Top 20 Films of 2016

“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.

Honorable Mentions

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.

20. Jackie

jackie-natalie-portman

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

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

sing-street-walk

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.

17. Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals

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.

16. 10 Cloverfield Lane

10-cloverfield-lane

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-dinner

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.

14. Kubo and the Two Strings

kubo-three-shot

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 Guysthe-nice-guys-beers

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.

12. Zootopia

zootopia-cart

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.

11. Moana

moana-disney

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

The_Conjuring_2_CRooked_Man

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

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-gosling-stone

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.

7. Moonlight

moonlight-chiron

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

other-people-molly-shannon

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

green-room-band

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.

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople

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.

3. Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-man-manny

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.

2. Captain America Civil War

captain_america_civil_war_iron-man-cap

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.

1. Train to Busan

train_to_busan_hero_shot

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.

Other Works:

Advertisements

Spielberg Smorgesboarge: The Films of Steven Spielberg Ranked

Steven Spielberg is my favorite director. I know. Revolutionary and controversial statement that the most common director known by name to mass audiences is one’s favorite. It’s a cliche to say, but it’s also the honest truth. Even in some of his lesser films, Spielberg has a way of framing a situation or giving his characters just the right lighting to show off something that’s spectacular yet instantaneously relatable. In honor of his recently release 30th film released in theaters* The BFG (I know, a bit late), I decided to rank his directorial feature length efforts from worst to best.

30. War Horse

war-horse

Dreamworks

Steven Spielberg has never been afraid to be sentimental. His detractors often point to his sentimentality as a flaw in his style, that he often dips into rather schmaltzy territory for the sake of driving home an emotional point the scenes themselves couldn’t really deliver. Usually, I’d disagree. The sentimentality tends to be earned by how he and his team build these characters up so that the film can tear you down emotionally. By contrast, War Horse drags out the sentimentality as the lingering thread to hang onto, along with some stunning cinematography from regular Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. Yet, it all ultimately divulges into sappy entitlements that were originally conceived for children given the original youth based source material of a book and play, but come off as cloying in a more adult light. Basically, take National Velvet, but replace the child with a clear 20 something that has a sick obsession with his horse and an anthology method of killing people this horse encounters. A sizable low for Spielberg.

29. Always

always-spielberg

Dreamworks

Despite being one of the final films released in the 1980s, Always borrows more from melodrama of the 1940s, which makes sense given it’s a remake of the 1943 WWII melodrama A Guy Named Joe. Still, unlike his ability to craft a modern feeling series of films out of ’40s era serials with the Indiana Jones franchise, Always pretty much feels just as sappy as any of those lesser dramas of the time period. Spielberg replaces the WWII setting with (then) modern aerial firefighter planes, making for more than a few harrowing sequences of flight and fire fights that are shot rather well. Unfortunately, this is the only way he manages to update the story. Always is kind of full of itself. A grandiose tribute that revels in a nostalgia that Spielberg can’t seem to progress past. Much of this is hamstrung by Richard Dreyfuss’ character, a pompous wisecracker whose “witty banter” often comes off as smarmy as he whines as a dead man about what he wants. We’re supposed to root for him to realize his mistakes, but the character’s changes don’t feel gradual. They’re sudden and should have been realized far sooner, instead of played for rather flat humor.  This hurts so much for me to say about Dreyfuss, one of my favorite actors. Spielberg’s usual mixture of grounded charm and grandiose spectacle is blocked off by a bland script that replaces relatable human emotions with an incredibly outdated style of filmmaking.

28. The Lost World: Jurassic Park

jurassic-park-2

Universal Pictures

Spielberg has said himself that he has a problem with over confidence when going into a sequel to one of his earlier films. It’s probably why most of the sequels to his films aren’t done by him. The Lost World: Jurassic Park has a big problem with trying to differentiate itself from the first and dolling out all the elements that made the original such a hit. Between Jeff Golbum being much more dull and a T-Rex attacking San Diego, there’s so much winking and nodding but no evolving. The most impressive shots feel like Spielberg on autopilot, keeping the set piece in mind over the characters. Nothing illustrates this better than Golblum being saved from a velociraptor by his daughter’s gymnastic skills. It’s ludicrous, but not in the fun “dinosaurs are alive again” kind of way. It breaks the foundation of these (admittedly lesser) characters for the sake of flash.

27. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

crystal-skull

Paramount Pictures

George Lucas is an enabler. An enabler of stupid shit. While not as horrendous as some might claim, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is definitely Spielberg’s most inconsistent and confounding movie on a lot of levels, many of which have to do with Star Wars prequel style silliness. CG prairie dogs, alien invaders and fridge nuking all shows off a lack of interest in the consistency of the original Indiana Jones films, baby proofing the danger and fun that made the character so memorable. Sprinkles of that original spark found in moments like Harrison Ford and Shia LeBeouf’s first meeting or the elaborate pillar trap our heroes find that splits into four parts, but they’re few and far between. That tug and pull hints at a struggle between Spielberg the artist and Lucas the panderer that results in a underwhelming fourth installment. Needless to say, not very excited for them collaborating on a new installment for 2019.

