2016: The Witch

Writing my list of favorite movies for every year of my life left me feeling frustrated by the project’s limitations and made me want to write more fully about my choices, my reasoning for each year, and the runners-up (especially for some years with hard choices to be made). So I am beginning with 2016, and I will work my way back through time, writing about each year separately.

My choice for 2016 was easy, partly because I saw very few movies last year, but also because The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers) was just really fantastic.


Because this is a relatively recent film and also because I have only seen it once and have a faulty memory, this entry will be fairly general regarding plot, but here are some of the elements of this film that I loved:

  • The score (by Mark Korven). From the very start of the film, the score is disquietingly effective. It uses low strings, recorded with a sense of the rasping physicality of the instruments, to imply the sinister elements of the world. As the family leaves civilization, the strings are pitched higher, hovering in dissonance with no real melody, and they build relentlessly in pitch and volume. At the end of this scene, female voices are added to the mix (witches?), all of which produces a great deal of tension and anxiety as the family approaches the wilderness. Throughout the film, the score uses the roughness of the instruments and dissonance to create uneasiness and alternates this with quietness and silence. I had to turn my sound way up to get all of the details, but this wide range creates incredible intensity.
  • The film’s horror is partly supernatural but mostly human – people become paranoid and distrust one another. In this way, it is building on the tradition laid out by films like Night of the Living Dead (1968; dir. George Romero), another favorite of mine. The real drama and the real monstrosity are not out there (zombies, evil goats, witches, whatever), but inside with the potential survivors. With friends and family.
  • This paranoia and uncertainty about who can be trusted also reminds me – in ways I can’t quite articulate yet – of Rosemary’s Baby (1968; dir. Roman Polanski), yet another favorite. Again, both rely on supernatural horror as well as interpersonal drama, but The Witch and Rosemary’s Baby also have some stylistic elements in common, I think. (I will have to watch The Witch again to figure out what’s triggering this sense of connection, however.)
  • The forest. The setting is a crucial part of the film’s horror. It looms. It lights up all the parts of my brain that both love and fear the forest as something larger and darker than human, something where creatures lurk, something where we can get lost.
  • Black Phillip. Okay, so there is a creepy goat (maybe Satan?) in this film. Goats are creepy enough in reality (just look at their pupils sometime!); adding the supernatural only intensifies this. For me, Black Phillip was incredibly effective, but also incredibly scary. The fear is in no small part related to the powerfully seductive message he presents: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Well, yes. Outside of Puritans, who would say no to that? Black Phillip is one of the reasons I am actually nervous to watch the movie again.
  • Feminism. Set in the 17th century, The Witch obviously predates what we could consider feminism, and it doesn’t attempt to ahistorically shoehorn in a feminist argument. However, it recognizes the in-built gendered power differential in the family and social structure of the time, the powerlessness of women and girls, and it places the figure of the witch as an empowering (and also frightening) alternative to that powerlessness. In doing so, it presents a compelling argument about the less-than-ideal position women and girls find themselves in – and have been in for centuries. Should she bow to social pressures, fit in, give up her power? Should she risk leaving everything she knows for the possibility of more agency in her own life? These are questions that continue to resonate, and I like the answer The Witch seems to provide.

It’s certainly possible that as time goes on and I see more of the movies released in 2016, I will change my mind about my favorite for this year, but The Witch left me unnerved and thinking about it for days, so it’ll be a tough one to beat. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins) is the obvious contender, but I don’t know when I’ll get to see it. And, to be honest, the serious dramatic non-genre pictures, the ones that win awards and are “great films,” are often outranked in my personal preferences by genre film.

This highlights one of my central criteria for determining a favorite: will I want to watch it again? (Or, how many times have I watched and still enjoyed it?) The serious dramatic films are often not ones I want to watch multiple times (or that I think I can handle watching multiple times). But I want to watch The Witch again. In fact, I wanted to watch it again as soon as it ended.


Favorite Movie for Every Year of My Life: The List

Thanks to one of my friends on facebook sharing this A.V. Club post and a list of his favorites, I spent most of my free time on Friday compiling my own list. This was hard for me. Once I get to listing and ranking, I take it seriously, so I looked at lists of films released in each of these years, made shortlists of my favorites for each year, and then, for the purposes of this list, forced myself to pick only one favorite per year. Some years were ridiculously easy (No Country for Old Men has no competition in my eyes, though I know others disagree); others were almost impossibly hard (1992, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, for instance).

I see a few patterns in my overall list. First, my favorites tend far more toward comedy and horror than I expected – and sometimes both at once (Re-Animator and Shaun of the Dead!). I chose comedy or horror over serious drama at multiple points, even when I think maybe the serious dramas are actually better films; and many other times I chose comedy or horror because I simply hadn’t seen the major dramas of that year, tending to opt for something fun rather than something heavy more often than not. Second, I am a sucker for a musical. Note the choices for 2000-2002, for instance. My runners-up for 2000 included Billy Elliot and Dancer in the Dark, to further underscore this point. Finally, I enjoy big blockbuster sf and action movies more than I usually want to admit to (Independence DayFace/Off!).

1979 – Monty Python’s Life of Brian, dir. Terry Jones
1980 – 9 to 5, dir. Colin Higgins
1981 – An American Werewolf in London, dir. John Landis
1982 – The Thing, dir. John Carpenter
1983 – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam
1984 – Ghostbusters, dir. Ivan Reitman
1985 – Re-Animator, dir. Stuart Gordon
1986 – The Fly, dir. David Cronenberg
1987 – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, dir. John Hughes
1988 – Scrooged, dir. Richard Donner
1989 – Uncle Buck, dir. John Hughes
1990 – Edward Scissorhands, dir. Tim Burton
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme
1992 – Candyman, dir. Bernard Rose
1993 – Jurassic Park, dir. Steven Spielberg
1994 – The Hudsucker Proxy, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
1995 – Sense and Sensibility, dir. Ang Lee
1996 – Independence Day, dir. Roland Emmerich
1997 – Face/Off, dir. John Woo
1998 – The Big Lebowski, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
1999 – Galaxy Quest, dir. Dean Parisot
2000 – O Brother, Where Art Thou?, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
2001 – Moulin Rouge!, dir. Baz Luhrmann
2002 – Chicago, dir. Rob Marshall
2003 – Mystic River, dir. Clint Eastwood
2004 – Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright
2005 – Brokeback Mountain, dir. Ang Lee
2006 – Pan’s Labyrinth, dir. Guillermo del Toro
2007 – No Country for Old Men, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
2008 – Burn After Reading, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
2009 – Thirst, dir. Chan-wook Park
2010 – Even the Rain, dir. Iciar Bollain
2011 – Sunny, dir. Hyeong-Cheol Kang
2012 – Safety Not Guaranteed, dir. Colin Trevorrow
2013 – Snowpiercer, dir. Joon-ho Bong
2014 – The Babadook, dir. Jennifer Kent
2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road, dir. George Miller
2016 – The Witch, dir. Robert Eggers

This is my list as of this weekend, but I’m having doubts about a couple of entries, and I plan to write more about my choices – perhaps year by year – over the next couple of weeks (or months, depending on how my schedule plays out).