2016 wasn’t the best year for movies if you didn’t go out of your way to actively seek ones outside the major releases. However, not all of us have the time to either go to the theaters or dig into post-festival favorites. This year I’ve curated my recommendations for 2016’s best movies. Many films were solid-to-good this year but I must admit it was easier this year to weed out what I thought veered into “excellence” in terms of offering that perfect mix of “new & exciting or ambitious” and/or accessible to general viewers. This list spans mega-budget spectacle to micro-budget indie films, strange foreign pictures and like all my other omnibus reviews attempts to rate or encapsulate the range of what cinema offered this year.
Without further ado, the countdown:
- The Shallows (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) *TIE* Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie)
Summer 2016 was pretty dire for would-be blockbusters. If you went out of your way however, you’d find these two movies which have nothing in common save for the season of release: The Shallows and Hell or High Water ended up being far and away the best wide release movies in the summer of 2016. That doesn’t sound like much of a compliment but I’d argue that both films have one important thing in common: they are two of the most tightly and perfectly constructed pictures of the whole year. The Shallows was a gorgeously shot, concise and suspenseful “woman vs nature” (or woman vs shark in this case) thriller anchored by a sly star turn from Blake Lively. That it becomes a treatise on letting go of grief and the survivor instinct that exists in all of us is icing on what would be considered “cheesecake” by less jovial critics.
Meanwhile Hell or High Water is an engrossing small-scale “cops & robbers” crime drama held together by deliberate filmmaking and powerhouse performances from Chris Pine, Ben Mackenzie and Jeff Bridges. Utilizing tropes from the bleaker westerns, Hell or High Water ultimately becomes a portrait of the increasingly murky line between justice & greed in harsh economic times. In our age of hundreds of millions being spent to bedazzle increasingly inattentive audiences, The Shallows and Hell or High Water stand as equal testament that precise and assured film making on all fronts make all the difference in the world.
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Dir. Zack Snyder)
Sometimes there are cases where a movie’s ambition and the audaciousness behind the filmmaking outweigh the textbook issues with it. I was already fascinated with its theatrical cut , a movie that Zack Snyder was attempting off to the edges of a brooding superhero cash grab. Then the movie was re-released in its complete 3-hour “Ultimate Edition” form and it has transformed to being the most invested in a superhero film I have been in years. Restoring entire sub-plots worth of scenes, mostly Superman (Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) elevated Zack Snyder’s film from a confusing punch-up to a timely jab at our increasingly cynical culture & society. As if to atone not only for events in this movie but for 2013s Man of Steel, an implicated Clark Kent pounds pavement, talking to street level observers as he investigates Gotham’s increasingly brutal and nihilistic vigilante (Ben Affleck) and increases his efforts to save lives when and where he can. Superman’s ultimate enemy is revealed to be human apathy and cynicism. The Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice weaves this slow poison into the bones of the film, so when our despondent would-be hero hikes a snow-capped mountain to ponder if it’s worth continuing his mission, we understand his deep-seated sense of rejection; when he brings a fallen Dark Knight back to the light we feel his renewed hope; when he gives his life for a world that was once calling for his head we are humbled.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Dir. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone)
Not only one of the most underrated comedies of the year, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite comedies of all time. This hilarious send up of modern celebrity ego and excess sees Andy Samberg as “Connor4Real,” a self-absorbed popstar that brings to mind a parody of Justin Bieber’s and Macklemore’s respective personas. Popstar is presented as a documentary meant to promote Connor’s highly-anticipated new album but instead captures his rapid fall from grace. One could argue that some music megastars are already caricatures of themselves, but Popstar, much like its most immediate predecessor, Walk Hard, is best when it’s at its most absurd. Written, directed by, and starring a trio that make up The Lonely Island, Popstar never feels like a string of SNL digital shorts stitched together—and the original songs are really funny. Connor’s over-produced, jaw-dropping juvenile songs are still incredibly catchy earworms, particularly “I’m So Humble” (featuring Hologram Adam Levine) and Connor’s tone-deaf ode to marriage equality, “Equal Rights.” Though it may not be the next Spinal Tap, Popstar is at least the next Josie and The Pussycats: a compulsively re-watchable time capsule of a ridiculous era in pop music.
- Morris from America (Dir. Chad Hartigan) *TIE* Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Dir. Taika Waititi)
These two movies combine father/son coming of age comedy/drama and a love of hip-hop to great effect. Morris from America finds a son and father as fish out of water, after relocating from New York to Germany with barely a “guten tag” in their back pockets. Newcomer Markees Christmas plays a plucky tween searching for love and rap lyrics without overplaying a moment. Robinson, reversing his sitcom comedy persona, delivers parental wisdom like young Dustin Hoffman (or Eugene Levy for those American Pie fans out there). Together they jump the hurdles of this rhythmic coming-of-age story in ways that will crack you up and crack you in half.
Meanwhile Taika Waititi’s New Zealand backwoods adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople also roughs up every single coming-of-age cliché. Child actor Julian Dennison’s Ricky is an absent-minded, hip-hop-obsessed, rebellious orphan. His grizzled foster father (Sam Neil) would like nothing more than to ship the little [expletive] back to government care. When the two find themselves stranded in the woods, mistaken for on-the-lam criminals, theydecide to own it. Wilderpeople is a generous genre blend, with Waititi, director of the wacky, vampiric mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, finding cheeky jokes in the duo’s perilous journey. Both movies backed by lush backdrops and delightful music selections and career breakout performances: they are two of the year’s most transportive comedies.
- Swiss Army Man (Dir. Daniels aka Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
You may think a motion picture that opens with a self-destructive man riding a flatulating cadaver like a Jet Ski wears thin after the fourth or fifth fart. You are wrong. Overflowing with creative energy and expression, the directorial introduction of Adult Swim auteurs “The Daniels” employs reckless cleverness to address fellowship. As Radcliffe’s dead body springs back to life – through karate-hacking, water-heaving, and wind-breaking – he turns into the id to Paul Dano’s bumbling everyman, who is additionally lost in the forested areas. In the event that your childhood outdoors adventures took a turn to the Hobbsian state of nature it might look something like Swiss Army Man, and be an unadulterated delight.