Every year, I feel the need to make the same disclaimers when it comes to this list.
The first disclaimer is that I do not call this a “best of the year” list. It’s so difficult at times to explain why a film does or does not strike a chord with me that it seems unfair to say absolutely, without a doubt, these are the best movies of the year. Instead, I prefer to call it my FAVORITES OF 2016 list, since, for one reason or another, these are the movies that succeeded in drawing out an emotional response from me that is not rooted in objective analysis or criticism.
The second disclaimer is that I did not come close to seeing every movie released this year. It is just impossible and—quite frankly—sometimes if it’s a choice between getting a little more sleep or watching the new Rob Zombie movie, that’s no choice at all. Also, I am missing out on several films that are only playing a theater or two in December to qualify for the Oscars. Living where I do, those films just are not available to me until they open wide early next year.
There, all disclaimers are out of the way. So without any further ado, here, in no particular order, are my favorite films of 2016.
Technically, I saw this one in 2015 at FANTASTIC FEST, but since I do not consider a film for this list until it receives a release that allows the general public to see it, I waited until this year to include it. With GREEN ROOM, all I can say is, believe the hype. An absolutely brutal exercise in suspense punctuated with moments of unexpected beauty and grisly violence. While everyone focused on Patrick Stewart’s turn as the white supremacist villain, the film features amazing ensemble acting that brings heart and tragedy to this pulpy tale. Jeremy Saulnier continues to impress as one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today.
Another favorite from FANTASTIC FEST 2015, it’s too bad that it took so long for this blissfully sweet, absurd, and casually offensive comedic fantasy to hit general release. But finally, everyone can enjoy the adventures of God’s daughter (and younger sister of “J.C.”) as she creates havoc on Earth by texting the death dates to the population of the planet and writes a new New Testament based on the lessons learned from the chaos. It’s hard to describe the pure joy and subtle subversive nature of the film from that brief description, so just watch it. You won’t be sorry.
One of the most gut-wrenching and empathetic portraits of madness I’ve ever seen. The feature directorial debut by Nicolas Pesce is an assured piece of horror filmmaking that is lyrical one moment, brutal and visceral the next. A full on nightmare beautifully shot in moody black and white. I really do not want to say much more about the film for fear of spoiling what makes it special. It is truly a movie that is better if it is watched first before seeking out reviews.
Funny, touching, and absurd family comedies that traffic in hard-earned sentiment are rare these days. That is what makes this film such a special treat. Not only does it contain the best Sam Neill performance since IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, it also features a sublime comedic turn by talented newcomer Julian Dennison. Writer/director Taika Waititi (adapting the novel by Barry Crump) builds the relationship between the two leads through honest affection and need for the other while spinning a comedic folk tale worthy of the performances and the emotional investment of the audience.
Much of the attention for Jackson Stewart’s impressive feature directorial debut has focused on the “retro” nature of the film. Yes, there are moments that feel like a tip of the cap to Lucio Fulci gore fests and ’80s supernatural horror films, but it is so much more than a work of pastiche. Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata have come up with a clever script that establishes a high concept hook and then uses that hook to explore the relationship between a pair of estranged brothers. What follows is a touching, satisfying tale that pays off its horror beats at the same time that it gives complete character arcs worthy of the cast of genre favorites. It’s refreshing to see a horror film avoid the cynicism that so many recent genre films have wallowed in.
I am well aware that writer/director John Carney’s film is an exercise in adolescent fantasy and wish fulfillment. But it is also effortlessly charming, sweet natured, and funny. Add to that the fact that it revolves around the kind of pop/new wave music of the early to mid-’80s that I love. Maybe that aspect blinds me a little to the script’s shortcomings, but the film gave me the warm fuzzies and that’s nearly impossible when considering my cold, jaded heart.
There is something to be said for simplicity. Jeff Nichols presents the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage forced them out of the state of Virginia in the ’60s, as a straightforward tale of the patience needed to fight injustice. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga nail the quiet dignity of their characters without turning them into saintly martyrs and Nichols avoids the kind of saccharine manipulation that lesser filmmakers would employ. The story is moving and powerful enough on its own.
Yet another film from Fantastic Fest 2015, Mickey Keating’s homage to Roman Polanski’s REPULSION serves as a good companion film to THE EYES OF MY MOTHER. Both films take a look at a young woman in the grip of madness (in the case of DARLING, there is hinted the possibility of some sort of possession), both are shot in moody black and white, and both feature outstanding central performances (Lauren Ashley Carter, here using her large, expressive eyes to haunting effect). But each film takes a different approach to their arguably similar arcs and both work just as well. With DARLING, Keating is more aggressive and holds the audience at arm’s length from the titular character, but still allows her journey to be just as horrific, sad, and ultimately tragic.
To be honest, the only way that RAVAGER was not going to make its way on to this list was if David Hartman (taking over directorial duties from co-writer/producer Don Coscarelli) had completely dropped the ball. The PHANTASM series is my favorite horror franchise and while I was worried going into this final installment (I felt OBLIVION wrapped things up for the series) and had mixed feelings after my first viewing of the film, I could not deny the power of seeing these characters together for one last time. Upon, second viewing, I was stunned by how strong the emotional payoff was. I literally wept openly while sitting in the theater. That’s some kind of impressive feat for the fourth sequel of any movie and overcomes the very low budget problems that are apparent at times. Watch this and OBLIVION back to back; they complement each other perfectly and together form a beautiful, sad, and satisfying end to the series. R.I.P. Angus Scrimm.
