I was really tempted to do a Top 16. But no. I have a pretty large Honorable Mentions list (as per usual) and a lot of hard cuts were made so I’m going to maintain the tradition of just 15 movies.
2016 was a year of collision. Not only in the broader culture, but in the stories we’re telling and how we’re telling them. The two most consistently good subsets of films were diametrically opposed genres: horror and adventure films ostensibly aimed at kids. There were a lot of horror all-timers this year and they make up a third of my list. There were also a lot of kids’ movies that just worked for people, even when they didn’t work for me (The BFG or The Little Prince). The ones that I loved, again making up a third of this list, are also all-timers.
This is also the year where the WB wrongly doubled down on the grimdark of their comic book movies, while Disney showed us all how to actually be dark without being stupid with, of all things, a Star Wars movie. For a lot of people, 2016 is characterized not only by a measurable uptick in conflict but also a lot of darkness. But I think one of the reasons why I responded so much to both horror and lighter fare is because the contrast reminds me that the collision between horror and hope is kind of what it’s all about.
I think the movies I loved most were about finding yourself (from Pete’s Dragon to The Handmaiden), which seems trite, but each one meditated on that struggle and showed, in different and equally powerful ways, how who we are and what we do comes from finding and loving and being true to ourselves. I’ve been thinking about my life a lot this year, mostly because I’m on the cusp of the elusive “career” that most people hope will give their lives some definition and structure (working toward this is why there are so few reviews on this blog now). As a result, I’m thinking about the balance and trying to find it — maybe more than ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I like to think that we all are, as a civilization and as individuals, especially now.
The usual disclaimer:
I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one movie more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of personal preferences, it’s about trying to be objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.
15. Sing Street
Sing Street is a wonderful coming-of-age story that uses the music of the 80’s as a kind of framework for going through phases of thought, behavior, and philosophy. Conor is a boy who starts a band mostly to impress a girl but also, deep down, to connect with his disaffected but passionate older brother. Instead of being excuses so that Conor can learn something, both Raphina and Brendan are rich characters in their own right. This movie exudes heart and manages to be fresh and tons of fun without leaning too heavily on the coming-of-age or garage band tropes it frequently includes. This movie compares favorably to La La Land in a bunch of ways and I found it to be more honest and more relatable.
Another coming-of-age story at heart, Slash trades nostalgia and music for sexual confusion and the backrooms of the internet, where people from all walks of life get together to write stories about beloved fictional characters… fucking. In Slash, the community is treated with a lot of respect and dignity through the earnest searching of its two leads. Both characters are trying to figure out who they are in a world of limiters, labels, expectations, norms, and their own desires. Their journey frequently defies easy definition, which is the whole point. This is not only the first feature film made about slash-fiction, it is also one of a very few that deal honestly and directly with fluidity in the sexuality and identities of young people, who for the first time in living memory are afforded a certain amount of freedom (in parts of the world anyway) to explore what they want and what they can be. Even if you have difficulty relating to the sexual identity confusion or the peculiarity of the slash community, this is also a story about finding your tribe and letting yourself be whatever kind of weirdo you are. Slash has the potential to be a powerful film for LBTQ+ and gender spectrum youth, something that speaks directly to them without ever talking down to them.
I don’t know what crazy geniuses decided to do a Disney talking animals movie as a neo-noir about busting gender conventions and exposing the racial overtones of the drug war but I am glad they did. Zootopia is top to bottom a surprise, one of those “movies for kids” that really does have something to offer almost anyone. Yeah it’s got cute talking animals, but it’s also got ridiculously detailed and rich world-building. Yeah it’s got obvious jokes like DMV sloths, but it’s also got a direct (if occasionally confusing) addressing of real-world social problems. Disney is notorious for playing it safe generally while pushing incrementally forward for representation and progressive values in our entertainment and while this is a talking animals movie, it uses those animals to talk about race, class, and social justice. It weaves easily accessible themes like not judging people by appearances with deeper commentary on how that judgment leads to prejudice and abuse. This is how you make something entertaining, fun, slightly ridiculous, and yet deeply meaningful.
