Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Best Movies of 2016: Part 1

The time has come to go through my favorite films of 2016. Last year, I listed my top 30, and I've decided to do so again this year. So without further ado, let's start with the first entries, beginning with #30.

#30: Captain America: Civil War (dir. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)

Perhaps one of the reasons a lot of people feel this wasn't a great year for film is because of the quality of blockbuster films. Last year, the big box office hits all did very well, with franchise movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Force Awakens appearing on multiple top ten lists. This year, those same top ten lists are dominated entirely by smaller, mainly independent films. The disparity between commercial and critical success was probably highlighted by the reaction to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which lead to fans trying to practically rage war on critics who universally said it was a bad film (for the record, the critics were very much right). But one solid entry amongst the box office hits was Captain America: Civil War. Marvel studios has become a bit of a machine, and has raised the standard for what we would have expected from a comic book movie even just a few years ago. Civil War was a welcome return to form for the MCU. It worked on a storytelling level, and continued examining the pathos and darker characterizations that have elevated the franchise, while also excelling with the action, providing the big superhero blowout many felt was lacking from Age of Ultron. And that's not even mentioning that it provided great introductions for Black Panther and the latest interpretation of Spider-Man, both of whom have solo films coming up which Civil War has made me very excited for.

#29: Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)

Nothing about Hell or High Water is really all that new. The story and the characters all rely on standard tropes that feel familiar. That's not a bad thing, but it means that everything has to be executed perfectly to keep the audience from feeling bored. So it's good that David Mackenzie's modern Western is so incredibly well-made. Everything from the cinematography to the performances is so carefully crafted that the film feels surprisingly fresh, yet immediately classic at the same time.

#28: Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)

Director Pablo Larrain was reportedly resistant to the idea of directing a biopic. But Jackie is not your standard biopic. Like the divisive Steve Jobs last year, Jackie takes an iconic historical figure and, rather than tell their story in a straightforward manner, examines the idea surrounding that figure. Here, of course, that figure is Jackie Kennedy, and the film is particularly interested in her life immediately after her husband's assassination. The film is tragic, powerful, and complex, with a simply incredible performance by Natalie Portman in the title role, giving the best performance in her already impressive career.

#27: The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

Anna Rose Holmer's directorial debut flew under the radar, but is destined to become a future classic. The Fits tells the story of Toni (a wonderful Royalty Hightower), a tomboy who tries out for a dance team. The film is primarily a quiet character study of Toni, who is one of the most convincingly-written and portrayed eleven-year olds I've ever seen on film. But it veers into surprising territory when the dance team begins to suffer a series of mysterious seizures. Add in a magical flying sequence and The Fits was one of the most surprising films of the year, and certainly worth a watch.

#26: The BFG (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I just don't understand the lukewarm reception given to The BFG. Practically nobody in the U.S. saw it, and few who did seemed that taken with it. Which is weird to me because I thought this film was unbelievably charming. A faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book, in both story and tone, Steven Spielberg works his movie magic and creates one of the year's best family films. The film also provided one of my favorite on-screen pairs of the year with its two heroes: young Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill who is going places if her performance here is any indication) and the titular Big Friendly Giant (played by recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, who gives the best motion-capture performance I've seen this side of Andy Serkis).

#25: Equity (dir. Meera Menon)

The financial drama is a familiar genre to most movie-goers, with films like Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, and other titles that probably include the words "Wall Street," being known for their typically sleazy characters and often witty banter. But looking over the landscape of financial dramas, it's clear that another trait of the genre seems to be their predominantly male casts. And while this is arguably a reflection of the still male-dominated world of finance, it is still a trait that marks the genre as feeling behind the times. This means that the film Equity would be notable just for the fact that it's a financial thriller with a mostly female cast. But not only that, it has an entirely female creative team. And not only that, it's just a really solid film, which manages to highlight its feminist message by keeping its most powerful statements understated. It's tense and multi-layered, with a great cast being lead by Anna Gunn (after all, who else could star in this film other than an actress best known for playing one of the most unfairly persecuted female characters in television history?)

