This year, I’m so far behind on my movie watching that I probably still haven’t seen most of my favorite 2016 films.
For example: I still haven’t seen Moonlight (fortunately I have a ticket to finally see it on Wednesday), Weiner, High-Rise, Things to Come, Elle, Always Shine, Manchester by the Sea, Silence, American Honey, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, The Love Witch, O.J.: Made in America, Jackie, 13th, Green Room, Hell or High Water, Paterson, Certain Women, The Fits and a massive, seemingly unending list of other movies. Fortunately, January is always a shitty month for new releases, so I have some time to get to work.
Still, with all those films I missed, that’s not to say I haven’t seen quite a few gems released this year. Here are my favorites so far.
La La Land
If you ever need an example of a film that can be both grandiose and small, or both nostalgic and inventive, or both uplifting and heartbreaking, then look no further than La La Land.
Any one of the elements that worked in this movie would have been enough to make it better than most. Since everything in it worked, it snuck its way in as my favorite 2016 film [note: I haven’t seen Moonlight yet].
Sometimes, I see a movie and feel a little sad that I can never see it again for the first time. This was one of those movies.
Watching La La Land, an ode to love and movies and Los Angeles and music and musicals and life, I just kept thinking, “This is why people make movies.” I’m not sure exactly what my brain is getting at with that thought — I think there are all sorts of reasons why people make movies, many of them beautiful — but it still feels partly true. At the very least, La La Land captures the essence of why I personally fell in love with movies: the wonder of it, being surprised by a filmmaker, and when that plays out on a big screen while I’m surrounded by other people being taken on the same journey — that is what continues to make the cinema so special to me. I laughed often, I cried, I smiled both from joy and awe — in short, I fell in love. What else can you hope for from a love story?
I also really enjoyed the effect of having leads in a song and dance musical who aren’t great singers or dancers, who are imperfect. It illustrated a vulnerability that fit the story so well, a beautiful ordinariness that really worked.
**Side note: As I was writing this, I just found a quote about La La Land from Siddhant Adlakha’s list of his favorite 2016 films that I really loved, related to both my love of this film and film in general: “We may be the sum of all our experiences, but we can build our future on the very best parts of them, and the movies will always be there to guide us along. They still make them like they used to.”
The last bit is quite spoilery.
That scene, where she accidentally walks into his jazz bar all those years later, the one he named after her idea, and he sees her in the audience; the wistful smile as he says, “Welcome to Seb’s,” and then sits down and plays a song for her that is everything he wishes had been different, a dream of how it might have been instead. If that’s not a classic movie moment then there’s no such thing.
All love stories end in loss, the real question is whether or not our love made us better while it lasted.
As I wrote during Halloween Movie Fest this year: Don’t learn anything about this movie, just watch it.
This is a tense, slow burn that is interesting and unique. It’s evidence that the right people can make a wildly good film for very little money.
I can’t wait to see what Karyn Kusama does next; also, thus far in his career Logan Marhsall-Green has been seriously underutilized.
I won’t say more so I don’t spoil anything.
This was my favorite new movie from HMF16. Watch it! I’ll watch it with you if you need a creepy movie buddy.
The closest challenger La La Land has for my favorite of the 2016 films I’ve seen so far is Arrival.
Denis Villeneuve’s first foray into sci-fi is pretty fucking beautiful. I’m glad it won’t be his last sci-fi story, as his next film is Blade Runner 2049 and there have been talks for him to adapt Dune in some form, which is apparently a dream project of his. That could be amazing!
Please don’t sleep on this movie because you think of yourself as a person who doesn’t like sci-fi. Two primary reasons: One, because it’s not true that you just flat out “don’t like sci-fi” (I can prove that to you if you let me, but it would take actual conversations with you because it would be a unique set of proofs for each person). And two, because this movie is too great to let slip because of your blanket dismissal of a genre.
Arrival is a great film, and it shows the range of what a good sci-fi story can do. It’s a story about humanity in the big sense, but more than that, it is the small story of a particular woman told in a really big frame of reference. It’s the perfect example of how accessible sci-fi can be because it isn’t sci-fi-lite; meaning it’s not sci-fi that everyone might like because it tastes like water, this is complex sci-fi flavor executed so well that everyone might appreciate it. I mean, this is the story of a fucking linguist decoding an alien language: nerd stuff. Yet, I can’t imagine any open-minded viewer being turned off by the sci-fi aspects, because the heart that beats at the center of the film is so vital, the texture is so rich.
Also, can we just give Amy Adams the earliest lifetime achievement award ever bestowed? She’s already in the hall of fame, let’s just make it official. And for all his blockbuster appearances, Jeremy Renner is still a really underrated actor; he can do an awful lot with very little.
