2016 has come and gone, meaning it's time for yet another "Best of" list. My first movie-related New Year's resolution is to stop explaining myself so much. If you've followed Kicking the Seat for any length of time, you know that these really are movie reviews from the last guy anyone asks. If you wonder why Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, or Toni Erdmann aren't part of my fave sixteen, it's because I either don't think they're particularly praiseworthy, or I simply haven't caught up with them yet.
There are some controversial inclusions here, too, and that's okay. No one watches movies with my brain, my soul, or my experiences--and the same holds true for you. These films moved me. Maybe they'll move you. At the very least, they're worth checking out. Included in my mini-endorsements are links to the full reviews (where applicable). You can also hear full-length conversations and interviews on many of this year's selections, by clicking on the "Podcast Links" entries at the bottom of this post.
Whether you're burning up with indignation or nodding in wholehearted agreement, please feel free to comment below. And, as always, thanks for reading/listening.
Now excuse me while I duck behind this virtual pulpit.
La La Land makes me further question my lifelong aversion to musicals. Kicking off with the most audacious opening I've seen this year (Nocturnal Animals is a close second, for very different reasons) Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash is downright magical. Song-struck lovers Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone glide to ecstatic heights and tumble to tearful lows, making us believe in a world so bursting with romance that not even cynical L.A. commuters can fight the urge to get up and dance.
The Neon Demon is La La Land's mirror universe, a very different young-girl-trying-to-succeed-in-Hollywood movie. But writer/director Nicolas Winding and star Elle Fanning provide a cutting, satirical, and downright horrific look at the degrees to which people will sacrifice themselves (and each other) for fame. There's no toe-tapping here, but The Neon Demon is just as full of striking performances, set pieces, and, yes, music, as to comprise a note-perfect evil twin.
Who knew that a movie about deciphering alien coffee-mug rings could be so profound, indeed so thrilling? Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life", finds Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner struggling to communicate with gibberish-speaking aliens, as world armies gear up for war. Like The Sixth Sense, Arrival's third-act reveal demands a second viewing--which reveals a handful of powerful, judiciously planted narrative seeds.
John Lennon said that life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. That's definitely true of OCD-addled Ove (Rolf Lassgård), whose only plan is to kill himself. In Hannes Holm's gorgeous and affecting black dramedy, A Man Called Ove, we learn to love a grumpy, septuagenarian widower whose every attempt to abandon his annoying neighbors is undone by cosmic reminders of all he has to live for. The film's greatest surprise is that it's funnier and far less sappy than the premise suggests.
Morris from America is the best Father's Day movie you've never seen, and one of the reasons I didn't buy Moonlight for a second. Chad Hartigan's coming-of-age story about a black American teen (Markees Christmas) transplanted to small-town Germany with his widowed soccer-coach dad (Craig Robinson) gives its young protagonist an inner life and a bona fide personality, while presenting the audience with a window into greater cultural conflicts. This film is alive, authentic, and completely overlooked.
What business does a comic-book movie have on a list with Scorsese, Gibson, and McDonagh? Plenty. Captain America: Civil War did the impossible, mixing CGI spectacle with character growth and haunting, adult-world implications for Marvel's costumed, quipping demigods. I can't help anyone who complained that nobody died and the villain didn't wear his suit from the comics. But to those who doubt blockbusters can deliver intrigue and eye-popping set pieces, this one will make you a true believer.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, Nocturnal Animals prepares us a hate entree unearthed from beneath The Thing's arctic spacecraft. Amy Adams' turn as a dissatisfied L.A. gallery owner who receives a novel from her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal) is just as chilling as her role in Arrival is warm. Tom Ford turns Austin Wright's book into a three-course narrative puree, with a knife-twisting final scene that simplifies the movie beyond belief, while making this one of the guiltiest and most pleasurable of pleasures.
Natalie Portman may finally get that well-deserved Oscar (and, yes, I know she won for Black Swan). As the titular first-lady-in-mourning of Pablo Larrain's note-perfect biopic, Jackie, the actress disappears into a character that's part imitation and all essence. Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim don't settle for a mere performance showcase, though. Theirs is a richly textured and philosophically complex historical drama whose themes of media-crafted reality are still depressingly true today.
Martin Scorsese is an unstoppable force. Paramount Pictures review embargoes are immovable objects. This means I'm forbidden (possibly under threat of torture) from saying anything about Silence until it opens wide this Friday. Hell, I can't even say whether or not the legendary director's adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel about Portuguese missionaries venturing into 17th century Japan is supposed to be on this "Best of 2016" list--or if its inclusion is just a mistake I decided to roll with.
Andrew Garfield has a face for martyrdom. Between 99 Homes, Silence, and Hacksaw Ridge, he's made quite a post-web-slinging career playing wide-eyed idealists forced to question their morals in the face of pure evil (be it Michael Shannon or bloodthirsty military machines). Garfield anchors Hacksaw Ridge, providing just the right spiritual rag doll/audience surrogate for Mel Gibson to bat around in his unrelenting and undeniably effective cold-water quest to illustrate that war is Hell, not an abstraction.
Here's a question only the multi-verse can answer: Would The Birth of a Nation have been better received if creators Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were not of such questionable character? Indeed, would they have made the same film, if not for the eighteen-year-old rape case that turned their once feted Nat Turner biopic into box office poison? Regardless of what you think of the controversy, Parker's film is a thematically challenging and visually engrossing work that cries out for justice, blood, and truth.
In documenting three black teens living in the shadow of North Carolina's booming prison-industrial complex, Raising Bertie director Margaret Byrne doesn't present her subjects the same way a commercial narrative film might. Junior, DaDa, and Bud aren't doomed to become statistics. Their journey to adulthood reveals different perils: a school system that doesn't know what to do with them, and a near-crippling lack of role models and economic opportunity. The boys' successes vary, but resilience binds them.
Sadly, War on Everyone has not yet opened in the States. Whenever and wherever it lands, check out this down-and-dirty black comedy about corrupt New Mexico cops. I really liked The Nice Guys, but Shane Black's most outrageous efforts feel downright tame compared to what writer/director John Michael McDonagh accomplishes here. What begins as a cartoonish, full-frontal PC assault ends in a rousing yet oddly touching tsunami of blood, bullets, and attitude that few such films can touch.
Michael Smith's Cool Apocalypse was a personal favorite from 2015. This year, one of his former students, Nick Alonzo, makes the list with Shitcago, a beautifully shot indie with a grimy soul. Where Smith's film is about connection, Alonzo zeroes in on the variations of isolation that sprout, weed-like, amidst teeming masses. As our aimless protagonist encounters urbanites in corners both affluent and abandoned, I began to wonder what kind of person I am if indeed Chicago is my kind of town.
Long Way North has neither Pixar's billion-dollar pedigree nor Laika's hand-crafted folksiness, but Rémi Chayé's low-budget, Flash-animated Russian period piece is the most thrilling and emotionally satisfying cartoon I saw last year. It's a throwback in the best sense of the word, a stirring family adventure whose plot is as simple as its aesthetics, and whose ability to stimulate and satisfy stem from a welcome return to comparatively low-tech basics.
By now, you've probably seen those Facebook memes with the "Before" and "After" photos depicting respective joy and devastation at the beginning and end of 2016. Karyn Kusama's The Invitation is the movie version of that, an eerily prescient look at people who used to know each other, locked in a confined space and forced to reconcile utterly alien world views in a violent contest of wills. Consider this and shudder: compared to real-world politics, Kusama's horror-movie-of-manners is fluffy escapism.
Silence (Coming Soon!)