The common thought about movies in 2016 is that they’ve been, with rare exception, bad. It is easy to come to that conclusion if your interest is solely in the massive blockbusters that Hollywood churns out. By that standard, yes, 2016 has been a bad year for movies, with wildly underwhelming blockbusters like Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Warcraft. But outside of the studio machine that is aiming solely to churn out franchises with endless possibilities for sequels and merchandising, there were a number of great movies to land in the cinemas.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the year’s best films that didn’t quite make the cut. There were excellent documentaries, like Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Weiner, and I Am Not Your Negro. Other excellent movies that are adorning the various Top 10 lists of my colleagues, such as Moonlight, Elle, and La La Land, fell short of making the cut of this year’s Top 10, as well as other genuine surprise such as Pete’s Dragon, The Edge of Seventeen, and The Love Witch.
Without any further ado, my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.
The funniest movie from start to finish of 2016 may not have found its audience during its theatrical release, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping will endure as the quintessential satire of millennial pop music and certainly attain a cult status in the very near future. The exploits of flailing popstar Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) continue to escalate in a comedic portrait of ego, excess, fame, and reconciliation.
The Lonely Island trio of Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer (Taccone and Schaffer co-directing) crafted a number of hilarious songs that grow funnier with repeat listens, such as “Finest Girl” and “I’m So Humble.” The fact that institutions that bestow awards undervalue comedy is the only reason that the songs from Popstar aren’t in competition for Best Original Song. In a year where most studio comedies failed to generate even mild chuckles, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was so damn funny that even its deleted scenes (NSFW) are funnier than most comedies in their entirety.
The latest film from writer-director Mike Mills is the finest work to date from the filmmaker. Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, California, 20th Century Women tells the story of an unusual household headed by Dorothea (Annette Bening in what is possibly the finest role of her career). Uncertain about the upbringing of her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie (Great Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to oversee Jamie’s growth in the tumultuous time of youth. The story unfolds as a funny, lively examination of the generational divide as well as feminist exploration of masculinity.
20th Century Women is also incredibly funny and remarkably honest, as well as featuring one of the year’s best soundtracks. This is a joyous movie that examines the life of its characters in a manner that it’s not hard to see a bit of yourself in some aspect of Mills’ latest masterwork.
Hail, Caesar! wasn’t greeted with the typical enthusiasm that greets a new film from the Coen Brothers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie. In fact, Hail, Caesar! is about six different movies crammed into one madcap comedy that gleefully defies expectations. The Coen Brothers’ is a comedy, a musical, a western, a Biblical prestige picture, an aquatic mermaid film, and each one is remarkably brilliant.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to oversee the variety of productions and personalities that occupy Capitol Pictures. The fictional studio is overflowing with various forms of chaos that blend Hollywood history with the comedic imagination of the masterful sibling filmmakers. For all the brilliance of Hail, Caesar!, none shined brighter than the breakout performance of Alden Ehrenreich, who steals the movie as the dimwitted cowboy actor Hobie Doyle. In a few short scenes, Ehrenreich confirms his status as the next big thing in a role that is obviously the reason that he is the next Han Solo.
Expectations for Hail, Caesar! might explain the dampened enthusiasm for the movie, but it will age well and endure as another masterful film from the Coen Brothers. After all, it’s not so simple.
7) Green Room
No other movie in 2016 was there to prepare us for the looming national nightmare of President Donald Trump than Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. The simple story of a touring punk band under siege by a gang of neo-Nazi punks unwittingly became a metaphor for the Election of 2016, with an idealistic youth movement constantly under the threat of violent white supremacists. Green Room unfolds as an exercise in pure visceral tension, a movie that will make you sweat and ache with violent intensity.
Sadly, Green Room is one of the last leading roles of the late Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away earlier this year. It’s one of those performances that blends strength and fear, bringing a tenderness to the chaos that few other actors could bring to the role. On the opposite side of the door is Patrick Stewart as the leader of the neo-Nazi gang, Darcy. Stewart uses his booming voice and natural gravitas to give Green Room an unsettling villain that is ruthless and eloquent, a haunting portrait that reminds us that evil often can speak quite well.
The sleaziest story that Raymond Chandler never told, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a raucous blend of action and comedy, and one of the year’s most rewatchable films. Set in ‘70s Los Angeles, The Nice Guys features the hapless duo of Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) as they dive into the underbelly of the pornography scene to unravel a series of murders and mysteries.
Black’s dialogue crackles with wit as they exchanges between the characters is lively and hilarious. Ryan Gosling may be earning accolades for his turn in La La Land, but that’s not even his best performance of the year, let alone his best physical performance. Gosling shows a knack for physical comedy that he’s never presented before as his drunken take on Holland March stumble from one place to another. Conversely, Russell Crowe gives an equally assured performance as the grizzled Jackson Healy, a reluctant partner for the astoundingly unprofessional Healy. For as great as the two leads are, young Angourie Rice proves to be the stand out as Healy’s incredibly smart daughter. Few films matched just the sheer level of fun that is Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.
