If you follow me on social media or read my writing then you probably know my tastes in film, and as such, my Top 10 shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is surprising, or at least interesting, is that in putting this list together I realized that each of these films encompass who I was this year. These are stories of grief, of hope, of trying to find sense in a currently nonsensical world, and each ultimately stories that display a commitment to life, as messy as it may sometimes be. Of all the top 10 lists I’ve made, I’m not sure I’ve managed to get one that so completely defined who I am as a film lover and as a person until this year. Here are my Top 10 films of 2016.
10. The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s tricks of the trade have become familiar territory by now. We always have some idea of what to expect when it comes to his odd-couple, buddy cop yarns set during the most spirited of seasons. Yet, despite that factor, The Nice Guys is no less engaging, surprising, or skillfully crafted than if this were the first time we were hearing Black’s voice. While Black knows that certain expectations rest on his name, he refuses to rest on them. It’s in The Nice Guys that we see the years of developed skill on both high-profile blockbusters and smaller, cult films at work. Shane Black is only getting better at making movies, and while his name may not bring in the box office numbers of some of his peers, his voice is no less essential to film. This is a film with energy, a neon colored coke high that’s propelled by its mixture of crime subgenres and the bombastic performances of leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The mystery, centered around a missing girl, a dead porn star, and the automobile industry is just as expectedly messy as something we’d see in a Chandler novel, only with more edginess and shock value in Black’s hand. While the mystery has pointed political relevancy once solved, it’s the characters on the case who pull us into the movie. Crowe’s Jackson Healy and Gosling’s Holland March are damaged humans, and the case they find themselves mixed up in ultimately isn’t about saving L.A. or the country (despite the stakes that point to that), but saving themselves. The Nice Guys holds the promise of individual happiness in an unhappy world and self-worth through the meaningless struggle to fight against inevitability and a changing world. Wrapped up in a complex LA neo-noir plot, The Nice Guys is a deeply felt, and deeply funny, character study that promises nothing less than fulfillment in the aftermath of failure.
9. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier delivers the same authenticity he found in Blue Ruin for his concentrated and deeply discomforting story of a punk rock band forced to fight for their lives against a small army of skinheads. Within the confines of a secluded bar in the middle of the woods, we find chaos as the descendants of two groups made to push back against the changing world (punk-rockers and Nazis) clash, and encounter a desert island of the human spirit. Saulnier uses the film’s visceral violence and the characters’ struggle to survive as an exploration of the nihilistic soul of modern American culture. Punk rock doesn’t just play into the sound and aesthetic of the film but works within its thematic foundation, as the film uses punk music to explore displacement, isolation, and imitation. Patrick Stewart’s Neo-Nazi leader, Darcy, is the Iggy Pop of his world, an originator and icon of his specialized depravity. His young followers have become more chaotic, more disruptive, and unorganized in comparison to the traditions Darcy founded. They are punks without a sense of purpose or commitment beyond labels. These young Neo-Nazis are ultimately not so different from the Ain’t Rights, who as exemplified in a tremendous performance by the late Anton Yelchin, are on their own quest for purpose within the country’s changing landscape. Imogen Poot’s Amber is on her own quest as she plays witness to the struggle and a discordant voice of honesty in the other characters’ search for meaning and honor in violence. By Green Room’s end, neither music nor violence can hold the world together, and in the ruins of the things that our characters believed gave them purpose and identity, we’re left with a state of anarchy that our characters could previously only imitate.
8. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice-Ultimate Edition
There’s nothing gentle about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Zack Snyder’s film is one that refuses to tone down its lofty thematics and refuses to play its absurd moments for winks. It takes fan and non-fan alike and hurls them head first into what comic books actually are: a collision of the facts and ideas that make up the very bones of storytelling, and the inherent but rarely acknowledged silliness that comes from watching grown men in costumes face pseudo-science and existential identity crises. In Batman v Superman, everything here is presented on a ceremonial pedestal, and why shouldn’t it be when comic book adaptations dominate our news, social media, and pop-cultural atmosphere? Batman v Superman, offers an introspective look at some of the world’s most popular characters, making them matter in today’s socio-political climate, and making them feel like actual human beings with hopes, flaws, and existential considerations. This is The Last Temptation of Christ by way of DC Comics. This is a comic book movie by a director who refuses to just aim for “fun” and be done. Snyder makes it clear that if these heroes and villains are to matter, if they’re going to fill up our news feeds and studio release slates, then they’ve got to be challenged. They’ve got to be retrofitted within the context of a world where guns are problematic symbols of power, immigrants are feared and hated, and the media does make monsters for ratings. Snyder doesn’t change these characters; he simply understands comic book history better than most directors (and most viewers), and chose which elements would mean the most in our currently shifting world. The film leaves us on a note of hope and inspiration, something that had to be worked for, thought about, and earned the hard way by the heroes central to the film. No, Batman v Superman may not be gentle but in its invitation to work through it, to think about it beyond the theater doors and echo-chamber of social media, it provides one of the most satisfying experiences of the year, and hope for the future of the comic book movie.
7. The Invitation
Karyn Kusama invites us into the world of this film with a mercy killing, an act that sets the tone and theme for the rest of the film that follows. The Invitation begins as a tense bottle drama as Will and his girlfriend attend a party at his ex-wife’s house. As the intentions of the party become clear, the film becomes a full on horror movie that uses friendship, desire, and grief against each of the attendees. Much of the tension and resulting horror is achieved through Kusama’s deliberate use of space. The exterior of the house looks large and spacious, but inside Kusama controls the setting, making it feel tight as she pushes the camera in on character’s faces, and positions them next to walls and doors, constantly making it feel as if the environment is closing in around these characters. The layout of the house becomes deliberately confusing, with too many long hallways, too many doors to keep track of the exits, and the possibilities lurking in the shadows. Logan Marshall-Green’s paranoid performance as Will is one of the strongest of the year, as it constantly leads the viewer to question the veracity of what we encounter but is also one filled with raw emotional hurt over the loss of his child. Will turns every interaction with old-friends into an awkward encounter with a stranger, a constant source of discomfort within the forced comfort of the softly lamp-lit house, until we have no idea who any of these people really are. During the second half of the film, a game of “I Want” becomes the film’s standout scene as it reveals the secret tragedy of each guest and makes every tense allegiance all the more fragile. Once the ultimate secret is revealed, and Kusama takes us all into full on panic mode, she delivers the most staggering ending of the year. By then it’s all clear, The Invitation is full on emotional assault.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short “Story of Your Life,” is a delicate balance of ideas and sentiments for a world currently teetering due to its communication failures. Complicated human emotions, a dense study of language and thought, and blockbuster-level effects coalesce to become indispensable elements of a science-fiction film we’re desperately in need of at this moment. As we witness a small group of scientists and military personal attempt to communicate with recently landed aliens in an attempt to discover their intentions, Villeneuve lingers on notions of how learning another’s language is to also learn their thought process. He, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, and editor Joe Walker carefully construct the path for a surprising, and haunting ending early in the film. And they do this with a quiet dignity and refusal to cater to the kinds of action beats, set-pieces, and reveals that we normally encounter in alien arrival films. Villeneuve treats semantics the same way some alien arrival films treat explosions and space battles, thus tempting audience members to find the same kind of excitement in seeing metaphorical bridges built as we do in seeing literal ones destroyed in so many other films. A large part of what makes Arrival work also resides in an incredible, and haunting performance from Amy Adams, who has the greatest effect on the film with quiet moments. She becomes our emotional anchor in a film driven by science and grand ideas, reminding us that the greatest strength of human is a willingness to learn, embrace change, and ultimately embrace life. Arrival is an immigrant song, but also a call for acceptance, and reminder that the greatest gifts lie in our ability to peacefully communicate. There could not be a more profound and necessary catharsis for our post-election crisis than a film that understands humanity’s greatness in possibility, the tragedy of our limitations, and the needful hope for our continued existence.
