2016 is coming to a close, and I’m sure I speak for many when I say “good riddance.” I will not go into the laundry list of misery, disappointment and tragedy that peppered this shockingly unfortunate year, nor will I toss off a thoughtless statement about how 2017 will be better. The future is always unwritten and uncertain, and now more than ever it feels wildly uncertain and without much hope — like a blindfolded truck driver wildly careening up a twisting mountain road void of guardrails.
Here is what I know: nestled within all the heartbreak and woe that was this year there were, as always, movies: wonderful, beautiful movies. No matter how foreboding things may be, we should be able to take solace in film. To engross ourselves for two hours, more or less, into a world of flickering shadows. To come back out into the light changed. To buy the ticket and take the ride.
The wonderful, talented people that make up the Cut Print Film staff put forth their own personal choices for the Best Films of 2016, and from those choices sprung this final list. It is eclectic, it is varied, it is ours. I may not personally agree with every choice on the list, and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way. That is the beauty of things like this.
On that note, we will not be putting forth a Worst Films of 2016 list. When I had the writers send in their Best Of lists, I also asked for their picks for Worst Of. But this year it feels wrong to focus any longer on the worst of anything. There’s enough negativity and schadenfreude out there now without us adding to it. That’s not to let the bad movies of 2016 off the hook — I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad. But let us now focus on the good that came of this year. Let us rejoice in some truly remarkable films, and let us take a deep breath and step cautiously into the future. Good night, 2016. Good luck, 2017. — Chris Evangelista
25. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
After the unexpected rawness of Before Midnight and the epic masterpiece Boyhood, Richard Linklater making an expected move could have been a disappointment. Everybody Wants Some!! is exactly what one would assume a Linklater college baseball movie set it the 80’s would look like. It’s quietly poetic, brashly comedic, and wholly nonchalant. There’s a set time, the weekend before the start of classes, and the characters just linger in that space rather than pushing towards forward momentum. Luckily, precisely what was expected also happens to be as good as anticipated, and Everybody Wants Some!! pulls out all of Linklater’s favorite tricks with a grace and humanity present in each of his best films. Even the oddest characters are given moments of profundity, or humility. The cast is crackerjack, their chemistry alit with the familiarity that nobody has quite as much as college pals out drinking. And there are the trickles of wonder and future worry baked into such an unassuming tale. Films as silly and fun as Everybody Wants Some!! are rarely among the year’s best. That Linklater pulled such a feat off shouldn’t be a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of a gift. — Josh Oakley
24. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the masterwork of the rap-comedy trio The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer), who you may know from their appearances on SNL, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or their best-selling comedy albums. It tells the story of a hip hop group, The Style Boyz, whose breakout star Connor4Real (Samberg) embarks on a solo career and, well, things go poorly (for Connor, not us). Taccone and Schaffer shine in supporting roles, but Samberg’s aloofness to the reality surrounding his celebrity bubble is a sight to behold.
The jokes in Popstar are all standard fare from The Lonely Island, and you’ll know what to expect if you’ve seen Samberg’s first feature film Hot Rod – that’s not to say they’re not great (they are), but they come from a very specific, absurdist place on the comedy spectrum. The real heart of Popstar is the outstanding soundtrack. Featuring guest appearances from Justin Timberlake, Michael Bolton, Katy Perry, and many more, these songs are pop perfection that just so happen to be jam packed with the humor that fans of The Lonely Island love. But it’s that songwriting craftsmanship the trio have perfected that get these earworms stuck in your head and make Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping a hilarious, goofy film that is easily one of the best of the year. — Jeff Rollins
