The Top 9 Movies of 2016

For a year that seemed as long as 2016 did, it already feels like it was an eternity ago. In addition to the feeling that glitz just isn’t as enjoyable as it was twelve short months ago, maybe that’s why awards season feels a bit less enticing this year; 2016 happened a lifetime ago, can’t we just put it to rest?

Regardless, there’s a feeling that the movie year truly ends and begins anew with the Oscars. Most of what is in theaters now are the breakout dramas of 2016 that are finally being released to cities other than L.A. and New York, or whatever the studios decided wouldn’t sell in more competitive months. After February, movies get judged as part of 2017, rather than the scraps of the previous year. And by February, thanks to delayed wide releases and conveniently leaked screeners, schmucks like me get a chance to finally catch up on the more elusive films of the previous year. While I didn’t see everything I wanted to, there were nine movies that felt a cut above the rest.

(I set the cutoff at the point where I felt comfortable not giving a shoutout to a film, although there are honorable mentions at the end)

(Oh, and all reviews and ratings, 2016 or otherwise, can be found here)

9. Green Room (RT 90%, IMDb 7.1)

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Green Room is a perfect example of what to do when suddenly given a bigger budget. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a low-budget work of wonder, and Green Room uses its extra money to beef up the cast, but maintains its predecessor’s mastery of tension through claustrophobia. Green Room is absolutely brutal stuff, but continually engaging and suspenseful rather than gratuitous. I’m incredibly excited for whatever Saulnier comes up with next.

8. Manchester by the Sea (RT 96%, IMDb 8.0)

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At what point is a movie just too damn sad? Manchester by the Sea toes that line, coming very close to plain misery porn, but finds enough humour in its ludicrously dark premise and Casey Affleck provides enough humanity to keep it from falling into absolute melodrama.

7. Little Sister (RT 95%, IMDb 6.3)

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A small-scale family drama that ends on a photo montage may seem a bit trite, but Little Sister does a fantastic job of examining how we assign stereotypes even to those we are closest to. It helps that its small cast is plenty charming, and its central brother-sister relationship is just the right kind of feel-good.

6. The Witch (RT 91%, IMDb 6.8)

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The Witch is an exercise in atmosphere, mood, and restraint. Taking a lesson from Jaws, the monster is seen early and then rarely afterwards; even when the monsters finally make a tangible impact, they do so often just off camera. But the way The Witch shows a family tear itself apart on paranoia, akin to an actual witch hunt, is a thing of unsettling mastery. The period setting adds to the consistently unnerving nature of the film, tapping into the eeriness of the woods for a constant sense of unknown danger.

5. Hell or High Water (RT 98%, IMDb 7.7)

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

One of the best qualities a film can have is a colorful and interesting world that nonetheless feels like something you could just walk right into. Hell or High Water does a remarkable thing for a neo-Western, in that it hits all the right Western vibes, but still feels distinctly modern. There’s a big hat and a great one-off scene with a cattle wrangler, but it mixes Western themes and modern rural issues into something entirely of its own. It also stages some of the finest bank robbery scenes this side of Heat, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

4. The Invitation (RT 89%, IMDb 6.7)

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Who would have thought that, aside from Manchester by the Sea, the most intriguing film about pain and grief last year would be a horror flick? The Invitation takes a setup mired in loss and turns it into a slow-burning, gut-churning suspense. It effectively asks what we would do in the same situation, asking when suspicion should turn into worry, when worry should warrant action, and what social capital might be associated with action. More than any other movie this year, in a year full of great horror movies and thrillers, The Invitation left me squirming.

3. The Handmaiden (RT 94%, IMDb 8.1)

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The Handmaiden is, at its heart, a fun heist romp. Its premise is sheer pulp, and it knows it. Hell, a major set of the characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and Park Chan-Wook has made a masterpiece of exactly that. Its unabashedly erotic and unforgettably stylish.

2. Moonlight (RT 98%, IMDb 7.9)

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Moonlight is exactly as good as the reviews say it is, and if there is justice in the world, it will walk away with Oscar gold tonight. In a world where identity politics has become a dirty word, Moonlight at once takes intersectionality incredibly seriously and deconstructs it. The main character, Chiron, is black, is gay, is poor. But this isn’t a shortcut for awards or for pity. “Who is you Chiron?”, he’s asked in the third act. “I’m me,” he responds, even if not completely sure what that means. Moonlight explores what self-identity even is with plenty of visual and narrative style, calmly low-key while being innovative in all respects.

