2016 was not great. Not for all those reasons you just thought of. Mostly because movies weren’t that great. There may have been more good than bad, or more good than usual, but nothing was great. Last year we were seriously discussing whether or not a Mad Max movie should win Best Picture. Sylvester Stallone was a frontrunner for an Oscar for playing Rocky Balboa. Tarantino and Iñárittu gave us what could end up being the best movies of their stellar careers. There were zero DC movies. So 2016 started in a hole and maybe it just isn’t fair to have to follow all of that.
1. Tunnel – Tunnel was the best anyone could come up with in 2016. And barely at that. Any of the first five movies listed here could just as easily been number one, really. They are all very different from each other, but nothing stood above terribly taller than the rest.
Of course, this is all in disservice to Tunnel. Which did everything right. You don’t know it because it was made in Korea and pretty much only came out there, (where it won a Blue Dragon for Popularity, which also means nothing to you) playing only in American theaters that specialize in such things. Not that there weren’t plenty of Korean movies in regular American theaters in 2016. There was critically lauded molasses like The Handmaiden, disappointing spy epic Age Of Shadows, great but bloated Train To Busan and Operation Chromite had Liam Neeson as Genral Douglas MacArthur so of course it got to be in theaters no matter how terrible it was. Obviously, none of these came close to matching Tunnel.
There was a time not so long ago that America made movies like this though. The closest we’ve come recently was The Martian, which also came out last year and might regret that since it could have been the best movie of this one. Essentially a made up incident that feels like it could be telling a true story, with all the same tension and danger and humor and emotion tugging as something that was true might have.
Tunnel may not carry with it the weight of typical award-gathering movies or even typical effects-laden crowd pleasers that might typically make typical top of year end lists. But besides getting nearly everything right (the ending goes on seconds too long) it isn’t just a frivolous endeavor either. In this case, it’s indirectly attacking the infrastructure problem Korea has been suffering for some time. Not exactly world changing, but maybe country changing, and in a tangible way, which could be more important.
2. Weiner – Sure, it’s already hopelessly out of date, but you can still enjoy the madcap follies of the most (unfortunately) famous New York Representative in history. There is a rise and fall, marital strife, great chases, political discourse and the greatest documentary quotes since American Movie.
The fact that it’s all real (and not even the whole story) is really not part of it. You can learn real some things, and that’s great, but it doesn’t make this any better. Whenever you hear people say “You can’t make this stuff up” it’s always stupid, you totally could make it up, and probably have, but this is one case where maybe it’s finally true. Not that you’d ever want to. But you don’t have to. You just have to watch Weiner.
3. Zootopia – Any movie with two important message metaphors, a crushing breakdown by its lead actress and political intrigue all wrapped up in a fantastic mystery and laced with easy humor anchored by the perfect interplay of the leads would be a simple pick for Best Picture, never mind a top ten list. That it is animated and ostensibly for children should really make it all the more notable. Not marginalized into some ancillary category.
But of course that is not how it works.
4. Sing Street – Did the phrase “drive it like you stole it” really exist in nineteeneightywhatever Ireland? I doubt it. There a lot of strange anachronisms in this otherwise pretty dedicated period piece. But Sing Street is less interested in its specificity of tribute than it is in universally reveling in the power of expression.
You may like Sing Street for its uplifting ending filled with promise and fulfillment. I read it more as the imminent demise of these things, because there’s no way they make that crossing alive. But that’s just another thing that’s great about Sing Street. Something for everyone, even when it’s the same thing.
5. La La Land – Speaking something for everyone. La La Land isn’t totally satisfying to anyone. Including its characters.
Without prototypical musical song, dance or even storytelling (there is no villain, no matter how much you’d like to say Keith is one) La La Land instead really only backs into being a musical, even when music is essential to its plot. Director Damian Chezelle has gotten a lot of criticism for these shortcomings (and more serious, less accurate ones) but what he never gets credit for is deciding to go with two of the best actors available to us today and worrying about the rest of it later. In doing so, he is able to go to the dramatic and humorous extremes that make this one of the best movies of 2016 without it showing any cracks.
Sure, I wish they’d had to sing while they were fighting, since that’s what musicals are supposed to do, transpose heightened emotion into song. But maybe we should stop telling La La Land what musicals are supposed to do and accept the things La La Land does do. And does so well.
6. Christine – I’m not even sure I like this movie, never mind love it enough to put it on so high a personal pedestal as this. But I am because maybe it is great and I just haven’t completely come to terms with that yet. It is the one of these ten that I really ought to watch again, but probably won’t, because it is so divisive, even if only internally.
Rebecca Hall’s performance deserves all the same words. Both because they are appropriate and because it forms so much of the movie. There is not really anything but her performance of Christine in Christine. Which is the point, of course. But maybe that is the problem? Not that it is so much of the movie, but that it is and there still isn’t a lot to be learned about the actual person, Christine Chubbock. Christine, the movie, isn’t all that interested in answering the questions it raises about her, nor the ones you might have had already, about this prescient tragic figure in media history.
