2016. What a year. As rock ‘n’ roll gods and Princess Leia were smote from the surface of the earth, Trump and Suicide Squad and the Zika virus emerged. But through the muck and the mire emerged a slew of films that rocked socks and reminded us that the movie theater is more often than not a safer space than CNN. As always there were a huge number of films in contention for a limited number of spots and making room for some meant dashing the hopes of others. So before we get to the top ten, let’s run through some very laudable runner-ups.
First on the list of those that couldn’t quite claim gold is Shane Black‘s hatefully funny The Nice Guys. Outrageous and unpredictable, this totally rewatchable and even more mean-spirited gumshoe comedy was right on the line but ultimately was beat out by stiff competition. Iranian horror import Under the Shadow almost made the cut as well as did David Mackenzie‘s beloved Hell or High Water. Whit Stillman‘s Love & Friendship was on the outside looking in to, and earlier in the year was comfortable sitting in that top ten. J.A Bayona‘s A Monster Calls was a late arrival (and hasn’t officially been released locally in Seattle) but though powerful, doesn’t have the repeat value needed for this list.
Animated films Kubo and the Two Strings and Zootopia both had a strong chance at one point as did family friendly-ish comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Everybody Wants Some!! from Richard Linklater. Sundance standout Manchester by the Sea was no dramatic slouch though it’s far from a joy to watch nor was James Schamus‘ overlooked Indignation but neither made the final cut. Denzel Washington‘s Fences was a performance powerhouse but lacked directorial prowess while Na Hong-Jin‘s The Wailing experienced the opposite – great directing stunted by iffy performances.
In the later tiers, Ava DuVernay‘s 13th proved an explosive documentary that is zero fun to watch while Trey Edward Shults‘ Krisha suffered a similar fate. Nocturnal Animals, Don’t Think Twice, Rams, In Order of Disappearance and The Wave all were strong outsider options ushered off the shelf by superior alternatives. Finally, The Handmaiden, Midnight Special, Jackie, Captain Fantastic and Tickled all proved sublime cinema with a flair for the ethereal but none could muster the fortitude to claim that top spot. I could keep going with honorable mentions but let’s just leave it there and get on with this thing.
10. DON’T BREATHE
2016 may have sucked by and large but if there was one thing that triumphed in the year of Trump, it was horror films. While Green Room made us squirm, nothing trumped Don’t Breathe in terms of sheer armchair grasping, popcorn flinging, blood-scream-inducing cinematic trauma. Directed with a ferocious eye for detail, every nook and cranny of Don’t Breathe is touched by Fede Alvarez’s sick equivalent of love as he weaves his camera through Norman Nordstrom’s deadly mouse trap of a house. The sound design is so all-encompassing, so supremely hushed and terror-inducing that you don’t even want to move an inch for fear that Stephen Lang may just hear you through the screen and bludgeon you to death with whatever’s closest. [Full review]
Denis Villenue has been making this annual list for years. From Prisoners to Enemy to Sicario and now Arrival, the Canadian-born director has championed thought-provoking humanist cinema with a genre tinge. Here, he dabbles in science fiction and the fit is supreme (*rubs hands together anticipating Blade Runner 2049*.) Arrival sees Amy Adam’s Louise Banks learn to communicate with an advanced alien race and in doing so tap into an alternative way of thinking and living. With wunderkind writing (props to B-horror movie veteran Eric Heisserer for that) that never doubts the depths of the audience’s intelligence, Arrival’s full circle storytelling is a palindromic lullaby that’s as timely as it is powerful and a visually stunning wonderland to behold. [Full review]
8. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
This semi-sequel to the J.J. Abrams-produced 2008 monster movie came as a total surprise to most. The bigger surprise however was its near universal critical acclaim. A never-better John Goodman scrumptiously co-stars as an unflappable proprietor of a very handy bunker in the midst of what he claims to be the “apocalypse”. Inside Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s confused and injured Michelle lurks, piecing together whether the “crisis” outdoors is real or not. With evidence piling up, nothing is quite as it seems. A chamber piece that perfectly orchestrates stellar character work, razor-wire tension and some shocking twists and turns, 10 Cloverfield Lane reinvents the modern thriller with a dark, science-fiction-friendly twist of the knife. [Full review]
7. SING STREET
I wouldn’t include myself among the list of John Carney devotees (Once left me semi-charmed but little else, Begin Again failed to move me) so my unwavering love for the undeniably delightful Sing Street caught even me off guard. This Irish-set tale of “Boy Starts Band to Impress Girl” is much more than a nostalgia sugar rush of 80s pop-rock. Ok, it is also that. But Sing Street poignantly and somberly explores some tough family dynamics, the economy of first crushes and the transformation power of passion all while belting out some of the most radio-friendly numbers of 2016 (“Drive It Like You Stole It” remains the most toe-tapping movie jam of the year) while offering up some of its most ludicrous costumes to boot. Jack Reynor’s turn as music guru/spiritual guide/washed-up older brother is amongst the more overlooked of these years crop and to his fist-pumping conclusion, he is the subtle life blood of this free-spirited charmer. [Full review]
6. GREEN ROOM
