Anchored by strong performances across a variety of ages, the Best Films of 2016 were, frequently, markers of reconciliation with the eternal truths of familial connection.
The explosion of Cinematic Universes (Marvel, Star Wars, X-Men, Universal Monsters, probably Smurfs I dunno) has necessitated a reciprocal boom in the idea of worldbuilding as story. One can probably trace this phenomenon back to the freakishly popular Lost, which succeeded for the last three seasons of its life purely on the idea that, at some point, the world was going to make some kind of sense and feel complete.
And while some worldbuilding is excellent (the MCU certainly was building a satisfying little galaxy before Joss Whedon got depressed and Kevin Feige handed the thing over to the Russo Brothers), what frequently gets lost in the mission to craft an entire world is the ability to tell small-scale stories about relationships, or about family. How can one family represent an entire world? Most studio executives believe it can’t, and thus you get every single superhero movie (and most of the new Star Wars) ending with climactic fights against unremarkable bad guys that have no basis in the emotional tones of the writ small story.
Even some of the best movies of 2015 suffer from this — there are moments in both Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road, last year’s two best, where Alex Garland and George Miller get stuck justifying their large scale story with large scale consequences and lose the emotive, narrative thread of their characters.
So it was heartening this year to see many of the best movies of the year dig as deeply as possible into the small scale, family-based stories of their fictional worlds. Sure, there are probably fantastic political thrillers to be made from the world of Midnight Special or Arrival, but at their core both films are propelled by small, two to three-person relationships, frequently focusing on the beauty and dedication it takes to form a family.
In cases like Hail, Caesar! or Everybody Wants Some!!, family can mean disparate and uncommon things. Even while most people were frequently writing essays about what to do when your uncle brings up President Elect Orange Toad at the Thanksgiving table, most didn’t recognize that the Coen Brothers and Richard Linklater had given an interesting perspective on what it really means to be a family; sometimes it’s our frustrating and self-serving coworkers, sometimes its our horny upper classmen roommates. They may not be blood family, yet they understand and support your struggle as much as normal family might. Look at Taika Waititi’s opus Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which actively supposes that those who understand you best are often those you are pushed together with out of necessity, not out of blood.
Perhaps I’m cherry-picking; in fact, I’m sure I am given that Captain America: Civil War fell flat on its face trying to tell some giant worldbuilding story while ignoring the smaller, minor key beats in favor of CGI airport fights that represent less cinematic storytelling than just comic book fan masturbation fodder. It’s become easy to tell giant stories without fleshing out a central core.
So for my Top 10 Best Films of 2016, I really tried to focus on the small relationships, the beautiful friendships and family bonds that could define the year in cinema, were we able to see past our goddamned over-caffeinated comic book brains and look at the people around us.
Due to the still unreliability of San Antonio to pull great, independent cinema into its orbit for any appreciable amount of time, I missed out on a number of movies that might have made this list. Moonlight was in town for only a brief period, and I missed it in a haze of Christmas nonsense. Silence and The Red Turtle have both premiered in the LA/NYC bubble, yet neither have even sniffed South Texas. I doubt Toni Erdmann will get anywhere close. So, sadly, this is a woefully incomplete list. Oh well, the quest for a great independent movie theater in San Antonio continues.
Don’t Breathe: For a taut, locked-room thriller with excellent bonafides and a competent director (Fede Alvarez, flexing some serious post-Evil Dead remake muscle), Don’t Breathe stumbles around to one of the most dissatisfying conclusions I’ve seen in a long time. Not only does Alvarez meander through what seems like an interminable amount of possible endings (finally arriving at the least satisfying one), he inserts [SPOILER ALERT] a grotesque, meaningless sexual assault into what was otherwise a relatively clear-headed and clean horror movie. Don’t Breathe squanders good performances and devilish direction with a third act that transforms the movie into a b-movie torture porn disappointment.
