I likely saw more films in theaters in 2016 than I have any other year. And that includes when I used to work at a theater. Even with that, making a top 10 list still feels strange to me, as there are just so many films that I didn’t see that I really think I would enjoy. So, to avoid the perception of expertise, let’s consider this more of a Top-ish Ten-ish films/film-going experiences of 2016 that I had the opportunity to see. We will be starting off with a few worsts to set up a little contrast, then I will briefly discuss some honorable mentions, the films I didn’t get to see that appear to be things I would enjoy, and then the main course. Let’s go!
Stuff I Hated
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – Going in to the film, I was expecting to not like Ben Affleck and find the rest to be in the bad-to-mostly-okay range like Man of Steel. It turned out that the only thing I did like was Ben Affleck and everything else was overly convoluted, boring, joyless, murderific, dour, poorly written, and a completely botched read of the long-standing importance of these characters. Also, the score is terrible and tries way too hard to make this into something epic.
Suicide Squad – A total mess of a film. I walked out thinking “This should be shown in film school as an example of how not to edit a film.” This garbage had the unfortunate task of trying to pick up the DC film universe after BvS and it failed pretty spectacularly for me. It is to the point where I look at that Wonder Woman trailer and give a half-hearted “Meh.”
Sausage Party – I maintain that this is one of the worst films I have ever seen. I saw it back in March at SXSW and hated every lazy, racist, homophobic, sexist, juvenile, reference-humor filled minute of it. Someone needed to tell Seth Rogen that just because there is animated food saying and doing dumb and gross things, doesn’t make it funny. This film sucks and it was almost genuinely troubling for me that so many people seemed to think otherwise, but then I remembered that there were good films this year and I don’t have to worry about Sausage Party ever again.
Tower – Unique, depressing, and nerve-racking to watch. I saw Tower, a film about the school shooting at University of Texas, while I was in Austin, TX nearly in the shadow of the tower itself and with surviving victims of the shooting in attendance at the screening. Some tears were shed.
Tickled – Speaking of unique, Tickled seems like a documentary for which the term “unique” was invented. What starts as a simple investigation of a strange online set of competitive tickling videos turns into a wild and seemingly never-ending chase down a rabbit-hole of oddities. A lot of fun to watch.
13th – Ava DuVernay’s examination of the plight of black Americans from the end of the Civil War to modern day is the kind of thing that should become required viewing in history classes. What I liked most about this film was the number of different angles that the director takes at showing just how overwhelmingly ingrained the oppression has been in both the government and the minds of everyday people.
Into The Inferno – Werner Herzog talks about Volcanoes. The visuals would have been enough, but Herzog’s narration makes everything better.
La La Land – I found this to be a very enjoyable film-watching experience that sorta didn’t quite hold up once I left the theater. Like watching the movie is a big cinemascope smile, but thinking about the movie just doesn’t produce the same kind of verisimilitude. Totally still worth that magic in-theater experience.
Hail, Caesar! – This film is pretty great. The characters are fun, the pace is outstanding, and the acting is superb. This misses the top ten by just a hair this year.
The Nice Guys – Shane Black is amazing and can pretty much do no wrong in my book. I hope he makes funny action movies forever. The Nice Guys is a perfectly fine addition to his ever-expanding filmography.
Don’t Breathe – This excellent, seemingly basic home invasion film blew up with audiences and Brons alike in 2016. What I think is the most successful thing this film does is to hold back in both the score and the editing to create a pace that could give a person an anxiety attack. This is the kind of thing that can help push back against Blumhouse and its lowering of the bar for horror films.
Hush – A very simple film about an intruder who aims to murder a deaf woman at her remote house with two excellent performances from the two main actors. This film also employs some very good minimalism to effectively convey a lot without having to say anything at all
Pet – I greatly enjoyed this film when I caught a midnight show at SXSW back in March. The premise of a guy who keeps a young woman in a cage under his work is one that already creates a few sources of tension. What ends up happening with that plot and these players becomes a full experience absolutely worth watching.
