In a perfect world, this piece would debut on January 2nd every year after I’d had the opportunity and time to see every significant movie from the previous year’s slate. In reality, I still haven’t had a chance to see a couple of the more important movies from 2016 (Lion, Silence, Jackie) and it’s basically February. Such is the lot of a pseudo-movie critic without access to the magic of screeners (and abundant free time). Podcast listeners will have no doubt by now listened to our annual end of the year recap and thus, you likely know my top 10 list better than I do. But having spent the last decade or so putting out mediocre content such as this, it seems wrong to forego publishing a written record of my favorite films from the year. You know, in case the Library of Congress comes a’ callin’. As always, the following top 10 list is a combination of what I would consider the “best” movies of the year and my “favorite” movies of the year. That is to say, my top 10 list would be different from my Oscar nominations list, at least in terms of order if not content altogether. Bear that in mind.
HONORABLE MENTION: Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella)
As an uber-hippie dad raising his flock of children in the forest, Mortensen delivers his most human performance and provides the stability for the film that his character tries to give his family. As the story transpires and you see the ways in which he and his family are woefully but blissfully unprepared for the real world, you run through the gamut of emotions, finally settling on some form of “Well, good for them I guess.” It’s quirky and fun and heartful and features a stellar cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” which is all I’ve ever wanted in a film.
10. Manchester By the Sea (Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams) and Moonlight (Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders)
I grouped these two together because they have two very significant common traits: Both are FANTASTIC films and I never really want to see either of them again. To be clear, Manchester By the Sea is by far the more depressing film whereas Moonlight tries (to some level of success) to leave the viewer with a sense of hope. Both, however, put you through the emotional wringer and I didn’t come out of either film demanding everyone around me go out and see these movies post haste. They’re HARD movies to watch, made even more powerful by two of the finest performances I saw this year (Ali in Moonlight and Affleck in Manchester). Thus, a top 10 list would be incomplete without this pair but wow, both films will push you.
9. Pete’s Dragon (Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford)
Pete’s Dragon is sort of the antithesis of Manchester and Moonlight: it doesn’t necessarily amount to much in terms of significance but wow, do you feel good coming out of the theater. I haven’t watched the original Pete’s Dragon in two decades and I was okay with never having the occasion to think about this property again. David Lowery, though, turns this into one of the must-see family movies of the year, complete with a handful of solid performances and some of the finest camera work I’ve seen in a long time.
8. The Jungle Book (Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Neel Sethi)
The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon bear many similarities (without mentioning their Disney connection) but I’d say that the former has a little more weight to throw around than the latter. The complexity of piecing this movie together into a cohesive whole is perhaps the most underrated task of the year. Jon Favreau has a brilliant sense for scale in these big movies and truly, this is his masterpiece. Beautifully rendered “characters” combined with a gorgeous backdrop and a child actor whose work against a green screen is tremendous, all things considered. The source material doesn’t hurt but Favreau raises it to new levels.
7. The Lobster (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly)
I had The Lobster higher on this list originally and took it down a peg based on its rewatchability. With most of these movies, I expect I’ll appreciate them even more with future viewings. The Lobster, though, is such a unique, weird movie that I’m not sure will hold up down the line. But for now, it remains one of the more singularly memorable experience of the year. Its bizarre premise (a future society in which single adults are turned into the animal of their choice if they fail to find a partner) will be a stopping point for some viewers but it works SO WELL within that weirdness and oh, the brilliance of Colin Farrell is unmistakable in a darkly comedic, tragic turn.
6. A Monster Calls (Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson)
The hands down winner for “Most Overlooked Movie of the Year”, A Monster Calls is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful adaptation of a gut-wrenchingly beautiful book. Seriously, readers, I know I’m an easy movie crier and choke up at almost anything emotional. But this is like a whole new ballgame. The story (a monster visits a pre-teen boy as he struggles with the ramifications of his mother’s terminal cancer) is delicately pieced together to allow the main character (MacDougall) to organically go through stretches of anger, depression, sadness, denial, and acceptance and the viewer “gets” to follow along from an unsafe distance. I was alone in the theater when I saw this one and I’m very glad because of all the ugly crying.
5. Everybody Wants Some!! (Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman)
An early frontrunner for Best of the Year, Everybody Wants Some got swallowed up and forgotten in the back half of the year, as tends to happen with Spring releases. Even still, it’s an insanely enjoyable film and fits right alongside Richard Linklater’s other, more celebrated works. It’s a simple film without much in the way of narrative or agenda but this is exactly what makes it work and will aid in its rewatchability.
4. Arrival (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker)
High-brow sci-fi is VERY difficult to pull off correctly. It is by its very nature extremely complex and usually somewhere in the unpacking of the design of said complexity, the narrative either loses steam or misses a step and stumbles. Now, listen, Arrival is not going to be a huge success with all parties. It’s not easy to follow along and if you’re not completely into the mystery element and the slow unfolding, you’re going to get lost or bored or both. But I’m so incredibly impressed with the way Denis Villeneuve put Arrival together. It is contained and focused, it is beautifully shot, and Villeneuve spins together this incredibly detailed plot in a way that lets each piece of information sink in, allowing the viewer to keep up with what’s happening. Arrival feels like the most realistic alien encounter movie yet made and oh, by the way, Amy Adams gives the best female lead performance of the year and it’s an absolute crime that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
3. Moana (Auli’I Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House)
Moana is the kind of movie where you find out someone hates it and you get mad at them. There are currently 10 negative reviews for Moana on Rotten Tomatoes and I am working on coming up with the appropriate revenge for each of these critics. If you don’t think Moana is all that great, that’s fine, to each his/her own. But if you think this is actually a bad movie, I’m sorry, but we have to fight, probably in some sort of steel cage. I honestly don’t have a single criticism of Moana. The story, the animation, the music, the voice work, it’s all brilliant and yeah, I’m biased because sometimes my son sings “Away Away” to himself when he’s trying to go to sleep. Fight me, I don’t care.
2. La La Land (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend)
I went back and forth with my top two, trying to decide where to rank each. Ultimately I slotted La La Land second because…I don’t know, probably just to be contrary? I’m openly anti-musical but this one gripped me from scene one to the final shot. I’ve seen criticism of the actual singing and dancing within La La Land (a fair assessment) but for me, perhaps because I’m anti-musical, this actually makes the movie work much better. La La Land exists in a real world in which songs and dances butt in from time to time rather than a world of song and dance that only occasionally touches on reality and I LOVE that difference. The soundtrack fits the film perfectly and Damien Chazelle demonstrates his mastery of his art at the ripe old age of 32 (kill me, please). Gosling and Stone, however, keep the movie on key (sorry, sorry) with their impeccable chemistry and general likability. The conclusion may strike a melancholy note but it’s a fitting end and one that will stick with me for quite some time.
1. Hell or High Water (Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges)
I’ve been shoveling coal for the Hell or High Water train since I walked out of my viewing in August and I won’t stop now. I love this movie. There’s not one thing about it that I would change. From the landscapes and backdrops to the razor-sharp script (Taylor Sheridan, y’all; take note of that name if you haven’t already), the pointed message to the outstanding performances, Hell or High Water is a perfect movie. This is mesmerizing slow burn, a quiet movie filled with nuance and subtlety that explodes into fits of violence with dramatic effect. Bridges is incredible but we all knew that, anyway. We did not, however, all know that Pine is also incredible and Hell or High Water shows off his range better than ever before. Simply put, for my money, this is the best straight-up cops and robbers movie since Heat.