Kubo and the Two Strings: God, this one was a bummer. Travis Knight and the rest of Laika undoubtedly have supernova-level bright ideas rattling around in their brain, but somewhere along the way to developing Kubo they ended up with a visually stunning mess of a story that somehow just skirts away from the line of offensive cultural pastiche. Whitewashed voice casting (almost more inscrutable given that the color of the actors’ skin or weight of their name matters little in animation), inconsistent historical location setting and a misrepresentation of Kubo as a legendary story (bereft of any legendary Japanese elements) make Kubo a singular disappointment, and one that Laika, despite the unreserved praise the movie has gotten, hopefully can return from. (My Review)
Tickled: From its humble beginnings and bland opening cinematography, Tickled spends the majority of its running time becoming something of a token example of American rot, the disgusting core at the center of so many of our basest functions — sex, power, money. That the movie uses its running time to focus on the latter two of those three ticks the movie’s esteem down a notch; at times it feels like filmmaker/journalist Dylan Farrier is afraid to touch the sexual underpinnings of fetish tickling. Yet on the other two scores Farrier is relentless(ly stupid) in his pursuit of the bottom of the cave, the nucleus around which the grotesque molecule that is “Competitive Tickling” circles. That he only briefly is able to bounce into it is revelatory, yet a powerful reminder of the movie’s meaninglessness. This isn’t The Jinx, or Serial. Most things aren’t. Farrier stumbles onto a monstrous world, and it’s all he can do to stay afloat in it.
Everybody Wants Some!!: Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused is as easygoing and blandly philosophical as his previous meandering treatise Waking Life. Yet the drunken frat baseball players of Southeast Texas University frequently skim along the waters of an interesting filmic undercurrent, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. At points the movie’s protagonists are bleary-eyed idiots, hapless Dharma Bums-reading philosophers, emasculated bullies, lecherous Lotharios or (overly) charming romantic heroes — basically every descriptor of the idealized, burdenless late teenage male. In a way, the breathless praise for the movie’s casual haze plumbs a deeper insecurity among the (mostly male) film cognoscenti about their own teenage years; in another, it’s just ridiculously fun to watch men who look like they’re in their 30s play early 80s dress up while trawling for babes. There’s a subtle, mischievous underpinning to Everybody Wants Some!!, but it’s better to just let the good vibes roll over you.
Sing Street: John Carney, brilliant and evocative filmmaker that he is, has a knack for crafting stories with similar narrative thrusts. His 2007 breakthrough Once and his ebullient, new wave standout Sing Street both center around miscreant losers from poor families in Dublin who are prone to sad bastardizing over girls whose boyfriends want to take them to London. Unlike Once, which is a melancholy ode to a “broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy,” Sing Street is a love letter to Duran Duran, The Cure, Joy Division and other seminal 80s bands told by a misfit kid just out to get laid and make friends. But while Lucy Boynton and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo are evoking the spirit of the 80s, Jack Reynor is a revelation as protagonist Conor’s older brother Brendan, a lost 70s kid who, in the end, just wants someone to be a jet engine. His is the performance that flecks the sunny, unencumbered proceedings with a welcome splash of melancholy, and gives Sing Street its most cathartic, earned moment as Brendan watches his brother reach for his dreams. (David’s Review)
Hell or High Water: I suppose my only contextual gripe with Hell or High Water is that I am frankly sick of movies set in Texas that are about cowboys, as if it is the state’s enduring cinematic image (I will forgive the film’s New Mexico location shooting because why would you want to shoot in Texas with the awful tax incentives). Because even if the story pushes the line of too on the nose (the title is spoken by an ancillary character, after all), the performances and deep-seeded Robin Hood-esque determination of Chris Pine and Ben Foster are enough to propel Hell or High Water out of the depths of rote neo-Western genre malaise. Foster gets the easier part, playing the unhinged ex-con brother, capable of anything at any time, but always on the invoice of protecting and serving his kin. Pine is a flat stunner as the lead, a menacing minor key elegy to Southern disenfranchisement at the hands of suit and ties. The story dances around a rank sniff of The Plight of the White Man, only to be pulled back from an at this point expected tour de force Jeff Bridges. Hell or High Water, like its characters, consistently rises above humble beginnings to achieve something beautiful. (David’s Review)
10. Only Yesterday, Directed by Isao Takahata
Although technically made in in 1991, Only Yesterday received its first U.S. release on New Year’s Day of 2016, a full 25 years after its Japanese premiere. But really, that’s almost perfect for the bifurcated story of Only Yesterday, which lilts poetically between Japan in 1966 and 1982, focusing on a farming village in the North. Takahata weaves an infectious melancholy into the proceedings; in other hands main character Taeko (ably voiced by Daisy Ridley) might come off as some insufferable twenty-something. Instead, her budding relationship with Toshio is flecked with the history of pastoral Japan, a history all the more somber now that the derision of Japan’s farming communities has come to pass. Yet, in the film’s credit sequence ending (an odd choice), Takahata allows the viewer a moment of well-earned joy as Taeko makes the choice her young self was always supposed to make. A film about reckoning with past dreams and present sobriety, Only Yesterday was a beloved gift from Studio Ghibli as the studio begins its odd, unceremonious twilight.