1. The Lobster (RT 89%, IMDb 7.1)

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While movie worlds may be the most entrancing when they feel tangible, like in Hell or High Water, they’re the most fun when they hold a warped mirror to the real world. The Lobster puts its satire on thick; no one would call its take on couples culture subtle. But it is sharp and multifaceted, inviting drunken dissections that can go on for at least the length of the film itself. It’s also one of the damn funniest deadpan black comedies ever made; poor Biscuit Woman alternatively makes me wince and laugh just thinking about her. For all its batshittery, The Lobster was the best time I had in theaters last year.

Honorable MentionsGhostbusters, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, La La Land, Don’t Think Twice, Tickled, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Into the Forest, Sleeping Giant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Christine

Haven’t Yet Seen: Paterson, Jackie, Elle, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, 20th Century Women, Tower, Cameraperson, The Witness, Captain Fantastic, OJ Made in America, The Saleman, Toni Erdmann, Krisha, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Silence, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

In a Valley of Violence delivers on its title

In a Valley of Violence feels like a movie where a cast and crew of mixed indie and Hollywood favourites felt like making a Western solely because they realized they never have before, and just went ahead and did it. To do so, they took a cursory look at the IMDb summary for John Wick, added some horses, and started shooting. It’s a bit rough around the edges and certainly is far from original, but its a hell of a lot of fun. Director Ti West and his crew actually built a full-size set in New Mexico, and they show it off often (one of the final act’s greatest assets is its well-defined geometry). Each of the actors is given a trope and has fun with it, from John Travolta’s perpetually put-upon marshall to Karen Gillan’s astoundingly funny hotelier. Ethan Hawke spends a bit too much time monologuing to his far-too-adorable dog, but his sole purpose is to sell us some righteous justice. This isn’t Unforgiven; when violence arrives, it rarely asks us to pause for a moment to question morality. The poor-mans-Morricone score and fantastic opening credits, a pastiche of of monochrome cutouts riding against of black background, sell its B-movie aspirations, and while it never transcends that level, it meets its goals just fine.

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B-

In a Valley of Violence (2016)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, and John Travolta
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

In a Valley of Violence delivers on its title

Some scars never heal in Manchester by the Sea

In a way, Manchester by the Sea is a lot like the most depressing version of Stephen King’s IT imaginable. While the very concept of hometown is often romanticized or ridiculed, Manchester by the Sea and IT both focus on the scars that can be left on an area by the horrors that occurs there. Both treat hometown like more of a haunted house than a safe haven. IT collects realistic childhood trauma from bullies to abusive fathers to lost siblings and allows them to manifest as a literal monster. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is less fanciful, but nonetheless, ghosts wait around every corner in Manchester, reminders of those whose loss never fully heals.

Manchester by the Sea’s plot is sprung into motion by one death, but its another tragedy that looms over the film. This is, bluntly, a movie about death and grief, about the wounds it opens in those left behind, and about the responsibility that comes with continuing on. Manchester by the Sea is an almost unbearably depressing. In one sequence midway through the film, a dramatic score is added not to heighten the emotion, but seemingly to dull it; to let it play out in silence would be too devastating. It makes heavy use of flashbacks not to reveal twists, but to provide detail and emotional clarity. Occasionally, that means revisiting fishing trips with those who passed. Oftentimes, that means revisiting moments of shame and guilt that have no way of being properly atoned for anymore.

But Manchester by the Sea undercuts its melancholy with playful moments. Most of these come from Patrick, whose father’s death sets the story in motion. Played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick walks a fine line between whiny and wisecracky, and comes out as one of the more down-to-earth depictions of being sixteen put on film. The movie also manages to claim the title of Funniest Funeral Smorgasbord Gag Ever, lest anyone try to steal it. But its all held together with Casey Affleck’s stoic performance as Lee, Patrick’s uncle and reluctant guardian. From the trailers, it is made to seem like Lee is reluctant to move to Manchester and care for Patrick due to responsibility issues; the reality of the film is nothing of the sort. Pain and guilt can be extraordinary motivating forces, and Manchester by the Sea explores them beautifully.

