Friday, December 30, 2016

My 20 Favorite Films of 2016

I'll start this post as I always do, by mentioning the films I haven't seen yet and are therefore ineligible for this list.  Many of these were released in November or December for Oscar purposes, but only in New York and LA. So with that being said, here are a few films that I still haven't seen yet: Silence, 20th Century Women, Live By Night, The Handmaiden, Elle, Toni ErdmannYour Name, and Paterson.  It's a shame too, because I'm very excited for these films, especially Silence.

2016 was the year where the film community seemed to split in two over whether or not this was a good year for movies.  So many different pieces were written about the death of cinema that it started to get nauseating.  (And for some reason, many of these complaints popped up around the time the show Stranger Things was gaining buzz and dominating the conversation, so people tried to draw correlations.  Yeah...2016 was a weird year.)  But the truth is, movies aren't dead and probably won't die any time soon.  2016 doesn't quite match the quality of last year, but there were still many gems to be found.  What critics are saying when they write a piece about 2016 being a bad year for movies is that it was actually just a bad year for big-budget studio films.  There were so many quality mid-budget and genre films that it seems blinkered to complain about the state of movies.

In conclusion, cinema is alive and well.  So let's get down to celebrating it.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2016, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2015, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2016 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Honorable Mentions (25-21)

Whit Stillman and Jane Austen prove to be a perfect match in the funny, charming, and biting Love & Friendship.  Jason Bourne is a deeply stupid film, but it's still as fleet-footed and visceral as the original trilogy.  Newcomer Oz Perkins establishes himself as a talent to look out for with I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a somber old-school ghost story.  The Marvel Industrial Complex may be getting tiresome and oppressive, but the splashy Captain America: Civil War is one of the most fun entries in this cinematic universe.  The Wailing is a wild ride that cycles through about seven different genres, in true Korean fashion.

20. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Directed by Gareth Edwards)
Gareth Edwards' Godzilla film from 2014 is one of the most underrated blockbusters of this decade.  More than that, it showed that Edwards has some killer visual sensibilities, a knack for evoking scale and crafting striking setpieces.  He basically applies all of those principles to the Star Wars universe in Rogue One, and it works like gangbusters.  In many ways, this is a Star Wars film unlike any you've seen before -- a grimy, in-the-trenches struggle that really engages with ideas of war in a series that usually prefers to elide it in favor of a sense of adventure.  It's got a grim fatalism baked into the premise, but throughout the film it never lets the audience forget that dread as morals are compromised and bodies pile up.  All of this culminates in a third act that feels like the stuff of dreams, as Edwards constructs a series of brutal action scenes that fully utilize the tools this world provides.  The bleakness of Rogue One may make it feel like it's not a Star Wars film, but it's setting an important precedent, opening the door for all kinds of stories to be told in this fertile universe.

19. Sing Street (Directed by John Carney)
It feels like we should be getting tired of John Carney making hyper-earnest films about the power of music, but after three successes in a row (yes, Begin Again was good) his charms are still potent.  He turns back time to the 80s and returns to Ireland for Sing Street, which tells the story of a ragtag bunch of high school kids who decide to form a band.  There's love everywhere you look in this film.  Carney clearly has a passion for music, which shines through in his scenes of characters practicing and performing, finding joy in the community of playing and trying on new styles.  He also has a deep well of empathy for his characters, giving everyone hopes and dreams, and taking time to understand their points of view.  And after telling so many unconventional romance stories, he proves he can succeed at a traditional one too.  Sing Street is the feel-good movie of the year -- it argues that music may not save your life, but it can certainly brighten it up.

18. 13th (Directed by Ava Duvernay)
At first 13th, Ava Duvernay's documentary on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, feels a little pedestrian, as it opens with information on slavery and the 13th Amendment that most viewers will already know.  But it quickly becomes clear that Duvernay is playing the long game.  13th structures itself as a term paper, each section functioning like a paragraph, constantly moving its argument forward with every clip and new piece of information.  What results is a passionate, searing look at the deep roots of racism within our nation, and how it seeps into every corner of the law and economy.  Again, this won't be wholly new information to most people, but seeing it laid out so methodically and thoroughly is an eye-opening experience.  It's just the kind of thing we need right now at the end of 2016.

