Well, here we are. As messy as 2016 was for many, it just zipped right by, didn’t it? I don’t know what it is but whereas the year 2015 felt, to me, like it was at least two years long, I feel like this year never took a breather and consequently ended up going way too fast (Christmas 2015 still feels as recent as this Christmas). Either way, I’m trying to accept the good stuff it gave me. Fun activities and travels with the new schoolmates, moving into a new apartment and, of course, all the countless interesting movies we got.
As chance would have it, though, I’m only going to look at the ones I liked (primarily). There are some 2016 films I’ve yet to see, others aren’t released here until next year, and some of the actual entries on this list had their release dates last year – everywhere except here. I plan on updating these lists in the future, the more movies I see from a given year, although I do enjoy having some kind of summary at the end of the year and reflect on that which we’ve been given.
On that note, you’re welcome to join me (if you happen to not have friends or party plans on the last days of the year). So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Greatest Movies of 2016, with some honorable mentions, runners-up and a mandatory “WORST” list at the very bottom.
Honorable Mention. Captain America: Civil War
For a film that doesn’t steer away too much from the Marvel Universe formula, Captain America: Civil War does a lot to impress! It has visual effects that don’t look like visual effects, it acknowledges dilemmas we’ve yet to see these films address, and it creates turbulence amongst the Avengers that (SPOILER ALERT) isn’t entirely resolved by the time of this writing.
Everyone’s there. Chris Evans‘ Captain America, Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man, Sebastian Stan‘s Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Tom Holland‘s brand new Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman‘s Black Panther, Paul Bettany‘s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen‘s Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd‘s Ant-Man, a new and more diabolical villain than ever, and, yeah, the list goes on. The team is divided after the government gets involved in their activity, and their increasingly unpleasant disagreement with two staunch sides has been compared by many a critic to the political situation in America throughout this year. I must wonder if it was accidental.
This one may just be the “best” film in the franchise in terms of how all these characters interact and use their various powers against each other. It can be a little too comical in tone at times, for sure, yet it’s hard not to smile when you’re treated to that which must be the stuff of a comic book geek’s childhood dreams. I also might have put it on my final list if it didn’t look and sound so much like the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe we’ll get something more unique when our favorite Guardians make their comeback this summer?
10. I Am Not a Serial Killer
With its precise pacing, unusually convincing extras and a score that’s horrifying enough without imagery to accompany it, this Irish horror film is more suspenseful and thoroughly disturbing than any of the big-budget horror movies this entire year. I have seen it be compared to Stranger Things and Goosebumps, but there’s something about this particular film that makes it seem a lot less family friendly and a lot more nauseating.
I Am Not a Serial Killer follows a troubled and possibly psychopathic teenager, John Wayne Cleaver (an absolutely fantastic Max Records), as he moves through his daily routine and talks to a therapist about how he sees the world. He works with his mother in a funeral home, remains oblivious to the advances of a pretty girl in school, and frequently helps his elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) perform various tasks, some of which involve smartphone usage. Christopher Lloyd‘s character is such an accurate representation of a frail and “senile yet wise” senior citizen that he kept reminding me of my grandfather, which is appropriate, given what John eventually learns about him.
I won’t say too much more than that since this is a great film to watch if you’re not quite sure what’s happening – it even seems to “shift genres” about 20 minutes in. I would have loved it more if its ending made more sense and didn’t remind me too much of a certain movie on my 2014 list, but it has a tremendous knack for atmosphere, feels way more realistic than it should, and provides first-rate performances all around (after agreeing to appear in such projects as Foodfight, The Oogieloves, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, I’d say Christopher Lloyd deserved the redemption).
There’s something about the alien visit that takes place in Arrival that feels more effective and fantastical than it usually does in science fiction. This feels like something that could happen in our world, should extraterrestrials truly reach us; including the part where some of us attempt to communicate with the aliens and decipher their symbols, whereas others immediately conclude that the solution is war.
In Arrival, a resplendent Amy Adams plays a grieving linguist (so it seems) named , who is picked up by Forest Whitaker and put on a military helicopter with a physicist played by Jeremy Renner. They are headed towards one of the spaceships, she’s told, and her purpose is to help the military understand the visitors’ language, which is singularly otherworldly but man kind learns to comprehend it thanks to something I won’t reveal here.
