With 2016 winding down—half of America wanting to forget the entire election cycle, most lamenting the year as the most trying in recent memory, everyone hoping no one influential dies in 2017—it is time to look at some things that were actually good during the last calendar year.
2016 felt like a typical, unsurprising year at the movies. The box office didn’t blow up with mega-hits like last year’s The Force Awakens or Jurassic Park. There were your standard issue blockbusters and flops. Some movies were great. Some movies were God awful. And most of them were woefully in-between in that grotesque nether-region that is mediocrity.
Here, I have outlined my top 15 movies of 2016. Keep in mind that this list does not include some key late-year releases that I have yet to see and review, including but not limited to Fences, Silence, and Jackie. It also does not include documentaries, even though the likes of Weiner, Tickled, O.J.: Made in America, and 13th would all be strong contenders.
If you wish, click on the green titles to read the full review.
Nicolas Winding Refn continues his divisive oeuvre with this Summer’s soft release The Neon Demon. While it might not feel it, the film is more accessible than his 2013 film Only God Forgives. This grotesque tale of the cutthroat L.A. fashion scene brings Refn’s usual brand of hyperviolence and sleek visual style. The themes of consumption and the superficiality of beauty are on the nose, and the story itself is rather bare. Still, the film presents a Refn film for Refn fans, one that exploits the boundary between beauty and ugliness with surprising clarity.
Captain Fantastic is an indie about a beatnik family raised by a single father (Viggo Mortensen) in the woods. This strange conceit breeds a film about the power of family. Mortensen rounds out the cast with a phenomenal performance, but also notable are the strong performances from the young actors in the film. The film lags at points, but the overall story of familial perseverance is told in a novel way that is thematically fascinating.
15. The Invitation
As much as I believed this film was released in 2015 when I watched it on Netflix early this year, apparently its U.S. release date was April 2016. This slow burn, close-quarters thriller takes one simple narrative question and milks it for maximum suspense. An uneasy dinner party becomes more and more macabre as the possible occult connections of some of the members are revealed. The film’s decision to focus on one man’s untrustworthy opinion makes the experience more frustrating for the viewer, who sympathizes with the character’s plight even if they doubt his judgment.
Who would have guessed that a live action Disney adaptation presented almost entirely with CGI would be a smashing success. CGI-phobia is a rampant ailment that has continued strong ever since George Lucas bastardized his own franchise with a bluescreen mess, and, for the most part, it is a valid concern. Yet, Jon Favreau’s film is lush and alive in spite of its lack of life. The Jungle Book is a film for the modern child’s sensibilities, and it achieves this without sacrificing cinematic quality.
The farting corpse movie of 2016. Is it a childish comedy? No, it is a light dramedy that meditates on the nature of love and humanity. And Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse in it. Swiss Army Man is a surprise indie gem that takes a ludicrous premise and runs with it to create something genuine and heartfelt. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe both give grade-A performances that elevate this film from being merely farcical.
Superhero movies: some people love them, most people can take them or leave them. However, anyone who claims that superhero movies are all the same need only look as far as Deadpool to be proven wrong. Ryan Reynolds takes the unconventional, fourth-wall-breaking comic book character and translates him to the screen as seamlessly as anyone could imagine. The crass Marvel comedy is essentially a perverse X-Men film, but it plays just as strongly as a romance as it does a juvenile gag-fest. The blending of tone and smart meta-textual humor makes Deadpool one of the better superhero movies in this modern wave of the genre.
2016 was a good year for major release animation. Finding Dory had nostalgia value that mostly worked. Kubo and the Two Strings brought a fantastically heartwarming story of family wrapped in beautiful animation. Surprise hit Zootopia was a smart and satisfying morality tale. But Moana is the film that made the best of all of its parts. The film takes stellar Disney animation, less-represented film characters, and great music and creates a vibrant experience out of it. The story may be nothing new from the likes of Disney, but that doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.
Both Nocturnal Animals and Arrival are 2016 films that are visually eye-grabbing and narratively problematic. What edges Animals over Arrival is production design and acting performance. Tom Ford brings a duality to the two narrative through-lines with differing visual looks, and both looks are perfect for what is depicted. Acting is what saves the narrative of the film from falling flat into the pitfalls of its overt and superficial themes. Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make for a great ensemble cast that make the entire film experience compelling.
