Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Best Movies of 2016

My theater-going was as pathetic as it's ever been in 2016. I can only think of one movie I saw that wasn't a comic book adaptation or Star War. Luckily though, a lot of great looking movies were available for rental or streaming before I had to put this together. There's still plenty of stuff that released late in the year I need to see, but this is a darn good selection of movies.

Best of 2016

10. Rogue One

Gareth Edwards seems to be a divisive director; opinions were split on Godzilla, and they're similarly all over the place on the first Star Wars spin-off. I liked it quite a bit though. Beyond the frequent unnecessary callbacks and cameos of characters and bits from earlier movies and obvious seams from what seems like quite a lot of rewriting and reshooting, it's a well-made sci-fi war movie that takes the series in a different direction. It's designed to fit into a small gap in the story, to answer a question that didn't really need answering. There's so many things that could have been handled differently, and it's easy to question if the movie should even exist. But hell if I didn't like the characters and feel for their plight. It's interesting and daring and goes places you would never expect a billion dollar franchise to go. I felt strongly about it in a way that I didn't about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was slickly entertaining but just missing a little something.

9. Hail, Caesar!

It seems like this will come to be known as a minor film in the Coen brothers canon, but for the most part even their mild successes are really good movies. It's easy to watch it and come away wondering whether it really had a point, but I think what the plot lacks in aim it makes up for in how it gets to the conclusion. It's the Coens' homage to and satire of golden age Hollywood, and it's packed with great performances by an amazing cast of both Coen veterans and newcomers, with several hilarious scenes that belong in any discussion of the brothers' comic brilliance. It also has an interesting central question about the value of doing what you love balanced against the value of getting paid fairly for your work. Also, the new Han Solo is in it.

8. The Nice Guys

It seems crazy to me that this is only the third movie Shane Black has had the opportunity to direct. He wrote several action movies in the late 80s and early 90s that helped revitalize the buddy cop genre, and since then has only made two excellent crime/action movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and this. Luckily he has a few more projects on the horizon. The Nice Guys is the ultimate homage to L.A. crime fiction, taking place in the smog-and-porn fueled 1970s and pitting its two main characters in a wonderfully mundane life-or-death struggle against the auto industry and federal bureaucracy. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both outstanding, the script is tight, clever, and funny, and the action is smartly low-key and punchy. They really don't make them like this anymore.

7. Sing Street

I didn't see this until the day before I'm posting this, and I'm glad I did, because it's nice to have something so happy breaking up the general misery of this list. Sing Street is about a teenage boy in 1980s Dublin who goes to a new Catholic school and starts a band to impress a girl. Some of the characters seemed kind of thinly drawn, but the primary relationships between the boy and the girl and between him and his older brother are handled extremely well and drive the whole story. It's funny and sweet while not ignoring some of the hardships that come with being a teenager, and not being sure who you are, and not being able to fix the things that the grownups around you have broken. Also, the original songs are generally really good and the editing and direction of the musical sequences is really clever.

6. Swiss Army Man

Paul Dano, having been trapped on a desert island for weeks, is about to hang himself. Daniel Radcliffe washes up on the beach. Thrilled by the chance for human contact, Dano rushes over and examines him, but he appears to be dead. The corpse farts. It continues farting, with increasing intensity. It won't stop. With a stroke of inspiration, Dano pushes Radcliffe's body into the water and mounts him. The farting propels them forward in the water, and Dano smiles with joy as he rides Radcliffe like a jet ski off into the sea as triumphant music swells. So begins one of the most charming and unusual movies I've ever seen. Its tangible weirdness and humor help sell a story that at its core questions why we don't speak honestly about the simple, stupid things that make us all the same.

5. The Invitation

The Invitation is a classic sort of thriller that maintains a high level of tension throughout, though we don't know if anything's really going on until the final act. It's largely about grief and how people find different ways to deal with it. The main character goes to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband, a wife he lost after their son's death pulled them apart. Going back to the house they shared and seeing her, and not understanding how she is able to process her grief in a way that seems foreign to him, helps sell his suspicions, and keeps the ambiguity going until it finally breaks and you see what it's really all about. I was already enjoying the movie a lot, but the final scene elevates it even higher. I don't want to oversell it, but I think it's honestly one of the best endings to a movie of all time.