23. HAIL, CAESAR!
With Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers bring us a finessed, albeit light, dissection of the Golden Age of Hollywood, complete with lavish homages to its intricately epic productions. The bustling world of fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is dedicated to holding together an uplifting brand of movie magic with fragile half-truths and brute force. He tries to satiate and subdue all sides of show business (including twin newswomen both played by Tilda Swinton) but faces a new wrinkle when a top star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped. His dedication to his faith informs Brolin’s deadpan and how the Hays code reigned over film’s content for so many years. Hail, Caesar! goes beyond mere imitation and injects a bristling undercurrent of unrest and political intrigue. That the facade of the Anglo-American Christian morality that keeps the studio system intact has been compromised by Marxism and the slip-ups of its stars is just one layer of the plot. There is a smart acknowledgement of the unsung and frustrated Jewish writers behind the scenes (much akin to the troubled protagonist of the Coen’s much darker Barton Fink) that have legitimate misgivings about their treatment by the power structure. The greatest takeaway from the movie is a cowboy picture actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who is unceremoniously dropped into a period piece and struggles to adjust his accent and demeanor to the circumstances. Ehrenreich exudes a charming naivete and carries an infectious good heartedness in his resolve to get it right in take after take. Whereas the other storylines go to great lengths to show the duplicitous nature of everyone, the Coens present a refreshing curiosity with Hobie Doyle- a wholesome real deal amidst a sea of cooked up or inflated American dreams. Brolin’s Mannix and Ehrenreich’s Doyle are edifying purities mixed up in the Hollywood fantasy that stand out in the Coen’s universe as some of their only genuinely nice characters who don’t suffer or fall victim to greed or circumstance. The movie successfully recreates the grandeur of Hollywood spectacle with a choreographed water ballet like those found in the pictures of Esther Williams (here alluded to with Scarlett Johansson) and a lovingly crafted musical number in the vein of On the Town or Anchors Aweigh with sailors romantically dancing while on leave led by an aloof but proficient Channing Tatum. Hail, Caesar! revels in the hard work ethic that went into the production values of studio filmmaking while dexterously snickering at the preposterous situations that its molded stars and their handlers often found themselves in. — Lane Scarberry
Activist documentaries are often met with trepidation, even scorn. And this is not without reason. Their sins are many, historically speaking: a hectoring moralism, an ambivalence to aesthetics, and a willful erasure of competing perspectives that renders many examples little more than sermons for the already converted. Ava Duvernay’s 13th reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Sure, the Selma and Middle of Nowhere director lines up a cavalcade of talking heads. And 13th definitely has a point of view it hopes will shake up audiences, compel us to take notice. But its fierce commitment to countering white supremacy, and its mastery of the form, leave lesser entries behind. This is a blood-boiling film that couldn’t have arrived at a better moment. The specter of Donald Trump, President-elect (I still can’t believe that qualifier), and the forces he’s gleefully unleashed underwrite every minute of its running time. This is urgent stuff.
The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, thanks to a single clause, didn’t so much outlaw slavery as reroute it. The prison-industrial complex is its direct descendant, for one thing, along with the (not very new) epidemic of police murders. But Duvernay and her assembled experts (like Michelle Alexander, who’s The New Jim Crow you really ought to read if you haven’t) dig deeper.
13th considers the legacies of white supremacy in the cultural imagination as much as it zeroes in on material politics. The film returns again and again to D.W. Griffith’s much-admired, much-despised The Birth of a Nation, which posited the Black body itself as a threat to the social order while simultaneously introducing the vocabulary of cinema itself.
