No La La Land to be found on my list, despite its impending domination of this year’s Academy Awards. To be honest, I didn’t see a whole lot of new releases in 2016—I’m guessing somewhere between 20-30 films total. So as with other years, this list is really a compilation of my most memorable films of the year… or films I can actually see myself watching again after some time has passed. I suppose I could have given spot #10 to any number of runner-ups, but it just doesn’t feel right. Instead I’ll start with something a little different…
10. Westworld Season 1
As the lines between film and TV continue to blur, I feel it is an obligation to include one of my all time favorite cinematic experiences of the year: an HBO TV show. It has everything you would expect from a major budget film… an all star cast, mind blowing visual effects, and most important of all, a compelling story that works on both a literal and allegorical level. The only thing that sets it apart from “film” is that instead of a bloated trilogy that loses impact with each new entry, it becomes exponentially more complex and rewarding with each of the 10 chapters. Perhaps this is a disservice to the medium to leave a potentially deserving film off my list, but as my personal cinematic experience has morphed from sharing a crowded theater to reclining on a couch, this is the only project released this year where I physically leapt out of said couch in utter shock (and complete joy) at the reveal of the mother of all twists.
9. The Jungle Book
And speaking of watching more movies from the couch instead of the theater, this is one of the films that I am very glad I got to see in theaters this year. I had recently re-watched the original animated Jungle Book, and found it to be exceptionally more boring than I remembered as a kid. This new live action version, expertly directed by Jon Favreau, is one of the few examples where a remake nobody asked for ended up making the story fresh for a whole new generation. The special effects were seamless and jaw-droppingly beautiful, but even more impressive was watching a film that’s essentially a boy and a green-screen, and actually caring about the story. This was a good year for fun kids movies, and a welcome diversion from the usual big-budget superhero fare.
8. Hell or High Water
Perhaps the finest example this year of a classic, old-school film. Nothing flashy or life-altering here… just a slow-boiling tale of bank robbing brothers on the run from the law. It’s being hailed as a modern day western, and certainly it has all the tropes you would expect from the genre, including the scraggly old sheriff hot on their tail (masterfully portrayed by Jeff Bridges, all scruff and sarcasm until the film’s vulnerable final shootout). The film also features one of my favorite moments of the year: mid-heist, as the “good brother” suddenly realizes how out of control their escalating antics have gotten.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
Billed as the “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, writer/director Richard Linklater sets his latest in the summer of 1980, following a group of college baseball players in the final week leading up to their first day of classes. While this could have easily been another example of Linklater’s more serious, existential, walk-and-talks, this was actually just a great excuse to get a bunch of talented up and coming actors together to fuck around and give each other a hard time. It’s more in the vein of Animal House, Swingers, or even Entourage… but helmed by a master director who grounds the comedic elements in a very real way. Not a false note in the entire movie, and it really transported me to another time and place.
6. The Purge: Election Year
When I finished watching this film, I had to wonder: has there ever been a series of films where each sequel is better than the next? I don’t think there’s another example out there. The first film was mediocre, decent at best, creating an incredible premise (all crime, including murder, is legal for one 12-hour period a year), but hampered itself by keeping the story in a single location as criminals attempted to break into a high-security home. The second film raised the stakes, finally giving us a chance to see the violence in the streets when an innocent couple’s car breaks down as the chaos is about to begin. But man oh man does the latest installment crank everything up to 11—everything is flashier, gorier, and for the first time in the series, FUN. Now there’s a senator who vows to end The Purge, which puts her in the sights of not only the usual psychopaths, but also the protected 1%-ers who will do anything to keep the night of terror going and maintain their power over the less fortunate. Subtle metaphor about the collapse of America? Not exactly. And I suppose it does take a certain kind of perverted mind to find pleasure in this sadistic version of our country where masked international citizens travel here for legal murder-vacations. But man, I fucking loved it.
This one took me by surprise, even with all of the “this is the best film of the year” hype. The story follows the life of one man, told through what are essentially three short films highlighting pivotal moments in his life. The structure is simple, linear, and extremely powerful. In the first act we follow a young boy as he tries to escape from his crack-head mom and taunting schoolmates, trying to understand why he feels different from everyone else. You know you live in a fucked up world when the local drug dealer is the only decent person. The tension only builds in the second act, as his mother spirals further into addiction, and the effects of puberty have magnified his gay feelings, as well as the unrelenting bullying all around him. In the third and final act, the boy has become a truly repressed, introverted mess of a man who never felt reciprocated love. Each of the three acts are filled with incredible performances that give real depth and emotion to what sound on paper to be basic stereotypes. Looked at as a larger piece, the film has a quiet message about not becoming the thing you hate, letting going of the past, and learning how to love.
4. Captain Fantastic
Another amazing film from this year that featured stellar supporting performances. Surprisingly funny, the film follows a family that lives in the middle of the forest as a form of social protest. The kids were born and raised like well-behaved savages; living off the land, and highly educated by a very select group of books and principles. The death of a relative means the family must make a pilgrimage back to regular society, and the rest of the film follows their journey as they all discover just how alienated they are from the real world of instant gratification and double-speaking adults. The film could have easily turned into something dramatic and typical, but instead opts for a more whimsical final act. While it does require a little “suspension of disbelief” to take the final steps of the film’s journey seriously, I found it to be a powerful and uplifting film about embracing your family’s weirdness and living the life you want to lead.
3. Sing Street
All this love for La La Land, and nothing for Sing Street?! Here’s a musical I can get behind, where the songs are organic, and catchy as hell. The kids in 1980s Dublin are poor, bored out of their minds, and longing for love… so they turn to writing original songs inspired by the tracks they catch glimpses of in the earliest days of MTV. This is the feel-good movie of the year, with so much heart and soul you can’t help but smile for two full hours.
2. The Witch
This was the scariest fucking movie I’ve seen in years. Stylistically, it reminded me of nothing less than The Shining. It’s THAT level of unsettling and creepy. From the opening frame you feel an utter sense of dread as a family is outcast from 17th century New England society and forced to start over on the outskirts of what reveals itself to be a cursed forest. Something is VERY wrong with this family; though their breakdown is slow, subtle, and undeniably terrifying. This is an outstanding directorial debut, filled with chilling performances, horrific images, and one helluva ending. Mandatory Halloween watching from this year forward!
1. The Lobster
A warning up front- this is not a film for everyone. It is weird. Extremely weird. The story is like a long lost Charlie Kaufman movie: should you find yourself single, you have 30 days to find a partner or you will forever be turned into an animal of your choosing. The law requires this, and they have eyes on everyone. Luckily there is an exclusive resort for singles, with a very “successful” program that tells you what love is and how to find it. It only gets weirder from there, but I was enthralled for every frame of this movie. The standout performances from Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw and the beautiful/dangerous Lea Seydoux are equally enigmatic… completely deadpan, and simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Even the smallest side characters left an impression. This was a truly unforgettable film that I found myself thinking about for weeks after I first saw it. If you’re willing to take a truly bizarre journey off the beaten path, you will not be disappointed.