5. La La Land
More than a simple throwback to the grand Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a film focused on compromise under the bright lights of success. Falling far closer to Whiplash than Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land’s examination of fame and greatness is at times heartbreaking, it’s message sometimes clashing against the bright visual palate and musical numbers of the film. It works as both fanciful tribute and realist warning to those chasing the Hollywood dream. Through its blending of styles and intentions, La La Land effectively becomes a jazz film through which Chazelle risks displaying his own successes and frustrations within the context of a musical. While it’s easy to become distracted by La La Land’s surface level aspects, its production design and musical numbers, which range from lovely to exceptional, the film is communicating a necessary mixed message of Hollywood. To position the film simply as a feel-good romp, or attempt at reviving Hollywood classicism is to do the film a disservice. Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s respective performances as Sebastian and Mia are defined by a naturalism we rarely see in musicals. It’s clear that they aren’t stage stars stepping onto the big-screen, and as a result their emotions ground the film, even amidst the dancing and singing. While a frequent criticism of filmic musicals is the spontaneity of characters bursting into song, without the benefit of being live, there’s nothing spontaneous about La La Land. Every beautiful melody from Justin Hurwitz’s haunting and lively score is steadily built, every decision Mia and Sebastian make is carefully considered and weighed. And Chazelle doesn’t simply settle for letting the singing and dancing do their work against an artful production design, he directs the hell out of it. With attention to shot composition, framing, and a balance between image and meaning, Chazelle aims beyond the simple movie musical for something that is artful in its technical skill. For all of its hat tips to another era, few films felt more modern this year than La La Land.
4. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused brings all the best parts of college to the screen in what is truly, and without hyperbole, the feel-good film of the year. Everybody Wants Some!! is about appreciating the moment you’re in, but ironically Linklater creates a world we want to live in through a sense of nostalgia for a world some of us never even experienced. The characters he creates, the ’80s setting, the music, all contribute to our desire to be part of this time period, to see the potential in ourselves and in the world restored. There’s a simplicity to the film, which doesn’t mean that it’s without conflict, only that the conflict is so small in scale compared to real-world conflict many of us are facing outside of the theater, and perhaps the conflict these young men will face after graduation. The thing is, Linklater’s film isn’t simply a look at something that’s gone, and the mantra “here for a good time, not for a long time” doesn’t simply apply to college life. Everybody Wants Some!! is Linklater’s impassioned statement to live life to its fullest, to shake off nostalgia and perhaps a bit of responsibility, and create our desirable world in the here and now. All of Linklater’s films are about living life to the fullest in some regard, about taking chances and falling head over heels in love with everything these key moments in time offer. Everybody Wants Some!! achieves that message, and while it may not push the director as far as some of his other films have, that message stands as a necessary reminder in this year of all years. While the film doesn’t wax quite as philosophically as some of Linklater’s previous films, some of those larger questions about life and purpose still exist in the background, ready and waiting to be discovered with the hindsight of maturity. Everybody Wants Some!! gives us not only a good time, but one of the best times of the year, and that’s something that can last.
