Every year, I swear I won’t delay this article and every year, that’s exactly what happens. The thing is that going through all the notable films released in a year takes a certain amount of time. Truth be told, you’ll never be one hundred percent done.
But after sorting through the Most Disappointing Films of 2016 and more bluntly, the Worst Films of 2016, I can finally turn my gaze on something more positive. And much like years past, I guess 2016 wasn’t such a lousy year for film after all. So without any further hesitation, I present the Best Films of 2016!
20. BORN TO BE BLUE – Ethan Hawke has been a presence in American film for so long, it’s staggering how many stages he’s gone through. There was that danger period as he started tackling more adult roles when we weren’t sure if he’d be up to the task. He was, and has kept growing as an actor. BORN TO BE BLUE cast Hawke as the legendarily talented and troubled jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker. It is one of his best performances yet.
Shortly after the film opens, Baker is still known but his glory days seem to be behind him and his heroin addiction is getting worse. After a brutal assault, he is left unable to play the trumpet. During the period in which the film takes place, Baker tries to train himself from scratch as he recovers, spitting out blood after every effort. He tries to dry out and build a life with his girlfriend, knowing that life without the music is meaningless and the music doesn’t come without temptation. Writer-director Robert Budreau gleefully plays fast and loose with the truth here. But in a year where he had several musical biopics with their own dose of fiction (MILES AHEAD for example), BORN TO BE BLUE clicks like those films didn’t. It really gets into the soul of a man torn by his love for a woman, his love for music, his love of the spotlight and his love for junk.
19. CERTAIN WOMEN – Anthologies are typically hit and miss affairs. But with CERTAIN WOMEN, we have a persistence of vision that unites all the characters, even if they exist in three separate storylines. A lawyer (Laura Dern) tries to deal with a despondent client. A successful woman (Michelle Williams) deals with the telltale rifts between her husband and daughter as she attempts to secure a cache of limestone for their home. A rancher (Lily Gladstone) goes out of her way to get close to a young woman (Kristen Stewart) who has begun teaching at the local school. These are the three ordinary Middle American women that make CERTAIN WOMEN extraordinary.
Every performance in this film is a winner, but don’t look for any bombastic scenery chewing. Each woman in this film goes through her day with quiet but persistent determination and that’s what you get here. Adapting Maile Meloy’s short stories, Kelly Reichardt has created one of the most subtle and satisfying anthologies I have seen in some time. CERTAIN WOMEN is one of those films that’s hard to shake once it’s over.
18. MOONLIGHT – Barry Jenkins’ unique coming of age story was so much more than any of us were expecting. Chiron struggles living in poverty, amidst a high crime neighborhood, with an abusive, drug-addicted mother. We follow him through three different phases of his life, each version of the character portrayed by a different actor. From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, he will gain knowledge from an unorthodox surrogate family while struggling with the violence of his peers and his own emerging homosexuality. Intriguingly, MOONLIGHT demonstrates how in order to have status in the slums of America, Chiron feels he must put on a front of assertiveness and machismo, hiding his shy and timid nature.
Jenkins explores how image and toxic masculinity play a role in how we interact with the world. He brings a quiet intimacy even seasoned filmmakers are unable to pull off. The acting performances are all stellar, with Mahershala Ali standing out in particular.
17. GREEN ROOM – When a struggling punk band finds themselves playing to a club full of white nationalists, they taunt them with a rendition of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It’s a truly punk move if there ever was one, even if it isn’t a particularly smart one. Things get ratcheted up when they witness a murder and the club owners inform them they will not be allowed to leave. It’s a “trapped in the house” film along the same lines as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, only GREEN ROOM is far more vicious and the monsters are all too real.
When this film was being shot, white nationalism was rightfully marginalized to the extreme fringe. When it was released, it was gaining a platform on the national stage. Today, we can’t go about our day without hearing about white supremacists carrying out attacks, either verbal, psychological or physical, because they feel legitimized by recent events. Jeremy Saulnier has made a riveting, tight movie and it’s very hard to calm down once it’s over. His depiction of this gigging band, so true to their calling they don’t have a social media presence, feels completely authentic. Patrick Stewart’s villainous turn is so chilling precisely because it is so subdued. Finally, GREEN ROOM is also a testament to the talent of the late Anton Yelchin.
