(and by “best” I mean my favourites)
Phew, 2016 may have been a wretched hive of villainy and scum but if you’re reading this then you’ve made it through. In stark contrast to the ominous year in geo-political happenings, celebrity deaths, and the almost surely impending apocalypse, 2016 was a remarkably strong year for film. And in a welcome twist, lots of the best movies were sprinkled throughout the year as opposed to all the quality being dumped during Oscar season. Look below and you’ll find 20 of the year’s most remarkable films, featuring stories that often reflect the current zeitgeist or offer a blessed escape.
20. The Nice Guys
Shane Black returns with a vengeance in this spiritual cousin to his masterful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Here the mismatched duo are a couple of private eyes played with palpable charm and chemistry by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Crammed with nihilistic jokes and weird narrative tangents, the 70s noir of The Nice Guys oozes wit and style and represents vintage Shane Black, which is to say it’s so much fun it should be illegal. And yes, it takes place during Christmas. (full review here)
19. Don’t Think Twice
Mike Birbiglia’s second feature cements his place as one of the most exciting comedy directors working today. Casting himself against type as a dickish has-been leader of a struggling New York improv troupe, Birbiglia explores group dynamics and how to deal with your friends’ successes as members of the gang get cast in the movie’s not-so-thinly-veiled version of Saturday Night Live (called “Weekend Live” here). It’s a knowing and sympathetic portrait of friends toiling away on the fringes of showbiz and getting a chance at fame, helped immeasurably by the strong supporting cast (including Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard and Kate Micucci).
The J.J. Abrams-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane is a clever Twilight Zone-esque tale of paranoia that benefits from knowing as little about it as possible going in. It joins two other excellent 2016 thrillers that take place primarily in a single setting (Don’t Breathe and The Shallows), but is elevated even further by an all-time great performance from John Goodman, a man who hasn’t exactly been a slouch in the acting department until now. (full review here)
One of two 2016 movies that deals with the shocking on-air death of reporter Christine Chubbock, Antonio Campos’ vision has a queasy air of inevitability about it but avoids becoming sensational by taking a measured and sympathetic approach towards its characters. Christine Chubbock is primarily remembered now for her violent end, but this version of her story is notable for its intimate portrayal of struggling with mental illness as Christine is brought to life in immersive fashion by Rebecca Hall in one of the best performances of the year.
An alien invasion pic that’s also deeply human, Arrival represents another winning movie from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. With its mysteries wrapped up in a Christopher Nolan-like puzzle box narrative, Arrival‘s science fiction relies more on intellectual problem solving than brute force, a distinction that gained additional poignancy and relevance with its timely November release date in the wake of the American presidential election results. (full review here)
15. Kubo and The Two Strings
This one nearly snuck by me but I should’ve known that production company Laika (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) had something special on their hands as they’re quickly becoming a sign of quality as reliable as Pixar. Kubo and The Two Strings continues Laika’s masterful use of tactile stop-motion animation and combines it with a simple but affecting Japanese fable about loss, fate and the importance of family. It actually puts its characters in real peril plus Matthew McConaughey plays a giant beetle – what’s not to love?
14. The Witch
Unsettling and unnerving, the slow-burn horror of The Witch gains power and authenticity through the use of actual transcripts from 17th century New England. Featuring gorgeous and ominous cinematography (shot in wintry Northern Ontario), The Witch continues the recent trend of grade-A horror with rich thematic elements (like last year’s The Babadook) while proving the genre is cyclical by doing what previously seemed impossible – making witches scary again. It also features the year’s best performance by a goat – Black Phillip for Oscar gold! (full review here)
Sometimes the stars align for documentary filmmakers and they get unprecedented access to a candid subject, capturing scenes that are even more powerful because they’re real. That’s certainly the case with this doc about the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner’s failed political ambitions and his inability to keep said weiner in his pants. Though his story is by now well-known (especially in the wake of Hillary’s loss), Weiner still displays an uncanny sense of timing and fly-on-the-wall schadenfreude as it charts the self-destructive nature of its titular dick.
12. A Bigger Splash
Anchored by four strong central performances – including a nearly mute Tilda Swinton as a rock star and a rarely-better Ralph Fiennes as her former manager – the sun-drenched drama of A Bigger Splash is well-observed and astute in the way that old friends and lovers drag up the past in service of their own needs. It takes a decidedly weird 3rd act turn but A Bigger Splash is the type of movie that stays with you and grows better in retrospect. Fiennes’ manic character alone is worth the price of admission, as he prances about to the Rolling Stones while recounting his glory years.
Billed as a sorta-sequel to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater wisely follows up his epic Boyhood (my favourite film of 2014) with this laid-back cruise through the final dog days of summer 1980. Following college baseball players in Texas as they gear up for a new season, Everybody Wants Some!! (based partially on Linklater’s own experiences) is a near-perfect hangout movie full of likeable characters and jam-packed with era-defining music. Its sense of time and place is impeccable, capturing the youthful malaise and optimism that define the end of summer and the start of a new school year. (full review here)
10. The Lobster
Greek provacateur Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is a droll delight. Its high concept conceit – get married within 45 days or be turned into an animal of your choosing – is ridiculous but played totally straight by a game cast led by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as a tentative couple. Full of weirdness like outcast loners who live in the forest and are forbidden from touching, The Lobster‘s a cutting satire of relationships and marriage, and one of the funniest and darkest comedies of the year. (full review here)
9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director Taiki Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) continues to knock it out of the park, telling a sweetly funny tale about rap-obsessed juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker who runs away in the forests of New Zealand with his cranky guardian (played by Sam Neill). There’s more than a little Wes Anderson quirkiness infused in Wilderpeople‘s DNA as Waititi introduces a multitude of memorable characters into the chase story while packing it with jokes and surprising heart. “Shit gets real” as Ricky’s search for belonging grows more chaotic and the escalating antics build towards one of the year’s warmest and best endings.
