Before I get into my picks, a disclaimer: as with any Top 10 list, these are not so much the actual BEST entries of the year as much as they are my personal favorites. Yours will almost certainly vary, if not in the actual films themselves (I can think of one in particular that I don’t see popping up on many lists this year) then the placement. Any omissions are due solely to my own tastes and as such, this list should be taken in that spirit. Now that I’ve celebrated subjectivity, let us celebrate (what I feel are) the most enjoyable films released this year. (Actually, hold off on that for a sec — I would feel remiss if I didn’t state honestly that there’s a few films that, due to varying circumstances, I haven’t been able to watch yet that, based on my own understanding of what I tend to love and respond strongly to, had I seen them before writing this list up, might have made the cut.
Those films are, in no particular order: TRAIN TO BUSAN, LOVING, ARRIVAL, and ROGUE ONE. That out of the way, let’s do this!)
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to DAZED AND CONFUSED didn’t immediately hit the mark for me as that one did, but I did have a fantastic time watching it; this is one that I suspect I will come to love with repeated viewings. More than worth your time, with strong ensemble work from the (mostly) unknown cast.
As per usual with the Coen brothers, this period comedy set during Hollywood’s Golden Age is not exactly what you’d expect sitting down to watch it. Written off by some as “too light” or some sort of lark, it nevertheless plays as precisely the film the Coens intended to make, and I had a lot of fun watching it — particularly considering I’m not exactly a fan of some of the styles of film they recreate so lovingly here (real talk: I enjoy the musical/dance sequences in this flick to a higher degree than I do the films they’re paying tribute to). The Coen brothers continue to do their thing, and I continue to be a fan of it.
Mike Flanagan’s follow up to OCULUS (a flick I will defend as high quality for the rest of my life), if we’re not counting the still-unseen-by-most BEFORE I WAKE, this one goes back to basics in a 1 hugely satisfying way. There’s a deaf woman in a secluded mountain house, and there’s a psycho in a mask trying to get in and kill her. That’s about all there is, and that’s all it needs when it’s this intense and well-executed.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
This went on and off my Top 10 proper about five times since I started working this up, and I’m still not sure I made the right decision placing it here. Bottom line is that I love this take on the Tarzan story, which director David Yates brings into the modern era while still capturing the classic feel of a rousing old-fashioned adventure (which apparently I remain a total sucker for). It knows exactly what it wants to be and goes about doing that with confidence and skill. I love this movie unreservedly for just how great it is at being a MOVIE, if that makes any sense.
I will see anything Jeff Nichols makes. Films like this are why. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. That’s all I wish to say about this one.
THE TOP 10
I did not expect this flick to take my head off, but here we are. ZOOTOPIA The best Disney movie I have seen in quite some time, it operated on a number of different levels and all of them affected me exactly as I’m sure the filmmakers intended them to. Simply put, I laughed a lot, I was thrilled, I was intrigued, and — most of all — it gave me insightful things to think about. Fantastic voice work from Jason Bateman & Ginnifer Goodwin in the lead roles, combined with an involving story structured not unlike a police procedural, topped off with stellar animation and infused throughout with a deeper message about inclusivity and understanding, all add up to a wonderful viewing experience. Don’t write this one off as “kid’s stuff” — if you have a sense of humor, a brain, and (most importantly) a soul, there’s something here for you.
9. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Hi, Dan Trachtenberg! Welcome to the party. I had no idea who you were but lemme tell ya: I sure as hell do now. You directed the SHIT out of your first feature film and you’d never know it was your maiden voyage into the form, due to the absolute authority with which you laid this down. Your story, simple and straight forward though it may be, masked an ever-evolving sense of menace, perfectly embodied by the immortal John Goodman in one of his finest performances (which is saying something indeed). You let Mary Elizabeth Winstead do what she does, which is to be perfectly relatable and appealing while also exuding intelligence and a deep reservoir of strength. Never mind the cracking script, the kickass “wow” factor of the third act, or John Gallagher’s superb supporting work — MEW and Goodman alone are worth the price of admission, and I must thank you for such a wonderful gift to not just genre fans but those who 2 love a good story damn well told. I’ve got my eye on you, sir.
8. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
I guess there weren’t enough “stakes” in this for some, since they’re not gonna kill off Marvel’s hugely popular cash cows, right? Empty posturing, yeah? Well, FUCK THAT. There were stakes, they were just emotional ones. Relationships between characters we’ve seen in numerous films leading to this one were tested, broken, repaired, the works. I was invested, and really, I can’t ask for more than that. Oh, wait — I guess I could ask for some of the most exciting, thrilling superhero action I’ve ever seen in any of these movies since they became Hollywood’s shiniest new toy; who’d have guessed? I got that, and then some. I understand that some (not many, but some) seem to prefer the angsty, at times faux-profundity of the DC flicks, and I’m not adverse to them (had I made one of these in 2013, MAN OF STEEL would have made my Top 10) at all, but over the course of these releases, I’ve come to realize that quite simply, I’m picking up what Marvel is putting down. I dig their style, and this one just might be one of their very best. In fact, I’m sure of it. It gives me exactly what I want out of this type of movie, which is no small thing.
7. DON’T BREATHE
Fede Alvarez is the real goddamn deal, folks. Whether you were down with his take on EVIL DEAD (I have been since I sat agape in the theater, amazed at what he was getting away with in a wide-release R-rated film) or not, this one leaves no doubt. He’s got an absolutely superb eye for composition, a very classical sense of camera movement and inherent understanding of how to tell a story visually (you know, cinema)…the man simply knows what he’s doing. Giving Jane Levy her second spotlight role to shine — and she does — as well as the inestimable Stephen Lang, who remains one of the greatest character actors who’s ever graced our screens and is scary as hell here, this home invasion thriller gets the job done and then some. It’s thrilling and one of the best cases of “truth in film titles” I’ve ever seen. Truly, this flick had me gripping my knees and…well, not breathing. Numerous times, for minutes at a stretch. Repeatedly. That’s talent, and something many movies try and fail to accomplish, whereas Alvarez makes it look effortless here. It would be impossible for me to recommend this film any more highly.
6. THE LOBSTER
I don’t know what to say about this one other than I absolutely adore it while finding it one of the absolute strangest things I’ve ever experienced. More than almost any film in recent memory, your reaction to this will depend solely on what you bring to it personally; this allegorical look at the romantic adventures/failures of the human animal never once makes it easy for the viewer. It’s been said that “we laugh so that we may not cry,” which could be the tagline for this one. I’ve heard it described as misanthropic and I got absolutely none of that from the flick, perhaps because I’m not a misanthrope. I found it hilarious and sad and honest and heartbreakingly true to life even as it had almost no connection to any reality I know. Colin Farrell continues to prove that he’s a phenomenal character actor that thrives when people 3 aren’t trying to turn him into a generic leading man due to his looks, and Rachel Weisz is Rachel Weisz (terrific, for those who don’t know). I fully and completely love this film, and even though it may not be one I revisit as often as others on this list, I will never forget it.
5. THE NEON DEMON
Nicolas Winding Refn is a madman and I revere him for it. He’s not interested in your meek stereotypical bullshit. He wants to assault you with sound and image, to seduce you with color and mood. He’s an artist of Malick-ian proportions with the perverse wit of Tarantino, and he doesn’t give a fuck whether you like him or not. This stunner is no exception — not for nothin’, but this film may also boast my favorite Cliff Martinez score, no slouch he — and because he has that ability to just do his thing with no fear of consequence, the heights he’s able to reach soar all the greater. Obviously, when portraying the beautiful decay of the soul (this goes beyond the characters to the dark playground that is Hell-A, to steal a moniker from Castor Troy) you’re going to have your detractors…but hey, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, right?
4. STAR TREK BEYOND
This was simply the most FUN I had with a movie all year long. Justin Lin takes over the director’s chair from J.J. Abrams (full disclosure: I’m a giant fan of both his Trek films — yes, even STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a fact that my friends & colleagues will never let me live down, but I just gotta be me) without skipping a beat and delivers what is, for me, the best entry yet in the modern STAR TREK series. As many have pointed out, STB feels the most like a fleshed-out, feature-length take on a classic Trek ep and the results are electrifying. The emphasis co-writer/star Simon Pegg (along with Doug Jung) places on the teamwork of the Enterprise crew really makes this resonate, and is almost certainly why I responded to it as strongly as I did. Plus, the “Sabotage” sequence is without a doubt one of the greatest in any Hollywood release in ages — my blood pumped and my grin widened, which is a pretty apt way to describe the entire, uh, enterprise. Also, for future installments (kindly let us have some, powers that be): more Jaylah, please and thank you.
