Monday, January 23, 2017

Top 20 of 2016

It's that time of the year again, time for me to spew out my opinions what my favourite movies of the year were.  As always there are some caveats. These are my favourites, not the unequivocally best made, well-reviewed critical darlings (sorry Moonlight). The films that I enjoyed the most and look forward to revisiting in years to come, even if they have flaws. Also, you'll note that I included films released in early 2017 since they qualify for the current Oscar season. And vice versa, I didn't include prestige films from last January like The Revenant.
Overall for 2016, it was a disappointing year. Although I'm proud of my list, maybe only a few of the top 5 would make a top list on any other year. Most of the wide release movies this year were quite atrocious; the only great blockbusters were the kid movies. To find many of the movies on this list, I really had to search outwards to documentaries, foreign films, and the prestige films released in the last few weeks. At any rate, I hope you enjoy the list, and that it inspires you to go and seek these out. 

Fun Facts!
Number of movies from 2016 I saw: 107
Total number of movies I saw this year: 185
Worst movies: The Secret Life of Pets, True Memoirs of an International Assassin, 13 Hours
Biggest Disappointments: Mascots, BvS:DoJ, The Birth of a Nation
Didn't Get Around to Seeing for this list: Elle, Lion, Miss Sloane

Honourable Mentions: Hell or High Water, Queen of Katwe, The Lobster, Don't Breathe, The Jungle Book, The Founder

20. The Handmaiden
This South Korean film is directed by the ever bold Chan-wook Park (Oldboy), and is probably his classiest one yet. That is to say it isn't without the stylish panache and 18A material of his previous work: a smidge of ultra-violence and loads of sensual and sexual content. This is a tale set in 1930s Korea under Japanese rule, where a handmaiden servant infiltrates a rich Japanese Count in order to rob him. Then the plot flips and turns with double-cross after double-cross, which crafts a twisted pretzel of a mystery. What's more is that the film is told in 3 separate parts which depict the same actions from the differing perspectives of the three main characters. Like all big budget South Korean films of the last few decades, this is a gorgeously shot film told with patience, that manipulates the audience in the best of ways. 

19. The Invitation
This is a low budget indie film directed by Karyn Kusama about a hipster dinner party. Not exactly my cup of tea. But what starts out as such, eerily pulls you along as a conspiracy thriller and winds up being a vicious tale of jealousy, regret and paranoia. Our surrogate and main character Will, arrives at a chic LA party with past friends and new acquaintances. Then through flashbacks and carefully crafted emotional undertones, we understand that the hosts are his ex-wife and her new beau, who both no longer appear to act the way they used to. New creepy guests arrive, and old friends fail to notice what Will suspects: perhaps our hosts have some sinister intentions. The film plays with perspective as we question whether everyone else is crazy, or if we (Will) are experiencing some PTSD from the past relationship. 

18. Sully
It's been a long time since I've really enjoyed a Clint Eastwood film. Gran Torino was great, and Million Dollar Baby is very good, but the other 15-odd movies he made over the past two decades are always so workmanlike and forgettable. Likely well-made, but lacking in vision. The difference here is that not only does his workmanlike, by-the-numbers filmmaking mirror the content of ordinary people just doing their job well, but Eastwood manages to make a point out of it all. He embellishes the true-events just enough, in order to craft a story that shows how there is nothing more important than humanity and the power and magnificence we can achieve by working hard together. Pretty much the exact same "go humanity!" lessons learned from last years' The Martian, but far more subdued. There is a soothing and calming effect glossed over this film that reflects the professionalism and collected demeanour of the titular character. And Tom Hanks plays him with such a down-to-earth and comforting way, that we all feel better with him at the helm. It's a movie executed so confidently and assuredly which matches the story, and delivers a hopeful tale of how when people get together and do their best, the impossible can be achieved. 

17. Finding Dory
Take everything great about Finding Nemo, and just do more of that. Works fine enough for me! More of the stunning underwater animation. More of the charming main characters sprinkled with fun side characters. More emotional tear-jerking moments about parenting (the shells!!!). More of that aesthetically soothing and serene score from Thomas Newman. The new additions of the selfish (not shellfish) Hank and baby Dory are wonderful characters that remain as endearing as he originals. However, also being a typical sequel, it suffers from more zaniness in trying to outdo the original; which results in some "overly silly" plot contrivances and illogical real-world shenanigans. Yet the core story remains powerful. Using fish and animals with handicaps, they made a wonderful allegory for parenting and child-rearing. As Sigourney Weaver says: Rescue, Rehabilitation & Release.