26. Hook

hook

Tristar Pictures

Hook has all the hallmarks of what should be a classic Steven Spielberg film; elaborate sets, themes of parental hardship, a general sense of whimsy. Yet, there’s something missing in the cluttered fantasy of it all; a consistency of tone. It wants to be this raucous fantasy film for families like any Peter Pan story, yet constantly wants to include this darker material about growing old in the modern world to contrast the high fantasy.That’s not uncommon for a Peter Pan story, but there never seems to be a bridge to carry these reasonable themes together in Hook, giving the ridiculous moments a rather sharp out of place feel with the more intimate drama. Hook has its moments for sure, mainly due to the highly capable casting of Dustin Hoffman as Hook, but Robin Williams suffers from dipping his performance in a childlike glee that steps its boundaries from being Peter Pan the magical boy adventurer to a sort of stand up character. It all just culminates in a kernel of an idea given a wonky disappointing execution.

25. 1941

1941-belushi

Columbia Pictures

Steven Spielberg isn’t a comedy director. There are plenty of examples of great comedic relief moments in his films, but his attempts at flat out comedy often show an inexperience with how humor on its own is crafted. With 1941, he had so much at his disposal to craft a truly great comedy, with Back to the Future writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale writing the script and then-current comedy stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd amongst the cast. Yet, the hubris of young Spielberg at the time lead to a film where comedy was conflated with “Let’s just blow things up and have people run around screaming.” Spielberg clearly took comedic influence from something like the comedy epic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World yet didn’t know how to stage the comedy effectively. 1941 has comedy by way of excess, but there’s no control to this wild experiment aside from the highlight that is Belushi actually being hilarious in his usual roguish way. There’s a craft to the destruction, but it doesn’t result in that many laughs. Still, the technical achievements, Belushi and a rousing score by John Williams make this better than a fair share of Spielberg films that followed.

24. Amistad

amistad-mcconaughey

Dreamworks Pictures

Post-Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s period piece dramas have been spotty. Despite intriguing subject matter, Spielberg often has the trouble of pacing to make his historical dramas more than the sum of their parts. Amistad is a key example, with its solid cast and honest brutal depiction of slavery at the time. Yet, everything feels lost with its bloated running time and uneven utilization of characters. The big stand outs are Anthony Hopkins delivering a monstrously long monologue while injecting a sense of presence as then-former president John Quincy Adams and Djimon Hounsou as the often silent but powerfully motivated West African Joseph Cinqué. They hold an attention that keeps us invested lesser elements, like the initially compelling yet ultimately underwhelming Matthew McConaughey or a rather passive Morgan Freeman. The brutality of the slavery elements are displayed by Spielberg, yet often feel sidelined by the lengthy court scenes that are more performance showcases than they are engaging bits of storytelling. Amistad is one of the more forgotten Spielberg films, which may be slightly unfair yet not unreasonable.

23. The BFG

the-bfg-hills

I already talked about The BFG recently in full detail, so I’ll be brief. The general whimsy of Spielberg still lingers from his prime in the genre, but there’s a weird stunting of the scope here despite the immense technology used to bring it to life. While charming throughout, The BFG is missing the genuine tension to make it more than an entertaining distraction. It’s also missing something I forgot to mention in the review: consistent compositing effects. Ruby Barnhill’s head genuinely looks like its floating over her body at points.

22. AI: Artificial Intelligence

ai-artificial-intelligence

Dreamworks Pictures

Started under the noble intention of completing the work of his late friend and directing mastermind Stanley Kubrick, AI: Artificial Intelligence is a curious experiment if nothing else. Spielberg’s devotion to Kubrick’s style is commendable, if occasionally misguided by a sort of meandering story. The key consistent elements the keep the film afloat really are the production design and the dynamic between Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. There’s wonderful world building to show off the dystopian nature of this future, echoing Kubrick’s own work in films like A Clockwork Orange with a modern tinge that fully realizes them. Some of it showcases what Spielberg would later emphasize fully in Minority Report, particularly the sleek cold design of the environments. Law and Osment’s chemistry is friendly in an endearingly odd fashion, paring two opposite ends of desire for human kind on the road to some bigger purpose. The problems really lie in the secondary human characters that populate Osment’s adventure, including one of many distant performances from William Hurt during this time that seemed less human than his robotic counterparts. The culminating false endings aren’t without merit in concept, but they still feel a bit too saccharine for the movie that proceeded them, regardless of if it was Stanley Kubrick’s original intent.

21. The Terminal

the-terminal

Dreamworks Pictures

As I mentioned, Spielberg’s comedic sensibilities tend to work best when used as relief for a bigger more heavy drama or genre piece. He knows how to utilize comedy for the sake of helping endear an audience to a character, but not necessarily use it to keep the necessary escalation for comedy. The Terminal tempers that comedy with a dramatic immigrant story that keeps things from getting too far into Always levels of sentimentality, mainly because Tom Hanks knows how to walk a fine line between genuine humanity and caricature. The side characters vary, but the most impressive ones – such as a semi-villain with solid motives in Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ layered romantic foil – manage to level out the more oppressively quirky ones. Spielberg keeps The Terminal small overall, but utilizes every nook and cranny of the airport set to his full advantage in making the setting feel like a thriving community for commuters. It’s lesser Spielberg, but has its fair share of advantages, including one major one: John Williams’ most underrated score, which features some heartbreaking jazzy tracks that show his range as a composer.