To hear a more spirited discussion on GREEN ROOM, check out this episode of Astro Radio Z.
16. THE WITCH – Catching a lot of people off guard was this horror film – sorry, “New England Folk Tale” – that reminds us there is more to the genre than what we’ve been getting. THE WITCH finds a zealous evangelist exiled from his Puritan community and forced to live off the land. Soon the land itself seems to shun his family and a sinister force in the woods works its magic against them. Allowing their worst human instincts to take over, the family turns on one another and discovers something hidden within themselves.
THE WITCH’s Old English dialogue, subtle tone and slow pace makes it not a film for the casual viewer. It examines religious extremism in a way that seems fresh, even if the story is quite traditional in its narrative tone. On a purely artistic level, it’s one of the year’s finest achievements.
Hear more about what I thought about THE WITCH by checking out my episode of Reaction Shots.
15. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – When his brother passes away, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has to return to his old hometown, where he is expected to become his nephew’s guardian. He’s not a particularly good role model, despite his best intentions. Everyone in town looks at him as if he’s a ghost, which in a sense he is. Each moment he spends there pains him and as we learn, this is a man whose life was permanently altered by tragedy.
After enduring post-productions struggles with his previous film, MARGARET, Kenneth Lonergan bounces back with this excruciatingly poignant story of a man whose own grief and self-loathing have altered him. Every time someone asked me about this film, my response was the same, “MANCHESTER BY THE SEA? Man, that film is rough.” It doesn’t need raw outbursts because the whole film feels raw. Affleck received a lot of praise, culminating with the Best Actor Oscar, but this is merely the latest in a long line of extraordinary performances. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a slow and often painful experience.
14. ARRIVAL – When my showing of ARRIVAL ended, a loud and obnoxious person wanted the whole world to know the film didn’t meet with his approval. “That was bullshit,” he yelled in a comic yet dangerous-sounding Southern drawl, “There weren’t hardly any guns. They didn’t even fight!” Yes, I’m afraid if you’re looking for yet another alien invasion movie like you’ve seen many times before, you should stick with INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. ARRIVAL instead focuses on the importance of something my loud fellow movie watcher has discounted a long time ago: communication.
As our main characters use all their scientific knowledge to communicate with these strange extraterrestrial visitors, they know that anything they get wrong could have grave consequences for themselves and the world. But an even greater danger is the one posed by humans who allow themselves to be consumed by fear, paranoia, blind nationalism and hatred. Denis Villeneuve directed the hell out of this movie, giving each moment a perfect visual mise–en–scène. It’s about the need for people to listen to one another and the preciousness of each living moment.
13. DEMOLITION – Everyone mourns in different ways. We never know how we’ll react to the sudden loss of a loved one until we are faced with it. Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes into a tailspin, alienating his grief-stricken in-laws. He only finds comfort in destruction that ranges from the casual to the methodical and in the relationship that develops first with a customer service representative (Naomi Watts) and then her troubled son (Judah Lewis).
Jean-Marc Vallee follows up DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD with his third winner in a row. Shame it got absolutely buried thanks to lackluster reviews and the problems that coincide with multi-platform releases. Gyllenhaal impresses yet again as a man who realizes he has lost his wife twice, ultimately by death but originally by not being an attentive husband. Everything about this film is unconventional, but can we really say any of it is wrong? DEMOLITION doesn’t always seem like it takes place in the real world, but that doesn’t make it any less darkly comic or moving.
12. THE LITTLE PRINCE – A little girl (Mackenzie Foy) whose entire life is planned out for her befriends her elderly neighbor (Jeff Bridges) who tells her magical stories of a boy from a tiny planet and of all the adventures he had. This is certainly an unusual retelling of the classic story. But don’t worry there are plenty of elements from the original tale as well. The Prince, the Aviator, the Rose, the Fox – all mixed into a new telling that mixes things up and gives it a new sense of relevance. While the little girl’s story is told in CG, the Little Prince’s adventures are related through stop-motion, usually with paper models. It’s a wonderful and whimsical film that tells us it’s okay to grow up, as long as you don’t forget the innocence and joy of childhood.
