Here are my picks for the films I liked the best from 2016. I've been wildly procrastinating doing this, but I figure that since the Oscars are tonight, I should use it as a deadline. I've seen quite a lot of 2016's releases, but these were the films that kept coming back to me - either thinking about them post-viewing, or in some cases choosing repeated viewing (which is always a sign that something about them is sticking). Opinions can change over time, but here's where I'm at with my 2016 choices movie-wise as of the publish date of this post.
This year as an experiment I decided to excerpt, with attribution, professional critics reviews of the films I chose, highlighting those areas I think their opinions and/or observations mirror my own, but with the added benefit of better writing than I can cook up on short notice. I've tried to keep spoilers out of the mix, but based on the writings I couldn't avoid them entirely, so be forewarned if you haven't seen a film that's covered here, you might want to hold off reading until you see it. You can see the 10 films in the header image above to know which ones I've referred with review quotes.
As always, reference materials are collected from various sites on the internet. An image is usually a link to a bigger version of said image, and any text in orange is a link to somewhere else.
My alphanumerically ordered list of 2016 releases that I saw is available at Letterboxd here.
P.S. Yes, I saw La La Land. No, I didn't like it. Yes, I like musicals! It's just not a very good one. Oh well!
20th Century Women
Writer Director Mike Mills
Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
Black Flag or Talking Heads? The Me Decade or the Crisis of Confidence? Mills, who has said in interviews that 20th Century Women is directly based on his relationship with own mother, is forcefully determined about the period detail in a film in which the characters read Our Bodies, Ourselves and listen to Devo.
If the small domestic drama established in this rich period setting proves satisfyingly emotional, it is because the characters are acutely well observed, both by Mills’s script and by his excellent cast. The solid core of the film is Bening’s performance as Dorothea, an older, single mother. Confused by the task of raising a teenage son, she hands the job over to two younger women. One is Jamie’s best friend, the promiscuous teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), with whom he maintains a platonic if frustrated relationship. The other is Abbie (she who delivers the menstruation talk), a searching young photographer and Dorothea’s tenant in the rambling boarding house where she and Jamie live.
- Kate Taylor, The Globe and Mail
Director Denis Villeneuve
Director of Photography Bradford Young
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
That is what happens in a third act which is perhaps an all-time great example of how to release the massive power that your considered pacing has been quietly accumulating the whole time, and one of the cleverest uses of non-chronological storytelling in memory. The slow build to the grand reveal is the most impressive aspect of “Arrival,” because most films that ask Big Questions flake out at supplying an answer. And that’s only to be expected: if you really knew the secrets of the universe would your first thought be to write them into a screenplay? But “Arrival” gets better as it goes on, pursues its logic to its furthest extreme and beyond. It doesn’t just theorize, it comes to a conclusion.
It’s ingrained so deeply in Western culture that science and art are oppositional disciplines, that math and physics belong to one branch of endeavor and creativity, expressiveness and philosophy to another. And that is why great science fiction cinema — and this is great science fiction cinema — can feel like such a pre-eminent genre. Here, using an art form that was itself born of technology, we get to venture out past those simplistic binaries to where there is poetry in mathematics and physics in philosophy — out into the frontiers of our universe and our power to comprehend where science and art are the very same thing. “Arrival” brings us there, and though the conclusions are earthbound and have so much to do with the nature of humanity and our relationship to mortality, my God, they’re full of stars.
- Jessica Kiang, The Playlist
Writer Director Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Macon Blair, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart
Here's how good Jeremy Saulnier's new film is: it fooled me. I've seen so many of these films that I'm used to the way they work. And because of the way he starts his film, he pulled me in, and I forgot what I was watching. I got caught up in the story of a band on the road, the feeling of what it's like when you're young and full of this kind of artistic energy, and I forgot that I was watching a certain kind of movie. I bought into the story of the Ain't Rights, a punk band made up of Sam (Alia Shawkat), Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole), and I love the way Saulnier captures all the various tiny details of life on the road for this band, and the way he depicts the sort of raw edges of the punk scene.
… and when things go south, they go south so fast, and so hard, and in such spectacular expertly calibrated fashion that it's kind of exhilarating. They fooled by lulling me into a sense of security, and then they start hurting you almost immediately. Saulnier is monstrously talented when it comes to staging gut-wrenching tension, and while I think “Blue Ruin” was a really solid small film, “Green Room” works on a whole different level. There's something tough about making a movie where characters keep making bad decisions, because you have to maintain a sense of audience empathy, and if those decisions are too bad, too unbelievable, then the audience turns on the characters. Here, there's a sense of momentum to things, so by the time the characters realize how bad things are, there was no way to avoid stepping in it.
