Earlier this week I realized that I had completely forgotten the Oscars were airing this Sunday. 10 years ago, such a lapse would have been unforgiveable on my part. That silly awards ceremony used to be my Super Bowl. These days however, I find myself caring less and less about who or what takes home a gold statue. The Oscar season has become as cynical (or perhaps it always was) as the summer movie season. The only difference is that summer blockbusters are occasionally fun. Every year, we get hit with a dirge of depressing or ‘important’ dramas and self-indulgent throw backs to the golden age of Hollywood that Academy members inhale like junkies in need of a fix. Some of these films are fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Manchester by the Sea but there’s not much particularly memorable about it either. Ditto La La Land, a film I despised as I walked out of the theater but have since softened on. It’s a harmless, empty bit of fluff and nothing to get riled up about. I think what angered me so much upon my first viewing was how many professional critics were hailing it as a masterpiece. When did they all drink the Oscar Kool Aid? We know the Academy has short term memory loss and it’s all but impossible to ask them to remember a film that came out as far back as, God forbid, September but critics are supposed to hold themselves to a higher standard. They’re supposed to champion the smaller films, the more interesting, daring films, and condemn the Academy for not recognizing them. Simply put, critics aren’t doing their job.
That’s not to say I’m any better. I admittedly have a bias when it comes to horror films so I seek out more of those than any other kind (which is probably why I have four of them on this list) but I also don’t have access to hundreds of screeners or get invited to free press screenings. Mainstream critics do. And rather than dismiss films because they don’t think they’re going to take home any gold statues, they should be championing them. Alas, that is not to be. Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into an Oscar rant. When I realized the ceremony was this weekend, I decided to put together my list of the best films of 2016 in order to offer some different choices for those of you struggling to catch all the nominees before Sunday. I did not see a lot of the films nominated this year or even as many as I normally do in a given year so the films below are merely the best films that I saw in 2016. If there’s something on the list you feel is missing, please let me know! I also included the absolute worst film I saw in 2016. I was going to make a separate post on that subject but the movie I’ve chosen is so stunningly awful it makes every other bad movie look good by comparison. Which film is it you ask? Read the whole list to find out!
10. Swiss Army Man
Yep, the ‘Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse’ movie made the cut. I’m always going to find a premise like that far more interesting than ‘Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance and jazz and stuff’. Granted, there’s nothing profound or deeply moving going on in Swiss Army Man but it has a delightfully bizarre sense of energy and its maniacally gleeful desire to replace mumble core dialogue with dick and fart jokes is both subversive and hilarious. The conversation between Paul Dano and Radcliffe about how they’re such good friends that they want all of their own ‘shit to be mixed together’ is both weirdly endearing and a blistering piss take on indie comedies where characters are meant to be making deep comments about life but do so with all the subtly and brains of a six year old. Then there are the corpse gags, which illicit responses such as befuddlement, incredulity, hilarity, and sometimes just plain awe. You may not know what the hell you’re watching and you may find the whole affair to be utterly stupid, but Swiss Army Man is a film you will never forget. That’s more than can be said for most Oscar contenders.
9. Under the Shadow
Easily described as ‘The Babadook in Iran’, Under the Shadow shares many of the same plot points as the aforementioned greatest horror film of the last twenty years. Our main character is a woman stuck at home with a child she does not quite understand, external horrors are as terrifying and threatening as internal horrors, there’s a pervading question as to whether or not the events of the film are taking place entirely in the main character’s mind, and the creature that may or may not be haunting the mother and daughter is barely ever glimpsed in its entirety. And guess what? What worked for The Babadook works pretty damn well here too. This is thanks largely to the two great performances by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi as the mother and daughter, respectively. Their interactions ring true and seethe with the resentment that must be present between two people trapped somewhere they don’t want to be. A level of depth is added by the patronizing way Narges is treated by her husband. His insistence that she stay home where it’s ‘safe’ while dismissing her own life goals and concerns works both as an excuse as to why she can’t leave and as cutting cultural commentary. The same goes for the Djinn that invades the quiet home. Writer-director Babak Anvari acknowledges the creature’s mythology while hinting that it has always been the product of a nation torn apart by violence and fear. Even with those interesting undercurrents though, Under the Shadow works so well because it never lets anything get in the way of its central goal: to scare the piss out of you.
