2016 was a chance to discover new stories and new voices.
There will be a lot of talk about how 2016 was a bad year for movies. I’ve certainly done my fair share of it. But truthfully, that’s not a fair assessment. 2016 was a frustrating year for movies, and it seemed like some malevolent force was trying to confound viewers every step of the way. Where was the standout summer blockbuster? 2016 didn’t offer anything to rival The Dark Knight or Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s only so many time that we can see Tony Stark crack wise in an iron suit before we start getting diminishing returns. Oscar season wasn’t a whole lot better, offering up a slew of films that underwhelmed (I’m looking at you, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea).
It certainly didn’t help that a large number of directors took the year off. Where was Christopher Nolan? Wes Anderson? Quentin Tarantino? David Fincher? Paul Thomas Anderson? Katheryn Bigelow? Aronofsky? Cuaron? Jonze? The list goes on and on. The directors that did work made smaller films in the first half of the year like Spielberg’s The BFG, Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, and the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!
2016 was a year that forced viewers to go small. I spent a lot of time in the arthouse, and there are six films on this list by directors whose work I’d never seen before. That’s a good thing. The whole point of art is to expand your horizons and experience alternative viewpoints, and new voices are a big part of that. It was only a few years ago that I’d never heard of Alex Garland, Ava DuVernay, or Abdellatif Kechiche, and now I actively seek out their work. The wheel of time marches onward whether you like it or not, but thankfully, the future looks bright.
These were my top films of 2016.
But first, I present the worst film I saw this year.
Dud of the Year: Suicide Squad, Directed by David Ayer
I can barely describe how much I hated this film. After repeatedly failing with their dark, brooding, “I can punch my way through life” brand of comic book films, DC Comics decided to flip the script and blatantly rip off Marvel’s lighter take on the genre, namely Guardians of the Galaxy. Somehow, they still managed to screw it up. I can barely decide what the worst part of the film even was. Was it the fetishized violence? Was it how David Ayer’s camera leered at Margot Robbie’s ass? No. It was those damn musical cues. The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was filled with the hits of yesteryear, and Suicide Squad ripped off the idea with none of the nuance. Will Smith’s character is in a prison in New Orleans? Play “House of the Rising Sun.” Harley Quinn is an uncontrollable woman in a cage? Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” will do the trick. A gang of villains is forced to fight crime against their will? “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” They literally play the snippet of K7’s “Come Baby Come” that includes the line “swing batter swing” while Harley Quinn swipes a baseball bat at a bad guy’s head. The producers obviously fail to understand that music should complement a scene and not literally describe it. In a horrible mistake, I saw this film on the same day that I watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These films are not to be enjoyed, but endured. Forget making a great film — DC Studios can’t even figure out how to make an enjoyable one. In short, David Ayer is a fascist, and Suicide Squad is his loving tribute to firearms.
Chase’s Top 10 films of 2016
Hail, Caesar!, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
As the Academy prepares to anoint La La Land with a Best Picture win to once again show the world how Hollywood is obsessed with films about itself, the dirty secret of the year is that Hail, Caesar’s “No Dames” Navy musical comedy sequence is better than every song in Damien Chazelle’s over-lauded musical. This certainly isn’t the Coen Bothers’ best film, but this loving pastiche about the Golden Age of Hollywood, Communism, screwball comedy, and the New Testament is hilarious and endlessly endearing. It’s also the Coens’ funniest film in over a decade. Studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) does his best to keep the studio’s stars out of scandal, crisscrossing the studio lot all day solving an unending river of problems. Along the way we’re treated to a half dozen loving 1940s-era studio imitations including the long-forgotten aqua-musical, a Ben Hur-type epic, and a comedy of manners with a hilariously troubled production. Rooting the entire plot is Mannix’s spiritual search for belonging, giving the Coen Brothers room to explore the New Testament as they’d previously done for the Old Testament (A Serious Man). When you see Alden Ehrenreich starring in the Star Wars Han Solo film next year, it was his turn as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle in Hail, Caesar! that launched him into that role. [David’s Review]
Green Room, Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Green Room officially came out on the festival circuit at the end of 2015 before getting a very quiet wide release in April. So quiet, in fact, that we didn’t even cover it for this website, but when I finally saw it on a crappy rental DVD in September I regretted having missed it previously. The story revolves around a band of punk rockers hunted by neo-Nazi Skinheads after accidentally witnessing a murder at a backwoods skinhead club. The band barricades themselves in the club’s green room and plan an escape with their lives while the gang of equally focused skinheads, led by a chillingly calm Patrick Stewart, plot how to kill the band and cover it up. The film is painfully tense, continually wrenching up emotions and then punctuating them with explosive moments of action and violence. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s never overtly gory. 2016 was a great year to see highly-acclaimed actors step into the types of roles that their critical status frequently precludes them from being offered (think Anthony Hopkins in Westworld). Stewart’s work here is no different. Underscoring the film’s brutality is the knowledge that this was the last Anton Yelchin film to be released in the actor’s lifetime before he was killed in a freak accident in June.
