The Best & Worst Movies of 2016
I couldn't narrow it down to just ten. I saw more movies than ever in 2016, and even though there were plenty of stinkers (I had a harder time keeping my worst-of list to five), I kept having spectacular experiences at the cinema. Part of that owes to my new surroundings: In my first year in Los Angeles, I had access to a ton of wonderful movie theaters and LACMA's Film Club. Those venues obviously don't have any effect on the content of the films, but they do make the process of going to a movie theater a much more pleasurable one. (Plus you can drink in a lot of theaters out here, another boon for the system.)
So here are my favorites. I don't believe there were any major releases that I felt like I missed out on, though as of the time of this writing, I have a screener of The Edge of Seventeen that I have yet to watch and never did get around to checking out Passengers (hey, maybe it's good!). But after narrowing my list of 106 down to an exceptional 29, I settled on 13 movies that I genuinely loved in the last calendar year.
A remarkably creepy no-budget mood piece, Darling acts as both an homage to the great real estate horrors of the past (most notably Roman Polanski's apartment trilogy) and as a continuation of those ideas brought into the modern world. Lauren Ashley Carter plays a caretaker charged with watching a old Manhattan townhouse that may be consumed by evil spirits (or maybe she just needs some fresh air). In the annals of Terrifying Movies About A Woman Walking Around a House, it's right up there with House of the Devil.
12. Oasis: Supersonic
Obviously every piece of music in this rock doc, which tracks Oasis' run from unknown bar band to one of the biggest bands on the planet, is a total jam (and as it only incorporates the years that produced Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, there's nary a dud in the bunch). The footage that makes up Supersonic, particularly the stuff from the group's pre-fame days, is both remarkable (you really do get a sense of where Liam and Noel's rivalry begins) and expected (obviously dudes with egos their size would be rolling cameras with the expectation that some day somebody would need it for a big time retrospective). But the thing that really makes Supersonic stand out is the way it captures the spirit with which people used to consume music. Sure, Oasis kept themselves on the tabloid pages with drug and sex exploits, but the only reason why anybody thirsted for more of these monobrows is because they cranked out anthems that could make you feel infinite. The idea that so many different types of people could come together and feel the same way about a rock band sometimes makes Oasis: Supersonic feel like a work of historical science fiction.
11. Hell Or High Water
People treated this like a Western, and I guess it is considering the amount of dust and facial hair contained within. But Hell or High Water is also a heist movie, a meditation on the decaying economy of rural America, a pretty clear-eyed look at everyday conversations about race, and a heartbreaking portrait of brotherhood (both literal and figurative). Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster have the showier roles, but Chris Pine gives the performance of his life in the quieter part—in just about every scene, his eyes do more heavy lifting than Denzel Washington's histrionic speeches in Fences. The shootout is pretty incredible, but that potboiler of a showdown between Pine and Bridges that wraps up the film is unforgettable.
10. Hail, Caesar!
Like most Coen comedies, nobody knew what to do with this when it arrived, but it's undoubtedly going to be remembered alongside The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading as unsung masterpieces. It would have made this list based on the Channing Tatum section alone, but the rest of the film—from its Old Hollywood set pieces to the elocution exchanges between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes—is just as buoyant and joyous.
It is deeply possible that context is casting an interesting shadow on my reaction to this one: My wife and I went to a screening of Arrival the day after the election, and we mostly went to get away from the sense of dread that still hangs over everything (and got more intense on January 20). So maybe it was the hopelessness talking, but I adored this movie. It's about communication and cultural identity and, fundamentally, about the power of language. I liked it more when it was just a mood piece for the first hour (once that Renner narration—and thus the plot—kicks in, it becomes slightly less magical), but the revelations at the end pack an emotional punch that was both devastating and strangely hopeful.
8. American Honey
I love Andrea Arnold's other movies (Fish Tank is a stunning character piece, and her Wuthering Heights actually took a text I hate and turned it into a compelling drama), but this is her greatest achievement. It's a true ensemble piece, held up by a raw and charismatic newcomer (Sasha Lane) and a dude I didn't think I would ever be able to care about again (Shia LaBeouf). It's gorgeous and sprawling and almost nothing happens, which makes it a perfect movie for me. But it also really understands the relationship between youth and pop music—the kids in the movie really seem to be fueled by the fantasies cast by Rihanna, Lil Wayne, Rae Sremmurd and the like, and as somebody who has mostly taken a dry, academic approach to the relative merits of those artists and songs, it was fascinating to see a group of people from a different part of the world react and relate on a more visceral level.