8. Nocturnal Animals
I feel like I’m going to take a lot of hits on this one. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has polarized both critics and audiences and it’s easy to see why. The film is lurid, stupid, creepy, melodramatic, heavy-handed, and concludes with a moment that makes you wonder, “is that all there is?” Thing is, the answer is yes; that is all there is and that’s the point. I realize how pretentious that sounds but see the movie and I think you’ll get what I’m talking about. Moment to moment, scene by scene, Nocturnal Animals is nothing less than fascinating. Does it matter if Ford and his production team sometimes hit you over the head with the film’s themes so hard you feel like you have a concussion? When a piece of art is this entertaining, I’d argue no. Then there comes the question of intent. Are they deliberately beating us over the head or do they simply not understand subtly? Once again, I don’t think the answer matters when they’ve crafted something you can’t take your eyes off of. Ford, a fashion designer, knows how to make pretty things and Nocturnal Animals is always gloriously composed and visually sumptuous. Those things wouldn’t matter though if the story wasn’t engaging and the characters weren’t compelling but they are. Amy Adams creates a palpable sense of malaise, Michael Shannon chews up every scene he’s in, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is terrifying, and Jake Gyllenhaal builds up a genuine sense of pathos. All of this in service of a violent, trashy story-within-a-story that you assume will tie into the overall narrative in a profoundly meaningful way but never does. Individual sequences are riveting and filled with such tension you can hardly breathe but the question of what they’re supposed to add up to is never answered. Or perhaps it is. Perhaps we, as audiences, are trained to expect grand pronouncements and profound conclusions so often that it’s hard for us to see the forest for the trees on this one. Nocturnal Animals somehow manages to be both absurdly simple and deceptively complex and even if you hate it, I don’t think it can be denied as an example of pure, kinetic filmmaking.
The second Amy Adams movie to appear on this list (lady knows how to pick em), Dennis Villenue’s Arrival is his best film by a long shot and an example of the kind of intellectual sci-fi story Hollywood used to thrive on that is mostly reduced to the VOD market these days. I’ve grown weary of big budget space movies like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian that value spectacle over ideas so Arrival felt like breath of fresh air. And it still managed to wow me with its visuals far more than anything Christopher Nolan pulled off in Interstellar. This is because the special effects and dazzling sequences are always in service of the narrative, not the other way around. The emotional beats ring true, the film’s twist is well-earned, and the overall message that language and communication are the most important things in the world is touching and relevant. The only reason I don’t have more to say is that far brighter people than me have already said them.
6. Green Room
If a deaf person ever asked you to describe what punk rock sounds like, it might be a good idea to show them Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. Like the best punk rock, the film is aggressive, clipped, exciting, and ferociously funny. It’s also a sad reminder of what a great actor we lost in Anton Yelchin. He’s terrific as the woefully unprepared de-facto leader of a punk band trapped in a room after witnessing a murder at a dive bar run by Neo Nazis. The film combines the tension of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 with a modern sensibility and subversive edge. Like the main character in Saulnier’s previous (and slightly better) film, Blue Ruin, these band members are hardly action heroes. But then again, neither are the supposedly deadly Neo Nazis who have our heroes trapped. What we have here is two groups of people who know that one wrong move will get everyone killed. And so they posture and stall and plan as the tension builds to nail biting levels. The violence is grotesque but not gratuitous and the action is grounded in the reality of the characters. And make no mistake, every character feels like a real person no matter how reprehensible they are, which serves to significantly raise the stakes of every action scene due to the fact that anyone could win. Yes, Patrick Stewart is chilling as the leader of the Nazis, but he is just a man with a deep voice. As Yelchin’s character says to him late in the film, “You were so scary at night.”
