Friday, January 27, 2017

Top 15 Movies of 2016

15?? But last year, last year it was 50!!

I normally would make a top 25 (yeah, the top 50 was a huge mistake), and although the pool of movies to choose from are as good as they were last year and even better than the year before, I just don't feel the need to make a top 25 this time around. I want the entries on this list to feel a little more substantial. I might make a companion piece later, or just wait until I do some massive retrospectives (I have top 50s in the chamber whenever I feel like covering every year since I started writing reviews). Either way, I have decided to downsize my list.

As much as everyone likes complaining about 2016, I had a pretty good year. The popular music was pretty bad, there were a lot of celebritiy deaths (most of which were relative non-factors if you ask me), but the movies were solid and personal events in my life were pretty great. So whatever, people just love being overly dramatic. Anyway here is my list and I hope you all can find at least something on here new to watch and/or appreciate.

Swiss Army Man
Directed by Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwon

As previously mentioned in my favorite male performances of the year list, there's a great deal of entertainment that can be found in Radcliffe's performance alone. What I obviously didn't mention in that post (due to the very nature of a performance list) involved the visuals and surprising intelligence and tone of the movie. While the two leads are definitely what keep the movie together and their relationship and interactions are hilarious and heartfelt, it's the visuals and totally bizarre premise that leaves possibly the biggest mark for most viewers. To put it simply, imagine Cast Away only if Wilson was a farting corpse. If that doesn't intrigue you, you won't be able to enjoy this movie, but believe me when I say the way this is handled is much more intelligent and adult than you would expect.

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by The Coen Brothers

As a big fan of the Coen Brothers, it was hard for me to accept that this movie might not turn out very good. But when I watched the first trailers for this, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Obviously, I'm happy to report that this is one of the most entertaining movies they've made in recent years. As an ensemble comedy and Hollywood satire this movie works, but where it really shines is in the small execution of individual scenes and jokes. This entire movie is like watching a collection of ingenius intersecting scenes, capturing the essence of a multitude of different genres without ever feeling too broad or vague to work. When I think about this movie, a dozen different moments and sets come to mind, and it all comes together in a wonderful way.

Directed by Trey Edward Shults

Again referencing my top 10 performances lists (this time female), this is another movie with an incredible central performance made by a unique director with a great future. Supposedly shot in the director's parents' house, there is nothing about this movie that feels cheap or amateur, in spite of being a directorial debut starring largely amateur actors in roles name after themselves. There were few dramas this year that felt as competently structured, well-executed and genuinely compelling as this. The acting is fantastic, the writing is equally as genuine, the characters feel real and fleshed out, and every small detail that builds up to the devastating climax adds to the experience. And on a sidenote, don't go into this movie expecting a comedy, because it's not "funny".

Sing Street
Directed by John Carney

Coming of age movies are some of my despised, as I find the formula asinine and very rarely do I get absorbed in the stories at all. But nostalgia is a powerful force, and capturing the '80s in such a loving and borderline satirical way helped win me over. But it was the honesty and wonderful music that really sucked me in, with a handful of genuinely fantastic original songs that are performed with such heart and sincerity, it was impossible for me not to be affected. The performances are nothing to marvel at, but the characters are well-written and fully realized and it's impossible not to root for them. This movie makes me so happy it's almost depressing.

The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers

When it comes to modern horror movies, it's rare to find one that works so well as both an effective character drama and a genuinely terrifying experience. What helps make this movie even more remarkable is how mature it is in tackling difficult religious themes and ideas -- and all from a rookie filmmaker. The aesthetics of this movie are unlike any other horror movie you'll see, as Eggers puts insane attention to detail in the most appropriate ways, emphasizing the importance of gritty visuals in a film like this. This is a very lived in movie that puts story, characters, and setting first, with the horror aspects coming in afterwards but never feeling like an afterthought. It's creepy, detailed, rich, and everything a true horror fan could hope for.