All I will say is that one of my few problems with this movie was that it contained a somewhat tired storytelling gimmick and a few continuity errors. At the end of the film, it turned out it didn’t actually have these problems.
For a relatively low-budget film, Arrival looks great. 3D effects are used sparingly, certain sets are dreamlike, and the first spacecraft we see is shot so that it feels equal parts intimidating and awe-inspiring. I implore you to find a Blu-ray copy when the time is right.
If you’ve seen the sort of kid’s movies that most studios are putting forth these days, you will agree with my verdict on LAIKA’s Kubo and the Two Strings: “Now THIS is what I’m talking about”.
This is the sort of original, imaginative, and often quite dark Fantasy adventure that kids born in the Labyrinth era have longed for and kids from the Miyasaki era have desperately tried to expose to whatever creatures who would rather see a film about Minions. Kubo (Art Parkinson) entertains the residents of a Japanese village by playing his shamisen and giving life to small origami figures, some of which are from the legend of his lost father, Hanzo the samurai. He lives with his almost braindead mother (Charlize Theron) in a cave, and is forced to leave her when the village is attacked by his two witch-like aunts (Rooney Mara), who answer to the devious Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
Separated from his home, Kubo must find the armor of Hanzo and defeat the Moon King. Joined by a monkey who carries his mother’s soul and a funny beetle-man voiced by Matthew McConaughey, he goes on an adventure that may seem a little too familiar in its story beats and lessons, yet nevertheless works.
The visuals and animation are the film’s selling point, however. This is likely the best stop-motion you will see all year, with some CGI used here and there to “amplify” the film as opposed to taking an easy way out. Parents, be advised. This is a film that will take your children a lot more seriously than the inevitable Ice Age 6.
7. The Revenant
Not released here until late January, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s The Revenant is a masterfully crafted epic where, to quote my father, “everything hurts”. This is a film so grim and realistic in its brutality that many people will find it difficult to watch, but its astounding action scenes (often done in long, continuous takes) and gorgeous nature shots should glue your eyes right back to the screen. And for reasons that become evident as you watch it, it finally won Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar.
It tells the true story of 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass, as we see him get nearly killed by a bear in an uncharted forest, have his adopted Native soon (Forrest Goodluck) murdered in front of his eyes by Tom Hardy, and then left to die by Hardy’s character. Miraculously, he survives, and is left to fend for himself in the wild, avoiding the wrath of Mother Nature as much as French hunters and Native American tribes, with nothing on his mind except vengeance. I too would want to kill Tom Hardy if he always spoke in that impenetrable accent.
The whole thing is superbly acted, not excluding supporting actors Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter. And indeed, none of what you see in this film relied on computers, comfy studios (except a few instances of obvious dubbing), or even fake bison meat for Leo to chew on when he wasn’t busy learning Native American languages or how to shoot a 19th century musket.
Some people have complained that Hugh Glass is all grit and grunts and not enough humanity, while others feel like all this effort on Iñárritu and the crew’s part is “unnecessary”. Those who dislike it the most, as far as I can tell, are those who care the least about making movies.
In a year like 2016, where everything from terror attacks to ugly presidential elections to iconic celebrities dropping like flies made everyone feel hopeless, no movie could have been more welcome. This French animation, based on the literary classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and directed by Mark Osbourne, is such a hopeful and reassuring movie that I know people who have been partially cured from their anxiety about the uncertainties of the future after watching it. That’s not too bad.
The Little Prince is initially about a logical and booksmart Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy), whose excessively “adult” mother (Rachel MacAdams) has big and disturbingly strict plans for her daughter’s future as they move into a neighborhood where everything is serious and all the buildings are grey squares – except one. She befriends The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who lives in a much more colorful house and has stories to tell. One of them is, of course, about The Little Prince – who lived on a planet scarcely bigger than himself, and who had need for a friend. And so on.
