From vengeful heiress to soul-searching drug dealer, these characters stood out in 2016.
Traditional storytelling is rooted in character: while a poorly written character does not always bring down a film, a great one will always lift it up. The best stories revolve around complex leads with flaws and hypocrisies that serve to reveal greater human truths. From Greek mythology to Scorsese to Campion, character is king.
Every year, filmmakers challenge themselves with creating fresh yet relatable heroes and heroines. Some rise up; some fall flat. This year is no different. 2016 has been exceptional for film, with many diverse voices entering the industry for the first time. Of the various characters who took to the silver screen this year, these seven captured our imaginations. They touched us as if we knew them ourselves—and left us wanting to know them even more.
1. Lady Hideko — The Handmaiden
Abuse. Torture. Passion. Deceit. Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden is rife with drama, and at the center of it all is Lady Hideko. She is an imprisoned heiress who appears sheltered and naive but is quickly revealed to be a cunning and ruthless agent of her own liberation. Min-hee Kim, who plays Hideko, does so with elegance and a deft maneuvering across the spectrum of her character's lies and facades. Hideko will do anything to possess her freedom, whether it comes in the form of death or love. She manipulates men and women, rich and poor, with the exacting coldness of someone who's been through it all. And indeed, she has: in one particularly chilling moment, Hideko convinces a suitor that she cannot be swayed by love or money. Instead, she'll marry him for a lethal dose of heroin.
In other hands, The Handmaiden could have easily been an opulent melodrama; instead, it is grounded by Lady Hideko's rich character. Due to a beautifully written backstory and excellent performance, every move she makes is both believable and gripping.
2. Jacqueline Kennedy — Jackie
How could a woman possibly mourn the death of her husband—and process the trauma of witnessing his brutal murder—while simultaneously tending to the media, societal expectations, and government protocol? It's an impossible task, and there are no answers, says Pablo Lorrain's Jackie. But in the film's 100 minutes, the search for these answers is deeply felt. Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, in the wake of JFK's assassination, is elegant, nuanced, and roiling with the tension of her conflicting obligations.
Small moments serve to display the sheer desperation of grief.
This depiction of grief is honest. It's unafraid of shining a light on selfish missteps or vacillations in judgment. Small moments serve to display the sheer desperation of grief. In one moving scene, Portman paces the White House residence, manically chain smoking and trying on every single gown she owns. Jackie reveals a new perspective on the mythical First Lady: one that is humanist and sympathetic, highlighting the extreme political and societal navigations Mrs. Kennedy was forced to endure.
3. Chiron — Moonlight
Moonlight is a stunning character study of a boy named Little who grows into a man named Black. These are nicknames for Chiron, the centerpiece in this meditation on sexuality and gender. Growing up small, gay, poor, and African-American in the Miami projects means you have to be tough; Chiron isn't. While other young boys, in other circumstances, might be allowed to explore their sexuality, Chiron has to deal with the realities at hand. His community does not accept him, and he must choose whether to accept himself or conform to his community. Throughout the film, Chiron makes difficult choices to protect himself from forces that threaten to consume him, like drugs and bullying. Eventually, he becomes his tormentors, intimidating younger men on the block with his stature and gold fronts. It's a telling and poignant moment when a loved one pokes fun at his teeth, and Chiron sheepishly puts the grillz away.
No other film has so meaningfully explored the topics of race, sexuality, poverty, and drug use, and how they intertwine to impact the lives of young men. Chiron, with his stoicism in the face of everyday traumas, is the perfect character through which to explore these complicated themes.
4. Huma Abedin — Weiner
In the long tradition of humiliated political wives, Huma Abedin is among the most public. In this firecracker documentary on the (first) downfall of Anthony Weiner, Abedin plays a peripheral but crucial role. Through several sex scandals, media meltdowns, and sheepish press conferences, she stands dutifully by her husband's side. It's baffling to watch Abedin lend comfort, support, and even political clout to Weiner during his most appalling missteps. One cannot fathom why such a smart and successful woman would put up with this.
The complexities of loving a disappointing man are explored in an honest and true fashion in this painfully real documentary.
The answer seems to be love. In a particularly strained moment, after a second wave of the sex scandal breaks, Abedin stands quietly beside her husband, staring at him (or through him). It seems as if hours pass before she asks the cameras to leave the room. And then, in the next scene, she's back behind the podium, claiming allegiance to Weiner. The audience's mind reels in these quiet moments, imagining what could be going through Abedin's head. The complexities of loving a disappointing man are explored in an honest and true fashion in this painfully real documentary.
5. Karamakate — Embrace of the Serpent
In Ciro Guerra's Amazon, the roots of war and evil can be found in a disrespect for the jungle. White men represent the brutal and utilitarian, while the natives practice a harmonious relationship with nature. Karamakate, a Colombian shaman and the last of his tribe, is rigid in his deference to the jungle; he believes that the only way to survive there is with its permission. Throughout the film, Karamakate's actions seem severe or erratic—even irrational—from a Western perspective. But the beauty of Guerra's film and its leading character is that it requires a shift in perspective.
Understanding Karamakate's motivations means understanding his reverence for the jungle and what it means to his people. His concept of life is global, and he is willing to sacrifice anything, including his ephemeral body, to protect tradition. This character, played by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar at different ages, offers an expansive look into the depth of difference between industrialized society and tribal living.
6. Toni — The Fits
Children rely on their elders to understand the world. And at age 11, few of them have the internal resources to parse complex subjects like gender stereotypes. Toni is no different. She's a quiet tomboy on the boxing team who works up the courage to audition for her school's all-girl dance troupe. Though they cautiously accept her, she is different; the film is an almost-silent meditation on why. Why is she so skinny? Why can't she dance? Why doesn't she like nail polish? Why can't her new friends do pull-ups?
Spending 72 minutes completely engulfed in these pre-teen questions of self-doubt will tap into something visceral.
There are no answers. Instead, the film takes a narrow point of view, putting the audience entirely in Toni's head. We are under water, just as mystified by the older girls as she is. We hide with her in the bathroom stall while the rest of the locker room chatters freely and changes without regard for who may be watching. The effect is profound. Spending 72 minutes completely engulfed in these pre-teen questions of self-doubt will tap into something visceral for everyone, no matter how sure you may be of your place in the world.
7. Lee Chandler — Manchester By The Sea
If you don't find something fascinating about the way working-class New England men relate, you're not looking hard enough. There is a whole language of grunts, beers, and fishing trips that Kenneth Lonergan has beautifully captured in his film Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, is the embodiment of this rugged, silent type. These men, who shovel walkways and fix pipes for a living, don't communicate with words or tears. They communicate by showing up. Chandler carries the weight of his grief—his alone to endure—and expels it in bar fights. When his brother dies and he is tasked with raising his nephew, Lee shows up. Together, they mourn in their own way.
This film revels in the small moments—the light banter and the awkward mistakes that make us human, like forgetting where the car's parked. In one particular instance following his brother's death, a doctor is gently speaking to Lee when he loudly blurts, "Oh fuck this." Everyone falls silent. After a pause, Lee apologizes, and conversation resumes. It's comic relief in the most honest fashion. Lee's character is a complex portrait of the ways guarded men cope with trauma and depression while attempting to remain strong for those they love.