2016 was a bad year for a lot of people and they wanted a way to escape it.
I won’t get into all the reasons why. I can’t speak for everyone and we still only have a limited space. But what frustrates me the most is that, as of yet, Hollywood has yet to catch up with the public mood and provide them a good escape. They’re still relying on the same tricks they were eight years ago, and what are “sure bets” to studios have become the stalest films imaginable.
Look at Independence Day: Resurgence. It was an artistic bomb but was still hyped as this “can’t miss experience,” even though people knew better. That’s why premieres of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are drawing millions of viewers while studios are watching theater attendance shrink. People are aware of every trick studios are willing to throw at them while TV and streaming is becoming more adventurous and able to respond to what people want.
Yet some people don’t want adventure. Take a look at the reaction to Ghostbusters. I didn’t see it, but for months all I heard was about how Hollywood was “forcing” social change by using an all female cast. I personally thought it was a good idea to branch out and use some of the funniest people in mainstream comedy to revive a dead franchise. But no one was complaining about how the trailers went out of their way to present the same scenes from the original film and were not showing anyone anything new. That was more troubling to me.
I’ve said that the theater experience needs a massive overhaul. Spending $11 to watch a single movie is no longer practical when people can spend the same amount each month to access an entire library from the comfort of their home. I have a feeling that, eventually, all films will bypass theaters entirely. Indeed, some of the films I highlighted on my list were released exclusively to streaming services.
What theaters need to be is a way to emphasize community spirit. As I said at the start, 2016 was a bad year for a lot of people and we’ve had to rely on each other for comfort. I have a feeling that over the next, say, four years or so we’re going to need a lot more of that comfort. Perhaps the solution is to leave theaters to the special events and send movies to Netflix. The best thing I saw in a theater this year wasn’t a movie, but a broadcast of the Frankenstein play directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. It was an experience I felt would not have had the same experience had it been broadcast on PBS. I felt like I was in London watching the play on opening night.
I want more of that. The whole purpose of films is to give me an experience I cannot get any other way. Forcing me to pay $4 extra for 3D glasses is not the experience I’m looking for. But I also realize that this cannot be something I do on my own. I need to be able to share it with my friends. That is something Netflix cannot replace.
I do think we’re going to have some more interesting experiences in the coming years. Artists are going to be more empowered and eager to share their messages to the world, and I think the studios are going to be more willing to finance them. Once again, artists will take the role of the underdog – something that they need in order to be relevant.
Maybe there’s hope.
But before I focus too much on the future, let’s look at the immediate past. As usual, I have picked my top three and then listed the rest alphabetically. Also, there were some films I missed in theaters (like Swiss Army Man and Manchester By the Sea) that I haven’t highlighted here. I will hopefully catch up with them in them in the future. For now, I think every film on this list is something people need to seek out.
Last year, my pick went to Mad Max: Fury Road. This year, no blockbuster that I saw seemed to fit the bill. Nothing coming out during the summer was as adventurous or as exciting as the adventures of Max and Furiosa.
But the strange thing is that there was an independent film that was just as thrilling as Fury Road. It also stuck out in my mind as I started seeing the villains of the film appearing on the news every night. They were fighting to preserve their way of life without seeing the ugliness they were living. The youth that challenged them were confident that their side was right, but became more frightened as the villains sought to destroy them and come closer to winning.
Sound familiar? That premise summarizes 2016.
Green Room (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)
Green Room is tense and spellbinding. It’s hideously violent, but never gratuitous. And the villains are some of the best I’ve seen in a while. They are sadistic and we avoid all of the mustache twirling that comes with Neo Nazi villains. It’s almost easy to see how they feel they’re as victimized as they people they’re tormenting and killing. The film doesn’t defend their actions, but it’s a mood and an idea that few filmmakers want to use. I’m still thinking about Green Room months after I saw it and realizing how it seemed to be the biggest warning against what was already happening in the poverty-stricken areas we as a society have chosen to ignore.
I saw Green Room very early in the year and it took a while for something to make a similar impact on me. I had to think about the basics. Why do I like films? What can they do that nothing else can?
Then I saw this film. It transported me into someone else’s life – a life I will never really understand. This film gave me a chance to try. Yes, it’s pacing is slow, but the emotional impact it makes is more significant than any Marvel superhero movie I’ve seen.
Moonlight (dir: Barry Jenkins)
Moonlight demonstrates that less is sometimes more. The entire third act consists of two people talking at a restaurant and most of the film looks like it could have been shot on an iPhone and uploaded to YouTube. Moonlight feels like a documentary, which helped me understand the characters in a way a conventional film would not. Usually, Hollywood feels artificial and I’m aware that they people I’m watching will go home to their expensive homes in their expensive cars and berate people who didn’t fetch them their coffee quick enough. Moonlight’s amateur feel is far more authentic than, say, The Help. It creates a profound emotional impact and demonstrates that, for certain people, trying to figure out who they really are can still seem like an act of rebellion.