But the ways in which we imagine each other come to infect the ways we behave; we exist both as physical bodies inhabiting a world and fantasies in the fraught mythologies of society, never more dangerous their ghostly after-images, the ones we see flickering at 24 frames a second in the dark. 13th is a moral reckoning, an excavation of the image, and a call to action. Through its elegant staging and overlaid text, it entices the viewer to engagement. In this foul year, it’s compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to stare clear-eyed at the situation we’ve allowed to fester. And then get to fucking work. — Rick Kelley
21. ALWAYS SHINE
The best thrillers are always twelve feet ahead of you, waiting for you to catch up to its disposition. Sophia Takal’s masterful, wildly engrossing Always Shine is thirty steps ahead, at least. Captivated by layered, multi-dimensional performances by Caitlin FitzGerald and Mackenzie Davis, the latter quite possibly providing some of her best work ever, it’s a radiantly-disquieting accomplishment, a suspense-dripping, deftly-handed look at maturity, acting, friendship and misconstruction, and that’s barely scratching into its greatness. Influenced greatly by the likes of Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock, while masterfully defying some of the inherent sexism that can pollute even the best of their work, it’s a titillating, unnerving, versatile work of misapprehension and misconception, allowing you question everything and anything that happens on-screen in morbidly fascinating fashion — and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. Expertly edited, feverishly intimate and meaningfully suspenseful, Always Shine is not merely one of the year’s most thrilling films. It’s among the most thoughtful and quietly absorbing genre films to come in ages. It doesn’t merely shine; it positively radiates. — Will Ashton
20. THE HANDMAIDEN
If any filmmaker currently working today were to seize the title of “modern day Hitchcock”, Park Chan-Wook would fit the bill perfectly. His obsessions with revenge and vengeance, love of blood curdling violence and portrayals of human sexuality at its most depraved easily make him the modern equivalent to the master of suspense. Returning to South Korea after his underrated English language debut Stoker, The Handmaiden is one of his finest films yet- an adaptation of acclaimed period novel Fingersmith, which all but obliterates the Victorian London-set source text by the time we arrive at the devilishly entertaining third act.
Chan-Wook’s film feels forward thinking due to inherent themes of feminism and a positive portrayal of female sexuality, which are comparatively overblown in comparison to the source material and its English language TV adaptation. It would be easy to deride the director for using the “male gaze” whilst filming any of the kinky female sex scenes- but like David Cronenberg, Chan-Wook feels detached from any of the sexuality appearing on screen. When portraying male sexual desires at great length, via staged readings of fetishised erotica, it is designed to feel unnatural and perverted in comparison with the loving, consensual kink of the sexual encounters between the two female leads.
The Handmaiden is the rare film where the sex scenes are not only necessary, but they form the heart of the storyline- thanks to brave, bold performances from the central ensemble cast, the film never feels sleazy. The film shouldn’t be defined by taking these sequences at face value however, as they compliment the entire narrative; an epic exploration of how power and corruption come into conflict with basic human desires. The director’s lofty ambitions to explore these themes at great length ensures that this is not only the boldest adaptation of Fingersmith you could imagine, it is the rare film based on a book that manages to eclipse the source material. — Alistair Ryder
19. THE FITS
There’s a hypnotic power to Anna Rose Holmer’s miraculous The Fits. It binds you to it as if through some unbelievable magic, creating a trance-like effect that you can’t quite shake off. Through Holmer’s precise direction, and stunning sound design, The Fits becomes one of the most unique film experiences of the year. Eleven-year-old Toni trains at the rec center, the lone tiny female face among a sea of posturing boys. Down the hall, beyond a pair of swinging doors that may as well lead to an entirely different universe, are the Lionesses — a trope of young female dancers who move in a furious progression that puts any boxer’s jab and hook to shame. Toni stands in the dead center of the two environments, always looking out while keeping to herself.
Toni is played to perfection by newcomer Royalty Hightower. Quiet and introspective, there’s not a single frame of the The Fits where Hightower’s Toni comes across as anything other than real. Part of the joy of Holmer’s film is her ability to draw out naturalistic performances from her entire young cast, but as the figure anchoring it all, Hightower is the most remarkable. The young actress has a gift for drawing the viewer into her mindset with little more than a pointed glance. In Hightower’s hands, Toni is no mere character — she’s a living, breathing person, struggling with her place in the unique universe the film inhabits. She seems wise and childish all at once while radiating an almost tangible longing. The Fits culminates in a sequence that’s fierce and wildly alive, bursting with a manic grace and wonder that’s more awe-inspiring than any CGI-bloated blockbuster Hollywood can cobble together. This film is a phenomenon, like lightning caught in a bottle. It lives and breathes the way so few films do. — Chris Evangelista
18. KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE
Rebecca Hall’s turn as Christine Chubbuck – the local news reporter who shot herself on live tv – in the traditional like biopic Christine, gave us an insight of insecurity amid arrested virginal development, which was also amid the Nixon / Ford years. However intriguing it was to witness such a comforting downfall, the film easily fell into the trap of depicting the gruesome moment we were all waiting to see, and ultimately being only about that. Of course, without her suicide, this movie wouldn’t have been made…
In Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, the hybrid documentary / essay / narrative about actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to portray Christine, curiosity and question after question come to mind regarding the real woman, what she did, why we’re wanting to see it happen and if it should be depicted in a reenactment at all. Kate Sheil, as much as Natalie Portman in Jackie embodied the stress, the shock and the horror of living with oneself, brilliantly captures that same terror by way of reflective disguise and inadvertent soul searching. Though, perhaps acting always involves soul searching. Let’s ask Mark Wahlberg circa The Happening.