4. The Witch

It seems crazy that this is anyone's first film. A bit less crazy when Robert Eggers worked in theater before making this, but still he has such a command of images and sound and how they work together. It's like he was born to do it. The Witch is a colonial horror story about a family that moves to an isolated spot in New England after a disagreement with their church (how hardcore do you have to be to be kicked out by the Puritans?) and finds themselves terrorized by supernatural forces living in the woods. The movie is extremely dedicated to its period setting, with natural lighting, severe accents, and archaic dialogue straight out of primary sources. Fans of more explosive horror movies might not find it to their liking, but it does an incredible job of building dread and terror out of small gestures and quiet moments that just aren't quite right. And the movie doesn't shy away from the real shit; if you're afraid that it's just psychological horror where nothing really happens, rest assured: the title isn't lying.

3. Captain America: Civil War

Yeah, guess what, I liked a Marvel movie. What can I say though? The studio knows how to do big budget crowd-pleasers better than anyone else. If you're interested in story, I think it has a lot to say about the importance of accountability versus the value of being able to get things done in a complex modern society. The fact that I was witness to or participated in several real world conversations where people disagreed vehemently on that central topic tells me they did a good job. And they justify having characters who've known each other for years become divided enough to come to blows without the whole thing falling apart. On a more surface level, Marvel's casting continues to be excellent, the movie's funny when it wants to be, and the action is top notch. I'm impressed with how the Russo brothers can balance the violence with the other stuff, and how they can have so much variety within the fights themselves. The tense apartment/stairwell scuffle where Cap's desperate to prevent Bucky and a squad of riot police from killing each other is very different from the airport brawl, which is the most direct expression of comic books at their indulgent and entertaining best ever committed to screen. I'm confident the next Avengers movie is in good hands.

2. Green Room

Between this and Blue Ruin, which I also saw last year and loved, I think Jeremy Saulnier knows how to use violence for shock and impact without diluting its value or meaning better than almost anyone. Green Room is about a punk rock band that gets trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi club after accidentally witnessing a crime, and that sounds like it could be really cheesy, but it's fucking brutal. It works because of the great economy and attention to detail on display. Every character has a purpose, every knife or bullet or cell phone is important, every death hurts or is a triumph. At times it's hard to watch, but it's also hard to look away in case you miss something. There are several great recognizable actors in the cast, but thankfully their fully on board with what the movie is and just do their jobs instead of being distractions. It's one of the decade's great horror films.

1. Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie has made several movies in the past, but I haven't seen any and don't know much about him. That just made it more fun when I watched this and loved just about every minute of it. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are a pair of mismatched bank robbers, targeting a specific chain in rural Texas and working towards some specific goal. Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger in charge of the investigation and who is, of course, very close to retirement. The three performances are great, Bridges' in particular, and the movie's a blast to watch, frequently laugh-out-loud funny and featuring several solid, tense robbery/chase scenes. At the same time, the movie has a lot on its mind, particularly the slow wasting away of small town America as the country becomes more corporatized and wealth is redistributed from the many to the few. It's never very blatant about it, but this is the backbone that makes the whole story work and makes every enjoyable movie moment seem more real and important. This is a problem we'll be dealing with for a long time, probably for the rest of my life. I expect there's only going to be more movies like this.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2016 but I didn't see until then.


I had a bunch of really good candidates for this, so I decided to highlight the one that it's least likely anyone reading has seen. Close-Up is from Iran, and is a very strange production that combines authentic footage of a real fraud trial with narrative scenes recreating the story, starring the actual people involved with the case. The result is a hybrid of documentary and traditional film, and the layers get even deeper with the fraud involving a man impersonating a well-known Iranian filmmaker. Pulling apart the truths from the lies is fascinating, and it's always interesting to look at movies made in parts of the world you're less familiar with, and see how they're often very different from and very similar to your own at the same time.

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