Don't Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia

One of the funniest and most emotional movies of the year, Mike Birbiglia recreates what he did with Sleepwalk With Me, this time putting emphasis on the group dynamic of improv comedy instead of stand-up. And watching these characters interact and play off each other is so natural and hilarious, it carries the movie. But this isn't a movie that needs "carried" by its humor, as it can function entirely as a drama and often does so. The entire cast is terrific (Key and Jacobs especially stealing the show), their exchanges are funny and touching, and watching the slow, inevitable falling-outs and strains in their group is more realistic and natural than it could have been in less capable hands. It's a performer's movie made by a filmmaker who understands the subject very well.

Kubo And The Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight

Laika are a small film company who have only produced 4 movies now, and while I have a deep love for Coraline and enjoy Paranormal immensely, this might very well be the most complete, beautiful, and effective film they've created so far. Kubo is a great lead character, with fun sidekicks found in a talking monkey and a giant beetle warrior guy, and villains found in a pair of diabolical sisters and their father. This is a movie grounded in rich spirituality and a maturity level far beyond its intended audience. The conclusion, while a tad schmaltzy and quaint, is equally as tragic and challenging. The animation is astounding, and while the characters and story are generally simplistic, there is a charm and heart found in this movie that keeps you engaged.

Son Of Saul
Directed by Laszlo Nemes

Though most people would consider this a 2015 movie, I wasn't able to watch it until well into 2016, so I'm counting it. And as anyone might expect from one of the most acclaimed holocaust dramas of the 21st century, it is indeed really damn haunting. There aren't really any movies I can think of that look like this, with the main character's face taking up a large part of the screen for a majority of the movie. The film was shot with a very shallow depth (the focus was very tight and not broad at all), keeping mostly on Saul as he wanders through this hopeless setting. It's a dreary, depressing movie that never feels the need to hammer in that the holocaust was a bad thing and pull back to reveal the chaos everywhere. Instead it keeps the story tight and focused on one person, and that makes it every bit as terrifying.

Directed by Denzel Washington

When I first watch this movie, I was on the FENCE about it. Ah ha ha haaa! But seriously, I wasn't sure how much I liked it at first, as I found the over-written dialogue a little clunky at times and a few of the dramatic scenes didn't sink in quite as well as I expected. But over the past few weeks, it has really grown on me and I don't find myself focusing on or caring about those issues at all now. The acting, direction, set and costume design were all incredible, and the dialogue driven story had me totally sucked in. I almost instantly knew that I wanted to watch it again, not because I felt I missed anything, but because it was such a rich experience. I wish there were more movies like this, putting emphasis on character and dialogue and driven by incredible performances.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch makes movies that meander and often lack focus but come around to a central theme regardless of how long it takes to get there. Though it's not his tightest film ever, this minimalistic film about poetry and redundancy is somewhat more accessible than a majority of the movies he's made in the past, and this is largely due to the subdued but calmly emotive central performance by Adam Driver. Effortlessly funny and believably dramatic, this movie is structured much like a traditional poem but doesn't cram this down the audiences throat. In fact, nothing about this movie is particularly easy, but that doesn't make it alienating: just charmingly challenging and pleasant. This is a film that you live in and learn to care about through its mundanaties and quiet simplicity.

Directed by Barry Jenkins

One of the most effective character dramas of the decade, Moonlight tells the deeply emotional story of a sympathetic and believable character in three distinct chapters of his life. It's being hailed as a masterpiece by many, and due to its subject matter I naturally found myself entering the film a tad skeptical, but much like Brokeback Mountain this movie succeeds as a heartbreaking character examination regardless of the Oscar-bait it might have been, never feeling at all like the pandering and overly simplistic experience I dreaded it might be. It's an emotional film that grabs you early on and ends on a high note. The film is shot intimately with some lovely visuals, never afraid to present its characters in a gritty way. It's raw, emotional, and thoroughly satisfying in virtually every way.

