The Top 9 Movies of 2016

Raising a glass to Green Room, Hell or High Water, and more


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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

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

Paul Dano rides a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe across the sea like a fart-powered jetski in the first five minutes

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.



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

Keanu is alright, I guess

Given the talent of the leads, Keanu could never be a complete a waste of time, but is not the cult classic I might have expected.

It’s just OK. Like, it’s fine, it passes the time well enough. It has a couple good jokes, there’s a bit of energy here there, and its got a cute cat. But it just never kicks into gear the way a Key and Peele skit usually does. The action scenes aren’t as lovingly made as something like MacGruber, the side characters aren’t as colorful as they need to be (except a game Will Forte), and it just kinda stalls for the middle act. It feels like Key and Peele knew they had to make a movie and tried to stretch a skit idea, rather than had an idea for a skit that turned out to be better suited for a movie. Given the talent of the leads, Keanu could never be a complete a waste of time, but is not the cult classic I might have expected.



Keanu (2016)
Directed by Peter Atencio
Starring Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, and Method Mad
Rotten Tomatoes (76%)

Rogue One, unlike any other Star Wars, is just a movie

Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.

The release of a new Star Wars film is never just another movie. Through their relative rarity, a Star Wars movie is a major event, taking over the cultural conversation and, of course, the toys and adverts for the season. It worked last year, when the prospect of a new Star Wars lit the world on fire, aided by the fact that is decidedly didn’t suck. Disney’s decision to slot canon but non-saga films in between Episodes at first seemed promising, a chance to explore the universe in interesting ways. Instead of giving freedom to filmmakers to tell original stories, however, Disney has instead greenlit a young Han Solo movie and Rogue One, the story of the theft of the Death Star plans. While the former really seems like a shameless cash-in with no reason to exist other than an easy couple hundred million, Rogue One had a bit more potential, telling the story of the rebels who didn’t quite have a Chosen One status to protect them. While Rogue One mostly works as entertainment and does keep a lot of the necessary Star Wars feel, its indebtedness to its predecessors and lack of focus keep it from ever really popping. For the first time in the franchise, Rogue One really feels like just another movie, something that passes two hours effectively enough but doesn’t leave you wanting to explore more or spend more time in its world. Instead, it left me wishing for what it could have been.

There are at least three great ideas within Rogue One that could have been expanded to make their own movie, but instead get stuffed into a planet-jumping escapade. There’s a movie about Rebel spies gathering intelligence, and defections from the Empire. There’s a movie about extremist factions in the Rebellion, and how they interact with the more moderate yet still militant Alliance (and what extremism even means in these circumstances). And, most prominently in the last act, there’s a Star Wars version of Saving Private Ryan, of Rebel soldiers on a doomed mission. The hints towards this last idea make up the best act of the movie, and there does seem to be some juice in making more movies about The Star War itself. Instead, Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.

Having the main characters mobile works well for the Saga films, but the central crew of Rogue One isn’t developed or interesting enough to pull the same trick. For a movie with such a welcomely diverse cast (although still overwhelmingly male), the actual characters in a Rogue One are pretty bland and inseparable. Most pass without much impact, notably Diego Luna’s Rebel captain, while others try to make up for it with hammy performances, notably Forest Whitaker’s extremist leader Saw Guerrara. While Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso isn’t quite a Chosen One in the vein of Luke, Anakin, and Rey, her familial tie to the Death Star plans makes her feel more like a plot device than a character. Although he does get some of the best lines of the film, droid K-2SO feels like a factory-approved fan favourite rather than an inspired creation, answering the question of what a more homicidal C-3P0 would look like. Riz Ahmed’s presence makes up for his character’s complete lack of definition, but there’s no comparison of this batch to Rey, Finn, and Poe in Episode VII. Poe similarly had little definition, but the little touches the script and Oscar Isaac’s performance gave him made him feel complete with relatively little screentime. Outside of K-2S0 and Donnie Yen’s force-sensitive preacher, I can’t say that any of the characters in Rogue One are half as memorable with twice the screen time.

The biggest issue I have with Rogue One, though, is how enslaved it is to A New Hope. As the Death Star is an obvious connection, certain characters make sense to bring back, such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, and even Darth Vader. But Rogue One doesn’t stop there, and bringing back the likes of the two Mos Eisley bar thugs serves only to distract from the story at hand. In order to bring back Tarkin, a CGI Peter Cushing wanders around. This might have been convincing as a hologram but is directly at the nadir of uncanny valley among flesh-and-blood actors, robbing him of his authoritative presence. Rogue One‘s reverence does give it some strength, reinforcing to a more convincing degree than the original saga the connections between the Death Star and the nuclear nightmare. It also nails the run-down aesthetic in the same way that The Force Awakens did (an inner-city ambush is a highlight for this). But its a necessarily lesser picture because of its indebtedness.