5. The Witch
No film debut has any right to be this accomplished. It feels as if writer-director Robert Eggers has been making horror films for the past twenty years. The Witch is one of those horror movies that builds dread from the very first frame, making you feel as unsafe as the doomed characters you’re invested in. He lets us know very early on that something is stalking the exiled puritan family, which only increases the sense of dread rather than diminishes it. We know something is after them, it’s just a question of when it’s going to arrive. And like most great horror directors, Eggers understands that what we don’t see is always far more scarier than what we do see. Even so, he still manages to put together some of the most striking images in recent memory. His antiquated dialogue and the conviction his actors put behind it allows for the film to truly feel like a lost New England folk tale. There’s a sense that we’ve heard this tale before, that it exists deep in our bones and cannot be avoided. The conclusion hammers this point home with a final shot that is at once triumphant and terrifying.
4. Midnight Special
The boy has powers. His father wants to protect him. The government wants to study him. The cult that used to worship him wants him back. Those four little pieces of information are all we are provided with at the beginning of Jeff Nichol’s masterful Midnight Special. This is not a film interested in exposition but in momentum. We learn more about Michael Shannon’s love for his son by the way he picks him up than by anything he says to him. We learn more about Adam Driver’s shady government character through the way he looks at a map than through the questions he asks the people he’s interrogating. And we learn more about the boy through the way he points his finger than through the way he tries to explain his powers. Obviously influenced by 80’s staples like E.T. and Starman, Midnight Special is not a homage but rather a stripped down version of such films. It cuts away all the fat and leaves only the essentials. This allows us to travel along those dark highway roads right along with the characters and get swept away by the same sense of glorious wonder that pervades the last half hour of the film. It’s so rare for a film to have a genuine sense of awe these days. Midnight Special has that awe and then some. It’s one of the very few films I’ve ever seen that I could easily describe as ‘magical’.
3. The Wailing
South Korea consistently churns out great film after great film (granted, maybe only the good ones make it over here) and 2016 was no exception. In a year where The Witch was released, I didn’t think another horror film would surpass it but The Wailing proved me wrong. What starts out as a simple murder mystery gradually transforms into a grand-guignol waking nightmare complete with elements of screwball comedy and a searing examination of racism. Our main character is a buffoonish local cop tasked with solving a series of bizarre murders in his otherwise peaceful town. Understand, when I say ‘buffoonish’, I really mean it. He’s more likely to scream and fall on his ass at a murder scene that he is to look for evidence. This gives his early scenes a sense of playfulness that mask the horrors to come. He quickly discovers a Japanese outsider living on the edge of the woods and he and the locals are all too eager to blame their problems on this interloper. Some have even seen him grow devil horns. What separates The Wailing from having a trite message like, “racism is bad” is the way it puts every character’s prejudices on trial. Our buffoon of a hero eventually receives help from a powerful Shaman who manages to challenge everyone’s beliefs even as he demonstrates his own stereotypes. And as for the mysterious Japanese interloper? He’s as bigoted as everyone else and may be using the negative way people view him to his advantage. The Wailing looks at how people’s prejudices are shaped and formed throughout their life and is wise enough to realize there are no easy ways for those beliefs to be shaken. Don’t get me wrong though. This isn’t Crash as a horror film. It is first and foremost an epic tale of dread and a searing reminder that it’s all too easy for purely evil things to find their way into your life. All you have to do is let them in.
I didn’t think much of the trailers for Zootopia. It looked like the kind of lazy animated feature that Dreamworks puts out. I assumed it would be a blight on Disney’s pretty good track record of late, which includes Wreck-It Ralph¸Frozen, and Big Hero 6. To my utter surprise and delight, I found Zootopia to not only be the best of Disney’s recent crop of offerings but far better than even some of the best Pixar films. In fact, I think it’s one of the best animated films of all time. First of all, the world building here is insane. The titular city is one of the most intricately designed and fun settings in any movie, animated or otherwise. I’m sure there were a ton of animators working on it but it has a sense of cohesion that suggests it came from a single mind. That’s a tremendous feat in and of itself. Beyond that, the characters and story work on a level that is both pleasing for kids and stimulating to adults. Another big feat these days. Cuz come on, let’s be honest folks, doesn’t it sometimes feel like the Pixar movies leave the kids behind? And beyond that, the film is hilarious. Sloths working at the DMV is the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the lemming bankers, the wolf guards who cannot help their howling, and the naturalist commune. And beyond even that, this is another 2016 film that takes a good long hard look at racism. You can call me crazy for saying that Zootopia has more in common with The Wailing than The Secret Life of Pets but there it is. As in The Wailing, Zootopia looks at prejudice from all sides and lets no one off the hook easily. I’ve heard a few critics deride the film as ‘Racism 101 for kids’ and I think they’re missing the point. An animated film that deals with prejudice in an intelligent way that kids can understand is something to be celebrated. Also, this is hardly ‘Racism 101’. It has the courage to point the finger at everyone in order to make each individual viewer examine their own beliefs. That’s great. And even beyond even that, this is a buddy cop movie about a bunny and a fox. What the hell is there not to love?
