The 10 Best Movies of 2016 (So Far)
There are four seasons to a year, but only two seasons to a movie year: Summer (which now starts around late February) and Awards. Supposedly, the good movies don’t even start coming out until September. But ScreenCrush’s lists of the best films of 2016 expose that truism for the lie it is. All of these titles are award-caliber, even if their release dates make them long shots for the top prizes come December. That’s all the more reason to honor them now, and to celebrate their achievements before they get overlooked for the fall’s prestige pictures. Here’s ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer and Erin Whitney’s favorite films from the first half of 2016:
Matt Singer’s Top Five
5. Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
When Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) screens the dailies for his studio’s latest swords-and-sandals epic, he comes to a scene where the hero (George Clooney) confronts God. But there is no God, just a title card that reads “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT.” God is literally absent in Hail, Caesar!, just as he is in so many Coen brothers movies about characters searching for answers in a baffling world. While it was billed as the Coens’ satire of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar! was more of a loving tribute to cinema’s undying spiritual power. This movie was so good it was almost a religious experience.
4. Green Room
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Pat (Anton Yelchin) describes his band’s punk music as the intersection of “time and aggression.” The Ain’t Rights don’t have a social media presence or share their music online because they believe their music must be experienced live; divorced from context, it loses its impact. Pat is talking only about music, but I wonder if writer/director Jeremy Saulnier had the moviegoing experience in mind when he wrote that dialogue. Green Room would be perfectly acceptable viewing for a laptop or a tablet, but to get the full experience, to feel the full impact of the time and aggression in this story of a wayward punk band who accidentally walk into a death trap set by a bunch of skinheads to cover up a murder, you needed to see it in a movie theater, where you could share in dozens of people’s collective horror and suspense, and where you couldn’t pause or leave the room to relieve the tension. While some dismissed this movie as a well-done genre exercise, current events have only deepened the impact of its commentary on nationalism, gun violence, and masculinity.
3. The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
I didn’t see this movie until after the backlash already kicked in, and The Witch’s reputation as one of the scariest horror movies in years had put a big target on its back. I know some people don’t think this movie is scary. I honestly envy them because this movie freaks me the f--- out. Filmmaker Robert Eggers did extensive research into the folklore and historical witchcraft trials of the period and imbued his directorial debut with an impressive level of authenticity; The Witch feels like it was plucked directly from the nightmares of a 17th century Puritan. And while this story of a family undone by paranoia, obstinacy, and one hell of a witch has its roots in events and beliefs hundreds of years old, its story of a society’s attempt to control and even destroy a young woman as she discovers her power and sexuality could not be more timely. And that’s the scariest part of all.
2. Sing Street
Directed by John Carney
In this age of constant pop-cultural bombardment, things don’t stick in our brains for long. (My Letterboxd account tells me I saw The Huntsman: Winter’s War, but I have no memory of this event taking place.) So there’s no bigger compliment I can give to Sing Street than to say I haven’t forgotten it; not a day goes by that I don’t think about it in some way. I think of magnificent scenes, like the one in which our hero, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), imagines the music video version of his high school dance, and tiny, ineffable moments, like a leaf that randomly falls on one character’s shoulder in the middle of a conversation in a park. And of course I’ve listened to the soundtrack over and over again, with its mix of ’80s pop tunes that inspire Conor and his buddies in their own musical pursuits, and several of their hugely catchy originals. This is the sort of movie you can imagine watching 50 times — and still wanting to see it a 51st time.
1. O.J.: Made in America
Directed by Ezra Edelman
A 7.5 hour documentary about O.J. Simpson? After The People vs. O.J. Simpson just a couple months ago? What more could possibly be said about the most discussed legal case of the last 25 years? A whole lot, apparently. With uncommon depth, unflinching candor, and surprising empathy for the man himself, director Ezra Edelman turns Simpson’s life and times into a full-blown Shakespearean tragedy, and shows how a community was so literally and metaphorically beaten down by its own police force that they would not only overlook a mountain of physical evidence to find a man innocent, but would turn him into a folk hero in the process. This is the sports documentary by which all future sports documentaries will be measured, and an instant classic.
