Ryan’s Top Ten of 2016

As of this writing, I managed to see a whopping 81 new films this year (a personal best), but this was a year that had many films I liked very much, but not too many films that I love dearly. In some ways, that makes this exercise even more difficult when it comes to culling the list to a top ten. But that’s also what makes it fun, especially when looking back at these posts from years past.

Anyway, despite not seeing some films in time, here’s my list as a snapshot of right now:

Honorable mention:

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Documentary: Weiner (dirs. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

I watched a good handful of documentaries this year, but it is always hard to reconcile them on my end of year list because of how different they are from narrative films (no begrudging anyone who does, it’s just me being weird) so I just added this as an honorable mention. The documentary that stuck with me all year was Weiner. The events within, if portrayed in a fictional narrative, would seem completely unrealistic and insane. But because the directors had near-unrestricted access to Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign and family while the second sexting scandal was unfolding, the film encapsulates a political story, family’s struggle with mental illness, and commentary on the sensationalized, tabloid nature of news media today.

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10-tie. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore) / Moana (dirs. Ron Clements, John Musker)

This year was a great year for animation, as Kung Fu Panda 3 and Finding Dory delivered on gorgeous looking sequels, Secret Life of Pets was an entertaining joke machine, and one film was an outright masterpiece (which appears higher on this list). However, kudos must be given to Disney.

Moana feels like the studio fulfilling the promise of The Princess and the Frog, doing a musical on par with some of the best films of the 1990s ‘Renaissance’ that manages to be inclusive of cultural points of view while also being incredibly accessible. The songs, which Lin-Manuel Mirande contributed, have been in my head since the first time I saw it, and this is the first time that Disney has done a computer animated film that I don’t think would necessarily look better if done in the traditional style.

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Zootopia was one of the most surprising films of the year. Packed with celebrities providing the voices to anthropomorphized animals, there wasn’t anything that seemed special about this film going into it. But using predators and prey as an allegory for the way that societies deal with majority-minority dynamics is nothing short of genius. And it is delivered in a way that takes the allegory to its natural conclusion using the vehicle of a Chinatown-esque detective story which also has some of the funniest jokes in any movie all year. It is surprisingly deep and complex with regards to diversity, bias, and the “you can do anything” trope typically found in children’s films.

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9. Christine (dir. Antonio Campos)

I haven’t seen any of director Antonio Campos’ other films, but given the synopsis for Afterschool and But It Now, it makes sense that he would be interested in telling Christine Chubbuck’s story. Her personal struggle with depression is wrapped together with the sensationalization of news over serious journalism, a path we seem to have progressed down even further since 1974.

There are two aspects to Christine that earned it a place on this list. First, the sense of naturalism that the production is able to achieve is remarkable. The sets, the costumes, even just the looks of the cast feel like the early 1970s (no idea what these people looked like in real life, but that’s beside the point). And Rebecca Hall. She’s always been great, but with the exception of one scene— the one that they’ll play on the Oscar broadcast if she gets nominated— she doesn’t exaggerate Christine at all. We’ve all known men and women like her, the ones who just can’t seem to click into the world. It’s an outstanding performance that rarely calls attention to itself.

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8. A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

If there is a genre that totally has my number right now, it’s amazing thespians playing celebrities in personal dramas set against gorgeous scenery. Last year it was Clouds of Sils Maria, but this year it was A Bigger Splash. Wonderfully acted, especially by Tilda Swinton, Dakota Fanning, and Ralph Fiennes, the film is layered and complicated, and pushes back against us as the audience for caring about the palatial lives of the rich and famous. One of the many scenes that has stuck with me since I saw the film in July:

We understand [the characters] their motivations, their points of view, and their goals in being on the island. And occasionally, the film decides to intrude on this insular and private world, where the melodramatic concerns around self-image, youth, and legacy are exposed as being important. There is a refugee crisis, introduced as background noise of a radio news program. It intrudes on a scene where Marianne and Harry are tasting homemade ricotta cheese at the house of a family who lives on the island. The radio creates a layer of noise in the scene, making it periodically difficult to understand the dialogue. The “real” issues try to push aside the seemingly petty concerns we have about our own privileged lives, but often barely register as more than a nuisance.

