It's finally here. I am finally calling it. Although there are still plenty of movies from the previous year that I have yet to see (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Sing Street) we're already a month and a half into 2017 and most lists like these are obsolete. I was holding out for Jarmusch's Paterson since I am such a huge fan, and I would say it certainly paid off. Even though it's already so late, I love making lists like this so much that I couldn't help but make one. Also, before you say anything about any placement of films or any films that were not on the list, I'd like to say that this was a very very hard list to solidify. I'm still not sure this is exactly how I feel about everything I've seen, but as I said before, I've been putting this off for way too long. 2016 was a stressful and sad year, but one faithful constant was going to the cinemas. It was rare that I went to anything this last year that I truly hated. 2016 was certainly one of the best years for movies in a while.
15. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
This was the first hard call to make, as most tail-end list titles are. Does this one deserve to be on the top 15 list more than something like Midnight Special or The Neon Demon? I'm going to argue that yes it does. While films like those are probably better and I probably liked them better, I was incredibly struck by my viewing of this film and I also feel for it as an underdog of 2016 that completely flew under the radar of most and dismissed as just something on Netflix by others. Running the festival circuit for a long time, this film was finally picked up by Netflix. While I love that Netflix gives a home to lots of great independent film, their bad relationship with theater chains stopped this film from getting the proper theatrical release it deserved. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on a large screen and heard through gigantic speakers. It is a quiet, whispery, and haunting film that will worm its way into your brain and stay there for a long time. This film feels like if Terrence Malick made a gothic ghost story and I absolutely adored it. Considering how much it affected me just by watching it on a laptop with headphones, I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been to see it on the big screen at the festivals it played. And so for that, I would like to give IATPTTLITH a shout-out as one of the unsung underdogs of 2016.
Jim Jarmusch is an essential American filmmaker, not only in independent film, but in everything. If you can't agree with that...well then...bye, I guess. Jarmusch's love of simple things, details, oddballs and the unique lyricism of everyday life is special and uniquely his own vision. Decades from now, a movie like Paterson will be an excellent time capsule of life in the 20th-21st century. There is a pattern and rhythm to Jarmusch films that is so beautiful. Paterson is simply one week in the life of a poetry-writing bus driver, and that is essentially it. There are interesting and surprising things that happen, yet ultimately this week will not define who Paterson or the people around him are, and that is beautiful. It's the power of simple moments that makes Paterson such a beautiful portrait of everyday life.
13. Little Sister
Another exciting surprise of 2016. Like Jarmusch, Zach Clark is excellent at creating portraits of ordinary weirdos. This film spoke to me on a level that rarely gets reached most of the time. Not many films truly capture the strange dichotomy of religion and rebelliousness in small Southern mountain towns like Little Sister does. The film follows Colleen, a nun about to take her vows, who returns home for a week after her brother has been released from a Veteran's Hospital after a tragic event overseas. While there, Colleen comes face to face with the self she left behind and her family life she's trying to bury. Little Sister reminded me of the High School Quentin from Sylva, North Carolina, attending youth group and loving God but also energized by old school punk music and horror movies. There's rarely a movie as quietly special as this one. Not to be missed at all.
12. Hell or High Water
It's the Coen Brothers Western that the Coen Brothers never made. Hell Or High Water is without a doubt one of the strongest examples of solid genre storytelling in filmmaking. There isn't anything revolutionary or historical in its approach to a tale of sympathetic anti-heroes on the run from the law, but its coherence and expertly crafted screenplay, direction, and casting made for one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking, and just flat out fun movie-going experiences of 2016. This tale of two brothers on a state-wide bank robbing crime spree is witty and slick, but also a wonderful showcase of well rounded and three dimensional characters. Just like its main characters, this movie is an underdog and a dark horse. It's a nominee for the Best Picture of the Year but it really has no chance of winning, but boy wouldn't it be fun to see this little guy stealing the little golden statue and driving off into the night?
11. Green Room
We've all had those fantasies before. What would we do if we found ourselves in the most dangerous situation imaginable with no way out? Would we be crafty, ruthless, cowardly? Jeremy Saulnier and his cast and crew put us right in the middle of one of our most terrifying collective nightmares. The characters in this film aren't Jason Bourne-types. They're scared kids who sometimes don't know any better than to do something horrifyingly life-risking just to stay alive. The violence is very real and so are the characters. The film also captures a particular societal division right now, as well as a division that has been a conflict throughout the history of the punk rock subculture. The film doesn't necessarily offer a polished or clean answer to this problem, but it knows that nothing really can. And yes, it's okay to punch nazis.
10. The Witch
I don't think there was a more expertly crafted film that came from a first time feature filmmaker this year than The Witch. Everything about this movie is on point from the slightest snap of a tree branch in the woods to the most visceral imagery. This movie is a knife. Eggers lightly grazes your skin with it at first, then proceeds to slowly dig it further and further underneath your skin for the remaining 90 minutes.
