Here we go. It’s well past the end of the previous year, and so starts another attempt at a countdown. This is the first entry of hopefully five posts designed to examine and appreciate my top 25 films of 2016.
Before this optimistic list kicks off, a shout out to some worthy films that, unfortunately, were just shy of making the cut. Here are the Honorable Mentions: THE RED TURTLE, KRISHA, THE NEON DEMON, THE NICE GUYS, TONI ERDMANN, GREEN ROOM, THE FITS, CERTAIN WOMEN, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.
And so, without further ado, let the countdown commence!
25. A BIGGER SPLASH, dir. Luca Guadagnino
As deliciously soapy as the best of daytime television and as visually resplendent as any gorgeous oil pastel painting, Guadagnino’s rocking, sensual, indulgent, fun dance in the sun isn’t particularly attached to any kind of deep seriousness, and that’s mostly a good thing. Ripe with succulent dishes, ornately decorated houses, breathtaking landscapes, impeccably designed clothing, and the sculpted nude forms of each of the film’s four co-stars, it’s perfectly content to bask in excess alongside the Mediterranean Sea.
Following a celebrated rock-star, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), who has retreated to the Italian island of Pantelleria with her photographer boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), in a effort to rest her vocal chords in silence, the pair’s peaceful getaway is rudely crashed by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a record producer and former lover of Marianne’s, and a young woman who is supposedly his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). As the four dine in extravagance, swap stories and knowing glances, swim in the luxurious pool and strut to the Rolling Stones, their jumbled histories and primal impulses become as increasingly entangled as their bodies. Yet despite all the luxury and amusement, there’s an underlying tension from the start that floats beneath the surface until finally exploding once the significance of Chekov’s pool comes into play.
The cinematic paintings framed by Yorick Le Saux are worth a watch on their own, but it’s the ensemble of performances that make it truly worth the ride. Swinton has the perfect elegance and mystique for the role of glam-rock celebrity as well as stunning muse, and her prescribed muteness leads to a remarkable use of her range non-verbally. It’s perhaps one of her finest on-screen portrayals. Johnson is also purposefully enigmatic and alluring, showing a promising screen persona that hasn’t been tapped into in her more popular fare, and while Schoenaerts might feel a tad out of place, he’s always able to find some subtlety in the man beneath the hulking frame.
But, truly, it mostly belongs to Fiennes’ magnetic, charming, and exuberant Harry. A man who thrives on attention and admiration, but lacking in any true sense of happiness, he’s a charismatic, chaotic force of human nature, and Fiennes positively revels in playing him. It’s delightful to see his playfulness embraced by Guadagnino and the likes of Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, assuring us that there’s more to his enormous talent than the machinations of Voldemort or Amon Goeth. Harry is undoubtedly one of Fiennes’ greatest creations, and one of the best performances of the year.
Like a loaded cocktail that goes down deceptively smooth but leaves you reeling the next day, A BIGGER SPLASH is a luscious and intoxicating romp that spirals into the dark depths of humanity, struggling to come to term with the consequences once the hangover sets in. And while it may stumble a bit towards the finish line, there’s perhaps some worthy truths that remain. All the richness and abundance of the material in their lives have done nothing to fill the voids within their souls. Escape from the day-to-day might be possible, but escape from our interconnectedness and interdependence as human beings and the places those we love hold inside of us is anything but.
24. ZOOTOPIA, dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore
About a year ago, I was startled to find that an animated story featuring a fictional modern world made up of talking animals might be the one of the most socially relevant films of the moment. It’s notable, and perhaps regrettable, that, 12 months on, it feels even more so. Flying under the radar before springing forth to rapturous reviews and think-pieces alike, Disney’s 55th animated feature film surpassed all challengers to become the standout animated film of 2016.
The film’s title is also its primary locale, a swarming metropolis with accommodations for all animals, predator and prey alike. However, with every large-scale urban center comes its fair share of issues. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first rabbit to become a member of the Zootopia police force, but, with preconceived notions about her ability to perform her duties, she’s relegated to handing out parking tickets. But when she volunteers to find a missing mammal, she’s given 48 hours to solve the case or resign. Partnering up with con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), their search for the cause of the disappearance leads to uncovering some disturbing conspiracies that might lead all the way to the top.