Zootopia, Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
The best of the three excellent animated children’s films released this year (shout outs to Moana and Finding Dory), Zootopia is a largely atypical Disney film. The studio usually aims their films at as wide a target of people and eras as possible. As our critic David McGinnis said, “A release like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast isn’t meant to be a film of its time, but for all time.” Perhaps it was just a coincidence of the brutal 2016 election cycle, but Zootopia’s message of acceptance across all genders and species (read: races) seems especially prescient to the current moment. Starring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin as a bunny eager to become Zootopia’s first rabbit police officer, and Jason Bateman as her fox nemesis-turned-best buddy, Zootopia is filled with enough warmth and clever sight gags to keep it from becoming annoyingly preachy. As Byron Howard said while accepting a Golden Globe award, “We wanted to make a film that not only entertained kids but also spoke to adults about embracing diversity, even when there are people who want to divide us by using fear. On top of all that, we still managed to fit in a joke about a sloth working at the DMV.” [David’s Review]
Fences, Directed by Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington finally managed to bring August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the screen after nearly three decades in development hell, and it was well worth the wait for the opportunity to see its two starring performances. Denzel Washington is a force of nature as Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player trying to raise a family and define his place in the changing world of 1950s Pittsburgh. He chews through Wilson’s script as equal parts bombastic thunderer and charming fabulist. Viola Davis is even better as Rose, Maxson’s salt of the earth wife. The two stars display a lived-in feeling of their characters’ relationship that was developed over the course of dozens of performances in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, and their chemistry pays off in spades. Washington isn’t a great technical director, but he made the important decision to not attempt to be one for Fences. He’s content to stay out of the way and let Wilson’s script and his cast carry the picture, and he’s rewarded with two powerhouse performances, including his own. Viola Davis is the frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actress award, but Washington will probably get nipped by Casey Affleck’s work in Manchester by the Sea. If I had my way Davis and Washington would both win. [My Review]
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Directed by Gareth Edwards
There are plenty of people who had big problems with Rogue One’s first forty-five minutes. I’m one of them. The film’s opening act is a fast-moving mess that was seemingly over-complicated during the film’s notorious reshoots and editing (huge portions of the film’s trailers ended up on the cutting room floor by the time the film hit theaters). But if you can find the patience to wait, Rogue One’s closing act is the greatest spectacle that hit theaters this year, rescuing the film, the reputation of the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader, and the faith of millions of Star Wars fans in the process. Rogue One and its story about the mission to steal the plans for the Death Star isn’t quite the stand-alone Star Wars film that it claims to be. Rather, it’s a perfect bridge to unite the stylistic and narrative chasm between the prequels and original trilogy. Edwards has an undeniable gift for powerful visuals, but if it really was Tony Gilroy’s rumored work that crafted the film’s final hour, then that man deserves a thank you note from every Star Wars fan. It’s powerful, wrenching, and not the cuddly, Disney mess that we all feared. Rogue One is yet another sign that the Star Wars franchise is in good hands. [Brian’s Review]
The Lobster, Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
This absurdist dystopian black comedy is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English film. I wonder if audiences know what hit them. The film depicts a future where anyone who finds themselves romantically single must check into a seemingly government-run hotel and attempt to find a new partner. After 45 days anyone who has been unable to find love is then turned into an animal of their choosing — hence the film’s titular marine crustacean. Colin Farrell has rarely been better as the film’s protagonist, exuding incredible humor and loneliness in his awkward performance. The film questions the lengths people will go to for a relationship. Would you just pretend to be happy? Would you physically alter or even handicap yourself? Don’t laugh. Your very existence might depend on it. The film takes a hard left turn in its second half when Farrell’s character meets a potential romantic partner played by Rachel Weisz, doubling down on its philosophical questions. So many of this year’s excellent films offered audiences the hope of love. The Lobster is no different, but offers that some love is misguided. [My Review]