9. I Am Not Your Negro
This documentary probably could not have come at a better time. Relying solely on beautiful atmospheric photography, archival footage, and the words of James Baldwin eloquently performed by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro is quietly devastating and universally important. It is eye-opening and revelatory. If by the end of this film, your thoughts and feelings on race perceptions haven't even budged a little bit, there's a good chance you're probably in a coma.
8. Under The Shadow
2016 was a great, great year for horror films and Under The Shadow is a shining example of that. I can't remember a movie scaring me this viscerally in a long time. I shouted, screamed, tensed up, and jumped more than any other theatergoing experience of 2016. On the surface, the movie reads like the Middle-Eastern answer to The Babadook, but a description such as this is a disservice to the movie as it is much more deep and emotional than a pitch like that makes it seem. It takes cues from Del Toro in the way it parallels political history with supernatural, mythological horror, and still leaves room for humanity. This is a must see for a fan of horror movies and honestly just movies in general.
7. Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is in itself much like a body of water. It’s gorgeous, deep, and uncontainable. It is calm and peaceful one minute, rocking you to your core the next, only to return to another serene moment of tender beauty. It is often under-appreciated just how hard it is to truly craft a film that is a slice of life. More inexperienced filmmakers will actively resist good stories and characters, claiming they don’t happen in real life. Like Paterson, events in Manchester By The Sea could easily start taking place tomorrow and it would seem perfectly real. Some of the best stories in life are the ones that happen in the everyday details.
6. The Lobster
If I ever make a movie as fully realized, affecting, and flat out wonderful as The Lobster I'd probably retire because I don't think I could ever top it. The premise of a world where everyone must be in a couple or else become an animal is outright absurd and yet Yorgos Lanthimos finds a perfect way to make it feel like this world exists somewhere. Lanthimos' vision is a treasure of modern cinema. His dry humor and fearlessness makes his movies the most fun punch in the gut you'll ever get.
Martin Scorsese's decades-spanning battle with faith and religion culminates in what I strongly believe will go down as one of his finest films. Like all great films, this must be watched more than once to truly recognize the brilliance. I have not had the chance to see it a second time but I greatly anticipate it, as it was impossible to shake from my head the story of those Jesuit priests and their followers the week after seeing the film. There are no easy answers in this movie and that is the way it should be. Knee-jerk reactions have no place in the world of this film where black and white dichotomy simply does not exist.
There most certainly was not a more uniquely distinctive voice in film during 2016 than in Barry Jenkins' masterful Moonlight. It's impossible not to be moved by such a powerful piece of cinema. Tour de force gets tossed around a lot these days but this film deserves that title. A quiet epic that doesn't need to boast. The life of one boy in three stages is genuinely heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. A stunning use of color, shadows, and light like nothing you've ever seen before, all the while highlighting one of the most beautiful stories of the last few years.
3. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-Wook is a force of nature like no other to be reckoned with. Practically every film of his is filled to the brim with the most delightful tiny details of cinematic flourish that all come together to make masterful portraits of storytelling in every film. I can't think of a Chan-Wook film that I've seen that didn't somehow completely envelop me and make me feel totally transported to another time and place. The Handmaiden may be a book adaptation, but the end result is 100% Park Chan-Wook.
Jeff Nichols has only made five feature films yet he has already established himself as one of the greatest American auteurs of the 21st Century. 2016 was a great year for Nichols indeed. First he released his wonderful Sci-Fi chase film, Midnight Special, then he debuted this touching and deeply emotional biopic. Nichols pivots his way through making a biopic by sidestepping all the normal pitfalls of standard biopics. He does not overstate or fake the drama of Richard and Mildred Loving. He simply presents it as it is, a wonderful love story between two people whose only crime was loving each other. I saw this film at the exact right time, only a couple of weeks after the most stressful and depressing election in American history. After endless debates, shouting, social unrest, and violence, it was truly enlightening to watch such a quiet, gentle, and touching film. I was a puddle by the end of this film.
1. La La Land
This movie has sadly become kind of a punching bag due to all the awards praise, even though both Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins have praised each other's work this year (I still think Moonlight should win Best Picture by the way). Awards are kind of a curse more than anything. But I'm not talking about "controversy," I'm talking about the very best, most well-crafted, most cinematic movie of the year, and I unabashedly think it is La La Land. Chazelle's ode to old movie musicals wrapped up in a story of doomed love is just as tight and well-executed as his first directorial feature, Whiplash. Damien Chazelle has a long way to go in his career and hopefully he'll just be getting better with each film. Where to start? The songs are wonderful, the dancing is intoxicating, the colors and clothing are drop dead gorgeous, the camera-work is jaw-dropping. To dismiss this movie as cotton-candy drivel is downright insulting to a movie that is seamless in it's craft and also deceptively simple. This isn't just a love story, it's a critical examination of ambition, nostaliga, dreams, and relationships. It just so happens that it's also unbelievably fun to watch.