As we enter The Aviator’s story, the animation shifts from CG to stop-motion, which looks excellent and flawlessly reminiscent of the original book’s illustrations. The different characters the Little Prince meets are voiced by such powerful names as James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Albert Brooks, Paul Giamatti, Ricky Gervais and Paul Rudd – all of them doing a fine job. With a beautiful score by Hans Zimmer to accompany its equally beautiful visuals and themes, this is a hard film not to fall in love with.
And since it came out at such a flawless time, you may be wondering why I’m not ranking it higher. Firstly, I can easily change my mind mere days after I post my lists, but the main reason right now is that I can agree that it in some ways takes a “fanfiction” approach to the source material, as much as I justified it in my review. Either way, what does it matter? Just see it. You deserve it!
Tom Ford, a fashion designer who knows how to make his performers look dazzling, brings us a multi-layered neo-noir thriller in the form of Nocturnal Animals. Amy Adams, once again outstanding but in a different way entirely, plays renowned artist Susan Morrow, who receives a package containing a manuscript for her ex-boyfriend Edward’s latest novel. As she starts reading, she wonders more and more why this gift was sent to her and why Edward has used the nickname he had for her as its title.
Nocturnal Animals (the book) is about Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who loses his wife and teenage daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) after a group of redneck hoodlums knocks their car off a desert road and eventually kidnap the latter two. This is by far the most relentlessly intense scene in the film and Aaron-Taylor Johnson, who plays the redneck leader, gives what must be the greatest performance of his entire career, successfully coming off as both scary and hilarious in a way that very few actors can.
Seeking help from a skillful but terminally ill detective (Michael Shannon, also doing a first-rate job), Tony’s quest for rescue becomes one of revenge. As this goes on, a third narrative appears in the form of Susan’s flashbacks to her and Edward’s glory days. The parallells between the stories are shown just as much in the visuals as in the themes.
Nocturnal Animals is a difficult film to summarize but I will say this much: it is absolutely wonderful. Had our emotional connection with the characters been even stronger, I may have placed it higher on the list.
There were some really good documentaries this year (had I not had problems with the editing in Ava DuVernay‘s 13th, it wouldn’t have been restricted to the runners-up section). But I think none were as surprising, confusing and uncomfortable as David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled. Here is a New Zealand movie that documents an Internet video trend known simply as “Competitive Endurance Tickling”, which involves grown men in sportswear tying each other up and simply tickling each other senseless.
Sounds pretty silly, right? Well, yes, it is at first. But when if you happen to wanna find out more about these videos and who’s creating them, it gets worse. Boy does it gets worse. We’re talking homophobia, legal threats, and ruining people’s reputations by telling the public what sort of videos they’ve agreed to appear in – and yes, this is the producers themselves doing this to their recruits.
The fact that this business has apparently been operational for more than a decade is enough to make this documentary both eye-opening and unpleasant. However, it is also great in terms of camera work and editing, giving us at least one scene in which Farrier and company improvise a hidden camera in an inventive way.
What’s most important about Tickled is what a journalistic accomplishment it is and what manner of truths it unmasks. I’m glad we got something like this the year “fake news” became a thing. I suppose it makes sense. If a politically biased alt-news source agrees with you that feminists are somehow destroying Star Wars, what do you care if their research isn’t grounded in fact or if the people who run the place are either suspiciously pro-fascist or, I dunno, involved in the making of nigh perverted tickling videos?
So many attempts have we seen at adapting video games into a film that the term “video game movie” has essentially become a punch line at this point. But lo and behold, a Russian-American indie film has come along and shown us the most perfect cinematic equivalent to a first-person shooter that you or anyone else will ever see. It is, in a way, a parody; a smart, affectionate, and gloriously fucked-up one.
Possibly revolutionary in terms of cinematography and stunt work, Hardcore Henry is a movie that never shows us anything besides what the indestructible cybernetic hero (played by a variety of resilient stuntmen) sees with his own eyes. The limited information we receive about his shady enemies, as well as the nature of his creation, is thus justified, as is the fact that he never speaks; his voice chip is never installed before the lab in which he’s resurrected by his wife (Haley Bennett) is attacked by an evil albino with unexplained powers and a Tommy Wiseau-style voice. I really hope this guy receives “iconic villain” status.
