The Best of 2016: A Year in Film

The Oscars dramatically ended 2016’s year in movies last night, which means it’s also time for Zac to file the very last Best of List for the year; an annual tradition!

In 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road was an instant classic that didn’t really have a rival with the rest of the year’s films. From 2016, there is a deeper field of films I really, really love, but with nothing jumping to Mad Max’s level of greatness. And as great as it is to see something that blows your mind, I’ll take a year of depth over one that fades after numbers 1 and 2.

Here is a list of the new films I saw from 2016; the lowest in years, but I cracked 100.

And here are the movies I wanted to see, but missed.

Shall we get to it?

Worst Film of the Year:
I’m choosing to be positive this year and am not going to hand out this honor. Being negative and picking apart something, let alone a movie, seems quite silly in recent months. Especially when degradation has become something that is just way too prevalent in the world today.

Best Scene of the Year: Darth Vader Goes Ballistic – Rogue One
Guys and Gals, don’t mess with Darth Vader. Just don’t. The hallway massacre he unleashes in the final moments of Rogue One is one of the best things to come out of Star Wars. It is a brutal, terrifying and exhilarating explosion of death at the hands of a lightsaber. It was insane, and gave me the biggest physical reaction I’ve had to a movie all year.

Honorable Mentions: Ralph Fiennes Dances in A Bigger Splash, Monkey Fights Her Sister on the Leaf Boat in Kubo and the Two Strings, The Diner in Moonlight, “A Lovely Night” in La La Land, Possessed in The Witch, “No Dames” in Hail, Caesar!, Bargaining with Dormammu in Doctor Strange, On the Streets to the Embassy in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Holtzman Busts those Ghosts in Ghostbusters.

Score of the Year: Nicholas Britell’s Moonlight
Barry Jenkins’ film might have the best soundtrack of the year as well, but there is something about Britell’s score that adds to the film’s beauty, is haunting and hopeful all at once, and slowly builds along with the evolution of Chiron. It is the score I’ve listened to the most this year, and that is saying something when perennial favorite Michael Giacchino released four new scores this year.

Most Underrated Film: The Dressmaker
This adaptation out of Australia, and starring Kate Winslet, was a delightful and bizarre movie that catches you off guard the instant Hugo Weaving throws on some women’s clothing. A silly premise, but a well made film that can’t quite escape the novel it’s based on. Still, everyone in the film is on board and Winslet is great as always. Nobody talked about this film, maybe more should have. Liam Hemsworth is even delightful in this!

Movie I Really, Really, Really Wish I Got To See Again: Arrival
Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve, a director I really like. It looked great, was well acted and was very thought-provoking, but it didn’t hit me like it felt it should have. Maybe it was because the election happened only a couple of days before I saw it? Maybe it was the film’s structure? I don’t know, but I really wish I got to see it again. I think it might have made it into my top 20 or higher if I had, but, alas. Still, see it, it is beautiful and interesting, but it might take a couple viewings to really settle in with you.

To The List…

The Also Ran: (All Films Worth Your Time If You Are At All Interested): Where to Invade Next, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, Sunset Song, De Palma, American Honey, The Fits, Ghostbusters, Eddie the Eagle, Hell or High Water, Everybody Wants Some!!, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Demolition, Arrival, Neighbors 2, Moana, Zootopia.

The Contenders:
Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s second feature is quite the divisive one, but I am pretty firmly on the good side of things. Amy Adam’s portion of the film does come off a bit silly, she mostly reads a manuscript outside a couple of flashbacks, but the playing out of the manuscript in her mind is a terrifying tale. Plus, the revenge theme of the film is certainly worth contemplating. Yeah, it’s not as great as A Single Man, but I’ll keep showing up for Tom Ford films as long as he’s making them.

The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful in this high school dramedy that plays things quite realistic across the board. The film isn’t as stylized as other recent successful high school movies (Easy A, Mean Girls, Detention), but Steinfeld’s journey is a worthy one, warts and all. It ain’t easy being a girl in high school, and this film doesn’t pull any punches; without getting too dark.

