“Blah blah bad year. Blah Blah so much strife. Blah blah celebrity deaths. Blah blah 2016.” We’re already firmly into 2017, so I’ll save you that familiar prattle. Honestly, 2016 was actually a pretty great year to start this blog. While there were plenty of stinkers that I didn’t have time to put into a Worst Of List (though for the record: Collateral Beauty was the worst film that I didn’t get a chance to lash out on. Holy shit), it was a very diverse and vibrant year for cinema. The most chaotic times make for some of the best cinema. So, 2016 was honestly very fertile ground for some screencraft. I’ve already talked about the best from a horror context (which will have a bit of crossover here), but let’s look back at last year with unfiltered curiosity.
The rather precinct crime drama Hell or High Water was inches away from this list. Same for the understated gems from Jeff Nichols this year Loving and Midnight Special. With the dreadful summer we had, Star Trek Beyond and Pete’s Dragon both served as surprisingly creative examples of what a sequel and remake can do, respectively. Oddities like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping or The Lobster deserve praise for just how much they leaned into their weird aesthetics.
The importance of legacy and truth is one that weighs heavily on every outgoing president, not to mention their family. Natalie Portman provides the right balance of fragile human grief and uncompromising dedication to play the titular First Lady. Every step in the flashbacks to the day of her husband’s assassination gives us a gradual clue to her masterful use of political maneuvering in order to preserve her husband’s legacy. Make him more than a trivia statistic like many a president. Director Pablo Larrin weaves a wonderfully somber portrait of the fallout from JFK’s assassination on a personal level, one that casts Jackie Kennedy in stark yet tragically engaging light. Jackie isn’t a slavish loving biopic as much as it is a photo album. One where the photos are in nonlinear sequence, yet reveal a detailed look at a woman on the brink of collapse trying to hold something greater than herself up at any cost. Even if it means a more murky and grey area of truth about herself for the sake of preserving the image of her husband as a public figure.
19. The Handmaiden
Erotic thrillers are usually kind of hollow. The Handmaiden seeks to take a trashy genre and turn it into as twisty & mind blowing a thriller as it possibly can. Park Chan-Wook takes what is normally translated as smut and adds nuance to every reveal. Every frame has detail oozing out of it that informs the time and our characters’ struggles. The three different perspectives we see keeps this story feeling fresh and new with every frame. Wook outdoes Tarantino with his ability to give us a completely fresh perspective on a story with every turn. A rare feat indeed.
18. Sing Street
Coming of age stories and 80s nostalgia is pretty old hat at this point. It’s hard to make either seem fresh in a world that has oversaturated both. Yet, John Carney managed to craft Sing Street, which gives an earnest take on both without ever coming off as hollow. With a solid cast of young British tykes, the film shows the evolution of youthful ambition. Their transition from a group just wanting to be popular to musicians who love the craft is amusing and genuine in ways few others of its kind manage to accomplish. There’s also a powerful brotherly bond between Jack Raynor and lead Ferdia Walsh-Peelo that builds a backbone of trust when the latter needs it most. Plus, it’s easily the best original soundtrack of the year.
Part arthouse character drama, part gritty Coen Brothers style thriller, Nocturnal Animals is an appropriately odd beast for an odd year like 2016. The parallel structure of violence and maddening grief of the story within the story juxtaposes to the airy and lifeless existence of Amy Adams’ character in ways that confuse initially. Yet, as time goes on, the puzzle pieces come together. The way Amy Adams initially accepts then destroys Jake Gyllenhaal The Author’s creativity mirrors Gyllenhaal The Character’s growing madness after tragedy isn’t direct correlation as much as reaction. It’s an artistic emotional lash against cold hearted sterility, one that’s bold and uncomfortable yet gorgeous and ferocious.
Claustrophobic films had a surge this year. 10 Cloverfield Lane was perhaps the most engrossing, using the environment as much as it did the characters to inform us about anything and everything that we needed to know about this tight little mystery. While some issues arise with the third act reveal, 10 Cloverfield Lane provided so much before then to earn it a place here. A fantastic feature debut for director Dan Trachtenberg. One of the better heroines of the year in the form of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And of course, another reminder of how much we take John Goodman for granted as an intimidating dramatic actor.
15. The Witch
The Witch isn’t a traditional horror film. It’s also not even much of a period piece. If anything, it’s an unholy mesh of extreme traditional values and the oncoming horror of outsider feminism within the context of a horror film. While that metaphor carries plenty of weight, the actual tension and horror that builds throughout is so palpable between these characters. Even when the old English lines aren’t quite intelligible, the feeling of dread and slowly growing lack of comfortability within this family is universal. One that was oddly extremely precinct for a year like 2016.
The stop motion animation studio Laika knows how to set itself apart from the average animated film. Using incredibly well designed stop motion puppets and a mythic story structure that recalls the Japanese roots of the setting, Kubo and the Two Strings manages to evoke incredibly universal themes. Ones that address serious loss and growth beyond tragedy. It helps that these heavier themes are sandwiched between some expertly crafted scenes of fantasy and action that ease the blow. Yet, Laika also knows when to pull back the violence and do something truly unique for this very cliche past summer of films: build a climax around forgiveness instead of mindless conflict.
