So, now that we’ve gotten those dumb Oscar nominations out of the way, I think it’s finally time to let everyone know what the real best films of 2016 were. The hacks at the Academy wouldn’t know quality if it slapped them in the face. I’m being slightly facetious, of course, but did you know that a Korean film has never been nominated for an Oscar? What the actual heck is that garbage? And yeah, there’s only one Korean movie on this list, but it’s freaking awesome and deserved at least some serious recognition for its visual excellence.
But no. So, here I am to right those wrongs with my list of the swellest films to be released between January 1st and December 31st of 2016.
If you want to get technical, there are actually 17 movies on this list, but we’re sticking with the naming convention and it only counts up to 15 anyway. Also, I’m doing this from best to worst, instead of the other way around. Everything is arbitrary, anyway (art is a lie, god is dead, etc.)
Let’s get into it.
Things I didn’t see that, based on critical response, could have affected this list: Silence, Everybody Wants Some!!, Jackie, Moana, Weiner, O.J.: Made in America, Certain Women, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 20th Century Women, Age of Shadows, 13th.
0: The Edge of Seventeen
In 2016, I found my Desert Island Movie. I have no idea why it took me so long to find a film that I genuinely feel like I could just watch over and over again for the rest of eternity, but there you go. I love The Edge of Seventeen with every fiber of my being. Literally everything about it is amazing. Is it because, deep down, I am a misfit 17-year-old girl? Probably. I connected so much to Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine that I should probably be concerned about it but am distinctly not.
I remember seeing the trailer initially and thinking, “Huh. That looks okay,” and then seeing all of the crazy praise that it got, saying it would be this generation’s Breakfast Club. But, unfortunately, it took me too long to see it. By the time I had gone to the theater for it for the third time (on my birthday, no less), it was just about to leave for good. I would have seen it at least twice more, to set my personal record for times I’ve seen a movie in theaters (I’ve only seen Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road more), but alas. I will undoubtedly be buying the Blu-ray when it comes out next month.
1: Green Room
The instant the credits rolled on Green Room, I texted four different people telling them I had just seen the best movie of 2016. When I saw it for the second time, I did the same thing. I was at a party with Jeremy Saulnier a year-and-change ago and didn’t find out until afterwards, which was terrible for me but great for him. I loved Blue Ruin, and would have made his night absolutely terrible by constantly telling him how great he was (and how excited I was for Green Room, which I had already heard stellar things about). The difference between his first film, Murder Party, and Blue Ruin was astronomical. The difference between that and Green Room is not so big, but considering how good Blue Ruin is, that it’s any kind of improvement is a sign of straight-up genius.
I mean, it’s Punk Rock Die Hard. What else could you possibly want? And it also ended up being horribly relevant in 2016. Which is not a good thing, necessarily, but makes it all the more deserving of the title of “Best Movie of 2016.” Red laces, y’all.
2: The Lobster
The Lobster is the biting satire that the Tinder generation deserves. The tale of a film where superficial compatibility is not just a major component of a match; it’s the only component. Go to a hotel and find love (or something) with another person with similar hair, or the same kind of limp (maybe a similar penchant for nose bleeds). If you can’t do that in 45 days, you’re turned into an animal. You get to choose the animal, which I guess is cool, but, ya know, you get turned into an animal (and the implication is that the, um, surgical procedure to take you from human to animal is horrific (duh)). The way the characters develop in this absurdist romance is consistently fascinating, and it feels True even when it doesn’t feel Real.
Because that’s kind of where we are. That hotel is like a bizzaro version of Tinder, where looks are literally everything. Watching it, I thought about all those dating apps on my phone that I already feel uncomfortable about and felt even worse. Here I am, not much different than the people on the screen, except when I don’t find my superficial mate, at least I don’t get turned into an animal.
And for that, The Lobster doesn’t just end up on the list of year’s best movies: It ends up on the list of films that have most directly impacted me as a person (ever).