#24: Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

Toni Erdmann really should be on more peoples' radar, as this German film is widely considered the frontrunner to win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Maren Ade's film studies the relationship between uptight businesswoman Ines (Sandra Huller) and her carefree prankster father (Peter Simonischek) who thinks she needs to relax a bit more. The film is more concerned with characters than plot, but the dynamic between these two characters ends up going to some wonderfully weird places. I loved the father's increasingly bizarre attempts to bring joy to his daughter's life, but what really sold the film for me was how much it makes you care about these characters, particularly Ines who never strays into the realm of caricature that the character easily could have been.

#23: Under the Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari)

When this Iranian film first premiered, it immediately drew comparisons to The Babadook, Jennifer Kent's masterpiece from a couple years ago. And it's not hard to see why--both monster movies involve a mother caring for her child, and both hint that the monster represents something far more symbolic. Set in 1980's Tehran, the film is genuinely scary at times, but overall it's devastatingly thrilling. You care about these characters and worry for their well-being, which any good horror movie should be able to accomplish. In a year filled with great horror films, Under the Shadow was one of the most surprising and rewarding.

#22: I Am Not a Serial Killer (dir. Billy O'Brien)

This is easily one of the most underrated films of the year. I Am Not a Serial Killer, but despite only being shown on streaming services (it can now be found on Netflix) it was one of the most captivating films of the year. I don't want to say too much about this film, to be honest. All of the advertising, including the trailer, presents a very different film than the one you end up watching, and I think much of the effect of this film is in the surprises it conjures up. but I will say that much credit is due to the performances of Max Records as a quiet teenager told he has been diagnosed as a psychopath, and Christopher Lloyd as his next door neighbor. Lloyd especially stands out, and is doing some of the best work of his career--at times sympathetic and at times shockingly menacing. This is an odd but fascinating sci-fi film, with a surprising degree of understated charm. Give it a watch. It deserves so much more of an audience than it had. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

#21: Don't Think Twice (dir. Mike Birbiglia)

Don't Think Twice is a bit rough around the edges. It's an imperfect film, with some moments feeling clunky. But any imperfections of the film are irrelevant compared to its considerable charms. The film follows a popular but struggling improv troupe whose members have reached a certain turning point in their lives. Writer, director, and star Mike Birbiglia uses the film to compose a bittersweet love letter to the art form of improv comedy, as he both celebrates the form and demonstrates the difficulties behind its rather niche appeal. But while the film is very much about improv comedy, it also speaks to universal human truths. You don't have to be an improv comedian to understand the themes of feeling unfulfilled in life. Don't Think Twice is an intelligent commentary on friendship and what defines success. Plus, it features really strong work from a cast of underrated comedians. Keegan-Michael Key is the biggest name in the film, and here he gets the meatiest role a member of the troupe who is launched to success on a clear SNL stand-in show, with somewhat resentful support from his closest friends. But the standout of the cast is Gillian Jacobs, whose Samantha is both the heart of the film, and the character who most represents Birbiglia's own optimism and love for the art form of improv.

#20: A Man Called Ove (dir. Hannes Holm)

About fifteen minutes into A Man Called Ove, Sweden's submission for this year's foreign language film Oscar, I thought I'd figured the whole movie out. Rolf Lassgard plays Ove, a comically grumpy older man who seems to hate everyone and everything. The plot of the movie seemed simple: Ove's heart will be warmed by the colorful cast of characters who surround him and he'll see that things are perhaps not all bad. And...yes, this is exactly what happens. But what surprised me was HOW it happened. While the plot itself is predictable, the way it unfolds is anything but. I was tearing up by the end, and I frankly don't know how anyone could watch this movie and not be moved by it. It may not be the most discussed title of 2016, but it was one of the most pleasant surprises for me. And Lassgard, who initially I thought was overplaying the character's qualities, ends up giving one of the strongest performances of the year, which includes a truly unexpected amount of subtlety.

