Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Top 20 Movies of 2016


As 2016 finally comes to an end, the general consensus seems to be this was a pretty lousy year with things like one of the nastiest election campaigns ever, numerous terrorist attacks, and several iconic celebrities passing away. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very good year at the movies either. This has not only been the worst year since I started getting paid to writing movie reviews in 2012 and started watching over a hundred movies in a given year, but there were long stretches where I started to really believe we were seeing the implosion of the big studio movies.

The independent movie scene remained strong and will likely always be the creative refuge for filmmakers who want to tell stories about things other than superheroes or major intellectual properties. There were still some cases of wide releases that were intelligent movies or at least were smaller in scale and more character driven. There is a lot to be scared about with the movie industry especially with their franchise and sequel obsessions but there was still a lot to praise and a reason to cling to the hope that quality matters and creativity can thrive.

I typically have done a Top Ten Worse of the Year and then a Top Ten Best of Year. I feel there has been enough articles and lists to pound out how disappointing 2016 has turned out. If you need to chug your negativity juice then it is frothy and fresh in many spots. I've decided to just spotlight the positives, because this year needs it. I have gone with a Top 20 of the Year list plus another 10 honourable mentions. That gives you thirty movies that have my top endorsement and show 2016 was packed with some high quality.

I should note that living in Brantford means that I miss out on a lot of smaller indy darlings that got released during the second half of the year or the majority of the big Best Picture hopefuls, because they don't get screened around here until January (full reviews for the movies  that do make it here when they come). This does mean that my list is missing many movies that made other critics best of the year due to not having watched them yet, such as Silence, Moonlight, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, Love Witch, The Handmaiden, and several others. I also just didn't have the time to review The Wailing, The Treasure, The Boy and the Beast, The Meddler, Where to Invade Next, and The Wave. Hopefully, I can review at least a few of those in 2017. Though my hope is 2017 ends up being a pretty busy year for movies where I'm churning out at least one reviews of a new release a week and have plenty to champion.

But 2016 isn't done yet, and there was lots to praise despite its reputation. Here are my favourites from the 129 movies that I saw that were released in 2016.

20. 10 Cloverfield Lane: A monster movie that shows that monsters can come in many forms. It is the creature feature you'd hope from a picture attached to the original Cloverfield, but it is also a slow, simmering, disturbing thriller that toys with you and challenges you on who you can trust and what is the truth. John Goodman is fantastic as the man who captured our heroine for her own good, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead creates a lead character that is right up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as average women that must become kick-ass warriors. I initially has no use for a Cloverfield franchise, but this was great enough to make me highly anticipate the next anthology instalment.

19. The Confirmation: Though not marketed as such, it feels like a modern retelling of the 1948 classic, The Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thieves). Clive Owen's divorced, alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Walt gets his son for a weekend but ends up having to spend it travelling around town for his stolen carpenter tools that he needs for a much needed job on Monday. It is a slice of story that at times is funny and other times heartbreaking but always packed with true emotions and interesting, believable characters. It speaks into the modern concerns and worries of our society but tells a tale about family and life's struggles that are timeless.

18. Snowden: The Oliver Stone that directed classics like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK has returned with this slickly paced, stylishly directed political thriller based on the real life events of Edward Snowden making top secret NSA files accessible to the public. Snowden is a controversial figure and the movie makes sure to avoid deifying him (though it is clear Stone is on his side) and allows him to be a complicated figure with flaws and conflicting views. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves yet again he is one of the most underappreciated top actors in the business and conveys a true living character that connects with the audience.

17. The Shallows: 2016 did turn out to be the year that the big studios delivered some great horror features that had relatable characters, complex themes and some well-earned chills. But the movie that I had the most fun had Blake Lively vs. a giant shark, which felt like a throwback to campy grindhouse pictures of the seventies but also packed some big scares. Lively proves her immense skill with a great performance where she mostly just has a killer fish and a seagull to play off. Jaume Collett-Serra earned his place as a genre director to keep an eye on.

16. Edge of Seventeen: Hailee Steinfeld is an actress that I have been championing ever since I saw her in True Grit, and it is her charisma and great screen presence that makes this picture such a wonderful treat. She has fantastic chemistry with Woody Harrelson where they share some of the funniest scenes in any movie this year. It has a great mix of humour, drama, and heart that earn it a spot along the best John Hughes movies. Kelly Fremon Craig shines in her directorial debut, and show the coming of age tale is still very much alive.

15. Barry:  A story about Barack Obama's college years as he tries to find his racial identity, come to terms with his family relationships, and figure out his own future. It is the rare biopic that doesn't have several smash you over the head scenes that outright tell you the subject's genius can be seen from the start but rather trusts the presence and performance of Devon Terrell to signal the future greatness of the 44th president. Like all good biopics, it is less about that point in time in Obama's life and more about bigger issues such as race relations, the need to belong, and different ways of overcoming guilt.