Kate Plays Christine most certainly shames Christine by both finales, giving a more ghostly and sad air beyond providing the over simplified answers of the standard biopic. Or of an evening newscast. Remember “We report. You decide.”? In this case, Fox news is… right. — Bill Arceneaux
17. CERTAIN WOMEN
Who else but Kelly Reichardt could make Kristen Stewart believable when she says, “Selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family is supposed to get”? Laura Dern co-stars as an injury lawyer dealing with a disgruntled client and Michelle Williams is a homeowner trying to buy sandstone from an old man’s yard. If Certain Woman sounds like one of those movies where “nothing happens,” it’s probably true. Adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, the film has an essentially literary quality, requiring patience and a level of attentiveness that feels almost like surrender. Set in a silent, snow-capped Montana, the film is like a feminist western with natural dialogue and unanswerable questions.
If nothing else, the film serves as another reminder that Kelly Reichardt is going to be very famous one day. Between River of Grass (1994), about a Florida couple on the run for murder, Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a grueling journey through the 1845 Oregon Trail and Night Moves (2013), an unforgettable portrait of lonely eco-terrorists, Reichardt has made some of the most thematically complex realist dramas of the past two decades. Critiquing capitalism, gender and everything in between, her minimalism contains multitudes and Certain Women marks her strongest work to date. — Erica Peplin
16. LA LA LAND
Director Damien Chazelle makes falling in love look easy. His third film La La Land takes a look at the bygone genre of musicals with a nostalgic lens, while giving the movie a snazzy modern tempo. It’s an infectious ode to the days of yesteryear made for 2016 that’s truly a sight to behold.He gives this one a visual splendor that vibrates with style and never lacks substance from its wildly charming leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
La La Land is a moving poem filled with puppy love and toe tapping tunes that for better, or worse burrow their way into your ear and replay in your head like that perfect first kiss. The music in this is movie doesn’t drown out the narrative. Like the great Hollywood Golden Age musicals La La Land is pure visual storytelling. The music is the romance. Even if you aren’t a fan of jazz the tunes allow love to fill the room. Musical highlights include Stone’s beautifully imperfect “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” and Gosling’s low-key piano riff of “City of Stars.” La La Land is about what an artist sacrifices to achieve their dreams and it’s a full-on celebration of love. — James Clay
15. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is the best film this year which I will not be recommending to anybody I know. Nocturnal Animals is a grim, brutal, multi-tiered narrative, chronologically linear, postmodern study on revenge and pain.
This is like Bolano’s 2666 and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: intentionally disturbing and surreal. Using sadism as a vehicle for masochism, Nocturnal Animals begins with a flamboyant display of the grotesque and continually ratchets up the level of inflicted devastation while simultaneously diminishing the theatrical portrayal. As a result, the film’s Most Disturbing Images are those which are the least bombastic, shaping a reconsidered definition of horror. Further, the film then turns a mirror onto its torturers and victims to pose the question: “which is more vile, an evil thing or a person who eagerly seeks out to see the evil act?”