Comfortably riffing on the buddy cop genre, there’s a great dynamic between Judy and Nick that grows naturally, but there’s some classic film noir elements at play as well. Homages to the style and complexity of Chinatown, or parodies of iconic moments from The Godfather, provide some welcome chuckles. There’s, of course, abundant sight gags, and countless humorous instances of animals exhibiting typical human behavior, not to mention the genius sloth bit. The voice cast is quite exceptional as well, with Goodwin and Bateman complimented by Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, and Shakira.
Still, beyond the charm, jokes, and craftsmanship, it also works on levels metaphorical and allegorical. Judy’s story, though simply about a rabbit, has much to say about female empowerment, and the experience of being bullied at a young age has notably had long term effects on both Judy and Nick, clearly influencing their lifestyle choices. All of that is, in turn, wrapped up in the film’s pointed examination of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Not many moments pass without the pang of cultural relevance accompanying a hearty dose of laughter. Scenes such as an elephant exercising a right to refuse service to anyone, or a politician publicly using fear as a tactic for acquiring and maintaining power, or the disturbing suggestion that the cause of hostility might simply be biological may hit the nail on the head a little too hard, but there’s no denying the unsettling parallels they draw to our contemporary world.
With a storyline that’s sculpted to subvert your expectations and keep you guessing, ZOOTOPIA manages to pack together narrative twists and turns, instantly likable characters, winning comedy, and timely ideas and concepts. And while there might be some problematic areas if you delve into the animal analogies for extensive analysis, it’s nevertheless always an important and admirable undertaking to use animation as a medium to instill acceptance in young audiences, one that should continue to be encouraged. It’s films like this that offer everyone, young and old, an opportunity to open up a little to understanding and empathy, and that’s just really something we could all use at the moment.
23. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, dir. Dan Trachtenberg
Thrillers of kidnapping or abduction are a dime a dozen these days, so it’s a real treat when a first time director not only knocks it one out of the park in the sci-fi genre, but pulls it off with effective minimalism and limited flashiness. Stealthily made and exquisitely marketed, Dan Trachtenberg’s debut, and strange CLOVERFIELD cousin, is mysterious from the start and instantaneously gripping, refusing to let go of its audience until the lights have come up in the theater. Slowly feeding us small reveals to keep us hooked, the tense guessing game of what lies at the end of the rabbit hole is drawn out to maximum effect, making for undeniable entertainment.
Focused on the perspective of a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who appears to be leaving her life and her partner behind, the catalyst of the action to follow comes in the form of a truck that forces her vehicle off the highway at night out in the middle of nowhere. Awaking later, she finds herself chained to a wall in a locked room, and a captor, Howard (John Goodman), who claims to be her savior from the earlier car accident. After attempting to attack Howard and make a daring escape, she realizes that she is trapped in a bunker she cannot leave. Howard explains a cataclysmic event has occurred above the surface, and the air outside would be impossible to breathe for several years. Assuring her he did not kidnap her, but rather wanted to spare her from certain death, he tells her they must wait out the destruction in this underground fallout shelter he constructed himself. Michelle has seemingly no choice but to remain with Howard and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), Howard’s neighbor and another survivor, as long as necessary. Although Emmett vouches for Howard’s story, suspicions continue to haunt Michelle as the trio attempt life together.
Much of the film’s strength comes from the choice to place the audience firmly alongside Michelle, as her viewpoint also becomes our own and each new chilling discovery of hers is ours as well. This keeps us on our toes, mistrusting what we know and constantly questioning our perceptions of other characters and their intentions. Each time we think we’ve got it figured out, the rug is ripped from under us, and it isn’t until it’s too late that the truth becomes terrifyingly, and brutally, clear. Much credit is due to screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s (and story credited Damien Chazelle) imaginative concept and strategic plotting, and Trachtenberg brings its skin crawling thrills to life with a steady hand and some inventive flourishes up his sleeve. Winstead is excellent as Michelle, sharing with viewers a mutual sense of anxiety, fear, and horror, and eventually bursting forth with strength and determination. Gallagher Jr. adds some much needed levity and dynamic to the group, and Emmett’s initial trusting and somewhat idealistic nature morphs realistically into fearfulness and paranoia.