14. Moana: Disney has done a lot in the last few years to push for diversity and provide heroes that can represent groups often ignored. Not only do we get the first Polynesian Princess, but a movie that embraces the culture with vibrant colours and immensely catchy music. The picture is full of life and one of the most beautiful animated movies ever, but also just a really great adventure. It is also no small deal that Moana is a strong and independent woman who earns her tribes respect right from the beginning and gender is never an issue in the story. It is also Dwayne Johnson's best performance ever and you can feel his passion for this story.

13. The Lobster: An oddball, quirky comedy set in a near dystopian future where single adults need to find a partner in forty-five days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. The premise is both brilliant and absurd, and the humour comes from the odd behaviour of the characters and the almost monotone delivery of dry dialogue. This movie is destined to turn off a lot of people, but this world is so fully realized and so silly that there is an indisputable charm about this picture. It also has a well delivered deeper message about the dangers of absolutes and strict institutions even when their cause is just. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are wonderful together and their lack of chemistry helps elevate the message and themes of the picture.

12. Allied:  Not sure when the term "old-fashioned" became a criticism, because this is a movie that has a plot, style, and feel from decades ago. This is Robert Zemeckis homage to the sweeping war romance picture, especially the iconic Casablanca. It is part spy thriller and part grand love story, and both work thanks to great pacing, gorgeous set pieces, fun twists, and great chemistry between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. It borrows and follows the classic romance war movies of the past, but it has been so long that something like this has been tried at the big stage that it feels fresh and it is always absorbing. This is Zemeckis' strongest and most assured movie since returning to live action and was sadly underseen, so catch it when you have the chance.

11. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A New Zealand adventure dramedy does something most American comedy releases failed this year: keep me laughing all the way through. The story of orphaned Ricky escaping into the woods with his cantankerous adopted father, Hec (played by Sam Neill in a great performance) to escape child services, who want the boy after the adopted mother unexpectedly passes away may have a predictable resolution and is smothered in sweetness but also ends up being one of the most original and irreverent movies of the year. The script is crammed with wit, and Julian Dennison and Neill has a fantastic energy with each other. The movie is rugged but also full of heart, and it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters.

10. The Jungle Book:  This movie proves that the complaints of extensive CGI or a movie being a remake/reboot isn't the real problem, because when both are done well it is magical. The standard for special effects have soared to the heavens with the cutting edge CGI that creates full breathing and realistic animals and a living jungle from a sound stage. Director Jon Favreau plays to nostalgia for several scenes but still transforms the story into something new, exciting, and original. I am a big fan of the animated The Jungle Book, but this newest tale fixes several of the thematic issues including now demonstrating a tribe or family can consist of different species and it just takes love to justify inclusion. Even if you don't dig for messages or themes, this is a fantastic jungle adventure that I see several kids wanting to replay in their back yards and is elevated by a great performance by a young Neel Sethi.

9. 13th: A must-see and powerful documentary by Ava DuVernay that looks at how the 13th Amendment allows for the prison system to continue the injustice and control of Blacks after the abolition of slavery. It has such a detailed history and its arguments are so in-depth that it is a valuable documentary for those on any side of the political spectrum. After seeing it, I think almost anyone would have to admit to their being some truth, or the very least that it is a masterfully created and compelling piece of cinema.

8. Deadpool: Hands down the very best comic book movie of the year but even on its smaller budget, one of the very best big studio actioners. It follows the beats of the typical origin story but elevates it with its irreverent humour, in-your-face bloody action, and an unforgettable performance by Ryan Reynolds. It is a cliché but this was the role he was destined for and erases all memories of Green Lantern (though he makes fun of that in the movie). Deadpool is the reason there is suddenly a slew of R-Rated movies coming out in the next year, but its success has nothing to do with it rating but everything to do with it having a vibrant energy and daring to be different then all the cookie-cutter big budget superhero movies. Even though it is raunchy and violent, it also have a lot of heart and an uplifting spirit, and I'd argue it is a better Valentine movie than what most studios try to put out.

7. The Witch: People looking for a jump-scarefest will be disappointed, as this horror is much deeper and about so much more than making one spill their popcorn. It is a slow-building but tension filled story about a Puritan family that left their community because they felt it was disgracing God, but once they go out living in the wilderness bad things start to happen like losing the newborn son. It is yet another horror that explores the importance of family but also explores the dangers of putting your values and religion over love and having unwavering views even when it can cause harm to those close to you. Anya Taylor Joy is a super-talented actor on the rise (this year she starred in both Barry and Morgan and stars in the upcoming Split), but her role here as the daughter accused of witchcraft proves her skills have already arrived as a top star. The movie is set in the 17th Century and the language, aesthetic, and style makes it feel like it was a story written from that time and then passed down the generations. This is proof that horror can be high-art but also still damn frightening.

6. Sing Street: The story of a teenager who forms a band so that he can convince a girl he likes to star in their music video. I wish I was that smart as a teenager. It is directed by John Carney who has given us other music driven movies in Once and Begin Again, but I like this one best as it has more complex characters and is elevated by the mid-1980s Dublin setting. It embodies the doubts and worries of the financially struggling working class while exploring the power of music and being a fantastic coming of age tale. It isn't afraid to dig into dramatic themes like the danger of dogmatism, mental illness, need to belong, and acceptance, but coated it all with a sense humour and bounce in its step. This movie reminded me quite a bit of another coming of age story set in the 1980s and is about a band being formed, We're the Best - a movie that made my best of 2014 list, and both are on Netflix so you have a double bill for tonight.

