2016 was just the worst. Here are 15 films that made it a little better. Why 15 instead of the standard 10? Because I just had to be different, that’s why. Deal with it.
#15 – Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky is the rare beast in cinema: an edge of your seat ethics debate. Nearly all of the affected parties of the depicted drone warfare scenario are given a seat at the (often virtual) table to express their views, expressed most memorably by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman’s characters, and while the debate ultimately boils down to whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or indeed the one Eye in the Sky never pretends it’s truly that simple. Where you might happen to fall on the ethical divide, though, shouldn’t matter because on a very basic level Eye in the Sky can be purely enjoyed as a master class in how to build tension. This, coming from the same director (Gavin Hood) who made Origins: Wolverine. Talk about a comeback. (Read my review)
#14 – The Edge of Seventeen
Edge of Seventeen is an endlessly engaging and insightful coming of age dramedy about a girl who has to realize the world doesn’t actually resolve around her, and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig and star Hailee Steinfeld turn this seemingly obvious lesson into something quietly profound. (Read my review)
#13 – Hush
Hush might be the best of the recent run of micro-budget indies filmed on the quick either mostly or entirely in a single house. The plot involves a deaf woman (Kate Siegel), alone in her remote home in the woods, squaring off against a murderer (John Gallagher, Jr.) who chooses to toy with her rather than kill her outright. Director Mike Flanagan makes full use of the potential of this premise, brilliantly making home invasion tropes seem new again through the simple “she can’t hear anything” wrinkle. He perfectly stretches out such a seemingly thin scenario by playing it almost entirely in real time and offering the central character small victories followed by swift defeats in her fight for survival. Don’t Breathe is the home invasion thriller most people actually saw in 2016; Hush is the one they should have and still can since it’s currently on Netflix. (Read my review)
#12 – 10 Cloverfield Lane
That third act. Damn that third act. I still haven’t adjusted to the narrative whiplash that is 10 Cloverfield Lane’s ending, which feels like Brie Larson’s Room suddenly turns into Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. However, the film is an otherwise ingenious bit of modern day Twilight Zone, trapping a woman (Elizabeth Mary Winstead) in an underground bunker with an overbearing man (John Goodman) and well-meaning companion (John Gallagher, Jr.) and forcing her to figure out whether their claim about an apocalyptic attack on the outside world forcing them underground is far-fetched lunacy or chillingly accurate. Goodman delivers a performance for the ages (certainly Oscar-caliber) as the wacko father figure who might just be right about everything. (Read my review)
#11 – Weiner
Weiner was clearly meant to be the documentation of a disgraced politician’s triumphant comeback, in this case former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and his campaign to be mayor of New York. Instead, as scandal after scandal rocked the campaign the documentary turned into a sobering, yet hilarious examination of the curious mixture of self-delusion and thirst for power and attention which drives certain people into politics in the first place. As Vox put it, it’s like “watching an extended episode of Veep, but heartbreaking that it is real. Your opinion of the man will go back and forth dozens of times during the brisk runtime and by the end, you’ll realize that Huma Abedin just can’t catch a break.” There might be no funnier scene in any movie this year than watching an attention-seeking Sydney Leathers, Weiner’s famous sexting partner-turned porn star, chasing after him through a McDonalds as he attempts to avoid her on the final night of his mayoral campaign.
