Here’s the next installment in the Top 25 countdown of the films of 2016. These five feature four incredible films released during the first half of the year, and one wide release delayed until the start of 2017. Two directing forces at the top of their games provide interesting companions to their recent masterpieces. One director has a stunning debut, while another pays tribute to a loved one, and then there’s the first Best Picture nominee to appear on the list. Here they are, 15-11:
15. HAIL, CAESAR!, dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen
A kaleidoscope of film genres, styles, and techniques, the latest from the Coen brothers is a celebration of the art form itself. Filled with faithful and reverent riffs on the classics of 1950s Hollywood that feel familiar and imaginative at the same time, the word “homage” feels like an understatement. While it’s easy to get whisked away to the days of yore with each new sequence, it packs a surprising intellectual and emotional punch that lingers long after the laughter has passed. An examination of the purpose and place of an artist, freedom of expression, sacrifice, public image and much more, HAIL, CAESAR! feels like the flip side of the coin to their previous masterpiece, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.
Taking place over roughly 24 hours, the story primarily follows a day in the life of fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he navigates keeping all of the studio stars in line, assuring that everyone is happy, including his wife. One wrench thrown into his busy schedule is the disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of their historical prestige picture with the same title as the film. He eventually discovers Whitlock has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. That’s just one addition to a plate that includes a pregnant unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson), a young star forced to change his image (Alden Ehrenreich), a frustrated director (Ralph Fiennes), a pair of nosey Hollywood gossip reporters who happen to be twins (both Tilda Swinton), and a potential new job offer, all while attempting to quit smoking and find some time for his family. As the day comes to an end, Mannix finds his conflicts, external and internal, must be resolved, or they’ll continue to torment him.
The Coens are known for their impeccable casting, and they’ve assembled one of their finest ensembles to date, allowing each star to have their golden nugget of a scene or two. Brolin finds the nuance and complexity in Mannix, a man part fast-moving screwball protagonist, part hard-boiled noir detective, and all around product of Catholic guilt. Clooney is at his most dopey, oafish, and clueless as Whitlock, and it’s a nice reminder of his comedic chops. Johansson injects her starlet with grace and poise on camera, and a biting, wise-cracking personality when off. Swinton sinks her teeth into both her roles, creating two haughty and presumptuous columnists who are confusingly and appropriately similar. Channing Tatum draws comparison to the likes of the great Kelly and Astaire in a song-and-dance sequence that highlights his skills as a dancer and his humorous playfulness. Fiennes is the picture of old-school artistic class and flair, creating a wonderfully understated companion to his work in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. And Ehrenreich is the gem of them all, finding a charming, winning dedication and simple honesty that warms our hearts to a young man we might’ve initially dismissed as dim-witted and hopeless. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Taking each shift in location to showcase a different part of the studio lot, the Coens relish in not only displaying the myriad films working at the same time, but also in how they were made. Filling in as editors as well, they cut expertly from the recorded footage to wide shots that reveal the vastness of the stages and the sheer mass of crew making it all happen. Art direction, set decoration, and costume design elements are lavish and flawlessly detailed in ways that transport the audience immediately to the period. Roger Deakins continues to remind us of his place as one of the modern masters of cinematography, this time shooting in various formats and film stocks, and adapting with ease to the ever changing style and mood. And like almost of their films, one of the brightest stars is their trademark writing. Riotously funny, absurdly satirical, and deceptively deep, each scene is busting with laughs and insights alike. As with all of their filmography, the multiple layers present in their writing rewards repeated viewings.
A love letter to the medium itself, and also an interesting inside look at some of the controlling and complex aspects of studio Hollywood’s past, HAIL CAESAR! delights and challenges in equal measure. Perhaps, like Eddie Mannix, it is conflicted, caught between joyful expression and lingering guilt, creating an appetizing dish that we enjoy in our eager first bites as well as the flavor that remains afterwards. And when it comes to choosing between an easy out or sticking with a difficult passion, it reminds us that persistence, joy, and a love for your craft is what allows us to create the magic that is art, no matter how hard the journey may be.
14. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, dir. Richard Linklater
Nothing quite matches the perpetual ease and calm confidence with which Richard Linklater deftly handles the commonplace, the unexceptional, and the familiar, drawing forth poignancy and surprising wisdom. Assembled with the care and love of a perfectly compiled mixtape, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! changes beats and tones effortlessly in a story that’s nostalgic and bursting with life. A spiritual sequel to DAZED AND CONFUSED and a pseudo continuation of BOYHOOD, it allows us an opportunity to examine competitive masculinity but also just have a really good time.
It’s three days before the start of classes at a southeastern Texas college in 1980, and the guys on the baseball team are back on campus to live it up in their final hours of freedom. Freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) is moving into the baseball house, and navigates territorial upperclassmen, questionable waterbeds, half-dressed roommates, and philosophizing stoners as he attempts to settle into his new home. Over the next 72 hours, the guys will cruise the streets, hit up the town’s various night clubs, compete in every manner possible, break each rule set down by the coach, and maybe find some spare time to actually practice before the beginning of the semester. As the party dies down and the buzz starts to wear off, they try to hang on to what simple, fleeting pleasures they can, because their time as athletic kings won’t last forever.
For the film’s lineup, Linklater has put together a welcome and colorful batch of relative unknowns, along with the occasional familiar face. Everyone blends together in a natural, boisterous way, each adding their unique dash to the mixture, and it’s impossible not to recognize eerie shared traits with one’s own college friends or acquaintances. Jenner may not make as large of an impact here as he does in EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, but his occasional arrogance and insecurity blended with budding self-assurance make him the spitting image of a first-year student navigating the initial taste of freedom. Tyler Hoechlin, the son from ROAD TO PERDITION, has grown up, providing a macho swagger, combative nature, and some unexpectedly levelheaded leadership as the team’s captain, McReynolds. Wyatt Russell is quietly laid-back as the team’s resident philosopher, smoker, and Twilight Zone enthusiast, Willoughby, but’s there’s more to him than meets the eye. And Glen Powell is charismatic in spades as Finnegan, a man so adaptable, easy-going, and loquacious, he seems to have lost who he really was somewhere along the way. Also, Zoey Deutch makes the most of a brief role as a theatre major that Jake asks on a date, giving a taste of someone in a different field equally dedicated to pursuing their purpose.
If watching these jocks strut around, exert their prowess over one another, and indulge in their own testosterone doesn’t sound appealing to you, it might not surprise you that I was initially turned off by all of the characters at the start. But the beauty of Linklater as a writer and director is that he allows us the chance to re-examine those we might initially be dismissive of, slowly but surely letting their complexity and humanity express itself naturally, giving us new insight and understanding. Of course, it helps that it’s just simply a lot of fun. The costume pieces and art direction are so specific to that time when the beginning of a new decade is still married to the style of the era before, and every character’s wardrobe says so much about them. The soundtrack is an abundance of memorable tunes and catchy rhythms, a celebration of that particular moment in music history. And beyond the fun, there’s truthful observations galore on competition, brotherhood, and the problematic qualities society continues to encourage and instill in young men.
Lighthearted yet insightful, this reminiscent romp to the glory days of youth, prowess, and freedom is another Linklater gem, a capsule of that brief, passing, but magical, time when it feels like the world is yours. It moves as life does, seemingly insignificant, but fast, and you don’t realize until the end that all this time while you were waiting for something to happen, it turns out everything happened. And while Linklater’s memories of the past may not be yours or mine, he always excels at capturing the feeling of the present, the energy from moment to moment, and how what we sometimes deem inconsequential and minor is actually what makes up the understated beauty of existence. It’s the little things that transform EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! from a film that appears to be about nothing into a film that’s about everything.