Brilliant.

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7. Shin Godzilla (dirs. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

Going into this film, I didn’t expect something beyond a fun time watching Japanese filmmakers assert their kaiju bonafides, but I wasn’t expecting a razor sharp political commentary not seen in this franchise since the 1954 original. From my review:

What if Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla film? Shin Godzilla is probably the closest we’ll get. Much of the film is focused on how the Japanese bureaucracy, legislature, military, and Prime Minister’s office responds to the threat posed by Godzilla. We see how decisions are made, spending time in various conference rooms, command centers, and windowless offices (including a great sequence where a command center of rag tag lone wolves and outcasts is hastily assembled). We mostly only get brief glimpses on how this affects the average Tokyo resident, but when we do, it isn’t pretty. Writer/director Hideaki Anno is much more concerned with how the government and those in power protect themselves instead of putting the citizens of their country first. The central moral conflict in the film weighs heavy, with the Japanese deciding whether to try a risky plan of their own making, or follow the destructive path the United States, China, and Russia have set them on. As an American viewer, it’s absolutely fascinating to see a nation wrestle with its own status in the world.

I also appeared on an episode of the wonderful I Like to Movie Movie podcast to talk Shin Godzilla. Listen here.

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6. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

My favorite thing about Moonlight is that while every scene in the film weighs heavily with meaning, it never impedes Chiron’s (the main character) story from unfolding in a way that feels natural and organic. Though the film does well to help you empathize with Chiron, it leaves all the extrapolating to the black/gay experience to the audience. It is very simply following one man’s coming of age, but Jenkins revels in the details. This is a small movie that rewards viewers for absorbing the smallest notions from its frequently silent protagonist. Imagine if Richard Linklater made one of his movies without using so much dialogue.

All the performances within are great and understated. This isn’t a melodrama so much as an intimate portrait. Nothing that happens is particularly exceptional, but putting this one character’s life under the microscope every ten years, it never blinks from looking at the choices we make and why we might make them.

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

Of all the films on this list, this is the one where the wait to see it a second time is practically painful. The Handmaiden is a con artist film, and the best example of this genre since The Brothers Bloom. And while Rian Johnson’s film was sort of a meta-examination on the genre, The Handmaiden uses it to explore Korea’s place in the world, a woman’s place in that world, and what loving another means in spite of all that. There’s a lot in this film, and seeing it a second time will likely reveal even more. Surprisingly funny and surprisingly touching, The Handmaiden is also visually stunning, capturing the meticulously crafted sets in lush detail.

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4. Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)

Of all of the movies this year I was looking forward to, I wouldn’t have expected this to show up on this list. There’s no shortage of Ghostbusters across all forms of media, so it’s not like I needed a new film. But it delivered both as a comedy and as a Ghostbusters movie. Would it be on this list if I wasn’t a Ghostbusters fan? Maybe not, but it’s hard to fault a film for being a nostalgia trip when it executes that well. Especially because it isn’t trying to replicate the comedic stylings of the original quartet so much as use the actors they hired to do their thing. And again, this movie is hilarious. Kate McKinnon is obviously the breakout here, as her Jillian Holtzmann is one of the best characters all year, but Chris Hemsworth and Andy Garcia steal every scene they’re in. While the script isn’t as sharp as the original, and Feig’s improv directing style is hampered by the needed PG-13 rating, I had a huge smile on my face the entire time, and its rewatchability earns it a high spot on this list.