#10 – Other People
2016 will always be the year my dad died from cancer, and Other People, director-writer Chris Kelly’s dramatization of his year caring for his ailing mother (played here to heartbreaking effect by Molly Shannon), is the film which most closely captures what I went through. It does so, though, with a bold blend of honesty and humor, striving to be a cancer movie which recognizes that life’s infinite complexities rarely match up to the more simplistic cancer narratives we’ve become accustomed to me. Whether or not Other People is successful in this attempt is likely for others to judge as I feel too close to the material to truly say. Instead, I just know this was one of the most cathartic viewing experiences I had with a movie all year, giving its fictional dying parent-doting son coupling the type of meaningful goodbye we should all be so lucky to get. (Read my review)
#9 – Zootopia
Zootopia is a perfectly focused, entirely successful pass at a buddy cop comedy with cute, talking animals for the majority of its running length, which would already make it a success. Then it goes from 48 Hours to a subversive twist on In the Heat of the Night with astounding precision and power. As such, it’s final act turns into the type of thing which leaves you wanting to simply hug the directors and thank them for making this movie right here and right now at this point in history when the commentary they deliver could not be more topical. That they did it through the mouths of such adorable characters and gorgeous animation makes the medicine go down so much easier. (Read my review)
#8 – Don’t Think Twice
Don’t Think Twice is the indie drama answer to La La Land, equally concerned with the plight of those trying to make it in the arts but less concerned with romance or nostalgia. The plot centers around a small-time improv troupe and what becomes of them when their most ambitious member (Keegan-Michael Key) lands a coveted gig on a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch show. This premise would seemingly limit the appeal or relatability of the story, pitching this exclusively to comedy nerds, UCBers and SNL die hards. However, as writer/director/co-star Mike Birbiglia put it on the DVD commentary, “Improv is just the Trojan horse that gets people into this film about friendship and perspective and you can be open to the idea that your life isn’t going to go the way you thought and that could be better in the long run.”
#7 – Captain America: Civil War
One of the best pure comic book movies of all time, Civil War pivoted Marvel Studios toward its most mature, Dark Knight-esque storytelling yet with a sneakily effective (and understandable) villain. Plus, obviously, the airport scene. So. Much. Fun. As THR said, “Civil War was the very essence of a classic Marvel comic come to life: the melodramatic angst, the team-ups, and the in-fighting between characters.”
#6 – Zero Days
Alex Gibney’s stunning look into the Pandora’s box of computer viruses which helped avert a US/Israel war with Iran but led to the creation of cyber terrorism units in the scarier parts of the world is an absolute must-watch for anyone looking to better understand just how vulnerable we all are to the whims of state-sponsored hackers. Zero Days also provides crucial context to Russia’s ongoing cyber terrorism efforts (based upon what we had the NSA do to Iran nearly a decade ago we are such hypocrites to be complaining about Russia possibly hacking some emails) and the recent conflict between the outgoing Obama administration and Israel. This is contemporary documentary filmmaking at its finest, following the bread crumbs of a cyber mystery, piecing the story together in front of us through various talking head interviews and ultimately informing us about the type of world-shaping actions we should not be ignoring.
#5 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One is like a Howard Zinn version of a Star Wars movie, shifting its focus away from the leaders and archetypical figures and over to the grunts, shining the briefest of spotlights on those heroes of war who don’t get to be at the victory parade, the non-chosen ones who ultimately make Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey possible. It is a heist movie stacked on top of a war movie, and though it suffers from excessive table-setting in its first third it is ultimately a grand achievement of franchise filmmaking, bold and stirring in the ways most others are predictable and safe. As THR put it, “Rogue One is the best action movies of the year with the best ending of any movie of 2016 even as it slyly keeps the trappings what we have come to expect or want from a Star Wars movie. It expands the black & white Star Wars universe into shades of grey with its portrayal of the Rebels as conflicted and even morally ambiguous men and women.”
#4 – Manchester By the Sea
Manchester By the Sea is more notable for what it’s not than what it is. In the hands of director-writer Kenneth Lonergan, this story of a bereaved man forced into caring for his teenaged nephew is not the Hollywood-ized tale of emotional recovery it so often appears heading toward becoming. Instead, it is a heartbreaking and sometimes refreshingly hilarious look at grief and the type of emotional battles which aren’t always so easily won, anchored by a career-best performance by Casey Affleck and a star-making turn by Lucas Hedges.