Erin Whitney’s Top Five
5. The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
Forget jump scares, plot twists, or spooky characters. For me, the mark of a great piece of horror filmmaking is all in the atmosphere, and Robert Eggers’ The Witch has one hell of a palpable, terrifying atmosphere. Stripped down to a minimalist aesthetic, Eggers uses natural lighting and slow, patient editing to build a thick sense of dread and paranoia. His camera lingers on characters’ faces, on the beady eyes of the goat Black Phillip, and the forest where the title character lurks. We hardly see the witch that threatens the innocence of the film’s New England family, but an ominous presence is constantly hovering in the background. The Witch does so much by revealing so little, and remains proof that quality horror movies can still exist in an era filled with cheap scares and recycled gimmicks.
4. Swiss Army Man
Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
I’ve never seen anything like Swiss Army Man. Though it follows the familiar formula of a buddy adventure comedy, with Paul Dano’s Hank trying to return home with the help of Manny, a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe, it’s one of the most innovative movies of the year. What I love most about the film is that Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s 95-minute fart joke is also a poignant drama about bodily shame. Farting and masturbation are the go-to topics for typical dude humor, but the filmmakers use that gross humor to comment on the humiliation culture places on how we use our bodies in private spaces. “If my best friend never farts in front of me, what else is he hiding?” Manny asks in the film’s unexpectedly emotional third act. Swiss Army Man uses something often considered a lazy crutch in comedy to tell a coming-of-age story that never takes itself too seriously. And as creative and visually stunning as the movie is, it never loses its refreshing sense of child-like humor.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
There’s a powerful intensity to Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha that’s hard to shake. Based on Shults’ family history, the film tells a story about addiction and repressed anger that oozes with heartbreak. Taking place over the course of Thanksgiving Day as the titular character reunites with her relatives, Krisha is an emotional whirlwind that never pauses to take a breath. Shults’ camera swivels, thrashes, and spins to the score’s symphony of distressing sounds, mimicking Krisha's drug and alcohol-induced state as she gets further from sobriety. There’s an authenticity and a boldness to Shults’ script and style of filmmaking that prove he’s willing to tell stories imbued with the types of painful emotions we often avoid. He’s certainly an emerging talent to keep an eye on.
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Having not been a fan of 2008’s Cloverfield, I wasn’t really looking forward to the ultra-mysterious 10 Cloverfield Lane. Yet low expectations and little knowledge resulted in my favorite moviegoing experience of 2016. Everything about Dan Trachtenberg’s movie is thrilling, spine-tingling fun. Two parts kidnapping thriller, one part wacky sci-fi movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle, a woman trapped in a bunker by a John Goodman’s doomsday prepper who fears an attack on the surface. It’s the mysteries and questions that loom over the movie that toy with the audience, making it feel like the love child of a panicky thriller and a The Twilight Zone episode. Trachtenberg's movie also feels like a special event we don’t often get in modern day pop culture. I keep calling 10 Cloverfield Lane the Beyoncé album drop of movies, not just because it appeared out of nowhere, but because it’s so good you can’t wait to experience it all over again.
1. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
The first time I saw The Lobster at the Toronto Film Festival last year I knew it had secured the top spot for my best of 2016 list (at least so far). Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his absurd narratives that comment on society’s bizarre aspects with dark humor and violence. In The Lobster's strange future, single people are sent to “The Hotel,” where the have 45 days to find a mate. If they fail, they’re turned into the animal of their choosing. The film captures the inherent loneliness of humanity, showing the terrifying and vile extents one could go to secure companionship or assert our independence in rejection of it. But as dark and disturbing as The Lobster is, it’s got a wicked sense of humor too. Colin Farrell gives the best performance of his career as the soft and defeated David, while Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly round out a cast of characters ranging from the sweet simpleton to the maniacal villain. The Lobster is also the most gorgeous film of the year; a slow-mo sequence of humans hunting humans with tranquilizer rifles never looked so stunning.