2016 was a time of devastation for me and my family, with losses both tangible and emotional. It would’ve been that with or without the societal and cultural upheaval that served as a constant backdrop. It’s really just by chance that the rest of the world seems to have had as rough a phase as I have, but then again, everything bad that befell me and mine in 2016 was equally arbitrary — I’ve had times in my life when all I could do was win; it just turned out that so many bad things darkened my door at the same time. It’s been a long, dark night, with scarcely a glimpse of dawn. It be’s that way sometime.
So I didn’t see too many movies.
Here’s what I did do: Appeared in two Kevin Geeks Out shows at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, to talk about two of my favorite movie stars, Pam Grier and Burt Reynolds. Appeared on one of my very favorite podcasts, the Projection Booth, to talk about NIGHT OF THE COMET. Offered two cents on the topic of lesbian vampires (!) for Broadly. Managed to get Gilbert Gottfried to talk about Weng Weng. Had my Daily Grindhouse article about HANNIE CAULDER referenced in the critical essay on the new Olive Films DVD and Blu-Ray release. Participated in the end-of-year Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll, my responses to which are expanded upon down below.
And most of all: Kept Daily Grindhouse alive, and saw it through to its most creatively fertile era yet, with more looking likely on the horizon. At the beginning of this year, some may remember, our site crashed, for a few whole weeks. We were dead in the water. It would have been easiest to walk away at that point, and we did lose some people along the way. But this is a story about persistence, and in my case maybe, bullheaded stubbornness. Credit is due to the site’s owners, Andrew Allan and Shelby McIntyre, for keeping the lights on, and to our tech guy Ken Horkavy for getting the site running again. We didn’t just survive, though, we’ve exploded, and that’s thanks to Mike Vanderbilt, who came on as Assistant Editor and proceeded to kick one hundred varieties of ass. Thank you Andrew and Shelby for convincing me to stop trying to do everything myself, and thank you Mike for being an even better collaborator than I expected, and I knew you’d be great. Thank you to our many talented contributors — we literally have a couple dozen now and I’m afraid to leave any out by listing. But you’re all amazing to me. This might be a strange and scary era in American history we’re all heading into, but one thing I am over-the-moon excited about is to see where we can take this website in 2017. We came back from the dead in 2016; what should we do for our next trick?
There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Don’t ever give up. Ever. And don’t worry about me getting a swelled head. Yes, I’m aware I didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, or an Academy Award or a World Series ring or even a stuffed teddy bear. I’m not making lists to pad my ego or my résumé. That’s not why I wrote this. I’m saying it because while these accomplishments might seem modest to many, they were done at a time when all I wanted to do was to check out. But I didn’t check out, and I did do a bunch of things, and if I can do it, anyone reading these words now can do it. That’s the point.
All that said, here’s my list.
DOCUMENTARY OF THE YEAR
Filmmaker Jesse Moss is best known for his previous movie, THE OVERNIGHTERS. I don’t know if he’s the documentarian voted most likely to cover the events behind the making of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, but I’m sure glad it was he who did it. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is one of the most profitable movies ever made, a real come-out-of-nowhere success story, and it’s widely loved by a wide demographic of people, but the story of its making is almost better than the movie itself. Burt Reynolds was the biggest box-office star in the world when he took a chance on a script written by his buddy, Hal Needham, a veteran stuntman who also wanted to direct. Considering how Hal pulled off the impossible with regularity, it was a good gamble, but it was still a gamble. This is a story about a guy rolling the dice on a friend, and the joy that can result. This documentary is excitingly and expertly composed and edited, with lively interviews from the surviving principal players, and it may run well under two hours but you’ll wish it went on all day.
MY TEN FAVORITE MOVIES
The calendar year 2016, such a diarrhetic monsoon in so many profound and awful ways, inched itself towards a sort of redemption by providing a bumper crop of solid horror films. There were so many good scary movies this year that I’m not even seeing much mention of HUSH anymore. That was this year too! It hit Netflix back in April, which feels like a lifetime ago already, but I’ve watched it twice now, which is twice more than I usually have time to do anything anymore.
Helps — a lot — that HUSH clocks at a svelte hour and twenty-one minutes. HUSH has a story to tell, HUSH tells the story, HUSH gets done with itself. It’s a classical work in that sense: so much horror is content to throw it back to the ’70s or ’80s, but aside from the technology and the potty language and the gore, this conceivably could have been made during the studio system. There’s no excess. This is a horror movie that’s nicely acted and efficiently directed, and that’s a result of how tightly it’s scripted — by its star and its director, not for nothing.