#19: Sing Street (dir. John Carney)

With only three films under his belt, John Carney is already one of my favorite filmmakers working today. After the universally beloved charms of Once, and then his more polished but severely underrated Begin Again, Carney returned this year with another musical and once again has a rousing success on his hands. Based off of his own childhood, Sing Street is Carney's most personal film, and follows an Irish schoolboy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who starts a band to impress the pretty girl next door. Like all of Carney's films, Sing Street is deceptively simple, with the story and characters all proving to be more complex than you'd initially expect them to be. The young cast is phenomenal, but the standout is Jack Reynor, who plays Conor's burnout philosopher of an older brother Brendan. Also, as much as I love La La Land (stay tuned for my top ten list...) Sing Street easily had the best and catchiest soundtrack of any film musical this year.

#18: Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)

One of my favorite movie moments this year was watching the opening credits of Deadpool. One immediately understood the tongue-in-cheek tone of the film, and was excited for where the film would go. As a superhero film, it's really good. The action is both fun and exciting and, while origin stories are feeling a bit played out, this one was certainly compelling. But when I think of Deadpool, I don't really think of it as a superhero movie, but as a comedy. This film had, for my money, the most laughs per minute of any film this year, and quite possibly for the last few years. Immediately quotable, Deadpool immediately has the feel of a modern classic, and it was immensely satisfying to see the comics' distinct perspective adapted so fluidly to the screen. And I'm glad to see the clever screenplay get recognition from prestigious awards like the WGA's. Plus, much credit should be given to Ryan Reynolds, who gives the best performance of his career and brings a superhero to life better than anyone since Robert Downey Jr. first donned the Iron Man suit.

#17: The Jungle Book (dir. Jon Favreau)

I don't have all that much to say about The Jungle Book, to be honest. It's just a really, really, really well-made film. It's gorgeous to look at, and the effects are truly groundbreaking. The story is good and, unlike some of Disney's other live-action adaptations, it actually makes a case for its own existence. Although it tells the same story, it's a very different film from the classic animated version. Plus, the voice cast is really excellent. Has there ever been a better bit of casting than to have Christopher Walken as an egomaniacal giant ape? Or Bill Murray as Baloo? And Idris Elba's Shere Khan was one of the most genuinely terrifying cinematic villains of the year. Jon Favreau honestly deserves more credit for bringing this film to life, and making it look almost easy in the process.

#16: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)

Just missing out on my top fifteen, Hunt for the Wilderpeople might not be the best film of the year, but I would argue with utmost certainty that it's the most likable film of the year. It's just so fucking charming. I defy anyone to watch this movie and not be drawn in by it. The story of a crotchety old man (Sam Neill) who forms an unlikely friendship with a delinquent foster kid (newcomer Julian Dennison, who I hope we hear a lot more from) follows lots of familiar beats, but is told with so much enthusiasm and heart it's impossible not to love. Taika Waititi proves that not only is he a good filmmaker, he's an incredibly versatile one. At this point, it's hard to imagine him ever making a bad film.

#15: 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)

I loved Mike Mills' last film, Beginners, inspired by his relationship with his father. So it's no surprise that I also love 20th Century Women, inspired by his relationship with his mother, and which can be seen as a bit of a spiritual companion piece to Beginners. Mills' filmmaking style is distinct and quietly quirky, almost like if Wes Anderson's films were grounded in real life. 20th Century Women looks at the life of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a Mills stand-in, and how his childhood was shaped by three women in his life: his best friend and unrequited crush Julie (Elle Fanning, who has had a truly fantastic year), his mom's tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, who continues to earn her place as one of today's most interesting performers), and especially his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening). While the film is an ensemble piece, and everyone does wonderful work, there's no doubt that the film belongs to Dorothea. Bening owns every moment she's on screen, painting a loving portrait of Dorothea as an impressive if imperfect person who is lovable for her flaws rather than in spite of them.