The Witch – I was quite impressed with the style and acting on display in this thriller. It felt that the film may have wanted to be too many things and that hurt it in the long run for me, but I still recommend it for the haunting environment that it creates.
Don’t Think Twice – Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass followed up the fun of Sleepwalk with Me with this love letter to improv comedy. This is a touching and funny film with some really awesome performances from an ensemble of comedians.
Swiss Army Man – This was quirky and existential, which is the way I like my films! The weirdness is the kind that makes a person want to view this with friends to watch their faces. At some moments, this is very sweet and kind, but jumps to absurd and even crude at the drop of a hat. Totally strange and totally worth a watch.
The Mermaid – I am a big fan of Shaolin Soccer, I enjoyed Kung Fu Hustle and God of Cookery, and I had a good time with CJ7. Stephen Chow’s latest film keeps with his tradition of wacky, over-the-top comedy with small elements of satire. The Mermaid is pretty lovable with some great “you’ve just gotta watch the movie to see what I am trying to describe” moments.
-The Stuff I Have Yet to See-
Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, Zootopia, Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Paterson, The Handmaiden, Loving, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings, Captain Fantastic, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, De Palma, Cameraperson, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special
10. Captain America: Civil War
After the incredibly enjoyable and refreshing second film in the Captain America series and with the growth of the necessary crossover within the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had some curiosity going into Civil War about how this could retain its Captain Americaness while simultaneously functioning as almost an Avengers 2.5. And it succeeded very well at walking that precarious line. It steadfastly built on the story and successes of Winter Soldier and moved a universe-wide storyline forward a few steps to better position the audience for what happens next. The action was exciting, the finale was emotional, the use of a rift among the team members was a good device for building up some intrigue for how the Avengers look going into the upcoming Infinity War films. Overall, this was a fun movie going experience. And that airport fight scene is just so exciting!
Riotously funny and devilishly subversive for its genre, this film delivered more fully on its potential than every other comic book movie to date. The passion behind making something like this oozes off the screen with Ryan Reynolds playing a character for which it seems he was born. While I don’t like the idea that future comic book films may try to lean more adult because of this movie’s success, I can’t fault Deadpool for bringing something so electric to the game. Here’s hoping that at the very least Fox can lighten up a bit and let people who enjoy making films just make their comic book films. Also, credit goes to this movie for showing that dark and gloomy aren’t the only prerequisites for an adult-audience comic film.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There are some definite pacing and plotting issues going on in this film and it is really too bad, because beholding the spectacle of this film is so much fun. I hope Disney is encouraged by the success of the film and that they take that lesson to mean that deviating from the more standard storyline elements within the Galaxy can yield something interesting that people enjoy seeing. I want more Star Wars films like this, where the story runs tangentially to the main goings-on, but an impact is felt nonetheless. After all, that is, in a way, how the force flows–every being in the universe is affected. This film gave me both nostalgic smiles of joy and a new hope for the potential of the franchise. Some of the battle scenes near the end will be difficult to be topped by any sci-fi films in the coming years.
7. Miles Ahead
This film has really stuck with me throughout the year. There is something so magical about how the jittery, scattershot flow between the film’s present and past is made to resemble the same feel of the jazz music the film’s subject is known for creating. This film has a delightful smashiness to it. Like the viewer is never quite able to be comfortable before we are smashed right into something different. While Don Cheadle’s acting is highly laudable, the knowledge that this was his first time directing is what really impressed me. The film feels like it had a specific vision for the events it wanted to cover and that vision was brought to life with a deftness that even seasoned directors can have trouble attaining. A truly unexpected delight.
