hell Or High Water," which is a absolutely haunting modern Western with Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the sheriff on their trail. My No. 1 movie is "La La Land," which is Damien Chazelle's romantic musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in which everything - the movement of the camera, the colors of the set and the costumes, the rhythms of the actors - harmonizes with everything else. And this year, we need us some harmony.
GROSS: I had really loved that movie, "La La Land." And - as somebody who loves musicals, I'm really grateful to have a new musical that pays homage to early musicals but is also firmly a contemporary one. It's just a wonderful film.
EDELSTEIN: I could not agree more. It's got that wonderful fantasy land - well, "La La Land" feel and tempo. But at the same time, it really does get into somewhat grittier, you know, more traumatic kinds of conflicts. It's a beautiful combination of an homage to the past and something entirely new.
You know, I saw Damien Chazelle's first movie, which is called "Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench," some years ago. He seemed like he was just out of college. I saw it at a New Jersey film society. There was a long final solo by the main character, a trumpet player, and it went on and on and on. But I thought I'd never seen a director who dared so much to find access to human emotion through making music. And I just knew - and then "Whiplash" came next, and I knew this guy was going to go places.
GROSS: So who did you think turned in some of the best performances of the year?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I said Annette Bening. She's...
GROSS: She's wonderful in that film.
EDELSTEIN: You know, she's, like, about my favorite actress now. To me, there is just nobody who is more present, who can think on screen, who seems to be - every word that comes out of her mouth seems to be her own. And Mike Mills has given her such a rich part here. It's an extraordinary role. It's an extraordinary performance. There are others in that movie. Greta Gerwig is quite fine and...
GROSS: Elle Fanning, yeah.
EDELSTEIN: ....So is Elle Fanning. And just a wonderful, wonderful film. I - you know, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are so inhumanly gorgeous. And the fact that they - and they go so well together. And look, you know, they've got - he's got a very thin voice. And - but it's very pleasing somehow all the same. And they're not great dancers, but somehow or other, when you put all the ingredients together and they do it in one take and you have these lovely songs by Justin Hurwitz, the movie is magic. I mean, the parts are great, and the whole movie is even greater than the sum of its parts.
I want to say a word about Sarah Paulson. She's - you know, she's gotten, obviously, a lot of acclaim for her performance as Marcia Clark on television. But there's a small, interesting film called "Blue Jay." It's really a two-person film duet with Mark Duplass, who also wrote the film. And the range of emotions on her face is just so dizzying. I want to mention Ben Foster and Chris Pine in "Hell Or High Water." I want to mention a Chilean actress named Paulina Garcia in Ira Sachs' film "Little Men."
Michael Shannon is a blast in "Nocturnal Animals," the Tom Ford movie about which I'm very ambivalent. But Shannon is just creepy as hell and wonderful and charismatic. Amy Adams gives two wonderful performances in "Nocturnal Animals" and "Arrival." She's a very interesting actress to me because I feel - I kind of intuit something frightened and damaged in her that I feel as if it's, you know, being sort of dragged into the light before your eyes in some of her performances. She's awfully good in these movies.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the year in film with our film critic David Edelstein.
So David, you ran through your best-of list - some great films on there. And - you know, here's what I'm thinking. So many Americans are so obsessed with politics right now and have been for months - you know, during the primaries, during the election and now in the President-elect Trump era. And the nation very divided - both sides of that divide, I think, are very obsessed with what's going on in politics.
Movies are usually a little slow to register what's going on politically and culturally because it takes so long to get them made and to get the funding to distribute them. So I'm wondering if you've been feeling a disconnect at all between the American obsession and what's actually happening on screen right now.
EDELSTEIN: Absolutely. We're (laughter) - you know, it's funny. Even documentaries, which are so much more of the moment, are lagging behind. And, you know, you can't really expect bloggers and even the best journalists to give us the long view to help us process these things the way, you know, great artists can. You can't think about the year in film in a vacuum. Right now if you look at our screens, there are a lot of smart and humanistic and multicultural movies out there that don't capture at least part of the nation's mood.
