And now for everyone’s favorite part of the year, the assigning of semi-arbitrary numbers to complex works of art! Don’t worry my list-negative intro, I wasn’t going to wuss out on a year-end best of list this year, the handful of movies I haven’t seen yet be damned. Make a list! Check it twice! Put your name on it! Every critic knows this is part of the job, and I accept that, the impossibility of assigning quantitative rankings to emotions notwithstanding. I stand fully behind each and every one of these rankings, and the personal, subjective reactions that led to them. As always, if you disagree, I will fight you.
Oh hey wait, before we cut each other up, let me to hedge a little bit and tell you about some films that didn’t quite make the cut:
Everybody Wants Some!!: Linklater’s latest ended up being a heartfelt love letter to college life and trying to enjoy both art and sports, even if I almost walked out during the horrendous first 10 minutes and one of the characters (the wacky pitcher, played by Juston Street) felt like he wandered in from a different movie.
Jackie: I almost universally loathe the idea of the sumptuous biopic, but Pablo Larrain’s Jackie managed to go a little further than what we already knew and at least offered a take on its subject and her mystique, even if it never really questioned our need for her mystique. That would’ve made it great instead of just good.
The Nice Guys: A little too goofy in the final act to make my top 15, and sort of a “Shane Black Fans Only” affair, but a lot of fun nonetheless. Especially if you’re firmly among that group like me. Might be one of my all-time favorite Russell Crowe performances. He makes it even realer than it feels like Shane Black even intended. –
Buster’s Mal Heart: An apocalyptic ennui fable starring Rami Malek from Mr. Robot, this was one of the strangest movies I saw all year, in a good way. It’s not due out until next year, but I’m putting it here for you to remember when it does. Better and cleverer than The Lobster, IMO.
Arrival: Since this one’s showing up on everyone else’s list, I feel more compelled to explain why it’s not on mine. The answer is, I thought it was more an artful restructuring of existing alien-arrival narratives than a new one, albeit with some truly genius design flourishes. The central conceit felt like a clever justification for a trope it didn’t need in the first place. All that being said, it looked fantastic, and goddamn can Villeneuve set a mood.
Zero Days: Alex Gibney’s documentary about the stuxnet virus may not have been the most perfectly constructed of the year, but it may go down as the most relevant. Watch it if you want to be terrified. For best results, pair with Werner Herzog’s Lo And Behold.
The Witch: With its meticulous recreation of period dialogue, intense cinematography, and brilliant horror-movie-by-way-of-actual-beliefs-at-the-time construction, The Witch might’ve been the year’s most competently crafted movie. The only thing keeping it off the actual list for me is the fact that the people it depicts are so deeply unpleasant. God, what an unsexy time period. Even some of the actors, like Kate Dickie, seem like they specialize in being off-putting. Anyway, it tried to depict a nightmare and the only real knock on it is that it succeeded too well.
The Accountant / Hell Or High Water: This was a really good year for straightforward genre action films. The Accountant was probably the silliest of them, Hell Or High Water the most serious, but they both made action movies seem easy, the way it should be. The Accountant actually managed an ending that was legitimately touching, to a film about Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant assassin superhero. That is simply remarkable, and I fervently hope it becomes a franchise.
15. Blood Father
Hacksaw Ridge is soaking up all the Mel Gibson comeback press, but outside of the battle scenes it was hokier than Unbroken. The first 20 minutes feel like a parody film from Tropic Thunder. (Perhaps it says something about Gibson’s worldview that the only thing he can direct really well is graphic violence.) On the other hand, Blood Father uses Mel Gibson perfectly, playing the grizzled old hardass full of regrets. It’s a shame not many people saw it, because Blood Father was exactly the movie the Taken movies wanted to be but never were. Blood Father was like Taken with a prison tattoo. It proved that Mel Gibson can still act his ass off and that Dale Dickey should’ve been in way more movies this year.
14. Edge of Seventeen
Speaking of acting one’s ass off: Hailee Steinfeld in Edge of Seventeen. I was unaware that she was trying to be a pop star now, so this performance came as a revelation (maybe it still would have). Movies about quirky teens are a dime a dozen, but Kelly Fremon Craig’s ode to high school awkwardness manages to depict a teen who’s dramatic and obnoxious, as teens tend to be, without the movie itself becoming obnoxious and dramatic. It’s also eventful in ways that never felt like cheating (no pregnancies, no drug overdoses, etc). Not to mention a script that was overly verbose yet sharp enough that you didn’t mind, a sort of more naturalistic echo of Woody Allen. I like to think of Edge of Seventeen as “eloquently overwritten.” And Woody Harrelson’s character is the crusty-but-caring surrogate dad every teen needs.