In a year full of great animated features, THE LITTLE PRINCE was the best. It certainly deserved a better fate than what it got. It was supposed to have received a big summer release from Paramount. But at the last minute, the studio got skittish (Gotta make room for that BEN-HUR remake I suppose.) and dumped it onto Netflix. It would have been nice to see this visually stunning film projected onto giant screens, but oh well. Most of the country seems to watch their films via Netflix anyway and this is one that should not be missed.
11. THE NICE GUYS – Years ago, buddy pictures were all the rage. It became such a cliché that you could usually count on a couple every month. And then, somehow they disappeared and we didn’t notice until we realized how much we missed them.
THE NICE GUYS comes to us from Shane Black, who is partially responsible for the buddy picture’s zenith with LETHAL WEAPON and THE LAST BOY SCOUT. Black takes the genre he made his bones in, and twists it into a quirky dark comedy, where winking catch phrases take a back seat to strange motivations and human frailty. Much like his thematically similar KISS KISS BANG BANG, he does go one step too far in the narrative for my liking. There’s a point from which the film never fully recovers. Thankfully, there’s so much else to love. The recreation of the 1970s is there for more than just a nostalgic glow, although it does that amicably as well. It’s hard to imagine Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe could be any better together. Angourie Rice is a young actress worth watching out for.
10. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS – Susan (Amy Adams) is a successful woman in the New York art scene and she could scarcely feel emptier. She has an unfaithful husband and a daughter with her own life to live. One day, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom Susan left emotionally destroyed years before. The novel is a dark, violent tale about a man who loses everything and the lengths he will go to in order to avenge himself on the people responsible. It is impossible for Susan to not see parallels to their own relationship. As she becomes more and more consumed with the story, feelings of remorse, longing and fear begin to overwhelm her.
Tom Ford’s film is an exquisitely composed story about pain, guilt, loss and regret. It’s about how darkness can be either violent or mundane. It’s a subtle, psychological film with layers upon layers upon layers. Like Susan’s art, each shot is framed as if it could be hung in a gallery itself. The ensemble is one of the year’s best.
9. PATERSON – Adam Driver has been everywhere since he became the Baby Trump of the Cosmos in THE FORCE AWAKENS. But nothing has compared to his title role in PATERSON. Driver plays a bus driver who shares a name with his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Every day, he goes through his routine. He divides his time between his route, his home life and the bar where he talks with the locals. He meditates during his long walks around town and transforms his daily observations into a collection of poems. Meanwhile, his beloved and supportive wife tries to fulfill her own artistic aspirations.
Much like in BROKEN FLOWERS and DOWN BY LAW, Jarmusch champions the little interactions people have with one another. These interactions make up the day and looked at from a distance, they form the meaning of our lives. PATERSON is subtle, sweet, humorous and never dull. It’s classic Jarmusch.
8. MR. RIGHT – Much like the heroine of so many other romantic comedies, Martha (Anna Kendrick) finds herself suddenly single after discovering her boyfriend is a no good cheat. And also just like so many other romantic comedies, she meets a mysterious stranger (Sam Rockwell) with whom she hits it off. Turns out he’s a hitman, but not just any hitman. He’s a killer with a conscience who instead has been murdering the people who hire him. And of course she gets caught up in this whole mess, in which crime bosses and law enforcement are on the hunt for them both, forcing them to fight their way out.
If you would have told me that a film with the plot I just described would turn out to be good fun, I might believe you. After all, I still enjoy films where I can just kick back and have a few chuckles. But if you were to tell me it would be one of the most consistently funny and entertaining films of the year, I would have all sorts of questions. But oddly enough, MR. RIGHT really got me. Max Landis, who uses some elements of his earlier script AMERICAN ULTRA, makes everything work here. Instead of imitating other romantic antiheroes, Sam Rockwell imbues his character with his own unique charm. People generally love Anna Kendrick, even if her films don’t always work. This is probably her best comedic performance to date. A welcome and unlikely romantic comedy, MR. RIGHT is nonstop fun.
7. BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK – In a heated battle during the Iraq War, Billy Lynn is caught on video in an act of selfless heroism. His platoon is brought home for a victory tour, complete with an appearance during the halftime show at a Dallas football game. Yet even after months of combat and the surrealism of fame, Lynn still feels like a clueless kid. In the meantime, Billy is getting to know his family again, including his suffering sister (Kirsten Stewart), who doesn’t want her brother to go back to the Middle East.
