The general consensus is that 2016 sucked (it did), but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the films of this year. From $200M franchise blockbusters all the way on down to genres films released via video-on-demand, there was a lot of outstanding filmmaking on display. Here I count down my 10 favorite films of the year along with a few other notes. I’ll keep the intro short so to have more space to talk about the films.
This post is broken down into 4 sections.
- 5 films I liked more than most.
- 5 films I liked less than most.
- Honorable Mentions
- My Top 10 Films of the Year.
For context, my top 10 of 2015 (full post here)
- The Lobster
- Ex Machina
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The End of the Tour
- Love & Mercy
- The Hateful Eight
- Beasts of No Nation
So let’s begin…
Notable 2016 films I have not yet seen: Silence, Fences, Patriots Day, Live By Night, Passengers, Assassin’s Creed
Films I liked more than most.
Blood Father: A thoughtful action film that gets the best out of a late-career Mel Gibson and an outstanding supporting cast, Blood Father is a lean 88-minutes that whips by thanks to its unabashed pulpiness. By no means the first action film to play on the “bad guy plays good in order to protect his family” premise, it works partly because it never extends its scope beyond the father (Gibson) and his daughter (a very good Erin Moriarty). This is the type of film grizzled movie stars such as Gibson excel in.
Pete’s Dragon: Visually dazzling, this live-action remake of Disney’s 1977 animated musical is the perfect family film, and more families should’ve seen it in theaters. Pete’s Dragon is genuinely heartfelt and feels strangely necessary in the reboot era. Credit director David Lowery’s ability to leave all adult cynicism at the door and embrace the tonal notes lost in most non-animated, major studio moviemaking today.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: A raunchy comedy that doubles-down. The bros (Adam Devine and Zac Efron) meet their match and then some with their dates (Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick). Mike and Dave is every bit as refreshing as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Efron and Plaza steal the show. The former continues to prove himself a remarkably gifted comedic actor, while Plaza continues to be the best thing about almost everything she appears in. It’s not without its cheesy rom-com beats, but most of the time, it’s quick to riff on those beats with a visual gag.
Other People: One of the strongest Sundance films of the year, Other People tells the story of struggling N.Y. comedian David (Jesse Plemons) who returns to Sacramento to care for his dying mother (Molly Shannon). Nothing is made simple, as the return home causes problems for David, a gay man from a stoutly religious family. Each character is given depth and handles grieving in their own way. The principle performances from Plemons and Shannon are both exceptional, and the film finds the blend between humor and sorrow so many strive for but rarely capture. It’s a treat (on Netflix now).
Frank & Lola: Behind a creepy powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon, this psychosexual neo-noir from first-time director Matthew Ross is gripping from start to finish even if it’s unsure what it’s really about. Playing on male obsession in a way most films lack the balls to; Frank & Lola is an often romantic, sometimes erotic, and always eerie blend of elements that makes for a fascinating watch. It’s a movie that sticks with you and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It’s challenging. I appreciate that very much.
Films I liked less than most.
American Honey: I didn’t hate this Cannes critical darling, I just didn’t adore it the way most seemed to. From Andrea Arnold, American Honey is filled with fun performances (specifically that of its lead, Sasha Lane). But as a road movie that runs nearly three hours and is filled with strangely edited/scored dreamlike sequences, it wore me out rather quickly. Arnold’s use of the land is important thematically but looks rather cheap at times. This is a decent film, but far from a great one. Not to be a man against auteur filmmaking but this could’ve used a more conservative editor and/or more distributor input on release.
Star Trek Beyond: The Trekkies embraced Star Trek Beyond, NOT directed by J.J. Abrams, because its structure was similar to that of a classic episode, with the Enterprise crew being split up into different subplots that come together in the end. That’s fine, and for the most part the pairings work. But Justin Lin’s take fails to measure up to Abrams’ for two main reasons; his action is sloppy and headache-inducing, his villain is one-note. The best moments in this film are the quiet dialogue scenes between the characters we’ve grown to love. When it extends beyond that it has you wishing for the days of Abrams’ operatic vision, not the metal-meet-metal noisy take of Lin.
