Like most years, the best movies of 2016 were the ones that didn’t have toy deals, product tie-ins, or “Extended Editions.” In fact, I’d go so far to say that 2016 may be one of the worst years for blockbuster studio movies (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft) Fortunately, that means the rest of the world of movies was filled with interesting ideas, compelling characters, and unique filmmaking. We went everywhere from ancient Japan to 1970s Los Angeles, followed bankrupt cowboys and the First Lady of the United States, and faced a demonic goat and the equally scary dream of trying to make it as an actress. 2016 may have been a bit of a wash, but that made my top 20 picks all the more precious. In the words of the patron saint Wade W. Wilson, “Let’s count ‘em down.”
Barry Jenkins doesn’t see life as a whole, more as moments that make us who we are. He boils that down with neon-lit artistic beauty in his three-act feature about a young black man living through struggle and a crisis of identity in Miami. Jenkins mixes art house cinematography and atmosphere with acting worthy of prime stage work. Leading that work is a prime cast including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the lead in three separate eras. Ambition meets reality and it’s never as it seems.
19. Eye in the Sky
Drone warfare is one of the toughest questions to answer in modern warfare, but who would’ve thought its ethics would make for such great drama? Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine….no, seriously) plays out three scenarios surrounding a drone strike: one in an underground military base where a military officer (the immortal Helen Mirren) wants to drop the bomb, her supervising officer (the late great Alan Rickman) wants to wait to see who else could be in the blast, and the drone pilot (the still great Aaron Paul) doesn’t even want to pull the trigger. It’s a game of chicken with an international incident on the line, but Hood and writer Guy Hibbert let the actors play with the questions brilliantly. War is hell, even if it’s behind a computer screen.
18. Don’t Think Twice
Yeah there are laughs, but a career in comedy can be borderline miserable. Take it from Mike Birbiglia, who starred, wrote, and directed the story of an improv comedy troupe in New York City with their theater on the verge of closing and their future prospects on the verge of evaporating. Rounded out by ace comic talent like Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard, Don’t Think Twice finds the meaning of friendship and finding yourself when your dreams don’t exactly work out. Life is improv, just go with the scenes you’re given.
17. Sing Street
Writer/director John Carney goes three-for-three with musical movies after Once and Begin Again with this droll, yet incredibly bright teen comedy about a shy teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a synth rock band with his fellow nerdy schoolmates to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). First off, very relatable (speaking from experience). Second, Carney captures the environment of grey, working-class Dublin in the 1980s along with the beautiful melancholy that the new wave sound of that era inspired amongst his characters. Even the film’s original songs are poppy earworms.
Even if Pixar could only gives us a light farce of a sequel this year, Disney’s individual animation department still managed to turn out some quality entertainment while making billions of dollars (as is Disney’s business model). From the team behind the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph comes the story of spunky bunny police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) taking a bite out of the metropolis of Zootopia. She relies on the wit of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist as sly as a fox (because HE IS A FOX, GET IT? COMEDY!) to solve mysterious disappearances around the city. Zippy, gorgeous, and cute as a button (or a bunny? MORE COMEDY!), Zootopia is one of those great kid’s movies that has enough face value jokes up front for the young ones in the audience and little bits of hidden humor on repeat viewings (beep that Breaking Bad reference in the climax and thank me later). The detail in the animation of the world of Zootopia itself is another crowning achievement for Disney, proving that the right people don’t just have dollar signs on the brain (*cough*).
15. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Oh J.J. Abrams, you sneaky little man. A mere month after he helmed the return of Star Wars, he pulled back Bad Robot Production’s curtain to reveal this spin-off of the 2008 found-footage/sci-fi hit Cloverfield made in secret. The biggest surprise of it all? It totally works! Abrams is only a producer on this project (as he was with the first Cloverfield), but director Dan Trachtenberg is no slouch by creating shivering tension and suspense in the underground bunker where three strangers try to survive throughout an alien invasion (or are they?). It’s a small film with solid twists and characters maneuvering through the mind games played by the sparse space around them, despite a rather weak climax. We also learned to never underestimate a terrifying John Goodman.