The lead character is deaf, and while the masked killer stalking her sees that as a weakness, her ‘disability’ turns out to be a virtues. As much as I dug YOU’RE NEXT, another movie about someone turning the tables on a home invasion, I cheered for HUSH that much more, because YOU’RE NEXT sort of crests with its reversal, whereas HUSH teases it out, makes it look like hope is lost (in an incredibly simple, visual, and poignant way: “I died fighting”), and then just as quickly, the reversal comes. And yes this is a movie that acknowledges victory comes with a cost — human beings died on the way to the bad guy getting what he deserved – and yes its smallest consolation in its final moment is literally perfect, and that’s coming from a dog guy.
9. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
The tension and the paranoia present in this movie, politically speaking, will no doubt reflect the mood of 2016 better than any potential newsreel. It’s largely a two-hander between two of the finest actors in movies, and certainly two of my favorites, with very strong support from John Gallagher Jr., who’s nearly as likable and reassuring a presence here as he wasn’t in HUSH. But of course the movie runs on the conflict between the characters played by John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Goodman has to be one of the most universally beloved actors I can name, and this film smartly plays on that expectation. Of all the people you could think of off-hand, surely it wouldn’t be too bad to wait out the apocalypse with John Goodman. It’s also true that he’s an incredibly capable and deft character actor, meaning he is able to undercut any comfort his casting provides with suspicion and menace. In a way, this is an update of his character from BARTON FINK for the age of #MAGA. Goodman is brilliant in the movie, and I’m not the only horror fan to argue his work here is as deserving of any year-end award as all the other performances that will surely get more attention that way.
But I’m not seeing as many people championing the work of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who by comparison to Goodman has the “straight-man” role here. While her part is to spend most of the movie reacting to the Goodman character, she still manages to invest her character with an affecting hero’s arc that by the end of the movie made me want to stand up and cheer. Between this movie and the TV series Brain Dead, Winstead was sort of the avatar for blue-state America, but we should be so lucky, and that’s still a reductive description for such a relatable performance, just as the term “scream queen” has frequently undersold her capability as an actor. (See SMASHED already!) In 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE John Goodman is unforgettable, but don’t forget that’d never work if Mary Elizabeth Winstead weren’t so believable herself.
8. THE WAILING
So many modern horror movies make me impatient, because they are impatient. Somehow the jittery hand-held approach that’s so thoroughly infested action movies over the last ten years has spread to horror films, which is fine for gimmicky found-footage quickies, but not so much for truly horrifying stories that last the test of time, as THE WAILING ably demonstrates. Think of the way horror movies like THE INNOCENTS, THE SHINING, and THE THING linger eerily in the memory. It’s in the presentation. THE WAILING is full of beautiful, graceful long takes. Form has function. Long passages of the movie aren’t scary at all, but once we receive the cues that there’s something scary going on — just like the police officer investigating the situation — we start looking everywhere for proof. And director Na Hong-Jin, along with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and editor Kim Sun-min, gives us plenty of time and space to look.
As the camera glides around the small village in South Korea where this story takes place, the viewer’s eye starts searching the frame for signs of horror. The directorial style puts you in the protagonists’ shoes, in other words. There’s a moment towards the end of this film that, to me, had nearly the impact of the diner scene in MULHOLLAND DR., and not because I was looking at something I’d never seen before in a horror movie. It was a result of craft. Here it’s arguably more upsetting, because the diner scene in MULHOLLAND DR. happens early on in that film, and it’s a bit of a detour for the movie. In THE WAILING it’s a culmination. It’s something we dreaded was coming from the first act, but we hoped all along that it wouldn’t. When it does, it’s both frightening and soul-crushing.
This is the 2016 movie I’m most convinced I’ll return to, the one I wish I’d had time to have written a whole lot about. There’s just so much here. It’s almost a Rosetta Stone for American action movies. How intriguing is it that writer/director Shane Black, a creator who is as responsible as anyone for the trends of the 1980s and the 1990s, goes back to the 1970s here? Why? Not for nothing, I don’t think, is there a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT billboard visible early on in the film. What about the subplots involving the porn industry and the auto industry? And that opening scene? The movie’s title? And how about the casting? For as much else as they’ve accomplished, Russell Crowe is to most of America the guy who broke through to stardom with GLADIATOR, and Ryan Gosling with THE NOTEBOOK. Casting carries meaning. What does it mean that the most effective hero in the movie is a young girl, and the most fearsome villain is recognizable from the MAGIC MIKE movies? This is a movie where one of the protagonists finds himself in the middle of a lengthy fist-fight with Keith David. These aren’t accidents. THE NICE GUYS is a genre-blender, but I suspect the genres it comments upon most are not the ones most obvious from the looks of it.