Ang Lee’s latest film was met with bewilderment, in part because of the odd experimentation that went along with it. Although it’s not a particularly effects heavy film, Lee insisted on shooting BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK in 4K high-definition 3-D, at 120 frames per second, the highest ever committed to film and the limits to what the naked eye can perceive. Some critics embraced this new, enhanced, experimental filmmaking while others left feeling nauseous, their heads pounding as much from confusion as information overload.
For the record, I have only seen the film in standard 2D at good old trusty 24fps. A visual impairment prevents me from seeing 3-D and high frame rates are problematic as well. But even if I would have been able to see BILLY LYNN with all the trimmings, I’m glad I didn’t. Too much flash distracts from the main attraction – the story. If you can remove all the trickery, this is Ang Lee’s most successful film in a long time. It’s a multi-layered film about a young man’s journey and a world who suddenly sees him both as a symbol and as an avatar for their own sometimes misguided feelings about American heroism. It was trampled when it was released to theaters but hopefully in a few years, with all the hype put aside, people will recognize this for the powerful film it is.
6. ANESTHESIA – People from various walks of life go through interpersonal turmoil in the days leading up to a senseless street mugging. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And yes, ensemble dramas like this have been done before, but few have been done with such poignancy. Tim Blake Nelson gathers a fantastic ensemble and explores the connections we all share in a heartfelt, thought-provoking manner.
I’d talk about it more, but I already have. If you want to hear more of what I thought, check out my episode of Reaction Shots. .
5. GHOSTBUSTERS – Confession time: I didn’t think the new GHOSTBUSTERS would be for me. I always knew the 1984 film would be rebooted eventually, no matter what anyone said, and my childhood wasn’t threatened when they decided to go ahead with it. And no, I was not alienated or horrified when they decided on an all-female cast. In fact, women-heavy ensembles are something we could use a lot more of. No, I just had never been a big fan of Melissa McCarthy or Kristin Wiig. Their humor never clicked with me. As for Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, I had no opinion since I hadn’t kept up on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (Did I mention I have a hard time staying current?). I figured the new film would be enjoyed by a certain number of people, but I probably wouldn’t be one of them.
Imagine my surprise when I laughed out loud at least three times before the title even came on screen. This is one of the only 2016 films I voluntarily saw multiple times in the theater. It was an instant pick-me-up during some otherwise dark times. The cast interacts with each other flawlessly and I admire what each of the quarter brings to the film (Okay, if pressed, I love McKinnon’s Holtzmann the most). Chris Hemsworth stretches his comedic chops in a role you just know he loved. Ivan Reitman’s film was never in danger of being forgotten, but this film shouldn’t be either. As its own big-budget comedy extravaganza, it’s a wonderful achievement.
I would recommend however that everyone sticks with the theatrical and not the longer, extended version. Trust me, the shorter cut has improved pacing and the jokes land better.
4. HELL OR HIGH WATER – If there’s one type of film I’m sick and tired of, it’s the crime movie. Specifically, I’m sick of the movies about rising crime lords or the reformed criminal who just wants to make one last score. It’s not that I dislike these types of films, those plot descriptions could be used to describe a good number of classics. It’s that I feel that whatever could have been said has been said. I’ve seen it all before and I don’t need to see it again. Films about up and coming bank robbers often fit under this same category.
Which is why HELL OR HIGH WATER is so miraculous. It takes what should have been a tired old formula and breathes new life into it. Loyalty to family and personal responsibility are woven into the narrative so organically that they become life or death issues rather than tired clichés. It shines a light on a neglected portion of society, exposing the ludicrousness of our economic policies and the desperate lengths people will go for some sense of security. Ben Foster shines in his role and Chris Pine is a revelation. More challenging roles like this for Pine, please.
3. THE NEON DEMON – An underage girl (Elle Fanning) comes to Los Angeles to become a model. She quickly becomes a darling of the industry as forces around her rob her of her humanity and try to feed off of her very being.
THE NEON DEMON doesn’t really give us a plot we haven’t seen before. This is true of a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. But with Refn, it’s usually not the story that’s different, it’s how the story is told. It is in this arena that he shines. A man who owes as much to the grindhouse as he does the arthouse, Refn is one of the best visual storytellers to emerge this century. He further subverts any ideas we may have on the storyline by going further than we think any sane filmmaker might. The result is one of the most beautiful, tragic and disturbing films of the year. This is a film that really creeps under your skin.
