With 2016 now squarely in our rear-view, giving me the opportunity to catch up on some flicks that I felt I needed to see prior to sitting down to write this, I can honestly say that 2016 was an incredible year for movies, which is great, because with the circus of politics and celebrity passing that we experienced in reality, we all needed an escape. We ran the gamut this year-- I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I gasped. Here are my favorites:
10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Popstar could have easily been a one-note parody that stretched over 90 minutes. Instead, The Lonely Island skewers the music industry in all sorts of brilliant ways, from specific statements about the absurdity of Beiber-like stardom to commercialism in music to celebrities weighing in on world politics. I would go as far as to say that Popstar is this generation's This Is Spinal Tap; it's that sharp and insightful. Plus, the music is catchy AF.
The best documentaries are stranger than fiction; a true intersection of story and timing that is impossible to replicate. Weiner, a documentary following disgraced congressman and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, is one of these rare gems. A compelling public figure with a unique name getting caught up in a sex scandal... more than once... You couldn't write this stuff if you tried. The documentarians get unprecedented access to Weiner and his team during the meltdown, but the more riveting drama comes from the quiet, conflicted moments between the candidate and his wife, who was a trusted advisor to then-presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton. Weiner is an intimate portrait of a man's sysiphusian effort to regain respect while also being a bizarre account of the influence the media has over the public perception. It's a once-in-a-long-time film.
8. La La Land
As we saw with its Golden Globes sweep, everyone loves La La Land. Writer/Director wunderkind, Damien Chapelle (Whiplash), brings modern filmmaking techniques to old Hollywood with a tried-and-true romance musical. It certainly doesn’t feel original (seriously Golden Globes? Best screenplay?), but the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is always a joy to watch, the long takes for beautifully choreographed musical numbers are stellar, the songs are good as are the performances (especially Emma Stone’s), and the interesting, bittersweet turn at the end makes La La Land worth considering as one of this year’s best.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I love bottle stories-- tales that take place largely in one location, with a finite set of characters. They offer the simple conundrums that within themselves have complex yarns to untangle, giving us the audience the ability to quickly wrap our head around a premise and explore every inch of this world and the characters populating it. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a brilliant bottle story that holds many of its cards close to its chest until its final frame. It’s beautifully shot for taking place in a bunker, features stellar performances, including an Oscar-worthy turn for John Goodman, and ties in nicely to the Cloverfield universe without being slave to it. While I wish that we could have discovered that tie-in ourselves within the movie, I understand the need to market the film, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great thriller that has mass appeal while offering original and thought-provoking ideas. It’s a great film.
6. Captain America: Civil War
The stakes have never been higher for a Marvel film, and yet, somehow Civil War managed to succeed on two levels— both as a gritty, realistic clash between two iconic characters with reasonable motivations, and as a crowd-pleasing popcorn blockbuster. This is an impressive feat that is not easy to accomplish (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), and despite its success, I still feel like many sleep on what may be the best Marvel movie to date.
5. Green Room
The second entry from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (the first being the quiet, thrilling Blue Ruin, now on Netflix), Green Room is a guttural, visceral experience from start to finish. The premise is very simple: a punk rock band who accidentally witnesses a crime backstage after one of their performances must fight to survive a group of skinheads lurking outside the door of the green room the band has holed themselves up in. I really appreciate Saulnier’s steadfast credo to treat his audience like adults, tossing them into a living world where exposition is implied rather than spouted and we learn about the characters and their motivations as we go. The late Anton Yelchin gives a great performance, Patrick Stewart relishes in a rare antagonist role, and the violent, but never gross, confrontations kept me on the edge of my seat for every second of Green Room’s 95 minutes. I cannot wait to see what’s next from Jeremy Saulnier.
4. Hell or High Water
A modern western that features bank heists, showdowns between cops and robbers, family turmoil, and commentary on gun control sounds like a lot to tackle, but Hell or High Water is a rare beast. Anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by Jeff Bridges and a believable chemistry between Ben Foster and Chris Pine, Hell or High Water is a must-see for anyone who enjoys familial drama and/or thrilling action.
3. Sing Street
I raved about it in my original review, I’ll rave about it now: Sing Street is a pure joy to watch. Writer/Director John Carney captures the upmagic and romance of youth, where anything is possible, and bottles it through the musical numbers littered throughout the slice of life we’re observing. The actors, all relative unknowns, add a rawness and authenticity to the characters, the 80's soundtrack is stellar through and through, and the relationship between our protagonist and his older brother rang so true for me that I had happy tears streaming down my face by the film’s finale. Sing Street was the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year.
2. OJ: Made in America
There’s controversy as to whether this is a “movie” (it did, in fact, have a theatrical run, though I saw it on demand), but considering that it was one of the most riveting pieces of celluloid I consumed this year, I just had to include OJ: Made in America. Not since The Wire have I seen content as ambitious, comprehensive, moving, and wholly satisfying as OJ: Made in America, a 5-part documentary from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series that enjoyed a small run at the Sundance Film Festival this year. This documentary was released toward the end of FX’s dramatization of the same story, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which was also a compelling piece in its own right. I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend another 8 hours re-treading a story I just watched?”. Thankfully, I did, because OJ: Made in America is a portrayal of much more than just the trial. It spins a Shakespearean tragedy out of real-life footage that includes home movies from the Simpson family, present-day interviews with all of the living parties involved in the trial, and pictures and audio that have previously been unseen by the public. OJ: Made in America accurately depicts OJ’s rise to fame and glory and the Jekyll/Hyde persona that was created and fueled by that fame, which would ultimately act as the powder keg to a heinous crime that was initially disbelieved by an enamored public, as well as how the verdict of the OJ trial represented unrelated racial tensions in the US that had been building for decades. It also charts the fall of OJ Simpson following his not-guilty criminal verdict, ending with a shattered, unimportant man who was once a god. It’s a true American tragedy and the best example of a villain’s transformation this side of Breaking Bad.
Arrival is right up my alley— a thinking man’s sci-fi with more thrills in the mysteries to be solved than the blockbuster set pieces on display. Even though I figured out the film’s “twist” before I was likely supposed to, that did not effect the lump in my throat as the credits rolled. I’ve always been a fan of director Denis Villeneuve, but his first uplifting movie (arguably) ends up being his most impactful— it works as pure sci-fi, it works as an apocalyptic blockbuster, it works as an allegory about the power of love and communication— not many films can claim these achievements. Arrival is everything Interstellar wanted to be but couldn’t, and for that realized ambition, it deserves the highest spot on this list.
Worth noting: I did not see Jackie, Manchester By The Sea, or Moonlight. They all looked like great, albeit depressing, films that I just couldn’t find time to get to. So… what are your favorite movies of 2016?