I saw 118 feature films in the theater this year, and yet I had a pretty hard time compiling this list. I saw a lot of good movies, but I feel like I saw very few GREAT ones. Very little truly blew me away, including a lot of the films everyone else is putting on their end-of-year lists. It’s not that those movies--or many of the others I saw and liked--weren’t good. It’s just that few of them particularly touched me, for some reason. I can count on one hand the number of times I cried in a theater this year, which is very unusual (I’m a big movie crier; I admit it). And nothing I saw left me as slack-jawed as The Witch or Goodnight Mommy from last year, or pushed artistic boundaries as interestingly as Birdman the year before. I can’t tell if I’m just getting old, or if being a filmmaker and seeing how the sausage is made has made movies more difficult to appreciate. But for whatever reason, it felt like a very 'meh' year for me.
That said, I did see some great stuff, mostly at festivals (of which I attended 10 this year, thanks to Found Footage 3D). I like to include festival movies on my list because I think it’s good to make people aware so that you can catch them in their general release. Here’s the best of what I saw in 2016:
10) Colossal - This is a film that shouldn’t work at all, but in Nacho Vigolondo’s hands, somehow it does. Anne Hathaway plays an alcoholic whose drunken antics during her benders appear to have something to do with a giant monster terrorizing Seoul. It sounds like a genre film, but really it’s a dramedy, with some very funny moments and some unexpectedly touching ones. It threatens to fall apart about two thirds of the way through, but then somehow manages to stick the landing.
9) Doctor Strange - Probably my favorite Marvel movie outside of The Avengers. It takes the well-worn Marvel origin-story formula (cocky white dude saves the world) and infuses it with a ton of wit, humor, and visual inventiveness. Also one of the better 3D experiences I’ve had in a while, with some stunning visuals. The movie does what a lot of recent big-budget blockbusters have failed at, which is show me something I haven’t really seen before, instead of the same old action beats. Full disclosure: I hang out with co-writer C. Robert Cargill from time to time. I’m usually pretty hard on stuff my friends make. I was delighted that this was as good as it is.
8) A Dark Song - This movie does so much with so little, largely thanks to the fantastic performances of its two leads: Catherine Walker as a grieving mother who will do anything to get revenge on the person responsible for the death of her child, including enlist the services of Steve Oram’s practitioner of occult magic. The rite he puts her through lasts many months, during which they are unable to leave the house she has rented specifically for the purpose. It’s a classic low-budget one location set-up that burns very slowly for a while before exploding in the final act.
7) A Beautiful Planet - I saw a work-in-progress screening of this at SXSW with unfinished visual effects, temp narration, and no 3D, and it was still one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen. This documentary shot by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station is as close as us mere mortals will ever get to experiencing Earth orbit, and it’s amazing to behold.
6) La La Land - A very late addition, which I am usually reluctant to do because I haven’t had time to absorb and reflect, but in this case I’m making an exception because this movie was just so much fun. As a filmmaker who has spent most of the last decade pursuing a ridiculous dream and is just now finding his first taste of success, this movie feels like it was tailor made for me. It’s not a perfect movie--long stretches are conflict-free and the songs are not particularly memorable--but Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sizzle every time they are on screen together.
5) The Unkindness of Ravens - As writer/director Lawrie Brewster and I are friendly, I walked into this with the usual trepidation I have when watching a friend’s work. It’s always awkward when you don’t like something and have to see the person immediately afterwards. I needn’t have worried. This was the real deal. I know few filmmakers brave enough to attempt something this ambitious with resources this limited, but he pulled it off mightily. The simple story involves a Scottish war veteran returning home and having to deal with PTSD in a remote cottage in the highlands. It uses stunning and unsettling visuals (including the folklore-inspired ravens of the title), an intense performance by lead Jamie Scott Gordon (the sole actor in 90% of the film), and extraordinarily impressive editing to bring the condition to life in a way that no movie has ever done before. It’s almost a shame that the people I know who have war-induced PTSD will probably find this film too intense, because it’s one of the most accurate and artistic portrayals of the condition ever filmed. I saw another, much bigger-budget film about PTSD this fall (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and all I can say is that Oscar-winner Ang Lee could really learn a thing or two from Lawrie Brewster.
