I’d just like to take this moment to thank you for checking out my blog! This is my first post and it was quite an undertaking! 2016 gifted us with some truly fantastic cinema and this post is an attempt to recognize some of the year’s finest. No honorable mentions here. All 30 films have been numbered after much deliberation on my part. Numbers 30-11 are just title/photo only and numbers 10-1 contain a title, photo, description and a small review. Enjoy and if you like leave a comment revealing your favorite films of 2016!
30. Shin Godzilla (Shin Gojira)
29. Hacksaw Ridge
28. Spirits’ Homecoming (Gwi-hyang)
26. The Neon Demon
25. The Nice Guys
24. The Innocents (Les innocentes)
23. Don’t Breathe
22. The Eyes of My Mother
21. La La Land
19. Right Now, Wrong Then (Jigeumeun-matgo-geuttaeneun-tteullida)
18. A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove)
16. Morris from America
15. The Dark Horse
14. Sing Street
13. The Edge of Seventeen
12. Green Room
11. Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Runtime: 101 Minutes
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Plot Summary: A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.
Best Scene: “Shit Just Got Real!”
2016 saw a bevy of terrific coming-of-age films released. Moonlight, The Edge of Seventeen, Sing Street, Morris from America and others made it clear that this genre, if done right, may never lose its poignancy. This notion is best exemplified by Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the year’s greatest coming-of-age tale. It could’ve easily descended into mediocrity had its two leads not been able to establish the father-son bond that bolsters the film. Thankfully, they were absolutely up to the task. While watching the film it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen Sam Neill in a lead role since Jurassic Park III released in 2001. Hunt for the Wilderpeople serves as a great reminder that Neill is an underappreciated, singular talent. The “cantankerous old man with a crusty exterior but warm interior” type is constantly in danger of becoming a tired trope but Neill and director/screenwriter Taika Waititi give Uncle Hec a degree of depth and relatability uncommon in such characters. Julian Dennison, a 14-year-old New Zealand native and promising newcomer, works wonderfully alongside Neill giving a performance indicative of the young actor’s maturity. Waititi had already established himself as a director who understands how to create effective comedy with the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Hunt for the Wilderpeople reflects that understanding but also shows his ability to craft moments of heartbreaking sincerity.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Runtime: 104 Minutes
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Plot Summary: After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.
Best Scene: The Trio Have Their First Dinner Together
Arguably the biggest surprise of 2016, 10 Cloverfield Lane had critics and moviegoers gripping their armrests in fear across the nation. Dan Trachtenberg’s stunning first feature is brimming with claustrophobic intensity on a level that hasn’t been seen since Buried. While Cloverfield was a monster film with a modicum of social commentary, this psychological thriller focuses on a monster far more menacing and unexpected (as the film’s poster tagline suggests, “Monsters come in many forms”). Originating from a spec script called The Cellar, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s final script was a version of the aforementioned screenplay rewritten by Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash. Watching the film leads one to wonder just how much influence Chazelle had on the final product. The rapid-fire style of dialogue found in Whiplash is effectively put to use in a number of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s scenes. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr., and John Goodman (in a career-best performance) work wonders with the material as they portray the three denizens of the underground bunker. Audiences entering the film expecting another giant monster and explicit connections to Cloverfield may leave disappointed but those who go in with an open mind can expect to be rewarded. I look forward to seeing what God Particle, the unofficial title for the next film in the Cloverfield series, has to offer when it’s released in October.
8. Nocturnal Animals
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Directed by: Tom Ford
Plot Summary: A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale.
Best Scene: The Ending
I sincerely hope Tom Ford is able to find a balance between working as a fashion designer and working as a film director. If Nocturnal Animals is any indication, this man is liable to go far. This intricately woven revenge tale is a standout in every respect. Ford had the unenviable task of juggling three narratives: flashbacks recounting Susan’s marriage to Edward, the story found in Edward’s manuscript, and Susan in the present. To Ford and the film editor’s credit, every narrative transition feels appropriate and gives the film a cohesive feel. At no point did it feel like one narrative was losing its connective tissue to the other two. For instance, when the events in the manuscript transpired on screen I tried to discern what Edward was attempting to communicate to Susan and if Susan’s interpretation would differ from his intent. All of this leads up to one of the year’s most subtle, devastating denouements. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal once again prove their acting prowess while supporting players Michael Shannon and Aaron-Taylor-Johnson (portraying one of the most virulent scumbags in recent memory) also deliver scene-stealing performances. For a neo-noir delight that fosters discussion and analysis, you needn’t look further.