1. The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is everything. EVERYTHING. A glorious melodrama, a sensual and moving romance, a hilarious human comedy, a delicious mystery, a disturbing body horror film, and a beautiful example of visual storytelling. It runs nearly two and a half hours but feels like it’s over in five minutes. And there is layer after wonderful layer of plot to uncover. At the start, we’re introduced to Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), a young woman hired to be a handmaiden to the wealthy heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The lady lives in a large mansion with her reclusive uncle and doesn’t appear to know much about the world. Unbeknownst to her, Sook-Hee is actually part of a plot to defraud her. Don’t worry, that’s hardly a spoiler. This movie’s secrets have secrets. Chan-wook has always been a dynamic filmmaker but he outdoes himself here. His camera moves through the mansion in grand sweeping gestures that do nothing to belittle the crucial character work on display. And character work is the true name of the game here. All the glorious visuals and terrific twists wouldn’t amount to anything if we were not deeply invested in Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko. Both have their own hidden agendas and past traumas they’re trying to escape from and we can easily connect with both of them. It helps that neither performer hits a false note and that Chan-wook is far more interested in them and how they interact than in anything else onscreen. This is the kind of epic, character based period film that we are in severe lack of over here. The Handmaiden vibrates with life at every frame. It entertains, it enchants, it dazzles, it makes us wonder, it makes us laugh, it makes us care, and thus it serves as a beautiful reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place.
THE ABSOLUTE FUCKING WORST
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a dumpster fire. That term gets tossed around far too often these days but I believe it applies quite literally to this turgid waste of celluloid. The fact that several critics have named it one of the best films of the year is profoundly disturbing. Even if you appreciate its trash elements, even if you indulge in its juvenile need to shock you, even if you are a fan of its influences (mostly 80’s giallo flicks), and even if you love its color palette, I find it near impossible to believe that anyone who sat through this turd wasn’t BORED TO FUCKING TEARS BY IT. Strip away the longing looks characters give each other and the endless amount of screen time devoted to people walking into rooms and looking around and you’d only have a half hour of film left. There is NOTHING of substance here and the terrific visual aesthetic only serves to highlight how utterly empty the film is. Now, I don’t need every movie to have depth. I like my trash as much as the next guy but this is boring, stupid trash dressed up as an arthouse horror film and it’s even more painful to sit through than that sounds. Ever since Drive, Refn has been doing nothing but caving in to his worst indulgences. Even if his intention was to piss off audiences, Neon Demon would still be a failure because by the last twenty minutes, I was too bored and sleepy to be angry about anything. The whole thing is just a big fucking waste.
I watched Neon Demon and The Handmaiden back to back on the same day. Demon was first. Every ten minutes or so, I’d check the time stamp to see how long I had left. I’d assume twenty minutes had gone by, check the time, and then scream something along the lines of, “HOW THE FUCK HAVE ONLY FIVE MINUTES PASSED? I’VE BEEN WATCHING THIS FOREVER!!” It was agony. I checked the time stamp once on The Handmaiden and screamed this afterwards, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN THERE’S ONLY AN HOUR AND HALF LEFT?! THAT’S NOT FAIR! I WANT THIS TO GO ON FOREVER.” If that’s not proof that time is relative, then I don’t know what is.