#3 – La La Land
We seem to be entering into the inevitable backlash phase of La La Land’s critical life cycle. There have already been multiple hot takes on the racial politics in the film (the white guy in a black band playing traditionally black music?) as well as its embrace of empty nostalgia. And, yeah, sure. Plus, not every song in La La Land is pure perfection, and Damien Chazelle’s kinetic camera is too busy for its own good.
However, La La ranks this high on my list because I still can’t shake it. “City of Stars” is on repeat in my head. I keep circling back to the spell-binding beauty of the Griffiths Observatory scene and the audacity of the wordless finale, running through one ode to musicals of the past after another as our two lovers retrace what could have been. The complete cinematic experience offered by La La Land was rarely beat in 2016, a year in which such measured escapism could not have felt more necessary. 2016 was a year in which so many dreams were crushed, and here’s La La Land making a naked ode to those who continue to dream, despite the often significant personal costs.
#2 – Sing Street
There are those who hope Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy keep making Before movies every 9 years for the rest of their lives. I’m all for that, but I also want John Carney to keep making music movies which leave you inspired to chase after that lost love (Once) or say fuck it to a broken/corrupt system (Begin Again) or grab the wheels on your own life and “drive it like you stole it” (Sing Street). Of the three, Sing Street might actually be my favorite. As Hush director Mike Flanagan told BirthMoviesDeath in his own picks for films of the year, “John Carney’s celebration of youth, music, first love, and brotherhood is a delight from start to finish. Charming, moving, and infectious, Sing Street is a film that sneaks up on you. By the time the credits roll, you realize you’ve fallen in love.” (Read my review)
You really could put Sing Street, La La Land and Don’t Think Twice into a continuum, each film reflecting a different stage of trying to “make it,” with Sing Street tackling the pure, optimistic teen years, La La Land the waning optimism of your late 20s and Don’t Think Twice the crushing reality of your 30s.
#1 – Hell or High Water
Taylor Sheridan’s pulpy script about West Texas brothers (Best Foster, Chris Pine) robbing banks to pay off a reverse mortage on their mother’s home takes its time without feeling like it’s wasting our’s, and cinematographer Giles Nutdgens’ camera lingers on the dilapidated buildings and empty fields dotting the countryside without ever feeling too sledgehammer about it. Some scenes feel like practical tone poems, such as the brothers, on the eve of their last big gig, playfully goofing around while the moonlight perfectly illuminates the vastness of their ranch. Hell or High Water is ultimately a big story (weep for West Texas) told in a small way (weep for these brothers as well as the lawmen duty bound to chase them).
It’s a film which has since gained extra significance for what it tells us about the disenfranchised people of America who just elected a President who appears in so many ways to be a walking nightmare. As director David Mckenzie said, to the people of the world depicted in Hell or High Water chaos is preferable to the status quo because they’ve been living in a nightmare of crushed ambitions and decaying towns for too long.
My Top 10, as copied from my Letterboxd page:
Honorable Mentions: Arrival, Green Room, Miles Ahead, Moana, The Meddler, The Nice Guys, Tower
Quick Note: There are still several 2016 movies I have yet to see, specifically Moonlight, Loving and Jackie. I spent the past week catching up on various 2016 films I had missed, some of which I ended up loving (Weiner, Zero Days, Don’t Think Twice, Other People), others I merely liked (Fences, The Wailing, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). I currently have no legal way of seeing Moonlight, but with each passing day it becomes more and more ludicrous that I haven’t published my best of 2016 list yet. Perhaps I’ll come back to this list and update it once I have seen Moonlight.
What do you think? Is the whole thing invalid until I see Moonlight? Is it weird that I seem torn between genre thrillers, Disney blockbusters and indies no one ever sees? Have I not been adventurous enough with my choices? Or are you still seething that Arrival somehow didn’t crack my top 15? Not saying I think these 15 films are better movies; I just liked all of them more. Let me in the comments.