2016 was a great year for film.
While the box office was inundated by sequels and the normal comic book fare, there were also many creative and original visions brought to the screen. There are several obvious films not on this list that probably should be and would be if I had gotten the chance to see them this year. La La Land, Moonlight, Toni Erdmann, Paterson, & Silence are a few films that come to mind just to name just a few. Lists are always a great way to spark discussion and disagreement so please comment away. What was the best film you saw this year? Link to full reviews by clicking on the movie title.
11. The Neon Demon
Neon Demon has all of the elements that make up the best of what Refn offers as a filmmaker. The film is dark, beautiful, scary, intoxicating, dream-like, and disturbing. It often inhabits all of these various emotions all in a single frame, like in the film’s opening shot. This, to me, is the biggest strength of a filmmaker like Refn. He is a man who is able to exhibit an entire world of emotive prowess all using the power of image. If you ever feel like Refn is holding your hand, it’s not because he is trying to make things easier on you, but is leading you into something that should make you both slightly nervous and excited. His films are not for the passive or for the faint of heart. For those who love what cinema can do at it’s best, Refn is most certainly a filmmaker to encounter.
10. The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s newest film takes the very familiar buddy cop film and does it so well it’s easy to forget that you’ve seen something like this before. Gosling and Crowe are terrific and the film inhabits its 1970’s setting perfectly. The Nice Guys is a hilarious mystery thriller with enough tenderness to tie you to the characters, but not so much that it pretends it is something other than a great comedy. I truly hope this is just one in a long string of mysteries taken on by Healy and March.
9. The Witch
So much more than a horror film, The Witch is somehow able to address modern concerns of spirituality and evil even in its 1630’s New England setting. This film is certainly terrifying, but not in the typical way that most horror films operate. The scariest realization comes about once the film is over and the overall arc and its implications are considered. I’d also like to put my vote forward for at least the voice of Ralph Ineson being in every scary movie for the remainder of his career.
8. Nocturnal Animals
One of two films featuring Amy Adams and one of two films featuring Michael Shannon on this list, Nocturnal Animals is essentially three stories all wrapped up and interconnected into one story. Tom Ford does a masterful job of offering insight not only into the lives and pasts of its two main characters but also into the emotional impact of past events have had on them. With maybe one of the best endings in any film this year, Nocturnal Animals has all of the right kinds of breadcrumbs for the viewer to follow without ever giving a full glimpse of the destination. Michael Shannon, as always, is fantastic in this as well.
7. The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut is a remarkable first effort from a director. It is perfect in its pacing and rhythm, and the performances, especially the lead role played by another new-comer, Royalty Hightower, are understated, quiet, and honest. The film is anything but sleepy, however. The Fits draws you in and right when you are considering leaving it, it pays off in a big way.
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Anyone who frequently misses the brilliance of the classic Twilight Zone series, like myself, can revel in the beauty of films like 10 Cloverfield Lane that bring all of the thrilling, mysterious, sci-fi elements that Rod Serling used to provide. This film is so claustrophobic it hurts and John Goodman is absolutely terrifying. Many critics have had issues with the ending but I found it quite satisfying and I am hoping that this will mean a return to the original, simplistic script that employs simple tension to its breaking point.
5. Sing Street
John Carney somehow has a direct line to my soul. Once is one of my favorite films of all time and as much as I really wanted to hate Begin Again, it won me over in the end. Sing Street takes all of the charm of Once yet in a much more polished, accessible end product. It’s somehow like watching a sequel to The Commitments with all new characters and a completely different genre of music. I was not a teenager in the 1980’s in Dublin but I felt somehow nostalgic for that time and place watching Sing Street.
4. Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols, much like John Carney, seems to be able to do no wrong in my book. Midnight Special is no exception to that fact. This film has a great Michael Shannon performance, an understated Adam Driver, and a fantastic Joel Edgerton who would team up later in the same year with Nichols for the film, Loving. Midnight Special is essentially a sci-fi mystery film reminiscent of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is a slow, rhythmic build up to, what I would describe as, a beautiful final scene. For sci-fi nerds and Nichols fans alike, a must see.
Hell or High Water is a film about a Texas that I know and love with people that I feel like I also know and love. It stands as another great film of Neo-Western cinema. Everything from the unbelievable cinematography to the exceptional soundtrack speaks volumes of truth in ways that some films by Texans could not fully express. It is amazing that this film was not only directed by a non-Texan, but that it was filmed entirely in New Mexico and Oklahoma. The fact that it accomplishes all of this so successfully is a great testament to Mackenzie, not only as an objective observer, but also as a filmmaker.
The beginning of Arrival is superb in its tone and feel, and the middle is a great story with enough science and tension to satisfy most sci-fi nerds, but the ending is what makes Arrival such a strong film. Once Banks has come to a place of understanding and has resolved the story for most of the characters, the biggest decision still lies before her, to live a life she knows will be wrought with pain, beauty, sadness, joy, hurt, and love, or choose a different path that may alter everything.
To put it in a few words, Manchester by the Sea is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. It is both quite sad and incredibly comforting. What is profound about the film is the way you begin to think about other people after leaving the theatre. Looking about the lobby of the theatre after the film I couldn’t help wonder what the journey has been for all of these people that I didn’t know from Adam. In this world we are all Lee, dealing with the things that have come before the present moment and looking for a way to move forward on our current journey with very little understanding of where it is leading or why it is going in any given direction. What is also true is that everyone around us is also Lee on the same complicated journey. We all inhabit this deep sadness at one time or another in our lives, and it is that which helps us move forward with the capacity for empathy. Without the darkness there would be no light. As sad and depressing as it may come across, I believe Manchester by the Sea is about the light. It may mostly focus on the gray, dreary aspects of life, a mood that is directly reflected in the beautiful dreary setting of a New England winter, but it is about the purpose beyond that landscape. It suggests that just around the corner is perhaps a break in the clouds offering sunshine, and most assuredly more clouds beyond that.