14. Captain America: Civil War
Is it flawed? Incredibly. Does it contribute to the sameness of current Marvel movies? Absolutely. Do the stakes matter even in the slightest? Hell no. But Hollywood’s biggest breakup between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) had so much action, humor, character, and heart that it’s still the best superhero movie of the year. Directed with frenetic pacing but thorough focus on character by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Solider), the governments of the world aren’t so keen on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes anymore and force them to become regulated. It splits The Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk because “reasons”) in half, with Iron Man wanting to rein in the gang but Cap still untrusting of modern politics as he tries to clear the name of ol’ buddy Bucky/The Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). What makes Civil War so enjoyable, aside from some of the best action scenes Marvel has put out to date (with one in particular), is the further development of the established people (not the heroes in the suits) we’ve come to know. Even if the reason Cap and Tony fight is motivated by Tony being an irrational moron, the emotion behind the fists they throw is felt through the screen. Also, Black Panther…..ALL of Black Panther.
13. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier wants to make you uncomfortable. He will pull you to the edge of your seat in fear and anticipation, then pull the trigger and let everything bleed. Tension is Saulnier’s game, and he leveled up this year with Green Room. The set up is tense enough: a punk rock band gets a gig playing at a skinhead club in the woods of Oregon and, after playing a real crowd-pleasing opening number, see a dead body and become trapped in the club’s green room. To avoid alerting the cops, the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) orders his staffers to flush out the band, dead or alive. Once the band is trapped, the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as audience waits for the gruesome bursts of violence that propel the movie forward. But Saulnier sets up an unnerving atmosphere and lets that build as much suspense as the fight scenes do. It’s claustrophobic and filled with dread, but impossible to look away from. It’s also led by a solid young cast including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late great Anton Yelchin.
12. 20th Century Women
It’s an odd thing to wonder about what truly made us who we are when we’re growing up: was it our parents? the times? the culture? Writer/director Mike Mills has already explored the impact his father left on him in 2010’s Beginners. This year he showed the impact his mother had on his life with 20th Century Women, with the ever-wonderful Annette Bening playing mother Mills. Not really of course, more a fictionalized version of his mother and his teenage years in 1979 Santa Barbara. Bening plays a chain-smoking, free spirited mother looking to connect with her teenaged son, enlisting the help of housemates and friends to make an impact on her son. Mills uses his typical flourishes of building character with flashbacks and flashes forward in time. He also writes great characters for actors to work with, with the likes of Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and especially Greta Gerwig.
11. A Bigger Splash
First off, if this still of Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” doesn’t immediately sell you on this movie, be ashamed that you’re missing the best dance sequence of the year. However, don’t be fooled by the whimsy of Fiennes’ swaying of the hips: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) pulls a great bait-and-switch with this erotic love game between a rock superstar (Tilda Swinton), her photographer lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), her former manager/former lover (Fiennes), and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). On top of some gorgeous cinematography of the Italian islands by Yorick Le Saux, the four leads play off of each other with their raw sexual chemistry. Fiennes unbeatable charisma and Johnson’s steaming sexuality (somehow lost in Fifty Shades of Grey) brings the movie to boiling temperatures of atmosphere. And then there’s Swinton who, even as she’s mute throughout the movie, remains one of the best actors alive.
Top Ten, ENGAGE!
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
From Taika Waititi, the man who made vampires funny again (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows) and will hopefully make Thor compelling again (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), comes this silly and heartfelt adventure story in the mountains of New Zealand (without a single hobbit to be found). Waititi’s script brings out the best in the veteran Sam Neill as the grouchy father-figure to newcomer Julian Dennison’s plucky kid “gangsta” just looking for a home. The camera work and occasional left-field humor recall Wes Anderson, but Waititi’s own brand of droll comedy, sweeping direction and easily-observable love of filmmaking cement him as a man of his own talent. Don’t you hurt him, Marvel!
9. The Edge of Seventeen
It’s seems impossible for Hollywood movies to properly depict today’s American teenagers. Sometimes it can be done well (Moonlight) and other times it can be done disastrously (Yoga Hosers). The one that did it best, however, is Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious dark comedy about a suburban high schooler dealing with nearly everything in the world going against her. That may sound like another episode of Degrassi, but Craig’s writing is full of sharp digs that recall peak Woody Allen and a feature actors that don’t oversell their roles or rely on modern references to seem current. On top of that, Craig has a stellar lead in Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld delivering one of the best performances of the year. Her comic timing and dramatic heft she brings is stellar and hopefully reminds Ms. Steinfeld to hold off on pulling a Jennifer Lopez and trading in a promising acting career to be a middling pop star.