8. Sing Street
I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories and Sing Street stands alongside the best of them. Strongly rooted in its Dublin 1985 setting, writer-director John Carney draws on his own past to make Sing Street feel sincere and authentic. The protaganist Cosmo starts a band, pines after an older girl and gets advice from his burnout brother, all as he tries to navigate the tricky waters of puberty, bullies and prickish headmasters. Full of great original songs and 80s classics, Carney’s love letter to his youth is an ode to rebellion, music-making, and following your passions like “a fucking jet engine” (as one character so eloquently puts it).
7. Swiss Army Man
If you’re having trouble remembering Swiss Army Man it’s the one where Daniel Radcliffe (the former Harry Potter himself) plays a farty boner corpse with super powers. He’s teamed up with a suicidal castaway played by Paul Dano as the two have a surreal journey of friendship and flatulence in search of a way home and true love. Yes, it’s probably the most undeniably strange movie of the year but directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively billed as “Daniels”) have crafted something utterly beguiling and truly unique. From the phenomenal soundtrack (often composed of a capella noises by the two lead actors) to the meticulous production design to the oddly touching central friendship, Swiss Army Man has to be seen to be believed.
A modern Western that posits big banks as the bad guys and features a great cat-and-mouse game between outlaw brothers and Texas Rangers, Hell of High Water oozes world-weary style and the sharpest dialogue of the year. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are perfectly cast as desperate men in a desperate land who are forced into robbing banks to avoid foreclosure on the family farm, while Jeff Bridges brings his Rooster Cogburn drawl to his long-in-the-tooth lawman. Dryly funny, critical of America’s imploding middle class and suffused with anger, Hell or High Water is full of indelible landscapes and well-wrought characters that linger long after the last gunshot rings out. (full review here)
5. Green Room
Green Room is a descent into a nightmarish world of violence and one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen. Staged as a siege film pitting members of a punk band against local neo-nazis, it quickly ratchets up the tension so effectively that it seemingly has no where else to go. And then the flesh-eating dogs show up. I saw this way back in 2015 at TIFF but with the rise of far-right movements in 2016 this future cult movie has fallen into a strange sort of relevance, giving its graphic gore a jolt of real-world frisson. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier shows an unparalleled mastery of suspense here and – if nothing else – you at least have to appreciate Patrick Stewart’s against-type casting as the chilling leader of the skinheads. (full review here)
4. The Handmaiden
South Korean director Park Chan-wook is mostly known for his Vengeance Trilogy (including Oldboy) but who knew he had a movie as funny, sexy and nimble as The Handmaiden in him? A period picture taking place in Korea under Japanese rule, Chan-wook weaves a complex story of craven con-men (and women) after their own fortunes in gloriously pulpy detail as he deftly re-arranges characters and motives with lightning quick precision, essentially playing a con on the audience as well. Sumptuous production, looping plots and lurid sex scenes combine for a feast for the senses that flies by far more quickly than its lengthy run time suggests. If this is what late period Park Chan-wook looks like, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Achingly beautiful and empathetic, Moonlight is an intimate character study of one man’s journey through three pivotal stages of his life. Writer-director Barry Jenkins not only pulls off the difficult trick of finding consistency between the triptych of segments (including 3 separate actors portraying the lead character Chiron), but also suffuses each frame of the movie with an intimate and painterly quality that’s visually arresting. It’s artful without being precious – a keenly felt meditation on identity and masculinity. Moonlight is an unforgettable window into a life less ordinary. (full review here)
Director Kenneth Lonergan’s return to movies is a delicate balancing act of comedy and tragedy that, yes, plumbs the depths of human misery but also reveals the redemptive power of family and shared grief. Casey Affleck fulfills the promise he showed in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by turning in a nuanced and stunning lead performance as a broken janitor who’s forced to return to his New England hometown following his brother’s death. Forced to take care of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges, my dark horse pick for some awards), Affleck’s character has to reckon with his past and Lonergan mounts scenes of quiet power and operatic emotion that will wring out most audiences. Cathartic, grounded, and so well-acted and naturalistic that it feels remarkably real, Manchester by the Sea is not to be missed. (full review here)
1. La La Land
From the joyous opening frames to the rush of emotions in its final moments, La La Land is a love letter to creativity, passion and movies themselves. Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) evokes film’s past by shooting in CinemaScope, drawing heavily upon the French New Wave for influence, and having his leads (a magnetic Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) do much of their own singing and dancing, but he isn’t beholden to what’s come before as La La Land also feels thoroughly modern and just cynical enough to represent its titular Tinseltown well. The songs are infectious, the dancing’s appealing, and – most of all – the characters are worth rooting for. A sugar rush of a ride that earns its emotions, it’s everything we go to the movies for. Though it could be nitpicked (maybe it’s a bit long; why is Gosling’s character dissatisfied with his career?), La La Land feels like pure cinema perfection in the moment and is above all a powerful antidote to an awful year. And I don’t even like musicals. (full review here)