I don’t care who your desert island band is and neither does Green Room. This hardcore horror fiasco is punk-rock incarnate. A living, breathing celluloid invasion flick led by a breathless ensemble of off-the-grid, in-over-their-head rockers who sell the shit hitting the fan with every quaking splinter of their being, Jeremy Saulnier’s grimy, nasty, punk exploitation film is a 12-gauge blast of ultraviolence that doesn’t stop to ask about your feelings as its slashing you up the middle. Brash, bold and bloody, Green Room is one 2016 film I continue to revisit and find more to appreciate each time; a film that could almost have taken on a strange political tinge with the rise of the alt-right into the mainstream but wouldn’t give a damn about all that anyways. From the brutal bludgeoning to its businesslike dismantling (and dismembering) of its cast, Green Room is hard-boiled horror with an outstanding cast and immense rewatchability. [Full review] [Interview with director Jeremy Saulnier]
5. SWISS ARMY MAN
In life, people serve many functions. But none quite like those in Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man. Inside, Daniel Radcliffe is a corpse discovered by a shipwrecked Paul Dano, who uses the body to chop, climb and fart his way out of harm’s way. The import of music video gurus given a budget and no restrictions, Swiss Army Man is a thing of pure, unrestricted energy; a colorful id of originality that mixes meaningful meditations on male bonding in with fart jokes and puppet bear attacks. Nothing is off the table in this daringly unique exploration of what makes us tick and for a movie that stars a corpse, few other features felt as warm and alive this year. Although the final few minutes don’t quite live up to the pure, unchecked brilliance of the remainder of the film, Swiss Army Man’s surefire strangeness, its brilliant, dreamlike soundtrack and its two bizarrely mesmerizing central performances make it a surreal venture into totally uncharted territory. [Full review]
4. THE LOBSTER
Another film I initially gave a B to before totally revising my feelings on it, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian parable on modern romantic relationships belongs in an oddity’s museum. A film whose antisocial complexities build upon subsequent viewings, The Lobster is akin to an unwritten Brothers Grimm fairy tale with splashes of Lars Von Trier. Meaning, it’s darkly tinged but also deeply hysterical, with biting satire to boot. With each viewing, it has moved up my list of 2016’s favorites, turning from a sleeper hit to a thing of true wonder the more I reflected on Lanthimos’ creation. The Greek filmmaker (also responsible for Dogtooth) refuses to play nice in this odd tale of an awkward man (Colin Ferrell) who must find a mate less he be turned into a lobster. At every juncture, Lanthimos opts for the road more gnarly and the wackadoo performances, outlandish world building, utter discomfort meets quiet meditation on love all percolate and coalesce into a feature that is stunningly unique and wholly brilliant. [Full review]
It seems no Year in Review list is complete without Moonlight and that’s no happy accident. Barry Jenkins’ film marked the first time cinephile-friendly studio A24 produced a movie from end-to-end and the result is just as staggering as those familiar with the studio’s work might expect. Chartering the transformation of a young black gay man over three impressionable periods in his life, Moonlight is a powerful peep show into the hardships of an oft unseen subculture. In his youth, Chiron struggles to identify but when he strikes up an out-of-the-ordinary friendship with perceptive drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali absolutely owning the role) he begins a path to self-discovery that’s much more choppy and inclement than those we’re used to seeing in other coming of age sagas. Powerfully acted, supremely photographed and directed with a tenderness and cinematic fervor that is too often rare in the cineplexes, Moonlight finds the unspoken meaning between the words, begs formidable questions and leaves us with one of the year’s best ending to become a genuine showstopper.
2. LA LA LAND
In the hands of a lesser director, La La Land could be La La Lame. But with Damien Chazelle at the helm, this Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling musical throwback is pure lightning in a bottle. On the surface, Chazelle pits the angst of chasing success against the onslaught on Murphy’s Law. That is, no matter how good you are in your lame studio cop procedural audition, there’s always another 20 red heads waiting in the lobby for the same gig. Someone else will get it. No matter how talented a pianist, some jag-off cotton swab will still demand you diddle Christmas carols. You will be fired. Here we find Mia and Sebastian, fools who dream. As the two star-crossed lovers come to terms with the invoice of success, we’re treated to a tide pool of ups and downs filled with magical realism, effervescent dance numbers and stupidly winning performances that all caps off with a stunning conclusion sure to inspire a wealth of feels. Its very last second, the exchange of the faintest of grins, is cinematic iconography in its infancy. [Full review]
1. THE VVITCH
It’s not often than a horror movie becomes a critical darling, wins directing awards and pops up on various Top Ten lists across the more respected sectors of the critical community. The Witch however is no ordinary horror film. In part a historical recreation, The Witch’s reverent dialogue (lifted from journals of actual period appropriate settlers) gives it an otherworldly feel that’s amplified by the religious fundamentalism at the core of Roger Egger’s dingy little feature. That Eggers is able to make a wildly devout father figure (Ralph Ineson soars in the role) as unsettling as an infant-smushing witch is a testament to The Witch’s most devilish undercurrents. The young cast performs with a ferocity well beyond their years as the film barrels towards its delicious conclusion that includes a nightmare-inducing goat. The woods have rarely been more hair-raising. [Full review] [Interview with director Robert Eggers]