Captain Fantastic
A fascinating and thought-provoking look at being a family, raising children, and looking at how society perceives you when you don’t follow social norms. Viggo Mortensen stars as the patriarch of this “alternative” family, and he is a great fatherly presence, but the cast of kids keep up with the veteran. It may be a bit long and a tad contrived, but Captain Fantastic was a refreshing take on the family drama.

Natalie Portman is great in this intense look into the days surrounding JFK’s assassination, in particular Jackie’s response to everything in and around the White House. The movie is quite unlike any biopic you’ve ever seen, all feelings, mood and emotions wrapped up in Mica Levi’s haunting score. This is one movie that might have jumped higher on my list if I had a second viewing, as it was kind of hard to wrap my head around the movie’s tone till it was almost over. Still, a wonderful and powerful portrait of grief in our nation’s highest office.

10 Cloverfield Lane
Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature was backdoored into the Cloverfield universe, but the results are a fun genre exercise driven by excellent performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. The plot will keep you guessing, the noises outside the bunker will have you squirming, and the film absolutely nails its ending. Can’t wait to see what Trachtenberg does next (his Black Mirror episode was solid) and I am on board with Abrams continuing to expand the Cloverfield brand like this.

The Dressmaker
An adaptation of a story in a small village in Australia, where an outcast returns and the battle of selling dresses becomes the central plot of the film for a large chunk of the film’s runtime. There is a lot of drama buried in the history of this town and it is a blast to watch Kate Winslet run around and kick up the dust. An odd little film, but one that deserves a bigger audience than it got.

Rogue One
I was super excited for Rogue One since the day it was announced, as Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was a directorial powerhouse, and I was curious to see what Star Wars looks like outside the Skywalker sphere. The post-Lucas creative team delivers another batch of memorable characters for Rogue One and the film deserves a lot of props for going where it does with the ending. Not in my top-tier of Star Wars films, but very good nonetheless. Oh, also, I’m pro CG-Tarkin! Come at me.

Swiss Army Man
This bizarre and completely original oddity from Daniels is unlike anything you will ever see. Known as the “farting corpse” movie, it certainly has a ton of that, but when that corpse is played by Daniel Radcliffe, and he’s adorable, you won’t be grossed out as much as in love. The movie has an insane premise that shouldn’t be spoiled, but if you can roll with the first five minutes of the film you’ll probably be in good shape. Also, this is another one that probably would have jumped higher had I got a second viewing in.

Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols’ bare bones sci-fi feature is presented with minimal exposition and that might not fly with everybody. Still, Nichols is such a good director, and creates such compelling imagery, he gives you enough pieces to put most everything together if you want to. Back this up with a solid cast from top to bottom and a couple of fantastic set pieces and you have a low-budget genre classic in the making. This film deserves a bigger audience and any fan of the genre should check it out.

Doctor Strange
Marvel continues to bat 1.000 and successfully launches another hero in Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch is having a blast in the lead role, the visuals are trippy as hell and each set piece throws something new at you. I am in on Marvel, so my enjoyment here should come as no surprise, but if you are weary of the brand for some reason and are looking for a fresh start, Strange might be a good place to dip back in. You don’t have to know everything that’s ever happened in a Marvel movie to enjoy it, and you just might want to get back into the game after you see this.

The Top 20:
20. Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them
I was excited to be sent back into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world and I don’t need Harry Potter to do so. David Yates is back shepherding the series and it is like he never missed a beat. He and Rowling are in sync when it comes to throwing this world up on the big screen and I couldn’t be happier. The angle is a little more mature this time around, still full of plenty whimsy, and the cast, again, is top-notch. Eddie Redmayne just gets more and more enjoyable as Newt, Colin Farrell is so good as the nefarious Graves and Katherine Waterston is primed to be a lot of fun going forward if the part keeps giving her things to do. I was just so happy to be back in this world and I am excited to see where they are going to take this thing over the course of this new franchise. If you are a fan of Potter and somehow resisted, don’t.