There you are, now you know if this film is for your or not. The film is a sensory feast, if your stomach can handle the events, with excellent sound and visual cinema. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are fantastically human in their roles, coated in ennui and despair but still very much human. This film, a twining of revenge and pain narratives, is excellent at what it is. Whether that is a thing for you, well I imagine you can figure that out. — Alexander Magalli
Believe the hype — Natalie Portman’s turn in Jackie is just as stunning as you’ve heard. Under the deft direction of acclaimed Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, Portman not only effectively portrays the famed former First Lady, but instead completely embodies her very essence, dissolving into a role like never before. Unlike your usual paint-by-numbers biopic, the film undoes expectations from the genre and instead follows the First Lady at the defining and most grueling days in her presidential family’s history, just after the horrific assassination of her husband and former President. While Jackie’s immense, unexplainable grief takes center stage, the foundation of how legacies are built, the way history is told and created, and the way mythologies are shaped share the focus in equal, hypnotizing measure.
In the most painfully sobering fashion, Jackie challenges the mythology and controversy that long surrounded the Kennedys by exposing the deep humanity beneath it all. Stuck between the painful juggle of being unable to properly and publicly grieve her husband and her urgent desire to preserve his legacy, Larraín expertly digs into the protagonist’s deepest internal conflicts. Much like the beloved First Lady herself, Jackie is deeply graceful and polished, but is far more complex than meets the eye, ultimately making for one of the most gripping and artful releases of the year. — Nix Santos
13. SWISS ARMY MAN
The best movies redefine your character. They can defy your instincts. They’ll confirm things you never knew about yourself, or even thought you wanted. They enrich your life, reshape them. They can make you a better person. A stronger person. They change you. Swiss Army Man, the remarkable directorial debut of music video helmers The Daniels, is exactly that, and more. A film that’s practically impossible to describe without eliciting chuckles, intentionally and otherwise, it’s the story of two men — one a corpse, one that’s damn well near it — coming to terms with their identities, insecurities, sexuality and fragile masculinity through farts, boners, imagination, love and, of course, “Cotton Eyed Joe.” It’s as beautiful as it is absurd, and it’s very, very absurd. More than that, however, it’s wildly originality, poetically lyrical, vividly envisioned and deeply felt too, resulting in a rambunctious dream of a film that will, indeed, make you question if a fart can make you cry. And it can, and it will, when it’s as achingly tender, richly-nuanced and strangely empowering as a fart can be in a film as gorgeous, emotional and cathartic as this one. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe give two of the most dynamic, intimate performances of the year, but it’s ultimately Radcliffe’s movie for the taking. His magical, dependable and loyal carcass is more alive than most living performances this year, and that’s no exaggeration. His beating un-beating heart is the key to the film’s success. Were it not for his fantastic, wondrously physical and emotionally heartbreaking performance, Swiss Army Man wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Thankfully, it does, and it’s by far one of the year’s finest. — Will Ashton
12. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
Who would’ve thought 2016 would see a tabloidist powder keg of acting and one of the most ambitious documentaries of recent times complement each other so well? Released just months after Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story reignited national interest in O.J. Simpson, O.J.: Made In America illuminated his deep stitch in our cultural fabric. Director Ezra Edelman’s purview is as broad as the urban racism sparked by The Great Migration and Simpson’s singular attempt at race-blindness in 1968. And it’s as searching and meticulous as a 60-year-old recollection of Simpson selling out his childhood buddies to avoid detention.
An eight-hour, five-part documentary may seem an outlying entrant to this list, but it lives at the absolute highest echelon of the medium. O.J. is Shoah. It’s Hoop Dreams. It’s Ken Burns’ The Civil War. In a contemporary media landscape that prizes looser, subjectivity-admitting “storytelling” over reporting, Edelman pulls off both. His film observes a moment in American history and explains how it was utterly unique, but far from random. And without actually saying so, O.J. quietly posits that — if you care about NFL players kneeling on Sundays, about how racial factions form and feud on the streets and screens of our country, and about how the legal system is more byproduct than principle — the moment lingers. — Chance Solem-Pfeifer
11. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
Directed by Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest offering from Laika, who specialize in stop motion animation. Much like Pixar, who specialize in computer generated animated feature length-feature fair, Laika and its always capable crew regularly deliver fresh, captivating, imaginative, and beautifully rendered stories for audiences of all ages, or at least those willing to go see their films.