6. SHIN GODZILLA
The veteran Japanese actor Jun Kunimura is a good omen for movies that want to be on lists I make — he’s the primary antagonist in THE WAILING, not to mention his role in WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, and he makes a brief appearance here, which isn’t even his first Godzilla movie. He appears in SHIN GODZILLA as one of many bureaucrats in a tangled logjam of government officials who weighs in when the titular radioactive lizard appears off the coast of Japan and makes its way inland.
To my understanding, this latest Godzilla installment, while a hit in Japan, has had a mixed reaction here in the States. People don’t love the look of the beast, who comes out of the ocean in a goofy tadpole sort of form and then metamorphosizes over the course of the movie into a more recognizable (but still sorta fishy) Godzilla. Moreover, they don’t like how talky the movie is, but that’s missing the point I think — to me, that’s the joke.
If Godzilla showed up tomorrow, in this day and age, what do you think would happen? Would humanity immediately be galvanized into heroic resistance? Or would politicians sit around arguing over what to do until it was nearly too late? I don’t know how they run things in Japan, but I can guarantee you that’s exactly what would happen here. It’s kind of a one-joke premise, but it’s a great one, and a very relevant, very contemporary take on the Godzilla myth. I loved it.
5. THE WITCH
First and foremost, this film is a triumph of production design. It’s amazing to me that this is director Robert Eggers’ first feature. Many more established directors struggle to create remotely as believable and vivid a historical setting. There’s no moment in this movie where I felt less than transported to colonial New England. It’s the movie I wanted Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE to be.
So many horror films set in the present day are starting out at a natural disadvantage. In many profound ways, the world is scarier today than it was in the past — but not in the ways that necessarily work for horror movies. There’s technology everywhere; there are streetlights everywhere. It’s invigorating to watch a movie like THE WITCH and to be able to imagine a time when there was no electricity, when there was so little besides darkness and people. People have always been and will always be scary, but it takes a movie like THE WITCH to strip away all the distractions and to make that clear.
Also, I’ve always enjoyed the idea that religious sorts conflate Satanic forces with goats, which to me are some of the funniest, silliest animals. If it wasn’t for religion and for human history, it never would have occurred to me to be afraid of a goat. Let’s just say this movie does some pretty heavy lifting towards reclaiming that particular trope.
Honestly, I’m just thankful Nicolas Winding Refn keeps finding a way to get his movies financed. It can’t be easy. Clearly this one wasn’t for everybody, but none of his films have been, really. Movies like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR are for everybody. This is as far away from that as you can get. THE NEON DEMON is even less for everybody than ONLY GOD FORGIVES was — I absolutely loved that one, but I fully recognize I may be a maniac. THE NEON DEMON is a modern-day giallo, maybe the closest thing to the genre that we’ve seen in a long time. The erotic thrillers of the 1980s and the 1980s were as near as America got to giallo, in my opinion, but those were comparatively conventional.
With THE NEON DEMON, Refn and his collaborators freely engage with the oblique and even random artistic tendencies of giallo films. For example, the appearance of a recognizable star in a movie tends to give an audience some sense of comfort; here it’s consistently alienating. Christina Hendricks shows up briefly, but in a performance purposefully bleached of warmth. Likewise, Keanu Reeves has a slightly larger role, but he’s so antagonistic and nasty that it’s disorienting to the audience as much as it is to Jesse, Elle Fanning’s young-model character. (It’s rare and bizarre to see Keanu playing a vile lowlife, and it’s one of the year’s cinematic blessings.) Jena Malone is probably the most familiar performer of the four main characters, but her role here, while bold and crazily effective, definitely isn’t meant to make anybody feel at home, least of all Jesse. Collectively this cast definitely sells Refn’s nightmare of a vision of Los Angeles. Everything looks so pretty, but the human behavior is inexplicable and often frightening. In retrospect, the sudden and brief appearance of a wild cougar is the most natural moment in the entire film.
And even if the NEON DEMON haters are right, and I’m just talking out of my ass about this movie’s artistic virtues, there’s just no way I’m going to do anything but love a movie where one fashion model throws up a human eyeball and a second fashion model picks up the eyeball and swallows the thrown-up human eyeball. Like I said, it’s not going to be for everybody, but it’s exactly for me.
3. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Jeff Nichols is just one of the best younger filmmakers working today, and it’s amazing to think he’s turning out such well-made, thoughtful movies in such short order. I haven’t managed to see LOVING yet at the time of writing this list, so it’s very possible that one could have made these rankings if I had. Even still, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was guaranteed a spot.
