Well, at least the movies were good.
2016 has been a turbulent, traumatic year, within pop culture and without. We've reached Peak Internet Culture, where the information rate is on overdrive, having an almost numbing effect. Word of tragedies both domestic and worldwide, political and social disasters, the rampant death of numerous icons, not to mention the literal circus that was the 2016 presidential election all pervaded our headspace this past year, bouncing around our skulls with abandon. Fortunately, in times of great stress, the arts take up the slack, and the movies of 2016 were no exception. They inform and inspire and lead the way for what I believe is the best aspect of humanity, our ability to dream.
To be sure, there are and will be those who repeat those crusty old sayings such as "movies sucked this year", and "ugh they're, like, so predictable and boring" and so on. Fortunately, you can safely ignore these people, because they're wrong (and often are; the arts will sometimes have "off" periods but never entire years where nothing of value is made). What those people really mean is that they haven't gotten around to seeing anything they thought good this year. So here we have my own personal top ten list in the hopes of helping them find something worthy of viewing. Perhaps you've seen one or two of these films already, but if not, trust they all come with my highest recommendation. You may not agree with my choices, and of course that's perfectly acceptable! Hopefully, though, I'll adequately explain what they mean to me below.
Caveat 1: I have yet to see a large number of films this year, including big awards contenders/critical darlings such as Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Manchester By The Sea, Jackie, Moonlight and so on. As I catch up with these and more films over the next month or so, perhaps I might update this list with any that resonate with me as much or more than these did. We'll see!
Caveat 2: This list represents my favorite films of this year, not an objective "the best" or some such thing. Feel more than free to disagree. That said, let's start with what's likely the most controversial choice for this top ten:
It could be argued that the world did not need a Ghostbusters sequel, so it certainly did not need a Ghostbusters remake/reboot/reimagining/"legacy" film/whatever we're calling these franchise grabs this week. How wonderful, then, that 2016's Ghostbusters turned out as delightful as it did. Passing by the misogynists and racists who trash the film based on its cast alone (and whose opinions are not of value), the movie has its critics and with good reason; the third act is shaky at best, the villain is undercooked, and the "Extended Version" available on streaming and Blu-Ray only exacerbates rather than solves these problems. Additionally comedy, like horror, is a genre that's not going to appeal to everyone, so if you don't typically find Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones funny then you will have a hard time with the film*. Fortunately, I find them hilarious, and Ghostbusters 2016 was the most fun I had in a theater this year. Paul Feig really stepped up his directing game, providing some genuine jump scares in the opening scenes and literally breaking the widescreen frame during the ghost sequences, providing a 3D effect without the need of glasses (though of course you can see the movie that way as well). For all the girls and young women who need cinematic heroes that aren't plot devices or sex objects, and for all the rabid 'Busters fans who just wanted to see funny people shoot weird ghosts with lasers on the big screen again, Ghostbusters is a treat.
(*you have to like Kate McKinnon though. She is a comedy goddess and should be worshipped as such)
9. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
At the time of its release in early May, Civil War seemed topical; at the end of December, it seems downright prescient. The ideological conflict between the heroes formerly known as the Avengers (but primarily between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark) provided a new high point and proof-of-concept to the now eight year old Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios allowed its longform storytelling to grow organically (as opposed to forcefully, a lesson DC and Warner Brothers learned the hard way this year) and Civil War is the emotional payoff, bringing the most character depth to any mainstream superhero film of the last decade. The much talked about airport battle royale sequence is pure splash page heaven, but directors the Russo Brothers really shine in the characters and structure. They deftly introduce major new players Spider-Man and Black Panther, giving each an arc and a meaningful role to play in the story, as opposed to the welcome inclusion but otherwise superfluous use of Wonder Woman in Batgrump V. Superdick: Dawn Of Aggro. What's more, they end the film not with a city-destroying dust up (or a visually fabulous but completely ungrounded sequence a la whatever was going on at the end of Doctor Strange) but rather a supremely anchored, dirty fist fight between a man, his valued friend and his trusted colleague. Marvel always want to leave audiences on a positive note, so many people forget the fact that the villain of the film wins, but perhaps we can all take a cue from Captain America and find a way to find common ground, so we can unite against the real evil in our midst.