16. The Nice Guys 
One of the funnier movies this year, this is a true retro throwback to the action comedies of the late 80s like 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. The latter of which was written by Shane Black, the writer and director here. Also, helping to fit this mould of foul-mouthed partners trying to solve a crime with street smarts and guns, is that The Nice Guys also takes place back in the 70s to help get us closer to that era when a Dirty Harry type could roam the streets. Our two mismatched heroes here, are a thug hitman (played by a grizzled yet enigmatic Russell Crowe) and a deadbeat-dad, private investigator (played by Ryan Gosling in one of the best performances this year). They get caught up in a purposely complicated investigation and bumble their way through it, not unlike The Big Lebowski. As they try their best to solve the crime for some cash, they find themselves coming out the other end with a lovely sense of redemption for each of them. It's a movie that is funny and loaded with slapstick, has endearing characters, and has an engaging mystery that is as relevant today as it was in the 70s. 

15. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This is the surprise thriller of the year. With nearly zero advertising (which was refreshing), until a last minute blitz the two weeks prior to opening, all we had to go on was that a girl wakes up trapped in a bunker with strangers. The film plays out as a mystery as we begin to discover that the outside world may not be where she wants to go either. The only 2016 performance better than Gosling in The Nice Guys, belongs hands down to John Goodman, over here at 10 Cloverfield Lane. He puts on an intimidating yet vulnerable performance and creates an incredible and imposing character who you never forget about, even when he's off-screen. Then, when he's on the screen, he is magnetic. Our protagonist is at his whim in the beginning, but bit by bit, she undermines him and this only makes him more threatening. It's a simple movie with wonderful interplay between the three leads, and the effect of the mystery unraveling only gets better on a rewatch. 

14. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Like most good comedies, this one bombed at the box office, and hopefully will find an audience over time. Essentially a This Is Spinal Tap for the modern pop scene, Popstar is a music mockumentary about the fictional singer Conner4Real. Played by the ever affable Andy Samberg, Conner becomes an egocentric pastiche of the numerous mega-stars like Justin Bieber. The film fires shots at the modern music industry: at the fame-hungry stars, their leeching friends, the lack of musical talent, the reliance on spectacle, the very nature of music documentaries, the scandals, etc... And while it can be scathing, the movie never forgets to be funny. Easily the funniest movie in a long time, the jokes mostly all land and it would seem that it'll be timeless. Yes, it makes a point of focusing on the current pop music, but these are all issues and topics that have existed for decades in the industry.  Unlike many of the recent efforts of other comedians' movies (Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart), this movie doesn't rely on improvising and actually uses a script! In fact, they had so many ideas that there's over 40 minutes of deleted scenes and music videos on the Blu-Ray that are just as good as the final cut. Plus, the most important part of any satire, is that it's clear that Samberg and the creators care about music and actually put effort into crafting catchy and fun songs that could pass for real charts!

13. 13th
It may just be a documentary released on Netflix, but it has pedigree behind it. Directed by Ava DuVernay (director of the outstanding Selma), this is an engrossing essay on the American prison system and its violation of the 13th amendment. The documentary puts forth the argument, or rather, proof that prisons in the US have become the new form of slavery. Using hard, concrete numbers and exposing the cover ups that keep this knowledge under wraps, DuVernay spits out a flurry of professionals explaining the details of this corrupt system, thus making an indisputable case. It's a saddening film that shows how slavery is not dead, and is only getting worse while more and more African-Americans are targeted for jail only to fuel the cycle of slavery. This is a powerful documentary that's told professionally and angrily. It matters more than ever as the problem perpetuates.

12. Hacksaw Ridge
As terrible of a person Mel Gibson has been, there's no denying he makes great movies. I don't think Hacksaw is as great as his other 3, but it is still really good. This is the true story of a pacifist who enters into WWII as a patriot, but as a pacifist, refuses to hold a gun or even be violent. As expected from Gibson, the scenes of battle and the War are outstanding. They are coherent and exhilarating while maintaining a thorough sense of logic from A to B. Plus they also feel fresh and different from the zillions of other war movies in existence. Gibson's intense direction cuts right to the core of the action to create a frenetic pacing that drives the second half of the film. The first half also delivers in its own way. Although it does tread into standard biopic fare, it is necessary to convey the reasoning for our hero's beliefs. Namely, the court hearing that divides the two halves of the film is the crux of the story and delivers a lot of questions and ideas on the ideology of pacifism. The faults of the movie however, lie in the final 10 minutes wherein the Japanese are finally given a face but it's a cartoonish portrayal. Then there is one final hoorah on the battlefield that is not required for the purpose of the story, but rather just to add some needless extra "action moments" ending in some overt Christian symbology. Nevertheless, this is a gripping tale about staying true to one's beliefs in the face of those that threaten to take them away. 

