I didn’t see every film I wanted to in 2016, not even half of them. This was the first of hopefully many years where I attended the Sundance Film Festival, opening me to the beauty of the festival circuit, so hopefully I still have enough breadth of knowledge of this years films to say something meaningful about the excellent crop we had this year. With that small preamble said, this is a list not of the best films of the year, but of my personal favorites.
This list is presented in no particular order, with the exception that the last one is actually my favorite film of 2016.
Manchester By The Sea
I, like many of my peers, looked at this movie, looked at its marketing, looked at its actors, and said “Another white people being sad movie? Made so that the predominantly white, and presumably predominantly sad Oscar voters would give it awards? HARD PASS.” But my mother (https://moviemavengal.com/) loved it at Sundance, and it was getting a lot of awards buzz from critics that I respect, so I checked it out. And while it is a white people being sad movie, it’s also just GOOD. Much has been said about the restraint of the actors, how brilliant Casey Affleck is, and how subtle the direction by Kenneth Lonergan is, but there’s a point where the movie has to loosen that restraint, and the release it provides is as cathartic as it is devastating. Very late in this movie there is a scene during which I never stopped crying, where Lee (Affleck), speaks to his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Just for a moment, the movie lets the floodgates of grief and trauma open and spill forth, the emotion behind every word seems to increase in intensity, and then the movie moves towards its ultimate thesis, and suddenly closes the floodgates once again. There is no real relief, at least not for these characters. Sometimes, you can’t beat it. This movie is just another sad white people movie in a long list of sad white people movies, but damn, this is one of the good ones.
I must confess, I am a straight, white, privileged male. Moonlight is not for me. Moonlight is about an experience that is almost as far from my own as one can get while still living in the same country. But throughout the movie’s runtime, I could tell that this movie was important. I can barely imagine how this movie plays to people who are black, or gay, or who grew up in neighborhoods like Chiron’s. But this movie opened up my imagination just a little bit more, let me into an experience that it feels like I need to know about, to be a complete human being. Just the other night, Moonlight won the Golden Globe for Best Film (Drama), and it is well deserved. See this movie, not just because of the craft on display, by the director and actors, which is some of the best this year, but because this movie likely will make you a better person.
Kubo and the Two Strings
The fact that this list only has one animated movie on it is only a matter of my not having seen enough movies this year. I generally prefer animated movies to live action simply because I have a better understanding of/appreciation for the art of animation than the art of acting. And if we’re going to talk about the art of animation this year, literally nothing is more impressive than Kubo and the Two Strings, where LAIKA studios makes yet another movie that is dazzling to look at and to feel (and makes us appreciate just how good ParaNorman was, if even this movie isn’t as good as it. GO WATCH PARANORMAN). Inspired by Japanese myth, this tale of a boy whose eye was taken by the king of the moon is gripping, hilarious, and heartbreaking. It is not just an example of how good animation can be, but an examination of how good storytelling can be. Kubo and the Two Strings is not just the best animated feature of the year, it’s one of the best films period.
Captain America: Civil War
(The Russo Brothers)
Look, we live in the age of superhero movies. Some people are ambivalent about it, but it’s the truth, and I love it. And in a year that saw some great superhero movies, including Deadpool and Doctor Strange (and notably not anything put out by DC!), the latest Captain America movie is the best of the bunch. You don’t need to know that the acting was good, or that the designs were sleek and cool, or that the fight scenes packed a wallop; all you need to know is that this movie is the most complex superhero movie to come out in a long time. Essentially marketed as Avengers 2.5, the movie takes the usual superhero comics trope of “all the good guys are fighting each other” and fills it with metaphor and allegory about issues we are struggling with today in our own political world. While the movie clearly comes down on the side of Captain America, it does not just pay lip service to Tony Stark’s side, and ultimately ends on a lesson we all need to hear once in a while: we’re still on the same side, even if we disagree on how we go about it.