3: Swiss Army Man
The movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. I remember hearing about this, hearing about the crazy divisiveness of its premiere, the walk-outs, etc. And then I remember talking to friends about it (and someone spoiling the ending, presumably without realizing I still hadn’t seen it… awk). Then someone said, “I just saw Swiss Army Man, and I need to talk about it with you, so go see Swiss Army Man.” So, I did.
No lie: I laughed more at this movie than everyone else in the theater combined. That’s not an exaggeration. (I know this because I laughed at every single joke, which means I pretty much didn’t stop laughing from the word Go (except for the emotional moments, which worked on a whole other level).) It’s unfortunate that it can be reduced to “the farting corpse movie,” because that makes Swiss Army Man sound like some childish gross-out thing. But that isn’t what it is. It’s crazy, sure, but it’s clever as hell and really gets at some serious issues. If you were turned off by the premise, you should still give it a shot. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
I had put together the other films on this list before seeing Paterson. I had a placeholder spot for it at 7. Based on general reaction, and how I felt about movies 1-6 (and 8-15), it seemed like a good spot for the film. As you can tell, however, it changed things. Part of me feels that it didn’t change hard enough, that Paterson actually deserves to be higher on this list, but it hasn’t been long enough since watching it for me to really know where it ultimately falls. But let me say this: Paterson is the nicest movie I have seen in years. It’s the word I kept coming back to, and it’s a word everyone else I’ve talked to about it has used as well. The movie is just nice. It’s pleasant. It’s a film about a guy with a pretty decent existence who is just going about existing, with a stellar center performance by Adam Driver.
A lot of movies make me think about myself and my life, but rarely do movies make me really question where I am, where I’m going, and what I want. In the long, meditative silences of Paterson, I considered those things. I looked at him and his girlfriend. I looked at their small house with the mailbox that’s always tilting to the side (which has one of the most satisfying payoffs in recent memory). And I thought about how I stack up. How I live. Am I doing it right? Am I doing alright? It takes a special film to really get into your brain like that.
Paterson is a special film.
From the gorgeous opening shot of Moonlight, I was hooked. I subtitled my review “Able to bear the weight of its own existence,” and I think that’s probably the best way to describe what it accomplishes. Here is a film that just had to be good. After the collapse of The Birth of a Nation, something needed to pick up the mantle as the film about not-white-people. And while Moonlight was not the only film to do that, it was absolutely the best.
Each of the three periods in Chiron’s life is beautifully realized, both technically and emotionally. The script is great. The cinematography is brilliant. The acting is stellar, from Mahershala Ali (are you fucking kidding me, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?). Really, just everything is great. It doesn’t have many surprises, but it doesn’t need them either. Despite what might seem on its face generic, the film feels completely honest. (Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about it.)
Some people may shrug it off as “the Black movie” because they thought the #oscarssowhite campaign was reverse racist or something, but those people are A) garbage, and B) missing out on something awesome.
I don’t get into multi-thousand word written discussions about films very often, so when I do, it’s clearly a big deal. Arrival made me think and think hard. (No other film that I saw last year inspired that level of discussion, nor did (m)any of them really deserve it.)
Even before I had seen it, Denis Villeneuve was one of my favorite directors. But that just solidified it. He’s on a roll (and have you seen the teaser for the new Blade Runner? My gosh!), and this is by far his greatest work. A quiet, meditative studio film with big name actors about… linguistics? The most interesting alien movie in years, and also a damn fine looking piece of art. I’m keeping this brief because I’ve already said a whole heckuva lot. If you want more, go read Hubert and my Flixist Discusses piece(s) on it [Part 1 and Part 2]. That rabbit hole goes deep.
I tend to avoid cowboy-type movies, ones set in the South or the West (other than, obviously, California, but that’s not really the West; it’s just… West). This is some kind of not-great bias on my part, but it’s true. I had to see Hell or High Water mostly so people would shut up telling me that I had to go see Hell or Highwater. Several people had told me it was their favorite film of the year, so I finally took the plunge, and… wow. Just, wow.