11. Deepwater Horizon
Based on the BP oil spill, this docudrama delivers everything you want from a stellar blockbuster movie going experience. There's the epic disaster and big screen spectacle, the serious implications and grit of a documentary, thrilling and engaging action, even humour and down-to-earth character building. Peter Berg, the director, has found a knack for meshing exciting action and Mark Wahlberg with real life events (Lone Survivor, Patriot's Day), but this one in particular manages to deliver the most on the entertainment factor. Hanging out with our main characters (including the ever awesome Kurt Russell) during the first half is a charming display of camaraderie among blue collar workers. Like Sully, you just get to watch professionals doing great work and executing 100% on their jobs. Then the corporate fat-cats (played by a gleefully enigmatic John Malkovich) get involved at the oil rig, and things go south. The audience knows it, and like the oil, the tension builds up & up under insurmountable pressure until disaster strikes in one of the biggest explosions and longest lasting disaster sequences I've ever seen on a big screen.

10. Hardcore Henry
There have been many attempts to make video games into movies, and they have all crashed and burned. But the best ones so far have been the ones that aren't based off of an existing property, but rather take the elements of a video game to craft a different type of story (Wreck-It Ralph, Edge of Tomorrow) and now Hardcore Henry.  Here, our gimmick is that the entire movie is in the first person perspective; in a super-violent, super-energetic, shoot 'em up action flick fuelled by Red Bull injected into your veins and kicked into high gear like being strapped to a rocket ship. We become Henry, the super soldier out for revenge who will stop at nothing and kill everyone who gets in his way. To many, this can be very troublesome: being placed in the direct perspective of someone who kills a lot of baddies. But, having been desensitized to violence in video games themselves, I am able to separate myself from this concern and can value the movie for the creativity it displays. The gimmick is present and there to be shown off first and foremost, but the movie delivers so much more. Like a video game, each action sequence ramps up in "difficulty", not only in the types of foes, but in the filmmaking craft. So many events in this movie are hard to imagine how they did it. From parkour building scaling, to a chase over a bridge, to a brief but insane highway chase, to endlessly inventive brawls and shootouts, this movie runs at 110%. A sublimely entertaining, violent, adrenaline-fuelled, cartoon of an action movie.

9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Our very first Star Wars film that is not part of a trilogy. Or rather, it is, as it turns out, still inextricably linked to the original film; but where this film succeeds is how it can nevertheless remain separate. First and foremost, this is not under the traditional format of a Star Wars movie, it is under the guise of a WWII movie. Much like the war movies of the 60s (my favourite subgenre of movies), in the first half, we are introduced to a ragtag group of rebels who set out on a mission outside of the authority of their own side, each displaying their unique skill set and over the course of the film, they each commit themselves wholly to the cause in their own redemptive way. Then of course, the second half is an all out war. Secondly, what makes this film different, is that this is the most beautifully shot film in the franchise that adds loads of memorable imagery into this universe. The director took his time in crafting and designing artful shots and the film relishes them. He does his own thing and doesn't feel restricted to confining to the style of the existing films, but at the same time, he ensures to harken back to the original trilogy where it counts. Whether it's making the CG elements such as the Star Destroyers to look like physical models, or to draw upon and further enhance the mystical branches of the Force, the film is best defined as a stand alone film with its own vision that expands the ideas of the original without merely mimicking them (see Force Awakens). Plus, of course, we get a juicy Darth Vader scene to end all scenes!

8. The Wailing
This is the second South Korean film to make this list (for another from this year worth checking out, see the zombie movie Train to Busan). The Wailing is certainly one of the most original films from 2016. It is essentially a horror movie, but it blends together elements from police procedurals, zombies, exorcisms, monsters, ghosts and some humour for good measure. The film starts out with a bumbling small town detective investigating a series of murders, but as the mystery unfolds, we discover there's something more supernatural at work. As mentioned, the story dives in and out of various monster movie tropes and stylings until we finally discover what is really at play. Despite numerous scares and horrifying murders, the film remains playful through our protagonist cop; who is continually forced to accept the crazy situations he finds himself in. This balancing of tonal shifts is just one of the facets that always draws me to South Korean cinema (see also The Host and I Saw the Devil). Like these films, it is also chock full of production design, from the make-up, to the penetrating operatic score, to the immaculate imagery and classical camerawork. All of this comes together to make my favourite scene of the year: The Exorcism Scene. 

