Revisiting Our Favorite Movies of 2016

Christopher Maher: Sam. Hey. Happy almost end of the year! We meant to do this at the end of 2017 but never actually wrote it, so we’re doing it now, which is maybe even better, giving us an extra year of distance. We’re going to take a little leap back in time to reevaluate our favorite movies of 2016. I’m excited. I don’t even remember my list.

The major thing that comes into play here is something that’s always nearly impossible to assess immediately after watching a flick. I guess we’ll call “legacy.” Sometimes the longer I sit with a movie, even those I didn’t love immediately, they grow on me, or I find them stuck in my brain. Those have a strong legacy, even if they appeared messier at first. Others have the spark of a crush, but aren’t lifelong love affairs. That doesn’t always mean they’re bad – sometimes I look back fondly on a movie while being sure I never want to watch it again, and sometimes I look back on a movie I once love and feel a sense of disgust aimed solely at myself – how could I have loved something that is so abjectly bad? It’s not a question of deeper meaning – any blog reader should know I love style and substance about equally. For movies to stick with me they need a little of both, and I think I’m most frequently “tricked” (or trick myself) into liking a movie that has a lot of style or a lot of substance while missing even a mild dose of its counterpart. Before we actually look at our lists what does legacy mean to you, and how much does it matter?

Sam Russell: It’s always interesting what resonants in the long term versus what hits big in the moment. In some ways I think what hits big is more about the moment (be it an individual, a national, a cultural, etc) than the film. Let’s not forget that in 2004 Garden State was a brilliant film, and in 2008 Speed Racer was a massive flop. Both conclusions were wrong. Remember when Citizen Kane won Best Picture? It didn’t. It was beaten by How Green Was My Valley, a movie I haven’t seen, and hadn’t heard about until I learned it beat Citizen Kane. So I too am excited to see what 2016 Sam thought of the movies of the day, and curious to see if my feelings have changed.

Shall we run down our lists? My top 5 were:

5. Hell or High Water
4. The Lobster
3. Wiener
2. Pete’s Dragon
1. Blue Jay

I think most of these hold for me, all these (2) years later. I later rewatched Hell or High Water with my partner (and blog contributor). She didn’t love it as much as I did, and I’m particularly susceptible to seeing films through the eyes of whoever I’m watching it with. I still think it’s  an impressively solid film, just maybe not as profoundly brilliant as I thought on my first viewing.

The Lobster definitely holds for me. Now that I’ve seen director Yorgos Lanthimos’ breakout hit Dogtooth, and his 2018 entry The Favourite, I have better context for how The Lobster fits in the narrative of his career. It’s the perfect bridge between those two films.

Wiener is clearly a pre-“Me Too” film about a sexual predator. When I first saw the film Anthony Weiner’s flaws were clear, but I was still rooting (along with the filmmakers, I think) for him and against those who sought to take him down. Weiner is now in prison for sexting a minor, and our collective culture has agreed to take sexual misconduct far more seriously. Had this film been made today I think it would focus on the victims of Weiner’s deeds, rather than on how his compulsive behavior affected his life and his mayoral campaign. It’s still impressively crafted and politically relevant. It remains one of my favorite films of 2016, but I now view the protagonist in an entirely different light.

I still love Pete’s Dragon, but the magic of my first viewing has worn off a little. That flick came out of nowhere, so my expectations definitely had a huge impact on how excited I was by it’s quality. Like Hell or High Water it’s mellowed in my mind from brilliant cinema to very good cinema. I still believe more movies aimed at children should emulate Pete’s Dragon peaceful and uncynical tone.

I haven’t rewatched Blue Jay since my first time seeing it, butut I don’t think that’s because it didn’t stick with me, I think it’s because it’s a heavy film. In my memory, Blue Jay holds.

CM: I remember being absolutely shocked in 2016 that our favorite films didn’t overlap at all, and being even more shocked I hadn’t even seen any of your favorite films. Since 2016 I have seen both Pete’s Dragon and Blue Jay. Pete’s Dragon did… frankly, not much of anything for me. I guess the dragon looked good. Blue Jay was great. Sarah Paulson is an absolute powerhouse of an actor. I don’t know if it quite makes it to my top five from that year, but it certainly comes close.

I’ve also caught some of my “to watch” films from the year. Kubo and the Two Strings was beautiful and nonsensical. Paterson was very nice. I don’t know if it’s quite top tier for me either, but like Blue Jay it’s pretty damn close. Maybe even closer than Blue Jay – I have clearer memories of it, but I also saw it in theaters, which always helps. The Witch was rad, but not nearly as scary as I expected – I’m afraid two years of hype hurt it. Still, it was interesting and weird, and Paterson, Blue Jay, and The Witch would all be in my top ten.

My list looks like this:

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. Arrival
  3. Manchester by the Sea
  4. The Handmaiden
  5. La La Land

As for my favorite movies: I stand by most of them, and their listing. Out of all of them I’ve rewatched Captain America: Civil War by far the most (maybe… close to ten times?). It was on Netflix, and it doesn’t require a lot of thinking, and I maintain it is an impressively put together movie. I rewatched Arrival a few nights ago and while Blade Runner: 2049, which eclipses it both thematically and visually, has made it a little less impressive to me it’s still clear Denis Villeneuve is a master and not afraid of being audacious with every film. I haven’t rewatched Manchester or The Handmaiden, but they keep their places on the list as far as I’m concerned. I desperately want to rewatch both of them (The Handmaiden a little more, which means their listing as 3 and 2 is proper).

La La Land is probably the reason I wanted to write this article last year, so I could apologize for putting it at the top of my list (you wisely excluded it entirely). It was a perfectly good movie and Emma Stone remains to me an impressive actor that people appear to underappreciated (I recall as we left La La Land the person in front of us said they could never and would never like her. They should go watch The Favourite). Overall, though, it’s a movie without much substance and some style, mimicking a movie with a bit more substance and endlessly more style (Umbrellas of Cherbourg). My love of it stemmed from exactly what you said – context of the moment, especially the individual. I was incredibly exhausted and hungover while watching La La Land, and undoubtedly those were factors in the fact that I was crying by the end of the film. Once when I was drunk I cried at ParaNorman. My apathy towards the movie now doesn’t rob me of a wonderful viewing experience that touched me (I don’t regret crying at ParaNorman, is what I’m saying). Thankfully, another 2016 movie that snuck in under the wire can quickly and easily replace it on the list: 20th Century Women, which is weird and narratively ambitious and beautiful and my favorite movie of 2016 (competing only with The Handmaiden, which I recall just loving for all the same reasons).

SR: I also really liked La La Land when I first saw it in theaters. Other than being slightly disappointed that it didn’t live up to my love for director Damien Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash, I really dug it. But I’m pretty sure my love for it had already faded by the time we wrote this list. That movie was heaped with praise on release, but people turned on it hard and fast. While I wasn’t in the “this is absolute gutter trash” camp of La La Land detractors, it certainly soured on me soon after viewing.

CM: To be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember La La Land well enough to have a strong opinion on it one way or the other, which might be more damning. Regardless, looks like that wraps up our brief trip back to 2016! See you in the next article where we talk about our favorite flicks of this year!


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