13. THE VVITCH: A NEW ENGLAND FOLKTALE, dir. Robert Eggers
Skin crawling, nightmare inducing, and stupidly pretty, this impressively crafted period piece meets contained interpersonal exercise in horror solidifies Robert Eggers as a filmmaker to watch, and is the most confident debut in recent memory. Minimizing what’s shown and maximizing on fear and dread, its purposeful pacing and portrayal of spiraling human sanity draws to mind comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING. With palpable foreboding hanging like a dense fog, it builds to its shocking payoffs and terrifying reveals with the most careful, self-assured, and intentional of steps, placing it in the realm of the scariest films of all time.
When threatened with banishment from a Puritan plantation due to a difference in interpretation of the New Testament, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family decide to start their own farm on the edge of a vast forest, far away from society. One day, the newborn baby, Samuel, vanishes under the care of eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), which begins to sow the seeds of discord amongst the family. Matters only become worse when Thomasin goes hunting in the woods with her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the two become separated. Off on his own, Caleb comes across a small shack and an alluring young woman. It isn’t until too late that he realizes he has been captured by a witch. As the family fears the loss of another child, Caleb appears outside in the rain, completely naked and clearly deeply disturbed. His reappearance is the catalyst that drives a wedge between them all, plunging them into darkness as they ferociously drag each other down to their personal hell.
Nailing a horror story with authentic period style is no small feat, and having the right cast to believably live in that period is equally so. Fortunately, for such a small, contained group, Eggers has put together a fine wealth of talent, young up-and-comers and notable character actors alike. Ineson has never felt as strangely at home as he does here, his pronounced features highlighting the increasing anger and haunting doubt swimming inside this tortured patriarch. And Kate Dickie’s trademark brittle, callous, and prickly nature is the perfect match for William’s grieving and unhinged wife. Their mutual psychological breakdowns couldn’t have been carried with such intensity and vulnerability by anyone else, as their commitment to their characters mental frenzies is unparalleled. And though her career has included a few television and film appearances prior, this is the true breakout of Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress I’m sure we’ll continue to see more from in the coming years. Her transformation from innocent childishness and unblemished purity into terrified self-protection and an eventual embrace of corrupted and depraved freedom is a brilliant showcase of her range, moving from debasement to unexpected empowerment fluidly.
What jumps off the screen initially isn’t a scare, but the look of the film itself. Eggers has clearly gone through painstaking effort to make us feel transported to colonial New England, and such historical accuracy ups the creepy factor even more. A mixture of grays, browns, and dirty whites, the environments, costumes, and world evoke the period between fall and winter, a dying, decaying state awaiting the arrival of the dark and the cold. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke deserves specific mention for his work shooting with only natural sources of light, an enterprise that helped seal Emmanuel Lubezki’s third Oscar last year. The candle light is spooky, casting looming shadows all around, the overcast skies provide an uneasy feeling, and everything is stunningly framed. One wouldn’t normally encourage attempts to replicate authentic dialogue as well, but Eggers’ self-assurance and innovative sensitivities know no bounds. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a gamble that pays off, lending the world a unique and precise colloquial feel. Truly, there isn’t anything that doesn’t feel thought out, intentional, and executed with gloomy perfection.
Signaling the arrival of a director come into the film world fully formed, THE VVITCH exceeds expectations at every turn. A terrifying fable that is also an unsettling introspection, it’s sure to delight fans of the genre for years to come. It may seem at this current moment we don’t need a reminder of how we’re capable of demonizing one another and tearing each other apart, but perhaps we do. Perhaps it’s a wake up call to the fear that runs rampant through our culture, causing discord and strife, separating us from one another. Or maybe it’s just an utterly spine-chilling masterpiece. You decide.
12. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, dir. Mike Mills
Memory is a magical tool, a poignant reminder, a mournful lament, and the prime subject of Mike Mills’ recent filmography. The way recollections of our personal past are so intertwined with the state of the world surrounding them and our understanding of our place in it clearly fascinates him. His previous film, 2011’s BEGINNERS, was a loving portrait of his father in later life, and what their relationship meant to him as an adult. His latest is a companion piece, one that’s a celebration of his mother. And while 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is a tribute to her, it also reflects on the multiple women who played a role in raising him, as well as taking the opportunity to examine the world through their eyes.