7. La La Land
Coming off of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle's La La Land certainly had high expectations from me. Although it is not a masterpiece like this previous film (the biggest difference being the script),  La La Land is still a wonderful film. It begins as a full blown musical almost to a comical point, and bit by bit, evolves into something quieter to brilliantly mimic the arc of Ryan Gosling's character. However genius and meta that may be, this changing structure lends to an underwhelming experience. The energy slows down throughout. But that doesn't take away from how well made the film is.  In fact, I assume it will only get better on a second viewing having known where the film goes. The set design and cinematography are fantastic. Depending on the mood of the scene, the costumes, lighting and sets will directly reflect the emotions. Meanwhile the director crafts some beautiful imagery to help create a romantic aura  to sweep you off your feet into a dreamlike version of Hollywood and the pursuit of artistic integrity. What's more is that most of the musical numbers occur in single takes. This style of wide-angles shooting certainly harkens back to the movie musicals of the 50s and early 60s (Singin in the Rain, American in Paris, Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Chazelle even goes so far as to include a fantasy musical number that encompasses the whole plot, much like the aforementioned Gene Kelly musicals. Just like Whiplash it's a story about artists inspiring artists to pursue what they value and be great at it. But instead of using vulgarity and aggressive competition as inspiration, La La Land uses passion and heart to get us there. 

6. Life Animated
Probably the smallest and least heard-of movie on this list, Life Animated is an inspiring and life-affirming documentary. This is the story of an autistic young man named Owen Suskind. He was brought up on Disney animated movies until he was 3, at which point, he developed autism. From there, he stopped talking and withdrew himself into a silent state. His parents struggled to find a way to communicate with their son, until they discovered that Owen was able to speak through Disney movies. We learn how he could channel all of his emotions and express himself through Disney quotes, characters, and movie scenes. It's a powerful story about overcoming obstacles, understanding autism, and of course for me, finding inspiration and comfort in Disney movies and childhood. The final act of the documentary takes Owen to the realization that eventually, real life will sneak up on you, and we have to adapt and let go. I certainly shed a few tears, but it's a happy story!

5. Silence
Martin Scorsese's Silence is an epic film delivered by a Master. Yet it is epic in the most quiet and personal way possible. I struggle to find many similar films, but The Thin Red Line certainly comes to mind. Both of which are about large scale violent events in history, but contrastingly, the presentation is very quiet and subdued. Quiet movies that demand the scope of the big screen.  Silence follows the journey and trials of two Jesuit priests who go to Japan in the 1600s to spread the word of Christianity and search for a lost mentor in these lands. This is the second Christian epic movie starring Andrew Garfield this year, and he is certainly proving his chops. A lot of emotional conflict is required of him here, and he does some fantastic work carrying the film. That isn't to say that the great Scorsese doesn't still deliver top notch work himself. Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, he dials down the pacing to a crawl, but it is in service of a meditative and thought provoking script that explores the many facets of faith. The film is nearly devoid of music, lasts almost 3 hours, and doesn't have much of a propelling plot, but that is all to leave room for a serene and contemplative journey. How far can someone be tested in their faith? Especially when they are being tortured, threatened, alienated, and hardest of all - receiving nothing but silence in return. 

4. Nocturnal Animals
Nocturnal Animals begins with our main character, played by Amy Adams, who is a rich, elite artist that leads a luxurious life. She is part of the cutting-edge LA po-mo art scene but appears to be sad behind her fake veneer. Then to her surprise, she receives a novel in the mail from her ex lover, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The novel is a thriller called Nocturnal Animals, and inside the cover, she sees it is dedicated to her. Curious, she begins to read this thriller about kidnaping, murder, revenge and police investigations. Reading the story, it provokes her and reminds her about her past relationship with Gyllenhaal. The film therefore becomes her realization that the novel is a symbolic representation of their break up. But the beauty of this film comes in the format: all three of these stories (present, past and symbolic thriller) are edited together to each coincide in parallel revelations. Everything lines up and synchronizes at key moments, and some even foreshadow how other plots will resolve. This is a truly satisfying film on an editing and narrative level. Being directed by Tom Ford, this is also a stunningly shot film. He stages some unforgettable scenes and ensures that nearly every frame could stand as its own as a piece of art. Plus the four main actors each put forth some outstanding work: Amy Adams as the cold but emotionally vulnerable lead, Gyllenhaal as both a hopeless romantic, and an emasculated father who gets broken down and built back up, Aaron Taylor Johnson as a despicable and maddeningly vile villain, and Michael Shannon who steals the show as the knight in shining armour. Despite an intensely disturbing kidnaping scene, this is an exhilarating film that is incredibly satisfying with everyone working at the top of their craft. 

