As awards season races forward, the conversation turns continually inward on a select few films deemed worthy by Critics, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and most importantly the guilds of writers, directors, actors and producers that are seen as the strongest indicators of who may take home the coveted almighty Oscar. Two weeks ago I sat down with Sonny Panzica to discuss our top 10 films of 2016, but there were many more than ten films I wanted to address. More than ten films impressed me, more than ten stuck with me. This blog post is about the ten (or eleven) movies I loved in 2016, but didn’t quite earn their spot on my top 10 list. Without further ado, my top 10 movies of 2016 that didn’t make my top 10 list.
Honorable Mention: The Neon Demon.
Okay, some further ado. There were too many good movies this year, which meant I had to cut some great movies out of my top 20. The most divisive movie of 2016, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is a visual masterpiece. Refn is a master of composing a frame, with perfect lighting, color and framing every time. He’s practically mocking you with with the effortless perfection in every shot. I thoroughly appreciate what Refn was trying to do, and what he was trying to say. I’ll go further than most and say he achieved his goals. The film simultaneously critiques the fashion industry, while using that industry as a metaphor for the film industry and Refn’s own career. It’s a masterpiece by a director who is too talented for his own good, and seems to know it. This movie is a marathon. By the end I was worn down both by the length and disturbing content, which may have pushed the boundaries of good taste more than once. The drawn-out style makes for an arduous, but rewarding watch for the patient viewer. Still, I think it would have been just as rewarding if it wasn’t quite so long.
10. War Dogs
On paper, I shouldn’t like this movie at all. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play arms dealers supplying weapons for the US war on terror. It’s directed by Todd Philips, who directed The Hangover movies. It’s a tribute to Scarface, and features large amounts of internal monologue. It’s based on a true story. And yet despite this, I enjoyed nearly every minute of the film. Teller sells his performance as the every-man in too deep. His character is believable, never too smart or sentimental, consistently average, but never boring. Jonah Hill gives perhaps the best performance of his career as Ephraim. He commands every scene of the film as the slimy arms dealer who manipulates each situation without a second thought. The film’s cynical themes are balanced with the flippant attitude of its humor. While the presentation can sometimes be unfocused or gimmicky, the movie builds a strong sense of momentum going into its final chapter. The ending is not what I expected going in, proving real life is more unpredictable than fiction.
9. The Lobster
The Lobster was the strangest film I saw in 2016, despite the formidable competition for that title. Swiss Army Man, Sausage Party and The VVitch would easily claim the title in a normal year, but 2016 was not normal. The unapologetic art-house sensibilities of The Lobster created a surreal and unpredictable experience. Often billed as a comedy, the film is full of moments that you aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry at, and that’s part of the ride. The film is a critique of our rigid society, and a satire in the truest sense. Yet, it’s far from perfect. The second half of the film drags heavily. Much of the film’s content is deeply disturbing, which leads to an unnecessarily dark and unpleasant tone throughout much of the film. Is this the film taking itself too seriously, or committing to the absurdity of the premise? I haven’t decided.
You can read my full Beneath the Surface review of The Lobster here.
Am I just a fanboy? Probably. But I have to be true to my heart. The Warcraft movie will probably be remembered as a sleeper hit, a cult classic and one of the most overlooked movies of 2016. It’s no wonder that it failed to connect with critics and audiences, with it’s commitment to accurately portraying the bizarre iconoclastic and sometimes anachronistic world of Warcraft. Duncan Jones takes the source material seriously, but not too seriously. This isn’t Lord of the Rings and it isn’t supposed to be. If you want another Lord of the Rings, stop wishing for it. If, however, you love the campy and committed slough of 80’s fantasy movies, this is your modern equivalent. Visually resplendent, but corny as anything, Warcraft is the new Dark Crystal.
You can read my full Warcraft review here.
7. The Jungle Book
I’m in general not a fan of Disney remaking it’s entire animated library as live-action films. The upcoming Beauty and the Beast looks fine, but unnecessary. Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book is an exception. Instead of resting on his laurels, Favreau takes the ’69 original and turns it into a nearly unrecognizable film, both in tone and content. The result is a surprisingly effective coming of age story with an emphasis on cultural perceptions of masculinity. Perhaps the best part of the film is the new ending, both more accurate to Kipling’s book, and more consistent with the message of the film.
You can read my full Beneath the Surface review of The Jungle Book here.
6. Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers are a hit or miss team for me. Their instantly recognizable style and propensity toward nihilism often work at odds for me. You can only watch so many films where “the point is there is no point” before it starts to get annoying. But it can still work, as Hail, Caesar! proves. It’s been a while since the Coens made a movie explicitly for themselves. With True Grit, No Country for Old Men and even Inside Llewyn Davis to some extent, the Coens were trying to make their style more approachable and palatable to Oscar voters. In Hail Caesar, they don’t care what they think. And as a result, the film is kind of a confused mess. A beautiful confused mess. There are no rules here, nothing too silly or contrived, nothing too indulgent. The Coens let themselves go and make the craziest catastrophe ever, and I loved every minute. From the communists, to the religious feuding to the full musical number directly in the middle of the film, its an unapologetic romp through the minds of the Coens, and the zenith of its beauty lies within its flaws. And of course, it’s all pointless.
5. Shin Godzilla
Godzilla is largely a foreign entity to me, and not only because he’s from Japan. As such I didn’t have much interest in another entry in the franchise, particularly after Gareth Edward’s exceedingly dull 2014 Godzilla provided the world an alternative to Zzzquil. Director Hideaki Anno (best known for his anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion) succeeded in blowing my expectations out of the water. In place of your typical giant monster destroying things film, Anno crafted a political thriller about the current state Japan finds itself in on the world stage. The country is bound by so many resolutions, that if an actual Godzilla situation were to happen, miles of red tape would separate them from solutions. This use of Godzilla to tell a greater political truth hearkens back to the original and its near explicit anti-nuclear message. The film is an exciting puzzle to unravel, despite being set almost entirely in the offices of Japanese bureaucrats. For real.
For an in-depth review of Shin Godzilla, here’s my podcast with Sonny and Nick Panzica (they’re much bigger Godzilla fans than me).
Dreamworks has fallen off in recent years, or so I assume since I more of less stopped watching their movies. Trolls was an unexpected breath of fresh air, and hopefully a sign of things to come for the studio. There was no reason for them to put any effort into a film based on a toy with it’s heyday well behind it in the filthy decade known as the 80’s. All they had to do was be colorful, noisy and cute for 90 minutes. What they actually came up with, was a strikingly ambitious musical adventure that could stand up to the standards of Disney’s new renaissance, going above and beyond with creative imagery and stellar song production. But Trolls is more than a well-made family flick. Beneath the Surface lie the film’s complex and layered metaphors, engaging the adults in the audience while the kids marvel at the pretty colors.
You can read my full Beneath the Surface review of Trolls here.
3. The VVitch
I’ve never much liked horror films. Probably some of that has to do with the fact I never watched them until I was a teenager, and having built them up as something they weren’t, I was generally unimpressed by them. It’s rare for a film to truly shake me up, but The VVitch came close. The film is foremost a period drama about a puritan family in voluntary exile from their colony. When things start going wrong on their farm, they blame the misfortune on a mysterious witch, and slowly but surely, on each other. Atmosphere is king in this movie. The film has no jump scares, but is rather filled with unsettling scenes and genuinely disturbing imagery. As the film goes on, the characters become more and more relatable, despite living hundreds of years ago. It’s rare for a period piece to feel so grounded and connected to our real world. The viewer is invited to understand another way of looking at the world, a worldview abandoned centuries ago as civilization advanced. As terrifying as the films events are for us, it is only more so for those living within the frame.
There can be little doubt that Disney animation is in a new renaissance. Zootopia is a fresh and original film about a bunny who moves to the big city to become a police officer. We get two movies in one: a crime drama, a political metaphor and a pitch-perfect comedy. This is what Disney does best–broad but specific films everyone can enjoy on different levels at the same time. The mystery aspect is genuinely engaging, as is the central relationship at the core of the film. The jokes are on point, and make us take another look at our own society. Zootopia is also Disney’s most overtly political film, making a number of thinly veiled statements about race, class and gender in modern society. While the film’s message of tolerance and avoiding prejudice is nothing new, it is laudable how direct the film sometimes is. Of course, if you overthink the metaphors, you could end up with some strange conclusions, but taken as it is Zootopia is an engrossing and entertaining movie with more than a little brain-food to boot.
Arrival barely missed my top 10 for almost no fault of its own. There were simply ten films that affected me more, whether through exciting me, making me think or moving me emotionally. Arrival managed to do all three of things, but not quite to the extent required to make my top ten. Director Denis Villeneuve once again brings his A-game, creating a tense and emotionally resonant thriller in addition to the smartest science fiction film in years. This is what Interstellar should have been. Amy Adams gives the performance of her life as a linguist tasked with understanding an alien language. The film’s twist is perfectly set up without being obvious before its reveal. It changes everything, without altering the integrity of the story before its occurrence. My only issue is a too-convenient plot contrivance towards the end. Still, in the face of all the good, a minor contrivance is more than forgivable. Which is why Arrival is my #1 movie of 2016 that didn’t make my top 10.
You can read my Quick Cuts review of Arrival here.