I’m not a fan of horror movies. I’m also not a huge fan of thrillers. But any movie about butchering neo-Nazis has at least earned my benefit of the doubt. Add in Patrick Stewart in his quietest and most intense performance in years? And you have a recipe for a movie that I loved and that gave me more metaphorical heart attacks than any other piece of media all year. Literally every beat of this movie from the moment the band drives up to the club in the woods until the very final shot feels jet propelled, coming at you faster than anything you’ve experienced before. It does so so efficiently and with such a careful control over the camera and editing, showing that Director Jeremy Saulnier is a talent to watch. Even just remembering how intense this movie is has me sweating in my seat.
Did you know that science fiction movies could be really really good? If you need proof of this revelatory fact, look no further than Arrival. A movie that’s as much about it’s science fiction premise of aliens arriving and the world having to deal with it as it is about humans learning how to communicate with each other, Arrival is the cure for what ails you. A lot of science fiction these days is of the post-apocalyptic variety, and this is essentially the opposite of that. The point of this movie, without giving away too much by way of spoilers, is essentially a positive one, and about the endurance and inherent goodness not just of humanity but of each one of us. Amy Adams turns in what we have to start calling yet another great performance, and is supported by the always surprisingly good Jeremy Renner. Critics and fans alike are saying that Blade Runner 2 is in good hands because they’ve seen this movie, and after seeing the work Denis Villeneuve has given us, I absolutely have to agree.
In all honesty, I’d forgotten about Captain Fantastic until I started thinking about this list. But as soon as I did, a rush of emotion struck me right in the gut. This movie is one thing on its surface, it’s another while you’re watching it, and it’s a third, greater synthesis by the end. Viggo Mortensen is a tour de force in this picture, fully encapsulating a man who is driven by a very harsh philosophy, but who also deeply cares in ways you may not expect. And the child actors who play Viggo’s children deserves special attention by the film industry, because every single one of them is a potential movie star in the near future. This movie makes you question every idea you have about child rearing, about our culture, about modern society in general- but it never does so maliciously. This movie loves people, and it wants them to be happy and to have adventures. Don’t let the image of the family arriving at the funeral in their twee costumes fool you, this movie is not just “some weird indie movie”. If it weren’t for the last movie on this list, this may very well have been my favorite movie of 2016.
Look, I didn’t just love this movie because you get a full on view of Viggo Mortensen’s schlong.
Swiss Army Man
Where do I even begin? The incredible career trajectory of Daniel Radcliffe? The desperate humanity of Paul Dano’s Hank and the blossoming humanity of Radcliffe’s Manny? The vision behind it all, and the two brilliant filmmakers, known as the Daniels, who wrote and shot this movie? The sheer force of will that made this movie come into being? In a word, this movie is a miracle. In eleven words, this is the farting corpse movie we’ve been waiting for all our lives. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t take the “magical” out of “magical realism”, and gives you an experience literally like none you’ve ever had before. This is possibly the most human movie I’ve ever seen. It’s about everything that it takes to be human: all the gross and unmentionable things, all the beautiful and noble things. All of the desires and needs of a human being. And this movie has the perspective to show us that the gross things and the beautiful things are the same things. The gross parts of our bodies- our farts and our boners- are beautiful. The beautiful parts- the lofty goals, the romance- they can be just as gross as our farts. It’s all a part of the human experience, and the movie doesn’t shy away from it. It almost feels like an understatement to say that this movie is a revelation. It’s not the kind of movie that is for everyone (I remember when a large portion of the Sundance audience walked out of the theater as I laughed my head off) but it’s the kind of movie that should be for everyone. Please see this movie. Love yourself, every part of yourself, enough to see Swiss Army Man and to let it breath life, and farts, into you.
Those are my favorite films of 2016! With, of course the enormous caveat that I still haven’t seen films like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, or the movie taking theaters by storm currently, Hidden Figures, or films from earlier in the year that I just missed like The Handmaiden. I hope to see even more films in this coming year, and that I’ll be able to share my thoughts on them with you!