It’s time for my Top 15 Features, Top 5 Docs and 10 Worst Films of the year. I know…why do a ‘Top Ten’ list AFTER the Oscars…in MARCH?! Well, because, there’s just too much to watch prior to the Oscars, much of which might actually make this list. And, there’s a lot to write during that time, as well. But, now that I’ve seen everything (well, most everything), about 110 films from 2016, I think I’m ready to outline my tops and bottoms – and why. Keep in mind, there are a few films that made other Top Ten lists that I have not yet seen, such as “Paterson”, “American Honey”, “Neon Demon” or “Certain Women”…but I saw just about everything else. As for the order…it’s not based on any one criteria…some are well made, other are incredibly joyful, etc. so don’t look for a common thread other than what I perceived as the best or the worst. My hope is that there will be something in the list that will spur your interest and you’ll seek out a film you may have missed (and if you want to know more about a film, click on the underlined title to go to my initial review of the film – if I’ve reviewed it as of yet):
TOP FIFTEEN FEATURES
15. The Handmaiden (South Korea)
Directed by Chan-Wook Park
Easily the most visually seductive, this epic love-triangle thriller/comedy is also the sexiest film of the year. Shot with all Park’s considerable knowledge of, and attention to, color and detail, sex drips off the screen without ever being lurid. In fact, “Handmaiden” instructs you that whatever you think was the most passionate moment in your lifetime of physical connection, you have a considerable mountain still to climb. Not a “first date” film, but quite possibly the best second or third date film ever.
14. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Finland)
Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
I wrote in my original review that Kuosmanen “has created a lovely “fight” film that more closely resembles, in feel, what ‘Friday Night Lights’ would have looked like if it took place in the boxing world. Simple and small , shot in black and white, and about relationships, not the game, “Olli Maki” was maybe the best “little” film of the year…from a first-time director…and from a country with absolutely no boxing history to speak of. The performances are note perfect, and the lead actress, Oona Airola, is, simply put, impossible to keep your eyes off, without her ever trying to get you to look. I LOVE this film!
Directed by Tim Miller
Listen, you’ve seen this film already. You know why I love it. You know it’s terrific. You know it’s subversive. You know it’s the ultimate anti-Comic Book film, and you know Ryan Reynolds KILLS it (as does everyone in it). So…if you haven’t seen it…now you know why you should.
12. Neruda (Chile)
Directed by Pablo Larrain
The first of TWO Pablo Larrain-helmed films on this list (not a bad year), “Neruda” is a wonderful fantasy. Re-imagining the manhunt of Pablo Neruda within the borders of Chile during Pinochet’s reign of terror as a cat and mouse game told mostly through voiced inner monologues, the film is equal parts hilarious (thanks to a brilliant performance by Gael Garcia Bernal) and heartbreaking (due to Bernal’s counterpart, Luis Gneccho). This is a bizarre, intelligent, occasionally intellectual, and, ultimately, very satisfying film. Very.
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Larrain’s OTHER fantastic film this year, “Jackie” (which, if one includes 2015’s “The Club”, makes three brilliant films in the span of 13 months for the director) seems to be either loved or hated. Put me squarely in the former. A subject matter that needed an outsider to tackle it, “Jackie” reminds, redraws, explores and comments on the 9/11 of older generations. With very few missteps (and count the casting of Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy amongst the biggest), Larrain brilliantly illustrates the many stages of Jackie Kennedy’s White House existence…her overwhelm, her loss, and her precise manipulation. Portman has never been better, the look of the film is spot on and I may be alone here, but Mica Levi’s score is perfectly off kilter…aurally describing the lack of footing the eponymous character finds herself attempting to overcome. A tough film, to be sure, but certainly worth the journey in my estimation.