The first shot of Rogue One mirrors the first shot of A New Hope almost exactly, but with a fantastic fake-out that announces itself as reverent, but different. Unfortunately, it overloads on the former and underperforms on the latter. Whether the infamous reshoots had anything to do with it or not, Rogue One is more concerned with comforting its audience than being its own thing. That’s not to say its without merit, though. Star Wars is a fantastic universe to be comforted in, and the final forty minutes of the film deliver on the promise of a story of forgotten heroes, of sacrifice and slim hope. The audience’s knowledge that said hope is fulfilled by a farmboy from Tatooine is the only thing that keeps it from being completely depressing, and I could have done without the constant winks toward that. The finale sequence still stands as both exciting entertainment and a promising launchpad for future side stories in this universe.



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Ben Mendelsohn
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Obligatory Ranking: V>IV>>VI~VII>>RO>>II>III>I

Christine is a compelling, empathetic, and mostly unnecessary depiction of a tragedy

Is a powerful performance and non-trivialized depiction of depression worth exploiting a real-life, ultimately small-scale tragedy?

NOTE: Technically, this review is full of spoilers, but given that it ends with the event that made its title character famous, they’re mostly impossible to avoid.

Budd Dwyer was an American politician convicted for corruption. His response was to, during a televised press conference, commit suicide by gunshot. The video of Budd Dwyer’s on-air suicide is on YouTube, free to see. Even without any hint of context, it’s a profoundly disturbing video, presenting images that are difficult to shake off. A similar incident in 1974, where reporter Christine Chubbuck killed herself on air, has also become enshrined in history, but no video of the incident remains available. Perhaps the mystery that surrounds the footage itself spurred the development of the film Christine, a biopic of sorts depicting the final weeks of Chubbuck’s life. But even though we’re seeing a fictionalized version of events, Christine is disturbing in the same way as the Dwyer footage, and while it’s well-made and well-acted, it’s hard to say whether it justifies its own existence beyond our morbid curiosity.

Christine opens with most of the wheels spinning towards the tragedy already in motion, seemingly waiting for another shoe to drop. Chubbuck, as played by Rebecca Hall, is living with her mother, infatuated with her co-worker (Michael C. Hall), and upset at her boss’ reaction to the ratings struggle of their news program. While he wants juicier stories, Chubbuck wants to focus on issues and character-based stories. While the film threatens, at times, to become a retread of Network and Nightcrawler, it ultimately isn’t about exposing the shallowness of the news, but rather exploring Chubbuck’s depression. While certainly the actions of others contribute to her malaise, the film never suggests any ill intent or Carrie-esque villainy. Most of the characters, from her freedom-seeking mother to her colleagues, are imperfect people trying to help Chubbuck in imperfect ways. The film’s portrayal of Chubbuck doesn’t let her off the hook for her own inflexibility and self-centered worldview, exposing the shallowness of her character-based news stories through her inability to see other people beyond the narrow roles they fill (mother, love interest, boss/enemy). It’s a delicate line to walk, as Chubbuck could easily come across as intolerable, but Hall’s performance lets us feel her struggle every step of the way. The fact that she’s struggling to be her best self and unwilling to change her expectations of what that means is tragic, but Hall makes her relatable rather than infuriating.

Does Christine offer enough to justify its own existence beyond the very blood-and-guts sensationalism that Chubbuck railed against? Is a powerful performance and non-trivialized depiction of depression worth exploiting a real-life, ultimately small-scale tragedy? It’s a compelling film, but does it offer a unique enough perspective? It comes closest in its final moments, focusing on how co-worker Jean (Maria Dizzia) deals with the aftermath. Hall’s Chubbuck was unable to relate to the struggles of others, even though they mirrored her own more than she knew. In exploring the coping mechanisms of others and providing some last-minute characterization to a scene-filler, Christine suggests that broad empathy may be the best healing salve.



