Rob's Top Ten Movies of 2016
2016 was an interesting year for filmmaking, as the quality of commercial filmmaking dropped and more attention towards burgeoning independent voices became prominent. Talking animals and superheroes dominated the top of the box office charts, while nonfiction filmmaking had one of its best periods ever from a diverse range of subjects and filmmakers. A24 solidified its place as the Miramax of the 2010s with nearly doubling its output of features since last year, while The Weinstein Company distributed overcooked Oscar bait. There were resurgences of careers who had been long dormant, to either achieve great success or considerable failure. And then there was Dirty Grandpa.
Before I start my top 10, I have a couple of honourable mentions for films that just barely made the cut. It took time to put this together (selecting 10 films out of over 180), but feel the titles below are worth highlighting for how much they made my year in film watching better.
The latest film from director Jim Jarmusch portrays the week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson, who experiences several encounters where his life reflects itself in strange, inexplicable ways. Adam Driver gives a nuanced performance in the lead, and the film itself recalls the sensibilities of Jarmusch's features of the 1980s.
The Nice Guys
Despite being a commercial dud, Shane Black's retro throwback action-comedy The Nice Guys was one of the most entertaining films of the summer, providing equal doses of laughs and thrills. A buddy detective story that feels spiritually connected to Black's now 30-year-old hit Lethal Weapon, but for a new generation, it's a shame we won't be seeing Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling's characters tackle any further cases.
The rare science fiction blockbuster to have equal doses of intellect and emotion, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is an absorbing narrative about the need to break down self-imposed barriers against catastrophe. The sudden appearance of interplanetary beings becomes a race against time for a linguist, played by Amy Adams, to decipher their language and why they have come, in this adaptation of the short story 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang.
10 Cloverfield Lane
A studio blockbuster sequel that reframes the very nature of J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield series (another film is on the way this fall), 10 Cloverfield Lane takes the form of a tense, psychological thriller about three people trapped in a bunker under the potential threat of nuclear annihilation. Featuring a unnerving supporting performance by John Goodman that marks one of the actor's finest roles to date.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Animation delivers another outstanding animated film, that takes its inspiration from Japanese folklore in telling the story of a young boy's quest to save his family after summoning mystical spirits that threaten them. With impeccable stop-motion work that feels nearly seamless, it may be Laika's finest feature to date.
And now, for my top ten (in descending order)...
After a ten year absence, the always controversial Paul Verhoeven returned in full force, in this thriller about a video game company CEO attempting to uncover the identity of the masked intruder who viciously attacked her in her own home. Isabelle Huppert proves why she's one of the best actresses working today, giving an enthralling lead performance that crafts her character with surefire magnetism.
Swiss Army Man
This Sundance sensation was the ultimate weird movie of 2016, thanks to the unique approach taken by first-time feature directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Explained succinctly, the story of a man and a bloated farting corpse on a deserted island became more than just that, instead forming the crux of a deeply heartfelt story of depression and rumination. While very divisive, the level of imaginative visuals on display, not to mention a creative original score.
Director Park Chan-wook returned in a big way this year, in this lurid psycho-erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation. A cat and mouse story where three parties are engaged in a game of manipulation and romance, it retains the intensity of Chan-wook's past thrillers, while also containing some of the best cinematography and music of the year.
Manchester by the Sea
This devastating drama from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is an immaculately performed character piece, with Casey Affleck giving career-best work as a man returning to his hometown to care for his nephew after his brother's death. Emotionally taxing, Lonergan crafts a moving portrait of grieving and contemplation, that reaches enough emotional heights to grant it the status of being a modern classic.
Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to his breakout hit Blue Ruin is a restless horror-thriller following a punk band who become imprisoned and sieged by a group of Neo-Nazis, after witnessing a dreadful backstage murder. Full of gory, 'can't unsee' moments, and featuring a rare villainous turn from Patrick Stewart, it solidifies Saulnier's reputation as a director to watch in genre cinema.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle's homage to classic Hollywood musicals makes the genre feel alive again, from a wonderful assemblage of songs, visually euphoric sequences, and the amazing chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Built upon the kind of movie magic that's not rarely seen anymore, it feels like the tonal opposite to Chazelle's past music film Whiplash, but remains equally as entertaining in its own way.
This triptych coming-of-age narrative has been deemed remarkable for its sense of intimacy in telling the story of a boy growing into manhood and trying to recognize his own identity amidst the pressures of his environment. While it's only Barry Jenkins' second feature, it demonstrates his artistic abilities as a confident director, and represents the kind of filmmaking we need more of for indie cinema right now, as there's nothing else like it this year.
At the time of writing this, I have seen Silence quiet recently, so its inclusion on this list may seem a bit precipitous. But rest assured, this religious epic is among director Martin Scorsese's best films, forming a portrayal of faith against persecution in 17th century Japan. Completely riveting from the first frame to the last, even with a near 3 hour runtime, it shows that when he wants to, Scorsese can depart from the usual crime films he's associated with, to make something transcendent in the way it depicts a crisis of belief in a higher power. A lot will be said about this film in the coming months as more people get an opportunity to see it, and decidedly so, as there is lot to unpack that can't be said in a couple hundred words.
Let me just get this out of the way - Lemonade is a true work of art in every way. A true cinematic wonder that is in essence, a longform music video, we see Beyonce adopt multiple personas across 11 songs encompassing various genres, forming a larger conceptual narrative about feminism, liberation, and justice. While its premiere on HBO in April led to some wondering how to classify it (film? TV special? visual album?), I personally wish it had been released in IMAX, because the hypnotic visuals and range of sonic elements throughout make it an undeniable pop culture classic.
Maren Ade made the most surprising film of the year - a dramedy which oscillates between corporate jargon and absurdist comedy, in telling its story of a man attempting to reconnect with his adult daughter and interfering with her professional and personal life. In what could be described as an epic comedy (thanks to a massive runtime), what unfolds is a deeply poignant film with a large emotional center, aimed at the relationships we hold near and dear to us in life. The laughs hit just as hard as the meditative dramatism, both comforting in their own ways. This film wasn't even on my radar last year until it became a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, and upon seeing it myself, I understood the reasons why it was amassing a reputation and receiving mid-film standing ovations from a number of wonderfully composed set pieces. It may not be everyone's style of filmmaking, but Toni Erdmann is the kind of thing that continues to astonish scene after scene, eventually culminating in an uproarious third act while settling on a bittersweet note. For displaying such a full range of feeling and depth through the simplest of gestures, it is my favorite film of 2016.