Swiss Army Man, Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Ah, yes. The Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie. I eternally espouse that every films asks an audience for some suspension of disbelief. Some just require more than others. Such is the case with Swiss Army Man, a film where Hank Thompson (Paul Dano) finds himself marooned on a deserted island with no one to talk to except a water-logged, flatulent corpse that he names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Previously on the verge of suicide, Hank adopts Manny as a companion, but is shocked when the corpse begins conversing with him. Swiss Army Man left me with feelings of unbridled joy. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and wears its alienating weirdness as a badge of honor. There are a lot of films about the magic of friendship, but what about the friendship of magic? The film is a testament to how well an absurd premise can work when the actors are totally committed. It’s a work of pure imagination, and the props that Hank and Manny make in the woods as stand-ins for the features of the inhabited world that Hank misses so badly are charming to behold. You might wonder about the mechanism of Manny’s re-animaton. Is it magic, or simply Hank’s descent into madness, to which I’d simply answer “yes.” [My Review]
Arrival, Directed by Denis Villeneuve
The public spent years begging for Leonardo DiCaprio to win an Oscar, but what about Amy Adams? You can easily make the claim for her as the lynchpin in a dozen critically acclaimed projects over the last decade, and Arrival is no exception. Adams stars as a linguist conscripted by the army to discover how to communicate with an alien spacecraft that has landed in Montana, one of twelve that has suddenly appeared unannounced around the world. I’m a huge fan of adult-oriented science fiction, and Arrival is a film about aliens that centers the stakes not around global domination or lasers, but on how we would learn to communicate across cultures, species, and planets. Framing the story is a meditation on loss that makes an unexpectedly powerful turn in the film’s last half hour. How can you continue on in the face of unbearable pain? And wound you if you knew it was coming? Denis Villeneuve also directed my #3 film last year, Sicario, and is quickly entering that rarified “I’ll see every film he makes” echelon. I can’t wait for what’s next. [David’s Review]
Silence, Directed by Martin Scorsese
After nearly three decades of trying, Martin Scorsese finally succeeded in making his passion project, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan. Despite being best known for gangster films, there’s always been a deep vein of Catholicism in Scorsese’s work, but Silence gives him a chance to explore the subject in a way he hasn’t done since 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Quite simply, the film is a masterpiece. The film stars Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues, a priest who goes to Japan in search of his mentor (Liam Neeson) who is alleged to have surrendered his faith in the face of Japanese persecution. The film is a punishing watch, featuring numerous scenes containing the torture of Japanese Christians, but it also grapples with questions of faith and spirituality in a way that movies marketed to a Christian audience rarely do. What if you could end the suffering of others, but must deny God to do it? What is faith? What is pragmatic? All the while Scorsese’s camera is a quiet observer, not promising answers, but openly inviting you to question.
Moonlight, Directed by Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is not only the best film I saw this year. It’s the best film I’ve seen in several years, and the only A+ grade I’ve ever awarded while writing for the website. Director Barry Jenkins uses one man’s story as an examination of black lives and gay identity, following a young boy named Chiron through puberty and into adulthood with a different actor playing the character at each stage of life. All three actors are great, as is Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother. But the film’s greatest performance comes from Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug lord with a soft spot for the young, bullied Chiron. A cliché, you say? Definitely, but Moonlight steers directly into its clichés, shattering stereotypes in the process. Ali has won practically every award for his performance and looks to add an Oscar to his list in March. It would be deserved. The scene where Juan struggles to find the words to an answer when Chiron asks him what a certain gay slur means has hung with me for months after seeing the film. Moonlight is a film of uncommon grace, depth, and wisdom matched with Nicholas Britell’s haunting score and James Laxton’s swirling, fluid camera work. Some filmmakers work their whole lives to make a movie as good as Moonlight, but Barry Jenkins has nailed the thing on his second try. It’s a magnificent achievement and the best film of the year. [My Review]
See you all in 2017!