Much like everything else in 2016, this was certainly an off year for the film industry, spitting out more unneeded Sequels, remakes and reboots then in previous years. But for everything 2016 was lacking, it made up for with a lot more variety in terms of what we are used to, focusing on thematic elements and stories we don’t see enough of on screen. It’s to these films that we look at why 2016, while not a great year for most, featured titles worth remembering.
Honorable Mention: The Jungle Book
Remakes, I believe, can serve a particular purpose if done right, either improving upon a poorly executed idea or showing something well known from a fresh perspective. Jon Faverau’s remake of The Jungle Book served as the latter, taking a beloved if flawed Disney classic and adding the plot and character development the original was severely lacking. An impressive cast of voice actors helped make even the smallest of supporting characters memorable, with the gorgeous special effects bringing the most out of the performances. It’s simply a great remake, that doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel, as much as it shows why the house that Mickey built has earned the pedigree their name implies.
Number 10: Weiner
Love him or Hate him, both being equally understandable, the troubled story of Anthony Weiner’s fall-rise-fall again was a documentary made more engrossing having already known the outcome. The opening act smartly skips past the first scandal, presenting what almost looks like a redemption story, and showing Weiner’s passion for politics and serving the people of New York. Once the second scandal drops, however, the film opens up to all perspectives on Weiner, from a tragic figure, serial cheater, and even just a politician trying to not let his personal failings affect his political career. It’s the rare documentary that lets the audience decide the kind of man Weiner was, and how much of the public’s disdain he ultimately deserved, making for the years most involving documentary.
Number 9: Don’t Breathe
Evil Dead’s Fede Alvarez returns with an original premise that delivers on its potential for scares, where in a group of robbers are stalked in the house of the blind man they attempted to rob. Through a combination of great cinematography and staging, the film creates tension through the audiences knowledge of prior events, as well as what we can imediately see/here, rather than the tired cliche of jump scares and loud noises. The film also doesn’t shy away from the knowledge that our protagonists are in fact bad people, not letting you forget the reasons the bandits are there, and making whether the punishment fits the crime a question left for the viewers to ponder. While a major left-turn in the film’s final act is likely to turn off some viewers, Don’t Breathe is the rare horror film that understands that lasting scares come from strong characters in a tense situation, rather then loud noises and imagery alone.
Number 8: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Announced only a few months before its release, 10 Cloverfield Lane offered a slower, more claustrophobic film in comparison to its predecessor. Much of the film’s weight is placed on the weight of its leads, and they are more then up to task. Mary Elizabeth Winstead feels like a believable every-man, while simultaneously owning her role as the film’s heroine; meanwhile, John Goodman is allowed to stretch his acting chops in an uncharacteristicaly menacing role, owning whole scenes on his intimidating demeanor alone. Much like Don’t Breathe, the film does take a left-turn into some questionable territory, which is also likely to divide some audiences. Despite this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an almost Hitchcock-Ian effort, remeniscent more of The Twilight Zone then it is of its prior film, and stands as a fascinating start to the series’ new anthology-based direction.
Number 7: Deadpool
As one of the biggest critics of Fox’s X-Men franchise as of late, Deadpool is the breath of fresh air the comic- book genre needed to stay relevant. The rated R antics of comics’ favorite Merc With a Mouth feels as genuine as Dream projects come, with the collaboration of director Tim Miller and lead Ryan Reynolds bringing a fresh take on comic books, action tropes, and even self-aware comedy. One-liners pay off as often as the action continues to be engaging, with both serving symbiotically to add depth to what could have been one-note, childish characters. Among the films many surprises is Deadpool’s surprisingly affecting love story, as Morena Baccarin and Reynold’s natural chemistry makes even an excessive relationship like Wade and Vanessas’ seem believable. It was a reminder of the narrative potential the genre is capable of in the right hands, and proof that better doesn’t always have to mean bigger.
Number 6: Doctor Strange
Marvel’s second outing this year, Doctor Strange was an interesting combination of traditional narrative elements with strong characterization and imaginative effects pulled straight from the Steve Ditko comics of the 70’s. While it’s easy to compare to the original Iron Man, Strange manages to stay fresh thanks in part to screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, managing to make familiar idea such as magic and alternate realities seem simultaneously foreign, yet understandable. Cumberbatch is magnetic as Stephen Strange, and is surrounded by strong supporting characters, with special mention going to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who performs even the silliest of material with gravitas and emotional weight. Even without these strengths, Doctor Strange is simply a gorgeous film to look at, wildly imaginative and disturbing in its imagery, bolstered by well-handled 3D. While it may seem familiar on the outside to some, what’s here stands alongside Guardians of the Galaxy as a prime example of how Marvel can take even the most non-sensical material and make something extraordinary for anyone to watch.