9. Rams, Directed by Grímur Hákonarson
What would you do for your brother? It’s an easy question to dodge around, or answer with blank cliche. The bonds of fraternity are often subtly frayed, torn apart not through the sudden slice of a cord but rather through the ages of erosion and weathering, whipped away thread by thread as if in a snowstorm. Rams, Grímur Hákonarson’s international debut film, picks up as the thread is about to snap between brothers Gummi and Kiddi, rival sheep farmers in rural Iceland. Their flocks are affected by scrapie, a horrifying sounding brain and spinal cord disease that forces the entire valley of sheep farmers to slaughter their sheep. For Kiddi and Gummi, this could be the end of their venerable and award-winning line. Gummi sets to drinking, Kiddi to planning, and two continue to clash in wordless and vicious struggle for nearly the whole movie.
Hákonarson’s visuals are magnificent and bleak, tinged with the pitch black humor that could only be grown from the icy plains of Scandinavia — the majority of the film’s second act is taken up with equal parts Kiddi’s reckoning with his mischievous decisions and the brothers playing mean pranks on one another. Yet in the film’s moving final third, Rams takes on a dire, desperate kinship, pressing Kiddi and Gummi together (literally) in a fight for survival. Surpassed only by the haunting ending of Shin Godzilla and the full bloom capper of The Fits, Rams‘ final shot is evocative, loving and sad, as if the whole of the movie had simply melted away and the brothers were once again for each other instead of themselves. Hákonarson resists an easy conclusion, instead shining a light on the rams the title of the movie actually refers to, and the film takes a powerful, pastoral elegy to its grave.
8. The VVitch, Directed by Robert Eggers
If the recipe for The VVitch — pastoral horror movie framed as a folk tale, ancient dialogue to boot, containing little to no gore and tiny effects — sounds like pastiche, that is more than likely what director Robert Eggers was going for. A directorial debut as audacious and brutal as it is silent, slow-paced and predictable, The VVitch revels in the slow-burn horror staples, then dodges away from them in subtle, affecting ways (the peek-a-boo scene early in the film is the prime example). Eggers remarkably flips the script (up to that point a sort of pre-America Twilight Zone episode) in the movie’s final turn, a genuinely surprising moment that feels all the more natural considering the film’s subtitle. And all the while, a standout performance by Anya Taylor-Joy locks in a brilliant undercurrent of the magical, terrifying way girls turn to women and become actualized.
7. Hail, Caesar!, Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
In a way, Hail, Caesar! is a movie to act against these times. The dread of the Hollywood Blacklist is only just beginning to loom over Los Angeles; Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix (a real dude!) struggles against the misery of actors, actresses and the gossip machine, trying to carve out a decent life for himself and his child. George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich play confused stars facing a monolithic god (the unseen studio head) moving them around like pawns, some of them slowly moving towards the fringes. Ralph Fiennes nearly goes bonkers trying to teach someone how to speak King’s English. In an endless struggle all the members of Hollywood push against immovable objects, trying to break their little peace of serendipity free. It may seem dispiriting, yet Brolin’s other prospective career path — project manager for the nuclear program – gives necessary perspective. This is just a moment, in the lives of a few. And to work hard at work worth doing, even if it seems interminable, is enough. (David’s Review)
6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Directed by Taika Waititi
I was never the biggest Taika Waititi fan. Flight of the Concords remains overrated; Eagle vs. Shark is stultifyingly precious; What We Do in the Shadows was admirably off-kilter. Yet Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the uber-cinematic boy-and-father-figure story starring Sam Neill and an unbelievable Julian Dennison floored me as a flawed, magnificent portrait of the enduring value of family and history in the face of the cold, unfeeling world. Dennison’s portrayal of Ricky’s evolution from inner city orphan and wannabe gangster into perfectly capable woodland badass (and wannabe gangster) is a joy to watch, and Waititi keeps his furiously giggling spirit in its most effective balance with the dramatic arc of the search for the runaways. Waititi is the next prestige director to graduate from sardonic indies to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (following Joss Whedon and the failed Edgar Wright Ant-Man) with next year’s Thor: Ragnarok. Pray that the infectious humanity of Hunt for the Wilderpeople carries over.
