2016 has come and gone. As many films have only just recently become available for the average viewer, I’m still putting the final touches on my “Top Ten” list. However, I have once again put together a compilation of some of the best moments and elements in the year in film. This will be mostly [spoiler-free], unless otherwise noted. Here are some of my favorite film things from 2016:
Best Opening Scene: 10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Cloverfield Lane is director Dan Tractenberg’s first feature length film, and holy crap, did he knock it out of the park. The best portion of the film is the five-minute opening, which plays like a short, silent film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides to leave her life and fiancé behind due to an unknown argument. She drives down the highway in stunning aerial shots set to Bear McCreary’s Hitchcockian score, giving little information to the audience but imbuing the situation with dread. Her fiancé speaks with her on the phone, she hangs up, and out of nowhere, she is driven off the road by an enormous truck. The sound design of the scene is also just incredible, shocking the audience on each impact of the crash, when suddenly, we cut to silence and an opening title card. Cut back to the crash, back to the cards. Finally the car comes to a halt, and we’re left with one final shot of the overturned vehicle, no indication of Michelle’s condition. As you can probably tell, I truly love this opening, and it is exactly the introduction that this film deserves.
Best Ending Scene: The Fits
The Fits is a coming-of-age story following Toni, a young black girl caught between a love of boxing with her brother and joining the all-girl majorette team. As a mysterious illness starts plaguing the girls, Toni and her friends strive for acceptance in the community. Obviously I’m going to go into the ending here, so avoid these [spoilers] if you haven’t seen the film.
While it is highly open-ended whether the illness is real or fabricated, my personal interpretation is that Toni has to decide whether to fake contracting the sickness in order to fit in with the dance community. She has been rejecting the notion throughout the film, but towards the end, something clicks. The final minutes of The Fits gives us the moment where Toni finally surrenders to “the fits” in the interest of completing the rite of passage. From Toni’s point of view, we get a surreal moment as she floats above the floor, transcending into womanhood in one of the year’s best musical moments. It is only when we cut to the perspective of the other girls do we see the usual seizure-like symptoms of “the fits.” The film closes on a final cut of Toni recovering from the “attack,” and we get just the slightest smile from her indicating the awareness of her accomplishment.
Extremely close runner-up for this category: La La Land. I’ll be honest, I’m pulling a few punches for films that I know I’ll be writing about it in the near future, but the ending musical moment of La La Land is just so powerful and impossible to shake, I had to mention it here.
Best Director: Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Nothing against Damien Chazelle, but I will be disappointed if Barry Jenkins doesn’t get the Academy Award for Best Director this year. For those who don’t know, Moonlight tells the story of a black gay man from Miami in three stages of his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. When talking about Moonlight‘s direction, it’s easy to get swept up in how beautiful the film is, and fluid and symphonic it is from beginning to end. While true, what really sticks out to me is the coherence of performances from act-to-act. This coherence is so strong that it’s easy to forget that the main character, Chiron, is played by three different actors! Each of the three actors who play Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) play the character very differently, as he is in various stages of development, and yet there is an extremely strong thread throughout the three. Moonlight is an enormous achievement, and a clear, singular vision of Barry Jenkins.
I Didn’t Get It: The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book made so much money. SO much money. It was the fifth highest grossing film of the year. It got rave reviews too. I have heard this called “2016’s Avatar” and “one of the best Disney movies ever.” Personally, I do not understand the love for this movie. It is literally a beat-for-beat retelling of the 1967 animated film, which is itself just a series of loosely-connected vignettes. The animal effects are praised, and rightly so; they are impressive. However, anytime Mowgli is on screen, it’s painfully obvious that the whole film was shot in a sound stage against a green screen, with a small child trying to act against a void. It is also a film that is ashamed of the fact that it’s based on a musical, offering approximately one and a half of the songs from the original. And because they were the only ones, both songs were wildly out of place. Neither Bill Murray nor Christopher Walken are known for their singing prowess. Nothing visually interesting or fun happens in those moments. The movie just comes to a screeching halt to give us the two songs we remember from the original.
Maybe my expectations were too high. This is exactly what I would have pictured from a live-action Disney Jungle Book, and yet all the rave reviews convinced me it was something more. In a year with so many great Disney entries, this is the one I won’t be revisiting.
They Didn’t Get It: Storks
Critics (and audiences) did not care for Storks, but you know what? This movie is funny. There, I said it. Maybe it’s the Stockholm syndrome of being stuck on an airplane with nothing to watch but this, in pieces, three times in a row, but I found the comedic timing of this film to be on-point. Warner Brothers Animation is fairly new to the game, and it’s clear that at least a few of the people who came over from stellar The Lego Movie. Is the film trying too hard for laughs sometimes? Yes. Is there some bizarre mixed messaging about families and solving disfunction by having a child? Yeah, okay, there’s some of that too. Does the movie seem to have a weird issue of constantly prioritizing white babies even though the storks deliver to families all across the world? Mmmm… yeah maybe that too. You know what, I get why critics didn’t like it. It’s still funny.