To be honest though, the film ultimately belongs to John Goodman and his masterful and hair-raising performance. Howard is a role almost tailor-made for Goodman, playing equally to his strengths as charming and lovable but also wildly and frightfully unpredictable. That we are constantly questioning Howard’s motives, flipping back and forth on our judgements, is a testament to Goodman’s layered portrayal. There’s wonderful hints of the man Howard used to be that counterbalance the twisted, controlling monster he has now become, and there’s a spine-tingling moment towards the end that simply but effectively tells us that man is no more. Goodman gets many opportunities to shine these days, but not too often to this extent. This is certainly one of his absolute best.
The confined and claustrophobic horror may fade away and open up to some late game theatrics in the film’s final act, but it never fails to keep you on the edge of your seat. One could certainly argue it’s most engaging separated from the science fiction elements that feel a tad tagged on, and perhaps that might’ve been a stronger and more focused film overall. Still, as is, it’s purely riveting, sure to have you discussing its ending with your friends long afterwards. And there’s something extra there, too, some interesting observations on what unspeakable acts humans are capable of committing when motivated by fear of one another, and how our fearful perceptions continue to divide us and tear us apart. But really, it’s just some good scary fun.
22. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, dir. Kelly Fremon Craig
The coming-of-age tale is one oft told, yet rarely perfected. While the likes of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, and Richard Linklater are some standouts in the genre, I can’t think of many American female writer/directors that have recently been allowed the opportunity to truly own a story about the struggles facing young women at this challenging time in their lives. In a market saturated with stories of teenage males, Kelly Fremon Craig’s first film as a director, third as a screenwriter, feels like a much needed breath of fresh air. An honest, authentic, and moving portrait of growing up, told with sincere and genuine understanding, it’s one sure to resonate with teenagers for years to come.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a spirited, frustrated, and troubled girl on the verge of adulthood. Haunted by personal tragedy and struggling in her relationships with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and brother (Blake Jenner), her sole true connection is with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). One evening while Nadine’s mother is out of town, the two girls raid the alcohol cabinet and Nadine eventually becomes incredibly sick while Krista cradles her head next to the toilet bowl. The following morning, Nadine wakes up to find Krista and her brother hooking up in the next room. Mortified and betrayed, Nadine confronts Krista, only for Krista to admit she’d actually like to pursue a relationship. Hurt, and a little lost, Nadine attempts to navigate high school without her best friend beside her.
There’s something about casting actors far outside their teens in these particular stories that simply undercuts even the most natural of scripts. Fremon side-steps that pothole with not only an age-appropriate cast, but an all-around exceptional one. This is the film we’ve all been waiting Steinfeld to make since her Oscar nominated work in TRUE GRIT, and she’s wonderful. Wry, sharp, insecure, vulnerable, and all around delightful, Nadine is the ideal showcase of Steinfeld’s superb talent and effortless naturalism. The film touches primarily because of her ability to communicate moments of deep cutting truth with refreshingly human honesty. Richardson also seems right at home on screen, creating a likable and empathetic figure in Krista. Of course, credit must be given to the two young actresses who play Nadine and Krista in the initial flashback because they’re undeniably believable and adorable. Woody Harrelson provides welcome support as Nadine’s teacher, foil, and confidant, tapping into his roughness and lovability in equal measure. But the real gem and breakout has to be Hayden Szeto as Erwin, a boy at school interested in Nadine. From his first moments on screen he exudes movie star charm and winning goofiness. Here’s hoping there’s many more roles for him to come.
The true voice behind it all is Fremon Craig’s, both narratively and artistically, and it bears repeating how significant that is. The dialogue immediately feels realistic, and, unencumbered by the need to achieve a softer rating, the writing has the freedom to open up its vocabulary to achieve much needed accuracy in the ways young people communicate. Nothing feels forced or tailored, and while there are notable tropes at play, they’re nicely grounded in each character’s humanity and each actor’s performance. Behind the camera, Fremon Craig has a deft hand and a compassionate eye, bringing forth interactions and moments that remain rooted in reality and sometimes devastating feeling. Her career will be one to watch.
