Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Year In Movies: The Ten Best Films of the Year

It was a year of grand upheaval. It was a year where we lost too many legends in show business, in politics and other endeavors. It was a year where if you weren't careful, your cell phone might just explode in your hand. It was also a year where mainstream films fell secondary to the rich year of beautiful arthouse, independent and foreign films that masqueraded around the cinemas this year. I know many people who can't stand it when critics simply put art films on their end-of-the-year lists to look more cultured, more grounded. I would include myself in that category of people who reject that. However, it was clear when making my end-of-the-year lists this year that the movies that mattered to me most this year weren't the big budget films that broke box office records, they weren't the movies on the Oscar trail begging for your consideration. They were movies that made me feel alive again, rejuvenated my love of the medium, challenged me on the intellectual, personal, and mental levels. And the mainstream films that did make my list this year don't feel like regular studio entries, and I loved them more for that.

The movies that mattered to me most this year also felt original. Which was comforting given the time we are living in now. If you only saw the big summer releases and a couple of the theater films, then this probably looked like a abysmal year of horrid mediocrity. It was a year where four summer films had the exact same climax. It was a year where we got sequels we didn't ask for. It is a year that sourly reminded us that Hollywood has become a business, instead of a creative enterprise for entertainment. No chances are made on films anymore, and every studio just wants grab two or three brands, then their set for the next decade. The thing is, if you are building a massive tenpole franchises with other tentpole franchises, eventually it will fall like a stack of cards.

That is why a year like 2016 is important, it reminds us that the underdogs will sometimes have their day. That too much familiarity and less creativity will cause rejection. In a year of the biggest political debate I can personally remember, a rejection of the mainstream seems frightfully appropriate.

I am also happy to report that I saw around 160 new films this year, and I still enjoyed a lot of them. Due to the strong independent year, and some surprises around each corner, I had a list of films big enough that it was difficult to narrow down to just ten. I contemplated making a top ten independent list and a top ten mainstream list, I contemplated making a top twenty list. But after spending the last few days starring at a list of roughly 30-40 films I dug the living shit out of this year, that inner voice stepped in and I have a list of ten films that defined the year for me. I look at this list and it feels right, this where movies are at right now and its a where our world and our society and our culture is at right now.

10. Captain America: Civil War
In a year of grand political debates and people fearing for the future, I suppose its fitting we got a movie about Earth Mightiest Heroes breaking up over a sudden political wedge that burrowed itself between this team. As one of the most recent and most successful franchises to date, Anthony and Joe Russo were victorious in painting a portrait when long time alliances break, when friends lose hope in each other, and when we fall. Had the film just been a wild adaptation and correction of one of the most convoluted Marvel stories, then that would be something of praise. But "Civil War" goes much deeper than many other MCU films, about responsibility and accountability, making itself relevant to today, giving each character a moment to shine and progress their story, but still making it about Captain America's journey. Plus, the film just works as a massive action movie. The Captain America trilogy is now one of the finest trilogies in movie history, on a platform of its own.

9. The Witch
A horror movie that divided viewers right down the middle this year, some people loved it some people detested it. But that is when I think horror is at its most interesting. Let's face it, "The Shining," "Suspiria" and even "The Exorcist" divided audiences too and now they are considered classics. Sadly, we don't get many horror films these days that focus on atmosphere and mood over anything else. Which is why "The Witch" felt like a letdown to most. But as a fan of old-school horror, this movie was everything I've been hungry for as a horror fan for many years. A movie that doesn't hold back on its themes or characters, a movie that makes you feel uncomfortable, even gross while watching it. This is a film that challenges you at every sense, every moment and on every level and something that's been caught in my cowl ever since February.

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Had "Rogue One" just simply been a Star Wars film taking place before the Skywalker family, then that would have been cool for me. Perhaps not top ten of the year material though, so you have to understand just how hard "Rogue One" blindsided me. After Disney bought Lucasfilm, I had no idea how the future of this property would be handled and as Disney progressed with Marvel, I always thought Star Wars would be kid-friendly until the end. Not so fast suggests "Rogue One." I would never guessed this film would be as rough, dirty and cold-hearted as this film was. But I continually was shocked and surprised by the decisions made in the film. Moving outside the box on a decade old franchise is a risky move, especially when you're also trying to keep the spirit of that franchise alive. Gareth Edwards made it look effortless, and the results is a one of the best films of the franchise so far.

7. Sing Street
Anybody who has ever had a dream so magnificent that you had to share it with everyone and that you had to fight like a dog to achieve, should definitely see this movie. Taking place in the 1980's in the United Kingdom, at a time when music videos and MTV were making a huge splash and evolving the music scene. A young man finds his epiphany in life, he must start a rock band. But that gets tough with divorcing parents and going to school a stern Catholic school with few rules. But what the film does best is show us that rules are made to be broken if we are ever going to strive towards greatness. A young cast of incredible actors; including Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburkurka and Conor Hamilton all do incredible work here. And the music? Worth the money to buy this on blu-ray right now.

