From the Archives: Top Ten Films of 2016

From the Archives: Top Ten Films of 2016

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

2016 is a year which will live in infamy. Due to the strangest presidential election in history, the seemingly endless chain of beloved celebrity deaths, and the release of Yoga Hosers, we’ve attributed a sentience to the year, giving a name to the unstoppable force of entropy, mostly as a last ditch effort to mine hope from chaos. But all is not lost! As much it feels like pop culture (and humanity on the whole) is in its death throes, one need only look back at the films of 2016 to see that everything is going to be okay! With the dawn of digital cinema, an endless list of venues for exhibition, and the increasing regard for film as cultural commentary, the criticism that there’s “nothing new anymore” is mostly dead. 2016 has been FANTASTIC for film, and it was a legitimate challenge to cut my list down to a mere ten entries. Yes, I say that every year, and every year it gets harder.

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10. The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)

The hype-to-delivery ratio has never been stronger than for The Witch, the ad campaign for which began in late 2015, with trailers declaring that it would be the best horror film in years. Many a horror film makes the same claim (actually, just about EVERY horror film), but The Witch really is the best fright flick of at least the past decade. When I caught this in the theater there were a handful of walkouts and more than a few boos, so it’s safe to say that this was an atypical genre film, but those of us who could tune into its wavelength were rewarded with a spooky folk tale about repression, desire, and goats. Gruesome, horrifying goats.

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9. Operation Avalanche (Dir. Matt Johnson)

The term “found footage” is often synonymous with “total crap,” but Operation Avalanche bucks the trend HARD. Not only does it actually make sense that this is footage which could actually be found by an unknowing party, but it’s also the most effective thriller of the year. Shot guerilla-style at NASA, director/star Matt Johnson manages to create a compelling narrative that doesn’t feel restricted by the limitations of shooting on the fly. A sequence in which he and his cohorts consult with Stanley Kubrick is a technical standout, and a third act car chase is the most creative and dynamic since The French ConnectionOperation Avalanche is the work of a young, hungry, intensely inventive filmmaker. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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8. Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

At a time when refusal to communicate has become the favorite weapon of faux-progressives, Arrival shows up and makes a strong, layered case for proper communication being essential — being the only thing that keeps us from destroying ourselves. It’s what all good sci-fi should strive to do: use imaginative storytelling devices to broadcast heady thematics. Villeneuve’s latest exhibits his growth as both a storyteller and technician, checking off every box on the “alien invasion blockbuster requirements” list and then cleverly subverting every entry. Even the romance at the center is anything but typical, with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner putting in career-high performances to make it sing. Most short story adaptations struggle to fill a feature-length runtime, but Eric Heisserer’s script expands the source material in a way that doubles down on every ounce of what gives value to Ted Chiang’s story value. Arrival is an all-timer.

50805_AA_6087 print_v2lmCTRST+SAT3F Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

7. Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)

The “adult thriller” is such a rare beast that when one comes around it demands to be recognized. A trash picture based on a trash novel from a filmmaker borne of the fashion industry, Nocturnal Animals may just be empty pleasures, but when was that a bad thing? Much more structural novelty than anything else, Nocturnal Animals pumps out thrills at a fast clip until it reaches a deliciously ambiguous ending. When I first saw this, my girlfriend and I spent the rest of the evening pulling apart the bulk of the film to come to a consensus of what actually went down. No, it’s not cryptic, but it’s open to interpretation, which adds endless value to the film. Also adding value? Michael Shannon, who almost literally consumes every ounce of every scene he’s in.

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6. Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie)

Solid as a rock. Plot and story are nothing if you don’t have good characters, and Hell or High Water has all three. When high-functioning codependent relationships on both sides of the law collide, the best criminal caper since Before the Devil Knows You’re Deadis the result. Equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking, Mackenzie channels the tone of a western and applies it to a modern “red state” setting. In doing so, the film is able to offer some commentary on gun culture, real estate woes, and the ever-growing tendency toward reactivity. The film’s final scene is one for the ages. It’s a bold, stylish choice that pays off huge.