8. THE NEON DEMON
One of the things cinema can do that few other art forms can is be a completely immersive experience. In that dark theater, you can be transported to another reality. The marriage of evocative images and music (sans dialogue) is what Alfred Hitchcock once called "pure cinema". No current director understands this more than Nicholas Winding Refn, who creates moods of such oddity and near unbearable tension that his films can burrow underneath your skin. Skin is primarily what's on Refn and co-writer Mary Laws' minds in The Neon Demon, taking a standard "innocent, pretty girl moves to L.A. and finds the seedy underbelly of fame" tale and twisting it beyond recognition. Refn has the same arthouse comedy touch as David Lynch, able to elicit a laugh from a line delivered with a straight face in the midst of supreme uncomfortable silence. Yet the director he most resembles is Nouvelle Vague gadfly Jean-Luc Godard, from the arrogant way he literally stamps his initials over the opening and closing credits to his aggressive alienation of his audience. If Refn wants to repulse, composer Clint Mansell wants to seduce, lulling you into the nightmare of the film with his lush, hypnotic score. Elle Fanning's performance is expertly pitched, backed up closely by Jena Malone's brave and bold choices supporting the film at every turn. The Neon Demon is the nasty flip side of La La Land, an Argento-infused tale of how our obsession with beauty consumes us.
7. THE WITCH
The Witch had a lot of hype to live up to, and unfortunately the cries of "scariest film ever" coming out of film festivals mean different things to different people. Those horror fans looking for buckets of blood and shocking jump scares were left wanting, but fortunately in every other area The Witch delivers. Writer/Director Robert Eggers sought to revisit a time period in which (haha) the supernatural was believed to be absolutely real, and even though he lingers on a few shots of the film's Puritan expatriate family's rotted corn (a common rational explanation for the witch-related hysteria of the 17th century), there is no question that the malevolent being(s) lurking within the woods is genuine. From the meticulously researched sets and costumes to the wonderful performances (including breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy) to the best new character of 2016 (all hail Black Philip), The Witch is a new classic of the horror genre.
6. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is a masterpiece of brutal tension, a no holds barred all-Neo-Nazi's-must-die siege film. Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe is a nasty, mean spirited film that flips the script on Wait Until Dark, making the antagonist a blind older man and the protagonist a young female thief, a funhouse movie that takes a perverse delight in goosing the audience. Both films deserve a spot on this list, but there's a third "small ensemble of characters trapped in a singular location" film released this past year that puts a big stupid grin on my face every time I think of it, and that's Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane. Far from a limp cash grab direct sequel to 2008's surprise found footage hit, producer JJ Abrams wisely uses the Cloverfield name to build an anthology series (with a hint of a Marvel-esque shared universe), allowing the film to stand by itself. And it's a remarkable film, with the script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and La La Land's Damien Chazelle tight and grounded enough that it could be a stage play. Of course any theater production would find it hard to top the ensemble of John Gallagher Jr, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a career-best John Goodman, all of whom are so compelling that the film's central mystery needn't ever be resolved. When it is resolved and the film quickly expands its scope, it can be jarring, but no less delightful. 10 Cloverfield Lane is the rare sequel (if only in name) released this year that nobody knew about or wanted and yet one that surpasses the original film in quality.
5. THE NICE GUYS
I had high hopes for The Nice Guys, Shane Black's full-throated return to his preferred world of screw-up would-be white knight detectives trying to stop the deeds of truly evil men (and women) after the detour he took into mainstream superhero filmmaking with Iron Man 3. Seeing it at a nearly empty midnight showing, the film seemed unexpectedly strange, like a hallucinatory dream not unlike the one Ryan Gosling's Holland March has in the middle of the film involving Hannibal Buress as a giant talking bee. My initial assessment of the film was "good, but could've been better", a sentiment that all but vanished when I watched it again several months later. It's sad, but makes a lot of sense, that the film didn't find a large amount of success at the box office, since while Black packages the movie in the bright, colorful neons of 70's L.A. and lets the dialogue crackle between Gosling's goofball and Russell Crowe's burly bruiser, the film never stays still tonally. It bounces between screwball comedy, crime caper, period piece and biting social commentary. It's a movie that posits the idea that porn stars are deeply moral people who fight as activists, while mainstream stars of wholesome tv sitcoms are deadly assassins. It's a movie where the male stars of the film are outclassed by Angourie Rice's preteen girl. It's a movie where the good guys lose, and yet there's a happy ending. It's a masterpiece.
4. THE LOBSTER
In 2016 alone, there were approximately 3,256 thinkpieces and articles written about the trials and tribulations of modern dating. Hell, there were probably at least six or seven that popped up on your Facebook timeline just this morning. The constant uncomfortable mixture of societal pressure to find a mate for life and a deeply rooted desire for companionship affects nearly every human on the planet, and it's right in the middle of this discomfort that director Yorgos Lanthimos places you for 2 hours. As such, The Lobster can be a harrowing experience for some, and a delight for others, sometimes within the same scene. It's a movie that is played to deadpan satiric perfection by its cast (including a revelatory leading turn by Colin Farrell) and yet is shot and paced like a horror movie. Indeed, its lack of resolution and shocking acts of brutality have the power to disturb more than the average supernatural movie. The film offers no easy answers; we can't abide by the absurd games we all have to play in order to find a partner, nor can we just run away to the woods. For me, The Lobster is jaw droppingly hilarious, far more incisive in its observations on love then any one of those 3,256 articles, and one of the best satires of the last decade.
20 years ago, Independence Day was released, a jingoistic rah-rah action-cum-disaster film that got by on charm alone (with considerable help from Will Smith). This past year, the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence was released, which struggled to find a reason to exist without Will Smith. That film is a mess, but even a sequel to the movie that took down evil aliens via Apple Computer realized that there was more to say about first contact with an alien life form then just explosions and lasers. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival was also released in 2016, and not only is it the best science-fiction film of the year, but it represents the best of the genre by being allegorical, topical, and progressive. Amy Adams gives the performance of her career thus far as the lead linguist charged by the military with opening up the lines of communication between humanity and an unfathomable new life form that comes to visit. Villeneuve (along with his visual effects team) backs her up with the fully realized creation of the Heptapods and their "language", tying the story of the difficulty and joy of learning to communicate with another thinking being to Adams' character's personal journey. It's a macro story told on a micro level, which only serves to make it feel more universal. It's a beautiful, lyrical film, and one that will hopefully inspire another "first contact" movie as bright and deeply felt as this one is 20 years from now (if we haven't already met aliens by then, that is).
2. SWISS ARMY MAN
Objectively, I understand the phrase "it's not for everyone", certainly when it comes to the arts, as every individual has differing tastes. However, a film like Swiss Army Man should be for everyone, seeing as learning to accept (if not love) the unusual and unique in all of us is the point of the movie. What's more unique and unusual than the human body itself? Writer/directors Daniels (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) have made the most heart-on-their-sleeve movie I've ever seen, with all the juvenility and innocence of a child who has yet to learn shame from society. Sad sack Hank (Paul Dano at his most sympathetic) can't make a human connection, and is literally stranded on a desert island until the body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, eons away from his child stardom) washes ashore. Hank finds Manny can provide any sort of practical need, extending all the way to even emotional ones. The score is beautiful, the film looks gorgeous, and Swiss Army Man earns its place as the successor to the work of Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. The farting corpse movie is one of the best of the year. It'd be my favorite were it not for...
1. LA LA LAND
I recently recommended La La Land to someone by saying "it's as if someone took my soul and put it on film". I may have hated myself a little afterward for sounding so pretentious, but the truth is the truth. Of course by "my soul" I don't mean that my likes and dislikes are reflected on screen in any "Ben Wyatt also loves Blur" sort of way; Ryan Gosling's Sebastian does not sit anyone down and explain to them at length about how Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a brilliant treatise on the horror genre, nor does Emma Stone's Mia have her own dick joke comedy band or anything. Yet I, and I would assume anyone else with an artist's and/or a romantic's soul, find a lot of myself in writer/director Damien Chazelle's third (!!) feature. It's a CinemaScope love letter to "the ones who dream" in the City of Stars, soaked in the magic of vintage Hollywood musicals. Refreshingly, Chazelle doesn't view the struggling artist's journey with rose colored glasses nor cracked lenses, as the film transmutes from a dream ballet to a kitchen sink drama and back again. By Chazelle's own admission, it's a return to the films of both Fred Astaire as well as Jacques Demy, made just modern enough to resonate in 2016. All top four of my favorite films of the year have communication as a major theme; The Lobster views communication as tragic and nearly impossible, Arrival sees it as a bridge between people, Swiss Army Man views it as vital to survival and understanding. La La Land sees communication as a necessary desire, the need to express oneself through art, love, or both as the ultimate goal, and a noble yet not always attainable one. For that, for the amazing original score and songs by Justin Hurwitz, for the endlessly charming screen duo of Gosling and Stone, and for personally giving me a reason to strive to continue to make art, La La Land is my favorite film of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Hail, Caesar!, Deadpool, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Invitation, High-Rise, Green Room, Popstar, Star Trek Beyond, Lights Out, Hell Or High Water, Don't Breathe, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, Rogue One.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know below, or find me on Facebook or Twitter (@billbria). Heck, as I said, I’ll probably add to this list and/or change my mind on it a few times over the next several months, but for now, it’s a good reflection of how great the movies were this year. I thank you all for reading my articles and reviews in 2016, and I hope you'll join me in 2017 for more movie related blatherings. Happy new year!