3. The Red Turtle
The year of great animated movies also gave us this little gem. Studio Ghibli presents this beautiful tale of a man who gets stranded on an island and learns to survive. Much like Cast Away, he learns to cope and adapt to his surroundings and accept fate. He makes a few attempts to leave the island on a raft, but each time, gets thwarted by a giant red turtle. Having given up, he blames the creature and seeks revenge on it. It would be best not to describe what follows in this quiet and mystical story. But needless to say, the film goes on to present the story of Life itself.  It is a parable of the trials of growing up, adapting, letting go and the cyclical nature of moving on. If the story wasn't beautiful enough, the art style is poetic in execution while resembling a Tintin type of design. The soundscapes and score do a lot of work to paint emotions in our ears that help fill out the story while at the same time, not saying much of anything. Which is all the more effective since the entire film has no dialogue!

2. Zootopia
Not that we have to pick sides in a world where we get two Disney animated movies in one year, but I am clearly on team Zootopia. Moana is good, but this one knocks it out of the park. This is a refreshing, colourful, funny, creative, endearing, assemblage of ideas that all come together to make my most entertaining movie this year. The world building from frame one is fantastic. Each scene unleashes more and more designs, more and more characters, and continually reveals new elements to this animal world. This animal menagerie is familiar territory for Disney, but all of the bright colours, exquisite details in the animation, kinetic pacing, and varying designs feel new. This is a visual film. Like a movie ought to, it tells a lot of the story through images and movement. The initial train ride into Zootopia tells you all you need to know about this world. It teases you and gives you glimpses of various corners of this city, that are immaculately thought out and has me constantly wanting to return and explore more. But of course, what's a movie without substance?  The script keeps the energy and comedy flowing while unfolding a solid mystery to reveal an important morality tale about prejudice. In taking the various ecosystems, unlimited slew of characters, and playing off of the traditional stereotypes of certain animals, we learn not to judge others from how they appear. Jason Bateman's voice work for the fox Nick Wilde is a perfect casting choice, and works so well as he delivers a sly exterior over a broken soul. The juxtaposition of appearances vs personalities, carnivores vs herbivores, large vs small, tundra next to desert is all further development of the theme. The visual contrasts which serve the theme (as so gleefully deployed in the immaculate chase through "small town") are a plenty in Zootopia; a film that understands scope, and a lush demonstration of the visual medium that is film.

1. Arrival
The second movie on this list to feature Amy Adams. The second movie on this list to have Forest Whitaker. The second movie on this list to focus on an alien encounter (SPOILERS for the other film!). The second movie on this list to feature a Heptapod!  But this film is second to none in 2016. Directed from one of my new favourite Canadians, Denis Villeneuve (with the outstanding track record of Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners...and the upcoming Blade Runner sequel!), this is a confidently executed film. It certainly feels like a movie that was wholly conceived, plotted, designed and executed by an auteur, and not meddled with by studio execs. We are thrust into our world where alien ships have descended upon us and they wait for us to make a move. Taking a (hopefully) real-world approach to this situation, the film follows some scientists and linguists as they try to communicate and make contact with the "heptapods" before the military does anything too rash. This is a movie about establishing treaties and being in favour of intellectualism. The search for a way to interact with 'the other' in a peaceful manner. A hopeful film that has humanity taking the correct course of action. Villeneuve's craft is our guide through this story and he takes his time but never feels the need to hold our hand. We learn how the basics of teaching linguistics work, how the alien language works, and how their technology and characteristics work.  Yet, we are never hit over the head with exposition. In fact there are even long stretches of zero dialogue (the ominous boarding of the pods, and the communication scenes) that are a part of the director's foreboding style; these moments are doubly effective when paired with his recent composer of choice, the mysterious Johann Johannsson.  The added majesty of this film comes from the spirals the narrative pulls off. What starts out as a trite overused convention of the "personal flashbacks" peppered throughout, twists into a wonderfully satisfying revelation that plays with our expectations  of the visual medium, and brings new meaning to the title. Arrival is a film of hope and trust in humanity, with an innovative narrative, a beautiful score, unforgettable cinematography, great acting and confident patient directing that knows exactly how to pace itself and unravel at the perfect moments. 

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