Christopher Maher: Holy Moly, what a year for film! I feel like each year we’re (in general, at least) treated to better and better flicks. Picking a top few will be tough for me, and will definitely require some digging into the past. I’m also unsure how to rank some action flicks I loved (Captain America: Civil War came out this year apparently, even though it feels like a lifetime ago!) as opposed to some of the more artistic or foreign films I loved (The Handmaiden, La La Land). I’ve also got to figure in places for films I only got around to seeing in 2016, even if they were 2015 releases. Should we count things like The Assassin (did it even get an American release, or was I just lucky to see it at Cornell?) or Tu Dors Nicole (which just came to Netflix recently and which I know you loved… though apparently that dates back to 2014). Which films really stood out to you this year? Would you like to take this opportunity to finally admit your love for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (which I finally saw with my whole family a few days ago on Netflix).
Sammy Russell: Hey Chris, I disagree with the notion that every year films get better. Whiggishness is bullshit and we all know it (how else do you explain Donald Trump’s inevitable presidency?) Also, a lot of complete garbage came out this year. I think we should bind ourselves to the constructs of time our culture has created for us. Let’s exclude films released in previous years, otherwise all our picks will be Speed Racer (2008). Although in addition to Tu Dors Nicole (2014) I’d like to throw in Embrace of the Serpent (2015) as a great film I saw this year that technically came out last year.
Your mention of The Jungle Book tempts me to post my top 5 least favorite films from this year as well…
Also a disclaimer is in order: I have yet to see the following films so their absence is not because I didn’t love them, but because I didn’t anything them: Moana, Manchester by the Sea, Elle, Arrival, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Handmaiden, Paterson. The list can go on, but these are films that I feel had the potential to tickle my fancy but never got the chance.
Here are my top 5:
- Hell or High Water
This was a classy picture. No gimmicks. It uses a lot of overplayed tropes, a police officer close to retirement, smart criminals who get cocky and sloppy, “one last job!” A thief with a heart of gold and the best of intentions.
A tight narrative and a well-written, well-acted characters (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster all kill it) help transcend these tropes and deliver a great movie. Nobody is evil, nobody is all-good. Each character has a legitimate, justifiable perspective that is presented to the audience with equal weight.
It’s also beautifully filmed, and has a charming, understated sense of humor.
- The Lobster
The Lobster is what is parodied when people make fun of indie films. The dialogue is idiosyncratic, with many pregnant pauses and awkward silences. Characters behave unlike anyone you’ve ever met in real life, and unlike most characters you meet in other films. The humor is so dry you might get chapped lips.
All this is done in service of the most impressive world-building I’ve ever seen. The Lobster creates a surreal dystopia where the characters’ inane indie antics feel authentic. Most cinematic dystopias depict the face of evil empowered (The Matrix, The Hunger Games,) but this film is a more intimate, ground level, dystopia. Like our world, The Lobster’s world is plagued by strict and destructive rules (those most prominently concern relationships) that are shockingly self imposed. When our hero (Colin Farrel, who rocks in this) rejects these rules, he complacently embraces a different set of equally strict and destructive rules. Sad, hilarious, great.
Weiner might be the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since Spring Breakers (2012). Extremely fast on its feet and laugh out loud funny, I often forget that documentaries make the best absurdist comedies. The filmmaker’s shocking amounts of access to their subject (in one scene Anthony Weiner asks his aide’s to leave him alone…the camera stays) help humanize a public menace.
The story of Anthony Weiner, as told by the mainstream media, is one of a wise-cracking liberal golden boy politician who revealed himself to be a perverted monster.
The story, as told by filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, is one of a complicated, gifted, and ill man, whose undoing was a close collaboration between himself and the mainstream media.
Weiner is a stark commentary on how news media covers politics and how individuals operate in a limelight. It’s brilliantly edited and a wonderfully, painfully representative of 2016 as a year (even as most of the film takes place in 2011).
- Pete’s Dragon
Pete’s Dragon is what more children’s entertainment should aspire to be. Kids movies tend to lean on loud, broad humor, fast frenzied pacing, and bright sugary sweet colors. All things I like! But in a landscape of Trolls and Kung Fu Pandas, Pete’s Dragon‘s laid back folksy atmosphere is a breath of cool Pacific Northwestern fresh air.