Suicide Squad: While it was by no means a hit with the critics, the comic-book movie masses seemed to like Suicide Squad quite a bit, at least more so than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many enjoyed its tone, structure, and the performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie. I could not disagree more. Suicide Squad is, for my money, the worst superhero film since The Green Lantern. Its story makes absolutely zero sense. It’s a tonal mess. Key action sequences are so underlit and choppily edited that you simply have to blame writer/director David Ayer for not coming up with any usable footage during production. The actors try, but they aren’t given anything substantial. Even the ever-popular Margot Robbie finds herself working too hard to breathe life into an underwritten, overly sexualized character. Whether you look at it as fan service or actual filmmaking, Suicide Squad was a disaster.
Ghostbusters: I understand the urge to defend Ghostbusters. I was rooting for it. In the months leading up to its release, due to both internet trolls prejudging its female cast and self-important journalists anointing it a litmus test for women in Hollywood blockbusters, one’s excitement for Ghostbusters or lack thereof became sort of a political statement. But that was before anyone saw the actual movie, which was a complete creative a commercial misfire. Kate McKinnon is hilarious, as is Chris Hemsworth. But the two are thrown to the side in favor of a Melissa McCarthy-Kristen Wiig friendship that just doesn’t work. Director Paul Feig and McCarthy usually make for one of Hollywood’s most dependable comedic duos, but the jokes don’t land here. McCarthy and Leslie Jones confuse being loud for being funny. And the last act of the film is a complete mess. Ghostbusters stinks. If that opinion puts me on the wrong side of history, so be it.
The Witch: The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the more successful low budget horror films of the last five years. It was universally praised for its atmosphere, pacing, and breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. I can get on board with that, to an extent. Taylor-Joy is quite good and the film has fun with its 17-century New England setting. But the thrills/scares are few and far between, due to a script that slows down at weird times to explore themes it never fully realizes. I am generally a fan of slow-pacing. It’s rare that I’m bored by a film as well-shot and well-acted as The Witch. But alas, I was. It took a great deal of effort for me to finish the film, and I don’t mean that in the sense that it was thought-provoking.
10 films I really liked but couldn’t squeeze into my top 10 (ordered alphabetically)
- The intimate Christine, which features career-best work from the always solid Rebecca Hall.
- Marvel’s trippy and surprisingly hilarious Doctor Strange.
- Green Room, for its fun performances and visual mayhem.
- Logan Lerman’s turn and everything else about Indignation, the best film adaptation of Philip Roth yet.
- Jackie, which is much more than just a good Natalie Portman (though she is THAT good).
- Best Picture frontrunner La La Land, a dazzling affair, which somehow manages to be both the best musical and romantic comedy in years.
- Jeff Nichols’ understated but perfectly acted interracial marriage drama Loving.
- The heartbreaking Manchester by the Sea, which is filled with strong performances and subtly strange humor.
- The technically masterful and perfectly nostalgic Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
- And finally, The Jungle Book, a “live-action” film that further proves entirely digital characters can make for some of the most interesting around.
My Top 10 Films of 2016
or, MY 10 FAVORITE films of 2016
#10) In a Valley of Violence
Director: Ti West
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransome, Karen Gillan, John Travolta
The latest from microbudget master Ti West sees him stepping out of horror confines to embody a different genre, the minimalist western. West’s script loads the dialogue with biting humor honed in by comments on masculinity and purpose. His photography makes great use of the small abandoned town the majority of the film takes place in. The viewer is given an omniscient perspective, we know where everything is relative to everything else. As the characters go on about various things equally grotesque as they are hilarious, a strange mood embodies the film. This is basically a Samuel Beckett story that ends in a standoff.
The cast has fun. Ethan Hawke, who feels so at home in westerns, thrives in a role West supposedly wrote for him specifically. As Paul, the film’s archetypal protagonist, Hawke channels the reluctant hero perfectly. His scenes with Taissa Farmiga (in her best turn yet) are a joy. The Wire alum James Ransone does such a fine job as the film’s antagonist. Too many movies have bad guys you kind of sort of want to root for. Not him. He’s a piece of fucking shit and Ransome nails it. Even the oddly cast John Travolta is in fine form in a role with more grey area around it than I thought him capable of handling.