It’s a damn shame that no one else got to see this brilliant and risque adaptation of David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird since no studio has picked it up for distribution yet. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why studios are hesitant to put press behind a movie about young love with an older man. But Una, the play’s film adaptation with a screenplay by Harrower himself, doesn’t use its taboo subject matter for cheap drama. Instead, its story is on the aftermath as the title character, now a young woman (the excellent Rooney Mara), tracks down her first true love, an older man with a new name and new life (the equally excellent Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the movie plays out as it would onstage, with two actors going toe-to-toe laying out their emotions and seeing who cracks first. On top of that, director Benedict Andrews slowly dishes out the truth about what happened with the look of a gorgeous bad dream before cutting back to the cold harsh reality the two leads share. It shows that just having controversial subject matter for a movie is merely a springboard, but building on it makes it something impossible to look away from.
7. Manchester by the Sea
Whenever I tell people that Manchester by the Sea is one of the best movies of the year (because it is), I have to follow it with a warning: “This movie is a bummer.” Mind you, that’s not a detriment to Kenneth Lonergan’s new film about a sullen, closed-off handyman (Casey Affleck) who’s brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving a son (Lucas Hedges) without a father and a brother even more aimless and lost than he once was. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Lonergan’s film so outstanding because it’s for such simple reasons. The acting is so human and lived-in that the film feels like a well-made documentary. There’s nothing far-fetched or even a hint of forced Hollywood melodrama in the story. It’s not about dramatic expression of hard emotion, but the crippling fear of vulnerability after tragedy. Lonergan lets his cast do the heavy lifting, and most of it lies on Affleck’s very capable shoulders. He’s always been a very quiet actor lost in most movies, but this may be the role that finally fits his type of acting. He’s stellar, perhaps the best performances of his career, along with the likes of Chandler, Hedges, and a brief role by Michelle Williams. It’s not the happiest film of the year, but it feels pretty damn real.
Biopic syndrome is a very real thing in Hollywood. No matter who is profiled, it’s easy to map out the origins, the rise to prominence, the second act fall from grace, and the finale of redemption. No matter how interesting the subject or how good the actor portraying the subject, most biopics are very similar. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like Pablo Larraín’s stirring depiction of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy before, during, and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine, sweeping shots of JFK’s funeral procession and close ups of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off of her face help paint the shimmering dream of her life in the White House and the faded nightmare she experienced as she was forced to leave. The likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup fill out an exceptional supporting cast that make Jackie consistently question the situation surrounding her. But it’s the fearless, fragile, and feisty lead performance by Natalie Portman that’s worth the price of admission. Portman juggles the many sides of Jackie that one wouldn’t expect: the fiercely protective torch-bearer of the Kennedy legacy, the jaded public figure cursing the American public for her JFK’s death, the broken debutante questioning if all the glamorous dresses in her closet was ever worth a damn, and the heartbroken wife who’s lost the love of her life. It’s as multifaceted as a Dungeons and Dragons dice, but Portman pulls it off beautifully. She’s currently on the verge of welcoming her second child, but don’t be surprised if she welcomes another Oscar to her brood as well.
5. Kubo and the Two Strings
If you claim to be a big fan of animated movies and have yet to see anything made by Laika Studios, you’re a liar and should be ashamed. The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have created three films since 2009 (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and all three have given Disney and Pixar a reason to sweat (well at least their creative team, their financial department are too busy lounging in their chairs made of dollars). Now on film four, Laika have made their most expansive world, exciting action, and heartfelt story to date…and yet The Secret Life of Pets made over $800 million, shameful. Anywho, Kubo and the Two Strings takes audiences to ancient Japan where the title character, a one-eyed young boy with magic paper and a three-stringed guitar, must traverse the lands and find three magical items to fight his grandfather, Raiden the moon god (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Fortunately, Kubo is accompanied by a stern fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s excellent handling of stop-motion animation merges extremely well with the Japanese style and art direction of the film’s story. The tiniest details are given proper attention making each set piece almost a living element to the film, breathing and moving with the characters themselves. Mix that with a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli and some great vocal talent by the A-list cast (especially McConaughey in one of his funniest performances to date) and you’ve got something beyond a kid’s adventure: a sweeping, beautiful journey for the whole family without one obnoxious product tie-in (take that, Sing).