A-

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Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Afflect, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, and Michelle Williams
Rotten Tomatoes (96%)

Some scars never heal in Manchester by the Sea

John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

One of my favourite details about Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a small one about air transit. When The Bride travels to Tokyo to face O’Ren Ishii, she brings her sword on the plane. She doesn’t check the sword; she just carries it with her to her seat. Kill Bill came it in 2003, near the height of TSA mania, so this was obviously not an oversight, but I also don’t think it was simply a rule-of-cool moment either. I think Tarantino wanted to imply that the world of Kill Bill was one where The Bride’s story was unique, but not unbelievable. One where “assassin” was just a particularly exciting job option, maybe even with a booth at the school fair. In that tiny shot, Tarantino defined the structure of the entire universe of his film.

John Wick, which I’ll go to bat for as one of the best films of 2014, has a similar conceit. Wick is part of none-too-secret assassin’s guild, which has its own currency and lavish hotel. The first film used this for two main reasons, comedic relief and lending some in-universe plausibility to the absolute chaos that Wick creates. It’s a slapdash bit of mythos that allows you to enjoy the headshot ballet without worrying about real-world ramifications, but is entirely tangential to the revenge narrative. John Wick 2, on the other hand, leans entirely on this mythos, relying on it to kick off, propel, and wrap up its plot. In doing so, it reveals just how derivative this conceit is; scenes where Wick uses the guild armory to load up feel like a rehash of Kingsman, of all things, and no new interesting characters are introduced on the management side aside from the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. The mythos provides the bones well enough, but little in terms of narrative muscle.

In fact, the whole first half is a bit of a slog. A high-ranking guild financier calls in an old favor from Wick, asking him to assassinate a rival for a position on the guild board. Wick then ends up the enemy of both factions, each represented in action sequences by their dragons, played Common and Ruby Rose. The machinations behind this are related to the simple but arcane guild rules, and never feel as urgent or intimate as the revenge motivation of the first film. It has its villain pose a similar moment of personal affront to Wick early on, but it feels like a weaker retread of “kill dog, steal car”. The villain throughout the whole movie is pretty weak and unmemorable, highlighting just how underappreciated Michael Nyqvist was in the original. For a fair portion of the first half, it becomes a bit difficult to agree with Wick, and when he mows down a group of guards that he provoked himself, its almost enough to call the movie on its nihilism.

But when it comes together, hot damn does it come together. Around the halfway mark, the shoe finally drops, starting with an absolutely thrilling catacomb shootout and not stopping until the credits roll. At this point, the universe comes to life, including a magnificent extended sequence where seemingly everyone everywhere on the streets is out to get Wick. Even though the main villain never quite works, Common and Ruby Rose are both good presences, managing to come across as genuine threats to the nigh-invulnerable Wick and also injecting some much-needed personality. The camerawork clicks too, with a museum providing a consistently interesting and unique backdrop to Wick’s violent opera, in addition to the aforementioned catacombs. Director Chad Stahelski still opts for relatively long (for a modern action movie), smoothly swerving takes, allowing us to appreciate every detail of the fight choreography even as it flies past us. While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.

B+

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John Wick: Chapter Two (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Ruby Rose, and Ian McShane

Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • I called Wick nigh-invulnerable, but he does get shot and stabbed more than once. However, after a quick bandage, he’s back on his feet and back to kicking ass. Die Hard this is not (nor does it have to be!).
  • SPOILERS: The point I’m getting at with losing Wick’s sympathy is when he kills Gianna, and then takes out a group of her guards. He’s acting as an unprovoked assassin here, so it’s tough to not sympathize with the guards, and also makes Common’s Cassian seem briefly like a potential side-hero. The movie seems aware of this, as it throws in a scene where Gianna threatens a competitor’s children to make sure we have no sympathy for her, but it still feels morally a bit uneasy momentarily. Thankfully, Ruby Rose’s Areas comes along to betray Wick immediately afterwards and give him enough moral high ground to kill about fifty people and keep our sympathy afterwords.
  • SPOILERS: I’m still a little upset that Wick and Cassian never teamed up; Cassian understands that Wick was the tool, not the brain, behind the assassination, and Wick was going after the guy who put the wheels in motion. While I’m sure he would have turned down a team-up, I was waiting the whole damn movie for one of them to at least bring up the possibility.
John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

Trainspotting 2 is a nostalgia movie actively about nostalgia

At the start of the second act of Trainspotting 2, Renton and Sick Boy, now more usually going by Mark and Simon but still played by Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller, enter an Orangemen‘s bar with the intention of leaving with as many credit cards as they can carry. They get eyed as the shady-looking sort, and for whatever reason have to prove themselves by getting on stage and singing a song. Renton sings a ballad of the Battle of the Boyne, a 1690 battle where the Protestants decisively defeated the Catholics, ending each stanza with “And all the Catholics left!” The bar, initially silenced, erupts into joyous applause, cheering and hollering for the removal of their Pope-loving historical enemies.