2. LA LA LAND – I am now filled with so many emotions writing about this film. It has gone through a period of high praise and then a seemingly equal backlash. More than once I have had to defend my love for this film which seemingly was on its way to becoming a timeless classic. But make no mistake. The naysayers will fall away in time and LA LA LAND’s reputation as a beautiful piece of filmmaking will remain.
From the opening musical number on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway, Damien Chazelle juxtaposes sing-song fantasy with brutal reality. This isn’t just a story about two dreamers who fall in love like so many old Hollywood musicals. It’s the story of how love affairs like that offer fleeting moments of joy before the world steps in to remind you it won’t accommodate your ideals.
Emma Stone is absolutely perfect as Mia. Her wide-eyed dreams and her growing disillusionment never feel forced. The breakdown she experiences after her stage show (“I can’t pay back the theatre.”) is on in every way – rushed and rash, but full of built-up frustrations and dashed hopes. And then her triumphant monologue/song for the audition, proving that dreams die hard. It is impossible for me to see this scene and not well up.
Gosling is also great though it’s startling how many writers have missed the point of his character, Sebastian. Yes, he’s a man of conviction, but also pigheaded stubbornness. Just because we have two leads doesn’t mean those characters are always correct and Sebastian is wrong more than not, something that is confirmed in the final moments of the film.
And through this bittersweet tale, Chazelle dazzles us with beautiful musical numbers, as the Technicolor Cinemascope releases us periodically from the sun and smog. The musical cues, often the same ones, are given new context as we grow with the characters. Haters be damned, LA LA LAND is a wonderful motion picture, one that deserves to be remembered for decades to come.
1. JACKIE – Everyone is eager to hoist up one film or another and give the clichéd pronouncement, “This is the movie America needs right now.” They want that movie to be inspirational, funny or hopeful. But these are not inspirational, funny or hopeful times. To that end, JACKIE really is the movie America needs right now and the reflective horror it deserves.
JACKIE is the story of a nation in mourning, coming so close to achieving its wildest dreams for its people, only to see that promise cut down by hatred, bigotry and a moment of callous destruction. We see this all through the eyes of America’s First Widow, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), a woman who was always celebrated for her poise and grace even if the forces of greed couldn’t wait to see her fall. We see her going through the moments following her husband’s assassination in a state of shock. In every moment, every meeting, every interaction, there are a barrage of emotions under the surface. She is heartbroken, she is terrified, she is uncertain of what kind of future awaits her or her family. And we are there with her, and can’t help feeling her pain. But at the same time we admire her dignity and her daring, not because she isn’t breaking inside. We admire her because she is breaking inside, as we all are, but dammit, we can’t let those who would delight in our defeat win.
Pablo Larraín has been an effective yet problematic director before. Here, everything is perfect. Through his camera, we seem to be following Jackie Kennedy in a shell shocked daze, shadowing her every move like someone bearing witness. Shot on 16mm in 1.66 aspect ratio, the screen is thin and the lighting is perfectly intimate, as if we’re looking through a veil. Jackie is often put in the center of the frame, sometimes staring right into the audience, into us. All the physical boundaries have been stripped away. When in conversation or confession, the close-ups are very close indeed. The entire film is uncomfortable, as you experience this surreal nightmare with her.
Natalie Portman is incredible, turning in another performance that can be mentioned proudly with her other achievements. As we follow her through the famous televised White House tour, she seems forced and scripted, because she is. As we see her in the moments following November 22, 1963, she is far more damaged. With every passing minute of this film, the intensity increases – not intensity like one would expect from a thriller, but emotional intensity. Everything is too real, too horrible. The film is so relentlessly effective, it becomes almost unbearable.
JACKIE was made to reflect a turbulent time in the life of the White House’s most enigmatic non-political resident. It was not meant to be the face we see in the mirror. But it is, it is. I watched this film, emitting only short gasps, my hand over my mouth, tears pouring out of my eyes. I was the youngest person in the theater by at least twenty years. Around me, I heard nothing but solemn silence and occasionally, heartfelt sobbing. I was watching JACKIE, they were remembering Jackie. It has been months since that showing and not a day has gone by when I haven’t reflected on JACKIE’s intense pain and beauty. It is an astonishing film.