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Top 25 Films of 2016

Despite some rough patches, this year offered hope for the future of filmmaking

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    Movies aren’t dying. They’re not. They’re not dying because of more and more first-run filmmaking moving to streaming platforms. They’re not dying in the name of a globalized box office market, even if that’s going to dramatically change what they’re going to look like by the time the transition is over. They’re not dying because of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice being a bad movie. They’re not dying because of artistic bankruptcy, no matter how many times people who live in Internet bubbles decide that’s the case because [insert critical darling] didn’t find a massive mainstream audience. They’re not dying. Just keep saying it to yourself over and over again until you have it right. Movies aren’t dying.

    manchester gif Top 25 Films of 2016

    You’re already probably aware that 2016 was a pretty rough year for any person with a still-functioning moral compass. In that spirit, we’ll spare you any further reminders of how and why it was, because we’re not here to talk about all the movies that left us deflated, made us question the industry’s motives and vision, or reminded us that the franchise era is only going to claim more casualties before it abates. We’ve done enough of that for one year, and with fare like Emojimovie: Express Yourself on its way in 2017, we’ll likely find ourselves doing it again in due time.

    Right now, though, we’re here to celebrate the great movies of 2016, the ones which moved us to laughter, tears, or overwhelmingly awkward discomfort. If major studios are trying to negotiate the tricky balance of artistic quality and economic imperatives, every so often they’ve found a way to succeed beyond all expectation. And it’s worth mentioning here that smaller studios like A24, Oscilloscope, and other notable independent bodies are still finding great lower-budget work and getting it in front of the people who appreciate it most, and they’re doing so with remarkable rates of success. Again, movies aren’t dying. They’re just migrating and changing, as they always will from time to time.

    la la land gif Top 25 Films of 2016

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    This year’s list, assembled after many hours of spirited debate among our staff, is proof that the stories being told are as innovative as they’ve ever been. And we’d like to think that there’s something for everybody here. Interested in a three-hour German seriocomedy about estranged families? We have you covered. An equally lengthy treatise on the indifference of God by one of cinema’s foremost artists? That too. We have an animated parable about the beauty and inevitability of loss, a screwball Shane Black comedy, a violent battle between a band of DIY punks and neo-Nazis, and an eight-hour documentary about one of America’s greatest and most telling modern tragedies.

    There’s a lot of loss in many of our films this year, in one form or another, and maybe that’s our best commentary on the year that was. In one part of our list, a pair of bank robbers and an exhausted sheriff reckon with the 2008 banking crisis’ ground-level fallout in their own violent ways. In another, the disappearance of a small child sends a family into horrifying turmoil. Lonely women are driven to extremes, whether by the pressures of a family Thanksgiving or the sadistic thrills of taking another human life knowing that nobody will catch you. A young boy disappears into the woods and ends up pursued by half of New Zealand. The wife of a slain US president reckons with what life will be after the initial uproar dies down.

    jackie gif Top 25 Films of 2016

    And yet, there’s hope too. There’s hope in a young boy becoming a young man in phases, learning how to live for himself even in the worst circumstances. There’s hope in star-crossed lovers dancing their way through a never-lovelier Los Angeles and in a woman finding the heart of all humanity when faced with extraterrestrial life. Hope in a broken man finding the possibility of salvation through family and in a pair of unlikely lovers running away from horrific circumstances in Japanese-occupied Korea. There’s hope in maturity, in the untamed corners of America still left to find, and in the simplicity of love, no matter who it’s with or where it’s found.

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    The movies are doing just fine, and if you’re still in doubt, read ahead as we break down our top 25 films of 2016. Check out the ones you haven’t yet, even if you have to dig around a little bit for them. And the next time you feel like everything is rehashed or forced into endless sequels: yeah, a lot of that is happening these days, but there’s still a wealth of exciting, innovative, essential filmmaking to be seen, talked about, argued about on Twitter, and loved for the many different reasons that people love movies. It’s out there waiting to be found, as it’s been since the early 1900s and always will be. Hopefully.

    –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
    Film Editor


    25. The Neon Demon

    the neon demon Top 25 Films of 2016

    The Neon Demon is a vain movie. Like its cast of razor-thin, airbrushed models, the film’s infinitely more concerned with how it looks than it is constructing any semblance of depth. With a filmmaker as beguiling as Nicolas Winding Refn, the iconoclast behind divisive gut-punches like Drive and Bronson, it’s natural to want to dig deeper, to find the cutting satire beneath the film’s shallow, clunky script. That’s a fool’s errand, though, because The Neon Demon wants only for you to look at it, admire it, and succumb to it.

    Elle Fanning is striking and subdued as Jesse, a 16-year-old weaving her way into LA’s self-obsessed modeling scene. Early on, she functions as an audience surrogate of sort, a stranger in a strange land seduced by uncanny sights and sounds. On the latter front, Cliff Martinez’s eerie, star-dusted score sets a glass-like tone that’s cracking by the minute, while Refn’s Kubrickian visuals are as sumptuous as they are cold and distancing, most notably during a circus-like performance in a cavernous club that serves as the most inspired pairing of the two.

    It’s easy to feel distanced by Jesse’s journey as well, which transforms from a standard coming-of-age tale to something much more sinister, a bundle of visual metaphors that couldn’t possibly be more on the nose. But that’s the point: No matter how lovely and complex things may present themselves in this world, they are entirely hollow inside — like glass figures ready to shatter.