Speaking of entertaining, fun, really fucking ridiculous, and yet deeply meaningful… if you would have told me last January that I’d be putting Deadpool on my Top 15 for 2016 I would have scoffed. And yet! Deadpool isn’t just an irreverent and super funny movie (one of the funniest of the year honestly), it’s also got tons to say about using humor to support others and heal through trauma. There’s thematic richness in this movie, and a more believable love story than all the MCU movies stacked on top of each other. With the inspired inclusion of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, it’s also a better X-verse ensemble movie than any one of the X-Men movies. I think Deadpool surprised a lot of people, not least of all Fox who need to just get out of the fucking way of any future sequels.
11. Everybody Wants Some!!
At first glance, this would seem like just a shaggy hangout movie from the master of shaggy hangout movies. This time it’s about manly pursuits like baseball, sideburns, beer, and big mustaches! But it’s also a gentle look at the problems with masculinity, with hyper-competition and running around being aggro all the time. More than that, it’s about insecurity and learning to live with insecurity. It’s not exactly a feminist perspective on masculinity, but it’s definitely honest about what men do to each other and how our hierarchies and preying on each others’ vulnerabilities help to prop up the toxic expectations and behaviors we so often go through life with. At the same time, this is a movie that is oozing with kindness and affection for pretty much all its characters. The one exception is Jay, a ridiculous cartoon of a man that will nonetheless remind just about everyone of men they know or have known. It is not particularly critical, instead focusing on male friendships that can form in spite of the roadblocks we put up to safeguard our vulnerabilities in a world we’ve been taught to believe doesn’t give a shit about them. I think that’s a really valuable message for men, especially after the many, many eruptions of blatant misogyny in popular culture this year.
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Like The Force Awakens, Rogue One is a flawed attempt to continue the rehabilitation of the Star Wars franchise. However, what it does have for flaws (too many cameos, Tarkin CG zombie, undermining its own villain all the time) is more than made up for by its gorgeous aesthetics (on that level, it’s a masterpiece — easily the most cinematic Star Wars movie), cohesive plot, subtle characterizations, and bold choices when presenting a grimmer, more grounded dimension of the Star Wars universe. Though this movie was heavily re-edited, it is a grand counter-example to the usual outcome of that process. Instead of being a stitched-together mess, Rogue One manages to do what The Force Awakens could not: be a story that doesn’t rely on contrivance and coincidence to propel itself. It also widely expands the location palette of Star Wars. Its story, being a prequel and ending with a foregone conclusion, may not feel vital or necessary in the grand scheme of things but I would argue that it’s more important that the story works and it does, which really surprised me. It also takes a huge step forward in representation. The only visibly white hero is a woman, while the others make up a tapestry of globally representative faces, voices, and talents.
9. Captain America: Civil War
Civil War embarrasses all other ensemble superhero movies before it (and some after it) while also presenting a sort of blueprint for how these movies can and should be done. Somehow, in a runtime just over two hours, the Russo brothers and their team found a way to include more characters than I could name off the top of my head and give almost all of them arcs and ways to contribute to the story and themes. I remember writing that I wish Warcraft had been delayed a year so that they could steal some ideas from how Civil War juggled two opposing sides that an audience is asked to (and would naturally) feel sympathy for. There’s a lot of fan-service in Civil War but the MCU masterminds have managed to show why that’s not a bad thing in itself. We go to superhero movies to see larger than life characters doing larger than life things, and we revel in thirty minutes of rule-of-cool for perfectly valid reasons. But if the fan-service is delivered cynically, to sell tickets maybe, and without any real affection for the proceedings or meaning baked into them by a solid story with stuff on its mind, then it becomes something cheaper and something wrapped up in moments that rely on iconography. It becomes Suicide Squad. This movie is the anti-Suicide Squad, y’all. Even if you can’t get excited about Marvel’s characters, I think it’s impossible to deny that they care about their stories and they care about their audiences.
8. The Invitation
Karyn Kusama rocked my socks with Jennifer’s Body and here she’s back again with something very different to offer. A lavish, beautiful movie about the crossroads of grief, paranoia, and true madness, The Invitation is getting tons of attention and deserves all of it. If you’re in Canada and haven’t watched it yet, you need to log in to your Netflix right away and fix that. I classify this as a horror movie, but it’s firmly in the psychological horror category. It is notable how restrained it is right up until the climax unspools all the rich, textured characterization the film spends two thirds of its time setting up. Logan Marshall-Green is a revelation here, delivering a performance that is going to be talked about for years and will hopefully open up more doors for him after Prometheus probably slammed them in his face four years ago. Kusama is a great already, and I think The Invitation is going to mean we see a lot more from her in the foreseeable future. Notice I segued to talking about the lead actor and the director there? Well that’s because I can’t say a whole lot more about the movie without giving stuff away. You gotta see it. Even if you typically don’t like horror movies.