13. The Nice Guys
Shane Black is a rare creative talent. One who knows how to take a textbook cop procedural and spin it into gold. A comedy without a single lackluster joke in its rapidfire arsenal, The Nice Guys is the type of throwback we could use more of. One which loves the aesthetic of the past (in this case 1970s era detective stories) while actually picking apart the structure and nature of its characters. Black’s dialogue and unraveling plot allows for as much intrigue as it does hilarious guffaws. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s unconventional chemistry also helps that, allowing the characters to feel invested in what’s going on while being over the top caricatures of their archetypes. The type of balance that made this an oasis of quality amongst larger summer release.
2016 was a banner year for Disney on many fronts. While many films – including this one – made it the most profitable studio of the year, Disney also knew how to tap into its varied market on a more socially conscious level. Zootopia took the talking animal schtick of their past and adapted it into a street smart satire of race relations, government corruption and law enforcement. The vibrant metaphoric world of Zootopia might have a few pitfalls in terms of direct parallels to real world issues, but the central message of standing up for what one finds morally right despite societal backlash is a powerful one to instill into a film aimed at family audiences. The intricate world building and extremely well timed jokes obviously served as some solid sugar to make that medicine go down.
By contrast to the earlier Walt Disney Animation effort of the year, Moana seems far more traditional. While spotlighting a previously unseen culture for their staple like Pacific Islanders, Moana still follows a lot of the structure of a traditional animated musical narrative. Yet, the unique charm really comes in how it advances beyond the cliches of the narrative. By having a titular princess who actually cares about leading her people. A leading lady without any gumption about heading out yet a believable sense of trepidation about how she can handle something so astronomical. The CG animation allows for water physics that could never be committed to hand drawn animation with such consistency. Lin Manuel Miranda’s songs bring those overwhelming feelings to light, with an attention to the sounds of the culture and an ear for musical themes that spread wonderfully throughout. The presence of Dwayne Johnson as Maui serving as a know-it-all authority figure to challenge our lead gives that thematic drive of proving one’s self all the more prevalent. It all makes for one of the more intriguing examples of Disney’s traditional formula with just the right amount of self awareness.
10. The Conjuring 2
Horror sequels rarely ever manage to come near the original. With The Conjuring 2, James Wan managed to craft something that not only surpassed the original fright fest, but took it to new heights. With the base amount of engagement we had with The Warrens in the original film, Wan built a more varied and terrifying array of ghostly foes to challenge them and a new family to also get us invested in. The balance of building all of this up is achieved marvelously by an understanding of economic storytelling on Wan’s part. The attachment is spread from The Warrens to this new family and the supernatural threats are built up by establishing the environment of this new house. Hell, Wan even managed to do in a ten minute prologue what seventeen films couldn’t do with The Amityville Horror house. It’s a rare example of a studio horror film that cares about character, setting and authentic atmosphere to make itself genuinely terrifying.
9. The Mermaid
Stephen Chow is a master of live action cartoonish pacing. Few can translate the snap and bend ability of animation in live action as well as Chow. Luckily with The Mermaid, he continues his ability turn reality into the surreally comic. This concept of a mermaid falling for an oil dumping tycoon is basely full of commentary. Yet, Chow doesn’t bog the film down in that commentary and instead swings for the fences in terms of over the top comedy that never really relents. There’s a musical number, wacky slapstick and some elaborate physical comedy that meshes together into a gorgeously weird package. One of the funniest and inventive films of the year.
8. La La Land
La La Land is stuck between a traditional rock and a hard modern place. Our main characters are striving to succeed both in the modern acting scene and the classic jazz fashion with limited success. In the case of Ryan Gosling, the classic jazz vs modern jazz argument is muddled pretty hard by his experience. Yet, the main conflict isn’t modern vs classic as much as it is attempting to live up to society’s standards vs pursuing one’s individual dreams. That conflict gives a motivation for the varying musical numbers, which give a lasting resonance for Gosling and Emma Stone’s relationship. It’s one tested by two driven artistic individuals who realize that they may have to decide between their pursuits and their personal bond. It allows for us to realize that life may need to divide us on a personal level in order for us to achieve our individual dreams. The masterful ending allows us to ponder what could be, while never denying that our ultimate outcomes wouldn’t be possible if not for our crossings paths through La La Land.
Moonlight is a resonant phrase for our young protagonist. In each individual segment, his most resounding moments occur during the late night can he pursue his true self. From his late night screaming match against his mother to a sexual awakening to a very personal confrontation, all of these moments occur in the night. Away from the heteronormative judging eyes of the daylight. Moonlight dares to be extremely introspective and intimate in a world that demands one declare itself on the side of the norm or be punished. It’s a resonating tale for anyone that has felt outcasted, but especially for those who follow an underlying narrative that doesn’t match the standard. It’s quiet, contemplative and deeply investing in a way that anyone can sympathize with. From the moment our hero learns how to swim to the moment he admits to be lacking in sexual experience, it’s a brutally honest and extremely well told tale from director Barry Jenkins that permeates our modern uncharted choppy waters.
