My 10 favorite movies of 2016
Nothing made sense anymore in 2016. What was possible changed constantly, sometimes gloriously (Cubs) and often tragically (many obvious examples including but not limited to Aleppo, Syria; Nice, France; and the “election” of he who shall not be named).
On a personal level, the list of things I never thought would happen contains leaving the full-time movie critic job I was lucky enough to have for close to 11 years. While it definitely was the right move, it’s fun to continue writing reviews periodically and catch up on virtually everything of note from 2016. The excitement of receiving screeners in the mail is a luxury that never gets old.
First, though, a few categories:
Movies I liked a lot but didn’t make the list, in alphabetical order: “Blue Jay,” “Christine,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Love and Friendship,” “Loving,” “Morris From America,” “Neruda,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” “Tower,” “Wiener-Dog”
Movies I haven’t seen because screeners didn’t arrive in time or weren’t sent at all: “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Silence”
Movies that impressed me but are eight hours long and didn’t play in theaters and can’t be ranked here: “OJ: Made in America”
Anyway, my favorites from this insane, emotionally charged year, ranked 1 through 10, though the only ones whose placement wouldn’t change if you asked me tomorrow are 1 and 10:
1. La La Land
A hyperbole-free, holy-shit miracle, “La La Land” doubles your heart and then detonates. This is an extraordinary musical, classic but modern, light on its feet and deceptively poignant. This is a triumphant movie, dizzyingly stylish and in perfect balance visually, sonically and narratively in ways not approached by any other movie this year. It’s also a delicious, stinging deconstruction of love and ambition, tapped into feelings as shared secrets but also aware that nothing is too big to fail depending on deliberate choices and unanticipated incidentals. That’s really sad for something with this much happy in it.
A stunning step forward for writer-director Damien Chazelle after the great “Whiplash,” “La La Land” has so many sensational moments that watching it is a parade of disbelief. Emma Stone, as an actress losing interest in always walking uphill, was born for this role. Her interplay with her previous costar Ryan Gosling (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “Gangster Squad”) — whose comic timing is a thing of genius and, as a frustrated jazz musician, blends warmth and acidity with alarming ease — sizzles and crushes. Success and disappointment overlap amid the uncanny ability to be dreamy and grounded, and the tension that results. There are joyous giggles and possibly the movies’ all-time most-endearing honk.
This is the twinkle you can’t bottle, the fantasy that comes at a cost, the question mark after the exclamation point. Both romantic and painfully honest about the complexity of wanting and keeping, “La La Land” isn’t the movie the world deserves, but it’s the one we need.
2. The Lobster
I love her with all my heart, a hotel manager proclaims about his wife. “How much do you love her on a scale of 1 to 15?” someone asks. His reply: “14.” “The Lobster” is simply ruthless, dissecting all the possible reasons people couple up that aren’t because they love and can’t live without each other. It’s also, of course, extremely strange, as residents (including Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw) of a hotel have 45 days to fall in love or get turned into an animal of their choosing. Forget “Alps”; “The Lobster” is the wild, disturbing, endlessly challenging follow-up that I expected from Yorgos Lanthimos after the incredible “Dogtooth,” another movie that’s so assertive and provocative it’s almost dangerous.
3. Everybody Wants Some!!
The year’s most purely enjoyable viewing experience, writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1980-set “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused” contains so much good-natured identity seeking and appreciation of the present that just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again. It’s no nostalgia trip; spending a few days with a college baseball team (including a freshman pitcher [Blake Jenner] and a hilarious, highly strategic upperclassman [Glen Powell]) before classes start provides not just fun but subtle observation about things that matter, even if that’s not clear as they’re happening. Those exclamation points are a communal invitation to anyone who has ever been young and had reason to high-five.
4. Green Room
If you don’t have any nervous habits, you’ll develop one not long into “Green Room,” a thriller that would drip confidence if it weren’t packed so wonderfully tight. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin”) utilizes inspired casting (including the late Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat) and constant, escalating tension to turn an unsigned band’s spontaneously added tour date — which turns out to be at a middle-of-nowhere club populated by white supremacists — into a nightmare that feels all too possible alongside daily stories about real hate. Of course, “Green Room” would demonstrate genre perfection even if it weren’t terrifyingly prescient. Watch and squirm.
5. Southside With You
Every year brings awards-related exasperation, and in 2016 it’s absolutely outrageous that there was virtually no consideration of Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, who are both spectacular as Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama in “Southside With You.” Sure, the movie fairly recalls “Before Sunrise,” but writer-director Richard Tanne’s largely fact-based depiction of the President and First Lady’s first date more than carves its own space as something charming and thoughtfully frustrated about how slowly society can change and how quickly a life can. In this intimate, passionate stroll, it’s all one step at a time, with the right person by your side if at all possible.
6. Creative Control
Congratulations to Wheaton, Illinois, for delivering one of the most original and engrossing movies of the year. Well, more specifically, writer-director-star Benjamin Dickinson, the Illinois-raised filmmaker who, with the New York-set “Creative Control,” not only informed me about technology that really does exist (Augmented Reality) but used it expertly in a story about communication and human nature. Rarely does a movie this low-budget look so great, but this sci-fi relationship story never lets style dominate substance. It’s the third of this list’s three surprising, daring takes on the reasons people are or aren’t together, positing the uncomfortable idea that, even with expanded opportunities, we’re only capable of so much.
7. Hell or High Water
No horses here — living among the vacant roads and small banks of West Texas, “Hell or High Water” uses crime drama to breathe life and modern relevance into the Western while pouring one out for old ways unlikely to last much longer. The cast (including Chris Pine and Ben Foster as sibling bank robbers and Jeff Bridges as the soon-to-retire ranger on their heels) slips into the language like well-worn jeans as Taylor Sheridan’s (“Sicario”) script inspires continuous smirks that only can come from wit. To make a good steak you better know how to cook it, and this one, attuned to economic despair and open spaces always being taken by someone, has technique and flavor to spare.
8. American Honey
Fittingly aimless, this 162-minute road movie creates expectations and then resists the obvious and easy. Shia LaBeouf is better than you knew he could be as the best salesperson in a crew driving around the country, stopping among rich and poor and selling magazines door to door, teaching a newbie (Sasha Lane) as much about fragile relationships as the power of words. Writer-director Andrea Arnold’s movie washes over you in unexpectedly poignant ways — an experiential series of moments that crystallizes life and youth in particular as a pile-up of where you come from, the people you meet and the decisions you make.
9. Swiss Army Man
I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me a movie that heavily relies on the statement “Everybody farts, get over it” would work so well. For a while, “Swiss Army Man” just feels ridiculous, as a man (Paul Dano) postpones a suicide attempt to ride a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe, extraordinary) like a jetski. I know, weird sentence. But damn if the thing doesn’t click into an original and moving exploration of what society does to us and what we do to ourselves because of any number of fears and misunderstandings. The hypnotizing score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra adds extra awe to the Daniels’ imaginative debut feature, which you really do have to see to appreciate. Give it a chance, please.
Admittedly, this is not a perfect documentary; it needs more background and struggles to maintain a consistent flow. Yet a word like “heartbreaking” feels trite and insufficient for such a devastating, inspiring, messy reminder of what humans and their bodies are capable of, for better and worse. Director Clay Tweel’s look at former NFL player Steve Gleason’s battle against the accumulating and debilitating effects of ALS has some of the most shattering moments in any doc you’ll ever see, but they’re not gratuitous, just raw. The kind of unforgettable, tears-earning piece that’s almost more outlook-enhancing life experience than movie.