Despite low income and not being on every distributor’s critics list, I still saw one helluva lot of movies in 2016. A few were awful, a few were brilliant and most were somewhere in the middle.
Fifteen were the absolute best I saw and slightly more than a handful more hovered on the edges of brilliant. Bear in mind that these selections are based on a combination of how much I was entertained and how much I was persuaded to think. The best films are the ones that get one involved and these certainly did that for me.
15. Pete’s Dragon (Walt Disney Studios) – Pete’s Dragon is, in essence, about a lost boy finding family and learning to move on, but it’s also about the magic of storytelling and carrying on after tragedy – and not looking down on someone because they believe something you don’t. Plus, the titular dragon, Elliott, is my new favorite CG character.
14. The Edge of Seventeen (STX Entertainment) – This is a movie about a specific teenager and her railing against the fate that dumped tragedy on her and a best friend who betrayed her. It’s a hard, honest look at what being an adolescent is like. By being specific, it becomes universal. Hailee Steinfeld is as good here as she was in True Grit.
13. Eye in the Sky (eOne) – An examination of whether war (on the ground; via drone, wherever) is ever really ethical – couched in the decision whether to use a drone to kill three known terrorists while a an innocent child is in the impact zone. Eye in the Sky is Dr. Strangelove done straight (though not without wit) and the cast (including Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul) is spot on. Thought provoking drama at its best.
12. Green Room (Broad Green Pictures) – one of Anton Yelchin’s last films, Green Room is a horror story without supernatural monsters. A punk band stumbles onto a murder when they play an isolated white supremacist bar and have to find a way out before the owner and employees kill them. Green room is both thought provoking and an adrenaline-infused ride into the darkness that’s possible in homo sapiens.
11. Paterson (Amazon Studios) – Jim Jarmusch makes odd little movies. Paterson may be his most ‘normal.’ It follows a bus driver named Paterson as he lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. He also writes poetry and loves his wife, Laura, and walks their dog, Marvin. Paterson looks at a week in Paterson’s life and the events that transpire within that week. Tiny variations in Paterson’s life (different people on his bus; his wife’s desires to be a designer, country musician, or baker; the conversations at his neighborhood bar) speak of the infinite pleasures and problems to be found in the everyday. It’s an oddly delightful masterpiece.
10. La La Land (Lionsgate) – Damien Chazelle’s follow up to Whiplash is a musical that is both a hymn to Hollywood and an homage to the musicals of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand. It’s tale of two struggling artists who meet and fall in love feels utterly real – even in its most fantastic sequences because the relationship is so truthful.
9. Doctor Strange (Marvel Studios) – The only superhero movie on the list, Doctor Strange takes the familiar tropes of the guy who overcomes unexpected tragedy to become something better and spins them into a tale of psychedelic wonder. If you’ve read the original Steve Ditko-drawn comics, you will be awed by how true to his worlds the film is. Benedict Cumberbatch is, as always, brilliant, but it may be the CGI that make Doctor Strange succeed. They are as far ahead on Inception as Inception was to what had come before – though even the best CGI aren’t worth a hoot if the film doesn’t work as a story. Doctor Strange does that, too.
8. Deadpool (20th Century Fox) – Deadpool is not a superhero. He is the ultimate antihero/clown with a potty mouth and a weapons chest that makes the arsenal of most medium sized countries look like slingshots. The movie uses a very typical comic book plot and deconstructs it by playing with points of view – fourth walls are broken; stuff is shot, sliced or blowed up real good, and blood flows.
Deadpool works because Ryan Reynolds is the right actor for the role and he knows it inside and out (he shepherded the film to the big screen though it took better than a decade to get it done: he’s persistent, like Deadpool).
7. Zootopia (Walt Disney Animation Studios) – The story of the first bunny to become a cop in the big city of Zootopia, the film presents a thoroughly developed city that works for every kind of animal that lives there – it’s world building done right. By layering in a lesson about tolerance between ‘prey’ and ‘predator’ citizens, the movie also Say Stuff in a manner that is obvious but not too much so – and the film’s mystery is beautifully played as well.
6. Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika) – The fourth film from Laika – and the best (that’s pretty good when you consider that they started out with the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel Coraline). It’s a story of family on both an intimate and a mythic level. The combination of stop action animation and CGI results in a look that’s unique and a texture that feels real.
Kubo’s quest to find his father is the stuff myths are made of and his companions – Monkey and Beetle – feel like something from Japanese mythology. Kubo and the Two Strings is a coming of age story, a road trip movie and a samurai film all wrapped up in a glorious origami and Japanese wood block-influenced design.
5. Swiss Army Man (A24) – Swiss Army Man is a vehicle for existential angst, meditations on love, friendship and life itself (however twisted and insane they might be). It might even be considered a superhero spoof – powered by the flatulence of a corpse called Manny. It could also be considered a cross pollination of Castaway with A Weekend at Bernie’s. No matter how you look at it, it’s one strange beast – and, if you’re willing to go with its peculiarities – a lot of fun.
4. Arrival (Paramount Pictures) – Arrival posits the idea that communication/language is the most important invention of a civilized species – then it takes that idea to another extreme: a language that affects one’s perception of time. It’s a First Contact tale that doesn’t involve an invasion but, rather, emphasizes communication with the Other – and demands its viewers pay attention.
It’s worth the effort.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Lucasfilm) – The first Star Wars standalone movie lets us actually see war between the rebels and the empire. It’s a Dirty Dozen in space tale that finds a small group of rebels trying to procure that plans for a new empire superweapon so that it can be destroyed. The story, basically, fills in the details alluded to in the crawl for the first Star Wars movie and it does that job with as much panache as you could hope for.
2. Manchester By The Sea (Roadside Attractions) – This is a harsh movie – a movie that deals with grief on several different layers, fueled by a tragedy that we don’t even learn about until past the midway point of the movie. Virtually every movie on this list will be easier to watch, but none will be more emotionally resonant.
1. Hell or High Water (CBS Films) – Two brothers seek to prevent their mother’s farm from being foreclosed on by robbing branches of the bank that wants to foreclose. It’s also about the Texas Ranger who attempts to track them down before he’s forced into retirement. In a sense, it’s also about the differences and similarities of the Old and New Wests.
A small film that is played out against the vast spaces of Texas, Hell or High Water is another film that Says Stuff without hitting one over the head with it. It’s smart, witty (and occasionally very funny) and provides Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine with some of the best roles they’ll ever have.
Hovering on the edges of this year’s list are the following worthwhile films: Captain America: Civil War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ghostbusters, Hail, Caesar!, The Jungle Book, Lion, Moana, Popstar: Never Stop Stopping, Queen of Katwe, The Revenant, and Star Trek Beyond.