Breaking free of some genre trappings, while finding truth in others, EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is a unique and wholly satisfying film that feels both comfortably recognizable and smartly original. By embracing the relational, emotional, and psychological confusion of young adulthood, Kelly Fremon Craig has created a recognizable hallmark that speaks knowingly and beautifully to one of the messiest periods in all of our lives.
21. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, dir. Gareth Edwards
If continuing the Star Wars franchise 10 years after REVENGE OF THE SITH was a risky filmmaking gamble last year, albeit one that paid off enormously, departing from the episodic saga fans are familiar with to develop a stand alone spinoff is an even riskier one. My skepticism towards the notion of “Star Wars Stories” was significantly tapered by an effective teaser, and then wiped away by an engrossing film that convincingly demonstrated the distinct promise of this new concept. Taking the universe we know and shifting the focus to a completely different angle, Gareth Edwards’ solo effort shows us a side of the galaxy far, far away that we haven’t really seen before.
Taking place primarily in the days before Princess Leia’s capture by the Empire, ROGUE ONE finds the Rebel Alliance spread thin, scattered, and divided, scrambling to maintain their survival. Learning of the development of a potential superweapon, Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) frees Imperial prisoner Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the weapon’s architect. Believing her connection to known extremists might deliver possible evidence into their hands, and eventually Galen himself, the Alliance orders Cassian and Jyn to team up to obtain more information about the Death Star. This eventually leads to the forming of an elite team who hatch a daring plan to steal the battle station read outs and protect the Rebellion.
A stunning, and notably diverse, ensemble shoulders the burden of these new and unfamiliar characters with aplomb. Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Jiang Wen all have numerous moments of stellar action and humor, while also packing the occasional emotional punch when necessary. Alan Tudyk’s reprogrammed droid, K-2SO, almost walks away with the whole film thanks to the character’s hilarious frankness, and while Ben Mendelsohn brings an appropriate heightened villainy and insecurity to chief antagonist Orson Krennic, god only knows what universe Forrest Whittaker thought he was in, because it wasn’t Star Wars. Luna makes for a dashing leading man, and creates a morally conflicted and complicated hero that’s dedicated to the cause above all else. Cassian’s scenes opposite Jyn are where the sparks really fly, though thankfully never in a tacked-on romantic way. As Jyn, Jones commits fully to her fierceness and spirited determination, while taking the right opportunities to reveal the wounded and abandoned child within. There are moments her eyes simply moved me to tears.
What really shines, however, is Edwards’ dedication to shining a different light on this galactic conflict. There’s a murky moral grayness that looms above the proceedings as we realize, through their actions, that the Rebels aren’t perhaps the most purely heroic, and the Imperials perhaps not all-consumingly evil. There are disturbing arguments made on each side to justify their own destructive methods. It lends the proceedings a gritty realism that matches the war-meets-heist film structure. The behind the scenes hero here has to be cinematographer Greig Fraser, whose jaw-dropping compositions make this perhaps the prettiest entry in the canon. Taking the familiar and shooting it in inventive and exciting ways, his work compliments, and most exemplifies, the changing of perspective. And, of course, Industrial Light and Magic continues to up the game with groundbreaking special effects that make for an awesome and astounding finale, regardless of how you feel about Grand Moff Tarkin. Even Michael Giacchino’s compositions that depart from John Williams’ classic score warrant repeated listens.
For the first in a narrative and franchise experiment, Gareth Edwards and his team have created a powerful piece that, while indebted to previous entries, stands on its own. Remarkable craftsmanship on every level amazes in its ingenuity while also grounding us in the reality of this fictional world. There’s much to laud ROGUE ONE for including a strong female lead, an ethnically rich and talented cast, striking parallels to our current world, but perhaps the most important is the gift it leaves us with in its concluding moments that shines a little light amidst our current darkness: Hope.
That’s it for entries 25-21. Be on the look out for 20-16 coming hopefully soon! In the meantime, if you missed the two-part list of Best Movie Moments from 2016, feel free to give it a read as well.