It’s so charming to think that Jeff Nichols set out to make his “John Carpenter movie” and that his version of a John Carpenter movie is closest to STARMAN. Everybody else who’s inspired by John Carpenter is out there trying to do HALLOWEEN or ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but not this guy. The reality is that Jeff Nichols is more of a humanist. And that’s refreshing in a younger writer and director.
He’s also a hell of a craftsman — there’s really only one movie this year that had me in a more agitated state of suspense than the way I felt during MIDNIGHT SPECIAL‘s roadblock scene. I could go on and on about Michael Shannon and the other splendid actors and their performances, but MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is just as much a director’s showcase. Every element here — acting, camera placement, editing rhythm, score — is brought together by Nichols and his team to make a story that could just as easily feel like something we’ve seen before into one that feels fresh and new, and one that’s deeply moving.
Too many end-of-year lists favor movies released towards the end of the year. I made this list based more off the movies that stuck to my guts. One of the few movies I got enough time to write about this year, there’s a lot to be said about HELL OR HIGH WATER, but months later, there are a couple elements I keep thinking about. One is something not many people have been talking about, the score by Nick Cave and his collaborator Warren Ellis. (It’s especially amazing that Nick Cave got this done the same year he put out the incredible Skeleton Tree.)They’ve been doing this sort of work in movies for years, in neo-Westerns like THE PROPOSITION and LAWLESS, but the scores of Cave & Ellis are an under-discussed resource for the movies lucky enough to have them, always a sparse and ethereal dirge that sounds at pmce contemporary and timeless.
The other is something everybody is rightfully talking about, which is Jeff Bridges in the role of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Real-life Texas Rangers Parnell McNamara and Joaquin Jackson provided inspiration for the role, and it’s hard from this vantage point to tell who did what, but it’s for damn sure that what we see on screen is “Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton” — everyone in the film is equally convincing, but since Jeff Bridges is the performer whose work I’ve been watching literally all my life, he’s the one who astonished me the most. I don’t know Jeff Bridges personally, but I certainly have a sense of “Jeff Bridges” the actor, and this was somebody else. Surely for actors it’s a profound experience to inhabit another personality, when it’s working — but making the rest of us in the audience feel like we are getting to know that personality as we’re watching the movie… that’s a form of empathy that feels like acting’s noblest purpose.
1. GREEN ROOM
Speaking about transformations, look at Patrick Stewart in GREEN ROOM. All the polish, all the dignity, all the thoughtfulness that are a commonality of this actor’s best-known roles to date — none of that is here. This person onscreen is a vicious bastard. He has no empathy. You won’t reach him with reason or emotional entreaties. He’s made up his mind, and it won’t be changed. He’s very human, but somewhere along the way he’s chosen to renounce the aspects of humanity that make us unique among animals, like compassion.
What makes the movie so effective, what makes it so unfortunately relevant to 2016, is that we’ve been reminded — in case we ever forgot — that villains like this one do exist. They don’t live in castles at the top of mountains, or in dungeons deep beneath them. They live in non-descript houses down the street. They’re our neighbors.
Is GREEN ROOM a horror film? This debate has popped up online and in various reviews lately. It’s more of a thriller, the argument goes. There’s nothing supernatural in it, that’s for sure. Everything that happens in this movie could happen tomorrow. Certainly the level of filmmaking craft on display from the director Jeremy Saulnier, who already impressed with his previous features MURDER PARTY and BLUE RUIN, is straight-up masterful. There’s not too much that happens in GREEN ROOM that a seasoned movie-goer couldn’t expect (if not predict), but every single moment of it unfolds with stomach-roiling apprehension and the coldest inevitability. For such a thoughtful film, full of thoughtful turns from everyone in the cast, with the late Anton Yelchin and Saulnier’s collaborator Macon Blair being notable highlights, GREEN ROOM is quite a merciless thing. But so is life. So is America, or at least a fair amount of our fellow Americans.
Yes, it’s a horror film, in the way that the very finest horror movies arrive with urgent concerns about the era in which they were conceived and made. GREEN ROOM is 2016. We’re going to have to fight if we want to make it to 2017.
Finally as per tradition, here are my all previous Top Tens, from 2008-2015, just so you know the kind of guy you’re dealing with here:
10. THE ASSASSIN
9. CHI-RAQ / THE HATEFUL EIGHT
7. the drop
6. gone girl
5. top five
4. john wick
2. cold in july
5. drug war
10. the bay
6. killer joe
4. the raid
3. cloud atlas
1. the grey
10. the tree of life
9. viva riva!
8. 13 assassins
5. black death
3. the guard
10. four lions
9. the wolfman
7. the town
6. get low
1. true grit
6. the road
4. big fan
3. district 9
8. the wrestler
5. hellboy 2
2. gran torino
1. in bruges
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,
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