GROSS: So the holidays are coming up, leaving more time for moviegoing for a lot of people. So what's opening for the holidays? And I know there's a lot of movies that open in New York and LA for the holidays. But let's broaden that to movies that are opening outside of those cities that other people can see.
EDELSTEIN: Well, a movie that's gotten a lot of critical hate is the sci-fi romance "Passengers" in which Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are passengers, among 5,000 passengers, on a trip to a distant, hospitable planet. They're supposed to be in suspended animation. It's going to take 120 years to get there. They wake up after 30 years. Oh, my God - they can't go back into suspended animation. What do they do in the meantime?
It's a very kind of floridly romantic film at times. It's a kind of creepily voyeuristic film at times. It has a pretty terrible ending, but I loved most of it (laughter). I thought that - first of all, Jennifer Lawrence is the real thing. And that voice - that wonderful, sort of whiskey voice kind of grounds her. I found it just a terrific and elegant and interesting movie. And I can't quite figure out why it's getting such brickbats.
"Patriots Day" is a very good movie at a very weird time. It's really kind of unapologetic in its endorsement of government video surveillance and the so-called ticking time bomb scenario that generates so much law-and-order rhetoric. The rub is that it's about a real event. It's about the the Boston Marathon bombing. And so you can actually make a very good case that some of these techniques that the movie shows actually did lead to the capture of these two young men before they could do any further damage. Anyway, it's a very exciting movie.
"Fences" is Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's play. Not to belabor the obvious, but it feels like a play on screen. It's very stagey. There are elements of it that, you know, work very well and in plays by Arthur Miller or Athol Fugard but don't really translate. All the same, you know, this giant, grandstanding, brash performance by Denzel Washington, though it seems a little too worked out for the screen, is - nonetheless, he's a force of nature. And I think it has to be seen.
Martin Scorsese's "Silence" is an extraordinary film that I think is going to generate a lot of controversy if people see it. It centers on these two Portuguese priests who arrive in Japan in the 17th century, where the Japanese - where the shogun is in the process of crucifying priests and torturing and slaughtering Christians and, you know, getting them to abandon their faith on the grounds that it can't possibly take root in Japan.
GROSS: So are there any old films or new restorations of old films that are coming out either, like, streaming or DVD or whatever, that you want us to be aware of?
EDELSTEIN: I couldn't recommend more highly "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," which has just come out, been restored. And it's available from the Criterion Collection. It's Robert Altman's counterculture Western with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and Altman's stock company. Pauline Kael called it a beautiful pipe dream of a movie.
It's actually my second favorite movie, period. Shot in very soft sepias and grays on a very wide screen by Vilmos Zsigmond, it needed a new transfer. It's got it. But what makes it so timely is it also has the best use of existing songs in any film ever. They're "The Stranger Song," "Sisters Of Mercy," "Traveling Lady" (ph) by the, sadly, late Leonard Cohen. It's - you know, listening to that soundtrack and watching the movie is a heartbreaking experience.
GROSS: So the end of a year is the time when critics do their 10 Best Lists and also award season begins and the nominations start coming out. The broadcast critics - the critics' awards were already given. So do you find when you're putting together your list that it usually speaks in any way to what ends up winning, like, the Golden Globes or the Oscars?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, I try not to. I say I'm such a hypocrite because I'm chairman this year - it's a revolving chairmanship of the New York Film Critics Circle - but we have too many damn awards in this country (laughter) and too many awards ceremonies. And it all leads up to the Oscars.
I feel as if I understand the appeal of the Oscars - that it's fun to prognosticate. It's good for artists in that they make a little more money if they win and they have a wider range of opportunities and they know for sure that the first line of their obituaries is going to have the words Academy Award-winning - that's all very comforting. But I hate how, you know, entertainment culture has been has been warped by the Academy Awards in particular.
GROSS: All right. Well, thanks for being with us, David. Happy holidays.
EDELSTEIN: Happy holidays to you, Terry.
GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.