7. The Wailing (Goksung)
Runtime: 156 Minutes
Directed by: Na Hong-jin
Plot Summary: The arrival of a mysterious stranger in a quiet rural village causes suspicion amongst the villagers – but as they begin killing each other for no apparent reason, that suspicion turns to panic. When the daughter of the investigating officer falls under the same savage spell, he calls in a shaman to assist in finding the culprit.
Best Scene: The Shaman’s Ritual
2016 proved to be a banner year for South Korea’s film industry. In a year with no shortage of great horror films, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing stands out for arguably being the genre’s most ambitious offering. With a staggering runtime of 156 minutes, I was initially worried that the film might fall prey to its own ambition and feel bloated. Thankfully, Na Hong-jin’s third directorial effort never falters and is consistently engaging from beginning to end. Part of what makes The Wailing such an idiosyncratic treat is how it manages to be a successful balancing act between different film genres. While primarily a horror film, The Wailing also contains elements characteristic of the mystery-thriller and slapstick comedy genres. Rarely do any of these elements feel out of place. The moments of levity that punctuate the first two hours of the film only strengthen the impact of its dire climax. Featuring superb performances and exemplary technical design, The Wailing is not to be missed.
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Runtime: 101 Minutes
Directed by: Travis Knight
Plot Summary: A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.
Best Scene: Kubo Takes Care of His Mother
The Secret Life of Pets’ Total Box Office Gross: $875,457,937
Kubo and the Two Strings’ Total Box Office Gross: $69,929,545
Ladies and gentleman, this is a problem. While The Secret Life of Pets is by no means a bad film it is the very definition of adequate. Kids will be entertained for 80 minutes and their folks will chuckle occasionally but it’s the type of animated feature that will be quickly forgotten. A shame then that The Secret Life of Pets becomes the sixth highest grossing film of the year while Kubo and the Two Strings, a sterling, imaginative effort, gets left in the dust. This film tackles the subject of loss but on a level accessible to both children and adults. Studio Laika never resorts to dumbing down the film’s content and treats young viewers with the respect they deserve. Characters die and do not return, an uncommon sight in today’s animated films that have the youth in mind. Kubo and the Two Strings is also a bona fide technical marvel. Laika’s films have always been renowned for their incredible stop-motion animation and Kubo and the Two Strings is no exception. If we want to see more animation unafraid to enter more mature territory then we need to do our part and support films like this. Please consider renting or buying Kubo and the Two Strings. And be sure to check out the special features if you buy the Blu-ray as they may give you an even deeper appreciation for the film.
5. Hell or High Water
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Plot Summary: Texas brothers–Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land.
Best Scene: Final Confrontation between Toby and Marcus
I tend to enter the theater with some trepidation whenever a new heist film is released. Hollywood has used the genre to such an extent that I have become somewhat apathetic whenever it’s presented. Fortunately, Hell or High Water eschews the glamorization commonly found in other bank robbery films and offers up a tale imbued with a deep sense of moral ambiguity. David Mackenzie and Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan do a masterful job at toying with your sympathies throughout the film’s proceedings. Hell or High Water mainly focuses on two pairs of characters: Toby and Tanner and the Texas Rangers hot on their trail, Marcus and Roberto. Each pair has a convincing rapport thanks to Sheridan’s writing and the cadre of wonderful actors involved. Chris Pine gives Toby a pensive quality that effectively contrasts with Ben Foster’s portrayal of his livewire, ex-con brother. When I first viewed the trailer I was initially worried Jeff Bridges’ rendition of Marcus might be a bit too similar to another grizzled, likeable officer of the law he played in True Grit. To his credit, Marcus is a wholly distinct character who doesn’t feel like he was formed from the vestiges of a past role. And Gil Birmingham (the poor soul who was forced at gunpoint to have a recurring role in the Twilight saga) shines as Alberto, a half-Mexican, half-Native American who has to put up with his partner’s casual racism. Hell or High Water is the best heist flick in years and is destined to become an American classic. Don’t pass this one up.
4. The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)
Runtime: 144 Minutes (Theatrical Version), 167 Minutes (Extended Version)
Directed by: Park Chan-Wook
Plot Summary: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.
Best Scene: The Escape
Continuing our discussion on South Korean films, one of the country’s great auteurs, Park Chan-Wook, delivered the Gone Girl of 2016 with his erotic, riveting adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith. What makes The Handmaiden such a rewarding experience is how, like Gone Girl, its twists feel earned. Considering the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Park Chan-Wook is not afraid to spend a significant amount of that time allowing audiences to observe characters and create expectations of these characters’ motives, only to have those expectations repeatedly nullified. The film’s technical qualities are especially praiseworthy. 1930’s Japan-occupied Korea is beautifully recreated through exquisite set/costume design and Chung Chung-hoon’s arresting cinematography. To say anything more about the plot other than what has already been provided in the summary would be an insult to the filmmakers. See The Handmaiden. It’s one hell of a ride.