10. Hidden Figures
Directed by Jeff Nichols
I went to see this Christmas release which, based on its trailer, looked to be SO saccharin sweet – a routine and cliche-filled mess. Imagine my surprise when, instead, I witnessed a good old-fashioned historical comedy! Smart, funny, pertinent, and incredibly interesting, the previously untold tale of the African-American female mathematicians at NASA is one of those films that fills you with…glee. Yeah, that’s the word. And while we have come to expect an extremely high level of acumen and power from Octavia Spencer, Taraji Hensen and Janelle Monae are her equals here…as is the better-as-he-ages, Kevin Costner. It easily overcomes its few problems (Pharrell’s score is uber-intrusive and Mahershala Ali’s character doesn’t really fit), but this is the kind of comedy that seems to have disappeared from our multiplexes. Glad it came back and glad it succeeded so highly!
9. Love and Friendship
Directed by Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman is the Blue Nile of intelligent RomComs (a ridiculously obscure reference, I’m aware…which makes it no less accurate). Putting out films with the break neck pace of the DMV sloth in “Zootopia”, Stillman NAILS it this time ’round using actual wit, which is in such short cinematic supply these days. Words matter, and he chooses some great ones. Yes, I’m aware Jane Austen wrote the book it’s based on, but Stillman decided which to use…and they are funny, earnest, real, and devastating. And, frankly, it’s worth sitting through just to enjoy Tom Bennett deliver the “Churchill” monologue…maybe the funniest ninety seconds of the entire cinematic season. Oh, and Beckinsale is everything in this film. THIS is a perfect first date film. And Mark Suozzo’s score is fantastic.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
This is a film, much like “Hell Or High Water”, that manages to fill empty spaces (open land, silent moments, lingering camera shots) with deep meaning and weight. And while it’s a beautifully shot and engineered film, it’s the performances of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton that imbue the import of each frame. This is a love story as historical drama at its whisper-quiet best, with not an ounce of cliche. All that plus Adam Stone’s cinematography and David Wingo’s score make this a must see…which very few of you did, thanks to a TERRIBLE marketing campaign. It’s more than worth it. It’s a special film.
7. sieranevada (Romania)
Directed by Cristi Puiu
This little film from Romania might be the most accurate depiction of how claustrophobic a simple afternoon with the family can be. Shot with the highest level of choreographed expertise, it seems like an effortless one-shot throughout it’s almost three hours. Yes, three hours…but man, I didn’t notice that for a second. I just couldn’t get enough of the voyeuristic delight inherent in watching this incredibly relate-able family as they struggle through…something (no spoilers)…with love, affection, indignation, anger, and hilarity. Simply shocked it did not get more attention during awards season. If you have the opportunity to see it and love brilliant, small film-making, DO NOT MISS IT!
6. Don’t Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Speaking of small films…it doesn’t get much smaller than this. An examination of a six-person improv troupe, Birbiglia’s memoir-esque film is extremely light on plot, but dense as hell on character, relationship, and inner struggles. Oh, it’s also the most consistently funny film of the year. By far. And given that “Deadpool” and “Love and Friendship” were also made this year, that’s saying something. You need to laugh for a couple hours? Or just commiserate with others who feel the fickle fate of external failure? This is your flick. Brilliant.
5. 20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
When the closing titles of a film are accompanied by the Buzzcocks, you know I’m in…and biased. Admittedly, this film couldn’t be more directed to me…it’s about a suburban adolescent boy, born in 1964, who is introduced to the adult world at the beginning of the US punk/new wave movement. In other words, it’s about me! The music of the film is precisely the music I was striving to make my own that year, the acting is superlative and, most importantly, the script is fantastic. Mills has made not just an accurate record of the times and what becoming self-aware as a teen (or the single mother trying to harness it) was like then, he’s also crafted a movie that sings with laughs, as well. And, on top of all that, Roger Neill’s contributions to the 1979 greatest new wave hits soundtrack (all five tracks) are just incredible and great listening on their own.
4. Hell Or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
What can I say? This is kind of a perfect film. The story is relevant and timely, the dialogue is maybe the best of the year, the acting is so good any one of the three stars could understandably have won awards (and did) and the Giles Nuttgen’s photography is, I think, the best of the year. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have Nick Cave and Warren Ellis composing one’s soundtrack. The film encapsulates the emptiness of the forgotten rural working class while keeping the film brimming with wit, suspense, tension and a genuine sense of humor. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Spirit Award, Globe, Oscar. Truly the best American film of the year. Some may not relate to it, I guess. At least that’s what people who didn’t like it told me, but I would say a good film is SUPPOSED to challenge you to FIND the relate-able in that which we have no frame of reference… and if those closing scenes don’t fill and/or break your heart, then you’re not trying hard enough. The acting is unnaturally natural, the script is painfully real, and the emotions, if you allow them to, are pulled out from deep inside of you. A RARE example of an indie film being seen by the wider Hollywood machine for what it is…a piece of art that does what we hope movies can do. But, if nothing else, watch it for the performance of Andre Holland in the last third of the film. Mahershala Ali won the award, but Holland give the most human performance in the film. And it’s topped off by Nicholas Britell’s breathtaking score. A gift of a film.
2. Sing Street (Ireland/UK/USA)
Directed by John Carney
“Sing Street” may not have been the best film of the year…but is EASILY my favorite and most enjoyable experience of the year. I have now viewed it four times and find something new and joyful about it every go ’round. John Carney seems to have a magic touch when it comes to illustrating the motivations, muses, and unexplained forces at work in the minds of song crafters. And to imbue all that in teenagers and make it seem real, and not “Glee”-like, is astonishing. “La La Land” may have been viewed as the “first musical in decades”, but that’s pure bullshit hype. THIS is a musical – more Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “let’s put on a show!” than “La La” could ever hope to be. It’s more real, more earnest, more enjoyable, MUCH more relate-able and better executed start to finish. Hilarious, heartbreaking, romantic, painful, and filled with brilliant parodies that don’t FEEL like parodies because they have not an ounce of irony in them. The kids are spectacular, the songs feel like we’ve known them for decades and the slightly hackneyed ending is forgiven, because it feels so right. It’s on Netflix. Do yourself a favor. Order a pizza, turn out the lights, turn the volume up and watch the film that will be your go-to when it you happen to accidentally land on it while channel surfing twenty years from now. Oh, and “Drive It Like You Stole It”!
1. Land of Mine (Denmark)
Directed by Martin Zandvliet
But, truly, the best film in any language this year comes from Denmark. “Land of Mine” is a brilliant study in the nature, nurture and power of empathy…in the absolute most unlikely of places. There is not a wasted frame in this tense, yet touching film set in the days after the end of WWII. I can say, without question, that in the months since I screened the film, I have not gone a day without thinking about something related to it. The acting, especially from the teens, is without question, the most affecting of the year. The script is quiet and shows a remarkable economy of words – which is more than made up for by the lens of Zandvliet and cinematographer, Camilla Hjelm. IT OPENS THIS WEEKEND NATIONWIDE! GO SEE IT! SERIOUSLY! NO, REALLY!!
- My Life As A Zucchini (France): Simply lovely (and Oscar-nommed) film, especially if you can see it in its original French
- Middle Man: James O’Hare is BRILLIANT in this extremely dark road movie about wannabe stand-ups
- Hail, Caesar: “Would that it were so simple…”
- Indignation: A Chicago actor fest of Philip Roth’s brilliant words…
- The Confessions (Italy): You like the Young Pope, you say? Same director, just as weird
- Sing: I mean the animated feature, not the Oscar winning short…but, heck, they’re both terrific!
- Lion: Half a great film – the half with the kid…makes the other half worth sitting through…now if someone can explain to me what the hell Rooney Mara or her character were doing in the film…
- Fences: See this at some point or Denzel will give you that stare…oh, and Viola!
- The Together Project (France/Iceland): Brilliantly zany comedy! Some day it will play here…I hope…
- The Lobster: Brilliantly zany (and ultra-disturbing)…er…comedy(?) and Colin Farrell’s best work to date…
- Buddymoon: No way to describe this bizarre buddy film, but Flula Borg (Pitch Perfect 2) is fantastic
TOP FIVE DOCS
5. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words (Germany)
Directed by Throsten Schutte
During a year in which we lost two geniuses best known for their contributions to music, it’s easy to forget those that preceded them across the river Styx. And one of the truest geniuses, in every sense of the word, was Frank Zappa. He’s remembered mostly for being outrageous, but there was a WHOLE lot going on in that mind that was honest, prescient, and human (as well as hilarious). This brilliant doc from Germany lets him do all the talking. No talking heads, no memories of times with him, just a brilliant culling and collection of various interviews, performances and rants. If you think you know what he was, you’re probably wrong. This is a phenomenal examination inside the mind of the Albert Einstein of pop culture.
Directed by Keith Maitland
This animated documentary explores the events, chronology, heroes, and victims of August 1, 1961…an infamous day of death on the University of Texas campus, which, up until then, was the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. “Tower” could have easily been nominated in two categories (Animated Feature and Documentary Feature), but somehow missed out on both. It’s better, by far than “Moana”, and probably should have taken the place of “Life, Animated” in the doc category. Spellbinding, expertly voiced, harrowing, and heartbreaking, this is documentary film-making at its finest and most creative.
3. Older Than Ireland (Ireland)
Directed by Alex Fegan
The smallest doc of the year, was also the most delightful. Made up entirely of interviews with centenarians in Ireland (hence the title), this is a life-affirming, joyful and laugh-out-loud cure for the constant barrage of crap we deal with in the world around us each day. It won’t change the world, and it doesn’t showcase something horrible as most docs these days tend to. But it WILL remind you that life in the rear-view mirror, whatever it may have thrown at us, is filled with as much love and smiles as it is tears and shit. Or as I wrote in my review: “You will LAUGH. Not an artificial laugh, but a true laugh borne of how alike we are at our core. And you will cry at the realization that the core is all that is important when one has walked the earth for so long. It will make your first world problems seem ridiculous, even while instructing you that it’s perfectly okay to have them in the first place.”
2. I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by Raoul Peck
“The best words!” If POTUS actually knew what that meant, he might have been referring to this brilliant film. Director Raoul Peck gets out of the way and let’s James Baldwin tell the story of life as a black man just before, during, and immediately after the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. Sounds dry. Isn’t. At all. Samuel Jackson, in a remarkable voice performance, acts as Baldwin’s voice…and imbues it with meaning, quiet intensity and aching emotion. It’s expertly edited and moves with the power of a freight train that you don’t hear coming. Easily could’ve won the Oscar and should be required viewing for all. I mean all.
1. O.J.: Made In America
Directed by Ezrea Edelman
But the Oscar went to the right film. When does seven and a half hours feel like thirty minutes? When you’re viewing Ezra Edelman’s opus, “OJ: Made In America”. This is not a bio-doc, or, rather, it’s a bio-doc with a purpose well beyond its subject. It IS a brilliant, never dull, never academic, historical examination of the ever-dysfunctional and frequently violent treatment of L.A.’s African-American community by the LAPD over the decades. The amount of skill needed to make a film this long maintain its considerable crescendo is massive and all the more remarkable when you realize that this is Edelman’s first attempt at film-making. Pick a night you don’t have to get up and watch it straight through.
- 13th: Important doc, if a little unfocused and overrun with statistics
- The Eagle Huntress (Kazakhstan): Next to “The Handmaiden”, the most beautiful film of the year
- Fire At Sea (Italy): Touch to watch, and covers same ground as the doc short. “4.1 Miles”, but tremendously powerful
- The Last Laugh: A worthy sequel to “The Aristocrats” (although not really the sequel – just feels like it)
- Gimme Danger: The Stooges history told by…The Stooges. What’s not to like?
- My Journey Through French Cinema (France): Granted, it’s a four-hour journey, but if you love film, it’s a delightful masterclass
- Strike A Pose: The dancers from Madonna’s “Blond Ambition Tour” tell their stories. Fascinating.
10. The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
This franchise starter may have done well at the box office, thanks to its two gigantic stars, but, boy, it’s practically devoid of laughs, tension, or drive. The young actress (Angourie Rice) has a “Paper Moon”-era Tatum O’Neill presence about her, so, there’s that. Fingers crossed the next one is better.
Directed by Todd Solondz
The epic journey of a single Dachshund’s life, with a brilliant cast, from the twisted mind of Todd Solondz. Should’ve been great. Went to a sneak preview. It was never released. What does that tell you? A shame. And its mostly down to the writing. I’m sure Solondz thought it would be a great idea, but he directs the cast to play the situations instead of the reality, which is its main downfall. Lots’o’potential. Not much success. The dog is cute, though.
8. Paradise (Germany/Russia)
Directed by Andrey Konchelovskiy
A “new” way to showcase Nazi war crimes…with an ending so heinously misplaced, it instantly entered my Bottom Ten. Great director. Terrific acting. Beautiful black and white. Completely misguided.
7. Independence Day: Resurgence
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Hundreds of “don’t die on me” moments, this film has a plot that is so convoluted, within seconds you’ll be asking what the hell is going on here? Maybe Emmerich was hit with a sudden and effusive case of ADHD, because this flick is LITERALLY all over the place. Just a mess.
6. Kaleidoscope (UK)
Directed by Rupert Jones
Gave me a huge headache…especially when in the post-film discussion, Rupert Jones actually said something to the effect of “it doesn’t matter what I think it’s about, it’s what YOU think it’s about”. Wrong. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a director to have a fucking point of view about the murder mystery you make us sit through for two hours…no matter how good an actor your brother may be.
5. Karl Marx City (Germany)
Directed by Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker
Quite possibly the worst documentary to ever grace a major film festival (and easily the biggest waste of ninety minutes this year), “Karl Marx City” bills itself as a searing family saga told through the secret files, tapes and videos of the Stasi (former East German secret service) archives. Uh, not so much. What we do get is boring, tedious, childish, film-school gobbledygook that caused me to say “F*CK THIS FILM” out loud when it ended. But, yeah, you want a laugh at how pretentious a film can be? Give it a watch. Brutal! Oh…and the closing credits ACTUALLY featured the secret files, tapes and videos of the Stasi. So, there’s that…
Directed by Antonio Campos
Way too worried about the seventies set dressing…and borderline criminal telegraphing make this film about an incredible part of our history unwatchable. And most surprisingly, the cast, which is uniformly talented, is uniformly awful. Just a real swing and a miss from a good young director. Would’ve preferred to see the subject in more veteran hands. He’s got a good eye for detail, so I wish him well. But the movie kinda sucks.
3. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
More like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Can’t Come Fast Enough”. Brutally dull. And I hope Amy Adams made a fortune, ’cause her character sets back the cause of women’s rights about a century. It’s extraordinary how often DC gets it wrong. There is just no way to sustain two hours where every single line is the most important thing ever said. And don’t even get me started on the final battle against a monster who looks like he came straight out of a Johnny Quest cartoon.
2. Elle (France)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
I know, my job is to not spoil a film for you, but if you want to see a film about a woman who falls for her rapist…over and over…and over again. Be my guest. I found it, and the rest of the storyline, offensive (given the director’s proclivity for misogyny) – even if the acting and dialogue are superb. Just blech.
1. Jason Bourne
Directed by Paul Greengrass
EASILY the single most disappointing film of the year, Jason Bourne is simply dreadful. Nothing about it makes sense, including the acting, writing, nor the casting! ESPECIALLY the casting. Why is a Danish actress with the worst American accent ever (Alicia Vikander) the head of CIA cyber-intelligence at age eighteen? And WHY, in god’s name, is the uber-patriot in the film (played by Vincent Cassel), FRENCH?! Gawd, I hated this film with such lust. But lest you think you should see it to witness just how bad it is (which is something I do all the time) DON’T! This is no “Showgirls”. No, this iteration of the Bourne franchise should be put in a dark locker – and then the key should be melted down and recycled in to something useful. Let’s all just pretend it was never made.
So there you have it! On to 2017…which is off to a pretty good start for big Hollywood tent-poles..with “John Wick 2”, “Logan” and “The Lego Batman Movie”. Hopefully some of the indies will make their way ’round soon!