17. Green Room (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
Anyone who saw Jeremy Saulnier's debut Blue Ruin was aware of his willingness to get gnarly.  But he takes it to an entirely new level with Green Room, a bone-crunching thriller about a struggling punk band who find themselves in a life-or-death situation when they witness something they shouldn't have after performing a show at a neo-Nazi bar.  Before getting to the carnage, the film does a terrific job of showing the day-to-day life of the band, giving a great impression of how they function as a group and an even better justification for caring about their fate later.  And once things head south, it's a nonstop spiral into hell.  The majority of the film is an exercise in unrelenting, nail-biting tension with moments that are so visceral they feel painful even from the other side of the screen.  This is what Saulnier does best -- funneling his amiable characters through a meat grinder and seeing what's left on the other side -- and let's hope he only continues to amp things up from here.

16. The Neon Demon (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
The Neon Demon is kind of dumb.  As a satire of showbiz and the fashion industry it can be a little heavy-handed, occasionally bogged down by Nicolas Winding Refn's tendency to make the most obvious points and mired in his faux-Lynchian stiltedness.  But it's also very smart, especially in the way it examines the danger of not just being a woman, but one who's acutely aware of the power she holds.  Mostly though, this is an audiovisual feast, from the amazing collection of synth smears composer Cliff Martinez provides to the icy glow of the cinematography.  Like a beautiful dream meeting a violent fantasia, Demon is a ceaseless blend of blood, eroticism, and consumption.  The weirder it gets, the more alluring it becomes as well.  Refn's films tend to be divisive, and I'm generally on the negative side of the critical schism, so it's a surprise and joy that I loved The Neon Demon as much as I did. [Read the original review]

15. Hell or High Water (Directed by David Mackenzie)
Last year's Sicario was an excellent film, but it would have been easy to assume that Taylor Sheridan's script had little to do with it.  There are some terrific ideas in there, but most people would praise it fourth in line behind Roger Deakins' cinematography, Emily Blunt's performance, and Denis Villeneuve's direction.  With Hell or High Water, we see that he's no fluke.  There is strong direction from David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and great performances across the board, but it's a much more skeletal film, one that allows Sheridan to show off his skill for dialogue.  The script is full of these gruff, clever turns of phrase and while the character types and story structure are familiar, Sheridan finds freshness in the texture he adds to these people and the beats in between.  It's also smart about upending expectations, affording the bank robber protagonists details you don't often see in films and deftly subverting classic tropes of the genre.  When you hear someone lament, "they don't make 'em like this anymore," they're likely talking about a film like Hell or High Water, a lean and simmering little movie that tells a simple story with enough flashes of ingenuity that make it stand on its own.

14. The Invitation (Directed by Karyn Kusama)
Opinions on The Invitation tend to be hinged on how people feel about the ending.  Is it really smart or really stupid?  Does the film take too long to get to the fireworks factory or is its slow-burn tension perfectly modulated?  But there's so much to parse in Karyn Kusama's chamber thriller, a film that sets up a great dramatic framework as a man (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to a party held by his long-absent ex-wife, with whom he divorced after the loss of their son.  Kusama plays those initial dramatic moments straight and with great care, and Marshall-Green conveys his grief with a vulnerability that leaves an air of mystery as to whether his character is on to something when he suspects something fishy is going on at this party, or if pain is clouding his judgment.  As for the ending scenes, they're supremely effective, leading to a chilling final shot that's one of best conclusions in film this year.  With The Invitation, Karyn Kusama has crafted a high-tension, dramatically rich film that will haunt you long after it ends.

13. La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
The hot take wars have already exploded around La La Land, with some adoring it and others feeling like it's a cheap pastiche of New Hollywood musicals.  I was leaning towards the latter camp when the film first started, finding the musical numbers and the sentiment behind them a little thin and hollow.  But as it goes on the razzle-dazzle wins you over, the emotions begin to marinate.  La La Land borrows from the works of greats like Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy, but Chazelle brings many of his own techniques to the homages to keep them from feeling like complete ripoffs.  And the chintzy charm is part of the point of the film, teeing the viewer up for the moment that it topples conventions with a devastating conclusion.  While this might not be on the level on Chazelle's previous work with Whiplash, La La Land is a creative, technically dazzling, and joyous experience like few others.

