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

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?

Netflix’s Love is a complicated portrayal of one unlikable character, and an insipid portrayal of another

Its a fun show to argue about but a bit of nuisance to actually watch.

Netflix’s model of releasing all episodes at once is a major problem for many shows, which pad their lengths to seasons-long arcs with a movie’s worth of ideas yet lacking any episodic satisfaction. That same problem though can be a huge boon to hang-out shows, allowing us to get deeply invested in the characters without needing to worry about time constraints for narrative thrust and plenty of natural pauses. It worked well for Master of None, which I didn’t adore but liked a fair amount. It also works very well for half of Love, Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust’s show that bears a significant resemblance to Apatow productions like Knocked Up. It allows the humor to flow while also letting the tragedy set in without an oversaturation of melodrama. Unfortunately, it crashes and burns for the other half, where one of the characters is just not that much fun to hang out with. It becomes an odd amalgamation of the hate-watch and the legitimate, which got me through the entire season but not without constant complaining.

Love concerns the star-crossed trajectories of (on paper) free-spirit Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and nerdy Gus (Paul Rust). Those on-paper descriptions falter pretty quickly, where Mickey’s free-spiritedness and Gus’ nebbishness are shown to be a front for deep-seated interpersonal issues and all-encompassing selfishness. Mickey’s character treats other people terribly, has no direction in life, and is a generally miserable presence; she’s also a complete character who is actively trying to understand and better herself, which makes her fascinating and sympathetic. Gus, on the other hand, is the least self-aware character in existence, another subversion of the Nice Guy trope who denies culpability in his wrongdoings and escapes relatively unscathed and uneducated. He’s an uninteresting and static character who we learn almost nothing about really over the course of the series, aside from it being continually confirmed that he’s a selfish prick with occasional moments of awkward charm who abuses any small amount of power handed to him. Gus is an interesting character, but not a particularly novel one, and definitely not a particularly sympathetic one.

His half of the show is the hate-watch, whereas Mickey’s is the legitimately fantastic show. She’s a subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which has been done before (500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine, Master of None to an extent) but rarely from the female perspective. When she abuses her roommate, trashes a party, or lies at an AA meeting, its certainly not portrayed favourably, but the humanity behind it is not lost. We consistently want better from and for Mickey because she wants better from and for herself. Jacobs is stellar in the role, and a bit of a revelation as a dramatic actress. Perhaps her greatest trick is convincing us that she would be interested in Gus, not because he actually is any better but because we know she has white-knighted the Nice Guy on the surface. There’s a weird reversal of the norms at work where Mickey is the one putting Gus on a pedestal, with the dark side of the Nice Guy trope playing as a complete surprise to her. It’s a testament to Jacobs and the Mickey character that this oversight plays as completely natural, and it almost makes the whole thing work.

But then Gus has to ruin the whole thing again. We’re sold on Mickey being into Gus, despite it falling into the Ugly Guy/Hot Girl trope, but Gus is also getting into threesomes with co-eds and spurring the attention of actresses, which stretches credulity. This trope runs a bit deeper even. Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty), is the best person who ever lived, and is sold as someone people like. But even Bertie, who really is The Best, winds up with a awkward, smiley man-child at the end of the season. Bertie gonna be Bertie I suppose, but it betrays the dark streak hinted in her character in episodes like “Party In The Hills”. The supporting cast as a whole help sell the show, particularly the always reliable Brett Gelman as Mickey’s boss, Iris Apatow as child actress Arya, Chris Witaske as Gus’ toaster-stupified friend, and Jordan Rock as self-aware minority best friend Kevin, but for a ten-episode season the bench doesn’t run especially deep.

I hated a lot of Love, but its hang-out vibe did work and Mickey and Bertie are fantastic (cut out Gus next season and I’m back in). It didn’t hurt to finish the season, but its counterpart Master of None is so clearly superior that its hard to recommend despite its positive qualities. This could be the kind of show that improves in its already-confirmed second season, so I’ll check it out again then depending on the reviews. As it stands, its a fun show to argue about but a bit of nuisance to actually watch.



Best Episodes: It Begins, The Date, The Table Read

Love: Season One (2016)
Created by Judd Apatow, Leslie Arfin, and Paul Rust
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, and Claudia O’Doherty
On Netflix