The Best of 2016
Every year, In Reel Deep reveals its "best of" list and provides an opportunity for both Andrew Johnson and Steve Cimino to ramble lovingly about their favorite films from the last 12 months. This year, rather than two separate lists, this combined offering contains their co-sponsored four favorites of 2016, along with six others from each of them (and an honorable mention, for the last few they just couldn't ignore). As always, each section is listed in alphabetical order.
The four best of the year
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
SC: I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople, at least beyond “Sam Neill with a great big bushy beard.” What I got was a charming, hilariously madcap comedy about a fat kid, his semi-adoptive father, and their adventures hiding out in the New Zealand bush. It’s a simple story, but the way Neill’s Hec falls for Julian Dennison's Ricky (and vice versa) will melt any heart.
It also helps that Dennison is hilarious, and that Neill’s “curmudgeon with a melting heart of ice” hasn’t lost a beat since the Jurassic Park days. It’s a shame that the only cinematic path for directors these days seems to be “make a fun, quirky action/comedy and then join the Star Wars/Marvel brigade” but I am genuinely excited for what Taika Waititi brings to Thor: Ragnarok. That feeling alone is an accomplishment worthy of “best of” praise.
AJ: Truth be told, we’ve seen about a thousand movies like this before. You know the kind - a troubled kid slowly but surely warms the heart of a gruff would-be parental figure. There’s an obvious, certain happy ending in the offing, and trope after trope along the way to that conclusion. Hunt for the Wilder People is that movie, but without many of the obnoxious qualities that prevent so many also-rans from being memorable.
It doesn’t condescend to its young protagonist or milk that troubled upbringing of his for more than its worth. It also doesn’t give too much credit to the would-be parental figure, an unrelentingly gruff Sam Neill. It avoids the obvious, and, in so doing, becomes an exceptional film. I didn’t quite understand the love for director Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. With Wilder People, I’m beginning to grasp his broad appeal.
AJ: Full points to Damien Chazelle for having the vision and the balls to try and update Singin’ in the Rain for the 21st century. The fact that he was able to do a bang-up job cements his place as the next great young director in Hollywood. Go ahead, try and take his crown.
La La Land is an easy, breezy charmer of a film on its surface. One feels like that would be the case even if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling weren’t the leads. That they happen to be almost seems like overkill. This is a story with substance as well, though. It grapples with art and artistry, with the delicate balance between appreciating the masters in such a way that it doesn’t become a form of mindless worship and, ultimately, mimicked drudgery. There’s meat to chew on here underneath those wonderful musical numbers, expertly calibrated to put a twinkle in your eye.
SC: I am not a fan of musicals. This fact is well-known enough to provoke several people into warning me: “Don’t go see La La Land.” And after the opening number, an impromptu romp through the freeways of Los Angeles, I started to think they were right.
Then the movie begins in earnest, and makes it clear that there’s more to it than just song-and-dance routines. The relationship between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is earnest and beyond charming; its message about commitment to your passions gives it relevance beyond being “a love letter to Los Angeles.” And director Damien Chazelle, in his follow-up feature to In Reel Deep’s Best Movie of 2015 winner Whiplash, proves that he’s the finest young director in Hollywood. Turns out I do like musicals, as long as they come with a touching, honest foundation underneath.
SC: I’ve heard more than a few people lament this movie as being about “middle-class white people problems,” which makes me wonder if they think Jaws is about “boat and swimming problems.” Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s breakthrough hit gives tragedy a sincere and downtrodden face in Casey Affleck, a janitor who is hiding from a horrible, life-altering event.
What makes Manchester by the Sea special is how deeply it dives into the minutia of humans recovering from catastrophe. Both Affleck and the equally wonderful Lucas Hedges cope with their losses through tears and laughter, but also by living day-by-day and clinging to the routines that previously kept them whole. And then there’s Michelle Williams, fantastic as always, and an alley conversation with Affleck that is among the year’s best scenes. Lonergan brings fully formed characters to life here, in a manner that more celebrated auteurs can only dream of.
AJ: Much like the grief itself, Manchester by the Sea is many things all at once. It is a mystery to solve. What makes Casey Affleck’s Lee so reticent to return to his hometown and care for his nephew after the death of his brother? It is a dark comedy as Lee and his nephew struggle awkwardly and mightily to cope. And it is a crushing tragedy as all the details about Lee are filled in. It is an overwhelming piece of art. It must be processed over time. As it is, you are left to feel what seems like the full spectrum of human emotion. Not bad at all for the Other Affleck and Co.