6. The Invitation
Want to experience cinematic tension? Just watch The Invitation and squirm! The deliberate pace and highly rationed distribution of relief make this the kind of film that had me captured all the way to the end credits. What this film does very well, amongst other things, is to play on the expectations of a person who has seen films that feel similar to this one. Instead of giving answers, it allows the viewer to waver back and forth between trusting and disbelieving the perspective of the main character. It is a very well-handled technique that immensely pays off when the third act finally shows off what everything had been building up to. Ooh, just thinking about it makes me want to grab a friend and watch it again!
5. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn makes some strange films. Strange in style, cinematography, emotion, and coherence. However strange his stuff might be, it seems to continue to be my kind of strange. This film, which is ostensibly about the perils of an industry built on image as well as the impermanence of beauty, does an outstanding job of building a world where it is conceivable for the characters to be driven to the types of actions portrayed therein. The actors are all excellent with their Winding-Refn-directed social oddness. The score from Cliff Martinez is impeccable as it drills its way through the scenes, churning up that synth rawness. The best part for me is the after-film conversation. This is the kind of film that gets people to chatter about what exactly we all just saw… and then maybe lead us to see it again.
4. Under the Shadow
A woman and her daughter are plagued by a monster in their apartment building. That sounds like a standard monster in the house kind of thing. Normally one might expect to just be able to pass something like this up without a second glance, since it is in an overstuffed subgenre and on the surface, it offers little intrigue to make it stand out. This, however, is not at all a surface-level film. The setting of post-revolution Iran offers a whole new layer of monstrosity to overcome and lends this film a number of pathways to make it interesting and terrifying. From the opening shot of the film, it is clear that there is a heft sitting on our main character which she cannot simply cast off whenever she wants. This is a tremendously effective horror/thriller that shows motherly perseverance against seemingly impossible odds.
I enjoyed pretty much everything about this film. But, in particular, I loved how it used a common filmmaking technique to play with the audience’s expectations right up until it reveals something we were being shown all along. Yes! That’s awesome. Denis Villeneuve is working on becoming one of the best modern directors by adding this effort to his list. I wasn’t sure if he could top Enemy, but he seems poised to just keep being great. I can’t wait to watch this again and dive into whatever other morsels can be found when it emerges on blu-ray. For now, I will just reflect fondly on wonderful performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and try my best to learn to speak heptopod.
2. Hell or High Water
I am not sure what I can say about this film that my colleagues on this site haven’t already said. There is a lot to enjoy here, from the perfect casting and flawless performances to the commendable use of setting, music, and mise-en-scène to craft the world. Probably what struck me most of all is the gorgeous, buttery cinematography. As evidenced right away in the opening shot of the film as the camera spins around a bank parking lot to introduce us to the main characters, the area in which the film will mostly take place, the time period, the stakes, and the style to which we will soon be accustomed. This film has an amazing look. It is frankly mind-boggling that the same steady and patient cameraperson on this film is the same person who shot Battlefield Earth, a movie notorious for its bafflingly incoherent cinematographic choices. Applause to whoever shook Giles Nuttgens enough to show him how to effectively shoot a film. Go see this, it is exquisite.
1. The Lobster
What was, at the midway point of the year, my favorite film thus far, lasted all the way until the end with nothing ever quite matching it for me. Flat, disaffected performances perfectly compliment the rigid and regimented world of the film while bitingly dry humor pervades throughout. I loved the regularity of absolutely absurd things going on with barely a bat of an eye from the characters. The final, very uncomfortable, lengthily held shot of the film is something that has and will persistently stay with me. I was often laughing so much that it must have been almost intolerable from the old couple seated in front of me. I truly adore this film so much. I had never seen anything by Yorgos Lanthimos before this and it made me eager to hunt down his other works and consume them as this film has consumed me. In a great year for films, this one stands atop a large, engaging pile of greatness.
As far as top ten films lists go, this is my first. I hope it could be informative and enlightening. I hope that the next time I write one, I will have had the opportunity to see nearly everything that I wanted to and be as prepared as possible. Here’s to that! Until then, may we all have some good times watching and talking about movies in 2017!