5. The Fits, Directed by Anna Rose Holmer
Anchoring a entire cast of young actors, many under sixteen and still figuring out their presence in the world, let alone on camera, should not be something newcomer (and teen herself) Royalty Hightower should be able to do. Yet in the hands of Anna Rose Holmer, the freshest in a steady stream of NYU filmmaking wunderkinds, Hightower is a pure, understated tour de force, issuing a frail yet commanding performance that should, in a just world, put her up against actors triple her age for a coveted Oscar nomination. Without Hightower’s probing gaze, the “disease” spreading among a young girls dance troupe in inner city Cincinnati might seem trite, or overly metaphorical.
Hightower’s eyes mirror the cameras, and we’re allowed to see the fascinating world, not just the magic of the disease but also the mysterious land that is tween girldom as it attempts to reckon with boys and developing womanhood. And if The Fits were just a tone poem to the terrifying transitions inner city children must go through as they grow up, it still might be one of the twenty or so best films of the year. Yet the final five minutes, when Hightower’s number is finally called, is a disorienting parade of gorgeous imagery, Holmer exploding her taut drama and fulfilling a mountain of potential the movie had been hesitant to touch. The Fits is gorgeous for the way it gestates, crawls around, then finally stands and shouts its truth, and Royalty Hightower is key to that.
4. Green Room, Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
That the only recognizable song performed at the decrepit club by The Ain’t Rights is The Dead Kennedys’ seminal “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” seems only right, given this year. Jeremy Saulnier’s rogues gallery, led by an awesomely Shakespearian Patrick Stewart, might have only been meant as an imposing and almost unstoppable wave of psychos; instead, this year has frothed from the depths of humanity’s dark corners the soul of race hatred and Nazism to the point that a vocal component of America’s President Elect’s voting block were literal neo-Nazis. Thus, Green Room’s unrelenting house or horrors, from Anton Yelchin (goddammit, RIP) nearly getting his arm flayed off in the films first explosion of violence to the unstoppable, vicious rage of the Nazis’ dogs, takes on a weightier aura, something of a grand metaphor for the way beleaguered youth must feel as the specter of Nazism descends upon their hamlet of safety.
Saulnier’s lens carries Green Room along its terrifying way with tiny shots of brutality, instead choosing to focus most often on the horror and, ultimately, resilience on the faces of the few actually destined to survive the night. The film achieves a bit of gruesome poetry in its end, but such relief is masked by the memory of the misery in the survivor’s mind. Only Saulnier, fresh from the mastery of Blue Ruin, could’ve achieved such distress that cares so little for the fate of its protagonists, yet has such heart for their struggle.
3. Arrival, Directed by Denis Villenueve
As he begins his hyper-lightspeed ascent to the peak of the directorial power rankings, it will be important to remember the formative images of Denis Villeneuve’s rise: the final scene of 2014’s Enemy, the unbelievable road trip to Juarez in 2015’s Sicario, and the scenes from inside the Heptapod ship in Arrival. Arrival is Villenueve’s best work, somehow four years into an every-movie-each-year-and-better-than-the-last streak to rival peak Woody Allen, due in large part to his haunting, elliptically moving camera and the performance everyone was waiting for Amy Adams to finally unfurl when given the chance. A story of the connections the passage of time wraps around the human memory and the way we remember our family, Arrival achieves a Spielbergian balance between Adams’s mysterious personal history and the geopolitical morass of the coming of the Heptapods, never dwelling for too long on one or the other, letting each ticking clock and mystery box tick down or open as the story dictates it should.
