Just saying it is enough to make some of you cringe.

There’s an ongoing narrative about how awful this year has been, and not just in American politics. I’ve heard more than a few people say that 2016 has been underwhelming for movies, too, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. Personally, I’ve found a great many movies this year to be disappointing. In a lot of cases I was either let down by something I was anticipating, or I didn’t share my peers’ enthusiastic response to films I enjoyed. I found Deadpool, Jackie, Zootopia, and The Magnificent Seven to be uninspiring at best. Two of my favorite up-and-coming directors (Jeff Nichols and Denis Villeneuve) released three films between them and none was particularly strong. And even though I liked Arrival, Rogue One, Sing Street, Hell or High Water, The Wailing and others, I wouldn’t say any of them were better than pretty good. So in some sense my experience fits the concept of a weak year.

However, we live in a time when the media harvest is nothing if not plentiful. There are so many movies being made by so many people that you’re bound to find the good ones if you look long enough. While I merely scratched the surface of all the films released this year, that was enough to reveal gold amidst the dross. This year saw new films by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Paul Verhoeven, Shane Black, Clint Eastwood, John Carney, Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman, and Pixar. We had exciting debuts from Robert Eggers, Kelly Fremon Craig, Dan Tractenberg, and the Daniels; and auspicious new features from such talents as Jeremy Saulnier, Damien Chazelle, and Fede Alvarez.

It’s not every year you witness a masterpiece, but my number 1 film of 2016 is just that. So let’s get there, shall we? Here are my 15 favorites from 2016:

15. Nerve (dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)


We start our list with one of the year’s nicest surprises. Nerve is a tech thriller for right now. It’s steeped in the ways that millennials communicate; it’s both enamored with and distrustful of the ubiquitous screens that characterize life in the 21st century and the constant connection it enables; and it’s deeply paranoid about the destructive potential of mobs of anonymous users. Emma Roberts plays Vee, a high-school senior out to prove she isn’t afraid to take risks. She joins a secretive, decentralized online game that allows “watchers” to pose dares to “players” for cash and glory. The game is decentralized and secretive, and the dares quickly escalate from cheeky social experiments to dangerous stunts. The whims of the masses pair Vee with the mysterious Ian (Dave Franco) and together the two climb the game’s leader-board. Like an episode of Black MirrorNerve presents fictional technology that’s utterly familiar- what wouldn’t we do for the thrill of our peers’ approval? The film works because it understands the human psychology and behavior that makes its game so alluring and so exploitable. Unfortunately, Nerve falters in its final act and devolves into silliness, breaking the immersion of what had to that point been a plausible near-future world. I’m recommending it anyway for its bleary neon style and its tense, exciting first hour.

14. The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)


One of the first things we see in Shane Black’s latest outrageous action comedy The Nice Guys is a kid walking through a house. Unbeknownst to him, a deep focus shot shows a car careening off the highway behind him. Whether the car collides with the house was hardly important. The image itself clued me in that I could expect a wild ride. The way Black casually tosses off violence underscores its (funny) absurdity, but also its urgent consequences. The Nice Guys doesn’t stray far from the playbook established by films like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; but if it ain’t broke, why not transport it to the 70’s and groove, man? There’s some kind of hard-boiled neo-noir plot involving the underworld of drugs and porn or some shit, I don’t know. I just like to watch Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play off each other as competing small-time P.I.s in a quip-happy world of burnt-orange paisley, being nearly upstaged by 16-year-old Angourie Rice as Gosling’s more principled daughter. This throwback/subversion of detective movie tropes should please genre fans.

13. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)


What would The Rules of the Game look like if it had been made by the director of Robocop? Maybe something like Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s provocative new drama. Michele is a woman in command: of her company, her life, and her sexuality – all of which is shaken when she is assaulted in her home by a masked intruder. Composed as ever, she begins to search for the identity of her attacker, a pursuit which will take her to places that are, to use the movie’s own understatement, “twisted.” Isabelle Huppert gives a knockout performance as a woman who is both powerful and victimized. The movie plays with lots of shockingly unorthodox relationships and indulges in plenty of dark humor. It’s about cycles of violence and abuse, about the way those things affect and maybe even destroy normality, and about where you go from there. And, ultimately, it’s about the bond and strength of women to shape their destinies.

12. Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight)


Breathtaking from the first moment, Kubo and the Two Strings is an incredibly crafted stop-motion fantasy adventure taking place in a world overflowing with magic. The look of this film is luscious, vivid, staggering; its art direction by Laika, the folks behind such films as Coraline and Paranorman, is of the highest pedigree. The geometric forms within its frame fold and bend and open again like the origami figures with which the boy conjures his stories. It would be enough to recommend the film for that alone, but Kubo is not just a feast for appreciators of animation prowess. It tells a story that feels elemental: a classical quest to gather three items (in this case parts of a set of armor) and defeat evil. There’s almost a video game logic to it – reach a new area, battle a foe, collect a reward – that I think some might disparagingly call episodic. The familiar structure here serves to keep the narrative clear and provide tangible motivation in every moment. Vocal work from all players is strong, especially Charlize Theron who gives warmth and sincerity to her every line. The script is funny, too, especially once the initial setup is complete and the quest begins in earnest. The Beetle character is a great Kronk-like comic foil. The action sequences are exciting and even a little scary. Basically all the elements are in place to make this a beautiful, fun, involving experience.

11. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)


The praise chorus for La La Land has been a bit overblown, quite unlike its song and dance numbers which can appear facile compared to the classic musicals it converses with. Yet there is an irresistible romantic quality to the film with its vibrant colors and tender songs that glide even if they rarely soar. After the big opening numbers, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and co. retract the scale so that by the time we get to “Audition” it’s positively intimate. Emma Stone is perfect in what would be a star-making role if she weren’t already a star. It’s a comprehensive performance that requires her to not only sing and dance but also convincingly play any given emotion on command, for example the scene where she’s interrupted while emoting for an audition. She and Gosling together are effortlessly charming. Maybe the most surprising choice is the film’s tendency to go for melancholy over celebration, claiming the big expressionist finales of 50’s musicals for the bittersweet. They may not make them like they used to, but in our current film climate this is fresh and earnestly felt.

10. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park)


Chan-Wook Park, director of Oldboy and Stoker,  returns with The Handmaiden, a lavishly produced erotic thriller in three distinct acts. A Korean man plans to seduce and marry wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), then dump her in the nut house and live high on her fortune. To this end, he sends small-time con artist Sook-hee (Tae-Ri Kim) to be the lady’s handmaiden and ingratiate him in the heiress’ eyes, the first move in an elaborate chess game. But, as always, there is a wrinkle: Sook-hee begins to fall for her mark. Park’s pulp epic is structured so that the entire middle segment functions much in the way the last 10 minutes of a more traditional thriller might – it shifts perspectives and loops back on the story so that we reevaluate everything we’ve just seen. The film’s framing, blocking, and the clarity and color of its images are tantalizing; its lush, swelling score is the best of the year. It’s also blackly funny, transgressive and blatantly sexual –Blue is the Warmest Color as a Fincher-esque page-turner set in a Jane Austen world (the film is a loose adaptation of the English novel Fingersmith) whose repressed longings erupt into reckless passion. The tale of cultural clash, of women attempting to overturn male oppression, of loyalty and violence and obsession – it’s all a bit overkill, a cinema of excess; but that’s its perverse joy.

9. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)


My list this year has an emphasis on bold, audacious visions, and The Lobster may be the most fascinating of all. In a dystopian society, all single people are brought to The Hotel, where they must find love in 45 days or be turned into an animal. If that makes you say “wait, what?” then get ready because Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy parable never stops raising absurdities to ponder. The central question in my mind is simply, “Why?” Why tell this story? What does its harsh, stilted, awkward version of the world tell us about our own? About the societal pressure to be in a relationship; or, on the flipside, to militantly eschew them? It’s a film that is often bewildering but also specific and cutting in its allegory, exaggerating familiar feelings to extremes to see how we confront them. Lanthimos (Dogtooth) shoots with a detached, serious style. The performances are uniformly wooden by intent, though great across the board. Colin Farrell has rarely been better, and it’s always good to see Rachel Weisz. It’s funny, it’s bracing, and if you like a movie that makes you think, this is one to mull over and return to.