7. Pete’s Dragon
Disney had a good year. I think they are responsible for half the movies on this list. They’re just a powerhouse these days, making amazing movies that consistently manage to bridge the divide between commerce and culture. Pete’s Dragon really surprised me, especially after I watched David Lowery’s previous movie and realized that this would be a little like hiring Terrence Malick or John Nichols to remake Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Probably the biggest thing that Lowery brings to the table, what really makes this one different from what it could have been, or what other similar movies largely are, is his mastery of tone. Pete’s Dragon is always on point with its tone, if not always with other elements. The musical choices, the restraint (as opposed to broadness) in every scene, seem meticulously thought through to maintain an honesty that belies the fantasy. It was maybe the first movie I saw this year where I really responded to the central element I talked about above in the preamble (but is echoed throughout this list). The power of being true to yourself is a big part of Pete’s Dragon, of which I wrote “Imagination and the courage to be you are also key themes.” I saw that again and again in the films of 2016.
6. The Handmaiden
It might be stretching the definition of horror too much (for some) to include The Handmaiden in that category… but c’mon, this is a Park Chan-Wook movie. His movies, and South Korean cinema in general, are rife with tonal shifts and genre experimentation (it’s also a heist movie, a gothic romance, and a feminist superhero movie). The Handmaiden is no different and while its genre interests aren’t always in horror, I think horror is seldom very far from its mind. Here it’s the horror of a life completely controlled by the sexual objectification rituals of men. This film is like the carefully constructed costumes Hideko wears: each layer reveals something new, usually some new and deeper bondage. As the film plays with your expectations and its own narrative to eventually reveal an uplifting and powerful tale of reclaimed female sexual identity, you seldom know exactly where you’re being taken but you’re always on the hook. Both Hideko and Okju hide who they really are, from everyone but each other, and a big part of the fun is seeing how their initial attraction morphs from manipulation to something much deeper.
5. The Neon Demon
I’ve been excited to see this movie pop up on a lot of best of the year lists. I really thought I was going to be an outlier on this. Like many of Winding Refn’s weird oeuvre, The Neon Demon has grown on me since I saw it. Like The Handmaiden it deals with the objectification rituals that characterize the lived experience of our concepts of “beauty”. However, unlike The Handmaiden, The Neon Demon is more interested in this as a story of how this experience plays out when it’s mostly women participating in it. Like Everybody Wants Some!! it is almost wholly invested in the experiences of its subject gender… just way less nice about it. In this film, Nicholas Winding Refn is all about the amorphous psycho-sexual poltergeists that live just below the surface of our waking minds, making The Neon Demon something of a throwback acid-trip horror movie. And it is a horror movie. I would bet that it’s easily the most horrific movie on my list, lacking humanizing elements that make horror movies full of people to root for and evils to overcome. Instead, The Neon Demon leaves you with nothing good, not even the realizations it might force you to confront about yourself and others. I think this is a movie that laughs at the notion that there’s a net positive power in truth. Here, the truth is every bit as much the enemy as artifice. It’d be interesting to watch this movie alongside The Fits, which might be the anti-The Neon Demon. What does it say about me that I liked The Neon Demon so much more?
One of the things that struck me about Moana is that its formal storytelling structure is perfect. Even Disney regularly stumble on this, mostly as they try and meet the demands of four quadrant appeal while also keeping the story true to character and coherent. Much as I loved Frozen, it has chunks that don’t work. Everything in Moana works. From its classical quest narrative structure to its thematic thrust (all about the connection between self-discovery and the courage to get shit done). At a robust two hours, Moana takes its time living in its world and making sure that both Moana and Maui are full, vibrant characters. It might seem counter-intuitive that such a long movie (for this type) only really has two major characters, but it also showcases the things that make stories good, and the best part is that it uses the same structure as the traditional stories of cultures like Moana’s, and very much like the First Nations peoples of Canada and elsewhere. There’s a revitalization of indigeniety in North America and I feel like Moana strongly speaks to that.
