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.