15. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dir. Jorma Taccone & Akkiva Schaffer)
I was expecting this to be a big summer comedy, but it came and went in theaters so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to see it until it came out on VOD. I get why- despite an A list cast and tons of celebrity appearances, it’s a weird movie, as weird as we’ve come to expect from Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island. Without question, they made the movie they wanted to make. It probably sealed their fate when it came to commercial success, but guarantees this a long and happy life as a cult comedy, a la MacGruber. It’s a fitting fate for a movie about a vapid pop star trying to balance fame, success, relationships, and artistic authenticity.
14. Sully (dir. Clint Eastwood)
Despite feeling awfully turned off by Clint Eastwood and his comments about millennials being the “pussy generation,” I did really like the filmmaker’s latest, Sully. It’s an easy movie to make fun of, because it’s just about the most dad movie of the last five years. But within that dad movie is an ode to professionalism that manages to be very touching. When the credits started rolling, my girlfriend and I began tearing up unexpectedly. She turned to me and said “humans can be so good.” That’s the film’s appeal- optimism in getting the job done, and a hope that we won’t turn our backs on each other in the end.
13. The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama)
The Invitation was one of the most purely enrapturing times I had watching a movie all year. A group of old friends who haven’t seen each other in ages get together- but things turn out to be more than they appear, of course. Imagine the good times nostalgia of The Big Chill fused with the escalating threats of Cheap Thrills. From moment to moment, it’s a gasp inducing horror-comedy of manners. But that devilishly good time you’re having is merely a gateway, as it turns into an emotionally resonant story about protracted denial in the face of grief. Logan Marshall Green finally earns more than just a comparison to Tom Hardy, while John Carroll Lynch is as creepy as ever.
12. Indignation (dir. James Schmaus)
Indignation is a story of a young east coast Jewish boy named Marcus (Logan Lerman) with hard leftist leanings, caught in the cultural whitewash of the 1950’s, coming of age and falling in love at a small Ohio college. Based on a Phillip Roth novel and written and directed by James Schmaus (who wrote many of Ang Lee’s films), it’s a film about the intellectual rages, hidden wounds and repressed emotions of a bygone era. Lerman is growing up before our eyes, and Sarah Gadon is mesmerizing as the shiksa goddess who steals his heart . Speaking of that, this film certainly fails the bechdel test, as many Roth novels apparently do. However, I came away feeling that Schmaus at least does right by the central love story, making it about far more than Marcus’ need for approval.
11. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
A one location siege movie about a DC punk band defending themselves against a bunch of murderous neo nazis, riffing on John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13? All that Green Room had to do to make my top films list was be as awesome as that sounded, and it had a spot. It delivered. Gory, brooding, and continuing director Jeremy Saulnier’s exploration of what happens when normal people are forced into desperate situations where violence is required, Green Room ended up being eerily prescient. As we are now besieged by a white supremacist movement that gains further legitimacy every day, it’s a relief to have an exciting genre film in which to dump these modern day anxieties. It’s a dark thriller about the hateful underbelly of Trump’s America.
10. Louder Than Bombs (dir. Joachim Trier)
Isabelle Huppert had an amazing 2016 with Elle and Things To Come, but she also showed up in one of 2016’s quietest movies. Directed by Norway’s Joachim Trier (whose Oslo, August 31st is one of my favorite films of the 21st century), this portrait of complicated family grief also stars Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, and David Straitharn, as fathers, sons and lovers who loved Isabelle (Huppert’s character), a famous war photographer who recently committed suicide. But relative newcomer Devin Druid surprises the most, playing her youngest son Conrad. It’s his adolescent anger and lack of expressive skills that the movie latches onto to find its deeply touching core. While not as strong as his previous films, even a minor work from him is bound to be one of the best of its year. Trier could find a way to make the phonebook ache with beauty and feeling
PS- Any fans of Gabriel Byrne and his underrated HBO show In Treatment will probably feel comforted by the similar tones of Louder Than Bombs . It’s probably as close to In Treatment: The Movie as we’ll ever get.
9. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)
As a son of two hard liberal baby boomers, I was born into the consumption of the Kennedy mythos. As a young follower of all things Oliver Stone, I became obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. So this movie is sort of like catnip for me. But I was unprepared for how thoroughly it would deconstruct the very foundations of my political mindset. It does so entirely by humanizing the grief of one remarkable, larger than life woman. And yet, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain is not out to prove our enduring love affair with the Kennedy clan wrong. “People need their history,” says Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), Jackie’s interior decorator. Yes, we do- and now more than ever.
8. Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols is turning out to be one of our foremost cinematic poets of the American south. This Arkansian director has brought considerable depth and emotion to his nuanced portraits of regular humans dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Loving is his first based on non-fictional material, in adapting the story of Mildred and Richard Loving. They were the interracial Virginia couple who, in the 1960’s, were the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that brought down miscegenation laws for good. It must have been a challenging film to conceive, as the real life couple were not big talkers. It’s especially remarkable that Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are still able to completely convey their characters’ inner worlds despite so much quiet. For such a rough year, it was a breath of fresh air to be reminded of the good that ordinary humans are capable of.