19. Looking: The Movie
Given a wrap up movie on HBO after the series was canceled, Looking ends its show with a wonderful trip back into the lives of these friends that I don’t think I would change one bit. Directed by Andrew Haigh, the film is also a visual treat and has some of the best shots I’ve seen all year in film. But the real reason this works so well is because we are getting to spend time with Patrick, Dom and Agustín one last time, and all of our favorites of their friends come back too. I don’t know how Looking would play as a stand alone film, I think it might work, but as a cap to the end of this excellent and underrated series, it was perfect.

18. 13th
This documentary from Ava DuVernay is an eye-opening and engaging look at our country’s 13th amendment and how one sentence has given a loophole into helping keep down an entire race of people in this country since they were supposed to have been freed. The criminal justice system is broken in our country, that’s been clear for years, but DuVernay does an amazing job of just streamlining everything in a way that you will be inspired and shaken from issue to issue. It is sad, the story she weaves here, that we are still acting the way we do in this country, and the treatment of people of color has changed so little, even when it has come so far. Don’t hide from this, and DuVernay makes that easier than ever in 13th.

17. Loving
Another Jeff Nichols film from 2016 and another entry on to my list. Loving tells the story of an interracial couple in the late 50’s and into the 60’s as they fought to be recognized as legally married in their own home county of Virginia. When I say fight, the film isn’t one full of furious moments of anger and yelling, the fight is long, quiet and carried out by people who believe in the right thing and will go to court over it. The film is a sneaky endorsement for the ACLU, which is still incredibly important today, as they let the Loving’s live their lives as best they can while trying to use the legal system on their behalf. It is a quiet and gentle film, with the core couple being played wonderfully by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Loving isn’t a showy film, but it is a reminder of how prevalent racism was not that long ago, and it’s terrifying that this film still feels incredibly relevant today.

16. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn is back again and he has crafted another singular vision that feels entirely his own. Following a young girl entering the fashion world of Los Angeles, the creepiness and dread seeping around every corner allows for Refn to really show off and craft this weird fairy tale. Showing off is kind of what it feels like watching a Refn movie, but I mean that as a compliment, really. The guy is so talented, and marries mood, look, style and music about as well as anyone does working today. His vision is his own and he sends Elle Fanning into a slow boiling nightmare, set to the awesome score by Cliff Martinez. Describing this movie doesn’t do it justice, it is an experience to be had, but if you aren’t in on Refn outside of drive, I don’t know if The Neon Demon is going to change your mind.

15. Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers made another movie, of course it was great, and it felt like something new from the duo, yet delightfully familiar like all of their work. Clooney is acting like a buffoon, which I always love. Josh Brolin is delightfully deadpan and in control. Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes deliver one of the year’s funniest scenes. And Channing Tatum dances his ass off and is wonderfully silly. Plus, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson pop up and kill it for a couple of scenes each. A lot of people wrote this off as Coen’s lite, and while it isn’t in their top-tier it is still one of the year’s best films.

14. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel can’t do wrong with me, and Captain America has become my favorite superhero in their roster. Civil War doesn’t top Winter Soldier for me, mostly because it breaks off into an Avengers movie for the middle section of the movie, but the final act of Civil War really might be some of Marvel’s best stuff. Watching Tony and Cap come to blows, with you being able to see both sides of the battle, is tough to watch after spending years watching these characters. The ultimate ending feels a little soft, but like all Marvel movies this story isn’t over, but when Chris Evans stops donning the shield it will be a sad day for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

13. The Witch
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a creepy and twisted coming of age story set to the backdrop a 1630 New England family who has been banished for their too extreme religious beliefs. When a real live witch starts terrorizing their family, the eldest of the children, Thomasin, is blamed for all of the bad things happening because she is turning into a woman. To spoil the ride would be a disservice, but Anya Taylor-Joy is wonderful in the lead, while Ralph Ineson keeps pace as the family’s strict patriarch. Moody and atmospheric, this is everything I want out of a horror film and I can’t wait to see what Eggers does next after this fantastic debut. Don’t be scared to watch The Witch, I think you can do it! Unless you just had a baby…

12. Silence
Martin Scorsese made a new movie and pretty much nobody saw it. What. Is. Wrong. With. You. People? Following two priests who are attempting to track down their mentor who has disappeared into the Japanese’s wiping out of the Christian faith during the sixteenth century. The title refers to the idea of talking to a God who never talks back, especially when atrocities are being carried out around you against people who are ever faithful to said God. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are both great as the priests, and you can see how powerful it is for them to deliver the word of God, but Garfield really takes it up a notch as his faith begins to get tested. Long and deliberate, Silence isn’t for everyone. But, if you are willing to engage in the ideas Scorsese is putting up on the screen, Silence is a very rewarding meditation on faith, no matter your religious feelings.