Now, it gets spoilery from here
I’m enamored with one of the central questions I come away with at the end of this movie, which is: if you knew a choice to love was going to end in tragedy, would you still go through with it? If you knew in advance that your marriage would be happy at times but end in divorce, would you still choose to love? And if you knew your child would die of a rare disease as a teenager, would the joyful moments be worth that immeasurable heartache? I know most parents would say “Yes,” but that’s still a huge question that pulls at the nature of what it means to love. I know, part of the question in Arrival is whether or not she had a choice at all, but if you did have a choice, what would you choose?
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Here I am, the president of the Taiki Waititi fan club, at it again.
I don’t really know what else to say to get my friends to watch Waititi’s movies. I don’t know how anyone could not love his work. Don’t you like being happy?!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is stuffed with joy, charm, and Waititi’s trademark lovable weirdos who become a family. There’s so much sweetness, but it never gets cloying.
Recently, when I recommended Hunt for the Wilderpeople on this blog, I joked that I’ll probably be disappointed if I ever go to New Zealand because people won’t talk like Taiki Waititi characters. The more I think about it, I realize it’s actually just disappointing that the people of the world in general don’t act more like Taiki Waititi characters.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black at the height of his powers. That’s really all anyone would need to say to me and I would buy a ticket sight unseen. I fell in love with Black without knowing it when I was 14 and saw The Long Kiss Goodnight at least five times, and years later Kiss Kiss Bang Bang forever solidified my devotion.
I really hope that every decade or so — at least — Black keeps making noirish comedies about violent men and dangerous women, or the other way around, doesn’t matter who, it works either way. No one does buddy film banter and reluctant chemistry better than Shane Black.
Ahem, exhibit A, from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “Look up the word idiot in the dictionary, you know what you’ll find?”
“A picture of me?”
“No, the definition of the word idiot, which you fucking are!”
Anyway, there’s no reason for me to write anything else about it, because Nerdwriter1 already did this great piece on how Shane Black does movie violence the right way, which prominently features The Nice Guys.
Kubo and the Two Strings
First, I can’t praise this movie without pointing out the disappointing degree of whitewashing at work. This is a story told with asian characters in an asian setting, and yet almost all of the lead voice actors are white. That sucks.
This makes my love for the film complicated, and I would understand anyone who dismissed the film outright as a result.
I really do wish there was nothing complicating my love for Kubo, because there is so much here to love. It’s a genuinely great film in every other respect. The mere fact that I can have such qualms about it and still include it amongst my few favorite films of the year has to say something.
Visually the film is a remarkable achievement. What Laika is able to do with stop motion animation is astounding. It’s amazing that they continue to make films that are so good that you have to call them great movies, period, not great movies “for stop motion.”
The folks at Laika are always great storytellers, but even by those standards, Kubo and the Two Strings is significantly more moving and inspiring than I’d anticipated.
This is a dark, beautiful telling of the sort of story the world needs right now. I just wish they’d told it without making such disappointing and insensitive casting decisions.
Swiss Army Man
Most weird movie characters aren’t actually weird. Much like the way “ugly” or “uncool” people in movies are actually hot people wearing ill-fitting frames for their glasses and an unfortunate hairstyle, the supposed weirdness is cast off with an ease that reveals it was never really there to begin with. Surprise, these outcasts are actually fairly well-adjusted socially and come to a satisfying denouement that finds them healthy members of a family or friend group!
Swiss Army Man is not that sort of movie. It’s as weird as the story of a suicidal castaway who befriends a corpse ought to be, and that weirdness is embraced throughout — and by embraced I actually mean ratcheted up consistently.
The fact that the weirdness isn’t merely a trapping used while convenient and then dropped later on to serve the cloying “message” of the story means Swiss Army Man is a film that can actually mean something to real weirdos. It also means the film has to work harder to earn its charm and emotional depth, which makes it so much more satisfying when it works. And it really, really works.
Early on, it took me a bit to warm up to Swiss Army Man, but in the end I loved the time spent with these disturbed and beautiful characters, and that early uncertainty on my part made the payoff so much sweeter.
Speaking of weird, The Lobster.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is odd and idiosyncratic in the best possible ways.
As I look back over my list of favorite films of the year, I see the common thread of filmmakers skillfully using interesting metaphors to get at something deeply true. In this case, it’s a look at modern love in all of its many horrors and glories… although mostly horrors.
Everyone is great in this movie, and it’s further proof that Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz would be massive movie stars if the economy of film were a meritocracy (which reminds me, the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise trading Colin Farrell for mid 2010’s Johnny Depp is mind-blowingly stupid).
The Lobster reminds me of Charlie Kauffman, one of my favorites, but more understated and direct.
This is certainly not a feel-good option — for example, it includes a scene of non-chalant and heartbreaking human on dog (who used to be a human) violence — but with its dark humor and sharp insight, it stayed with me well after finishing it. It’s the sort of film you’ll be talking about with your friends immediately.
Honorable mention/movies that I enjoyed and might realize should have been on the list tomorrow: 10 Cloverfield Lane, De Palma, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to ‘Off the Wall,’ The Witch, Hail, Caesar, and Midnight Special.