The thing that sold me on the film, more than anything else, is a firefight in which a truck becomes riddled with holes. Not showered with sparks, the way we expect vehicles in films to be affected, full-on swiss cheesed. This was a moment that encapsulated everything about Hell or High Water that made it so good: a commitment to the realism. It has some of the most effective violence of any film in recent memory, and it tells a truly compelling story about people who feel they’ve been wronged and the lengths they’ll go to to see their justice done.
It wasn’t the biggest surprise of the year (I’ll get to that one in a bit), but it was probably the best.
I was very conflicted about seeing Manchester by the Sea. I didn’t watch The Birth of a Nation for the same reason I won’t watch Woody Allen or Roman Polanski movies: I refuse to separate the art from the artist. I understand, sort of, why people don’t, but it’s a matter of principle for me.
The stories of Casey Affleck’s awful on-set actions left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like that shouldn’t stop me. Not because I didn’t care about supporting bad behvavior, but because it’s not actually his movie. I shouldn’t punish Kenneth Lonergan and co. because their lead actor turned out to be a scumbag. And so I didn’t. And I wasn’t disappointed by the film I got. It’s less depressing than I was led to believe, but I mean thatin a very good way. It’s about grief and tragedy, but it doesn’t necessarily feel tragic.
Sometimes when I watch a movie, I wish that I had made something like it (or, more generally, want to make something like it in the future). Here was something different: I wanted to be in a movie like it. I wanted to be a part of something so raw and emotionally honest. I hope I get that opportunity someday. It really is a powerful piece of work.
9: The Handmaiden
I’m glad that Park Chan-Wook went back to Korea rather than making the other Hollywood films he had lined up. Stoker is fine, but The Handmaiden is a proper return to form for one of the best working filmmakers. I didn’t know anything about The Handmaiden going into it, other than that it was based off a book and was about lesbians. Much like westerns, I tend to avoid period pieces, but Park’s work was obviously always going to be an exception.
And what we’ve got is easily the best Korean period piece I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many). It’s a technical achievement, to be sure, probably his best looking film, but it’s also a narrative one. I was shocked by how long the film was when I arrived at the screening and saw the runtime on the press notes, but the film went by quickly. And with all of that intrigue and violence and sex*, it’s got pretty much everything you could possibly want.
*I genuinely think the film has a bit too much lesbian sex (something most of my male friends disagree with on principle), but unlike the gratuitous nothing found in Blue is the Warmest Color‘s infamous sequences, these do serve a purpose. They build character, and they look good cinematically (not just, like, sexually or whatever). For that, it mostly gets a pass on what comes off as mostly just gratuitous.
10: La La Land
As I’m writing this, someone is talking to me about how much he hated La La Land. I, politely, disagreed. I know a lot of people who loved it a lot more than I do, and a fair few who like it less. It’s kind of interesting how wildly different the opinions have been. For my part, I really, really liked it. Damien Chazelle broke out with Whiplash, and this is a fitting follow-up. The jazz-based music is fun and lighthearted, as is the film in general, at least up until the ending.
The characters don’t really make a lot of sense, to be sure, and a lot of the cinematic language was used more as a throwback to old films than in a way that necessarily made sense for this one, but I didn’t really care. I’ve said it before, that I’m willing to forgive substance issues for style, and this film has got a lot of style. And at the end of a very bad year, it was nice to just watch pretty people do pretty things. (Ryan Gosling especially. He is pretty much amazing at everything, huh?)
Why did I put these together? Because I loved them both, and they both deserved a spot… but they didn’t deserve two spots collectively. Deadpool is the best Marvel movie by leaps and bounds, and Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping takes everything that made The Lonely Island great and amps it up. Aside from being comedies, the two movies couldn’t really be more different, but they’re also some of the few movies that I went to see in theaters again after attending the press screenings, bringing friends because I just wanted to share the experiences with other people. (Green Room is the only other one I can think of, though I saw it alone the second time around.)