And maybe that is something to love. Not in general, but in this specific case, where the singular central event (that you probably know about, even if you don’t know the names involved enough to tie it to what I am saying now, but still, seems like I should give you the chance to find out for yourself, one way or another) is such a mystery, that is why it is so famous, or a major part of why anyway, and letting it remain that is the only way to be truthful. For as much as we may know about all of this, we can’t really know any whys and this movie lets you feel that first hand. And that is something admirable, even if it tends to fly in the face of what we expect, what we may feel we deserve, from a movie.
7. Captain America: Civil War – After enjoying the world all to themselves for awhile, Marvel movies are now inexplicably getting put to task for being all the same. Employing a winning formula is hardly a reason to get upset, of course, just ask Coca-Cola how springing a new one on everyone works out. How any lobotomized DC production gets to be compared at all, never mind revered, is beyond my comprehension and I’d prefer it to stay that way if finding auteurism and its inherent artistic merit in Suicide Squad is the alternative.
But obviously simply being the better comic book move is not what lands Captain America on this list (again.) But Captain America the character continues to be the most compelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and having him pitted against the other best character is not a risk that should be taken so much for granted. In comic books when this happens there is not so much consequence. The next series is written and this is all relegated to an editor’s asterisk. A failure at this juncture might prove unsustainable even for the Marvel juggernaut. But not only does making a beloved hero into a quasi-villain work, it turns “just another” super hero movie into something timely. Even prophetic. Never mind the background villain being totally human and only turning prior movie’s events into his weapons. This movie is great even without a perfect Spider-Man or an airport scene. Those things are just nice.
8. The Edge Of Seventeen – Even the fact that I watched this on a screener sent to people more important than most of us in order to entice them to give it awards did not prepare me for what this is. The Edge Of Seventeen has more in common with Diary Of A Wimpy Kid than it probably would want to. And less in common with any other teen dramedy you might have ascribed it, based on its marketing material.
Diary Of Wimpy Kid movies are mostly terrible, but maybe also a little admirable, because of how awful the protagonist is to everyone around him. The movies do not appear to be very aware of this, forcing said Wimpy Kid to learn from anything he’s done or even become attentive to the idea that he might have been terrible. So The Edge Of Seventeen clearly does not follow this trajectory. But in making Nadine so awful to everyone in her life, this movie does not lay out a clear path to success. Which makes its balancing act all the more impressive. And fruitful. Of course, without Hailee Steinfeld’s tightrope performance, you can have nothing else, she can be normal and funny, tortured and maligned, horrible and nasty and totally self-righteous about it and nearly bring you right along with her, as any movie ought to do.
9. Rogue One – It shouldn’t be encouraged, the conception of a sequel based on one line of dialog from a 40 year old movie. No matter how poured over and dissected that movie’s dialog might have been throughout that period.
Rogue One is always headed to one very familiar place, but it shows us that that doesn’t have to matter as much as we might have thought. We can be enthralled and moved and just entertained without any hope of the ending we might find we want and only the one we thoroughly expect (and would be annoyed without, really.)
More Wild Bunch than Star Wars and all the better for it. Not simply in being different, but in being the different within such a well established set of parameters. Never mind being better than the prequels or even better than last year’s linear sequel. Rogue One stands on its own as a movie first. Then manages to not generate internet riots about its pedigree and submission to it.
10. Hacksaw Ridge – 2016 wasn’t such a great year for movies. You can tell because Hacksaw Ridge is only mildly interesting and almost as unintentionally creepy for quite a long time. But that is before it wipes your memory clean of everything that has ever come before.
I saw Mel Gibson interviewed after a screening of Mad Max one time and during it, he said that he’s always trying to find the line with his portrayal of violence where it makes people run out of the theater and stop right before that. He must means everyone runs out, because I’m sure a great number of people who found themselves in the midst of this extended battle sequence did run out of the theater. Maybe stumbled. It is perhaps the most visceral, hopeless, chaotic battle scene to ever happen. And it is enough, in a year full of mostly middling fare, to elevate it above those.
10. – 15.
Moonlight – Everything (and everyone) says Moonlight is better than any of the movies I’ve mentioned before. But there isn’t one thing about it that stands out. It’s just very well done and slightly unconventional. What I think I like most about it is that it played to an audience that had no idea what it was getting into and wouldn’t have seen it if they had. Also, Naomi Harris is terrible in this and I fear she will win every award.
The Finest Hours – Something released in January should never be on anyone’s list of anything except maybe a movies released in January list. But The Finest Hours is two gripping movies pitted against each other in a race for relevance. They both win. So do you.
Eddie The Eagle – Movies that make me cry are few and far between and so one that does it maybe ought to be further up this list. But I know Eddie The Eagle’s limitations. And I’m thankful it never let that stop it.
The Secret Life Of Pets – Illumination isn’t ever going to get the recognition for the superb animation that it produces because it’s too concerned with being funny. Which is a way more worthy cause for its celebration.
Audrie & Daisy – More documentaries should go for court ordered interviews.