11. The Nice Guys
Shane Black is now three for three in the director’s chair and The Nice Guys feels like his most well oiled machine yet. Ryan Gosling is hilarious as a PI investigating a missing girl, who gets paired up with an also hilarious Russell Crowe in the process and hilarious hijinks ensue. Did I mention it is hilarious? Angourie Rice is excellent right along side the two of them as Gosling’s young investigative daughter, and the trio traverse the seedy 70’s porn scene to try to get to the bottom of a quickly developing bigger conspiracy. Smart, quick and full of excellent one liners, The Nice Guys is the comedy of 2016.

10. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-Wook’s twisted tale of lies and deception is a delight that will keep you guessing how it will all play out. To explain the setup would take away a lot of the fun of the movie, but the basics are a young thief is recruited to swindle a rich heiress and things don’t go exactly as planned. The duo at the center, Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee, are wonderful as they feel each other out (no pun intended) and slowly build their relationship as they figure out one another’s intentions. Park’s film is gorgeous, beautifully recreates it’s early 20th century setting and is as weird as you should come to expect from the director. Park is one of the best directors working today and The Handmaiden might be my favorite film yet from him.

9. La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s musical is a wonderful and exhilarating film, made so by the perfect duo at the center in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. These two have an undeniable chemistry, are charming as hell to watch fall in love and do a bit of singing and dancing through their courtship. Once they are together, though, the film turns into a more traditional relationship drama that finds two lovers dealing with staring down adult life right in the face. Both of them have their own issues, both of them have valid criticisms and watching the relationship start to crumble is nearly as compelling as the singing and dancing. Plus, that ending is just about perfect and it takes some balls to end the film the way it does. Snaps to Chazelle, who has quickly proven himself to be one of the best directors out there in only three films.

8. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s film is all about the small details and Casey Affleck delivers one of the best performances of the year at the center of it. Affleck gets pulled back to his hometown after running away from something awful, and it is mesmerizing to watch him try to figure out if he can actually make it living in this town all over again. Lucas Hedges plays Affleck’s nephew in the film and he gives the opposite performance of Affleck’s quiet and shaken soul. Dealing with a loss, but still trying to be a teenager, Hedges carries himself perfectly for the part and you can’t help being charmed by him. Michelle Williams also shows up and devastates you in one of the most brutal scenes I saw last year. For as sad as this film can get, Lonergan instills the film with the perfect amount of levity and all the authenticity one can hope for in a film, but the film’s greatest achievement is that it lets you feel all of the emotions without exposing you to the big emotional moments. You don’t really see the scenes that would be the most dramatic moments in most movies, but Lonergan never lets you forget that emotional toll they take on his characters. More from him, please.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika has been pumping out quality film, after quality film, all beautifully produced in gorgeous stop-motion animation, and Kubo is my favorite from them yet. Following a boy (Kubo) who is discovering his family history through a fantastical backdrop of talking beetles and monkeys, the film is one of the best animated films of this decade. Samurai fights, magical guitars, giant skeletons and eyeball monsters, the film is full of imagination, but at its heart it is a story about loss and moving on. One of the most gorgeous animated features you’ll ever see, Kubo also is one of the most thematically rich ones, as well.

6. 20th Century Women
Annette Bening was robbed! Nobody was better in a movie this year and she didn’t even get nominated. I know, awards don’t matter, but nobody really went and saw this movie and that Oscar bump would have helped so many more people see this amazing performance and wonderful film. Greta Gerwig is nearly as good as Bening too, and we watch these women, along with Elle Fanning, try to help Benning’s son become a man. Mike Mills’ film is a bit autobiographical and feels entirely lived in, as he paints these beautiful portraits of these characters who are struggling to figure out who they are, were, or are going to be. Possibly the best written film of the year and featuring the year’s best performance, 20th Century Women needs to be seen by more people. Be that person!