- Drew McWeeny, Hitfix
Hell or High Water
Director David Mackenzie
Writer Taylor Sheridan
Starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
It’s quite a feat, orchestrating a crime thriller that feels at once relaxed and urgent, that delivers an endless supply of comic banter without compromising its underlying tone of elegiac regret. The movie luxuriates in downtime, enjoying the company kept with its stars. Pine, as the sensible younger brother, and Foster, as the older, hotheaded ex-con, imply a novel’s worth of Tennessee Williams backstory in their contentious relationship. And in the jokey antagonism between the rangers—Marcus cracking constantly on the Comanche heritage of his partner—Bridges and Birmingham sketch a no less vivid portrait of brotherhood. Viewers may find, in that grand Fugitive tradition, that their sympathies are divided, especially once Hell Or High Water begins pulling its two plot strands together, clarifying its outlaws’ motives, and building to the fatalistic finale it absolutely earns. Never fear, there’s a villain to root against. And to paraphrase one of Sheridan’s best lines, it’s been robbing for 30 years.
- A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club
Writer Director Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper
But if the movie were merely an exercise in Jarmusch’s fancy, it would be a pleasurable thing. It is a meticulously composed movie, shot beautifully by Frederick Elmes; every frame is a beauty. “Paterson” is ultimately more than a whim. It is a movie that actually grows more enigmatic on a second viewing. Asked at one point why he doesn’t carry a smart phone, Paterson responds that it would feel like a leash. And yet he hardly seems a person who would stray. At one point in the movie, Paterson, who maintains a stoic countenance in most circumstances, is forced to intervene before an act of violence is committed. His bearing in the aftermath is odd; he laughs, with a kind of horror. His calm surface disturbed, he reveals he’s fighting something within himself in order to maintain his equanimity. After that, we are shown a photograph of Paterson bearing military medals (the shot is a real picture of Driver during his time in the Marines). The film feels like one in which nothing is happening, but it’s not happening beautifully, and then there finally is a galvanic event that’s both heartbreaking and comical. And what happens after that is moving, and instructive. “I breathe poetry,” a character Paterson meets at the end of the film says to him as they both sit and look at the falls. That is ultimately the very real thing that the movie is about: the conviction that if you can live at least part of your life breathing poetry (and that poetry is not necessarily a verbal thing), you can make your life more worthwhile.
- Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Writer Directors Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Starring Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph
Popstar follows dolt pop-rapper Conner Friel (Samberg) as he sets off to promote his second album on an overblown world tour, complete with holograms, under-rehearsed costume changes, and—in one of the movie’s most Spinal Tap-esque physical gags—a Deadmau5-style LED headpiece that’s bright enough to disrupt air traffic and occasionally blasts the deafening foghorn sound effect from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. Having first found success with the bucket-hat-wearing ’90s boy band The Style Boyz, Conner is seeing his solo stardom flag in the face of vicious reviews, slow sales, and a series of media disasters that range from a deal to have his album automatically installed into wi-fi-enabled kitchen appliances—a send-up of the iTunes fiasco for U2’s Songs Of Innocence—to getting caught shitting on the floor of the Anne Frank House.
But it’s when Popstar lampoons the specifics of modern-day pop materialism (awkward social media endorsements, over-sharing, an obsession with branding and catchphrases) that it finds its most inspired gags. It’s also where it gets its darkest laughs, be in the throwaway shot of a depressed Conner crashing an ATV in his mansion, or the All About Eve subplot that involves his Tyler, The Creator-esque opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), a skateboarding prankster whose hijinks are punctuated with the crazed stare of a supervillain.
- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club
Director Karyn Kusama
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michelle Krusiec, Lindsay Burdge, John Carroll Lynch
Genre buffs have attended countless dinner parties that wind up tilting into madness, and yet the shivers arrive early and often in “The Invitation,” a teasingly effective thriller that builds a remarkable level of tension over the course of its 99-minute running time. Set during a mysterious reunion among old friends where something is quite palpably not right, this well-acted, beautifully modulated exercise represents director Karyn Kusama’s strongest work in years, revealing an assurance of tone, craft and purpose that haven’t been in evidence since her Sundance prize-winning debut, “Girlfight” (2000).
Marshall-Green is a dead ringer for Tom Hardy (a resemblance accentuated here by his long hair and scraggly beard), and like Hardy, he exudes a gruff charisma in a role that requires him to become increasingly surly and suspicious as the evening progresses. “The Invitation” excels at drawing us into deep identification with Will’s paranoia while simultaneously forcing us to continually question it: Does David keep locking the front door because he’s concerned about security, or because he wants to keep them from leaving? Is it a mere coincidence that no one can get good cell-phone reception in this neighborhood? And why exactly have David and Eden invited strangers like Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), an unhinged young woman who thinks nothing of casually throwing herself at two other party guests, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, “American Horror Story”), a heavy-set man whose manner is as creepily menacing as it is unfailingly polite?