20. Duel

duel-1971

Universal Pictures

Early Spielberg is a curiosity. Few have seen his pre-Jaws work and it’s kind of a shame, since the inner workings of the man who created one of the seminal horror movies can still be seen within his television work. Duel shows off his ability for economic and quick storytelling, the young director at his hungriest state film wise. Duel only had access to a a few roadside locations, a truck, a couple cars and Dennis Weaver. Yet, he managed to craft a taut thriller,  full of exciting chases, believable paranoia and gritty authenticity. The type of filmmaking one can still be shocked by despite its source of early 70s television.

19. Lincoln

lincoln-daniel

Dreamworks Pictures

Humanity is something we take for granted in our major historical figures. Lincoln tries to give more of a human angle to the man most Americans see every day on a penny or five dollar bill, a portrait of a man who tries to inspire through speeches and deal with the emotional weight of leading a nation full of turmoil. That dedication is in Tony Kushner’s nuanced script, one that displays Lincoln at his best as worst states with his relationship to Mary Todd and his cabinet. Daniel Day Lewis has his usual dedication, though without the type of rigidity that many could easily paint the 16th president with. Instead there’s an authoritative appearance masking a fragile caring soul underneath. It gives a humanity to historical events we were aware of, that can connect us more with the history rather than distance ourselves from it. Still, aside from Lincoln and Mary Todd, the supporting cast is a bit more diluted in humanity, either for needed comedic relief, a needed villain for Lincoln to tear down without any true nuance or even a surprise reveal that doesn’t add much interesting perspective. Those disappointing short cuts temper Lincoln from greatness, which is on full display with its massive cast and impressive historical detail.

18. The Sugarland Express

the-sugarland-express-goldie

Universal Pictures

Spielberg’s second feature is a lesson in how to construct tragicomedy on a story level. The doomed perspective of William Atherton and Goldie Hawn has an initial depiction of sadness that endears us to these two searching for their child for foster care, yet we’re fully aware of their inability to survive long against this situation. They have all of Texas’ police force after them and they’re too sucked into their modern celebrity and flighty dreams of having a reasonable family after this is all over. The Sugarland Express doesn’t quite build up to its dark ending on a consistent tonal level, but it’s still foreshadowed heavily. Despite the happiness these people feel, a darker turn always feels on the horizon. Spielberg keeps that ominous nature in the background just enough for us to hope for the best, but expect the inevitable in a beautifully tragic fashion.

17. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

temple-of-doom

Paramount Pictures

The initial red headed step child of the Indiana Jones saga before someone else came along. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn’t as full on sequelitis as it could have been.There are a few moments of sequelitis, but they’re mainly used as subversion points for the first film’s iconic moments rather than straight up repetition. This second Indiana Jones entry took weird darker chances, managing to start as a musical, becomes a “save the children” picture and resolves with magical cult implications. With the child slavery and dark magic, it’s easily Spielberg’s darkest blockbuster effort. It’s insane, offensive and more than a bit grating. Yet, it’s still deserving of praise for just going in these disturbing avenues, even some of them aren’t very good. The screwball and cultish elements often clash, Kate Capshaw is honestly a terrible love interest and the dinner scenes is full of horrid stereotypes. Yet, Harrison Ford is still compelling as ever as Indie, the set pieces are as brutally elaborate as ever and the production design is lavish in a way that creates an incredibly believable environment.

16. War of the Worlds

war-of-the-worlds-cruise

Dreamworks Pictures

Tom Cruise seems sort of impenetrable as a star in most of his films. Aside from his more dramatic roles and stripped down action pictures, Cruise always seems to be a superhuman, one unable to be killed thanks to his convenient wit or intense running skills. For War of the WorldsSteven Spielberg managed to strip away that sort of lacking emotional connection with a much more vulnerable Cruise action role. He’s shown as a realistic deadbeat father, one filled with a desire for change yet unable to really listen. It’s the type of role where Cruise earns the right to be his usual self. The relationship he builds with his estranged daughter Dakota Fanning through survival is a fine example of great visual storytelling, making the grounded threat of these aliens feel all the more immersive and real. Then again, that also has so much to do with Spielberg’s effective use of disaster imagery that keeps the focus of terrified people in tact. The first hour or so really is the first great cinematic reaction to 9/11, right from the moment people turn to ash that Cruise is covered it. It’s direct imagery, yet it never feels too exploitive or overly manipulative. Other aspects fit that far better, mainly the treatment of Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins’ characters that mars the third act pretty badly. Or the rather half assed narration for Morgan Freeman to attempt a stronger connection with HG Wells’ story, especially when Spielberg already does a descent job of tying the famous ending with themes of the least likely to defeat a massive threat managing to do so.

15. The Color Purple

the-color-purple

Warner Bros

The serious direction wasn’t one expected of Steven Spielberg when he dove into it. After a solid decade of delivering major blockbusters, the director decided to adapt the best selling dramatic novel after encouragement from producer/composer Quincy Jones. Thus, we have The Color Purple, a film that drops the genre constructs Spielberg built his career on and shows that Spielberg could ride a film on pure character drama. The best moments here are literally conversational, when people like Oprah Winfrey or Whoopi Golberg merely talk to others in a sincere or disturbed way. Golberg in particular dazzles in her film debut, showing the complex shades of regret, depression and occasional joy felt by Celie throughout her life. It’s honestly a shame that Spielberg himself wasn’t as willing to go the extra mile on this front with elements like Celie’s lesbian relationship with Margaret Avery’s Shug Avery, which feels completely abandoned after the initial kissing scene. Yet, he still manages to build such tension through the simple tragedy of a life lived through abuse, whether it be the emotional turmoil of Goldberg under the thumb of abusive men or Winfrey’s sudden descent into sad servitude after a horrible interaction with racist townsfolk. The tragedy blossoms into occasional overwrought wallowing, but at its peaks The Color Purple shows how small and beautiful Spielberg can be as a director.