3. Green Room
Ugh. This movie still gets under my skin. It might be one of the few Top 15 movies I never watch again. Oh who am I kidding, I’ll definitely watch this again… just to see if I still react the same way to its unabashed meanness. I watched it way before Trump won the election and the alt-right got ready to take over America. Green Room really effectively speaks to the tension between well-meaning white folks and scary, organized, hateful white folks which even the FBI says are the greatest domestic terror threat in North America. Between what’s happening in the real world, this movie, and Imperium, Neo-Nazis seem a very credible threat all around. But that said, this is an almost defiantly apolitical movie, I think. Though well-intentioned, the good guys are punks and anarchists who live in a van. They are hardly the establishment left. They may, though, be what is now called the scumbag left. If Jeremy Saulnier (please also see Blue Ruin) has social commentary on his mind, maybe that’s where he was coming from. I kind of think it’s a happy accident though, making this movie culturally relevant while also being just an amazing throwback siege movie with a clinical, nasty attention to detail and horror in its violence. Again, some would say Green Room is not a horror movie. That is bananas.
2. The Witch
This movie came out of nowhere and is just brilliant. I’ve seen it more times than anything else on this list. Even more than Civil War and each time it is simply mesmerizing. Every element of it is precise and effective, though its verisimilitude is precisely what throws some people off. People were maybe hoping it would be more overtly scary but I challenge you to find a more oppressive, elementally horrifying film than The Witch. Maybe I personally respond to that existential, cosmic sense of smallness in some horror stories more than others, though. It’s definitely oozing out of every pore in this film. However, unlike The Neon Demon, it does have a dimension of overcoming something… just doesn’t play out like you’d expect. Like the ladies in The Handmaiden, Thomasin is also oppressed and caged by the beliefs and preferences of others. Like those ladies, Thomasin defies and escapes. The major difference is that she may be giving in to real evil by doing so, but part of the magic of this movie is the way you are seduced right alongside Thomasin, confronted with the appeal of “living deliciously” when the alternative is utterly bleak. Maybe Black Phillip isn’t so bad.
1. Kubo and the Two Strings
What can I say? At the end of the day I’d rather pick my way through Moria with the Fellowship or ignite a lightsaber than examine my existential dread. I’m an escapist and Kubo and the Two Strings was the best escapism on offer in theaters this year. It is very similar to Moana but even more aesthetically rich. It has the brilliant quest narrative that reaches the same redemptive conclusion as Moana‘s does. They would be amazing companion pieces, but it’s Kubo‘s handling of existential dread alongside its adventure story that pulls it ahead. I guess I can have my cake and eat it too. I lied when I said I’m an escapist, or at least I’m not just an escapist. I’m also an existentialist and Kubo delivers a lot by confronting nihilism with narrative, which I think is one of the most important tools humans have for dealing with the more horrific parts of being alive in the universe as we know it. One of the best tools a narrative has to do that job is to slow down and breathe with its characters and themes, letting audiences inhabit the world and connect to it in ways that many contemporary films forget to do. Like most of the other movies on this list, Kubo has to embrace his true self to be a hero and that self is a challenge to the usual conventions of masculine (violent) heroism. That’s the key word, really, “challenge”. Kubo and the Two Strings is my favorite film of 2016 above all because it’s challenging. Which isn’t to say there aren’t other challenging films on this list, or that Kubo is even the most challenging (it’s not). It’s just that element in conjunction with everything else is what makes this movie pure magic.
Arrival * (this movie probably should be on the above list, however I was half-cut when I saw it and I have read the story, to which it is very similar. I am eager to rewatch it soon)
Gods of Egypt
Hell or High Water
10 Cloverfield Lane
I Am Not a Serial Killer
La La Land
The Jungle Book
In a Valley of Violence
The Edge of Seventeen
Knight of Cups
The Birth of a Nation
Manchester By the Sea
A Monster Calls
Train to Busran
Boom. I got 2016 done and I only reviewed like four movies on this list. That is actually bad for me because the distance of months between viewings makes reviews valuable as ways of gauging my initial (usually very positive) reaction to a movie and how I feel days or weeks later. Oh well. I’ll get more in next year! I thought I was maybe done with this blog, but going through these year end lists has been really fun so I guess I’ve still got a film critic in here somewhere.