This film went to U.S. theaters NR (Not Rated) but had it requested certification it would’ve undoubtedly received an NC-17 rating. It contains very explicit and occasionally aberrant sexual content. I recommend either watching it alone or with someone who you’re completely comfortable viewing that type of content with.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Plot Summary: An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
Best Scene: Final Moment between Lee & Randi
Manchester by the Sea is gut-wrenching. There simply isn’t a more apt word to describe it. An exploration of grief and loss deftly handled by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea possesses a quality all too rare in contemporary American cinema: a willingness to take its time. The first 10 to 15 minutes of the film focuses almost entirely on Lee’s day-to-day life as he interacts with clients and other locals, giving audiences new insights into his detached personality. Later scenes wouldn’t possess the same amount of dramatic heft had Lonergan chose to remove some of this material. Every moment feels vital when trying to understand this multilayered character brilliantly played by Casey Affleck. The supporting cast also delivers superb performances. Michelle Williams, in a small but crucial role, brought me to tears in a scene that I consider to be one of the most soulful moments in recent film history. The cinematography never calls attention to itself and allows the audience to maintain their focus on interactions between characters. Similarly, the original score is used sparingly but effectively. Lonergan clearly understands that with this type of screenplay everything needs to be in service to the characters. For any budding young filmmakers out there wanting to learn how to create a great character piece, let Manchester by the Sea be your roadmap.
2. The Witch
Runtime: 92 Minutes
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Plot Summary: A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
Best Scene: Caleb Confronts the Witch
A horror film that genuinely gets under your skin can sometimes feel like a priceless commodity these days. Audiences are routinely subjected to bargain bin releases like Annabelle, Ouija, The Bye Bye Man, Saw 29, and Paranormal Activity 35. It’s classics like these that make me question my existence and contemplate why I chose to attempt a career involving film criticism. But every once in a while we receive something destined to become a classic, something that will be remembered. The Witch is one such film. Devoid of cheap jump scares and hackneyed twists, Robert Eggers’ first feature is suffused with a sense of dread unrivaled by its contemporaries. This is not your average exorcism flick dumped into theaters every January. This is a sobering depiction of a Puritan family’s wrenching descent into distrust, hopelessness, and madness. It’s the kind of film that would rather use suggestion instead of hounding you with unnecessary gore. The attention to detail on display throughout the film is just extraordinary. Set designs are crafted with immense care and Eggers’ devotion to creating historically accurate dialogue lends the film an authentic feel. Of course, that dialogue could’ve easily been wasted on a lesser ensemble. But everyone, from industry veterans like Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie to the young child performers, bring their A game. This, ladies and gentleman, is how a directorial debut is done. He may not be a household name yet but if Robert Eggers continues to display this level of competency he may soon become one.
Runtime: 161 Minutes
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Plot Summary: Two priests travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor and propagate Catholicism.
Best Scene: The Deaths of the Three Martyrs
Faith is a concept that, judging by recent film history, can be difficult to meaningfully convey in narrative form. Living near Liberty University has rewarded me with the opportunity to witness the rise of cinema’s most contentious genre: faith-based films. These films are often ridiculed by critics and deservedly so. Saccharine writing, poor performances, shoddy technical design, and misguided messages plague the genre. Audience favorites like God’s Not Dead frequently come off as close-minded and offer little value to someone seeking an even-handed approach to faith. So imagine my elation upon learning that faith would be the subject of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. After months of unbridled anticipation, I finally got to see the film on January 14th. And what a film it was.
Silence is probably the closest I have come to having a religious experience in a theater. It shook me. Scorsese’s understanding of what it means to have a crisis of faith is unquestionable. Father Rodrigues and his fellow Christians’ trials felt so crushingly real, so heartbreakingly genuine, that I found myself in tears on several occasions. It made me reflect on the inherent power of martyrdom and the strength it takes to stay true to your beliefs even in the face of torture and eventual death.
Silence not only serves as a source of spiritual inspiration but also as a testament to Scorsese’s directorial growth. The passion he has for Shūsaku Endō’s novel can be felt throughout the adaptation. It’s rare to see a director have such a complete understanding of the importance of creating an effective atmosphere. The tensions between the hidden Christians and the shogunate were palpable. This is also due to the faultless technical design and striking performances. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver’s performances as Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe respectively are marvelous. And while he doesn’t have a large part Liam Neeson’s presence can be felt throughout the film as his mysterious character plays a key role in Rodrigues’ torment.
So there you have it. Silence is my favorite film of 2016. Sadly, audiences did not turn up in droves for its release. My screening played to a nearly empty theater. I implore you, see this film. Rent it or purchase it when it’s released on home video. It would be a shame for this one to get glossed over.