After this takes place, Henry runs into several renditions of Sharlto Copley, proving more than ever the things Copley can do as an actor, and has several hilariously gruesome encounters with both foes and new allies. Henry may technically be a blank slate but he is given just the right amount of humour and relatability for us to feel for him, yet still easily project onto him and truly experience the adventure. It will make some viewers feel dizzy, though if you can allow yourself to get used to its shakiness, you won’t regret it.
The movie is non-stop funny, exhilarating, impressive considering its low budget, clever, and edited in such a way that the film has much better pacing had we seen everything Henry sees in real-time (shots like that would probably be better suited for something like Birdman). What’s more, the film is amazingly unpredictable if you go into it without knowing what manner of out-of-the-box madness you’re in for. Thus, I shall say no more.
When I first reviewed Quentin Tarantino‘s Hateful Eight, a so-called “revisionist Western”, I compared it to his other films in the sense that many of them start off with the brutal violence and then take a breather with long conversations and such before the next strike. But Tarantino has made many films, and he knows we’ve seen them. The Hateful Eight takes its precious time getting to the gruesomely blood-thirsty bits, and if you know what you’re in for after the elongated build-up, it’s like waiting all year for Christmas Day.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Major Marquis, a bounty hunter who ends up trapped in a remote cabin during a blizzard with all sorts of questionable characters. There’s The Hangman (Kurt Russell) and his prey, a notorious criminal named Daisy Domergue (a wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims that he’s the new local sheriff. There’s also Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican man who fails to convince Marquis with his alleged backstory; a remarkably polite Brit played by Tim Roth; a grouchy cowboy played by Michael Madsen, and a suspiciously silent confederate played by Bruce Dern. It goes without saying that tension rises in the cozy little cabin as trust is tried and, eventually, firearms are drawn and blood is unapologetically sprayed from various orifices.
The cinematography is as gorgeous as it is deliberate (the outdoor shots are made even better by the Ultra Panavision aspect ratio), the characters are hysterical as much as they’re intriguingly untrustworthy, the acting never hits a sour note, and the music is proof that, even as he’s approaching his hundredth decade, Ennio Morricone is still the best of the best. I am still so utterly glad that he finally got his Academy Award thanks to this movie and also persuaded Tarantino into not putting a bunch of out-of-place modern songs on the soundtrack.
Lastly, the film is unconventional in the most intentional ways – ways that only a filmmaker like Tarantino is allowed to get away with. Should he want to abruptly cut off a loud piece of music and smash cut to another meandering yet bizarrely intriguing conversation, or perhaps start narrating the movie halfway through, he can. Deal with it.
Since it was released here a year late, I have the privilege of naming Charlie Kaufman‘s Anomalisa my favorite movie of this year in spite of missing its festival release in 2015. Its story is about Michael (David Thewlis), a reclusive author, and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh again, still lovely), a woman he meets in a Cincinnati hotel who is the only person in the entire world who has a unique voice (everyone else sounds like Tom Noonan). Lisa is already a big fan of his work, but their relationship quickly develops into something a great deal more than that.
The entire thing is aesthetically marvelous, with terrific lighting and camera work, including shots that by all accounts shouldn’t be possible to do with stop-motion. It is slow-paced, but appropriately so, and of course all the sets and characters are astonishingly designed. The voice-acting only helps make the leads all the more convincing in their humanity.
Put simply, it’s one of the most well-made and honest films I’ve seen all decade; when you’re used to everyone in the world thinking the same thoughts and speaking in the same voice, finding someone who speaks in a different voice entirely can be the most amazing thing. Then you get to know them, and their voice starts changing. What happens next is up to you.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Ouija: Origin of Evil
- 13th (Review not yet written)
- Green Room (Review not yet written)
- Don’t Breathe
Unexpected delights (Films that weren’t great but better than expected):
- Independence Day: Resurgence
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
WORST films of the year:
- Norm of the North
- Nine Lives
- Suicide Squad
- God’s Not Dead 2
- Vaxxed: From Cover-up To Catastrophe
- Warcraft: The Beginning
- Ice Age: Collision Course
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Assassin’s Creed