How can I feel my 2016 list of the year's favorite films is complete without having seen the new films from masters like Scorsese, Verhoeven, Jarmusch, and Chan-wook Park, just to name a few? Answer: it isn't. However, as a film lover, I feel like ending the year without any such list would make me feel like the yearend traditions are incomplete. So, here we go, missing pieces and all.
My Top 15 films of 2016...
15) OUR LITTLE SISTER (Hirokazu Koreeda) – Splendid family drama about three sisters taking in their half-sister after their father’s death. Gentle, sweet, and wise.
14) THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (Taika Waititi) – Shit! Just! Got! Real! New Zealand adventure comedy that’s impossible to dislike.
13) ROGUE ONE (Gareth Edwards) – Takes The Empire Strikes Back’s place as the darkest Star Wars film chapter. The Empire has never seemed more threatening.
12) THE JUNGLE BOOK (Jon Favreau) – Amazing effects, fun adventure elements, and a true sense of wonder. May not replace the animated film but it’s a fine adaptation.
11) THE WITCH (Robert Eggers) – Creepy, arthouse horror tale with strong attention to period. One of the best, most confident directorial debuts you’re ever likely to see.
10) 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Dan Trachtenberg) – A kinda-sorta sequel to the kaiju found-footage thriller Cloverfield. Or maybe it’s a spinoff? Or maybe ‘Cloverfield’ is just a new Twilight Zone-like label for high-concept thrillers from Bad Robot? I don’t know how to explain how it figures into the new, expanding Cloverfield-verse, but I do know this: 10 Cloverfield Lane kicks all kinds of ass. After a car accident, Mary Elizabeth Winstead wakes up in a bunker with a stranger played by John Goodman. Her captor/savior tells her that everything she knew is gone and she cannot ever leave the bunker. It’s a claustrophobia thriller full of awesome, unexpected twists which I shall not spoil here. John Goodman is especially good in one of the most intimidating performances you’ll see this year.
9) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Travis Knight) – Kubo and the Two Strings is really quite wonderful. Sad I missed this in theatres because not only did it deserve better box office but it probably would’ve looked amazing. Funny, original, and beautiful to look at. It's magical. The best animated feature of the year.
8) THE CONJURING 2 (James Wan) – If you ask me, James Wan sits pretty high on the list of today’s masters of horror. He brings wicked camera moves, old school sensibilities, strong character work, and jump scares galore to his best films. The Conjuring was a bit of a surprise hit a few years back and the sequel is even better. A haunting in England draws the expert supernatural hunters played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga across the pond to investigate. Not only is it easily one of the best horror movies of the year, but it’s probably one of the best horror sequels of all time.
7) CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Russo Brothers) – After a tragedy that cost the lives of numerous bystanders, political sanctions decree that superheroes must now act under certain guidelines. Not all agree, and so begins a civil war between the two mindsets, pitting former allies against one another. For Marvel’s heroes, things fall short of being completely apocalyptic, but it’s certainly a very messy divorce. Newcomers Black Panther and a younger, snappier Spider-Man keep things fresh but it’s the old favorites trading blows that make Civil War one of the best films that Marvel has made to date.
6) BLUE JAY (Alex Lehmann) – Blue Jay is so very, very good. Former high school sweethearts (Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass) meet by coincidence and decide to share a coffee and reflect. She’s living a successful life, he’s visibly depressed. As time unfolds and they get more comfortable with each other again, a more joking atmosphere takes hold, but the scars of their breakup remain hidden just beneath the surface. Expertly performed little indie that runs the gamut of emotions, from awkward to sweet, from funny to devastating. I loved it.
5) THE INVITATION (Karyn Kusama) – A group of friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time meet up for a special dinner date. Things get weird when unexpected guests arrive and begin sharing some very personal (and occasionally disturbing) details about their lives. It becomes clear that the strangers and the dinner hosts are now part of a cult and they hope to convince their old friends to join. What’s interesting is how our hero perceives the situation. He’s an unreliable narrator, I suppose, one who brings a great deal of baggage and preconceived notions to the dinner. Can we trust how he sees the situation? Are things really as weird as they seem or are we just experiencing our hero’s anxieties? The Invitation is one of the smartest suspense films I have seen in a long time. It’s never clear if this is a horror movie or if the horror movie is happening inside of the overly anxious and socially awkward main character’s head. Well done.
4) EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Ciro Guerra) – In this epic about the past, present, and future, two adventures explore the Amazon jungle, one dealing with first contact with tribes and then the next following the clues of that first journey. The search for a special plant seems innocent enough, and indeed all characters seem to have the best of intentions, but the film is unflinching in its depiction of a modern world impacting ancient tribes. Anything you study you also change. Embrace of the Serpent is a strange and magnificent film experience. Seek this out if you're a fan of Werner Herzog's classics Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, or if you're drawn to Heart of Darkness-like journeys.
3) ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve) – Aliens arrive and the nations of the world race against the clock to communicate with our visitors in order to discern what they want, where they came from, and why are they here. An amazing film – and a hopeful one, where catastrophes are prevented by listening to each other instead of by acts of force. It’s a perfect rebuff to the adversarial nature of 2016. It is a movie about love and loss, but also a movie that is very, very sci-fi. It's brilliant and I loved it.
2) HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie) – Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers who rob banks and Jeff Bridges is the lawman who is tasked with bringing them to justice. Tense, thoughtful, and unexpectedly funny. It could almost be a spiritual sequel to No Country for Old Men. Or maybe it's more the anti-No Country for Old Men? Either way it'd make for a helluva double-bill. What I like is that, in addition to being a solid crime drama, its scope basically tells the story of a crumbling country. Like a sad love letter to America's old West which we've moved on from, sometimes happily, sometimes because we had no other choice.
1) GREEN ROOM (Jeremy Saulnier) – When I saw Green Room for the first time in July, it became my “favorite” film of 2016. I put favorite in quotes because damn, this is a mean movie. It’s incredibly well-made, creating suspense in the first 10 minutes and then not letting you go until the end credits, but it’s also so very dark and violent. As with most movies that I put on the yearly top spot, I have to revisit them a couple months later to see how they stand up. And oh boy, Green Room is just as intense the second time as it is the first. I might’ve known what was coming but I remained on the edge of my seat anyway. Actually, it added something more the second time, as I knew what would happen and was left hoping it wouldn’t this time, because our heroes do not deserve their fates.
If you don’t know what Green Room is about, the film follows a young metal band on a failed tour across the country. In need of gas money to get back home, they take a gig at a skinhead bar, not because that’s their scene but because they’re desperate. After the band witnesses a murder, the bar employees lock them in the green room and both sides are left in a state of unease as they plot against the other. The band just wants to get away and the bar’s owner wants to contain the situation, by any means necessary.
The movie feels unexpectedly topical as the bandmates are forced to contend America’s most deplorable in order to survive. Green Room isn’t a political movie – at least not blatantly political – but the choice to make white supremacists into horror movie villains seems very appropriate for 2016. And while I know that the film is fiction, I also know that places like the bar in the movie do exist in our country… and man, I hate that.
The villain, quietly played by Patrick Stewart, is one of the most chilling you’ll see in movies this year and the young star Anton Yelchin gives his most layered performance of his tragically short career. Green Room is also further proof that director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is the real deal. This movie may be too brutal for some but it’s a thrilling experience for the rest of us.
And there ya go. My Top 15.
I’ll continue to seek out the films I might’ve missed but I won’t be updating the list here. However, I will be updating my Top 50 of 2016 list on Letterboxd, if you’re curious to see more.
All in all, it’s been a fairly excellent year for film.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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