Adams, similarly, imbues her character with a competence and confidence wholly welcome for a strong female character at the center of an action movie; even the playful romance between her character and Jeremy Renner’s feels on Adams’s terms. Villenueve has a cunning ability to let actresses (Adams, Emily Blunt in Sicario) breathe into their characters and explore their flaws, allowing strength and fortitude to flow from those details. Arrival is that rarest of “first contact” movies that has far less to do with aliens or humanity and far more to do with the few individuals actually participating in the contact itself. In that regard it joins Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film has already propelled Villenueve stratospherically — he’s somehow going to release another movie next year, the blockbuster Blade Runner 2049, upon completion of which he will presumably easily slide into an adaptation of fucking Dune. With his future intact, Arrival has one more miracle to pull off: getting Amy Adams that Oscar she deserves. (David’s Review)
2. Shin Godzilla, Directed by Hideaki Anno
After Gareth Edwards’ placidly acceptable reboot of the American Godzilla tradition last year, it seemed only right that Toho Productions would turn around and one-up America in every way possible. Turning to Japan’s most famous living director (considering Miyazaki is technically “retired” and Takahata recently passed), Hideaki Anno, and giving him carte blanche to recreate the Godzilla mythology, could’ve resulted in a bloated, overly referential piece of trash. Instead, Anno reinvigorates Godzilla as a modern bureaucratic cautionary tale for a Japan betrayed by their officers over the last decade. The first half of the movie is largely a blackly comic, Japanese version of Veep, with bureaucrats shuffling between conference rooms with little regard to solving the actual problem of a massive monster rising from the ocean. Yet in the second half, Anno presents an alternate theory to the “fuck the government, they got us into this mess” anarchism, instead positing that, perhaps, all Japan needs is a group of scrappy youngsters around to make things work. It’s not that easy, and the terrifying, even more super-powered Godzilla design Anno and company draw up wreak untold damage upon Tokyo before being temporarily stopped.
If Anno had just left his Godzilla take there, it might’ve been just as effective and haunting a treatise on modern Japan. Yet as the camera pans up on the defeated Godzilla in the movie’s final shot, we see the horrifying silhouette of dozens of fused, human-Godzilla hybrid skeletons reaching out from the monster’s tail. Are they evolutionary mini-Godzillas, a way for the creature to adapt to small scale human warfare? Or, most metaphorically, are they the skeletons of dead soldiers, picked up from the sea floor as the lizard creature fed and grew on the nuclear waste of Japan’s ruinous last century? We may never know (Anno has not signed on for a sequel, and Toho is certainly not in the greatest financial shape), but the specter of death that hangs over what might’ve been a palette cleansing finale gives Shin Godzilla its lasting, bitter, memorable flavor. [My Review]
1. Midnight Special, Directed by Jeff Nichols
In a year filled with conspiracy theories, dogma mistaken for religion, the ending of so many collective ages of innocence, and the disbelief that true miracles might actually happen, it was immediately comforting for me to revisit Midnight Special, nearly eight months after seeing it for the first time and walking out of a theater completely stultified. Jeff Nichols, who might earn some Oscar love this year for his Oscar-baiting historical drama Loving instead of this magnificent koan to family and fatherhood, took the most effective parts of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, distilled them down to a very potent essence, and shoved them into a traditionally quiet Nichols-Michael Shannon indie film.
The central mysteries of the movie never fully unfold and reveal themselves; Adam Driver, playing the Francois Truffaut character from Close Encounters, gets none of the answers he seeks at all. Yet the answers we do get are in service of illuminating and deepening the relationship between Alton Meyer and the world around him. He is a talisman of sorts, a beacon of first contact between the aliens that live above our world and the world around us. That Michael Shannon’s Roy saves Alton from every conceivable obstacle in the service of returning him to his people is just the message humanity would want to send to others: that we protect, and attempt to understand, those around us that are not like ourselves. While nearly everyone outside Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton moves to block Alton, or to capture and study him as some potential weapon or spy, it is the love and dedication of a family that passes humanity’s first extraterrestrial test.
In many other ways, Midnight Special speaks to the unique love and sacrifice required of families with children that are not “like other children.” While understanding and coping with their childhood may be difficult (impossible, at times), there is no greater love than devoting your life to a child who needs you. In a year when artists cleverly, and not so cleverly (hey what’s up, Stranger Things) aped Steven Spielberg’s mid-80s science fiction peak, it was Jeff Nichols’ early year sci-fi thriller that capably distilled Spielberg’s essence and blended it with his own precise filmmaking ethos. What resulted was the best movie of 2016, a year that frequently felt unreal, but necessitated a dogged few to continue to ground it in some sort of beautiful, difficult reality. [My Review]
See y’all in 2017.