#14: Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

The risk of making lists like this is that our appreciations of films change over time. I've made lots of "best films" lists and whenever I look at them in the future, I'm surprised by what films I put ahead of others. Sometimes a film you love ends up being more forgettable than you thought, or a film that you initially dismissed stays with you and proves far more effective on a rewatch. If any film on this list has the potential to rise in my estimation over time, it's Manchester by the Sea. While I've ranked thirteen films ahead of it, I know that I will think about Manchester by the Sea for years to come. It's an immensely personal film, which showcases the quiet elegance and confidence of writer and director Kenneth Lonergan. The story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a depressed man who is forced to cope with being the guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges), is at times excruciatingly difficult to watch. Lonergan keeps the film's pace slow and quiet, which creates a sense of unease and also highlights the significant emotion throughout the film. It's understated and raw, and deserves the numerous accolades it has already received this awards season.

#13: Zootopia (dir. Byron Howard & Rich Moore)

I will admit that Zootopia took me entirely by surprise. The premise doesn't sound all that original or exciting. "A world where animals can talk." Umm...isn't that most Disney movies? But watching Zootopia it is immediately clear that a lot of work went into this premise. They took the simple concept and ran with it, playing with it in a way that is both detailed and incredibly creative. On top of the world they've set up, the film's screenplay is fantastic. Honestly, you could take the same basic story and plotpoints, cast human actors, and you'd have a thriller that would probably be directed by David Fincher. But the thing that makes Zootopia especially noteworthy--and what everyone has been talking about--is its surprisingly effective tackling of issues of discrimination. What I love about the film is that it keeps its handling of social issues very broad and general. In doing so, it doesn't make its message specific. While most of the articles I've read about Zootopia say it's commenting on racism, I'd actually argue that this film will endure because it can be applied to multiple issues of discrimination in our society. It's not just a great kids' film, it's a great film that happens to be acceptable for kids to watch. If you haven't seen it yet, believe the hype and go watch Zootopia. Even if you're not as impressed by the story as I was, it has so many puns that it simply demands to be seen. Also, it managed to break practically every record previously held by Frozen. That's right. It defeated Frozen. That earns it several extra points in my book.

#12: The Wailing (dir. Na Hong-jin)

If any genre really stood out in 2016, it was horror. There were numerous really strong horror films, and one of my favorites was The Wailing. The story of a somewhat bumbling detective investigating a series of murders with potentially demonic origins goes to some surprising places and offers genuine frights. Writer and director Na Hong-jin keeps his audience guessing even after the film is done. Suspenseful, frightful, and intriguingly spiritual, The Wailing was one of 2016's most compelling thrillers, and contains one of my new favorite cinematic representations of the devil.

#11: Swiss Army Man (dir. Daniels) 

Swiss Army Man was gaining notice before anyone had even seen it due to its bizarre premise. Paul Dano plays Hank, a young man stranded on a deserted island who finds unexpected companionship in a flatulent and fully-erect corpse which washes onto shore. The corpse is, of course, played by Daniel Radcliffe. It wouldn't be fair to say that the movie is either more or less weird than it sounds, but it IS weird in a different way than one would expect. This film is not for everyone, and I can certainly understand the points made by its harshest critics. But I think there's a real wonder to the movie, and admire it for its sheer ambition alone. It is certainly the most original movie I've seen in a long time. Plus, a lot of credit needs to be given to Dano and Radcliffe. Dano is, I think, one of the most consistently interesting actors working today, and he imbues Hank with simultaneous sympathy, innocence, and creepiness. Perhaps in an attempt to separate himself from the role with which he'll always be most associated, Radcliffe has consistently tackled challenging and unexpected roles in his post-Potter career, and I think this is his best work yet. Playing a talking dead body, Radcliffe has severely limited movements, and the physical work he does alone would be worthy of accolades. But his gruff yet childlike line delivery sells the film and creates a truly wonderful character who, perhaps ironically, truly comes to life on the screen.

Some great movies are on this list. So, which films managed to beat them and make my top ten? Find out here.

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