- Justin Chang, Variety
The Nice Guys
Writer Director Shane Black
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Kim Basinger
Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Shane Black is clearly steeped in the conventions and traditions of the L.A. noir genre, which is one of the central factors that makes his diabolical 1970s buddy comedy “The Nice Guys” so entertaining. Look, I’m not going to claim that this showcase for Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling — who play a low-end enforcer and an incompetent private eye, respectively, in the memorably dingy Los Angeles of 1977 — isn’t juvenile, offensive, overly violent and frequently misanthropic. In the very first scene, a teenage boy has a spectacular encounter with a naked porn star, shortly before her violent death. Somewhat later, we get to hear a 13-year-old girl (Angourie Rice, playing the daughter of Gosling’s P.I. character) discussing anal sex with a different porn star, not the dead one. Are you sensing a theme?
But Black understands he can push the character only so far, and Gosling does too. This is one of his best and funniest performances, and as big of a scumbag as Holland may be, he still has that adorable 13-year-old daughter around to humanize him. Crowe’s performance as Jackson, meanwhile, is one of the movie’s unexpected delights. On one level he’s an archetypal mid-career Crowe character, a paunchy, hangdog piece of hired muscle plagued with self-doubt. But even as Jackson lumbers around L.A. wearing stubble, a Hawaiian shirt and a blue Pleather jacket, punching strangers in the face with brass knuckles, he remains mysteriously lovable. He forges a spirit-animal connection with Holly (Rice), Holland’s daughter, right after breaking her dad’s arm and leaving him howling on the floor.
- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
The Red Turtle
Director Michael Dudok de Wit
On the most basic level, the premise of "The Red Turtle" would be best described as Robinson Crusoe meets "All is Lost," as it follows a nameless island castaway of dubious origins attempting to make do with his deserted new home. However, Dudok de Wit’s script — co-written by Pascale Ferran, whose otherworldly drama "Bird People" operates on a similar ethereal plane — builds this initial setup into a series of majestic, fantastical developments that press further and further into the allegorical realm.
The success of "The Red Turtle" marks a well-timed victory for Studio Ghibli at a transitional moment: It has reached completion not long after the concluding output of its two biggest names, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. While not aping the style of those long-established masters, "The Red Turtle" displays a similar attentiveness to making profound gestures without an iota of overstatement. With hardly more than a handful of shouts and grunts, "The Red Turtle" elicits powerful ideas about the struggle for contentment at every turn. Words are never enough, but "The Red Turtle" finds a way to rise above them.
- Eric Kohn, IndieWire
Train to Busan
Writer Director Sang-ho Yeon
Starring Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma
This rip-roaring, record-breaking South Korean zombies-on-a-train romp barrels along like a runaway locomotive – The Railing Dead. Owing as much to Bong Joon-ho (director of creature-feature hit The Host) as to George A Romero, Yeon Sang-ho’s breathless cinematic bullet train boasts frantic physical action, sharp social satire and ripe sentimental melodrama designed to reach into your ribcage and rip out your bleeding heart. Faster on its feet than 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, wittier than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and more thrillingly spectacular than World War Z, Train to Busan joins The Girl With All the Gifts in breathing new life into a genre that simply refuses to lie down and die.
Moving nimbly from the confrontational animation of The King of Pigs and The Fake to the more mainstream live action of Train to Busan, Yeon retains a sharp graphic sensibility that pays snappy dividends. A platform attack eerily glimpsed from the window of a departing train gives a shiversome taste of what’s to come, alongside a homeless man’s traumatised declaration that they’re “all dead, everyone’s dead” (“Hey kid,” Su-an is told, “if you don’t study hard, you’ll end up like him!”). Before you can say Snowpiercer meets 28 Days Later, a thundering tide of flesh-eaters is pouring through the aisles, over the seats and down the corridors, a necrotising, limb-cracking wave of contorting, gnarly nastiness.
- Mark Kermode, The Guardian
Here's a host of others that are also worth your time (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon or iTunes links if discs are not yet available):
Three female-led stories set in rural Montana. Good, with the third being the most affecting.
A charming dramedy about a baseball scholarship residence at an early-'80s Texas college.
Technically the best stop-motion film to date, with notably dark, adult themes.
The death of a famous photographer has enduring effects on the men in her life.
In a harsh reality, across three decades, a young man seeks love and acceptance.
A sweet 80's Dublin based tale about a boy forming a pop band to woo a girl. Great tunes.
Surfer gal versus great white shark in this pleasantly preposterous popcorn flick.
Immersive, unique horror: the seductions of evil in 1630's New England.
A mostly 2D animated doc about the 1966 University of Texas shootings.
A superior CG animated Disney film that tries metaphorically to tackle race issues.