5. La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle) 

It’s a simple pleasure to watch talented people be talented, and La La Land is is a showcase of just that. We’ve got GooGoo Gosling singing, dancing, and pounding the keys, Emma Stone massaging our hearts with song, and Damien Chazelle showing off his formidably developed visual talents without being gaudy. While many have criticized the emptiness of the story, I must respectfully disagree. Anyone who has ever had to try and reach an internal agreement between creative pursuits and real-life responsibilities will be moved. And if you can’t get behind an original movie musical (one which updates/subverts the form, elevating it beyond simple recreation), I don’t know if we can be friends.

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4. Raw (Dir. Julia Ducournau)

This might just be the strongest debut film I’ve ever seen. While it’s not technically a 2016 film (I believe wide release is March of 2017), I’m simply too excited not to include it on the list. It premiered here in Philadelphia as the secret screening at this year’s film festival, and despite its gruesome content, it won over the crowd immediately. Perhaps the only film which could be categorized as a “coming-of-age cannibal drama,” there’s simply no way to describe this without scaring someone off. This is one of those movies that, if you have the stomach for it, demands an immediate second viewing just to contextualize all of what you’ve just witnessed. If you’re a meat eater who wishes to continue being a meat eater, it’s probably best to dine before seeing the film. You won’t be hungry after.

3. Manchester by the Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

Grief is a complicated thing. One can never predict how or when it will manifest, and Lonergan’s latest drama paints the most honest portrait of the process I’ve ever seen. With award-worthy performances from Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges (gahhhh the fridge scene!), Manchester is deserving of all the acclaim it will be receiving in the coming months. Lonergan is a master of taking the regular, the mundane, and making it cinematic without inflating it to cinematic excess. The breeziest 2.5 hours one can spend with a movie, which isn’t to say it’s empty. In fact, it can be utterly devastating (and also quite uplifting). This is heartrending stuff, but it deftly weaves humor into the narrative to make the harder aspects easier to swallow. This could’ve been punishing, instead it’s pure entertainment.

2. Elle (Dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Is it a rape survival story? An erotic thriller? A near cartoonish portrait of a dangerous psychopath? That’s up to you to decide, but one thing is for sure: Paul Verhoeven is back, baby. Despite the total lack of robotic police officers, his latest film could not have been such an artistic success in anyone else’s hands. And without Isabelle Huppert at the center, it may not have worked at all. This is brave filmmaking that has already caused small backlash from people too immature to engage with red flag concepts on a gray scale. Basically, it’s precisely what we need most right now. Elle demands you engage it, wrassle with it, and is happy to leave you confused and in tears if you can’t keep up … but you can, because it’s just so much fun to watch. Absolutely fearless. The perfect tonic for the neutered sensibilities of so many consumers. I love it.

1. Swiss Army Man (Dir. Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)

Probably the closest we’ll ever get to a proper Kurt Vonnegut adaptation, and it’s not a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation. In an interview, Paul Dano stated that he took the role when the filmmakers told him their goal was to make a movie in which “the first fart makes you laugh, and the last fart makes you cry.”

Mission ACCOMPLISHED.

Just the right levels of crass, insightful, and strange, Swiss Army Man somehow manages to be just as cynical as it is hopeful regarding the human condition. That’s basically the weird area where I live most of my life, and to see that duality spoken to in such a unique way is what made this my favorite film of 2016. If the film gods are good (and who knows? They just might be), Dano and Radcliffe would get all of the awards for their intuitive and batty performances as a castaway and his gassy corpse friend. Visually, the film takes a cue from the crafty stylings of Michel Gondry and runs it through the music video sensibilities of Spike Jonze, all the while being entirely its own thing. The music by Manchester Orchestra is the best film score in decades, and the story is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. To suss out which aspects of it “happened” as opposed to what was imagined would be to discredit the finest unreliable narrator since Patrick Bateman, and it would be a fool’s errand anyway. This isn’t meant to hit you with plot so much as it’s meant to tap into your own truths. If you need a drama about fatherhood, it can be that. If you need a story about the compromise relationships, it can be that. Want to explore mental illness? It’s there. Just need a silly comedy about a farting corpse? You got it. It’s a Swiss Army movie. It can be (and is) anything you need it to be, and it’s the best film of 2016.

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