Last year, director Taika Waititi scored a breakout hit with his vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. For his follow up, Waititi proves himself to be one of the most exciting emerging filmmakers with his simply majestical adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The story of the juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) leaving behind city life to live with foster parents in the outskirts of the New Zealand wilderness is a touching, funny, and vibrantly presented piece of cinema.
Julian Dennison does the most with this fantastic role and fleshes out the arrogance and naiveté of Ricky Baker, a kid that thinks himself a gangster when he’s still hasn’t figured out exactly who he is. When Ricky and Hector (Sam Neill) find themselves on the lam from the social worker Paula (Rachel House), Waititi presents a keen balance between the film’s escalating story, its resounding emotional content, and the ample sense of humor that flavors every frame of the movie.
The joy and beauty that permeates throughout Hunt for the Wilderpeople makes my anticipation for Taika Waititi’s upcoming Thor: Ragnarok go through the roof.
There’s no antagonist in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. There’s no real conflict to its story of a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey named Paterson (Adam Driver) that writes poetry amidst his daily routine. What flavors Paterson is the poetry of daily life, the people we interact with or just the people we observe. There’s an overflowing sense of human decency to the characters of Paterson that few filmmakers could make into such compelling cinema, yet Jarmusch does so seemingly with ease.
Adam Driver continues his meteoric rise as a leading man with a performance that is so beautifully subtle in each and every action. It’s not a showy, flashy performance that dazzles the sense by overloading the viewer with loud, powerful monologues. Instead Driver has a stoicism that relatable, whether it being the way he chugs water at his girlfriend Rachel (a radiant Golshifteh Farahani) or the casual manner with which he talks to his dog Marvin.
The films of Jim Jarmusch have always had a cool attitude about them, reveling in the art and culture that its filmmaker loves while taking their time to soak in its atmosphere before reaching its destination. Paterson is the best bus ride you’ve ever had, circling around the same locations day after day but always finding something new and beautiful along the way.
There are few things harder in life than accepting the death of a loved one. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and the looming specter of death hangs like a storm cloud over the characters of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Led by a powerhouse performance by Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea is a dazzling piece of storytelling that is almost relentless in the manner with which it tugs on the heartstrings, flashing back and forth between time to flesh out this heartbreaking story.
What really separates Manchester by the Sea from the pack is the surprising sense of humor that Lonergan injects into his film, reminding us that even in the most depressing times that we can find a few chuckles amidst the tears.
Chan-wook Park’s latest masterwork, The Handmaiden, is a tale of intricate forgeries, a devious tale of sex and betrayal that has every one of its characters playing each other as much as Park is playing the audience. Part-Rashomon, part-Hitchcockian deceit, The Handmaiden unfolds in three chapters that provide depth to the layers of deception employed by each of its characters within Japanese occupied Korea.
The two leading women of The Handmaiden, Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, keep the devious events endlessly fascinating with a sensual and sexual relationship that always keeps the viewer guessing what’s next and second guessing what has already transpired.
There are no films that can compete with production and costume design of The Handmaiden, making the film one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinema to behold. With story that is sometimes sexy, sometimes violent, sometimes darkly comic, and always fascinating, The Handmaiden simply proves that Chan-wook Park is among the finest filmmakers working today.
Martin Scorsese has probably made more masterpieces than any other living filmmaker, and Silence is just his latest stroke of cinematic brilliance. A passion project that Scorsese has spent decades developing, Silence reminds us that the greatness of Scorsese isn’t limited to simply the gangster genre. In adapting Shûsaku Endô’s novel, Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks have made a film that is one of the most stunning portraits of religion and faith ever committed to the screen, and I say that someone who is not among the faithful.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portugese priests in the 17th Century that travel to feudal Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and the faithful are subject to torture if they do not renounce their faith, in search of Father Ferreria (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared performing missionary work and rumors have circulated that he has apostatized. What they encounter are situations that reaffirm their faith as well as situations that bring them closer to doubt.
Balancing out the cast of Hollywood stars is an impressive roster of Japanese actors headlined by Issei Ogata in a performance that will stand the test of time and should garner awards consideration. Other Japanese standouts include Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Yôsuke Kubozuka as the egnigmatic Kichijiro.
What makes Silence so stunning is the delicate balance of making a film that is able to extol the virtues of faith while simultaneously critiquing the fundamental nature of religion. Scorsese doesn’t make the Japanese that are persecuting Christians simply a barbaric horde free of motivation, and at the same time the film acknowledges the arrogance of the missionaries.
Silence is a thoughtful examination of faith on the screen that doesn’t submit itself to the idea that suffering brings one closer to Christ as it examines the idea of redemption through suffering. The film is majestically shot by Rodrigo Prieto, capturing the natural beauty of the countryside alongside the degradation of human suffering. Silence is a haunting movie that demands multiple viewings and is a work of art that doesn’t attempt to meet the expectations of the audience, instead challenging the viewer to examine their own notions about faith. It also features one of the most stunning final shots in recent memory, rivaling the chilling final shot of The Wolf of Wall Street. Few films attempt such lofty intellectual and theological goals, let alone achieve them. That’s why Martin Scorsese is one of the all-time greats.