13. Hail, Caesar!
I went back and forth about whether to include Hail, Caesar! in this list on account of everyone else hated it, including my own father, who disparaged my rave review over Thanksgiving dinner. But leaving it out would’ve been a lie, because you know what? I loved it. What, not enough stakes for you? Too many inside jokes? Too clever? DOONNNNN’T CAAAARRRE. Please, this is the Coen brothers, there’s no such thing as too clever with the Coen brothers. I’m firmly aware that I’m mostly in the minority on this one, but I could’ve watched five hours of the Coens doing old Hollywood parodies. Alden Ehrenreich might be my pick for best supporting actor, or at least best actor in an overlooked role (see also Chris O’Dowd in Mascots). That lasso-twirling son of a bitch made my night.
I haven’t been seeing Tickled on a lot of year-end lists, presumably because it’s too weird or people think it’s irrelevant, or escapist somehow. Which seems strange to me, because if anything, this year of fake news and leaked emails and cyber bullying feels like the year trolling went mainstream, the year the comments section took over the world. Tickled, a riveting documentary about the criminal mastermind behind a fake competitive tickling “contest,” may seem out there at first, but that seems more like wishful thinking than reality. If you want to understand how doxxing and using online activity to shame and silence people works (and we’d better), Tickled is a must-watch. That said, it’s also just really entertaining.
11. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Spoofs like The Naked Gun and Men In Tights used to be extremely my shit, and it seemed like there hadn’t been a good one in years (Walk Hard being a notable exception). With Popstar, The Lonely Island boys take the parody and combined it with the mockumentary and knocked it out of the park, grossing a fraction of one of Aaron Seltzer/Jason Friedberg’s cinematic hate crimes and not even cracking $10 million for their troubles. I submit that it’s been less than a year since Popstar came out and it’s already long overdue for a rediscovery. You ungrateful pieces of shit, Popstar failing is the reason we can’t have good studio comedies. “Mona Lisa” deserves to win best song at the Oscars, nothing else comes close.
10. Green Room
Does Green Room even count as a 2016 release? I guess so, even though I saw it in September of 2015 because I’m so cool. Anyway, Green Room was a movie about a punk band that actually felt like a punk song. Jeremy Saulnier channels his considerable craft into creating the most un-introspective, punch-you-in-the-face visceral thrill ride. His movies are so stripped down and unpompous that it’s kind of perfect that they always play the festival circuit, they’re the perfect film festival counter-programming, a nice squeeze of f*ck you to cut all the navel gazing. Macon Blair also delivers another awards-worthy performance, as does Imogen Poots, offering a nuanced portrayal, in one of the film’s most believable accents, despite having the world’s most British name. I mean honestly, what kind of last name is “Poots?” What did her ancestors do, sell farts?
I listened to Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McRaney (who wrote the play on which Moonlight is based) on Fresh Air the other day, where both discussed growing up with crack-addicted mothers. It’s interesting that storytellers with first-hand experience with the traumas they write about always seem to write much more nuanced stories about that trauma, with characters that never feel pathetic or pitiable. It seems that if you’ve experience the tragedy you’re writing about you’re much less apt to write something that says “Isn’t this sad?” Because when you’re in it, your reality isn’t just one-note sadness, it’s all the shades. Moonlight takes a story that would’ve been sad in most storytellers’ hands and makes it feel bittersweet and oddly hopeful. Not to mention, you could just hand out acting awards to the cast at random and whoever got it would be deserving. From top to bottom, probably the strongest ensemble of 2016.
8. I Am Not Your Negro
This documentary is brilliant in the exact way that Jackie is lacking. It doesn’t just explain what is, it explores why. Truthfully I didn’t know that much about James Baldwin going in, but a lot of his words (the foundation on which the film was built) stuck with me. It’s amazing how few movies about race actually acknowledge that race is kind of a phony construct in the first place. Which is an important step, because once you acknowledge that race is invented, you quickly start wondering why.
“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”
“If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
Baldwin doesn’t let anyone off the hook for racism, but he also refuses to view it as some anomaly that we can fix with nicer words. He connects it with some of the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism and a broader unwillingness to acknowledge the suffering of others.
There’s always an element of kismet in documentary making, but rarely has it played a factor so big as in Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s portrait of Anthony Weiner. Hoping to document his political comeback, they instead got to film a scandal from the inside out. As vaunted as it’s been for its Shakespearian portrait of Anthony Weiner, Weiner is even more valuable as a film about the electorate getting the politicians we deserve, and a handy guide to all the ways our system is broken.
Kriegman and Steinberg’s “luck” continued even after release, when Anthony Weiner was caught exchanging messages with an underage girl. Which was the reason the FBI seized his now ex-wife’s computer, leading to James Comey’s now-infamous 11 day surprise, which means that you could make a reasonable case that Donald Trump is president because of Anthony Weiner and his dumb dick. And if one of Donald Trump’s tweets starts a nuclear war, you could then (assuming you were still alive) make the further case that Anthony Weiner’s dick brought about the apocalypse. Can you imagine if you and your one dumb dick caused the apocalypse? I bet Anthony Weiner’s dick gets hard just thinking about it.