8. The Neon Demon (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)


A young model is eaten alive by the fashion industry in The Neon Demon, the sumptuous nightmare by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives). Elle Fanning enters the L.A. scene as a naïve fresh face, and her innocence attracts the wolves: other models fear her youth and desirability, while the powers that be are ready to use her for their ends. This film is a glittery confection, a decadent cinematic treat saturated in deep, proud blues and angry reds as if the film print itself had been dipped in paint and sprinkled with glitter. Cliff Martinez’ electronic soundtrack (easily among the best of the year) pulses over Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s patient compositions like waves until we are entranced. The film goes to wild, taboo-bursting places, up to and including Jena Malone’s amorous encounter with a cadaver (aside: Jena Malone should be in every movie). Like Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon sometimes feels like an exorcism – less scathing critique of a cannibalistic culture and more channeling of personal obsessions. Unlike that film, though, which often felt sluggish and mired in repellent violence, Demon has an ace up its sleeve: it’s really, really pretty. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

7. The VVitch (dir. Robert Eggers)


The Witch is a film that more horror films should aspire to. Robert Eggers’ debut feature is a triumph of tone and sustained, atmospheric dread. Virtually free of jump scares or graphic violence, The Witchs brand of terror is largely moral. The stern patriarch of a New England family parts from their community over a matter of religious doctrine and goes to live on the outskirts of a forbidding forest. Tragedy strikes when their infant child disappears without a trace. Witchcraft is suspected, and the shock of the abduction coupled with their isolation, suspicion, and constant (supernatural?) misfortune threatens to tear the family apart from the inside. The film’s gut-level unease is achieved in part through a striking realism. The 17th century dialogue feels authentic in every phrase, the result of extensive research into period manuscripts. It’s wonderful to listen to, as is the atonal soundtrack. The film has a suppressed, aberrant feeling to it, and it walks a line of dour seriousness with the occasional bit of camp/theatrics. That’s a balance that won’t work for everyone, but if you key into it, it makes for one of the year’s most unique and immersive experiences. Of all the movies I loved this year, The Witch is the one I think about most often and the one I’m most eager to revisit.

6. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)


Easily one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 was Green Room, and for a number of reasons. The first is that it’s about a punk band and I tend to love movies about musicians (go figure). The second is that it features a cool, idiosyncratic cast including the late Anton Yelchin, Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and of course Sir Patrick Stewart. Most of all, though, it’s the newest feature from up-and-coming director Jeremy Saulnier whose previous film Blue Ruin was a sobering inversion of the usual revenge tale, showing retaliatory violence as an unglamorous dead end. Green Room isn’t as fleshed out as that film, but what it lacks in moral complexity it makes up in pure ferocity. This is a mean little locked-room thriller with a penchant for sudden, brutal violence. A punk band coasting through the northwest on stolen gasoline takes a last-minute show at a remote venue that they discover is a hub for neo-nazis. When they accidentally witness something they shouldn’t, the band finds themselves barricaded in the titular backstage room with nowhere to go and surrounded by a lot of nasty characters who want to make sure they never talk. Once the tension begins (which is almost right away) it rarely lets up through uneasy negotiations, impossible stand-offs and desperate bids to gain ground. You won’t learn anything new from Green Room. It’s an old form being reworked, but boy does it work! Sometimes you want to see a movie that puts the pedal to the metal and doesn’t let up. That’s very punk rock.

5. High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley)


In a year full of movies that are both beautiful and bat-shit crazy, High-Rise might be the most beautiful and the most bat-shit. Ben Wheatley of the demented Kill List imagines J. G. Ballard’s novel as a ballet of chaos, an operatic descent into the throes of anarchy. Tom Hiddleston (becoming the patron saint of under-appreciated movies like this and Crimson Peak) plays a psychologist who moves into the titular tower, a hermetic ecosystem tiered off by economic and social status: the rulers at the top controlling the resources, the lower class at the bottom receiving their scraps. The tension between the floors eventually escalates into violence and revolution. The film’s sets are striking and the production design meticulous. The future-70’s aesthetic looks like Terry Gilliam tore through a Kubrick set on a bender – think the madcap dystopia of Brazil meets the warm golds of Barry Lyndon and the retro-chic whites and reds of A Clockwork Orange. The hallucinatory editing heightens the film’s already wild images. It’s something to behold. This isn’t really a character movie but Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, and Jeremy Irons shine in their various roles. Class satire like this has been done before and more subtly, but rarely with such exhilarating style.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Tractenberg)


The year’s best thriller is this claustrophobic chamber drama. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground bunker to find that she’s been rescued – or is it kidnapped? – by Howard (John Goodman), an unstable conspiracy theorist who believes aliens have attacked and left the surface hostile to human life. He forbids her to leave, and so begins a long, tense cat-and-mouse game between them. That’s not a new dynamic, recalling many thrillers and even prison films of the past (the first comparison that springs to my mind is William Wyler’s The Collector). What makes it work is a strong script and a trio of standout performers. Goodman is incredible: unpredictable, menacing, sweet, sad. He constantly makes you question Howard’s motives and state of mind, providing a formidable devil-you-know against whom Michelle must weigh an unknown fate should she try to escape the bunker. Winstead, in turn, is rattled but smart, self-possessed and resourceful. John Gallagher Jr. is also good in a supporting role but it’s Winstead and Goodman’s show. The film constructs the kind of pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrills that remind me why I go to the movies; and while I won’t dare give away the third-act developments, I’ll simply say that this is the first movie in quite some time that made me wish for a sequel. It’s this sort of character-focused excitement that I’d like to see more of in Hollywood.

3. Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)


When I first saw Hail, Caesar! back in February, I wrote “I hope I see another movie this good all year.” As you can see by its placement at #3 on my list, my wish was granted, but only just. A feather-light homage to Hollywood’s golden age, this fluffy Coen comedy takes the scenic route around its material, stopping to get in the middle of a musical number or watch a director try to teach his new star how to say “would that it t’were so simple.” Our tour through the backlot is led by Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” who has to make sure the movies get made if the lead actress becomes pregnant, or the lead in a drawing room picture is replaced by a kid who does westerns, or the star of a Ben-Hur-like prestige film goes missing. This feels a bit like Inherent Vice in that it’s loose structurally but so consistently funny that I couldn’t possibly mind. It’s actually the only comedy this year that kept me laughing throughout. The cast is delightful: Clooney, Johansson, Fiennes, Swinton, Tatum… but the breakout talent here is Alden Ehrenreich as a Horst Buchholz type who lands a fish-out-water gig. It’s weird to think that a year ago I didn’t know his name and now he’s been cast as Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars prequel. Amid all the playfulness the Coens find time to address blacklisting, the threat of Communism, and the portrayal of faith in entertainment (and maybe even faith in entertainment) without ever appearing to try very hard. La La Land may get all the awards, but Hail, Caesar! as the best movie about Hollywood in 2016.

2. Thank You for Playing (dir. David Osit, Malika Zouhali-Worrall)


I often have people tell me that they haven’t seen a lot of the movies on my year-end list. This is one that I expect most people haven’t even heard of whether they follow movies closely or not – unless you’ve been following me, because I’ve been talking it up since March! I saw it almost by chance, having reviewed it for CutPrintFilm. Thank You for Playing is a documentary about the creation of That Dragon, Cancer, a video game chronicling the experiences of a family as they endure the terminal illness of their infant son. The film brings us extraordinarily close to Ryan and Amy Green, to what matters to them and how they grieve and how they channel their trials into this creative form that allows others to empathize and connect with them. In addition to being an intimate and touching portrait that stares hard truths in the face, the game – and the film in turn – constitute a powerful argument for video games as art. That’s a lot to accomplish in just 80 minutes. If any of this sounds the least bit interesting to you, please check out this film. It’s currently available on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, and more.

1. Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)


Probing. Personal. Epic. Meaningful. Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a punishing ordeal in the best possible way. Words failed me upon seeing it and even now it’s hard to express anything that comes close to evoking its poignancy. I’m sure it says a lot about me that most of my top films this year in some way deal with discovering what faith is, how it weathers under duress, and whether it grows, changes, sustains, or is abandoned. In the 17th century, Japan is closed off to foreign influence and Christians are being oppressed, tortured, and compelled to renounce their faith. Under such conditions it’s rumored that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostatized and is living as a native. Young priests Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are compelled to enter Japan and search for their mentor. Devout, ambitious and proud, their arrival brings encouragement to the underground church but also exposes them to persecution. Rodrigues grapples with the silence of God towards the suffering faithful as his own convictions are put to the test.

“Overwhelming” is the first word that comes to mind to describe the nearly 3 hour battery of Silence. It isn’t a subtle movie, but it does refuse to make pat judgments about its characters’ morality. From the story arise questions such as: how do we forgive when we’ve been betrayed? Is a symbolic act of denial equal to loss of faith? Is there one truth for everyone, or are there cultures that have no use for one religion or another? Are the priests doing more harm than good? It’s into these weeds that the film dives, its fog-laden vistas stark and unsearchable as the hidden face of Christ. It’s a difficult journey to the heart of faith, to the hell of despair, to the limit of the will – a quest for certainty, a cry against the principalities and the powers. It’s The Seventh Seal, it’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, it’s The Revenant, The Passion. It’s nothing less than magnificent. If this were the capstone to Scorsese’s career it would be easy to say he went out on top. Silence isn’t just the best movie of the year; it may be one of the finest pictures about religion ever made.