7. American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)
Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold seems to build her movies around musical sequences, and it’s a brilliant move; because so many of those from this film are seared into my brain, with characters coming together to smoke and drink to E-40, frolick to Rihanna, or square dance to Steve Earle. She’s a director who loves to see what people reveal through their passions, their creative outlets, the way they choose to burn off stress. Along with Hell Or High Water, it’s also a timely film about the social and economic desolation of red state America, as it follows around a group of lost, misfit youth (all played compellingly by a group of mostly newcomers and non-professionals) who, when they’re not partying around raging bonfires, they go door to door selling magazine subscriptions. This is a group of characters doing their best to get free, and failing passionately.
6. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Moonlight is probably the most widely praised film of the year. I knew it would be objectively great when I saw it, but one thing I wasn’t expecting was how purely accessible it would be, even though it’s about a character very different from me. It’s probably the best coming of age story of this century, next to Boyhood. Moonlight fires on all cylinders, with everything in its right place; a feast for the mind, the eyes, and the heart.
5. Hell Or High Water (dir. David Mckenzie)
One of many films this year that told stories set in Trump’s America, Hell Or High Water takes the hard-to-fuck-up conceit of struggling brothers turned vigilante bank robbers, but imbues it with truly felt stakes. In doing so, director David McKenzie (Starred Up), joins with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (a new master of modern day westerns) and four astounding central performances, to elevate this into one of the year’s best movies. In the world of Hell Or High Water, the poverty on display is portrayed as a disease that upends morality itself- an almost guaranteed ignition spark for death and violence. For a movie that tells a human story about the fine fucking mess we’ve gotten ourselves in, look no further.
4. Sing Street (dir. John Carney)
I was surprised to see some of my favorite film critics light a fiery torch for this movie mid-year, as it had slipped past my radar. Watching on a plane to California though, the words “instant classic” jumped into my head more than a few times. I fell for it- and hard. Following the creative and romantic misadventures of the (fictional) titular teenage band in 1980’s Dublin, the movie plays like Say Anything by way of Almost Famous, with a healthy dose of We Are The Best! Though it’s directed by John Carney of Once fame, it plays like the best new Cameron Crowe film we can probably hope for now. I haven’t even mentioned how good the Sing Street original songs are- probably a little too good for me to believe that teenagers were supposed to have written them. But for the second most utterly joyous film of 2016 (see #3), that’s just a problem that gets swallowed up by its pure magic.
3. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
With its beautiful music, La La Land is bound to stay in my head for the next several weeks, and the visceral experience of seeing the film in theaters automatically blasted it high up on my list. Time will tell how this movie holds up, but I have a feeling I’ll be remembering it fondly when it’s time to make that daunting best of the decade list a couple years from now. La La Land may be even better in between the song setpieces, when we just get to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone radiating romantic bliss with each other (when they’re not smarmily riffing defensive jabs back and forth). But it’s really a movie of colors. I’m not the type to really notice a movie’s color scheme, unless it’s super obvious. However, days after seeing it, those blues, oranges and pinks of the Los Angeles sunset are still seared into my mind. It’s a film that sinks its teeth deep into your senses and doesn’t let go.
2. O.J. Made In America (dir. Ezra Edelman)
Watched over several days on some of the hottest days of the summer, this seven hour plus documentary felt as epic and riveting as advertised. It unfolds like a great American novel, with more than three hours passing before the famous crime is even committed. Every hero in the story has a dark side- every villain has shades of grey. But no one gets out unscathed- it’s America, after all. During a year as tumultuous as we’ve seen since 1968, this proved to be timely, courageous and cathartic. A perfect marriage of form and function, a story as twisted as this deserves to be told on such a sheer scale. Yet it’s not remotely a slog- it pulls you in, steps down hard on the gas and expects you to hang on.
1. Manchester By The Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
For the first 45 minutes of this much anticipated film from playwright Kenneth Lonergan, I thought I was missing the point or that the hype had killed it for me. But as the film pulls back the curtain to reveal deeper layers of what lay before our eyes, I was floored. I might have been reduced to a puddle of raw nerves by the end, had it not been for Lonergan’s unexpectedly hilarious script (helped significantly by the central duo of performances from Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges). Grief is perhaps the most universal and guaranteed of human experiences, and it’s the one we are biologically predisposed to avoid at all costs. Manchester By The Sea bravely, heroically steps into that abyss, and invites us down with it, one step at a time. A movie like this only comes around every so often- and it’s one that will stay with me throughout my life.
Honorable Mentions: Knight Of Cups, DePalma, The Handmaiden, The Witch, Neruda