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi came into my sphere (unknowingly) as a contributor on Flight of the Conchords, and I had heard he was directing the next Thor movie, but I didn’t know how much I loved him until I saw Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This adventure comedy of two lost souls on the run in the New Zealand bush, bonding and discovering their relationship along the way, I don’t think I fell in love with two characters as much as I did here. Hilarious and heartfelt, Waititi guides this film effortlessly from start to finish. A silly and fun movie that can move you just as easily as it makes you laugh, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in need of as big an audience as his Thor movie is going to have.

4. A Bigger Splash
Ralph Fiennes is incredible in A Bigger Splash. He is worth seeking this movie out alone, but around him is a fantastic and sexy film that slowly builds towards something that will change everyone involved. Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson all star in the film as well, and the dynamic that evolves over Swinton and Schoenaerts’ interrupted vacation beautifully digs into the pasts of all of these characters and how that affects them in the present. Fiennes is the engine that drives the film forward, but Swinton is as compelling as ever as a music superstar who is dealing with a vocal issue. Dakota Johnson slinks around the edges of the story and continues to impress in everything she does and Scherondist’s is great at playing a man who is barely keeping his feelings under the surface. A Bigger Splash is another film criminally underseen on my list, so add it to your queue and see it as soon as possible.

3. Moonlight
Moonlight has stuck with me ever since I saw it and is one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen. The music, the cinematography, the direction, the acting, it is all top notch. Again, this might have leapt to number one had I got a second viewing, as I was watching the film waiting for something truly terrible to happen, and that isn’t what this film is. The third act especially had a tension as I was expecting some violent to happen in my mind, when the tension is all about these humans connecting again. I want to see this film again knowing everything is going to be ok and embrace it for the love story that it can be. Barry Jenkins’ film is exquisite nonetheless, and the work by his three Chiron’s, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert, came together to be the year’s most complex and compelling character. Don’t miss Moonlight friends, it is destined to be remembered for years to come.

2. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a perfect genre exercise. There isn’t a bad beat in this film and everything builds on top of one another. The young cast is excellent from top to bottom and Patrick Stewart is a formidable villain in a quietly sinister role we’ve never seen from him before. Set primarily in one location, this trapped in a box thriller around a punk rock band that sees too much is a gory mess when the Neo-Nazi’s of the area come down on top of them and I enjoyed every minute of the ride. Saulniers is one of our best young directors and I will go wherever he takes me after Green Room. Not for the squeamish, but a masterclass in filmmaking nonetheless.

1. The Lobster
I saw The Lobster in 2015, but since it’s US release was delayed into 2016 I didn’t put it on my list last year. It fought off all comers for that number one spot this year and remains one of the most unique, hilarious and bizarre visions I’ve ever seen on the screen. Set in a world where you are turned into an animal if you are unable to find a suitable mate, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is a biting look at relationships from both ends of the spectrum; from coupledom to singlehood. Colin Farrell continues to be one of the best actors of his generation, and his deadpan David is a comedic gem. Rachel Weisz is also incredible as a potential suitor he meets in the woods (this sentence makes sense when you see the film) and they are both surrounded by a fantastic cast. Lanthimos just fills each from with such detail and humor, the film just gets better every time I watch it. To try to describe this film any further is futile, but I can can guarantee two things; The Lobster will be one of the weirder films you’ll ever see, but it also just might be one of the best.

3 thoughts on “The Best of 2016: A Year in Film

  1. How did we both end up with Lobster as our favorite film of the year? Next time you’re in town we’ll have to play some “Touch, Think, Guess, Win!”

  2. Somewhere between Werner Herzog and Michel Gondry came The Lobster—the best kind of disquieting and hilarious dystopian sci-fi, IMHO, and also one of my faves of last year. Some people didn’t get how great it actually is. I’m glad you do.

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