14. Bridge of Spies

bridge-of-spies

Dreamworks Pictures

Steven Spielberg loves to use the nature of perspective. Whether it be the literal point of views for characters or the ever morphing point of view of the camera, Spielberg is always dead set on allowing varying points of view to clash for the sake of drama. Bridge of Spies is at its most compelling when Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks counteract each other, showing the Cold War drama from an average spy’s perspective. Even some of the smaller details of Hanks’ interactions with the Russian leaders has weight, showing the human realities of a conflict this monumental. Human ingenuity that helped stop conflict through reason rather than bran, reason that lead to conversations Spielberg still manages to make visually dynamic and contemplative character wise. It’s slight, but in a way Spielberg makes larger in terms of a genuine human connection.

13. Empire of the Sun

empire-of-the-sun-christian-bale

Warner Bros

An underrated entry in the Spielberg canon that manages to combine two of his biggest strengths. One is his ability to work with child actors, being able to make them display far more complex yet relatable moments to get us invested. A very young Christian Bale makes his presence known here, a privileged young boy thrown into the fire and expected to come out fine. His episodic adventures show another engaging side of Spielberg; his knack for weaving episodic set pieces into a full immersive tale. That tale here is one of the previously mentioned perspective, as a young boy shielded from the true horrors of war experiences some of them and isn’t the same. All his various adventures show him gaining wisdom well beyond his class and years. Even Empire of the Sun has a bitter sweet ending, of a boy’s innocence gone finding some sort of sanctity in home again.

12. Minority Report

minority-report-tom-cruise

Few manage to adapt writer Phillip K. Dick’s material with an appropriate sense of weighty sci-fi potential. Minority Report has its troubles with this mainly from the perspective of the ending, which softens the blow of the story’s tone in a disappointing fashion. It leaves the story on a whimper of a happy ending, one that doesn’t keep people as engaged walking out. That being said, the earlier parts of the film did an amazing job crafting this amazing sci-fi world and setting fantastic action set pieces throughout. The touch screen tech alone shows an ingenuity that would later become common place over a decade later. The performance from Cruise is a solid one, but he’s admittedly out shown by people like Samantha Morton delivering one of the more underrated emotionally crushing monologues in a Spielberg film.

11. Munich

munich-craig

Universal Pictures

Despite his sentimental reputation, Steven Spielberg can still be quite brutal when he really passionately cares about he project. Case in point, Munich is a violent gory film, but with purpose. Spielberg wants the tragedy of every death to truly settle in, even those our heroes are aiming to kill. The whole experience is a brutal one, full of disturbing scenes of death that seems genuinely terrifying. Right from the start of the actual 1972 Olympics, the tension is heavy and without mercy, displaying the brute force of the killings without ever forgetting the human horror of it all. While some of this can get lost in the massive running time, Munich paints its characters with a genuine interest and a strong cast to back up their complex attitudes & feelings. It’s the blunt and harsh type of Spielberg we don’t see often enough anymore.

10. Saving Private Ryan

Saving-Private-Ryan-Hanks

Paramount Pictures

The iconic late 20th century war movie that shaped media about WWII for the New Millennium is at it’s heart a story of brotherhood. Perhaps a… Band of Brothers, if you will. But seriously, the brotherhood that builds over the course of Saving Private Ryan isn’t one dedicated to all of the men in this battalion becoming brothers as much as leaning on each other with mutual respect for the uniform and purpose. The unforgettable D-Day scene is brutal, but with absolute purpose. Said purpose is to show the brutal truth behind the event and establish the destruction that’s inherent within that event and what’s at stake. It gives the titular mission all the emotional weight that makes the eventual “earn this” moment all the more disturbing at the end of Tom Hanks’ journey and Matt Damon’s eventual life long torment.

9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

close-encounters-3rd-kind

Columbia Pictures

Bad Spielberg whimsy only stings so much because of his ability to spark wonder. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has that spark of an alien visitation from a human POV, spending so much time curious about the general human perspective, from government officials around the globe all the way to the curious and almost deranged perspective of a man hell bent on seeing them. That worldwide awe that takes place makes this landing a cultural event, but not in a global destructive fashion. It’s the human race uniting in a desire for knowledge, for the unknown. It’s something Richard Dreyfuss puts a joyfully mad picture to as he stand gobsmacked at the events around him, even at the sacrifice of the family he’s built. That drastic decision still manages to make his struggle endearing, one that Spielberg’s admitted he wouldn’t make now given his family status. For that alone, it’s one of his riskier films that pays off tremendously on a sci-fi level.

8. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

et

Universal Pictures

To contrast Close Encounters, Spielberg went much smaller scale and a slightly more cruel eye on humanity for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, with the blank slate connection of a child and an alien who are both unaware of what the world will bring. What the world will do to their brief yet wonderful connection. The animatronic alien and Henry Thomas have a more believable connection than most “Boy and His Dog” style stories Spielberg is emulating. Their mirroring actions reflects the influence of the world on the impressionable, with our culture, our food and our destructive curiosity on those who simply want to exist. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial swept through our hearts because the genuine nature of the connection, the masterful build up of these two beings finding a sincere friendship that’s doomed to disappear, but stick with the both of them forever.

7. Jurassic Park

spielberg-jurassic-park

Universal Pictures

The double whammy of 1993 saw Steven Spielberg change the pace of cinema… again… with two massive films. Jurassic Park shaped the nature of blockbuster cinema permanently, with its efficient storytelling, immediate grasp on characters and groundbreaking technology. The T. Rex terrified and amazed at the time, but sticks with people because of the presence made by Spielberg’s shot construction. The build up he has to the reveal of this creature in the pen. The reaction from these relatable people stuck in its path. The effects are only as good as the characters they bump off of, formulas Spielberg took at the time to ground us in this crazy concept of dinosaurs coming back from extinction. It’s basically a B-movie done with complete dedication and craft, where as the follow ups just became higher budget yet soulless retreads of this and other far better produced B-movies.

6. The Adventures of Tintin

tintin

Paramount Pictures

The fourth Indiana Jones film was a disappointment. We already went through how it failed to capture Spielberg’s knack for memorable action set pieces, but perhaps it wasn’t due to lack of imagination. Despite being an adaptation, The Adventures of Tintin has some of the more original kinetic action set pieces of any Spielberg actioner, but with a cartoonish edge that allows the director to go even more insane than the literal laws of physics would allow him to go down. Captain Haddock can keep the plane afloat by burping into the gas tank. Two cranes can basically box each other silly. An elaborate tracking shot can take place where Tintin zip lines with the wheel of a motorcycle while following a falcon through a city. Despite the motion capture tech that often alienates, The Adventures of Tintin managed to find the perfect balance between relatable characters and cartoon physics in a perfect entertaining marriage.

5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

indiana-jones-jr

Paramount Pictures

Indiana Jones as a character often works because of his pridefulness. So much of Indiana Jones’ adventures is either playing that pride to straight badass effect or subverting that pride to hilarious effect. Case in point, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade takes Jones’ hubris and gives him a seemingly doddering yet capable father to bounce off of, with the beautiful in joke that sputters out into a wonderful chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. Their back and forth builds a believable father-son bond that’s strained yet filled with emotional moments that truly matter. The MacGuffin of the Holy Grail has so much more meaning when the two of them end up are at the crossroads they encounter here, giving the set pieces more tension and the religious dire consequences more genuine. It manages to make up for Brody and Sallah pretty much just being comedic relief or any of the other smaller factors that strip to the side for a film that often feels like the best in its series… but is it?

4. Schindler’s List

schindler-ring.jpg

Universal Pictures

That brutal honesty I talked about earlier? Well Schindler’s List multiplies this by ten. Spielberg’s most personal and brutal drama is one that lives and dies on its blunt and cruel nature. Stanley Kubrick once claimed that the nature of the Holocaust isn’t one that can be filmed because of the very nature of this atrocity was fueled by failure yet Schindler’s List revels in the concept of success given its narrative structure. This is sort of accurate, especially with later Holocaust films that strove to replicate Schindler’s List in a soulless screed to gain Oscar attention. With Spielberg’s film, the success isn’t one that’s entirely up lifting. The only uplifting aspect is that something small can come out of this. Some small amount of people lived from this, but the horror never leaves. The pain we see depicted in disturbing cruel detail isn’t something that will ever be erased from time. It’s something that lingers far longer, suggesting that there still isn’t a true winner as much as there are a few simple humans that barely managed to escape with their lives. Even then, Liam Neeson’s titular millionaire is still full of regret for his earlier hedonism and true remorse for not being able to do more for others, which still racks him even as everyone tries to calm him down. It’s not as storybook an ending as Kubrick may claim, one full of lingering questions and dimension ideas. Where even Ralph Fiennes’ cruel Nazi commander can be a dimension if cruel person. Where Jews can capitalize on their fellow men. Where no amount of success can make up for the countless death and destruction that took place.

3. Catch Me If You Can

catch-me-if-you-can

Dreamworks Pictures

Catch Me If You Can‘s true story was destined to be a great film. One with varying disguises and globe trotting that was bound to be cinematic in its mysteriously fun way. Spielberg combines his love for true story fiction and fantastical adventures into one film. It’s perfectly contrasted between Leonardo DiCaprio’s sly charm that allows him to fit into any number of new situations and costumes like a glove as Tom Hanks tries to hunt him down with all the square know how of an old school FBI agent. It’s a cat and mouse game that builds over the course of the run time, but devolves into something more than old chasing young. It’s about two men who have abandoned their families in pursuit of their passions. Their destructive yet addictive passions. One is trying to chase the security of the other, whether it be security in confidence or security in community. A beautiful tragedy that unravels with witty banter and globe trotting fun. Plus, it’s got a jazzy score from Williams and one of Christopher Walkens few great non-jokey performances of the new millennium.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark

raiders

Paramount Pictures

Raiders of the Lost Ark based itself in total unabashed nostalgia. Spielberg and George Lucas were in love with the idea of older serials that predated even their time as children, immersed in the cheap yet endearing serials of old and decided to turn the concept into a high budgeted adventure of their own. The flawless movement of Raiders of the Lost Ark could easily be misconstrued as mechanical formula. The action, character and spectacle beats hit so perfectly that it almost feels cold and calculated due to the sheer fine tuned precision of it all. Yet, there’s a consistent heart to all of it that makes it more than a series of action beats or bits of Harrison Ford being rugged. It’s an adventure film that sets up the mystique and rousing fun of Indian Jones as a character, giving us all we need and not too much through this kinetic adventure to gage who these people are and what they’re after. It’s quick, efficient and fun storytelling that never tires even after multiple rewatches.