Hell Or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie

A modern day western much in the vein of No Country For Old Men, this movie jettisons the "ultimate evil" villain in favor of fully fleshed out characters on opposite sides of the law, never once feeling the need to hammer in a message regarding the criminals as inherently bad. Though the film never comes across as particularly unconventional or experimental, the simplicity and down to earth nature of its story and characters create a tense and immersive atmosphere that's uncommon in most modern thrillers. It's casual and occasionally humorous, but never in a calculated way, and the pacing couldn't possibly be better. The performances are magnetic, even giving Chris Pine a role that he's able to make work. This movie feels real, alive, and never feels the need to dumb itself down and overplay its emotional moments.

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Coming off the boundless energy of The Wolf Of Wall Street, Scorsese returns to a far more subdued religious drama, this time tackling themes much more introspective than his films are usually known for. It doesn't take a religious person to appreciate the weight and emotional nuances required to execute a film of this dramatic heft, as it asks difficult questions regarding the rewards, uncertainties, sacrifices, and regrets of living a pious life in a world unforgiving of your ideals. Issey Ogata is unforgettable as the semi-comedic and darkly effective villain, and Garfield (in spite of his dodgy accent) offers his most dramatic performance ever as a priest who's forced to call into question the futility of his mission. It's a very difficult movie that leaves you in deep thought and moral contemplation, never offering easy answers or a joyful resolution. The only reason it isn't even higher on the list is due to a visibly rushed post-production that had a strange and choppy effect on the editing process. It's a small thing, though, and doesn't take much away from the experience -- if even at all.

The Wailing
Directed by Na Hong-jin

While The Witch is nearly flawless in execution and ultimately a scarier movie than this, The Wailing still stands to me as a superior film and the best horror movie of 2016 -- probably of the entire decade. Starting out as a crime drama and elevating to something far darker and more sinister than I ever imagined, this movie may feel its 150 minute length, but by the end you'll have totally forgotten how slow it felt at times as it all pays off so well. The last 20 minutes of this movie are heart-pounding and intently crafted to make the audience poop their pants in anticipation of the morbidly satisfying conclusion. This is a movie that builds off itself at every turn, expanding the plot, depth, and their ramifications until it explodes in a finale I could only describe as perfect. This is a visual masterpiece and one of the best South Korean movies I've ever seen.

Embrace Of The Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra

Here we have it, the best movie I saw all year. Though it (along with Son Of Saul) was considered a 2015 movie by some people and even the Oscars, I wasn't able to watch this movie until sometime in February of 2016. And honestly there was never a single point throughout the last 11 months of the year that I doubted this would wind up my #1 favorite. During the movie and leaving the theater, I was convinced I had just been transported back in time to an alternate dimension where Aguirre, Wrath of God had been written and directed by Ingmar Bergman or Luis Bunuel. This is an experience unlike any other film of the 21st century, filled with unforgettable imagery and powerful scenes that have left a strong imprint on my memory since I first saw it. To describe this movie as anything less than mesmerizing would be doing Ciro Guerra a great disservice. Karamakate is one of the great original film characters of the 21st century, played by two different actors who capture the essence of the character in two very distinct chapters of his life. This film is fairly slow but never even remotely dull, contemplative but never ham-handed in its approach to subjects like colonization and religion, seamless in its execution of two similar but entirely different stories at different points in time, and features some of the most incredible black and white cinematography of the past 50 years -- that is no exaggeration. I didn't want this movie to end; I was incredibly absorbed in the story, setting, characters, and the overarching themes. This isn't the most complex character drama ever created, but is an immersive and hypnotic experience that's thoroughly gripping without ever resorting to cheap action or unnecessary motion. It is flawless. I can't possibly heap on enough praise for this movie, and is easily my favorite of the entire year.

So there you have it. Wondering what other movies might also be among my favorites of the year? Well, too bad! I learned from my mistake last year when I made a ridiculous top 50 list, so downsizing this year was a necessary evil to retain my sanity. Thanks to everyone for reading this, and I hope you can find at least something on here to watch that you might appreciate as much as I did.

No comments: