2016 was a rough year on many accounts. We said goodbye to legends. We endured an election that was more tabloid than politics. Kanye dyed his hair blonde. The list goes on and on. Where 2016 endured, however, was in cinema.
It wasn't in the major studio films by legendary auteurs. Instead, for every The BFG or Cafe Society, there were smaller, better films. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight was an especially standout surprise, launching an award season race pitting against bigger films with bigger names. Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind director behind the successful Whiplash, returned with La La Land, an ode to Los Angeles and the Golden Era of Hollywood. Not only was it a cinematic masterpiece, it also served as a feel-good antidote to the negative side of 2016. And, by all accounts, Kenneth Lonergan's seeping Manchester by the Sea delivered drama in a way that felt easily relatable and heartbreaking, but also refreshing and satisfying.
Certain Women was perhaps the year's smallest film to earn a spot among the list of the year's best, hopefully launching a successful career for actress Lily Gladstone, who gave one of the year's most captivating performances. Other People was the year's most endearing. Sing Street was the year's most charming. The Lobster was the year's most original. And, Green Room deserved better box office. It will undoubtedly become a cult favorite.
Hacksaw Ridge brought about the return of Mel Gibson, the year's biggest comeback. Starring Andrew Garfield, the war film connected with both audiences and critics.
Plus, Hail, Caesar! and The Nice Guys are two films released earlier in the year that ended up as some of the better surprises. Neither made my top ten, but should definitely be seen.
As for disappointments, Sundance darling The Birth of a Nation got lost in the middle of award season. Partly due to the director's personal life, the film also failed to spark any sense of equal praise almost a year after it was first seen. Stilted, it was obvious a first time director was behind the camera. Jackie does include an awards-worthy performance by Natalie Portman, but the overall project came across unpolished and inconsistent. Similarly, Bleed for This gives Miles Teller one of his best opportunities to shine, however the movie felt overlong. Sully was one of the box office highlights of the year, but came across as more of a showcase for Tom Hanks and less of a story. Shoutout to Aaron Eckhart's incredible mustache.
When it comes to cinematic years, there are some great ones easily tossed around that encapsulate a defining time of classics. 1994, for instance, saw Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction. There's no doubt that, based on recent years, 2016 will hold that same pedigree.
I saw 122 films throughout 2016 (the most I've ever seen in a calendar year) and these are the ones which stuck out the most:
ARRIVAL - CERTAIN WOMEN - GREEN ROOM - HAIL, CAESAR! - KNIGHT OF CUPS - LION - THE LOBSTER - OTHER PEOPLE - PETE'S DRAGON - THE SHALLOWS - SING STREET - THE NICE GUYS
10. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
What Works: First and foremost, Hailee Steinfeld easily gives one of the year's best performances. Plus, the witty script is more original than typical dry teenage humor. As a coming-of-age film, The Edge of Seventeen powers on by taking its young characters seriously and keeping even the most ridiculous plot choice relatable. Kudos to first time director Kelly Fremon Craig. It's been a while since a teen comedy felt so refreshing and poignant.
9. THE NEON DEMON
What Works: There's no denying director Nicolas Winding Refn is a visionary, with The Neon Demon's cinematic scope being among the year's most compelling. Beyond just being beautiful to look at, the score is bombastic and glorious. Plus, the cast is striking, both in physical appeal and talent. Elle Fanning has already solidified herself as young Hollywood's greatest threat. The finale is so astounding and surreal that it's way more beautiful than it should be. The Neon Demon is twisted and gorgeous.
What Works: A Philip Roth novel is not an easy thing to adapt to the screen (just ask the team behind American Pastoral). Built on the shoulders of the talented Logan Lerman and the legendary Tracy Letts, Indignation survives on its rich dialogue and unrelenting, entertaining, and intelligent story. Paced perfectly, what should have felt more like a stereotypically small indie, instead feels and looks like an instant classic.
What Works: The year's biggest surprise, it'd be hard to find a movie more raw and heartbreaking than Moonlight. Powered by performances from an almost-unknown cast (special commendations go to Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris), Moonlight is a magnificent portrait of real life. Its subjects are members of society who are not often given the spotlight. Told with rich cinematography, it's one of the most memorable film-going experiences to hit the big screen in a very long time.
6. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
What Works: Fresh off the heels and ambition of Boyhood, director Richard Linklater's sequel-in-spirit to the classic Dazed and Confused embodies the same wild and fancy free youth of that seminal coming-of-age flick with even more pomp in Everybody Wants Some!! The cast is spectacular, but it's the detailed atmosphere of this early 80s romp that gives way to the film's overall success. The entire film is fresh and hilarious, but never dumbed down. It's characters seem so real. There's a certain charm in even the raunchiest of comedies when it's allowed to stay genuine and honest.
5. HELL OR HIGH WATER
What Works: Similar to The Nice Guys, Hell or High Water was a summertime surprise. Chris Pine gives, arguably, his most affecting performance of his career. Ben Foster continues to be an actor who turns in awards-worthy performance after performance. And, in a role sure to bring him, at least, an Oscar nod, Jeff Bridges does his best Jeff Bridges. Instead of feeling like he's going through the motions, however, this version of the classic Bridges performance has a certain elevated heart. It helps that the script is solid and the direction by David Mackenzie is so spot-on. This is easily the best modern western since No Country for Old Men. Even better? Perhaps.
4. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
What Works: When anything is attached to Tom Ford's name it will inevitably have a heightened sense of style. Set up as a story within a story, Ford's auteurism allows for neither story to ever overshadow the other. Plus, stellar performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon turn this arthouse thriller into a must-see. Gyllenhaal, especially, has never been better as the broken down and determined widower seeking revenge. Shannon, as the sheriff helping him out, is almost unrecognizable. And, Adams powers through one of her two great performances of the year (Arrival should probably net her an Oscar nod). Gorgeous to look at, but even better to experience, Nocturnal Animals will keep you on the edge of your seat while enticing you with its incredible visuals.
3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
What Works: While Casey Affleck is earning the majority of the film's praise, and the film itself is one of the frontrunners for the Best Picture prize, it's newcomer Lucas Hedges' performance as the teenager finding his way after losing his father that really adds life to this drama from Kenneth Lonergan. Hedges' Patrick is equal parts lanky, goofy teenager trying to impress his girl and his friends, and equal parts broken and aching human being trying to put the pieces of his life together. Manchester by the Sea is an opus to reality and saying goodbye while carrying on through life. It's richness comes in its very real script and its deeply rooted performances. Michelle Williams, in a small role, almost steals the picture. It's completely captivating from beginning to end.
2. AMERICAN HONEY
What Works: The most surprising element of American Honey, despite its introduction to the talent that is Sasha Lane, is that this dreary, slice of life, American road trip movie comes from a Brit. Director Andrea Arnold's 3-hour ride through the lives of vagabond young people is so beautiful and moving it's impossible to leave without feeling something. The majority of the cast was plucked from obscurity and the picture is built in a way that almost feels like the cameras were positioned to record real life interactions. Shia LaBeouf sneaks up in a standout performance of the year. And, Riley Keough shows she's a force to be reckoned. Arnold's masterpiece includes some of the most sincere and personal images put to film this year. The cinematography is breathtaking. The insanity of the personalities stuffed into a 15 passenger van is mind-numbing, in a good way. While it's not your typical film, it's one that will be studied and discussed for decades to come. You can't beat its soundtrack, either. Give that thing a shuffle.
1. LA LA LAND
What Works: Everything. Director Damien Chazelle pours life and hope into this modern day musical that's on one level a love letter to Hollywood and another level a study of the dreamers who flock to the City of Stars. Emma Stone takes every ounce of the picture and runs away with it, flashing her big eyes and even bigger personality along the way. The music is toe-tapping goodness, almost falling way to sugary sweet, but always staying grounded. Touring through Los Angeles, the movie's sights and sounds are every bit the energy of the classic musical of yore shone through the lens of modern day romanticism. La La Land's substance isn't in the need for an overly preachy or deep, dark sentiment, instead it serves as a celebration of reaching for the stars and the tenderness of love and life after love. The colors pop. The energy rarely dips. The finale easily becomes one of the most engaging and satisfying sequences in modern day cinema, if ever. 2016 was full of important films that are not only industry greats, but need to be seen. La La Land falls quickly into so-good-it-hurts territory. They don't make movies like this anymore, which gives La La Land even more of a reason to exist. Saluting the past while meeting the present and making way for the future is what cinema is all about. In this case, it delivers with picturesque musical numbers and an emotion-filled story. Plus, it gets even better the send time around.