AJ: Much like its protagonist, Chiron, Moonlight had to duck and bob and weave to find its simple, unassuming moment in the spotlight. Director Barry Jenkins’ film shines a light on the kind of character we haven’t really ever studied closely - a young, black man coming of age in one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods. It also takes measure of Chiron in unusual fashion, loosely connecting long vignettes in three different time periods, with three different actors in the starring role. It is one of the most beautiful and captivating films I have ever seen, and it is only that way because it holds its head high as exactly what it needs to be in every capacity.
SC: Speaking of brilliant scenes, no movie in 2016 contained more of those than Moonlight. From the dining-room confrontation between young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) and drug dealer/father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali) to the reunion of adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland), it has a half-dozen moments that’ll make you gasp, tear up, and occasionally grasp a fleeting but very real sense of hope.
As shot by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton, Moonlight is beautiful. As a story of the intense difficulties that come with being different in the United States of America, Moonlight is challenging and necessary. More than anything—and more than the year’s other great movies—Moonlight doesn’t just make a simple story the best it can be. It handles multiple actors playing the same part better than any film I can think of. It doesn’t hold its audience’s hand, yet it lays every part of its story out perfectly. And it does this all while depicting a life most of us cannot imagine with grace, respect, and beauty.
The best of the rest
Embrace of the Serpent
SC: This nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards didn’t open in the States until February of 2016, hence its inclusion on this list. Another terrific example of two actors playing one character, it follows two scientists from different time periods as they travel with shaman Karamakate through the Amazon in search of a sacred plant.
It’s easily compared to Apocalypse Now, and certainly actively solicits those comparisons as Karamakate and his companions have separate interactions with a dark and then devolved Catholic mission. Yet its black-and-white presentation provides a timelessness that benefits its sprawling story, and director/co-writer Ciro Guerra shows a deft hand in weaving compromising Western values and complications throughout without it feeling heavy-handed. It’s strange to take in, stunning to watch, and quietly complex.
AJ: My partner in crime around these parts categorized this as minor Coen Brothers, and, truth be told, I can’t really argue with that assessment. But minor Coen Brothers still makes for a major film in any calendar year, and Hail, Caesar, for all its admitted flaws, is, at its heart, really, really funny, especially if you’ve developed a taste for the Studio Era of Hollywood, as I have. May I suggest revisiting Hail, Caesar soon, and washing it down with a side of Karina Longworth’s terrific podcast, You Must Remember This, when you do?
AJ: The automobiles and automatic weapons in Hell or High Water are ultimately anachronisms in a film that otherwise possesses all the beats and sensory cues of a classic Western. If, like me, you lament the steep decline of the genre, then this is a film that deserves celebration for showing a possible way forward.
SC: It feels I saw The Lobster a lifetime ago, when the idea of “President Donald Trump” was just a gleam in no one’s eye. Fortunately, all these months later it’s still the funniest and most unique movie of 2016. And it’s sort of refreshing to visit a “dystopian universe” that is less about broken homes or burning rubble and more about the smaller, creepier parts of a society where everyone must find a mate or risk being turned into an animal.
There are shocking moments—out-of-nowhere bursts of violence, detailed references to anal sex, a very dead dog—that go along with a general air of uncomfortability. Because it’s so odd, you’re never quite sure where writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos is going. Yet it never betrays its tone, and its absurd comedic elements come from its very defined characters and the world Lanthimos builds. The Lobster isn’t for everyone, but those who love it won’t be able to think of much else.
SC: Jeff Nichols tells stories with a Southern flair; his two movies that added a twist (Take Shelter and Midnight Special) were his most polarizing. But he gets back to his roots with Loving, the dramatic retelling of an interracial marriage that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, the most emotive and outspoken of the duo; Joel Edgerton is the quiet, brooding Richard, a man who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Nichols keeps his film grounded in their two personalities and in their love; celebrations are few and far between, but the connection between the pair feels real and beautiful. The ultimate victory is hard-fought and satisfying, yet the struggles of couples like the Lovings were not washed away in an instance. Held together by captivating performances of the two leads, this is a timely and thematically appropriate film at a moment when the path to equality is about to get a lot narrower.
AJ: In a year defined by race (at the movies and everywhere), the latest film from Laika Studios couldn't fully avoid the controversy for placing white voice actors in ostensibly Japanese roles. I’m sympathetic to both the complaints and the defense from Laika, but more than anything I’m disappointed that it distracts from what stands as a truly terrific film no matter where you fall on the race argument. Laika’s films have always been technical marvels. Kubo represents next-level storytelling as well, wading into the same thematic territory as Inside Out and, honestly, doing it every bit as well as Pixar did.