Kubo, set in a fantastical, medieval Japan, tells the rich story about a young boy (Art Partkinson) who must venture on a journey of survival with an ill-tempered yet helpful monkey (Charlize Theron), and giant beetle humanoid (Matthew McConaughey), and a paper toy soldier. His mother has been killed and his two twin aunts (Rooney Mara), evil sorceresses, are on the prowl. Funny, whimsical in the best way possible, unfathomably handsome to look at, director Knight and his brilliant team concoct what is arguably the ultimate Far East meets West variety of entertainment. The movie is replete with sharp, witty banter and top-notch action scenes, but also regularly peppered with Japanese folklore-mystical touches that bridge the gap between a modern, westernized culture and many spiritual elements present in old folk and ghost tales from the land of the rising sun. It is both modern and keeps an eye on a new mythology carved from a distant past and different culture. Complaints about it being too ‘mainstream’ are probably missing the point.
Sadly, Kubo also proved that no matter how excellent a film is, if it’s too different from the norm, it simply doesn’t sell. Released at the tail end of the summer season (which usually experiences a level of movie-going fatigue, to be fair), the movie completely tanked at the box office despite glowing reviews. Suicide Squad, released literally a couple weeks earlier, made a handsome bounty despite everyone apparently hating it. Go figure. — Edgar Chaput
10. HELL OR HIGH WATER
Though the action in Hell or High Water reaches the levels of bloodshed that its title implies, its best moments are quiet. David Mackenzie’s latest film follows two pairs of characters: two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), the former as they set out to make a score, and the latter as they pursue them. It’s a textbook Western by plot, but the moments between (relative) platitudes conjure something beautiful out of a portrait of a disenfranchised America. Every player in the game knows there’s a clock that’s running out, and it’s as much a question of debt or retirement as it is of the archetypes they represent. Honest emotions don’t come easy, not between the brothers, the less volatile of whom is masterminding the operation, nor between the rangers, whose bond runs deeper than the Lone Ranger stereotypes they bandy about, but they’re necessary in the absence of other kindnesses. Much like its characters, if there’s an easy way out, Hell or High Water refuses to take it, and is all the more effective as such. — Karen Han
9. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
2016 was a tricky year in cinema where one had to dig to find films of any real value and whilst distribution let it down, Hunt for the Wilderpeople was in plain sight all year long. Local menace Ricky Baker goes on the run from the police in the wild New Zealand Bush with nothing but his tracksuit and his disgruntled foster Uncle (Sam Neill).
Kiwi director Taika Waititi is at it again, scripting and directing his follow-up to What We Do In the Shadows, the New Zealand-based Vampire mockumentary- a film that found its audience, instantly becoming a cult classic upon hitting Netflix.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople had its small audience’s laughter filling the screen. Genuine laugh-out loud comedy from the most awkward and backwards comedy, Waititi clearly has a voice through his films just through that distinct sense of humor. Plain silliness structured intelligently. Essentially a more realistic, gangsta version of Up, Sam Neill stands out, portraying the grumpiest and sweetest father figure seen in cinema this year. Never slow or uninteresting and constantly playing with tone while never alienating its audience…Waititi’s film simply have charm.