I never expected to laugh so much during a Chan-wook Park film. The tale of a conman’s assistant who falls in love with their mark is typically beautiful from the director (careful framing of shots, classical editing, and meticulous set decoration and costume design), but the tone here is more playful than anything he has taken on before. Yes, there is some grisly violence. And yes, there is an octopus. This is a Chan-wook Park film, after all. But the characters are exceptionally well drawn and there is a real heart to the film when it simply could have been cold and caustic in its humor and premise. And it’s beyond sexy. It’s rare to see a film as mannered and explicit at the same time.
Paul Verhoeven is never going to make “safe” films. Case in point is ELLE, a comedic drama that is always one misstep away from crossing into truly offensive territory. But Verhoeven has the advantage of turning a film that involves a brutal rape, the misogynistic fringes of gamer culture, and the soap opera-like history and current chaotic life of its main character into a star vehicle for Isabelle Huppert. Her performance is nothing short of brilliant as she refuses to play any beat of the story for the sympathy you might expect. Instead, she turns in a prickly, funny, and moving performance that is fully fleshed out and feels like a character from a novel, not a movie (not a surprise, considering the film is based on a novel by Philippe Djian). Verhoeven takes a cue from Huppert’s performance and turns in a film that is a multi-character, seriocomic epic that just happens to occasionally wallow in the sort of exploitation territory that he has made a career out of subverting.
I cannot say that there is anything especially original about HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it uses its well-worn plot elements and characters to very good effect. Jeff Bridges makes good use of his sarcastic shit-kicker routine and Ben Foster is predictably intense, but I was really impressed by Chris Pine’s take on a desperate man who latches on to a brilliant scheme and is forced to ignore his conscience to see it through to the end. Moral quandaries abound and the film is far from light, but the script by Taylor Sheridan is witty, the excellent cast assembled by director David Mackenzie is uniformly good (providing depth to the smallest of roles), and the stark New Mexico landscape (subbing in for West Texas) is captured in all its beauty and dread by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. Any film that provides such a lived-in feel to its characters and their world is an impressive feat. That the story also understands the desperation of the ever-widening gap between the extreme rich and the extreme poor in this country is just the icing on the cake.
Gets a spot on the list simply for its existence. Movies this weird and casually taboo almost never get made, let alone attract movie stars, or get semi-wide releases. That is an achievement unto itself. It helps that the movies is very funny, upsetting, and ultimately tragic beyond its absurd premise. Just watch it. Words cannot do justice to the experience of viewing a film this out there.
Less a horror movie than an intense examination of the harsh living conditions and religious paranoia of early 17th century New England settlers, this is still a disturbing experience. Writer/director Robert Eggers turns in a stunning feature debut that is more than just a charismatically evil goat and extremely detailed set and costume design. In many ways, it is timeless. It is a look at a family that implodes under extraordinary stress. The added layers of madness provided by the era only add to its complexity.
I am not sure if LIZA ever received a proper release in America in any format. It is yet another film that I saw at FANTASTIC FEST in 2015 that I was waiting on a general release to write about. Since I am tired of waiting, I’ll simply say that this is the most charming, funny, and satisfying comedy I’ve seen in several years. If you stumble across it, do not hesitate to give it a watch.
I find it could possibly be a disservice to the film to say much about KRISHA. It’s a hard to watch character study of the black sheep of a family returning home for Thanksgiving that nearly caused me to have a panic attack. I can’t say it’s entertaining, but it is the most visceral movie I watched all year.
If you love Brian De Palma’s films (and who doesn’t?), this is a must watch. Sure, it is nothing but the man sitting in a chair breaking down his films in chronological order with accompanying clips from those films. But the anecdotes are so funny and revealing, the passion he still has for his films so evident, and the self-effacing humor as he talks about the flops is so funny, I could have watched a four hour cut of the film and never been bored.
As good as everyone says it is. Writer/director Barry Jenkins establishes a tone of authentic longing, repression, and questioning of identity in the first two acts that is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time before shifting into a surprisingly suspenseful third act. Mahershala Ali is the standout in an excellent ensemble.
Do not listen to anyone who tries to tell you this warped, funny, and oddly warm-hearted film is a “young adult version of DEXTER.” Far from that pedestrian description, Billy O’Brien’s film is a genre hybrid that finds the humanity in a kid who shows the behavioral predictors of a serial killer (but has not committed a violent act) and engages in the sort of cat-and-mouse game with an actual killer that usually winds up in cheesy, big-budget thrillers. Filmed in grainy (I mean that as a compliment) 16mm, O’Brien captures the snowy desolation of an upper Midwest winter and nails the feel of a regionally produced horror film from the early ’80s. This is smart, fun filmmaking that also operates as a showcase for former child actor Max Records and the great Christopher Lloyd. Beautifully done.
***Not a favorite of the year because of how achingly sad it is, but it gets special mention for how well made it is:
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Deserving of all the kudos heaped upon it by critics, it is also important to note that—despite spurts of dark humor—writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay does not cop out in the end. This is a character portrait of a man who has suffered a soul-crushing tragedy and how he deals with the resulting depression and wreckage of his life. That kind of pain does not get erased overnight via the love of friends, family, and a significant other. Sometimes that pain is impossible to overcome. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is honest all the way to the end, making it one of the saddest movies I’ve watched in a long time.
EYE IN THE SKY
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
THE NICE GUYS
MORRIS FROM AMERICA
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE
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Tags: Beyond The Gates, Darling, DePalma, Elle, Green Room, Hell Or High Water, Krisha, Liza And The Fox-Fairy, Loving, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Phantasm Ravager, Sing Street, Swiss Army Man, The Brand New Testament, The Handmaiden, The Witch