5. The Nice Guys: There is this constant complaint that there is nothing new in the cinemas or people tiring of superhero adventures, yet this Shane Black directed noir-crime thriller soaked in seventies nostalgia was a box office flop despite being everything audiences claim they're starving to see. It has a distinctive style, well-earned plot twists, action sequences that have purpose, it is hilarious, it is emotional, and it is distinctly its very own things even if also a homage to past movies. Ryan Gosling proves he has amazing comic skills and Russell Crowe is a fantastic straight-man for him. Angourie Rice instantly proves she is a future star with her great stand-out performance as Gosling's daughter. Even though this is a crazy, violent, action adventure, it is packed with genuine heart and a great story about the bond of family. If you say you love movies or claim to be pining for something different that is geared towards adults, this is a must watch. Destined to be a cult classic.

 4. Zootopia: The best animated movies are the one where you go the first time for the story and a second time to catch all the stunning visuals and details in the backgrounds. Zootopia feels like a living place where every character has full lives and things are constantly happening around the main characters; the attention to detail in this feature is phenomenal and as a visual feast it is a classic. It also has two of the most intriguing and fun lead characters in Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde, and they go on a buddy adventure that rivals the very best of the genre when it comes to twists, action, and humour. It also tackles the ideas of diversity, acceptance, and equality in an intelligent and creative way that gets across valuable messages that really need to be heard based on the state of politics but avoids being preachy or hamfisted. It is one of the most thoughtful and creative movies of any genre and is proof that Disney (along with Pixar who they own) is back as king of the animated features and show once again that cartoons sure aren't just for kids and often tell stories better than live-action pictures.

3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:  I've been a Star Wars fan for the majority of my life and there may be even a chance I came out with a Kenner Early Bird Certificate Package in hand. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that this made my list, and if you remember, The Force Awakens nailed number one last year. I will fully admit my strong love for this world does cause me to look past some of its bigger flaws and I allow myself to be swept away back to my childhood as I'm engrossed for over two hours. This is what Rogue One and Force Awakens excelled at, live up to my childhood nostalgia, make me feel like a kid again, and take me to a familiar world while offering up exciting new stories. This is the prequel that I always wanted, and it is incredible how well this turns out as a companion piece to the original Star Wars movie as these events build right the literal start of that movie. It has a slew of winks and Easter Eggs for the hardcore Star Wars fan with lots of fun and unexpected cameos, but it is also one of the easiest to get into if you have never seen one of the movies before.  It is also the darkest and edgiest Star Wars movie since Empire Strikes Back, and it takes some very bold directions for a picture considered for families. Felicity Jones is great in the lead role and does the legacy of strong Star Wars females proud, which of course started with the late great Carrie Fisher (you will be missed).

2. Kubo and the Two String: Laika Studios isn't anywhere as well known or financially successful as Pixar, and on opening night I am usually watching their movies in a half full theatre (that never happens for Disney or Pixar), but from a quality standpoint it may be even more consistent than Pixar (which is the only studio that I highly anticipate their upcoming movie without even knowing a plot). Kubo is Laika's best animated feature yet with its unique but gorgeous animation, the amazing amount of creativity put into the story, action sequences that are more thrilling than anything attempted by the big budget summer tentpoles, and a real sense it was embracing elements of Japanese culture and mythology. Even though it has some big action sequences and is an adventure story, it is also a very gentle and kind picture that believes in second chances and open mindedness. It is a movie about the power of storytelling and how the tales must be passed down the generations. Speaking of generations, it is a story that values family in all its forms and was one of the most spiritual experiences I had watching the big screen this year. This is another great but underseen feature, and if you complained loudly about the state of movies, then you need to check this one out.

Honourable Mention: Amanda Knox, Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2, Eye in the Sky, Doctor Strange, Green Room, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, The Invitation, Maggie's Plan

1. Arrival:  It is sci-fi and it is an "alien invasion" movie, but not the type we've been conditioned to see. There are no cities being decimated, there isn't a single big battle scene, and the climax has nothing to do with a big explosion, but the movie is tense, thrilling, and deftly paced the entire time. There are high stakes, but the issues and conflicts are more about major government's insecurities and fears that can cause global disaster. Amy Adams is fantastic in conveying a strong women who also is deeply hurt by her past, and the audience can connect with her instantly. The movie is about the need for understanding and challenges government's tendency to see the outsider as an enemy. In many ways it is a subversive film that counters many of the main ideas of modern times, but it is also intimate and heartfelt. It is a movie that demands close attention to catch all the details and stay connected to the plot, and the type of movie that almost needs a second viewing to properly appreciate it (though I saw it only once and it owns my spot as favourite of the year). There is a big twist ending but one that comes about it honestly and is hinted at throughout the movie. The Arrival is a visual spectacle and firmly plants Denis Villeneuve as one of the best directors, and gives good reason to be excited about the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. It feels like a big event picture but has the smarts of the very best prestige movies, and would be a best of the year contender even during a very strong year.

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