1. Jaws

jaws-shark

Universal Pictures

The summer blockbuster and directorial career defining Jaws is a film shaped by accidents. Accidents in production. Accidents within universe of trust or covering things up. Accidents in assuming that a small town on the beach is safe from harm. The crashing of that normalcy is key to what makes Jaws terrifying. We know this town for the archetypes that are breathed to life with subtle detail. We know what’s at stake as this normalcy is blown apart by the teeth of a maddening shark hiding beneath the surface. A creature bellowing beneath the depths to drive its three heroes apart, whether it be by pressure, scientific curiosity or mad obsession. The shark is more than the sum of its total appearances or it’s simple theme. It’s a dangerous entity that threatens not just directly, but in the hovering foreboding that destroys this town through its role destroying its economy and trust in the future. Quint, Brody and Hooper show a dilution of methods, from street smart to novice to book smart and how all three barely manage to survive against animalistic nature. How they barely survive without being swallowed whole.

Other Works:

* While Duel was originally made for television, it did receive a limited theatrical release.

Thomas’ Top 20 Films of 2015

I know, I know. I’m a bit late on this one. Then again, I’m one who loves being thorough. Publishing a Best Of List before the end of 2015 can be a bit regrettable, given the lack of films one can consume by end of that individual year. I even felt that way after publishing my Top Ten Horror and Genre Films of 2015 list from Gruesome Magazine. But for the major overall list, I dug deep into what 2015 had to offer. Upon reflection, 2015 was a damn good year for film. Plenty of stinkers in there, of course. I’m not doing a worst of list, but just to add some perspective, my least favorite film of the year Area 51 is honestly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Yet, the hits were pretty strong and reflective of a tumultuous year full of change, fear and ambiguous resolutions for the world in general. 2015 was so strong that I could have easily done a Top 30. But I’ll still give some of those a spot light for honorable mentions. Anyway, let’s get this show on the road;

Honorable Mentions: Bone Tomahawk, Carol, Chi-Raq, The Gift, The Hateful Eight, He Never Died, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Slow West, Straight Outta Compton, The Voices

20. The Big Short

the-big-short

Paramount Pictures

I’ve gone on at great lengths about this one, so I’ll be a bit briefer here. The Big Short is probably the most unconventional of the Oscar frontrunners, going on tangents that may seem odd, given the editing style resembles that of a young Oliver Stone for the ADHD generation. Yet, all of style culminates in a consistently hilarious, biting satire that takes these risks for the sake of investing and informing a modern audience about a terrible event in our nation’s history that may happen again if we’re not too aware.

19. Tangerine

tangerine

Magnolia Pictures

Speaking of unconventional, Tangerine is about as far away as one can go from mainstream fare, with characters who are often unpleasant towards one another, a grimy East LA setting and centering around topics of identity & place that might turn off those used to familiar Hollywood tactics. Yet, Tangerine still manages to relate on a very human level, showcasing these transgender and other unconventional lead characters for who they really are in this soot covered backdrop that’s often cast them aside. They aren’t portrayed as saints, yet they’re also not completely condemned by the film either. They just live and breathe, with all of it being captured in a highly kinetic and oddly beautiful style that’s shot on an iPhone. It’s a day in the life for a life not often depicted, with equal parts hilarity, genuine drama and surprising heart that sneak up on you when you least expect it.

18. It Follows

it-follows-pool

Radius-TWC

As this list will continue to argue, 2015 was a great year for horror. Probably the most beloved of the examples in the larger critical community was It Follows, a film that applies the most traditional aspect of conventional horror (a young woman being followed by a stranger) to a new aesthetic. Those Michael Myers style sequences of fearfully trying to run from an intimidating stranger is multiplied here, in that it can happen at any time, the villain is pretty much unkillable and even if you seemingly pass the curse onto another, it could easily come back if that other person fails. That paranoia is presented in gorgeous terms by director David Robert Mitchell, with visuals like the above that manage to represent the budding sexuality’s temptation and watery purity meshing into a murky visual of oncoming doom. That plus the genuinely terrifying Disasterpiece score makes some of these sequences incredibly uneasy.

17. Steve Jobs

steve-jobs

Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs as a subject already had a rather traditional biopic of his life with 2013’s forgettable failure Jobs. So, what could director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin do to spice things up? Well, remove the traditional structure and turn it into what is essentially a three act play. Each act shows a different stage in Jobs’ life, but the jumps still manage to have a consistent development for the ego centric icon of the industry without pulling punches. With a cast this immersed in their roles and a story this constrained, the lack of extravagant detail doesn’t detract as much as strengthen the power of the performances and kinetic camera moves. It’s the Steve Jobs movie we wanted… and it’s a shame people didn’t actually see it.