In a Valley of Violence barely got a theatrical release. Most who saw it did so online or via some on-demand service. Maybe it was marketed poorly following its premiere at South by Southwest. Maybe there’s just little demand for a western that doesn’t feature extravagant set pieces in 2016. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because In a Valley of Violence is one of 2016’s best films.
#9) The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice
With The Nice Guys, buddy cop maestro Shane Black convinced a major studio to make an odd film full of 70’s style that pokes fun at the subgenre he more or less invented. The film sees the usually drunk private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) team up with professional enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to find a missing pornstar, or something like that. The Nice Guys is quick to show you that it’s not really about the story it tells. Its plot is intentionally all-over-the-place, a mere excuse to create situations that lead to hilarity. And boy, does that hilarity work.
Gosling & Crowe are great together. Crowe’s gruffness here compliments Gosling’s ineptitude perfectly. There are countless bits of great physical comedy between the two. The visual gags are shot with a perfect sense of grainy 70’s nostalgia by DoP Philippe Rousselot. Then there’s Angourie Rice, who plays the daughter of Gosling’s character. It’s rare to find a child actor who can hold their own in a film this good, much less steal the show. She’s a revelation here and makes every scene she’s in significantly funnier.
The Nice Guys is a romp. It probably didn’t do well enough to justify a sequel, which stinks, because I’d love to see Gosling & Crowe bicker with each other as these characters again.
#8) Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard
One of two Jeff Nichols films this year, Midnight Special adds to his remarkably diverse filmography with a spiritual successor to the works of Spielberg and Carpenter in the 80’s (specifically, E.T. and Starman). The film turned some off by not really answering the questions to its mysteries, but that was an intentional tactic. Nichols knew the film was more the story of a father and son disguised as a chase film than an actual sci-fi mystery. He and editor Julie Monroe keep things moving frame to frame. There’s real tension from the very first shot. The Texas backroads make for an interesting setting to tell the story of a boy (the revelatory Jaeden Leberher) whose special powers entice a cult, and a father (Michael Shannon) willing to protect his son by any means necessary. Again, this is a film about that relationship, not the actual source of the boy’s powers.
Shannon, a usual Nichols collaborator, is outstanding against type here. Another notch on his “great American actor” belt, Midnight Special finds Shannon channeling his trademark intensity to great effect. Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Kirsten Dunst all excel in their roles as well. David Wingo’s synth-heavy score adds to the film’s pacing. Midnight Special isn’t flashy in its style, but it’s damn sure effective.
This isn’t a film that wraps everything up neatly in a bow before the credits roll. Yet, its story is complete. To do that requires a deft writing touch and understanding of what the work is really about. Nichols continues to prove he has just that.
#7) Hacksaw Ridge
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn.
Hacksaw Ridge is a film filled with so many moments that SHOULD be too heavy-handed, only a filmmaker like Mel Gibson who understands spiritual conviction amidst almost fetishized violence could have pulled it off. The fact that it’s done so well despite most critics essentially saying “I didn’t want to like it because it’s Gibson, but…” is a testament to its greatness. I don’t think anyone doubted Gibson’s ability to stage war carnage on a budget. The entire second half of Hacksaw Ridge gut-wrenching. The blood and guts spill while the speakers in the theater sound like they’re about to be blown up. This is all filmed beautifully with some interesting color-grading courtesy of DoP Simon Duggan. And better yet, we never really lose grip of our protagonist, pacifist medic Andrew Doss (Andrew Garfield), even as we’re thrust into the sights and sound of the Pacific theater during WW2.
Garfield gives the performance of his young career here. His abilities allow the film’s quieter moments to register without bordering on unintentional comedy (as many melodramas do). He’s an outstanding actor who’s done some serious work post-Spidey, and the attention he’s getting for both Hacksaw Ridge and Scorsese’s Silence should establish him as someone to watch in anything moving forward.