I don’t really have anything else to say other than that they’re great (read my reviews if you want more), and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
12: The Witch
In a not-insignificant way, The Witch is actually perfect. Director Robert Eggers put an obscene amount of work into making the film feel like a historical document, and he succeeded to an incredible degree.
The moment I realized this was the moment I thought, “Man, child actors in the 1700s were terrible.” I didn’t think, “Wow, they hired bad child actors in 2016.” No, my brain literally convinced itself that the creative team time travelled back to the time in which the film was set and found people to play the characters and had subpar casting then. Were it not for the fact that time travel is impossible, I would genuinely believe it. The whole thing is just so flawlessly crafted that the acting issues don’t detract from it, which is bizarre and impressive in and of itself. Well done, all. Except the child actors. Shame on them.
13: Sing Street
One of the last films I saw as I was putting this list together, Sing Street is just a straight-up joy to watch. I played the drums (poorly) growing up, and a part of me wished that I had been in a band. Seeing the kids develop was awesome, and the fact that it literally all happened for a girl is both Ugh and also Amazing. It’s such a teenage boy thing to do. And then he rocks the hell out of everything.
The way the band comes together and the music they create is all freaking awesome, and the narratives that underlie it all are excellent. I particularly liked the dynamic between the brothers, because it just felt so… right. It’s one of the best sibling-ships I’ve seen in quite some time. Also, the romance is great, and usually I hate teen romance nonsense.
I mean, let’s be honest: Just about everything is great. It’s on Netflix. Go see it.
Biggest surprise of 2016? Absolutely. Unlike Blair Witch, which also came out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane was exactly what a good mystery can be. I didn’t know what I was in for going in, and that made the whole thing so much better. With some truly spectacular performances (particularly John Goodman’s terrifying turn), 10 Cloverfield Lane made a very real case for the true horror being humanity. But the film doesn’t let it be quite so simple. Though Goodman’s character does some truly barbaric things, his motivations are far more complex. Deep down, he’s almost a good person. He actually does think he’s saving people from certain doom (and he has a very valid reason for thinking so), and the way that story builds and the characters develop is fascinating.
If Cloverfield has to become a franchise, this gives me hope that it will be able to turn out unique and interesting tales. Does this need to have the moniker? No. But I don’t have a problem with films taking on names of money-makers if it gives them a shot at success, particularly if they’re making something different with it. And 10 Cloverfield Lane is different. It’s exciting. And I’m very glad that I got to see it while the mystery was still fresh. (Though it’s no doubt a great movie regardless.)
The first thing I said after Rogue One‘s credits rolled was “Wow. It’s crazy how much better that was than Episode VII.” The second time I saw it, I thought, “That was not nearly as good the second time. Still pretty sure it’s a lot better than Episode VII.” I liked Episode VII, but from the moment Rogue One was announced, I was so much more excited. These spin-off stories are so much more interesting to me than the main narrative that has propelled the Star Wars films thus far. This is also the rare prequel that actually makes something really fundamental make sense. Why was it so easy to destroy the Death Star? Well, because one of the men who built it put that flaw right in there. It makes sense. It works. (And the logic for him working on the base is fascinating and relevant as hell (and reminds me of something Tim Cook said about meeting with Donald Trump).)
Also: it makes the fact that Starkiller Base was so easy to destroy so much stupider oh my god why.
There are movies not on this list that I liked more than Rogue One – American Honey, Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings – but I chose to put this here because it’s the best thing to happen to Star Wars on the big screen in decades. I think it’s an important film for that reason, and hopefully one that we will look back on in the future as a turning point for this franchise, where it gets truly interesting again. It’s got some major flaws for sure, but it deserves a place on this list. (Last place.)