6. The Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Here's a movie that zigs every time you expect it to zag. That pretends to play by the rules of countless of films and tropes and norms, only to pull the carpet from under your feet at nearly every turn. There isn't a movie that came out this year or any other year I can think of that is in any way similar to this masterpiece. A movie filled with humor, adventure, drama, and beaming to the rim with originality. But the film's secret weapon is a performance by Sam Neill, easily the best of his entire career (which has been quite impressive, mind you) and the introduction of Julian Dennison who gives this film a real heart and soul as the lead. I love it when films introduce upcoming actors, and Dennison has a more than promising career ahead of him.

5. Arrival
The most optimistic alien invasion film ever made. But in a year where we got the biggest example of a cash grab in this same territory, something like "Arrival" is just what we needed. Part of the film's success was its deceiving marketing yes, but the film itself brings a new depth to this genre that it so rightfully needed. It features landmark performances by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Tzi Ma. It also shows us that no matter  how dark or horrifying the world becomes, we need each other. We need to not be afraid of each other. We need to let the past go. We need to come together, not just here in the United States but all over the world. The most aspiring message I have ever seen in a film about aliens and completely changes the potential we have come to expect from the genre, in the most elegant of ways.

4. Hell or High Water
A neo-noir Western that has more to say about the economy we are experiencing now than any movie that came out this year. Its almost like "The Big Short" but with a body count. Two brothers are robbing banks all over Texas and that gets the attention of a state detective brought in to bring them in. It feels like any old crime thriller at first, but it slowly turns into something much more. What works best is the believable dynamic between Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who play the two brothers seizing money all over the state. Incredible work by both of them as well as another sensational performance by Jeff Bridges, who plays the detective. But the thing that took me away most was the film's end. Where Bridges and Pine talk for the last time in the film. You think things are going to end in bloodshed, but they don't. This is a powerful scene of word wars we never see in these movies, and one of the best moments of film in the year.

3. Manchester By The Sea
We as human beings are sometimes pushed to the breaking point with grief. It happens suddenly and can sometimes be relentless, so horrible that we never fully recover. No matter what else happens in our life. "Manchester By The Sea" is a perfect portrait of a man so stricken by grief that he's no longer the same person he was, and when an event happens that forces him to be a more responsible man, he can't completely commit to it. Not because he's irresponsible, but because it would mean moving back to the city that broke him, something he battles with all film long. We see in memories of the man he used to be and what happened to him that changed him and its utterly brutal. Witnessing the rise and fall of this normal person is a shell-shocking revelation and easily some of the very best work Casey Affleck has ever done as an actor. Helped by an equally incredible supporting cast, "Manchester By The Sea" completely soars.

2. La La Land
What is it about blending singing and everyday life that has stood the test of time? I know a lot about musicals due being in choir in high school and part of college, and its amazing how so many of them have stood the test of time. Perhaps its because many people just sing to pass time or celebrate. Maybe its because music works our emotions and fleshes them out. Whatever the case, "La La Land" is a modern musical that certainly leaves its mark. Beautifully performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, "La La Land" is a movie about dreams in the heart of Los Angeles. Definitely not the first movie to tackle the roller-coaster of experience in the dreams of making it big in the city of Angels, but "La La Land" stands out due its character portrayals, its unique music and the undeniable chemistry between its leads.

1. American Honey
Like I said before, just because a movie breaks box office records, had everybody talking about it, or is currently aiming towards Oscar votes doesn't mean its the best of the year. What makes a movie great or one of the year's best has been because he beholds a certain level of emotional power that leaves you drained after viewing it. I've watched "American Honey" twice now, and both times I have watched it, it has completely destroyed me. It may not have that impact on you, but what's important is that it had that impact on me. When I was considering making a top twenty, I originally had a tie in first place, but placing "American Honey" next to any other movie in order to share a spot felt ridiculous to me. This movie needed to stand on top of all the others, it felt urgent to me as the year began to draw to a close. The film is about a thousand different emotions all at once. Its an epic movie, but not a way that you'd really expect. "American Honey" is about life; sometimes life is a dance, sometimes its an adventure and sometimes its a nightmare, and its amazing that one movie could access all of those personal examples and roll them together in a coherent, confident fashion. There wasn't another movie that felt like this and as I reflected on the year, this was the film that kept fighting for air, and as I continue to think about it as we dive into 2017, despite all the other treasures 2016 featured, its "American Honey" that keeps coming back to me in a big way. Its easily the movie I need to own immediately and I will watch more than other 2016 title I've loved, which is the biggest compliment I can give to a film.


Within the upcoming days, I will publish my Runner-Ups list, which was a wildly competitive list to make this year and features a top four that I am stunned didn't make the top ten, which shows just how strong of a year we truly had. I will also publish my annual thirty favorite films that didn't make any list. And I suppose I can publish my Worst of 2016 list. And after all of that, a look at 2017 and what I am excited or possible not-so-excited about moving forward. We still have plenty to discuss, so come back routinely to get it all! I hope you all had a very, very happy New Year.

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