I will spare everyone by not starting this list with reasons why 2016 sucked. However, one thing that has to be called into question are these “Film is Dead,” “TV is Winning the Culture War,” and “Why 2016 is the Worst Year in Film” clickbait headlines. If film is truly dead, and 2016 is truly the worst year in cinema, I ask you this: why was it so damn difficult to whittle this list down to just ten picks?
Even as someone who does this part-time, I saw upwards of 80 films this year, which is nothing to sneeze at. Among those 80ish, *maybe* ten of them were truly awful, and the rest ranged anywhere from mediocre-but-watchable to masterful. And it may be a bit disheartening that the top 10 highest grossing films were either sequels, remakes, or reboots (and the originals being animated films), but on the bright side, even though aggregate scores should be taken with a grain of salt, almost all of them — except Warner Bros.’ DC Universe entries (cue “The Price is Right” losing horn) — garnered fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and favorable ratings on Metacritic. So, if people are giving money hand-over-first for the big-budget films, at least they’re mostly seeing the good ones, right?
Sure, these articles were published in the heat of summer, where sequels no one wanted and tepid franchise films bit the dust. That’s merely audiences sending a message that they yearn for something a bit more, or at least something of better quality. The bright spot of 2016 is that the film year did not lack in quality, and while the entries below may not have racked up the big bucks, they are all worth seeking out.
Justin Tipping’s directorial debut is a film so confident and assured that it’s shocking how much it flew under the radar. Kicks is evocative of “Mean Streets”-era Martin Scorsese, from its use of popular music to the wisecracking, shit-talking banter of our lead characters, as well as a love of a particular area while not skimping on the harshness of said environment. The film does an excellent job of showing both sides of the story, how a young Brandon’s plight to get his Air Jordan’s back (a star-making role for Jahking Guilory) and the reasons why gang member Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) stole them in the first place, sends a ripple effect through the whole Bay Area, involving Brandon’s friends, cousins, and hardened uncle Marlon (a terrific Mahershala Ali). Tipping blends coming-of-age dramedy, chase movie, and a hangout movie in a tight 80-minute runtime without making it feel overstuffed. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker that deserves to be sought after.
9. “Midnight Special”
“Midnight Special” did not perform well when it hit theaters in March, but there’s something about Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature that has lingered in the mind and improved on repeated viewings. There’s no doubt that more people streamed Netflix’s “Stranger Things” over the summer than who saw this film, but unlike The Duffer Brothers — who merely hit Ctrl-C, Ctrl-Z with whole sequences from films you know by heart — Nichols streamlines the Spielberg and Carpenter influences into something that feel uniquely his own, be it a production design that will help age the film beautifully, or the way he tells Southern-spun stories with honesty and empathy. It also shows the climax of “Mud” was merely a warm-up for the type of thrilling sequences Nichols is able to pull off, from raining satellite debris to a car chase in bumper-to-bumper traffic. All technically impressive, but it would mean nothing without the heart at the center of it, and the amazing cast, especially Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, and young Jaeden Lieberher as Alton Meyer. Also, big shoutout to David Wingo’s synth score, which has played consistently on my Spotify playlist throughout the year.
“8. Hail, Caesar!”
The Coen Brothers’ latest was a divisive one around these parts. But after four viewings, I can say with some confidence that time will eventually rank “Hail, Caesar!” among the brothers’ best pure comedies. There’s no doubt that everyone’s favorite scene (“Would that it ‘twere so simple?”) is a time capsule moment, but the scene that has stuck with me is when studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) slaps around troubled movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to put him in his place, telling him that, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never going to forget that.” Amidst a myriad of terrific comic set pieces, the Coen’s equate Eddie’s attempts to be a good Catholic to the idea of cinematic religion. The idea that even with all the craziness that has to be put up with in a 24-hour period, with all the phoniness, and all the egos, by the end of the day, is it worth it? It’s a question that is fascinating to watch Joel and Ethan explore, likely steeped in their own experiences working in the studio system. As the answer to that question for Eddie is a resounding “yes,” it also is for the Coen’s, which makes “Hail, Caesar!” such a purely enjoyable delight.
7. “American Honey”
A friend of mine said when he saw the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s near-three-hour opus that it looked like “Kids 2: Electric Boogaloo.” I laughed at the joke, and after seeing the film, it does share some similarities with Larry Clark’s film (as well as Harmony Korine’s “Gummo”). The folks at the brilliant Next Picture Show podcast even paired it with Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” However, “American Honey” feels mostly indebted to “Easy Rider” as a film about finding the true America for a new generation. Between the episodic structure, the use of popular music from the era (from Rae Sremmurd to the Lady Antebellum track that the film borrows its name from), the road tripping, and getting to see the country through the lens that many would label as “outsiders,” there’s a lot to flatteringly compare to Dennis Hopper’s seminal film. What Arnold does that is miraculous (other than getting a career-best performance out of Shia LaBeouf) is never wearing out her welcome, even at 163 minutes. Newcomer Sasha Lane as our lead character Star, is equal parts fascinating and infuriating, and that’s a compliment. Arnold uses the Academy aspect ratio to full advantage, to zero in on Star’s experience, never letting the camera leave her perspective. It’s sprawling, beautiful, and full of energy, and will likely catch on in the years to come in a way it didn’t in its theatrical run.
6. “The Lobster”
Weirdly enough, the film that popped up in my head while watching “The Lobster” was “Full Metal Jacket.” Why? Traditionally, people love, remember, and quote the first half in the boot camp, and even the film’s greatest champions admit that the second half in Vietnam doesn’t quite live up to that first hour. My sentiments aren’t exactly that for Yorgos Lanthimos‘ English-language debut, but I could feel that in the audience when I saw it in theaters. Like Jacket’s first hour, “The Lobster” is funny, off-putting, and strange, but it’s weirdness is rooted in simplicity: find a mate in 45 days, or be turned into an animal of your choice for a second chance at love.
It’s easy to grasp and to bask in the oddball comedy that ensues, but when the scope of the film widens to outside of this resort, the simple through-line goes out the window and explores how the societal pressures that are bestowed upon single people comes not only from couples, renters, and religious groups, but also from other single people. The film also makes you take a long, hard look at your own relationship. People can get hung up in attraction over one or two things and then realize later on they have nothing in common outside of that. But, the film is not a huge bummer-fest. It’s original, it’s very funny, and it’s eye-opening.