Elliot is a charming, dog-like dragon with CGI fur that looks as though you can reach out and run your hands through it. The film is an environmentalist allegory, which is admittedly well-explored territory. However where most films of this ilk use the classic good versus evil dichotomy, the villains in Pete’s Dragon are not cruel, tree hating goons. Karl Urban delivers one of his best performances (yes, almost as good as his turn as Vaako in The Chronicles of Riddick) as the anthologist, who isn’t all bad, he just doesn’t get it.
- Blue Jay
I’ve written a review for this film on this here blog already. It’s intimate and relatable. It’s beautifully crafted and acted. Something I love in a film is when it manages to be mundane in its setting and scale, but emotionally epic. Blue Jay is exactly that. See it. (If you’re into that kinda thing).
CM: Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I didn’t see any of your top picks, so you’re not going to get any pushback from me on that front. I really want to see Hell or High Water, as well as Weiner. The Lobster looks too in your face smart for my taste, but what the hell do I know, I didn’t watch it.
Yes, Whiggishness (didn’t know the name for that human trait) is bullshit, but there are more films every year, so chances of there being good ones at least increases (though upon further reflection more movies I loved did come out in both 2015 and 2014 than this year). The downside of the ever increasing movie machine is that we don’t get around to watching as many. My “to watch” list: Weiner, Hell or High Water, Paterson, Jackie, Elle, The Witch (if I ever muster the courage), Florence Foster Jenkins, X-Men: Apocalypse (even though it was apparently no good), The Nice Guys, Star Trek: Beyond, Pete’s Dragon, American Honey, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Probably some others I’m forgetting.
- Captain America: Civil War
Yeah, okay. Not a perfect movie. Marvel movies are criminally boring color and cinematography-wise. But Civil War excelled in what I think Marvel movies could be. Age of Ultron was such a train wreck because it tried to feature every character in a stand-alone story. It was written as an event. Civil War was instead written with the intent of being a GOOD movie, in and of itself, while still functioning well within the MCU. Unlike in Ultron, not every character was given an arch, but each character was given something interesting to do that brought them a step forward. It also finally used the extensive MCU history to add weight to characters. Hawkeye’s relationship to Scarlet Witch was built on a previous movie, and while it didn’t have a full arch it still felt like an important series of moments that can be expanded in the future but have consequences now. Marvel patched up its villain game by having Zemo be a non-super, instead crafting a fully realized villain motivated by previous events. And oh my god Black Panther was awesome. I love that his story was just a revenge flick. I’ll admit the action sequences are still not as kinetically shot/edited as great action movies (this movie didn’t make me feel as refreshed as Fury Road), but they’re inventive and the myriad superpowers in the film made for some exhilarating combinations. It isn’t the best action movie ever, but it made me excited about the MCU again, which is an experiment I’m at least intrigued by.
Arrival was tight, classic sci-fi. It took a premise (Whorf Hypothesis) and took it further, to logical conclusions. It plays quite a few narrative tricks that nearly feel gimmicky, but they never teeter over the edge. It raises some interesting questions about time, space, fate, and… what it means to be human? Wow! This movie has it all. It’s well shot, well paced, well thought out, realistic, and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both pretty dang good in it too.
As I said in my full review, I don’t usually love tragedies, but Manchester by the Sea didn’t ever punish its characters unduly. It was a genuine movie that happened to be sad. The performances, especially Lucas Hedges, were award worthy. The film built a space and populated it with a number of broken peoples, and I was in it from beginning to end. A powerful movie with a important and unconventional message of grief. Highly recommended.
The Handmaiden was probably the coolest movie I saw this year. I expected a brutal thriller, and instead I got a sweet, funny, romance… that was still a brutal thriller. Carefully structured, wonderfully shot, wonderfully acted, filled with characters full of life, laugh out loud hilarious… the accolades could go on, but I enjoyed every moment of this film, and it made me so happy. I still think everyone should go see it, and it breaks my heart it probably won’t ever get a wider release, though Amazon funded it so it should be online for some people.
Was La La Land the best film of the year? I dunno! I don’t know if it was the best crafted film, or if I relate to its message the most. I certainly don’t think it was perfect. But it definitely got the biggest emotional response out of me, so I think I’ll have to rank it as my favorite. So what if it’s a ripoff or homage to another film I love. La La Land made me want to fall in love, and to make a movie, made me want to see other people fall in love, and made me want to see other people make movies. That’s a good film.
SR: Pretty cool that we had zero overlap in our top 5. I expected a lot more of that. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night!