6. Other People
Molly Shannon usually annoys me. I found her antics on Saturday Night Live and subsequent projects to be grating more often than not. So, it shocks me so much to say that Other People features a performance from Shannon that rocked me to my very core. Her journey as a woman who has raised children and lived a long life of suburban happiness coming to terms with death is one that truly resonates to everyone. The film is a very personal account of family and loss from a very central source in writer/director Chris Kelly. Who knows the very painful steps of dealing with a loved one dying. Every tragic moment of that is followed up with a very personal note of ironic comedy. There’s a charm and tragedy that allows the film to settle us before brutally hitting us with a scene of remorseless truth. There’s room to breath and room to take our breath away in every step. It’s honest, unflinching and ugly, but with plenty of soul to keep us invested along the way.
5. Green Room
In terms of ugly realism, Green Room maybe the crowning achievement of this with brute force. Every violent action is met with horrific consequence. When a brutal incision is made, it resonates with unflinching force. The conflict between this well meaning band and a brutal neo-Nazi force surrounding them is initially met with calm resilience on both sides. Then, the conflict bursts with turmoil as writer/director Jeremy Saulnier shows with brutal force the type of realistic gore that most horror movies wouldn’t dare show in this day and age. It’s the type of siege film that shows consequence for actions of immediate conflict. Yet, that conflict is met with intense support and unbridled energy by those participating. Because, when the chips are down, that righteous angry energy can be our only resource. Times that are especially tough when one’s hands are literally hanging on by a thread.
Displaced loners were a common thread of 2016. Nowhere was that thread most tied than between the protagonists of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. With a boy who had no familial ties and a man recently widowed, these two unlikely companions found a sense of adventure and comedic bliss in the form of bonding in the woods. Writer/director Taika Waititi manages to build a bond between a pair as unlikely as Sam Neill and Julian Dennison without hitting a single false note. Their journey through the woods is fraught with peril, but none more arduous as the journey of trust. The realization that the two would likely survive longer if they set aside their differences. All the way to the end, these two bicker and conflict with each other, in a way that many can relate to. These two lost souls find a bridge in the form of resisting the society that outcasted them, but not without scraping to fight in some comedically elaborate sequences. It’s a personal tale that reaches astronomical levels of pathos and laughs.
Swiss Army Man is a weird movie. One in which a man encounters a farting corpse and tries to achieve self actualization. The farting corpse – brilliantly played by Daniel Radcliffe – allows the young man to realize all his worth and faults. Paul Dano walks a delicate line between believably suicidal and theoretically lost in the literal woods. Through this naive untouched soul of Radcliffe, Dano realizes his place in the world. He confronts his problems and expresses his hopes. His creative expression makes him different from others, but also tangibly human as he comes to terms with faults in his behavior. The director team known as “The Daniels” uses unprecedented trials and tribulations to give more than a standard “white boy recognizes his privilege” angle to this story. They boost this into a universal story of introspective thought. One that explores self loathing, regret, joy and unmitigated gall that combats societal norms and internal acceptance head on. It’s an odd tale, but one that could be interpreted multiple ways and yield a similar result of compassion and contemplation across the board.
This year saw a pretty big spike in political turmoil. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of this. Thankfully, our anxieties weren’t ignored in some context by our films. For as much crap as I’ve given Batman V Superman, it did try to present a politically torrid battle of wills and morals on the big screen. However, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Captain America: Civil War, a film where the character motivations are just as engaging as the immaculate action. Every step along the way, we see the turmoil affecting both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, built up by multiple films and well established characters that Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr have honed in on. Their arguments come from realistic places of human worry and doubt, even if their methods obviously clash ideologically. Yet, the director team of The Russo Brothers also manages to give us an equal amount of time with the various supporting characters that add faces to the potential doom of the Marvel Universe. From the plucky new Spider-Man to the compromised Bucky, there’s an authentic reasoning for who lands on what side of this conflict. And a worry from all sides that said conflict will divide us too far.
In terms of mixing thrills, commentary and raw emotional carnage, Train to Busan really stood out. Despite the obvious barriers of language and culture, this story of class struggles amongst zombies has such genuine pathos transcends those barriers. Every heart pounding moment has the feel of a 70s disaster film, but with just as much emphasis on the spectacle as it does the moral quandaries. The concept of who do we save and who do we let die from varying generations and class leanings is a sight to behold as Train to Busan delves into the nihilistic depths of our world and crushes the audience on every conceivable level. Even with the simplistic element of our villain being a rich asshole, the more important thing to take from it is the mob mentality that builds around those who are desperate. When things look their darkest, people may go with what seems like the quickest fix rather than accepting the long haul ahead. Train to Busan has plenty of horror thrills, but they mean so much more when the brains being eaten are realistic dimensional human ones with thought processes and emotions we can relate all too much to.