It’s Santa Barbara, California in 1979, and single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) is feeling increasingly disconnected from her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zummann). In an effort to relieve her worries, she enlisted the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young photographer who is one of the tenants at her boarding house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend, confidant, and crush, in raising her child. As each takes him under their wing, they introduce him to new music, concepts, ideas, relationships, and ways of life. Their interactions open these individuals up, providing us with a glimpse of who they are, what has shaped them, where they’re going, and the similarities and differences they have with each other. But while Dorothea might have felt her initial idea was smart, she becomes increasingly conflicted the more she feels Jamie is slipping away from her.
Mills couldn’t have picked a more pitch-perfect ensemble to bring these wonderfully distinct and extraordinary people to life. Leading the way is Bening as Dorothea, and it’s undoubtedly some of her finest work to date. Strong, independent, witty, wise, and resolute, yet also occasionally fragile, insecure, troubled, and confused, she embodies the wonderful contradictions of human nature. Instilling her with a spark that perhaps shined brighter in Dorothea’s youth but refuses to go out, Bening positively shines. Elle Fanning continues to impress as one of Hollywood’s best young actresses, adding to her list of collaborations with notable independent filmmakers. Her Julie is spirited, wiser to the world than her youthful looks suggest, yet guarded and wounded as well. Billy Crudup adds some nice support as William, a carpenter and tenant in the building. His cool and breezy persona provides other characters with an outlet for their vulnerabilities, and he reciprocates by sharing his own. Zummann, though arguably the stand in for Mills himself, isn’t given particularly much to do, but he still manages to capture the turmoil of the teenage years. And Gerwig is nothing short of brilliant as Abbie, providing charm, sensitivity, laughs, and some of the film’s most startlingly human moments. Abbie isn’t just heartbreaking because of her personal struggles, but because her striving for purpose and meaning is painfully real.
Mills’ love for these women is abundantly clear, both in his writing and how he allows them to breathe in each moment on screen. There’s not so much a desire for a focused storyline as there is for truth, understanding, and sensitivity. Scenes are designed to exist almost on their own, unveiling of new layers, and living in a fondly remembered but fleeting moment. There’s an incomparable knack Mills has for crafting these instances in time, infusing them with compassion and reflection. He seems to have found a worthy partner in cinematographer Sean Porter, whose camera movements allow us the opportunity to consider each character in their environment, how they’re feeling, and what they’re thinking. And there’s wonderful detail in the costuming, production design, and set decoration that is indicative of personality and identity, as well as the period. It’s all put together with the utmost care, a mark of editor Leslie Jones’ ability to stitch together a seamlessly free flowing narrative full of tender scenes that exist for just the right amount of time.
When it comes down to it, it’s a film that earns its title. The women at its core are beautifully portrayed, brimming with vulnerability and strength in equal measure. It’s a cross-section of three women, three individuals at different times in their lives, on different journeys, and they’re each allowed their chance to share with Jamie, and us, a piece of themselves. The fact that one can walk away from this film while feeling they now know these fascinating individuals is the mark of a great performance and a great storyteller. And it’s a reminder that our memories of one another are a gift, marks left by those who genuinely touched us with their lives, and they continue to live on through them long after they’re gone.
11. HELL OR HIGH WATER, dir. David Mackenzie
Down to earth, unassuming, and modest, yet instantaneously gripping, HELL OR HIGH WATER was the oasis filmgoers longed for following the harsh quality drought of the summer movie-going experience. Scottish director David Mackenzie’s realization of Taylor Sheridan’s pulsing, powerful screenplay is tense and terrific. Combining ne0-Western genre filmmaking with timely topics, it manages to be hugely entertaining while leaving a lot on your mind. A complex, frustrated argument from all sides, it’s unquestionably a product of the here and now.