It’s a reasonably funny scene, but let’s unpack it a bit. Firstly, bringing the Orangemen into just about anything is just about the most Scottish thing ever. But Trainspotting 2 (stylized T2, as a big fuck you to Arnold I guess) uses this to bring up the power of nostalgia, and how long-festering grudges can be hard to squash. Throughout, Renton and Sick Boy talk about how good things were when they were young. Spud starts writing about their old days fondly. Begbie, fresh out of prison, tries to get his son to try his trade (burglary), a more honorable profession than what he’s in college for (hotel management). There’s more than a small echo of the “times have changed and left me behind” attitude that led to Brexit, but all it takes is a reminder of a dead friend and a dead child, or a quick shot of a particularly filthy bar toilet, to remind us that things weren’t really that great.

But where does that leave Trainspotting 2? Its on the fence about the power of nostalgia at the end of the day, but it itself is a product of nostalgia, something willed into existence by a handful of filmmakers and fandom of unknown size to bring back a time when movies were good, as if they’ve somehow flailed in the twenty years since. Plenty of archive footage of the original Trainspotting is present in the movie, along with frequency spliced footage of the characters as young children. Its willingness to confront this head-on and use it to examine its character’s psychology is admirable and occasionally poignant, and its certainly not a nostalgia product in the vein of, say, The Expendables. The return of the “Choose Life” monologue and its retweaking for the Internet era is hacky, but the lead-up to it, where Renton has to patiently explain why “Choose Life” was ever even relevant, says a lot about how nostalgia can leave you disconnected from the world you currently have to live in.

But while it explores some interesting thoughts, and Danny Boyle certainly puts together a few absolutely magnificent shots and setpieces (this being my favourite), he’s less interested in how the characters have changed over the years, and thus less interested in who they actually are now. Spud gets an honest-to-goodness arc, but it at times treats him a bit too much like an idiot savant. Without pre-existing knowledge about Renton, Sick Boy, and Begbie, there’d be no reason to really care about what happens to them over the course of the film. And the plot is a bit more defined than in the loose original, but its fairly unimaginative and lacks anything approaching the gut punches of the closing act of the original. Getting clean is always good, but it also means getting a bit dull in the Trainspotting world.

Veronica, a would-be madame and one of the few new characters in the film, is at one point asked why in the world she would want to go back to Bulgaria; it’s home, she replies, resonating with the somewhat-vague as to why Renton comes back to Edinburgh. It’s home, she says. There’s an emotional attachment. But if you don’t have an emotional attachment to Trainspotting to begin with, there’s not much T2 really offers.

C+

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T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle
Rotten Tomatoes (75%)

Trainspotting 2 is a nostalgia movie actively about nostalgia

The Invitation slowly, carefully, masterfully turns up the heat

The Invitation, a dramatic thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, is an absolutely masterful slow burn. It asks for but a little bit of patience, and in return, puts a boot on your chest and slowly, unrelentingly presses. Its a movie best watched from the comfort of a couch, with full awareness that you aren’t getting yourself into an action extravaganza but otherwise little knowledge about what to expect. Given its current widespread availability on Netflix, it is the type of movie that I recommend just watching without reading this review if that at all sounds interesting to you.

At the start of The Invitation, Will is invited to a reunion party at the house of his ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. They haven’t seen each other in two years, since they split up following their son’s death, and neither have the other members of their former group of friends also at the party. If the situation weren’t awkward enough, Eden and David invite a couple of their other friends they met at a retreat in Mexico, where they got in touch with their spirituality and flushed themselves of grief and pain. While everyone in the room becomes more and more uncomfortable, Will becomes more and more suspicious about why they’re really being gathered.