Christine (2016)
Directed by Antonio Campos
Starring Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, and J. Smith-Cameron
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

It’s a bit of a trip to get to the conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

In its opening credits, featuring nude overweight women dancing with sparklers apropos of nothing, Nocturnal Animals tries to announce itself as BOLD and ARTISTIC, but mostly haughty. The scene, which in-universe is an art exhibit held by Susan (Amy Adams), is sure to immediately turn off many, coming across as degrading people who can’t live up to the physical standards of its attractive and thin cast (including Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, etc) and its fashion icon director, Tom Ford. Nocturnal Animals manages to turn this around over its two hour runtime, becoming more of a examination of (bordering on slam against) the sharks in the upper echelon of artists and fashionistas. It’s a bit of a trip to get to that conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

Nocturnal Animals operates as a fiction-within-fiction story, which isn’t necessarily clear from the trailers. Susan is sent a manuscript of a novel dedicated to her from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. We follow both Susan’s response to the novel and her memories of Edward, as well as the action of the novel itself, where husband and father Tony (also Gyllenhaal) whose family has a chance encounter on a lonely road in Texas with violent ends. The two stories seem disparate for a long stretch of the film, but eventually Susan finds that her relationship with Edward has informed the story in unflattering ways. While marketed as a psychological thriller with Susan as the target, Nocturnal Animals is more of a study of authorial intent, and how we carry the burden of how we mistreat and are mistreated by the ones we love. The story-within-the-story is a bit shallow on its own, but gains depth from the knowledge about its author that Susan provides.

There’s no denying, however, that the story-within-the-story is more fun to watch, mostly thanks to the performances of Michael Shannon as a shady detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a terrifying sociopath. Ford’s vision of Susan’s life is closer to his comfort zone, but his portrayal of rural Texas is surprisingly rich visually. However, even though Susan’s coldness is an important part of her character, Adams plays Susan as if she’s constantly walking through a dream in a fugue state, which works half the time and feels incredibly stilted the other half. While I love where it ends up (although the ending itself is sure to be divisive), some of Susan’s scenes are a bit of a slog until the pieces from the fictional narrative start to click. The Susan narrative of Nocturnal Animals may benefit from a repeat viewing knowing what to expect, but its second half rewards patience with its first.



Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rotten Tomatoes (72%)

SPOILERS and Stray Observations:

  • The opening sequence, which features an array of nude overweight women holding sparklers and seemingly celebrating America Itself, seems at first like a parody of elitist art, with Susan arrogantly calling it a mirror held up to society, but interviews with Ford suggest that it was meant genuinely (if not apologetically). However unnerving Ford’s original idea was (and however much his explanation makes it sound like he’s never met anyone with a waistline before), the fact that Susan would be the artist behind such an exhibit really informs her character in a not-too-flattering way. If Susan is the type to paint a group of people with such a broad brush, it fits that she’d also be able to paint a picture of Edward in broad strokes as well. Susan (and Ford) may have intended the exhibit to show the flaws in America, but it foreshadows the flaws and materialism in herself.
  • MAJOR SPOILERS (highlight to read): The casting of Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife is pretty sly, given her resemblance to Adams. It definitely feels like she is supposed to represent Adams at first, and her death represents the end of their marriage. But what I didn’t notice right away is that, were that the case, why is Tony still played by Jake Gyllenhaal? Tony’s wife is never supposed to be the ersatz Susan, but rather Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is the Susan stand-in the whole time (as is made clear by his mirroring of Susan’s words calling Tony/Edward weak). While I liked that the ending was an appropriate vengeance on Susan, the fact that Tony ended up dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound bodes poorly for what Edward was actually up to after sending the book to Susan.
  • Seriously, what was up with that jump scare on the baby monitor? Did that serve a purpose?

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick.

Too Late is halfway decent noir story anchored by a more than decent lead, but it lets itself get swallowed by its gimmicks. The movie is presented as a series of five twenty-odd minute one-take shots, with mixed results. The opening segment has some neat tricks behind it, including getting star John Hawkes from one end of town to another while maintaining action at a fixed point, and the reveals in the last are effective. But not all of the actors are up to the task, and the reliance on the one-take structure don’t do them any favours; many of the scenes in the second section, in particular, have a student-play vibe to them, despite the presence of known names like Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey (Dichen Lachman, however, acquits herself well as a twist on the no-nonsense stripper trope). The nonlinear structure also feels like an afterthought to add some unnecessary extra novelty. The sidebars the movie somehow finds time for don’t always work, such as a pair of minor drug dealers with no real purpose other than to pad out the takes and the film’s annoying insistence on using film itself as a source of dialogue far too often. If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick, albeit one a bit too reliant on stuffing women in refrigerators.



Too Late (2016)
Dir. Dennis Hauck
Starring John Hawkes, Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, and Natalie Zea
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)