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3. Maggie’s Plan (dir. Rebecca Miller)

From my review on Letterboxd:

This movie has everything. The easy charm of Greta Gerwig. The middle aged suave of Ethan Hawke. Julianne Moore giving a superb performance in an accent borrowed from an SNL sketch. Bill Hader as the voice of reason. Complicated, yet natural-feeling relationships. Wry observation delivered with just the right portion of wit.

It’s a romantic comedy, but not of the “boy meets girl” variety. Rather, it explores the after. Not what the nature of loving someone feels like, but what governs our decision making processes. Those emotions that we live with day after day that rarely well up into Large Romantic Gestures, and when they do, they never go as planned anyway.

Maggie’s Plan deftly explores how difficult it seems to know what we want from a relationship, and how so much of that is dictated or subservient to our life goals. The film realizes that everyone is self-centered, and the degree to which will shape every aspect of our lives.

This movie has the best kind of comedy, which comes directly from the characters in the film. They are funny in the way your friends are funny, trying to make you laugh because it’s the best way to get through the complications and mishaps of life.

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

I love movies about stories and storytellers. And Kubo is one of the best. The structure of Kubo and the Two Strings is very familiar, drawing from epic fables, Japanese folklore, video games, and the monomyth, but besides allowing the film to be accessible to its target audience, that structure is used in a wholly unique way.

The main character and his mother are both storytellers by nature, but the main theme of the film is how we incorporate narrative into our own lives. Kubo casts himself as a hero on an epic quest, and while this helps him deal with grief, he is able to deal with it because he is finally able to reconcile and accept his familial relationships. The quest itself is gorgeously rendered and a joy to take in, but it also underscores all of the film’s themes about the stories we choose to tell about ourselves, our loved ones, and each other. Similar to Zootopia, it is amazing how the texture of a film for children can explore complex issues like the nature of grief, subjective truths, and self-identity without compromising the entertaining qualities they contain.

And of course the animation is nothing short of astounding. Laika continues to impress as a studio, and Kubo is by far their most ambitious project to date. Their willingness to incorporate new technologies (like 3D printing) into their stop motion style shows that it is a medium that will continue to live on, and not just as a relic of nostalgia. The final confrontation between Kubo and his grandfather, in which the Moon King fills the entire frame, is the most visually stunning moment I saw in the theater this year.

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1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenbergt)

This movie has been sitting at the top of my list since March. The way that this film balances tension with perfect character work is astounding. After seeing it I wasn’t sure if it would live up to subsequent viewings, given that there is a twist ending, but I actually like it more because the twist helps to resolve Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s arc.

Each thing that advances the story of this film comes from a character choice. And the characters are smart. They consider things. They do the things in this movie you wish you’d be smart enough to think of. This isn’t watching people make illogical but totally reasonable decisions. This is a best case scenario, and that makes it terrifying. Both this and Green Room— which I enjoyed very much– deal with the fear of the unknown, and while all the characters in Green Room are also smart and resourceful, they don’t evolve as characters the way that Mary Elizabeth Winstead does in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

And this film is also about how society deals with women, putting them in a locked room and putting abstract and seemingly arbitrary restrictions on where they can go and what they can do. These usually invisible barriers become more imminent when they are actively enforced by an imposing man, but they are just manifesting what already exists in the ether as concrete. So when a woman needs to go outside the box, she must use all the tools at her disposal, playing with men’s expectations and using them as a weapon against oppression.

But none of these are at cross-purposes. The themes, character arcs, tension, and surprises form a stronger whole than if they were just layered individually. Each piece carries more and more of the weight, and when seen from the dangers of the outside world, it is beautiful.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

3 comments

  1. I’ve only seen three of your ten: Zootopia, Ghostbusters, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Ghostbusters was a complete bust for me. I didn’t find it at all funny; for the most part it was a waste of my time. On the other hand, Kubo and the Two Strings was one of the most exquisite movies I’ve ever seen; I will definitely be watching it again. But Zootopia: I loved Zootopia. It was so good in so many ways.

    As for the rest: lots of good stuff waiting for me to watch.

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