Number 5: Moonlight
While many go to the theaters for simple entertainment, films can also be a glimpse into lives, perspectives and situations we may not always think about. Moonlight is one such example, exploring how factors like masculinity, strength, vulnerability and sexuality exist in the harsh environment of the ghetto. The film’s viewpoint of three viewpoints in Chiron at different ages in his life shows how our interactions with others weave into the creation of our own identity, at times delivering poignant and beautiful scenes, often clashing against the harsh realities of the films setting. It’s a combination of several topics, from growing up in the hood, gang lifestyle, bullying, and just being gay, and theres enough subtext within each element that many people will see the film in different ways. Moonlight is a movie 2016 needed, a film reflecting an often ignored demographic, and making their struggles and triumphs real in a way that leaves an impact on viewers.
Number 4: Captain America: Civil War
The culmination of the past 8 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Civil War is an example of the kinds of detail-rich narratives that can come from an ongoing film franchise. For newcomers, the story is simple enough to invest in, with the summers best action sequence in the 2nd acts’ airport battle, as well as great performances from the expansive cast. But theres a real impact that comes from having watched the prior films up until this point, where knowing the relationships between our heroes makes Civil War‘s fallout that much more heartbreaking. It’s the rare action film that is more concerned over the breaking of bonds as it is of bones, with the highlights often coming from when the characters sit down and discuss their differences on the issue of government registration. And unlike a certain other superhero versus film this year (check the worst of list coming soon), the script manages to give both Cap and Iron Man shared screen time, so you understand where both sides stand in this debate, and establish the tragedy that neither one is wrong in what they believe. The impact Civil War will have on the continuing MCU is sure to be felt for many films to come, and was a welcome reminder of why its important larger-then-life characters to be relatable on a personal level.
Number 3: Star Wars: Rogue One
When people said they wanted something new from Star Wars last year, this is what they were talking about. A decidedly darker look at the events before Episode IV, the story of the mission to steal the death star plans made for an engaging and fresh story, while remaining steeped in the look and aesthetic of the original trilogy. A cast of interesting, yet realistically flawed, heroes helped audiences to care about events that we already knew the outcome of, thanks in part to the tragically brutal ways our protaganist’s meet their fate. Its a sequel that naturally mixes in new elements, while also bringing back elements of previous films with respect and care, and comes off more like a necessary inclusion, rather than a shameless cash-grab. As the final act begins, action set pieces and tearjerking moments come in equal measure, in one of the few Star Wars that really seemed to emphasize the “war” part of its title. Good luck, Episode 8; you now have even higher expectations to live up to.
Number 2: Arrival
This may come off as a hyperbole, but i’m being completely honest when I say that I didn’t know how to review Arrival after my first viewing. It stands alongside Children of Men as a film that uses hard science fiction ideas to deliver important messages about the human condition, and does so with a subtly and earnestness that is impossible to ignore. Each performance is engaging, every action feels realistic, and each reveal unveils another layer of the film that you wont see coming. likewise, its a science fiction film about using actual science, namely linguistics, to solve the worlds problems, and never compromises this focus in favor of cheap emotional beats or forced spiritual interpretations. A film best gone into blind, Arrival is one of the smartest films this year, and comes highly recommended.
Number 1: La La Land
Having just seen this on New Years Eve, I didn’t have enough time to review this before my Top 10 best films list, but theres already so much to say. While I’m typically not the biggest fan of musicals, La La Land is simultaneously a gorgeous musical, a beautifully shot film, and just a well told story of love, dreams, aspirations and choices. Gosling and Stone are in top form, delivering a believable and heartwarming romance, building a relationship throughout that makes their hardships later on in the film feel more important to viewers, in comparison to lesser romantic dramas. The music is wonderful, a combination of old-time musical beats and jazz, in a track list where each song feels equally beautiful to listen to as the others. The choreography and timing of each dance is equal parts charming and impressive to behold, with the opening highway number and moonlit dance numbers being particularly enjoyable. We just don’t get films like this anymore, delivering real stories through extravagant means, all while not compromising the melancholy ending that will have you fighting back tears by the time the credits begin to roll. La La Land is impossible not to love, and is as beautiful and enjoyable as it can be poignant and heartbreaking. In a way that few films this year have done, I felt touched and inspired by La La Land.