But it comes back to Gibson, whose set pieces can make the unimaginable seem almost visceral. Gibson is an ambitious filmmaker who possesses the gifts necessary to make the unfilmable a reality. Is Hacksaw Ridge his best film? Probably not, that still goes to Apocalypto in my book. But this is one of the best war films ever made. In a time where quality apolitical war films have become increasingly rare, that’s an achievement.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
I’ve never loved Jim Jarmusch’s films, to be honest. Some of them play a bit pretentious, some are filled with experimental choices I just don’t understand. But Paterson is a gem; it feels so realistic that it’s uncomfortable. The film stars Adam Driver as a bus driver carrying out the most unspectacular cinematic daily routine imaginable. He goes to work. He people-watches. He walks his wife’s dog. He has a single beer at a local bar. He scribbles poetry. Jarmusch finds intimacy within this minimalism. His ability to make you notice things about everyday life that you already notice but don’t consciously think about noticing is his greatest gift as a storyteller.
Adam Driver is exceptional here. He understands the subtleties the script calls for. He encapsulates both the blue-collar worker at peace with his simple life and the unheralded creative perfectly. Driver has quietly become one of the most reliable working actors, a versatile performer who can bring the human element into any role.
Paterson celebrates creativity, regardless of the creator. It could have easily ended with its subject striking it big with his writing, but Paterson is too real for that. If what you do matters to one other person, or even just yourself, it’s worth the time and struggle. That’s what Paterson argues. The fact that it does so through such a regular lens makes it even more effective.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Denis Villeneuve has been responsible for many of the 2010’s best films. He absorbs genres. He lets his cinematographers and composers experiment, gets intense performances out of his actors, all the while moving his stories forward quickly. Eric Heisserer’s script takes many liberties with the Ted Chiang story on which it’s based, but those changes are for the better. The film shrouds itself in mystery; mystery that’s used more for character purposes than anything else. That’s a surprising relief. You go into Arrival expecting a completely different movie than you get, but in a good way.
Amy Adams, as a linguist tasked to communicate with extraterrestrials, gives perhaps the best performance of her impressive career. The entire film rests on her shoulders. As it transitions from sci-fi thriller to personal tragedy, so does Adams’ performance. The film certainly has its fair share of intellectual ponderings, but they’re honed in. Villeneuve creates a thinking-man’s sci-fi film that also stands on its own as a character piece.
Arrival benefits from some gorgeous photography courtesy of Bradford Young. He’s very good at lighting conversation scenes, using shadows to cover parts of characters faces as they offer exposition. It adds intrigue to even the quietest of scenes. It’s the details within Arrival that make it so fascinating. It rewards close viewing, as all of Villeneuve’s films do.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali
The rush to label Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as a “gay film” or a “black film” makes light of both those labels and the film itself. Moonlight tells the story of a boy/man named Chiron over three parts. His story is one of identity. This is a tender film about a person searching for belonging, but it never feels too baity or heavy-handed. The exceptional cast never allows for that. From likely Oscar winner Mahershala Ali all the way down to Alex Hibbert (who plays young Chiron), every performer makes the most with the limited screentime they’re given.
Jenkins’ style is a bit muted. It’s a very pretty film thanks to James Laxton’s photography but Jenkins is sure to never let its filmmaking artistry distract from the story. Its most powerful moments are its quietest ones. It takes a real understanding of how your film will resonate with viewers to pull that off. It feels like Jenkins is a writer first and director second. Not critiquing his directorial chops in any way, but there’s a condensed novelistic nature in which Moonlight moves. Something as simple as a young boy asking a drug dealer “What’s a faggot?” becomes an almost climactic moment in the film’s first act.
Moonlight is the first film PRODUCED by proven indie distributor A24 Films. The company’s confidence in Jenkins’ vision has proved fruitful. Moonlight is the critical darling of year and for good reason. It probably won’t win Best Picture. Hollywood isn’t *quite* there yet. But the impressive limited box office proves a film like Moonlight can be a big thing.
#3) The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woon, Kim Tae-ri
Park Chan-wook is something else. He finds beauty in the grotesque. With The Handmaiden, a loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, Park crafts a film so aesthetically accomplished that it can contort your emotions three ways within a single scene. It’s an erotic thriller in the truest sense of the overused umbrella term. The Handmaiden actually springs its story from its eroticism. When it looks like it’s going one way, its raw sexuality is quick to change the narrative. And after that, it has more tricks to keep you guessing. Just as you begin to think you understand the relationship between the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and a pickpocket-turned con artist-turned lover Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the very basis of the narrative switches and you’re forced to reexamine the way you viewed the first half of the film.