The Next Ten

Here are my runners-up. List is in alphabetical order:

Don’t Think Twice

The Edge of Seventeen

Everybody Wants Some!!

Finding Dory

Hell or High Water

The Innocents

Manchester By the Sea

Sing Street

Star Trek: Beyond


Ten Movies I Missed – A few potential top-listers that I didn’t get a chance to see: 20th Century Women, Allied, American Honey, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Cameraperson, Fences, The Love Witch, Paterson, Toni Erdmann, Under the Shadow

20 Top Performances

Best Actor

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield – Silence

Tom Hanks – Sully

Colin Farrell – The Lobster

Trevonte Rhodes – Moonlight

Best Actress

Tae-ri Kim – The Handmaiden

Emma Stone – La La Land

Isabelle Huppert – Elle

Kate Beckinsale – Love & Friendship

Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen

Best Supporting Actor

John Goodman – 10 Cloverfield Lane

Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!

Tom Benton – Love & Friendship

Glen Powell – Everybody Wants Some!!

Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress

Min-hee Kim – The Handmaiden

Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Agata Buzek – The Innocents

Jena Malone – The Neon Demon

Emma Greenwell – Love & Friendship

Now for some bonus stats (note: these stats only include movies I saw)

Best Couple

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz – The Lobster

Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim – The Handmaiden

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe – The Nice Guys

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe – Swiss Army Man

Best Director: Martin Scorsese – Silence

Best Soundtrack: The Handmaiden

Funniest Movie: Hail, Caesar!

Biggest Surprise: Thank You for Playing

Biggest Disappointment: Midnight Special. This year a lot of movies I expected to love fell flat for me, but emblematic of them all is Jeff Nichols’ leaden sci-fi fable.

Worst Movie: Indepedence Day: Resurgence. A monumentally stupid blockbuster.

Most Overrated: Crowded category this year. Do I go with Moonlight? Arrival? Hacksaw Ridge? Rogue One? No, I’m choosing Zootopia, the Disney movie everyone is raving about that is actually just propaganda.

Most Underrated: High-Rise

Best Sequel: I’m not sure if 10 Cloverfield Lane counts, so I’m going with Finding Dory which I may like more than the original Finding Nemo.

Worst Sequel: Independence Day: Resurgence 

Least Enjoyable Good Movie: Silence

Most Enjoyable Bad Movie: The Shallows

Best Performance by a Bad Actor
Nick Kroll – Loving
Vince Vaughn – Hacksaw Ridge
Blake Lively – The Shallows
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
Dave Franco – Nerve

Worst Performance by a Good Actor:
Jesse Eisenberg – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Julianne Moore – Maggie’s Plan
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ben Mendelsohn – Rogue One
Steve Carell – Cafe Society

Longest Movie: Silence (2 hours, 41 minutes)

Shortest Movie: Thank You for Playing (1 hour, 20 minutes)

Best Title: Everybody Wants Some!!

Worst Title: The BFG

Movies Named After Locations: 10 Cloverfield Lane, High-Rise, Green Room, Sing Street, Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Zootopia, The Shallows, La La Land

Titles That Form Complete Sentences: Hail, Caesar!, Everybody Wants Some!!, Thank You for Playing, Don’t Think Twice, Don’t Breathe, Hush

Fiction Movies Based on Real Life: Silence; Hail, Caesar!; Sully; The Innocents; The Conjuring 2; Loving; Jackie

Movies in Which Andrew Garfield Plays Jesus: Silence, Hacksaw Ridge

Horror Films in Which Someone is Deprived of One of Their Five Senses: Don’t Breathe, Hush

Movies in Which A Woman is Trapped in a Single Location with John Gallagher, Jr.: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush

Movies in Which Someone Kisses a Corpse: The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea

Movies in Which Someone Fails to Hang Themselves: The Handmaiden, Swiss Army Man

Movies in Which Someone Attempts Artificial Insemination with a Plastic Implement: Don’t Breathe, Maggie’s Plan

Movies in Which a Kid is in a Band Because He Wants to Hook Up with the Girl: Manchester by the Sea, Sing Street

Movies in Which Someone Kills a Baby: The Witch, The Innocents, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals

Movies in Which Jesse Eisenberg is Insufferable: Batman v Superman, Cafe Society

So… that was my year in film. How was yours?