Despite the relentless onslaught of beloved deceased celebrities and an election that depleted the life force of the entire country, 2016 managed to be a banner year for film. As a citizen I was horrified by the events of the year, but as a film nerd, riches abounded pretty much from the start of the year to the end. The following list is my picks for my favorite films to be released this year, as well as a brief list of the worst drivel cinema released in 2016. I use “favorite” as the term to describe these because some may argue the artistic merits of one title over another, and while artistic merit is a factor in my championing of the film, entertainment value is an equally important element. Enjoy the list and let me know your thoughts!
20) Dr. Strange
Yes, in many ways this is a pretty standard “paint by numbers” superhero origin story film. However, the hallucinogenic visuals and a standout performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as the narcissist-turned-heroic sorcerer elevated it beyond being all too standard comic book fare. It’s fun too.
At times choppy direction? Yep. Awkward score? Check. In many ways this was a mediocre film. However, Natalie Portman is so damn good as the grieving First Lady it compensates for some of the films apparent flaws. It should also be noted the filming of the actual assassination is creepily detailed and effective.
18) I, Daniel Blake
This charming tale of an elderly disabled man fighting for his health benefits while also aiding a struggling single mom could have veered dangerously into melodrama. But the writing and the dry humor keep the film steadily moving throughout its running time. Social commentary in foreign cinema always offers a unique perspective, and this scathing critique of the social welfare system in England certainly draws many parallels with the same system stateside.
17) Blair Witch
Adam Wingard had blown me away with the horror comedy “You’re Next” and “The Guest”. I never would have guessed his third trick would be to take this long-dead franchise and inject it with white knuckle terror adrenaline. While the film still follows the “found footage aesthetic”, it benefits from having a legitimate director this time. Not only did the film do the original justice, it upstaged it.
16) Gimme Danger
This frank, hysterical documentary about Iggy Pop and The Stooges shows how a group of goofy misfits rattled the cages of 60’s music and created modern punk rock. Anyone who knows me knows of my unabashed love for Iggy. It has only grown after seeing this film.
15) Hail Caesar
Is it one of the weaker films in the Coen Bros. canon? Sure. But even a weaker Coen film is better than most typical films. This time the Coens go back down the “Barton Fink” territory with a classic Hollywood tale filtered through their classic zaniness. As always George Clooney and the Coens is a winning combo, and Channing Tatum’s suggestive dance number steals the movie.
14) Midnight Special
Any time a low budget film is able to connect with a mainstream audience in a truly potent way I always consider it a great success in the film industry. When it is a science fiction film, a genre recognized for considerably towering budgets, I call that an even more impressive achievement. This quirky sci-fi drama from director Jeff Nichols tells the story of a child with special powers who, along with his father (the always reliable Michael Shannon) is on the run from the government and an obsessive cult. Despite the shoestring funds, Nichols is smart enough to know the key to a successful science fiction picture is to hire actors who treat the material earnestly. Come for the fascinating premise, stay for the strong performances.
13) Hacksaw Ridge
Andrew Garfield was not an actor really on my radar as “the next big talent”, but between this war film from Mel Gibson and another entry later in the list, 2016 was a breakout year for him. This story of a Seventh Day Adventist who refuses to carry a gun into war and yet saved over 70 fellow troops is a brutal picture. However, it is alleviated by the beauty of the central story. tend to enjoy war movies as they can be an obvious showcase for drama, but it was a nice change of pace to view a war film about a hero who refuses to engaging in the warring himself.
Though I didn’t fall obsessively in love with this film as many others, that doesn’t subtract from the fact that Barry Jenkins crafted a powerful, well-executed film. The story of a young black youth coming to terms with his homosexuality during the War on Drugs was in danger of falling into melodrama. But the craftsmanship prevents this from being so, and the level of authenticity in this tale is bountiful.
11) Captain America: Civil War
Finally, they got Spider-man right on film. Not only did the wallcrawler’s cameo work wonders, but this “Avengers Lite” Marvel film that pitted Captain America and Iron Man at odds with one another did everything right where the other big comic face off film, “Batman v Superman”, completely fumbled.
It’s juvenile. It’s vulgar. It’s irreverent. And it all works to make one of the better comedies of the year and my favorite comic book film. I LOVED Civil War, but Deadpool outshines it slightly because no one believed the screen would do the character justice. Not only did they succeed, but this might be the best example of a comic book film giving its fans EXACTLY what they wanted. Reynolds is the only person born to play this role.
9) Train to Busan
Zombies on a train, what could not be awesome about that? While that’s already a blast of a premise, it’s made even better with frenetic direction and human characters you sincerely care for. The film gives precious little time for its audience to take a breath, and takes what some consider an over-exposed genre and does something fresh with it.