Shane Black’s writing remains stuck in 1980s buddy-cop formula, and it is awesome. The Nice Guys could have come across tired and done before, but Black’s vigor for the setting and subject matter made it feel refreshing in spite of its conventions. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a dynamite pair, and the young Angourie Rice rounds out the ensemble with an equally strong performance. Slept-on as the film was when it debuted in May, The Nice Guys is an action comedy worth the price of admission.
Yorgos Lanthimos is known for many things, and accessibility is certainly not one of them. From the unconventional Alps to the unconventional Dogtooth now to the unconventional The Lobster, he has made a career out of the awkwardly absurd. In The Lobster, lonely people attend a resort in which they have a month to find their perfect mate, or else be turned into an animal of their choosing. The film is littered with visual oddities and stilted dialogue that contribute to its off-kilter world. It is satirical, awkward, and at times disturbing, which all allow Lanthimos’ latest to be a gleefully absurd take on modern love.
Mel Gibson’s latest is a WWII biopic of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an enlistee whose pacifism threatens to not only remove him from active duty but put him in prison as well. The film plays in two distinct halves in the same fashion as Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. We meet Doss and watch him maneuver his way through an unironically cute romance subplot, then we follow him to bootcamp. This first half feels on the longer side, but this is before we are given the lengthy war sequences in the second half. The film is overlong, there is no doubt about it. But the intense attention to direction and editing makes Hacksaw Ridge truly intense, even when the endgame is a known story.
Perhaps 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that used a known movie brand name to prevent itself from being stranded a few pages down on Netflix’s thriller library. It is a boilerplate psychological thriller in the low-budget “bottle episode” formula. But 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the better bottle narrative thrillers out there. The unknown of Michelle’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) situation is fascinating, and the way information unravels keeps the tension at a fever pitch until the climax. The climax itself diffuses this tension in a negative way, which raises the argument that the film would have been better without the Cloverfield namesake. Still, you cannot beat that acting triumvirate.
The horror movie of 2016 is definitively The Witch. Not Blair Witch. The Witch. The beautiful visual compositions and deliberate camera movements feel very against type of what the modern commercial horror movie is, and that is necessary and refreshing. The period acting, surprisingly, works really well. The entire film is steeped in slow-burn dread that is impossible to shake. People get disappointed these days when horror is not in your face, a reaction I have seen first hand, but in-your-face horror loses true suspense and dread by being such. The Witch plays against type in this way as well, and it does so perfectly.
Damien Chazelle is Hollywood’s new favorite director. Hopefully the city does not pervert his passion for the craft. In particular, his passion for music has carried over both of his features. Whiplash is easily a top three film of 2014, and La La Land puts a similar artistic drive into the narrative to create a musical that feels both classical and modern at the same time. The production and sound design is beautiful. Emma Stone provides a grade-A performance. The deeply staged choreography is light and vibrant and fun. La La Land is the feel-good film of the film, and it provides much more good than bad.
Hell or High Water is a simple Western executed equally and beautifully simple. What makes the film narratively exciting is the four characters that we follow. Each of the four are complex, yet the film does not dwell too much on their backstories. The four actors breathe full life into the characters, making the world they live in feel impactful and real. The film looks crisp, and it is entertaining throughout even with its simple cat-mouse narrative. If I had not seen the film a week before I started rating films on a graded scale, I would have given Hell or High Water a strong A.
The character study that is Manchester by the Sea is fascinating. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of the stoic Bostonian Lee Chandler makes the film. His character is the tone of the film, and that tone is a perfect balance of drama and gruff humor. The world of Manchester by the Sea feels real and human, mostly due to Affleck and Lucas Hedges having excellent chemistry. Manchester by the Sea seems to be a meditative movie, but the real crux of it is much simpler than meditation warrants. The meditative feel serves more as a means of creating a look at the human condition that is both recognizable and uniquely presented.
Barry Jenkins made a masterpiece with Moonlight. Aside from some dwelling imagery and the loss of cohesion in the immediate cuts between the narrative fragments, the film is fantastic. A tense, emotionally full narrative is held up by brilliant direction and phenomenal acting. Mahershala Ali deserves an Oscar. Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland, and the three actors who portray Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) create the best ensemble cast of 2016, bar none. If you allow me the lamest pun of 2016: Moonlight shines.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)