The story of Christine Chubbuck is fundamentally dark (she shot herself on live TV; she died 14 hours later), and it could have been very easy to make this into a sensationalistic bit of opera (as much as I loved The People Vs. OJ Simpson, there's a Ryan Murphy-produced version of this movie that is super gross). But Christine is remarkable in its portrayal of Chubbuck as a three-dimensional human and not just a sensationalistic historical footnote. Part of that is the script: despite the fact that everyone knows how this movie ends, its structure lies in the emotional journey of Christine. The other thing that keeps it afloat is the work of Rebecca Hall in my favorite performance of the year. It's the realest representation of depression this side of BoJack Horseman.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
This is the kind of film that seems like it should be easy to make because it doesn't really have a plot or rely on any real story mechanics to make it run—it's mostly 90 minutes of dudes bullshitting. But the thing that makes Everybody Wants Some!! such a rare treat is that these movies are actually impossible to make because inevitably the characters all end up running together and because screenwriters tend to be completely at sea when not able to lean on traditional structural crutches. Linklater's script is so good that it makes everybody in the cast (most of whom are relative newcomers) seem like an inevitable star (and considering the hit rate for people who were in Dazed & Confused, that might actually be true). Nobody makes a movie about talking like Linklater, and the fact that each one of these characters has depth and empathy that is missing from movies where stuff actually happens.
5. 20th Century Women
Another screenwriting triumph. The log line of this movie is "The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s," which is somehow both irritatingly vague and deeply incorrect. The specificity of the whole affair (the soundtrack, the clothes, even the way the sunlight shines through the vintage curtains) leads to an immersive experience that is on par with any fantasy bullshit you can conjure. At the center is a beautiful, breezy, sensitive, deeply charismatic performance by Annette Bening, a genius we do not deserve.
4. Sing Street
The best musical of 2016.
Structured like a horror movie with the pacing and score to match, Jackie doesn't care about crafting a historical record or even about documenting Jackie Kennedy's interior life following her husband's assassination. It's about putting away those visceral moments—and there are many—for the sake of narrative. I love that the movie doesn't necessarily take a side—Jackie sometimes seems like a villain in her own movie—and that divide also splits the title character in two. Natalie Portman's performance seems cold on the surface, but it's really a marvel of Portman juggling a woman whose life was both incomparably mythic and unbendingly human.
2. Green Room
Just a badass piece of white-knuckle survival with a stellar cast and a full-throated attention to detail. Green Room is exceptionally violent, but it's been a long time since I've seen a movie that knows exactly how to use the sudden explosions of brutality that dot the action. It's an exceptional sense of escalation that takes quite a bit of craft and control. It's not only a testament to director Jeremy Saulnier but also to the late Anton Yelchin, who delivers his best performance as a punk rock kid just trying to get home. It's hardcore and heartbreaking—my favorite combination.
Everything that has been said about Moonlight is true: The performances—particularly the alignment of the three Chirons—are perfect, the soundtrack is lush, the visuals are lovely and amazing. The thing that really elevated Moonlight for me is the fact that it told a story that I had never heard before that took place in a corner of the universe I had never seen. How rare is it to sit down in a theater and be genuinely surprised by what unfolds? Moonlight started fresh and remained there. The fact that it's a truly important movie is gravy, but Moonlight will be remembered because it is pure cinema.
Now here are some pieces of shit that we need not ever mention again.
5. X-Men: Apocalypse
Not a strong year for comic book movies (DC was obviously disastrous, and though I know I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War, I cannot remember a damn thing about it), and this was aggressively not good. I did sort of appreciate Oscar Isaac's willingness to chew scenery, but nothing here—neither in the incomprehensible story nor the cheap-looking effects—had any weight.
4. Cafe Society
There was a time when I considered Woody Allen to be my favorite filmmaker, and while I'll still ride for stuff like Love & Death and Manhattan, I don't think I get Allen anymore. I'm a high-strung neurotic who loves dry humor and old Hollywood, and I found this completely inert. Who is the audience for this movie if I'm out? Allen also made an ill-advised foray into streaming television in 2016 (Crisis in Six Scenes, on Amazon) that was made slightly less inane by an unfiltered performance by Miley Cyrus. But Jesse Eisenberg is no Miley Cyrus.
3. Hacksaw Ridge
Hour one is all Andrew Garfield's terrible location-free accent warbling about faith and family while Vince Vaughn yells at him in the year's worst performance. Hour two is an entirely gratuitous series of battle scenes that have no sense of geometry. It ends with a mini documentary featuring interviews with the real people who are represented in the movie, a completely inexplicable choice that ends a terrible movie on a sour note. Also, Mel Gibson is still a piece of shit.
2. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice / Suicide Squad
How is it that people who fundamentally do not understand why people love certain immortal comic book characters keep getting put in charge of quarter-billion dollar projects to put them up on screen? He gets no help from professional block of wood Henry Cavill, but Zach Snyder's vision of Superman is as fucking stupid as it is pointlessly bleak. That scene in Dawn of Justice wherein Bats and Supes yell about both of their mothers being named Martha is the worst scene in any movie last year. Meanwhile, I spent the first hour of Suicide Squad wishing that the story would show up, and then when that happened I wished we could go back to introducing every character another 19 times. I saw Nine Lives the same weekend I saw Suicide Squad, and you'll notice that Kevin Spacey as a horrible looking digital kitty is nowhere to be found on this list.
1. Nocturnal Animals / The Neon Demon
These are the two worst times I had at the movies all year, and they both delivered similar experiences: Self-impressed auteurs wallowing in pretty nihilism and thinking that it's art. These are two exceptionally dumb movies that believe that they are smart, and there's nothing more infuriating to me than that.