16. What We Do In The Shadows

what_we_do_in_the_shadows

The Orchard

It’s hard to praise a comedy without simply repeating jokes and laughing about them. So, I’ll be brief on What We Do In The Shadows. Giving vampires the Christopher Guest mockumentary treatment, co-stars/writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi manage to show their dedication to the lore while managing to find new avenues to make fun of them. Waititi, Clement and others in the cast have this grounded chemistry that carries the movie through its silliest antics and the mockumentary style even lends to the quiet fun of seeing these vampire do mundane things like brush their teeth or complain about household chores. All of this allows the laughs to flow about as quickly as the gore that sprays out of people’s necks.

15. Sicario

sicario-bodies

Lionsgate

The War on Drugs has never been so tense. The trio of Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and especially Benicio Del Toro serve as a demented love triangle of a metaphor for the broken nature of a system this corrupt. Brolin is the American government, using whatever tactics they can to take action against those they deemed guilty. Del Toro is the morally unhinged perpetrators of said questionable actions that merely wants to get paid. Then there’s Blunt, the human last voice of humanity trying to topple the system the best he can, only to find that it’s a fruitless endeavor. Put all of this into the context of highly intense action sequences and some of the best cinematography of the entire year from Roger Deakins & you have one entertaining yet ultimately depressing films about such an endlessly ongoing conflict.

14. The Final Girls

the_final_girls

Stage 6 Films

Another great horror comedy for 2015, The Final Girls has plenty of laughs and jabs at the expense of the slasher genre. It can’t help but not with a cast that involves some of the best young comedic actors out there. Yet, the biggest surprise and most engaging element of Girls is the genuinely endearing heart. The relationship between Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman here is one full of palpable emotion, particularly for those who have lost a loved one. It’s the thread that keeps the film moving and actually feeds into its major theme of rose colored nostalgia glasses that the characters constantly try to keep alive, both figuratively and literally.

13. Bridge of Spies

bridge of spies

Touchstone Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s output as of yet in this millennium has been extremely varied. Between the adventurous fun of The Adventures of Tintin, engrossing drama of Munich and just plain massive disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it seems like Spielberg is a filmmaker caught between the crowd pleasing joy and grounded drama that his career often oscillates between. Probably the best combination of both worlds is Bridge of Spies, a Cold War drama that is admittedly light on action, but is full of intriguing characters dynamics that mirror the war it takes place during. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance drive the emotional center of the film, giving a human face to both the American attempts to squash the potential of communism and the spies themselves who merely tried to provide for their own families and country. Despite its length and lack of constant action, Spies is the kind of Cold War story that speaks to the nature of the tension filled war, one filled with true human fear and attempted understanding.

12. Trainwreck

trainwreck

Universal Pictures

Judd Apatow works at his best when he’s grounded by the comedic personalities of others. With writer/star Amy Schumer, Apatow found one of his best comedic anchors. Schumer’s story is one that recalls the traditions of romantic comedies and has a consistent hilarious pace, but shows off a surprisingly complex heart for the people in her life. All of this manages to hit particularly hard with the incredibly tight romantic chemistry she has with Bill Hader, who serves as a solid contrast to her hedonistic attitude. Films like Trainwreck show that the romantic comedy genre doesn’t have to grow stale. It can vibrantly breathe when something interesting is done… like having LeBron James be the supporting sidekick.

11. Spring

Spring

Drafthouse Films

Speaking of a twist on romance, Spring is about as unusual a romance as one can get. I mean, it does follow the traditional meet cute formula; boy moves to another country, boy meets girl, boy finds out a massive secret about girl that could test their relationship. It just so happens that said secret is one that reveals something major about said girl’s background, age and even species. Yet, this revelation is treated as more a bump in the relationship than a point of no return, making one feel even more invested in Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker’s chemistry and willingness to stay with each other despite their differences. That along with the understated effects work makes Spring a unique and worthy example of what horror can do to differentiate itself.

10. Krampus

krampus

Universal Pictures

Horror comedy is my favorite subgenre of film, one that combines the spooky scares and horrific kills with the same jolting joy of a laugh at its absolute best. Few films manage to find that perfect balance between the two emotional extremes, but one of them is Krampus from Trick r Treat director Michael Dougherty. The building of the mythology behind the titular character and the genuine threat that he & his little helpers actually hold against this family. Plus, said family manages to inhabit these very relatable archetypes that show more detail and weight as the film goes along, all with subtle indicators explore these characters without blatant exposition and deconstruct the commercialized nature of the holiday season. It’s also incredible to see in a year where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is bringing back the use of practical effects that Krampus ups the game even further with its detailed and near flawless creature designs.

9. Phoenix

phoenix

Sundance Selects

While many of the recently announced nominees for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film can boast technical complexity like Son of Saul, a film like Phoenix shows that the true universal language is emotional complexity. I spoke to this in my previous review on this blog, but Phoenix‘s simplicity in plot is in service of an emotional tug of war that plays on the heart strings with flawless execution. Nina Huss’ performance here is easily the most underrated of the year, showing off the type of layered intrigue that makes or breaks a character focused film like this.