12. Don't Think Twice (Directed by Mike Birbiglia)
Improv comedy is something that the world is slowly becoming more familiar with, thanks in part to the proliferation of podcasts that rely on the form.  So it was high time that we got a film that took a look at this world.  Enter Don't Think Twice, the second directorial effort from standup comedian/storyteller Mike Birbiglia, a film that centers around a longtime improv group who face difficulties when one of their members gets recruited to the big leagues on a popular sketch show.  Though the setting it explores is niche, the ideas at play in Don't Think Twice are as universal as can be.  Anyone can relate to this thoughtful, wistful rumination on success and what makes art worth doing.  One of its greatest strengths is that it doesn't judge its characters for their varying motivations.  For some, recognition is a part of the fulfillment in comedy, while others find joy in the kinship it brings.  In the end, both are recognized as okay.  Filled with great performances (particularly from Gillian Jacobs), rich characters, and a big-hearted spirit, Don't Think Twice is one of the most poignant films of the year.

11. Weiner (Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)
Luck often plays a part in great documentaries, and that's definitely the case with Weiner.  The filmmakers couldn't have dreamed of a better scenario than following politician Anthony Weiner during his attempted comeback after a sexting scandal, only for a second scandal to occur while the cameras were rolling.  There are so many moments where directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg let Weiner hang himself, as he lays out his hubris and bullish personality all on his own for the audience to see.  What makes it a special film, however, is the considerable skill that's behind it too.  Kriegman and Steinberg juxtapose Weiner's failures with the failure of the media, whose dogged pursuit of the sensational causes them to ignore the aspects of politics and governing that actually matter.  Weiner paints the man in the title as an egotistical and self-absorbed, but also an intelligent and complex, figure; and it implicates us all -- from his own mistakes to America's distracted feeding frenzy -- in his tragicomic downfall.

10. American Honey (Directed by Andrea Arnold)
American Honey, Brit director Andrea Arnold's road trip film through America's heartland, isn't exactly subtle.  A moment late in the film involves the characters breaking out into a sing-along of Lady Antebellum's "American Honey."  There's a scene where two characters discuss their hopes and dreams while a song about dreams plays on the radio.  Then there's the premise itself, about a group of impoverished young adults travelling around the middle of the country selling magazines, a dying medium, as a representation of both the nation's and the characters' decay.  But subtlety is not a prerequisite for beauty, which American Honey has in spades.  It's a lush odyssey, shot so intimately it almost feels uncomfortable.  At two hours and 43 minutes, this is a long film, but I'm not sure I'd cut any of it.  For all the moments where the pacing flags, it's hard to deny the ragged, loose feeling it presents, making the strongest scenes even more dynamite. There's a wild, wild whisper blowing in the wind, and it just may be American Honey penetrating your soul.

9. Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
It's fitting that Arrival came out a few days after the results of a presidential election that left many stunned and hopeless about the state of humanity.  Here was this film that served a panacea for our woes, a story about a character confronting something foreign with empathy, wonder, and openness as opposed to fear, suspicion, and hatred.  Even aside from the timeliness of it all, Arrival works because it's a brainy, riveting sci-fi film that moves along with a quietness that only gains power as it continues.  In some ways it reminded me of Ex Machina, another movie that had me leaning back in awe every 15 minutes, saying to myself "this is fascinating."   And every time it feels like things are getting a little too cerebral, there's always Denis Villeneuve's sure-footed direction to keep things locked on the emotions and enormity of it all.  Arrival is, above all else, a meditation on communication.  Language isn't just what we say, it's what we think.  In turn, it's who we are.  Those differences can fundamentally make us unique, but we can find ways to cohere through little similarities and rhymes.  There's something awfully comforting about that, and watching this movie too.

8. The Nice Guys (Directed by Shane Black)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the best films of the last 15 years and if it's not the funniest ever made, it's definitely the most quotable.  So who could blame Hollywood golden child Shane Black for wanting to make it again?  The Nice Guys finds him back in his wheelhouse after getting that Marvel money with the severely underrated Iron Man 3, telling another darkly funny LA noir about two mismatched screwups (this time Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) bumbling their way through a labyrinthine mystery.  While it doesn't quite match the heights of Kiss Kiss -- the plot probably hangs together even less than its spiritual predecessor upon closer inspection, the laughs flag just a tiny bit in the third act -- it's still a great example of Shane Black doing his Shane Black thing.  Which is to say it's a wildly entertaining, hilarious, colorful, and oddly warm and soulful ride.  This seems like a movie you'll always stop and watch when it's showing on TV, and that's perhaps the best compliment a film like this can get.