Park and his DoP Cho Young-wuk romanticize sex, which is unique given how movies generally seem to romanticize everything except sex, the one thing that should actually be romanticized. The love scenes between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee are set up to be perfectly awkward given their wrongness within the context of the film. But then, during the moments of physical manifestation, they’re filmed with such symmetry and grace that what’s said to be wrong feels right, thus making the film’s true conflict resonate even deeper once its twist is revealed.
Whether inside the mansion where much of the film takes place or in the woods, every scene manufactures tension. Something always seems a little off in The Handmaiden; like we’re observing what’s about to explode but never actually does. Rather, The Handmaiden has fun with the slow burn. All the deception and taboo happenings make for a thrilling film from start to finish. I couldn’t look away.
#2) Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Hell or High Water features one of the very best scripts of the year (from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan). In Texas, two very different brothers (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) are robbing banks for the most noble of reasons. Two rangers, one of them nearing retirement (Jeff Bridges), are hunting them down. It’s a simple and solid premise for a heist film, a chase film, and a modern western. But Hell or High Water is more than any of those genres. Within the script is a rich family story of two brothers who chose very different paths and also some often hilarious commentary on generational differences coming to boil in the modern world. On top of the obvious intensity from robbery sequences, Hell or High Water is loaded with little quips (“Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb”, “I’m gonna go have a beer and watch the Aggies game”) that make its characters authentic. The dialogue is sharp throughout. It draws you in.
Director David Mackenzie has proven himself a great overseer of actors. The three principle performances here are exceptional. Nobody plays a hothead better than Ben Foster and Bridges is of course a master who injects everyman pain into his characters. Both give great physical turns here. Foster’s movements are dramatic, he uses his body to add to his character’s unpredictability. Bridges, as an aging and slightly overweight cop, is conservative with his movements. There’s not a wasted effort. Mackenzie blocks the scenes in a way that Bridges is always quick to take a seat. You see his age in the performance. Then there’s Chris Pine as the film’s true lead, giving the best turn of his career and one that suggests his true calling may be these grizzled roles as opposed to being the pretty guy in multiple franchise installments.
Both the opening and closing of Hell or High Water make for some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. We start with a bank robbery, no context yet, just a bank robbery. Mackenzie and DoP Giles Nuttgens use long takes and extended camera movements to show us where everything and everyone is in relation to everything else. There’s real perspective. At the end of the film, after a big climactic shootout, we’re left with a simple conversation. But the entire story was leading up to this conversation. It’s both the most intense and reserved moment in the film. A remarkable writing achievement that finds much of its power in what the characters DON’T say.
Hell or High Water is a gem.
#1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison
Leave it to Taika Waititi to craft a story that has the DNA of a cliched muddle but through sheer power of tone becomes something unique, just as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. Hunt for the Wilderpeople concerns Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a smartass 2pac-loving juvenile delinquent abandoned by his mother. He’s bounced around foster homes before he comes to live with a simple couple on a remote mountain farm. Ricky is a kid whose brash nature is clearly both a call for help and generational thing. His new guardians are the type of people to hunt for their own food. Tragedy strikes, some things happen, and Ricky finds himself on the run in the wilderness along with “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill) in what becomes a national manhunt. It’s not a coming-of-age film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is too smart for that genre’s tropes.
The dynamic between Ricky and Hec is perfect. Both seem to learn a bit about themselves through one another, but it’s littered with jokes and some genuinely tense moments so to not play as cheesy. Along with Waititi’s sharp script, much of the credit has to go Dennison and Neill. Both play parts that have certainly been done before (wisecracking orphan, grumpy old man) but are able to transcend those archetypes. Their bond tightens but never quite hits that storybook level where it becomes unrealistic. The two love and care for each other, but they’re each the type of person that hates admitting they care about someone.
The film makes great use of the New Zealand landscape. Numerous montages emerge from wide shots of mountains and forests cut together with physical comedy from Dennison and Neill. It’s an absolute joy to behold. You’ll catch all the feels while also finding yourself struggling for breath amidst laughter. I highly, highly recommend streaming Hunt for the Wilderpeople somewhere. It’s my favorite film of 2016 and something that already is a part of my personal canon. The next Thor film is in good hands with Waititi.