6. The Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Comedies always get shafted come awards season, but the amount of craft it took to create a movie like The Hunt For The Wilderpeople vastly outweighs what it took to create, say, Manchester By The Sea (sorry, Kenneth Lonergan). A clean family comedy like Wilderpeople might be even harder to make than a filthy R-rated one, and I say this as someone who loves filthy comedy. I’m also on record as the internet’s foremost child actor hater (shudder), but Wilderpeople wouldn’t work without Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker. Not that his is the only great performance. Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill also brought their A-games. And fine, I’ll say it: I teared up a little when the fat kid got a dog named Tupac for his birthday. Wilderpeople is funny in the acting, funny in the script, funny in the composition, and funny in the editing. And it manages to be sweet without it feeling forced. Maybe Kiwis should make all our family comedies. Whatever keeps them from making more Lord of the Rings movies, really.
5. American Honey
Speaking of movies that will inevitably not get enough awards love: American Honey. American Honey will inevitably be an offputting experience for many people on account of it’s kind of gauche and tacky. But guess what? Street kids are gauche and tacky. Rarely does a film so thoroughly reek of authenticity, and I say reek because Shia Labeouf looked like he smelled terrible. That said, it’s probably his best performance. I think Andrea Arnold captured his true essence.
Here’s what I wrote about American Honey in our other best-of write up:
American Honey is one of the few movies with “American” in the title where it isn’t just a half-assed titling trope, it truly is about Americana. Rarely do we see a depiction of the underclass — foster kids, runaways, the homeless, victims of sexual abuse — that’s neither pitying nor poverty porn. Andrea Arnold found both the romance and the heartbreak in the lives of the truly rootless, depicted with an unwavering commitment to authenticity. It’s so tacky and so timeless, I can only describe it as Juggalo Kerouac.
4. Don’t Think Twice
If you’ve ever seen or heard Mike Birbiglia onstage, you know no one tells a story like this guy, and to watch Don’t Think Twice is to see that skill translate beautifully to directing a film. Watching a group of comedians deal with failure and professional jealousy — sure, it hit a little close to home at times — but mostly it’s watching Mike Birbiglia make a tear-jerking movie about comedians that isn’t a sad clown movie and is actually funny that makes it so special. Not enough people saw this, and I have to think it was because of the title, which is bad. “Don’t Think Twice?” I can’t say that without thinking of the Bob Dylan song. I hate song title movies. “Don’t Think” would’ve been much more fitting, but of course then you run into the age-old Gwen Stefani problem. Maybe Birbiglia was just damned either way.
3. Toni Erdmann
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a spiritual sequel to My Father The Hero that’s outrageous yet charming, a movie about the father-daughter bond that’s also about the gulf between Boomers and their kids and the broken promises of globalization. You can bet I wouldn’t write a sentence that ridiculous unless it was true, and Ade accomplished something no one thought possible or even advisable here. I also appreciate that you’re not allowed to make a film in Europe unless it has like 30 seconds of full frontal.
A lot of dumb people saw Zootopia and were like “durrr, this isn’t even a consistent parable, sometimes the carnivores seem like they’re supposed to be minorities and then sometimes it’s the other way around, and blah blah blah problematic this problematic that I’m boring zzzzz.”
It’s not inconsistent. Not bringing your preconceived notions into a unique interaction between different types of people is like the whole point of empathy. Which is why Zootopia is so damned brilliant. Well, that and the adorable character design. Why do we keep trying to make animated movies about little kids again? Watching Zootopia and then trying to care about some plucky little milk baby who has to complete a quest is like falling off a cliff. Moana literally spends the first five minutes of the movie giving us a bullet point list of all the things the little girl has to do to complete the quest and then the rest of the movie is just her doing those exact things. Pffff, I say! Zootopia for life.
1. La La Land
So yes, you probably already knew this was going to be here, and I’ve already expounded at length about why. Is it cheating? Of course it’s cheating! Part of La La Land‘s brilliance is that it feels like it knows all the cheat codes. Like, hey, what if Hollywood’s sweetest boy and its sweetest girl fell in love? Actually, what if they negged each other for 30 minutes first, and then experienced heartache and professional disappointment in some painfully bittersweet musical mash-up of Brooklyn and Inside Llewyn Davis?
Loving Ryan Gosling used to be kind of a joke, but it turns out having him act like a bit of a dick is an even better joke. I saw La La Land twice in the theater, and while it definitely kicked me hard in the stomach the first time (full disclosure: I had adopted a puppy five days earlier, so my heart was already partially swollen and primed to experience love), the second time around Baby Goose’s facial expressions kept giving me laughing fits. He’d pull up to Emma Stone’s house and honk the horn like an asshole and say something mean and then it’d cut back to that perfect little sweet boy smile and I’d lose it all over again. People stared. I don’t know if Ryan Gosling is great at comedy or just great to bounce comedy off of. He also has the obnoxious ability to make any style look cool. Someone should file a class action lawsuit on behalf of every guy who tried to grow a mustache-soul patch combo because of Gosling in The Nice Guys, or thought he could pull off ’50s clothes because of Baby Goose in La La Land.