Most Disappointing: Ghostbusters
I cannot tell you how badly I wanted to go to bat for this movie. I’m a huge fan of Paul Feig (loved Spy from last year), I like all of the lead actresses and actor, and I thought the premise was a good one: why not make a Ghostbusters movie with an all-female cast? Unfortunately, I left this film hugely disappointed. Personally I felt that this wasn’t successful as either a Ghostbusters movie or a Paul Feig comedy. The root of my problem is simple: I just didn’t find it very funny. I felt that Feig was really hand-cuffed by the PG-13 rating, and that his typical style of comedy was heavily watered down for a broader audience. The film had to check off a number of franchise requirements and requisite “action beats,” including a mediocre CGI-heavy, world-ending finale. Many of the things I disliked were problems I have with franchise reboots in general, like unnecessary callbacks and an unwillingness to tell a new story.
Now, all this being said, I would still happily see more franchise movies with women in the lead roles. In that sense, this film was a success. Feig’s typical feminist sensibilities once again shine brightly here, and the obviously flipped tropes like the dumb token male secretary were both funny and appreciated. There are people who really love this movie, and I’m honestly glad that’s the case. I don’t want to detract from their enjoyment, I just wish that I felt the same way. Ghostbusters flopped pretty hard at the box office, so I hope that Hollywood doesn’t take the wrong lessons from that.
Best Date Film/Crowd-Pleaser: Sing Street
I don’t know if there’s any movie that came out this year that can be universally beloved as Sing Street. Written and directed by John Carney, the creator of Once, Sing Street is a coming-of-age film about an Irish boy at a Catholic boarding school who looks to impress the local “cool girl” by creating a band. The charm of Sing Street can instantly be felt by anyone who loves musicals. This is a film that feels deeply personal, and one that isn’t afraid to be optimistic about someone shaking social norms in pursuit of art and happiness. It is a perfect companion piece to La La Land, as both explore the act of creative expression and what it takes to succeed as an artist. This is a modern pop-punk, anti-establishment film that is sure to inspire some young musician to weather any storm necessary to make incredible music.
Runner-up: Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Everything about this film is charming and hilarious. Taika Waititi imbues his projects with such a unique, dry wit, it is impossible not to laugh all the way through. This is easily one of the funniest films of the year.
Most Intense Sequence: Nocturnal Animals (the abduction scene)
Nocturnal Animals tells the story of an art gallery owner who receives a cryptic novel written by her ex-husband. The movie switches back and forth between the novel and the real world (with some flashbacks in between). Now the film is very strange and frequently pretentious, as just the first two minutes alone will tell you. It also has some not-so-flattering gender subtlties throughout. However, it also has an extremely intense sequence (within the novel portion) early in the film, in which a family of three is driven off the road by some criminals in the middle of nowhere, Texas. With no civilization or even other traffic in sight, the family is completely at the mercy of the three dangerous men who drove them off the road, and helpless as the hooligans begin toying with them and making demands. The powerlessness of Tony as his wife and daughter are abducted is so troubling, and so haunting, it alone was enough to keep me captivated throughout the entire film.
I can’t believe they pulled it off: Swiss Army Man
This film is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve already written about it twice, but I still can’t shake the fact that there exists a film about Paul Dano surviving in the woods with the help of the talking corpse of Daniel Radcliffe. Even more incredible is that this movie is really, really good. It features perhaps the most mellow soundtrack ever created, sung entirely in acapella, largely by the two leads. Every shot of this film is gorgeous, even when Radcliffe is vomiting water into Dano’s mouth or popping a boner that serves as a compass to safety. Those are things that happen in this film. It is a real movie that exists. And it is must-see material for 2016.
Movie That I Never Would Have Seen If It Weren’t For Making These Lists, and I’m Glad I Saw Because It Was Great: Silence
Silence is Scorsese’s three-hour epic about Jesuit priests attempting to bring Catholicism to the people of 17th-century Japan, in a time when local Christians were tortured by the government until they renounced their beliefs. What impresses me so much about Silence is that the viewer will take away a very different message depending on their perspective and worldview. It is possible to see their plight as noble, championing their cause in the face of such unspeakable adversity. Then again, with all of the pain and suffering inflicted on the priests’ disciples, the audience must grapple with the question of whether they are truly improving lives, or are directly responsible for the torment of their followers. Even the perspective of the Japanese government is portrayed, and it is possible to sympathize with their plight as well. This film is particularly perfect for Catholics who deliberate on the philosophical implications of how there can both be an omnipotent, benevolent God and suffering in the world.
Those were some of my favorite film elements of 2016, but the best is yet to come in the countdown of my favorite films of the year. I’ll be posting my Top 10 list in the near future, so stay tuned.