Most movies give their characters some backstory to make them more relatable, and the death of Will and Eden’s son initially seems boilerplate, the seismic weight of such an event is necessary to the character arcs it presents. Will and Eden both process the loss in different ways; Will seems to have been a recluse until recently, bottling his grief and losing his sense of trust. Eden has given herself up to a god of a sort, relieving herself of personal responsibility. It’s likely not coincidence that Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Huisman, who play Will and David, have a significant physical resemblance to each other (from the trailer, you can really only tell them apart by their beard length), as they are two possible endpoints of a path started by trauma. While the film puts us in Will’s headspace, and allows his paranoia to fester in our minds, it also asks us what we would do in the same situation through its minor yet relatable supporting cast. We’ve all had one or two friends who get involved with a lifestyle or group that we can’t in full faith support. What do we do when confronted with that? How much will it take for it to break our trust in them? How safe is it to give the benefit of the doubt? The Invitation asks us to reflect on our own social circles, on the pain of others that we cannot ever fully empathize with.

But first and foremost, The Invitation is an effective, spellbinding thriller. It’s smart enough to forgo big twists, quickly narrowing the progression of events to one of two possible endgames, and lets us squirm while Will decides between the two. Even though it mostly consists of minor slights and quick catchups with old friends along the way, The Invitation ratchets up the tension methodically until it reaches a natural, absolute breaking point. It’s not flashy, but its absolutely engrossing.

A-

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The Invitation (2016)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michael Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Stray Observations

  • SPOILERS: If there’s one real bum note, its the final scene, where the suicide cult is revealed to have an immense presence in the Hollywood Hills. It removes the drama entirely from the situation, leaning far too hard into its horror movie DNA. Although its a bit debatable whether the ten-minute trapped-in-the-house horror climax is already a step too far, even then The Invitation still functions as a film about how loss can warp your perspective, and how difficult it can be to believe the worst about those you know. The final shot suggests its a lesser, cheesier film about a global conspiracy of nutjobs.
  • SPOILERS: Just for clarity, the two possible endgames I meant were Will is paranoid and socially self-destructive, or Eden and David really are part of a murder cult. The movie isn’t subtle about the murder-cult reveal, but it did string me along until the moment of truth as to whether Will was just being overly paranoid, especially given that he was predisposed to be suspicious of Eden’s peace given his own inner turmoil over their son’s death.
  • SPOILERS: One of the better bits of subtext to be found in the film is about the very concept of heaven, which the movie admirably doesn’t embellish with its own mythos. The suicide cult wants to kill their loved ones so they can rejoin with the ones they lost in heaven; not Valhalla, not Dr. Joseph’s Fantasy Ranch, but the very Christian notion of heaven. It begs questions regarding the selfishness of the very concept of heaven without outright stating them, but considering how things like the red lanterns show a very different direction they could have gone with the cult, the restrained mythology in this regard is very much appreciated.
The Invitation slowly, carefully, masterfully turns up the heat

Swiss Army Man has a farting corpse discovering love, isn’t great

Your reaction to the phrase “Daniel Radcliffe plays a talking corpse with magic farts” might tell you whether Swiss Army Man is for you, but an even better litmus test is probably your reaction to “feels like a ninety minute version of a dark YouTube short directed by Wes Anderson”. Swiss Army Man is the kind of movie where any change in the soundtrack is introduced by the characters breaking the fourth wall and starting to hum it out, which is a nice touch in itself but serves as fair warning to those who can’t take a little precociousness. But after playing its hand fairly early, with Paul Dano riding a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe across the sea like a fart-powered jetski in the first five minutes, Swiss Army Man mostly fails to come up with justification to keep going after that. The only reason it works at all is, oddly, Daniel Radcliffe as the corpse (named Manny, naturally). Radcliffe is clearly having fun, and the conceit of a corpse trying to understand life and love through the ravings of a stranded man is sporadically fun thanks to his line reading and the amount of physical comedy he gets out of simply not being able to move very much. But the more energetic and seemingly endless montages of Manny being used as a gun, or a makeshift razor, or (ugh) a water source grow old fast, even though they lead to two fantastic laughs (one involving an animatronic penis, one involving an unfortunate raccoon). There’s enough creativity here to break the internet as a short film, but it really doesn’t work as much more than a curiousity at feature length.

C

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Swiss Army Man (2016)
Directed by the Daniels
Starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe
Rotten Tomatoes (69%)

Swiss Army Man has a farting corpse discovering love, isn’t great