In the early hours of the morning, two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard, rob multiple branches of the Texas Midland Bank. On their trail are two Texas Rangers, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) and Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), looking for clues or a pattern to their repeated robberies. It’s soon revealed the Howard boys are stealing from the Bank only to give it back. The Bank is planning to foreclose on the Howard family ranch if the debt for the mortgage isn’t paid in time. Having discovered oil on the property, and a potential opportunity for his sons to live a decent life free from poverty, Toby has enlisted Tanner to help him steal enough money from various branches to secure the land for their family. But for all their personally just intentions, Tanner is too much of a wild card to be fully kept in check. His impulsive actions lead to increased interest in their movements and disastrous consequences. As the Rangers close in on them, the Howards must make sacrifices in order to secure what’s there’s, or risk losing it all.
With grit and stark humanity, this contemporary heist film is carried by four performances, two pairs of men. Pine, typically seen in heroic blockbuster fare, has a real opportunity to sink his teeth into a morally complicated role, and does so with subtlety, earnestness, and something brooding beneath a more composed exterior. There’s a calmness that gives way to desperation when the shit hits the fan. Quietly charming, a voice of reason, yet hardened and deeply wounded, Pine has never been this exposed, or this compelling. As his partner in crime, Foster is chaotic and reckless, a cackling jackal who lashes out when easily provoked. There was once a heart of gold inside him that has now been tainted, buried, and scarred, though it flashes every so often. His desire to do good, but affinity for the bad is maddening, yet we hope he will somehow break his habits every time. Played with just the right amount of instability and intensity by Foster, it’s some of his best work on screen. Bridges is, of course, fantastic, and though the role of a lawman on the verge of retirement is one he could’ve done in his sleep, he manages to subvert the trappings of the trope all together. As if emblematic of an age that’s passed, Hamilton is man longing to maintain a hold on what he’s got. Wise-cracking, dismissive, unapologetic, and socially disagreeable, he only betrays his insecurities to the night air. It’s a real gut punch when all of that is shattered, and the trembling man beneath is revealed. And providing him with a welcome dose of reality is Birmingham as his partner, Alberto. It’s a less showy role, but it takes a lot to stand toe-to-toe with Bridges and be a collected voice of reason with an undercutting sense of humor. Each pair is effectively realized, men who see in the other the parts missing from themselves, the good and the bad, and there’s an intimacy to their conflict between embracing or pushing away.
It’s more than the performances that astound, thanks to sharp, bare bones filmmaking on Mackenzie’s part. Sequences are arresting in their simple and unflashy execution, complimenting the sobering quality of the issues at play. Shots by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capture the inherent bareness and beauty of the Texas landscape and, in turn, the harsh and unforgiving life that accompanies it. Editor Jake Roberts has cut together a character driven drama without losing sight of the heartbeat-like tension moving it along, allowing it to be introspective and explosive when the moments are right. It’s probably largely thanks to the shape screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has created in the script. Having impressed with last year’s SICARIO, Sheridan is back with another dive into the murky depths of human morality and social commentary. He has drawn a world that allows us multiple perspectives, a chance to understand each individual, but one that also pains us to watch them fatally clash. It throws a hundred questions at us and no easy answers.
A testament to a good story well told, it’s the kind of film that assures us there are satisfying narratives that don’t require resorting to contrivances. Absorbing and involving from the very start, it holds your rapt attention with tremendous performances, captivating writing, and deftly handled steering. It doesn’t release its hold on you until much later, the unresolved ambiguity of its conclusion continuing to haunt your mind, the parallels drawn to our lives made blisteringly clear. It’s a difficult moment now in our nation’s history, one fraught with mistrust, anger, hostility, and pain. How bold it is, then, for a film to hold the mirror up to us unflinchingly, showing us that we’re feeling that together, we just don’t quite realize it.
And there you have 15-11. All that’s left is the top 10, and then the countdown is complete. Be on the lookout, they’ll be coming in two parts. And if you missed the previous 10 films on the countdown, you can always go back and catch up. Thanks for reading!