The Top 10 Films Of 2016 (That I Saw)

10.) 10 Cloverfield Lane

There is a distinct possibility that 10 Cloverfield Lane could have been higher up on this list. It almost didn’t make the list, and that’s for the exact same reason: it’s a Cloverfield movie. If you don’t know what that means going in, or can entirely divorce it from your brain before watching, the last act will blow your socks off. However, if you already do know what Cloverfield is—which, to reiterate, if you don’t, keep it that way—it’s a bit of a buzzkill to know what could have been with the extra element of surprise.

That doesn’t change the fact that the interactions between a doomsday nut (John Goodman) and the two other occupants in his bunker are intensely compelling. Goodman himself delivers a frightfully austere performance, often making you question his character’s sanity and supposed altruism. Up-and-coming director Dan Trachtenberg also adds to this tension through some intelligent staging, resulting in an intimate claustrophobia that pervades the film. It’s up there with the likes of Misery. As such, 10 [redacted] Lane is still a wonderful surprise despite the studio’s regrettable attempt to force it into an existing franchise.

9.) Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek: Beyond demonstrates that the J.J. Abrams rebooted franchise is very comfortable in its own skin. It might be a bit too episodic for some, but let’s keep in mind that that’s actually a good thing. Movies should have a conclusive beginning, middle, and end, rather than be milked for all they’re worth (regardles of whether the galaxy is near or far, far away).

Beyond is full of campy humor, charming practical effects, and endearing characters that don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s optimistic escapism, which is refreshing given the current surplus of post-apocalyptic stories cluttering the landscape. That’s not to say that Beyond doesn’t also deliver on both the action and drama fronts. Kirk himself starts the movie in the midst of an existential crisis, and the crew of the U.S.S. Franklin are up against perhaps their most menacing foe yet. But, more importantly, it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes fun is enough.

8.) Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a modern Western about bank robbers. The hook is that the criminals just so happen to be stealing from banks that are also trying to screw them out of their land. Who are you rooting for? It’s not such an easy question to answer, especially when each character is a different shade of gray, but that’s what makes Hell or High Water such an exhilarating ride. It’s a somewhat warranted rebellion that pits crooks against thieves. Is one better than the other simply because they operate within the law?

If we’re purely using the Academy Awards as validation, perhaps there’s no bigger snub this year than Ben Foster not being nominated for his performance as Tanner, the younger, maniacal, sweet, dirt-bag, criminal brother. Both Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges turn in wonderful performances as well, but Hell or High Water is worth seeing for Foster’s unhinged performance alone, not to mention to see who ultimately comes out on top, and how that ultimately makes you feel.

7.) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

One of the problems with the Harry Potter movies was that they were adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s wonderfully written books. In that regard, they suffered because like most films, they were abridged versions of better material. Fantastic Beasts, does not suffer from this same issue as it was created by Rowling herself for the big screen. That makes this spin-off actually feel as dense and uniquely tailored as one of her books, and better than any Potter movie (empashis on “movie”).

But Fantastic Beasts, also excels because it’s just as lovingly created as its forerunner. The new characters are charming, the world, in and outside of Newt’s suitcase, is lush, and the story itself contains numerous twists and turns that are clever, vintage Rowling. You don’t have to be a Potterhead to enjoy this one, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t please the franchise’s hardcore audience either.

6.) Green Room

It’s hard to think of many movies more disturbing than Green Room. Visceral hatred oozes out of this film, so much so that it’s not an easy recommendation. That being said, if you’re not squeamish or put-off by scenes of gratuitous violence, it’s hard to top Green Room in terms of the suspense it offers.

The story focuses on a group of punk-rockers who get booked to play at what amounts to a Neo-Nazi bar. There they witness a murder, which subsequently makes them a risk to the bar’s owner, played by Patrick Stewart. What follows is an intense struggle for the band and a couple of other witnesses to find their way out of the green room where they’re trapped, before they are disposed of. Easier said than done when there’s a group of Neo-Nazis with guns, dogs, and knives standing between them and their freedom. It’s a roller-coaster of a film that does not hold anything back when it comes to its graphic nature, or the heinousness of its characters.

5.) Moonlight

There is a refined elegance to Barry Jenkins’ directing approach in Moonlight. For a film that is about masking vulnerabilities, confidence drips from every scene. Characters interact coyly, dancing around the questions they really want to ask, trying to conceal their true feelings. There are often long pauses, pervasive silences, and nothing other than timid looks exchanged between actors, yet you seem to know exactly what they’re thinking. It’s subtle and even mellow at times despite its heavy subject matter, and a perfect example of show-don’t-tell filmmaking.