3. Swiss Army Man
Who would have guessed that Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s farting corpse movie would be one of the most life-affirming movies of the year? Swiss Army Man is a film composed out of what many would deem seemingly worthless ideas and created in an effort to encourage a celebration of honesty and things left unsaid—the beauty and ugliness of life with no need to apologize for it. It’s an undoubtedly silly and strange movie, with moments that could be considered major turnoffs for many audience members. Despite its apparent immaturity, the Daniels take a heady and heart-filled dive into how social constructs both hurt and help us. Paul Daniel and Daniel Radcliffe give a codependent performance where each makes the other stronger and infuse Hank and Manny with bits of sadness and sweetness that make them endearing but also purposeful in their respective flaws and attributes. In many ways this film is a lesson about what being human means at its core, away from all the bullshit. With humanity comes hurt, and while so much of the film is charming and easygoing, it’s also mixed with a slight dread. This dread stems from the fact that we know the world of honesty and love Hank and Manny created in the woods, cannot exist within the confines of the self-conscious, ego-driven, and ultimately fear based walls of our world. Swiss Army Man attempts to break down the walls in our head that have made society what it is, while also breaking the barriers of traditional filmmaking. Every year we talk about how the films that are the most respected rarely push the art forward. Swiss Army Man, eschews any traditional appeal for respect, but narratively, musically, and visually it pushes film forward as an art form and as a teaching tool for understanding the human condition. Swiss Army Man is a multi-purpose gift that had a profoundly positive personal effect on me.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is poetry. The silence that fills the spaces in between the major moments of Chiron’s life give the film rhythm, and this rhythm creates identity. Throughout the three acts of Chiron’s life that we encounter him, silence becomes his defining characteristic. This silence is not only a result of the abuse brought down upon him by his mother and peers, but also silence brought about by his inability to answer a question he poses early in the film, “am I gay?” While the journey of self-discovery Chiron takes to answer this question, or to avoid this question at times, takes brutal and heartbreaking turns, Jenkins never avoids situating the viewer in a place of empathy. If the viewer cares about human beings, then Jenkins makes it impossible not to feel connected to Chiron, his hurt, his longing, and his awakening—each beautiful in their own distinct way. This empathy carries over to the film’s other characters as well. Two of the film’s most morally questionable characters, Chiron’s drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and the drug-dealer, Juan, who befriends him (Mahershala Ali) are both painted with a humanity that respects their struggle but also splattered with the consequences of their lives. Humanity is messy, and Moonlight manages to turn this aspect of the human condition into an art form. Like last year’s Carol, Moonlight is a progressive step in cinema in that it refuses to turn its characters into martyrs and instead celebrates the poetry of their lives. As an LGBTQIA film, as a black film, as a human film, Moonlight’s compassion and understanding for the complexities of identity and sexuality is the bar to aim for.
1. The Witch
The Witch avoids any sense of rightness. Cinematically, morally, tonally, Robert Eggers’ film never settles for anything less than a jarring wrongness. Dread permeates the entire film, but that dread rarely stems from the same place from moment to moment. Whether the source of dread be from Mark Kroven’s sometimes anachronistic score, Jarin Blaschke’s shadow-filled cinematography, Robert Eggers’ steady and purposeful gaze, or the performances of the actors who make up the Puritan family at the center of the film, The Witch never provides a source of familiar comfort. While being a horror movie (any argument that The Witch isn’t is simply absurd), Eggers’ film is also faith-based. Faith is challenged in this film both in the conversations between the characters and the images and symbols that are perverted and corrupted. Thomasin, a breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, undergoes a crisis of faith, not just in Christianity, but also in the moral sanctity of family, and achievability of success through hard work and belief. Thomasin’s crisis positions her as other, alone in her changing values and the burden of sin unfairly placed upon her by the rest of her family. Ultimately, it is a deep desire for belonging that defines the titular witch, a lust to be plural instead of singular. We see this natural order in plurality through Thomasin’s younger twin siblings, the two white goats on their farm, the pile of fire wood, and the rotting pillars of corn. Faith, while established as a communal bond, becomes individualized as each member of the family begins to question it and strays from shared Puritanical notions, just as a difference in faith led to William and his family’s banishment from the larger plantation. Thus, if a community cannot be found through Christ, for this family, then their only alternatives in their isolation are to die alone, or to find community through sin in its lack of rigid rules and explanations. Implicitly doing so, The Witch gives weight to the notion of a coven, and defines it through the outliers of America’s non-secular institutions. The Witch basks in the horror beneath the newly laid floorboards of America, and with that comes horrific insights into the American Dream.
Honorable Mentions: Sing Street, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Doctor Strange, The Edge of Seventeen, The Lobster, Midnight Special, Hell or High Water, Don’t Breathe, Moana, Zootopia
Featured Image: Warner Bros.