8. Ex-Machina

ex-machina

A24

The Prometheus Myth is a familiar one. One that Mary Shelley took full advantage of with her original novel Frankenstein and in that specific form has been endlessly retooled in a cinematic landscape for ages. With Ex-Machina, we have the first truly great one in decades, taking the concept of man creating life and applying it to modern methods of technology and gender roles. With phenomenal performances by Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, Ex-Machina manages to use its sleek subtlety to its advantage as it presents this familiar dynamic of man & tech from a brand new perspective that speaks to modern worries and perceptions impeccably.

7. Spotlight

spotlight

Open Road Films

Spotlight isn’t a flashy film. The limited direction from Tom McCarthy is mainly used to show the lives of these journalistic characters without ever plainly expositing things to you about their home lives or their perspectives. It’s mainly used to present these actors committing to these as much as these journalists are committing to uncovering the corruption of the Catholic Church. That corruption, despite how much of it was revealed in fairly recent history, still shows off an emotional gut punch as these journalists dedicate so much time and attention to unveiling the one thing that matters to them with their work: the truth. Something journalism often forgets about these days.

6. The Martian

the-martian

20th Century Fox

The joy of hard science fiction is basing its science in fact and extrapolating from there within reason. Case in point, The Martian manages to make a story full of complex equations and mainly centered around one man on his own into a genuine crowd pleaser that utilizes a phenomenal cast quite well. The comedic charms of the dialogue and the agency of the characters only strengthens the tension, far more so than the dull characters that have populated most of director Ridley Scott’s recent films. Plus, the film does what more piece of pop culture need to do; show off the idea that competency with science can be cool.

5. Creed

creed-sly

Warner Bros

In the age of “legacyquels,” its hard to argue for a upteenth iteration of a franchise to do something completely different. Yet despite being the seventh entry in the Rocky franchise, Creed managed to take the older constructs of the series it takes place in while adapting it in its own new modern context. The titular Adonis Creed isn’t a punk boxer aging out of his weight class and romancing a shy girl. He’s a strong tempered man with a family name he both can’t escape yet wants to reconcile his issues with, finding a connection with a driven woman with a goal that (much like his desire) could harm her. There’s more of a modern complexity that at the same time bounces off the kind hearted yet dopey Rocky, wonderfully brought back with gusto by Sylvester Stallone. Even more so than the mega hit of The Force AwakensCreed is the type of franchise reboot that gives us the right balance of new pathos and heartfelt nostalgia.

4. Anomalisa

anomalisa

Paramount Animation

The concept of Anomalisa doesn’t sound like one that necessarily needs the stop motion treatment. It’s a film with relatively few characters and a limited amount of sets. Yet, the genius craft of Anomalisa is that the art form still truly resonates with the emotions of the characters. The uncanny valley nature of the animation feeds into our lead character’s disconnection with the world around him and the tragic artifice that his worldview creates for him. So, when someone who enjoys life despite her troubles like the titular Lisa enters his life, it’s a brief glimpse at how he could perceive life, yet not something that cures his anxieties. It’s a masterful example of how much more complex the animated format can be, detailing the human experience with genuine subtlety and heartbreakingly relatable emotional honesty.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad_max_fury-road

Warner Bros

With Creed, we got a film that paid specific homage to the earlier films in its franchise while adding its own spin. With this fourth iteration of a thirty year dead franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road breathed new life by taking the major aesthetics of that franchise without heavily referencing the earlier films. Fury Road instead injects a shot of adrenaline into the proceedings and puts the film into high gear, screaming towards valhalla with all the visual storytelling gumption of a Vagner opera on speed from George Miller, the very director who inspired this chaos in the first place. Yet, in the middle of all these glorious action scenes is a story of survival and redemption told with subtle yet poignant moments of interaction between the characters, particularly the outwardly abrasive yet genuinely worried Charlize Theron and the silently troubled Tom Hardy as the titular Max. Both share the screen as equals, attempting to right the wrongs of man and give the Earth some hope of rebirth in the wastelands.

2. Inside Out

insideout.jpg

Pixar Animation

Pixar has carved out a market for making people go through a roller coaster of emotion. Inside Out could be their crowning achievement in that department, literally using its cast of emotions to capture the rather universal evolution of the thought process one feels at a prime age like 11. It’s an incredibly clever film that takes the vague idea of personified emotions and fleshes it out into a chancy adventure film where the stakes are the emotional clarity of a young girl rather than anything earth shattering. No evil villain or life threatening actions, just this one girl’s emotional clarity. Yet, thanks to the constantly clever use of visuals and surprising maturity hidden beneath the gags, the stakes manage to feel far more grand than the ultimate scale would imply.

1. Room

room-jack-brie

A24

If we really want to talk about emotional roller coasters, Room is biggest Six Flags ride of emotional resonance out there. Director Lenny Abrahamson took the very nature of the initial titular environment and used it to map the trajectory of Brie Larson and Jacob Trembly’s characters. From their claustrophobic start to their expansion into the wider world, you see an inner turmoil between the both of them, one trying to adjust to an environment she hasn’t been in for years and the other attempting to grasp what this new unseen world is to him. Room doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of this scenario and even the aftermath, but in it’s humanity there’s a chance for clarity and and ability to move on from adversity. It isn’t for the the faintest of emotional hearts, but those that can stand being built up and crumbled like myself can admire a powerful example of what truly gripping dramatic filmmaking can be.