Structurally, Moonlight shares a lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s a coming of age story separated into three parts that could just as well be labeled: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It depicts the struggle of a kid who somewhat unwittingly is coming to grips with his homosexuality in an environment even more unforgiving than most. It’s hard not to be empathetic to Chiron’s struggles over the course of his life, as he is ostracized and bullied without fully understanding why. But the challenges he faces make the honest moments in this story—whether it’s with a mentor, a friend, or his mother—quite poignant. It’s what makes Moonlight a deeply affecting film, worthy of all of its praise.

4.) The Lobster

The Lobster is weird. Let’s just get that out of the way. But its absurdity sort of drives home its point: that we do a lot of crazy things to be accepted by others. The film is broken up into three distinct acts. The first takes place in a hotel, where David (Colin Farrell) must find a mate, or else he’ll be turned into, you guessed it, a lobster. This odd premise leans heavily into the societal constructs we’ve built around love and acceptance. How we may assign negative qualities to people who simply differ from us.

The Lobster has fun pointing out how unnatural some of the institutions we’ve created are, but in the second act it takes a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. We see how those who reject love and acceptance similarly villify people who are in relationships. When David does eventually find someone he’s attracted to, this “Two Against the World” dynamic unfolds, where he and his partner aren’t accepted by either group. Still, external forces outside their relationship threaten them, forcing them into some unnatural behavior.

The Lobster is a fascinating deconstruction of relationships, both hilariously clinical and strangely romantic.

3.) Captain Fantastic

Another film that analyzes societal constructs, Captain Fantastic focuses on ideological extremes. On one side we have Ben, played exquisitely by Viggo Mortenson, who raises his children in the woods. His focus is teaching them self-reliance, whether that be through hunting, his rigorous home-schooling techniques, or socialist philosophy (happy Noam Chomsky Day). Ben answers to no one until his wife, Leslie, dies and he decides to take the children to her funeral, which is hosted by their very wealthy and staunchly opinionated grandparents. They are oil and vinegar, but what’s clear is that both want what’s best for Ben and Leslie’s children.

What follows is an iconoclastic journey to Leslie’s funeral, full of humor and wit. However, whether or not Ben has actually prepared his children to interact with the outside world remains the pervading question. His kids are undeniably smart and thoughtful, but are demonstrably different in a way that threatens “regular” people. Leslie’s parents also want custody, citing instances of child endangerment. While all of these issues themselves are engrossing enough, it’s what Captain Fantastic ultimately has to say about family and doing what’s best for the people you love that really drives its central themes home.

1.a.) Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most visually stunning films of the year. You can see the craftsmanship behind each set, each intricately detailed character, each sweeping shot. The stop-motion animation gives it a distinct edge when compared with the cleaner aesthetics of other computer-animated films (Zootopia, Finding Dory, Moana). Pair this with superb voice acting—particularly Charlize Theron— and a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli, and Kubo is easily one of the most engrossing animated releases in years.

But what truly sets Kubo apart from the pack is its story, which is reminiscent of Japanese folklore. Filled with moral relevance and self-evident truths, Kubo’s narrative is likely to resonate with audiences both young and old. It encompasses themes of memory, love, loss, and forgiveness while still managing to provide ample amounts of humor along the way. Perhaps Kubo’s greatest success is how it illustrates the importance of sharing stories, no matter who you are. A beautiful film in the fullest sense of the word. Demoralizing yet uplifting, melancholy yet exhilarating, frightening yet joyous, truly, few films are as complete as Kubo and the Two Strings.

1.b.) Arrival

Arrival is more than an alien-invasion movie. While it will undoubtedly satisfy those seeking the awe and suspense found in similar extraterrestrial films such as War of the Worlds and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the story has a depth more akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It will surprise you with its prescience. At a time in our history when we are facing relatively sharp divides, Arrival demonstrates how language can either amplify misunderstandings or possibly unite us all. And it does so by breaking down our ability to communicate, forcing the entire world to sink or swim by either working together to make contact with our new visitors, or turn on each other.

There’s also an unexpected emotional weight to the film, which opens with a scene as devastating as the first five minutes of Pixar’s Up. Director Denis Villeneuve is careful not to let the deterministic elements of the story wash away the humanity at Arrival’s core. These larger than life events are all filtered through Dr. Louise Banks’s —played pitch-perfectly by Amy Adams—and feel all the more daunting because of her relative insignificance. Arrival is as smartly written as it is directed, and one of the rare examples of science fiction using spectacle to provide insight into something deeply personal, such as life and loss.

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