In a year where race was a hot topic, BRAVO to arisney for making the gutsiest, funniest and most poignant commentary on the topic with an animated film starring a bunny and a fox. I don’t know if any film shocked me as hard as this one this year with just how great of a picture it is.
7) Hell or High Water
A simple heist gone wrong film manages to be one of the year’s best because it is impeccably acted, directed, and paced. The western motif gives the sense of doom in this no man’s land further resonance, and it’s surprising this type of film, so common in the 60s and even before, is not seen nearly enough today.
6) Green Room
“Green Room” had one of the weirdest premises of any film this year: a punk band had to fight their way out of a club run by sadistic neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart. And yes, the film is as insane and delightful as it sounds. An ultra-violent but at times bitterly funny film, I loved that it consistently took paths contrary to where I suspected it was going. This was one of the last films featuring young acting talent Anton Yelchin, who passed away this year. While it is heartbreaking that he tragically passed, his quality work in this film did not go unnoticed.
5) The Nice Guys
The best comedy of the year? Yes, yes it is. After director Shane Black wrote and directed the hysterical Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer vehicle “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” several years ago, I was enthusiastic about his next original comedic work. This film detailing two private eyes (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) searching for a missing girl in the 70’s had me howling within 5 minutes of its start and held me until the conclusion. I never would have guessed that Crowe and Gosling would have such a high level of chemistry, but I could hear the two of them bicker while reciting Black’s dialogue for hours and never tire. While there is certainly some fun action in this film as well, I find myself excitedly waiting for the action to momentarily cease so I can once again hear the actors speak.
4) Rogue One
This “300 with TIE Fighters” side story in the Star Wars canon embraced its fandom and delivered the darkest chapter in the saga yet. However, this is also likely the best directed film in the series so far, and the Droid in this film owns C-3PO, BB-8, and R2-D2 so hard it’s not even funny.
3) Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck has been a stirring talent in film from the moment he first appeared in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (and superior to his brother Ben). But with his performance in this New England drama, he may finally nab himself an Oscar, and unquestionably it is richly deserved. The story of a Boston handy man who must return home to Manchester to tend to his late brother’s son sounds like a plot to a film that has been made and remade repeatedly. But the film shifts the entire tone of this type of movie with a heartbreaking tragic back story that frames the entire film differently. Much of Affleck’s genius in the film is how understated he can seem early in the film, which at first is off-putting, until you learn the painful journey the character endured before the events of the film. It’s a funny film, it’s a tearjerker, but above all else, it is a deeply human picture.
2) La La Land
This loving tribute to the classic age of American Musicals was a quirky follow-up to director Damien Chazelle’s terrific picture “Whiplash”, but wow did he reveal that his talents have even more depth than his debut work suggested. The opening sequence on the L.A. freeway in this film was the most impressive tracking shot I have seen in probably 10 years at least, and the choreography and staging throughout is bravura. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (in his second entry on this list) are able to portray the romantic pairing in the film in a manner that embodies the starry-eyed optimism of the musical in one scene, and yet can still organically transition into the realistic drama of modern film exhibited at other moments. There are no dead genres in film, there is just a need to try something different within that genre. Chazelle not only crafts a loving tribute to musicals but within that tribute creates a refreshing new take on it as well
One of these films is a bold, ambitious science-fiction epic. The other is a stirring religious epic that provokes endless questions about the nature of faith. The two things they both have in common? They both reveal the complexities inherent in the human experience, and are both my favorite films of the year. Try as I might, I simply could not narrow down one choice over another. “Arrival” blew me away. The story of a linguist (a stellar Amy Adams) attempting to communicate with an alien species that has landed on Earth succeeds in being a “thinking man’s science fiction film”. Dennis Villeneuve does not rush the narrative in this film, and the steady manner in which the film reveals the riches within rewards the viewer in an enormous fashion at the conclusion of the film. I will not make the mistake of giving it away, but suffice it to say the ending of the film is POWERFUL. The other film, “Silence” is the latest film from my favorite living director, the masterful Martin Scorsese. This was a passion project of Scorsese for 30 years, and not only did it finally find it’s way to the screen this year, but it might be the most challenging and thought provoking religious film released in America. The story tells of a pair of Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan to find a fellow priest who is reported to have fallen out of the faith. They are greeted by a society that is intensely harsh and unmerciful to the Christian faith, and the severity of the resistance creates a piercing internal struggle within the two priests (A fantastic Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). As always the direction and cinematography of this film is like a vibrant, lively painting, and I dare say there are shades of Kurosawa in the styling of the film. Both of these films will continue t provoke thought and discussion long after the credits roll, which is one of the clearest signs of a masterful film.
So there you have it folks. My picks for the best in film 2016 had to offer. Feel free to provide your own picks or let me know what I may have omitted. And if the list provokes you to track some of these titles down, let me know your thoughts after viewing!