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Directed by Dan Trachtenberg)
We're living in an age where everything is a part of an expanded cinematic universe, but even still, few could have guessed that we would ever have a Cloverfield cinematic universe.  Nevertheless, 10 Cloverfield Lane rises above any initial skepticism, first by barely being a Cloverfield film.  It's mostly just a claustrophobic drama, a vehicle for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. to bounce off of each other in a riveting game of deception and subtle maneuvering.  The second way the film establishes itself is by simply being an excellent piece of cinema.  It moves along so adroitly, the rhythm ebbs and flows perfectly guided by Dan Trachtenberg, a first-time feature-length director who operates like a master already.  10 Cloverfield Lane is nothing but a complete triumph that bodes not only for this franchise, but for Trachtenberg as well. [Read the original review]

6. Don't Breathe (Directed by Fede Alvarez)
In a year full of great genre films, the one that wears its B-movie roots the most proudly is the one that stands at the top.  Most of that can be attributed to director Fede Alvarez and his gift with the camera.  Early in this home-invasion thriller, he employs a tracking shot throughout the house that works as a satisfying piece of technical wizardry, but it's also important for understanding the geography of the setting.  There's an almost Hitchcockian level of "showing the bomb under the table," attuning the audience to all of the ways the central robbery could go wrong, leaving them in suspense to see how all of the elements will play out.  And suspense is what Don't Breathe is all about.  The film is loaded with some of the most agonizingly tense scenes of the last few years, twisting the knife to nervous laughter-inducing levels.  Some people take issue with the film's nasty transition in its third act, but it's hard not to admire the way it dives headlong into pure insanity with such fearlessness.  Don't Breathe is a film that came to do some damage, and by the end it certainly does its fair share.

5. The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)
Religion-tinged horror often doesn't do much for me.  Maybe it's because I'm not a religious person, but I generally don't find films about demonic possessions or witches all that compelling.  Robert Eggers' debut The Witch is a big exception, because it contains some genuinely fascinating ruminations on religion in the midst of its scares and interpersonal drama.  If man is inherently sinful, how can we ever live up to God's standards, when we're always trying to bridge that impossible distance?  Are the religious restrictions placed upon main character Tomasin the very thing that make her susceptible to the evil creeping in at the corners of the film?  Eggers asks these questions in the midst of a dread-filled narrative shot in stark beauty, all natural lighting and quiet, long takes.  People get so hung up on whether a horror movie is scary or not, but that feels like it's besides the point here.  Either way, The Witch remains gripping and impeccably crafted throughout.

4. Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
"Who is you?" a character asks protagonist Chiron at one point in Moonlight.  In a way that's the central thematic question running through the entirety of the film, which is a lovely examination of shifting identities, of how we're perceived versus how we feel.  Broken into three distinct segments covering Chiron's childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood; with each portion titled a different name he gets called throughout the story, Moonlight uses his life to offer up a tale of sexuality and black male masculinity in a unique and intimate way.  Jenkins avoids simple gimmickry with the structure of the film by refusing to indulge in facile cause-and-effect connections between the separate segments.  Instead, he goes for a more graceful approach, littering the story with little mirrors and symbols to connect occurrences in Chiron's life.  There have been a few comparisons between this film and last year's list-making Carol, but while the latter was excellent but chilly, Moonlight is nothing but white hot emotion.

3. Manchester by the Sea (Directed by Kenneth Lonergan)
Judging by its premise -- a grieving man (Casey Affleck) must return to his hometown after his brother dies and he's named the legal guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) -- you would expect Manchester by the Sea to be a nonstop misery fest.  But Kenneth Lonergan, who may be the greatest pure dramatist right now, delivers a complete package, a film so rich and full that it pulls off the difficult tonal highwire act of being funny and heartfelt while also painting a devastating portrait of loss.  Manchester doesn't rely on melodramatic moments, constant crying and shouting.  Instead, it looks at grief from a distinctly male (and New England) perspective, as both protagonists attempt to keep a placid exterior, only for it to come crashing down in sudden, brief moments.  Lonergan masterfully structures the story too, doling out information slowly, shifting what we know about the characters and the situation they're in, making earlier moments retroactively play much differently.  In the end, it's all messy and complicated and lacking in typical moments of catharsis, much like life itself.  We're now three for three with Kenneth Lonergan masterpieces.  The world truly may not deserve a talent like this.