3. THE NICE GUYS
Psssst — hey, man. Check out this shit I’ve got for you; this right here is some pure, unadulterated, 100% uncut Shane Black. Russell Crowe (who seems rejuvenated here) and Ryan Gosling (fully ablaze with hilarity in a flawless performance) gonna get you GOING, ya heard? We got the rumpled soul of Jim Rockford in here, the byzantine plotting of the best SoCal noir, and character work that’ll have you jonesing for another taste in no time. As addictions go, you could do worse, you know what I’m saying? Plus, ain’t no hangover action going on here, just a lotta sweet, sweet euphoria (by which I mean constant laughs peppered with expert action scenes and head-swivel reveals/reversals rivaling the best the genre has to offer) for that ass. You’ll be back for more, and you won’t just want a taste. Once you pop THE NICE GUYS, you ain’t never gonna stop, and you’ll never even question if you should.
2. SING STREET
STAR TREK BEYOND may have provided me with the most fun I’ve had all year, but SING STREET gave me the most joy of anything I saw. John Carney’s semi-autobiographical tale of an Irish teen starting a band in 1980’s Dublin is sweet, funny, and moving — not to mention overflowing with some seriously excellent original tunes provided by songwriter Gary Clark (“Up” and “Drive It Like You Stole It” particularly being standouts for yours truly). The young cast is game, the script is pleasantly shaggy slice-of-life goodness, and the time/place essayed wonderfully. I’m gonna watch this one as long as I’m breathing, and I expect it’s gonna give me a shot of happiness each and every time out. Considering the current state of the world, we can never have enough of this sort of thing, and this one is a true gift.
1. GREEN ROOM
What is there to say about this one that hasn’t already been said? Almost unbearably tense: check. Patrick Stewart in a against-type turn that will make you wonder why he hasn’t played villains more often (especially considering how terrifically subtle his work is here): check. Topnotch performances by the rest of the cast, with special nods to Macon Blair, Alia Shawkat (really, when is she never one of the most solid components of anything she’s in?), Imogen Poots, and the late Anton Yelchin (this loss will hurt for some time, he was consistently great and likeable and dammit I MISS HIM): check. Years back I saw MURDER PARTY and proclaimed confidently in my review that Jeremy Saulnier was one to watch, particularly if he was given the resources to match his talent, and since then the man has proven me absolutely right in two magnificent films. GREEN ROOM is stellar filmmaking, mesmerizing and terrifying; don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t a horror flick because, trust me, it will make your blood run cold, your mouth go dry, and your pulse race. It hits you like a sledgehammer to the chest and leaves you in a twitching heap of restless nerves. I didn’t see a better movie all year. Speaking of…
I know this is a list of Top 10 Films, but since it’s my list and I can do whatever the fuck I want with it, I’m gonna end on this note: the best thing I saw in 2016 (my favorite thing in many, many years, actually) wasn’t a movie at all, but Netflix’s series STRANGER THINGS. I don’t possess the vocabulary to express exactly what it did to me and for me. Yes, I’m a child of the 80’s and being able to telescope back to that time was fantastic and I’d be lying if I didn’t love the nostalgia factor of it, but what will keep me coming back to it was what always keeps me coming back — the story (gripping) and the characters (it doesn’t get any better). I watched all eight episodes in one day and started watching it again it the very next. At the time I called it “the collaboration between Stevens King & Spielberg we never got, soaked in a lovely Carpenter gloss” and that “it’s like it was made for me.” That still holds true, and I know in my heart that it always will. I thank the Duffers, all of their collaborators in the crew, and their remarkable cast (you’re now a part of my very soul, David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown) for giving me 5 something so perfectly entertaining on every possible level. As horrible as 2016 turned out to be in many ways, it’s important to remember it wasn’t all bad. Nothing ever is; you can’t have one without the other. Which one you want to focus on is up to you…I know which one I choose, and I have hope that we all do.