I had a real tough time coming up with a third place entry. I could think of several films I wanted to highlight, but I couldn’t declare that one was better than the other.
Then I remembered that art needs to be a way for audiences to escape from their reality. And our reality is getting bleaker by the day. In 2016 and beyond, the biggest thing I’m looking for is hope that the future may not be so dark. This film gave me that hope. It’s also what I wish studios would make more of – something that doesn’t insult my intelligence but also doesn’t alienate audiences. This film is like finding water in a desert.
Arrival (dir: Denis Villeneuve)
Arrival is a film with an independent mentality that could only be made through a studio with deep pockets. It’s smart and looks glossy, but at the same time doesn’t depend on action sequences or quick editing to keep people distracted. It must have seemed like a risky gamble, where most of the film is dedicated not to special effects but to linguists trying to decode an alien language. But it’s also a very hopeful film that reminds me no matter how scared people are, we’re still capable of creating a bright future. Arrival is the sort of science fiction film I was worried Hollywood had forgotten how to make.
13th (dir: Ava DuVernay)
13th is a Netflix documentary that reminds us of one thing – the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not make slavery entirely illegal. People who are incarcerated can still be made slaves. The documentary shows just how big this loophole is and how many lives it’s affected. It’s brave in how it humanizes people who society at large would still rather forget – or demonize. 13th also contains the best individual scene of any film I saw this year. It’s a scene that reminds us what happens if we ignore our past and cannot come to terms with everything we’ve done. What was a warning is now something far more urgent.
Everybody Wants Some!! (dir: Richard Linklater)
I’m surprised how quickly people have forgotten this film. It seemed like it would attract the right audience – a spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused by the director that’s made the best film of the decade so far. Yet no one seems to be talking about it any more. That’s a shame, because Everybody Wants Some!! is really fun. It’s a film that perfectly captures the spirit of youth where the characters think they know everything but are still eager to try out what they don’t know. It’s not a copy of Dazed. The characters are slightly older and wiser, but still naive enough to get into mischief. In much the same way Dazed and Confused reminds me of certain high school friends, Everybody Wants Some!! reminds me of some people I met my first day of college. And as that time retreats further into the distance, films like Everybody Wants Some!! grow in my eyes.
La La Land (dir: Damien Chazelle)
La La Land doesn’t know a Hollywood cliche it doesn’t like. This would normally spell doom, but the film makes every plot point seem fresh and engaging. Hollywood has always had a great love affair with itself, and in the wrong hands the story of a struggling artist looking to make it big in Los Angeles is about as exciting and original as a taupe wall. But La La Land is smart enough to seamlessly incorporate the storytelling techniques of the past into the story of two characters I cared about. The musical sequences recall the great musicals of the past when musicals were a way for Hollywood to showcase everything it could do. It’s got a great soundtrack, too.
The Lobster (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Lobster is one of the most original dystopian films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a love story, but it subverts many of the Hollywood conventions. In items like The Hunger Games, love is used as a means to an end and the society is so poorly defined that it has no hope of succeeding. The Lobster ends with two people finding happiness in a world that would deny it, which is victory enough for them as they don’t know how to properly rebel. That attitude seems far more realistic and is a comforting reminder that people can still win no matter what happens. It’s also hysterically funny.
The Nice Guys (dir: Shane Black)
I can’t believe everyone has already forgotten about Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. It’s a wonderful daffy noir that showcases Shane Black’s strength as a writer. Black is a man who knows exactly what makes noirs work and how to keep its characters engaging. Even child actress Angourie Rice is engaging and organic thanks to Black’s ability to establish her character as something besides an annoying extension of an adult protagonist. I could not begin to describe the plot nor how the titular “nice guys” are able to defeat the not so nice guys. But when The Nice Guys is playing it’s such an engaging affair that I found myself embracing the film’s many charms.
Nocturnal Animals (dir: Tom Ford)
Nocturnal Animals would work as a tense thriller. The scene in which Texas yokels abduct Tony Sheffield’s family is more tense and riveting than almost every modern thriller. But Nocturnal Animals also works well because of its own French Lieutenant’s Woman style exploration of how art and real life blend. Sheffield’s story is born from a dark place, and what scares Susan Morrow isn’t that story but that it demonstrates she was wrong about her ex-husband. Nocturnal Animals works on so many levels that it’s impossible to see only once.
The Witch (dir: Robert Eggers)
There’s something that modern horror doesn’t seem to understand. Simple jump scares are enough to make people, well, jump. But they’re not enough to really disturb anyone or give anyone a lasting impression that their existence is not what it seems. The Witch understands this – or at least knows enough to understand what would scare the characters. The film is not so much an exploration of witchcraft as it is an exploration of adult fears. Lost children, illness, and the failure of religion to provide comfort in times of grief are how The Witch gets under and audiences skin. And its all done with convincing 17th century vernacular, which simultaneously sounds completely alien yet completely familiar.