Andrew's Top Ten Movies of 2016
I love lists, but I hate ranking. Putting my favorite movies of all time in some kind of comparative order would mean deciding whether Citizen Kane is “better” than Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and that just wouldn’t make sense. So, while I was excited to curate my top ten favorite films of 2016, I decided to simply list them alphabetically rather than put them in competition with one another. I should also note that this was the year I moved to a city with a booming art house theater and a two-story video store, so I’ve been too swept up in classics and cult films to see every new release I intended to get to. However, I definitely caught at least ten that represent everything a moviegoing experience should be.
10 Cloverfield Lane
It may be essentially unrelated to the 2008 original, but that’s a big part of what makes 10 Cloverfield Lane so exciting. It’s clear now that this is an anthology series in which J.J. Abrams can take seemingly unbankable ideas, like a three-character drama set in an underground bunker, and let up-and-coming young filmmakers direct them with a larger budget than they could otherwise hope for. And the thematic connections are there—both Cloverfield movies use big sci-fi ideas as backdrops for intimate, almost minimalist stories about people dealing with regret. The apparent next entry in the series, God Particle, is one of my most anticipated movies of 2017.
Even when the Coens do something that looks on the surface like comedy fluff, there’s something fascinating about each project. In this case, they seem to be working out a sketch comedy itch, stringing together a series of riotously funny encounters that are only loosely connected. While it might be more satisfying to see them make some kind of point with the McCarthyism themes. and naming a sympathetic protagonist after Eddie Mannix is a bit eyebrow-raising, Hail, Caesar! delivers on the promise of that very special brand of good times you expect from a Coen comedy.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi is one of the most exciting directors working, and that only gets more apparent with each project. It’s certainly no secret anymore, as he’s hard at work now on Thor: Ragnarok. Hopefully Marvel lets him bring the idiosyncratic New Zealand charm he brought to Boy and What We Do in the Shadows to their cosmic sandbox. In the meantime, Wilderpeople may have been the best time I had at the theater in 2016. Sam Neill is delightful as always, and his chemistry with teenage newcomer Julian Dennison brings the adventure to a perfect balance of wacky and heartfelt.
2016 was a year of musicians going beyond the boundaries of album downloads and ticket sales to make their work larger than life. While we mourn Bowie and marvel at the way his death provided context for his final album, we can be jubilant that Beyoncé made a multimedia art piece into a pop culture event. In its visual album format, Lemonade is absurdly ambitious, but feels thrillingly effortless. Beyoncé and her co-directors sculpted music, poetry, dance, and photography into something that’s part Fantasia, part Inland Empire, but all Beyoncé. What it means to be in love, to be betrayed, to be black, to be a woman, and the places where these intersect are all there in its sixty mesmerizing minutes. As a white dude, I'll defer to people more qualified than myself to discuss those themes in detail, but I will say that Lemonade is one of the most exciting and powerful things I’ve seen done with the medium moving images in recent memory.
After a decade away from feature filmmaking (during which he made the excellent and underseen HBO series Family Tree), Christopher Guest returned with Netflix behind him. Mascots doesn’t have the focus of Waiting for Guffman or the heart of A Mighty Wind, but it can sit proudly on the shelf alongside its predecessors. In a year where the world seemed more uncertain than ever, I was overjoyed to get another serving of my personal cinematic comfort food. And if you bet on Guest being the first filmmaker to get the word “yiffing” into a major motion picture, it’s time to collect.
Men & Chicken
One good thing that can be said about 2016 is that it was the glorious dawn of the Age of Mads Mikkelsen. Though Hannibal and Casino Royale brought him American fame over the past decade, the one-two punch of Doctor Strange and Rogue One, with no small help from his endearing press junket behavior, marked his total domination of the pop culture landscape. But in between those high profile projects, he starred in this weird little film directed by fellow Dane, Anders Thomas Jensen (released in Denmark in 2015, it didn’t make it to America until a year later, so I’m counting it). Mikkelsen and David Dencik star as two truly pathetic brothers who learn they’re part of a family that’s been living a strange life in a dilapidated mansion on a remote island. To go into detail about the discoveries that follow would spoil its best quality, which is that I’ve maybe never been more baffled by where a film was taking me in my life.
It’s everything critics are saying it is. Moonlight explores growing up and sexual self-discovery while avoiding the pitfalls of sensationalism or hamfistedness that have trapped so many before it. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton made the best-looking feature of the year, the widescreen scope and handheld camera working together to bring an epic intimacy to the screen. Every single performance is spot on, raw but understated. And let’s not pretend it isn’t refreshing to see an awards season critical darling with not a single white character.
One More Time with Feeling
I reviewed Andrew Dominik's Nick Cave documentary/concert film/meditation on grief for the site in December. The closing of that review sums up what I think about its place in the year in film:
“It’s not exactly an enjoyable film, but it is a beautiful, cathartic experience. There’s a feeling of weight being lifted as it draws to a close, summed up in the performance of “Distant Sky”, in which Cave's lyrics capture the serenity of the moment in which one accepts the end of an era and moves on. The screen fills with color as Cave sings the words that capture the film and maybe the entire year of 2016: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
Now, I love me some bonkers Godzilla-Saves-the-World adventures, but Hideaki Anno's film is the update of Ishirō Honda's somber 1954 original I didn’t know I wanted. What Honda did for the nuclear fears of postwar Japan, Anno does for today's hyperconnected world of news that moves faster than bureaucracy. A fetishistic depiction of governmental process that by all rights should have been numbingly dull feels harrowingly real, thanks to meticulous pacing and matter-of-fact presentation.
Zootopia and Moana
Okay, cheating a little here because the Walt Disney Animation Studios pulled off the rare feat of releasing two of their in-house features in one year. Each represents exciting new directions after a string of movies I found lacking (I thought Big Hero Six tried too hard to be things it wasn’t, Frozen felt lazy, Wreck-It Ralph could have used another draft, and Tangled had a few too many drafts). The key thing both of this year’s efforts have, that was missing in Disney’s recent efforts, is that they both feel like they're designed for the medium of CG animation. Zootopia is a brilliant crime story that feels fresh and modern, weaving themes about intersectional prejudice with surprising nuance. Moana is an old-fashioned Disney musical for a new generation, teaming veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker with Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose lyrics channel the rhyme alchemy of Howard Ashman. Both find their departments of hundreds of artists firing on all cylinders to spin sharp stories surrounded by cohesive worldbuilding and populated with characters that take full advantage of the cartoonist's craft.