    –Randall Colburn


    24. The Nice Guys

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    The Nice Guys is one of those movies that drives so many writers to wax nostalgic on how “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” and its paltry box office haul this past summer suggests one strong possibility as to why they don’t. Yet it’s impossible not to hope that Shane Black’s funny, violent, pratfall-heavy buddy action-comedy will find new life in the homes of eager viewers. Black’s one of the few filmmakers still carrying the torch for oddball stories of pseudo-criminal ne’er-do-wells, in an era that likes its heroes anti- and its world-building as sequel-friendly as possible. And God bless him for it.

    As an impossibly small-time PI and a heavy-for-hire, respectively, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe dive headfirst into Black’s wordy, referential screenplay with vigor, sinking their collective teeth into every rapid one-liner while tangled in a web of sex, murder, and constantly pissy one-upsmanship in 1970s Los Angeles. Where other filmmakers might bend over backwards to immerse audiences in a time and place, Black seems to mostly just enjoy the over-the-top aesthetics and attitudes of the time and stages his best modern approximation of a Lethal Weapon while keeping the focus where it belongs: Crowe’s imposing physicality and Gosling’s remarkable knack for turning acts as simple as smoking a cigarette on the toilet or punching through a window into comic gold.

    –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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    23. Loving

    loving Top 25 Films of 2016

    What is love? Many have tried to answer this befuddling question: poets, young paramours, and ’90s dance club sensation Haddaway. In his deceptively simple film Loving, director Jeff Nichols does not attempt to answer this ancient quandary. Instead, he presents an example of pure, honest affection. In Loving, love is not the sentiment found on Hallmark cards but rather something elemental.

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    The film recounts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively), an interracial couple fighting for their right to live and love in their home state of Virginia. While the film sets out the milestones in their lives together, their engagement and various losses and victories in the American legal system, Nichols finds the real narrative in the eyes of his two lead performers.

    After a small misstep with this year’s Midnight Special, Loving finds Nichols back in fine form. In the hands of another director, the film could have easily been a preachy, true-life drama. Nichols lingers on the faces of Edgerton and Negga, and what passes between the two actors is something powerful. As he previously did with his constant collaborator, Michael Shannon, the director lets the topography of the human visage tell his story. Edgerton’s intense gaze and Negga’s wide, hopeful eyes tell the audience all they need to know.

    As in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, Nichols’ minimalist storytelling presents an America where home and family are the highest currency. Loving may not give us answers, but it shows us a love for which we should all strive.

    –Marten Carlson


    22. Hell or High Water

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    If last year’s Sicario made Taylor Sheridan a name to watch, then Hell or High Water makes him a name to know. The former Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy star has found a second life in screenwriting, and he’s about to nab another Academy Award nomination come January. Rest assured, it’s all deserved: Sheridan has a tight grip on old-school storytelling, ably carving out singular characters that have that larger-than-life effect without ever leaving our hemisphere. For his latest venture behind the typewriter, he teamed up with Starred Up director David Mackenzie to tell a raw, bare-bones story about two troubled brothers desperately trying to find a future for their family amid tough economical times.

    Jeff Bridges steals the show with his crusty performance as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, chasing down Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s brotherly bank robbers with the type of laid-back wisdom that could only come from a veteran of his stature. The chase comes natural to him, though. It’s the whole retirement and mortality that’s weighing down on his shoulders, and watching him subtly and not-so-subtly wrestle with those issues is what makes him such an intriguing character. That’s not to say Pine and Foster don’t have their own share of quirks. The former plays to his benevolent charms in ways we’ve never seen before, while the latter offers up another wicked bastard for us to love and hate.

    With equal strokes of Eastwood and Coen brothers, Hell or High Water paints a very lonely picture. Much like Pine and Foster’s steely-eyed leads, Sheridan and Mackenzie stroll through the many abandoned, forgotten towns of West Texas with a purpose. They want to capture a lost part of America that was stripped away a long, long time ago and show how it’s still hanging on by tooth and nail. These are people who have lost all faith in their once-sacred institutions, blurring the lines between good and bad or right and wrong without much pause. Because, as they’ve learned, nothing comes easy for anyone in this winded frontier, and eventually it all boils down to agency and what little you have left to lose.

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    Yeehaw.

    –Michael Roffman


    21. The Witch

    thewitch Top 25 Films of 2016

    Robert Eggers’ folkloric horror film The Witch considers 17th century New England as a place defined, first and foremost, by its boundaries. Early Puritan settlements were often harsh and oppressive places to live, but at least they offered some small measure of safety to their inhabitants. To be banished from one of these settlements was nearly tantamount to a death sentence, as it meant crossing over the boundary that separated civilized society from the untamed wilderness, where savages, beasts, and supernatural horrors awaited.

    Eggers’ film centers on a stubborn zealot named William, who abandons his Puritan settlement over a religious quibble and attempts to build a farm out in the wild along with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas. William chooses to locate his farm on the edge of a large, dark forest, which serves as a visual metaphor for the conflicts that shape what unfolds in The Witch – freedom vs. oppression, safety vs. danger, and, above all, good vs. evil.

    Showing uncommon depth and nuance in his directorial debut, Eggers refuses to take a firm side in any of these debates, leaving the viewer (and the family, as well) guessing as to where the true darkness actually resides. Is it in the heart of Thomasin, who is constantly blamed and gaslighted into thinking that maybe, just maybe, Satan has been using her in nefarious ways? Is it in William, whose unwavering faith has led his family to the brink of destruction? Is it in the witch who resides in the wilderness, or in the little goat called Black Phillip? Great horror films don’t provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, and The Witch is undoubtedly a great horror film, a slow-burning epic that blurs the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural until they become one and the same.

    –Collin Brennan


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