Once again proving to be an astounding year for genre film, the gut punch that was 2016 proved mostly tame from the major contenders with the majority of the huge tentpole films going from pretty fun and great to outright abysmal. Yet the smaller releases this year hit it out of the park by providing some genuinely interesting stories and the potential to provide a rush of blood, where the rest of the year seemed to have a direct feed to a bucket of downers.
Praise must be given to Mike Flanagan for having two of the tensest films with Netflix sleeper Hush and the unexpectedly great prequel to Ouija, Ouija: Origin of Evil. There was also the dead-eye pulp felt from Hell or High Water, The Nice Guys and Midnight Special, which elevated them above many other films, attempting similar dark themes by approaching them in exciting ways. And while tentpoles Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One are fantastic, I hope this list will propel some to check out a few of the lesser seen films from the year.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s delicate and heartfelt rendition of the pains of high school rung truer than any other film of 2016. Nadine’s awkward struggles provide the best edge to approach the depression many teens feel during this time in their lives, while also showcasing the intimate sparks of joy that spring from these interactions. Hailey Steinfeld is at her all time best, complemented by the headstrong and on-point Woody Harrelson as her oft inappropriate teacher. Plus, the fantastic soundtrack that accompanies this film uses modern hits in conjunction to classic John Hughes-ian tunes to accompany any house party.
9. Kubo and the Two Strings
Coming from a company just over 10 years old, Kubo stands as another home run for stop-motion studio Laika. With Coraline and Boxtrolls they are now seemingly the most open-minded and exciting animation studio working today. Approached as an ancient tale about a young boy whose eye has been stolen by his malevolent grandfather, Kubo’s strengths rely on its beautiful animation and well-developed characters. Both mature and family friendly, it bridges that gap usually reserved for Pixar tear jerkers and those dog movies that teach young kids about death.
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Coming from a solid career as Youtube host for the Totally Rad Show, Dan Trachtenberg’s success as a director certainly never looked to be this grand. A Hitchcockian spin on a sci-fi yarn, it sees a group of people stuck in a repurposed bunker during a potential alien apocalypse (or is it?) Both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman revel in the tense interactions as both captive/captor and reluctant friends. While many have found the ending controversial, it works as a greatly satisfactory conclusion to Michelle’s plight as well as showing a fantastic twist.
Simple and breathtaking, Barry Jenkins has crafted a film many will see as a defining stamp on 2016. Open about a young man’s sexuality that hasn’t been approached in a decade, it deftly defies the politics that are openly accepted by too many people. While people seemingly regress into antiquated politics, the young Chiron faces the struggle to accept his own orientation among the wayward youth of Miami while still having the strength to get up each morning and get out his own door. More risks should be taken like this in the film industry.
This is the type of film that soared this year, being completely self-aware of the type of film it is while also being incredibly brutal and hard to stomach. While Don’t Breathe and Hush worked on the visceral thrills they provide, it is the utter oppression and punk atmosphere that the film provides that completes its package. The late Anton Yelchin is perfect in the unassuming hero while Patrick Stewart’s turn as a nasty nazi is the cherry on top of the bloody, pus-riddled cake.
Offering the kind of fist-pumping, energetic (while also realistic) depictions of life John Carney has perfected with his past films (notably Once and Begin Again), this film fires on all cylinders for that melancholic rush of ‘80s romanticism and the newest Duran Duran release. While the young Connor fights against the tyranny of his school’s head pastor and the impending divorce between his parents, it’s his love of music and wanting to win the affection of budding model Rafina that gives the film a particular fire and punch that leaves you with a big grin and another kick ass soundtrack to put on repeat.
4. The Wailing
While the year provided an overall excellent platform for the horror and thriller genre, it is this film from Korean director Na Hong-Jin that seemingly tried to do anything and everything it could to terrify the audience. Morphing from police procedural to a haunting and painstakingly peculiar finale, the film uses well-known tropes of other films and cranks their insanity to 11. With gut-busting comedy popping out of nowhere only to recede back into chilling depths, we follow a police officer in a village as he searches for the person responsible for the possession of his daughter. The long run time is well worth investing as the payoff results in the most haunting final moments seen all year.
As I and many others have stated, director Denis Villeneuve is the absolute shit. Yes, he keeps his streak of compelling, assured films with a sci-fi alien movie that doesn’t rely on any laser blasts or aliens getting sucker punched in the forehead. The propulsion felt from the film comes from the coalescing of the cinematography with Amy Adam’s reserved determinism and the pace that unfolds the central question out without ever providing a clear cut answer. The beauty felt comes from the empathy of the characters and the filmmakers all coming together in a film as equally important to the industry as its message is to humanity.
Coming off the stressful and militaristic Whiplash, Damien Chazelle has completely made his mark on this decade in the film industry. Dedicated to the whimsy and allure of classic musicals, Chazelle amplifies the fears and hopes of the characters through stunning choreography and characterization and music destined to carry for years to come. La La Land stands as an inspiration point for those wanting to pursue those dreams they may think they cannot achieve. As a bonus point, I feel like more films should dig into the utter electric chemistry that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have on screen. They deserve more roles like these.
And as the year came to a close, there was only one film that left me thinking and obsessing over each frame unlike any other. Nicholas Winding Refn’s horror-come-fashion drama seems to be firing on different cylinders than other films of its ilk. From the retro-futuristic soundtrack to the imposing and unavoidable trance of its visuals, Refn and cinematographer, Natasha Brier offers an overwhelming glance at the cut throat world of the Los Angeles elite while avoiding any sort of predictable nature to the structure of its story. Refreshing and disturbing, the film’s dream-like quality and upsetting trajectory stung unlike any other movie and offers something that feels as dangerous as the main characters looks. Seek it out with an open mind and be ready for the hallucinatory head trip that Refn has curated. Enjoy.