SC: There are parts of Nocturnal Animals that come up short, namely “everything Amy Adams does.” Yet the disappointingly thin Adams-centric wrapper doesn’t diminish what is at the film’s core: a riveting thriller where Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and recent Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson all do some of the best work of their careers.
From our terrifying introduction to Taylor-Johnson’s Ray Marcus along a dark West Texas road to the Gyllenhaal/Shannon tag-team of revenge, everything about the film’s story-within-a-story is wonderfully intense. Tom Ford, known primarily as a fashion designer, reinforces his directorial chops and shows that he can cook up some steak to go along with his stylish sizzle. It’s not as cut-and-dry excellent as his debut A Single Man, but it’s just as intriguing and far more exciting.
O.J.: Made in America
Movie? TV show? The definition is blurred anyway, so if director Ezra Edelman wants to classify it as a film, that’s good enough for me. I was 11 years old when O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole, and I’ve spent most of the time since thinking he should have been found guilty and that the entire trial was an unserious farce that either contributed to or was an obvious sign of societal decay. Edelman’s documentary stands as proof that, on those two counts, I was completely wrong.
SC: Adam Driver may have received worldwide recognition (if not acclaim) for his turn as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but dramatic recognition has been harder to come by. He was great in Girls but sunk like a stone in While We’re Young; despite solid small appearances in Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis, there was a real chance that the “hipster millennial” anchor was about to be fastened to his leg.
Fortunately, Jim Jarmusch appeared with Paterson to both save the day and boost Driver to new heights. Not only is his relationship with Golshifteh Farahani’s Laura one of the most earned and genuine ever depicted on-screen, but Driver gets to be quiet and contemplative instead of clever and quippy. It fits like a glove, along with Jarmusch’s straightforward style and his engaging tertiary characters. Paterson seems like a joke on paper—”bus driver is also a poet”—but in reality it’s a triumph.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
AJ: Have I said this here yet? I don’t think I have. Andy Samberg’s brand of comedy isn’t for everybody, I am sure, but it is most definitely for me. And, for me, Popstar is chortlingly funny - a thumb to the eye of many an egotistical singer, but most especially directly to Justin Bieber. It helps that it comes with a soundtrack from The Lonely Island that features a bunch of in-your-face, gut-busting numbers (“Mona Lisa” and “Ibitha” are personal favorites). Sure, it’s an unserious film, but it was also the funnest 87 minutes I had with a movie this year.
SC: The sole documentary in my best-of list, with Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold not far behind. You might wonder if co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg realize how lucky they are, to have inadvertently captured an intimate look at former Congressman Anthony Weiner at the pinnacle of perhaps the most public political sex scandal since Clinton-Lewinsky. When I saw the two speak, at a screening of Weiner at DC’s E Street Cinema, I can assure you they were still counting their cinematic blessings.
When asked why Weiner allowed them to keep filming as his world came down around them, they gave a few guesses: Hubris? The belief that, somehow, he was going to dig his way out of this one as well? Given how his scandal ended up impacting the recent presidential election, that particular brand of hubris may have doomed the world to eternal darkness. At least we got this terrific documentary out of the deal.
AJ: Like many other great horror films, The Witch leaves you with a deeply unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach - the kind that lingers after the closing credits have rolled. Director Robert Eggers takes you there simply by presenting an unsanitized, unfiltered depiction of Puritanism. Yes, the first white English settlers of this country were a supremely gloomy bunch.
AJ: I had to think three or four times at least, but ultimately couldn’t find a place for Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. Nothing made me more uncomfortable this year than Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden. He’s really good at uncomfortable, and what I keep coming back to is not all the lurid lovemaking but instead those leering men. 10 Cloverfield Lane would have been a slam dunk for this list had it not so foolishly tried to tie itself back to its namesake at the very end. If you want to understand why Donald Trump is unfit to be President, imagine him calling the shots during Eye in the Sky. Finally, The Nice Guys was a terrific reminder that the buddy cop comedy can be resuscitated at any time with the right script and director.
SC: The Nice Guys was tremendous. So was Green Room (RIP Anton Yelchin). 20th Century Women had some of the year's best female performances, and Denial took what should've been a pretty standard legal drama with a known ending and made it into something truly gripping. Finally, Sully has to be the oddest movie of the year. Parts of it are tremendous (Aaron Eckhart, the crash sequence). Other parts are perplexing, including a truly odd ending. Despite being a relatively standard drama, I have no idea what to make of it; for Clint's sake, I'll count that as a good thing.