The most criminally overlooked film of 2016 also happens to be the funniest. You’ll love it just like its predecessor when inevitably hits Netflix in a month’s time. — Samuel Davis
8. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Related to the 2008 found-footage monster movie in name only, 10 Cloverfield Lane surprised many audiences with its intimate scale. The film is a chamber piece, an exercise in paranoia and slow building dread. A girl named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up to find that she’s been rescued – or is it imprisoned? – in an underground bunker by a survivalist and conspiracy theorist who claims that the surface has been devastated by an alien attack and it’s not safe to go up. The man is Howard, played by John Goodman in a juggernaut performance that will be unjustly ignored during awards season. Howard is by turns gregarious and controlling, pitiable and fierce. Is he a kidnapper or a savior? Could the invasion be real? It’s a frying pan/fire scenario primed to explode and director Dan Tractenberg manages quiet, peaceful moments and breathless thrills with equal aplomb. Winstead’s character is intrepid and smart, and so we gladly root for her to discover the truth. I won’t dare hint at where the film goes in its final act. What I will say is that the movie’s restraint and human focus is ever-so-welcome in a climate of increasingly bombastic blockbusters. — Daniel Stidham
7. THE NICE GUYS
We may have reached Peak Shane Black in 2016 and, gosh darn it, not that many people saw that threshold get crossed in theaters. Most audiences unfortunately seemed to gloss over The Nice Guys, the neo-noir-black-comedy-buddy-cop revival of the 2010s. Hearkening back to the gaudy mid-70s, Black crafted a funny and familiar world full of wood paneling, shag carpets, and sleazy porn mogul murder schemes ripped off the back of a pulp novella. The Iorn Man 3 director also populated that world with the “world’s worst detectives” pairing of Ryan Gosling’s ineffective drunkard private eye Holland March and Russell Crowe’s has-been enforcer Jackson Healey, who have to contend with porn star damsels in distress, eccentric blue-stained henchmen, and precociously crude children.
Our two leads bounce off each other more effortlessly than the Lethal Weapon guys ever did, mostly due to both Crowe and Gosling’s subtle comedic timing, with a special note towards Gosling’s physical comedy. With a high-level mystery that continues to unfold until the very last moments of the film, the expected and superbly sharp dialogue, along with copious amounts of just-gorey-enough violence, all perforated by moments of almost surreal gallows humor, makes The Nice Guys one of the best Shane Black films ever made, along with one of the most entertaining films of the past year. In a post Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang world, that’s really saying something. — Josh Heath
6. GREEN ROOM
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room unfolds with the propulsive energy of a punk rock opera. The film follows a struggling hardcore band as a one-off gig at a neo-nazi club becomes an all-out bloodbath. Like the protagonist of Saulnier’s revenge without redemption thriller Blue Ruin, this wily band of anti-heroes are painfully unqualified to handle the bloody business to come. Saulnier follows them into uncertain doom with the unflinching eye of a bleeding-heart nihilist. They spend much of the film behind the locked door of that eponymous backstage space. And for a time, Green Room room plays like a twisted game of cats and mice. But brains only get you so far when the people on the other side of the door sport red laces, machetes and vile intentions.
When Patrick Stewart’s cool and calculating Darcy takes command, violence erupts through Green Room with the filth and the fury of a great hardcore song. Darcy’s “no guns” policy means every kill is up close, personal and grisly as hell. But never glamorous. Or exploitative. Saulnier understands that violence is often stupid. And sloppy. And it comes with consequences. Consequences are ultimately what make Green Room such a satisfying cinematic experience. These days, it’s more than a little cathartic to see hate-mongering skinheads get their comeuppance – even at such a human cost. And yes, Green Room’s got a massive body count. It features vicious dogs, hacked limbs and nazis moshing in slo-mo to a pointed Dead Kennedy’s cover. Sometimes it’s hard to watch. It’s often impossible to look away. It’s balanced, it’s beautiful and it’s agonizingly brutal. Simply put, Green Room is punk as fuck. It apologizes for nothing. And if you don’t like it, tell somebody who gives a shit. — Patrick Phillips
5. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a man so beaten down by loss and residual guilt that he can barely communicate with others, let alone hold down a meaningful relationship. The dissociative way that he conducts his life and Affleck’s somber countenance make him a special protagonist- one who is not actively working towards a positive outcome and isn’t proactive about accomplishing much outside of merely existing. So when he happens into guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges)- he is completely unprepared to care for the busy, burgeoning young man. Hedges is able to masterfully balance lusty youth and the unbridled spontaneity of deep seated grief that hits home in waves during the grieving process. A confrontation between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is unbearably heartrending with the two actors laying bare the love and open wounds that they still carry. The film shifts back and forth in time, mixing Lee’s tragedies so that the cumulative effects of death are readily apparent. Yet, there is an empathetic nature to the story that invites levity in brief bursts that feel authentic. Director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester expertly mines the quiet logistics of death that must be dealt with. We all must sort out burial arrangements and transfer of property or persons while trying to come to terms with the finality of a loved one’s absence. The notion that lives can be undone or irrevocably changed in an instant is omnipresent and the tortuous void that follows death is where we find Lee for the majority of the film. This story stays with those nightmarish moments of limbo and drifts in sadness while anchoring the moment in the everyday. While Manchester by the Sea is unabashedly bleak and lacks traditional closure, there are flashes of respite that warm the audience and an incremental forward momentum that approaches healing without cementing it. — Lane Scarberry
4. THE LOBSTER
With one of the most distinct and ludicrous premises of the decade so far, The Lobster could have easily fallen victim to an overabundance of quirk or ironic hostility. Instead, co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos created a picture both satirical and stirring, an absurdist view of modern dating and any decade’s pitfalls of love. Colin Farrell dons a mustache and cauterized mannerisms as a newly single individual sent to a hotel where each resident must find a match or be transformed into an animal (of their choice, at least). Lanthimos credible takes this plot in every feasible direction. First, we are treated to the hysterically trite, and occasionally gory, mating rituals within this society. Then we see the rebels, as every dystopia must have, a group of dwellers in the wood who have abandoned the shtick of commitment. Of course, affection has a habit of popping up anywhere, and Lanthimos creates true tenderness to counteract and underline the surreal world he’s created. Rachel Weisz and Farrell are one of the year’s best pairings, even if it isn’t obvious at first near-sighted glance. — Josh Oakley
3. THE WITCH
Robert Eggers’ fixed camera somehow makes the encroaching dread of evil in the woods feel both immersively real and like a beautiful old painting at the same time. Every shot of The Witch looks painstakingly planned but also fluidly natural. He not only brings the supernatural to life, but manages to make the most convincingly authentic depiction of Early American life. The Witch is a haunting tale of religious paranoia, which cleverly plays on the idea of sin being the root of all evil, allowing all of the characters around Thomasin to commit sins while claiming their riotousness, all while she remains pure or thought, that is… until she decides she would like to live deliciously. — David Costill
Whether movies are a product of the times they’re made in, or if they come along precisely when they are needed most is up for question. Though, in a period of upheaval and uncertainty, Arrival‘s November 11th release couldn’t have been timed better. Arrival was never going to reach the massive cultural following of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but the immediacy of Denis Villeneuve’s film speaks to the ability of movies to ask questions about and examine our culture.
It’s hopeful, albeit naive, to expect to communicate with aliens from an unknown world when we can’t even communicate with each other consistently. Science fiction’s purpose is to hold a mirror up to society and let us see who we truly are, in hopes of realizing who we could be. In Arrival, we can become a united world. A world made captivating with the flourish of Bradford Young’s expert lensing, Villeneuve’s sense of framing and tension, and a spectacular Amy Adams’ performance which culminates into one of the biggest emotional wallops in recent memory. Experiences like this are why we watch movies. — Colin Biggs
This year, it’s difficult to recall another release more profound than the understated poetry of Moonlight, and nor is its premise so easily encapsulated by empty, basic plot descriptions. As a story separated by three compelling acts, director Barry Jenkins chronicles the journey of a boy as he struggles to come to terms with who he really is, as opposed to how the world says he should be. Like any other human being, Chiron, our dear protagonist, transcends the categories the world tries to shove him into; he is more than “gay,” or “poor,” or “black.”
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins himself adapted the material with the most sensitive touch, creating a deeply intimate and nuanced portrait of what it means to be black, male, and gay — a person with complexities the world can sometimes feel too small or insensitive to comprehend. Dealt with a life that is rife with difficulty — from a drug-addicted single mother at home to the toxic masculinity in school and in the streets — Chiron finds solace in the form of a role model and father figure who embraces him without judgment. With a terrific ensemble of actors, a haunting score, mesmerizing cinematography, and all led by fantastic director in Jenkins, Moonlight is a true blue triumph, worthy of all the praise. — Nix Santos