2. The Edge of Seventeen (Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)
I've seen some critics refer to The Edge of Seventeen as a "miracle" or a "lifesaver" and then proceed to only give it a B+.  I've seen even more praise that merely labels it as a "good teen movie."  But unlike everyone else, I'm not afraid to pull the trigger on this one.  The Edge of Seventeen is incredible -- so incredible that I decided to put it ahead of a Kenneth Lonergan film.  It's a film that works for many reasons -- the generosity of spirit towards its side characters, dialogue that's sharp and funny, Woody Harrelson playing a grumpy teacher -- but mostly because it has an astounding performance by Hailee Steinfeld as a centering force.  She helps make Nadine a complex and fascinating protagonist, one who's angry -- truly angry -- in a way that feels unique for a teen girl character.  Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig allows Nadine to be messed up and unlikable, painting her actions as partly a result of her still dealing with the death of her father, but also a result of underlying issues that go beyond that. That sense of rawness is what makes her arc all the more satisfying.  Don't get too hung up on genre biases, because The Edge of Seventeen is an absolute classic. [Read the original review]

1. Everybody Wants Some!! (Directed by Richard Linklater)
At this point, it seems unfair for other films to have to compete with Richard Linklater's work.  He's on an insane hot streak right now: Before Midnight was the best film of 2013, Boyhood was the best film of 2014, and now Everybody Wants Some!! is the best film of 2016.  What Linklater has crafted here is a fascinating anthropological study of masculinity through the college baseball team it follows, setting the camera down and letting you watch their trivial competitions, rituals, and shared anecdotes.  It also functions as beautiful examination of college itself, one where everyone is constantly reflecting on who they are and attempting to discover their true identities.  Most of all, it's an insanely fun film with characters so lovingly written and portrayed that you'll want to hang out with them onscreen, even if you usually wouldn't in real life.  With a stacked cast of actors who are destined to be stars, an unfettered sense of joy, and Linklater's trademark philosophical musings, Everybody Wants Some!! is a film whose wonders never cease.

Well, that wraps things up for my best films of 2016 list.  I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments.  Or if you have any thoughts on my list, then you can do that too.  To see a complete ranked list of all the 2016 films I've seen this year, CLICK HERE.

Previous lists


  1. Favorite 10 Films I saw:

    1. The Nice Guys
    2. Hell or High Water
    3. Arrival
    4. Star Trek Beyond
    5. The Edge of Seventeen
    6. Sully
    7. Love and Friendship
    8. Everybody Wants Some!!
    9. Sing Street
    10. Midnight Special

    Can't tell you how happy I am someone else dug The Nice Guys as much as I do (Shane Black is The Man), and that someone finally added the two exclamation points to the title of Everybody Wants Some!! when talking about it (it might be the only time punctuation in a title feels necessary rather than excessive/annoying). Dug how different this list felt from all the other ones I've read.

    1. haha great point about the exclamation points in the title of Everybody Wants Some!! It truly does capture the infectious spirit of the film.

      I meant to rewatch The Nice Guys before finalizing my list, because I was sure that it would work even more and move up higher on my list, but I never found the time. I do think it's being severely underrated by alot of critics and listmakers.

      I should check out Sully. It didn't seem like it would be my thing but enough people have stumped for it that I've reconsidered.

  2. 2016 faves out of what I've seen-
    American Honey, Everybody Wants Some!!, Don't Think Twice, Sing Street, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Other People, Collective: Unconscious, 10 Cloverfield Lane... and maybe the Lobster. American Honey, though, really just came out of nowhere and stole the whole show for me. still not over it!
    love that Linklater is your top pick three years in a row!! that man is a god

    1. Yeah, American Honey is really special. It manages to be so dreamy and so present at the same time.

      I hadn't heard of Collective: Unconscious but I'm going to check it out. It sounds super cool! And I had Other People on my list of films to catch up on before I made my list but then I got so burned out on watching TV and movies last week that it fell through the cracks. I've heard good things though, and your seal of approval makes it even more intriguing.