4. The Nice Guys
The world has had a lot of disappointments in the action film genre this year. The combined power of Batman and Superman turned out into a dud, X-Men fighting Apocalypse was a snoozefest, the first live action Joker in eight years was straight-up embarrassing, even Jason Bourne gave us all a headache. And yet Shane Black made a brand new movie this year and BARELY ANYONE SAW IT! IT WAS RIGHT THERE YOU GUYS!!!! Mr. Black’s latest film (his first since 2013’s surprisingly good Iron Man 3) takes place in 1977 Los Angeles and follows brutish enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on his search for a missing girl. He soon joins boozy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), and the pair embark on shenanigans riddled with bullets, boobs, and secrecy. Very few in Hollywood today do action movies as good as Shane Black, specifically it’s his understanding of when and how often to do action scenes. Instead of desperate ploys to hold the audience’s attention, Black cruises at his own pace and lets his acute sense of style and atmosphere entertain viewers. He expertly paces out the gunplay and pulpy elements of the movie, with even the most casual dialogue better than any exposition in other movies. Speaking of his characters, Black scored two actors on their absolute A-game: Crowe is the growling straight man with excellent comic timing and the real soul of the film, but Gosling steals the show. The man known for his sullen intensity and the occasional meme, Gosling gives the funniest performance of his career (maybe of the year, as well) as he makes “bumbling” look like the coolest thing to do in a movie. Even when he’s been chasing tail that turns out to be a double-cross, he holds his stupidity by still thinking he has a shot at getting laid. It’s like if Van Wilder was in Lethal Weapon, brilliant!
3. La La Land
Speaking of brilliant things with Ryan Gosling in them, hurray for movie musicals! And no, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is not talking about the modern era of movie musicals like Les Misérables, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd. Instead, Chazelle crafted a love letter to the likes of Singing’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and other films of the golden age of movie musicals. While it would be easy to just make a highlight reel of classic moments from that era, Chazelle had the good sense to put a story in there and make the brightest film in grim dumpster fire of 2016. La La Land follows two down-on-their-luck dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) desperate to open his own hip club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who’s only gotten as close to Hollywood as the coffee shop on a studio lot will let her. The two meet, exchange witty banter, and of course fall in love. They inspire each other to give one last big run at their dreams and face the adversity that follows. Now the pessimistic cynic inside my soul could easily label this as another installment of “White People Problems: Part 75” and scoff at a movie so sweet and sunny that it could give cavities. But it’s impossible not to applaud the care and craftsmanship Chazelle puts into the production. After the small, contained burst of madness that was Whiplash, it’s astonishing to see Chazelle execute such a big production with the same precision as a veteran director (mind you, La La Land is only Chazelle’s third feature film). The sweeping musical numbers (like the Planetarium scene) are shot with such focus and buoyancy that it feels like a group of intelligent robots organized the sequence to perfection, but there’s still a sense of warmth that could only come from a human behind the camera. Justin Hurwitz also returns to provide the film’s score, consisting of a solid combination of quiet jazz numbers shared between the two leads and the big ensemble numbers. But then there’s the heart of the movie, brought by its star-crossed lovers. Gosling is a natural with song and dance numbers while still being a handsome Woody Allen-wannabe obsessed with the passion with jazz. It took the charisma of Gosling to make Sebastian more than just your average jazz hipster. But there is one star of this movie, and she’s Emma Stone. Someone who’s proven that she’s a jack of all trades with drama, comedy, and music, this was the role tailor-made for Stone’s talents and she owns every scene she’s in. Her effortless comedic banter and chemistry with Gosling, her solid singing voice, and the heartbreak in her struggle to make in Hollywood (something she’s certainly no stranger to) is so natural. Stone’s been a major Hollywood star for a while now, but La La Land is surely the one to send her star power into supernova. The same should apply to Chazelle, a true craftsman proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s next great talents.
2. Hell or High Water
Throw all the glitz and glamour you want in a movie, but I’m a man of simple tastes. An old-fashioned, stripped-down drama with believable human characters is something that feels rare in movies today and really shouldn’t. Which is why when something like it comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s such a welcome relief and not a stretch to call a new American classic. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water feels like a long-lost American classic from the late 60s/early 70s, a crime drama mixed with Western elements and character drama worthy of a great stage play. Dirty, sobering, and especially timely, it’s amazing how the movie feels like such a gem in 2016. It’s a story of brothers, by blood and by occupation. The blood brothers are ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and somber divorcee Toby (Chris Pine), who try to save their family farm in West Texas by robbing banks of their petty cash and speeding off into the dusty sunset. The brothers by occupation are two Texas Rangers, one on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and the other his longtime partner (Gil Birmingham), who are on the trail of the robbers and hope to get one last big bust before they part ways. Mackenzie manages to make Hell or High Water both very singular and yet something that fits right in with 2016. Even with the escapism of film, Mackenzie puts audiences right back into terrible 2016 Americana with endless dried out farms, broken homes, and jobless cowboys feeling abandoned by the world around them. It’s such a vivid depiction of the desolate range that was once promised to be prosperous. On top of that, Mackenzie also knows how to pace the action between the character development. The robberies are quick bursts of kinetic action, building up to the climax that rivals Michael Mann’s Heat robbery. Adding to that expert direction is an engrossing story and tight dialogue by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who also crafted the four fantastic lead characters that are also performed by four actors all giving peak performances. Birmingham and Foster are the weaker of the leads, but they still give great performances. Foster provides his typical quiet intensity with a bit more heart to add to the brother aspect, while Birmingham acts as a fitting foil for Bridges character. Speaking of Bridges, this is his finest performance since the last time he did a western (that would be 2010’s True Grit). Bridges has been one of the most heartfelt and human actors of his generation, and Hell or High Water gives him the right character and enough room to let him relax into his character and make him immediately interesting. But then there’s Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, giving the finest performance of his career. To see him play a character so mature, burnt out, and yet intimidating and compelling is almost shocking to see. Hopefully it opens new doors for the actor once his Star Trek role turns over or before his career goes as south as the original Kirk. I hope that Hell or High Water doesn’t get lost in the sea of other big films to come out, or perhaps it’ll be a hidden treasure future generations will discover in bargain bins. Regardless, seeing the movie will show how undeniably lasting it feels. Something old, something new, and something to be seen again.
1. The Witch
Horror movies are a dime a dozen, you get one diamond for every 10 or 20 duds. But what makes movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining and others more memorable than the likes of The Conjuring, Ouija, As Above So Below, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, Hostel and other forgettable marks in the horror genre? In today’s market, especially with the rise of found footage films, horror movies seem to rely on their jump scares, the brief moments of sudden bursts of sound and surprise imagery to count as scares. While it lets audiences jump in their seats to break up monotony, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression after the movie’s over. Horror films are less about quick moments of spooks and more about terrifying imagery that stays on screen, not too long to lose impact but not too short to be missed. Something that stays on just long enough to stick with audience and haunt their nightmares for weeks, months, or a lifetime. Not many films do that anymore, fortunately one did this year, and everyone who ever wants to make a horror movie (or any movie) should’ve taken notes. In his first feature film no less, writer/director Robert Eggers presented The Witch, “A New England Folktale” that acts as both everything a filmmaker needs to make something compelling and one of the best horror films of all time. Eggers’ film takes place in 17th century New England when a Puritan family is exiled from their village and they are forced to live in the outlier woods with nothing but their farming and their faith to hold on to. One day, their infant is taken into the woods by something unseen, unheard, and unthinkable. The family becomes closer in need of salvation, but the darkness keeps creeping in and all of their prayers aren’t helping. Eggers is a master of not only creating atmosphere but building it into a fuller form. It’s emphasized in a visual work throughout the film: at night, the family’s farmhouse is lit by candles that form a type of box around the family. As the film goes on, the box of light gets smaller and smaller, practically crushing the family as the nights go by and the more they lose understanding of the situation. That’s Eggers game, a time bomb whose fuse is getting smaller and smaller with the victims quickly running out of options. He starts with gloom and keeps building to full-on gothic doom, using lighting and sparse sound design (plus the score by Mark Korven) to build a believably hopeless situation. Despite the title, Eggers even plays with the idea of there even being a witch at the start, having the family use their religion as a security blanket and questioning if this is a part of some type of God-driven insanity. In fact, The Witch herself is such a minor part of the film, with the center of it being the true horror of family values and the madness of religion. It’s all played out without shaky cameras, jump scares, cheap special effects, or excessive gore. The imagery is legitimately unsettling and stays on screen just long enough to last and linger in the mind. The icing on the cake is the exceptional performances by Kate Dickie as the unstable mother and Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter bearing the most of the psychological torture. The Witch stands for everything that is right in moviemaking: patience, craft, and actual innovation in film.