4) The Unseen - Other than the title, I knew literally nothing about this film when the lights went down at Screamfest L.A. It’s my favorite way to approach a film: no expectations, no preconceived notions one way or another. I almost don’t want to spoil anyone else’s experience by saying too much about the film, but I can reveal that it is a dark drama with some sci-fi/horror elements that works because of exceptional writing and incredibly engaging performances, especially from lead Aden Young, whose quiet intensity carries the whole film. It is a rare film that uses the trappings of genre to get at something deeper and more human. The central metaphor--an absent father who is literally disappearing--is obvious but poignant.
3) Under the Shadow - Setting a horror movie in an active war zone (Tehran in the 1980s) is almost a little superfluous. The situation the characters in Under the Shadow find themselves in at the BEGINNING of the story is terrifying enough. Throw in some (possible) supernatural hijinks and you have a film that is almost unbearably tense. A mother and her daughter live in a city under siege, in a building where missiles can (and eventually do) strike without warning. The daughter insists they are also being haunted by an Islamic demon known as a djinn. The mother begins seeing it, too, but she may just be cracking under the stress of the situation. It’s a movie that bends reality in order to show us how terrifying actual reality can sometimes be. I’ve heard lots of comparisons to The Babadook, but Under the Shadow is an infinitely better film, with better performances and a much less on-the-nose (and thus more terrifying) metaphor at its heart. It also contains what is probably the single most effective jump scare in the history of horror. I very nearly had a heart attack. By the sound of it, so did everyone else in the theater where I was watching it. See this on the biggest screen you can, with the sound as loud as it will go.
2) Realive - The last thing I expected to do at FrightFest London was bawl my eyes out, but holy crap this movie hit me in the gut. Tom Hughes plays a twenty-something who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must decide whether to live out his last year in declining health, or end it right away and have his body cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future when medical science has progressed enough to save him. He chooses the latter, and the film flashes back and forth between his life in the present day, and his fate in the future. The movie is about nothing less than the meaning of life, death, and love, and it wrings nearly unbearable emotion out of the briefest of images in its extended flashback montages, even as it wrestles with deep intellectual questions about our use of technology to extend life. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and something I think that everyone should see.
1) The Edge of Seventeen - So... I’m cheating a bit here because I didn’t technically get the chance to see this until 2017. Still, it’s just so fucking good. If you ask me my favorite genre of movie and I’m in a completely honest mood, I’ll tell you it’s the dramedy. I’m a sucker for movies that lure you in with humor and great characters and then nail you in the gut with real pathos. A couple years ago it was The Spectacular Now (still one of my favorite movies of all time). Last year Hello, My Name is Doris was near the top of my list. My favorite TV show of all time is The Gilmore Girls. Of course, because it’s such a delicate tonal tightrope, dramedies misfire as often as they succeed. But Edge of Seventeen walks it perfectly. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it never gets silly and always stays 100% grounded in the real world. And it’s such a love letter to a time in life that we can all relate to because we’ve all been there. If it were up to me, this would win Best Screenplay, hands down, but unfortunately the Academy tends to like weightier stuff. Still, everyone needs to watch this movie.
The Crew - This French Heist flick was one of the highlights of my Fantastic Fest. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel (fans of Heat or The Town will feel right at home), but it’s tense and well-acted, with some really well-shot action scenes. Definitely worth a watch, though I doubt I will remember much about it a year from now.
Director’s Cut - This was way funnier and more entertaining than I was expecting it to be. The central joke--that we are watching a director’s cut to a movie (that doesn’t exist) as assembled by a deranged fan of the leading lady--kept ALMOST getting repetitive, but there was enough inventiveness in its short runtime that it never wore out its welcome. Penn’s performance was good, but Teller’s cameo stole the show.
A Monster Calls - I know I said I didn’t cry much in a theater this year. Outside of Realive, probably 90% of the crying I did was during this movie (The other 10% was during The Arrival). I think the movie is definitely flawed and that very little of the stuff with the tree really worked for me (which I realize is weird to say). It was a bit of an on-the-nose metaphor and climaxed in a spectacularly on-the-nose dialog exchange (in case you somehow missed the metaphor). But still, that ending just wrecked me. As a parent, it was just too much to take. I definitely recommend, despite minor reservations.
10 Cloverfield Lane - A taut, tense psychological thriller with fantastic performances that comes to an ambiguous but satisfying conclusion... and then splices on 15 minutes of CGI nonsense from an entirely different film. Man, this could have been a masterpiece, but then again most of us would probably never have seen it if were still called The Cellar (which illustrates a lot about how frustrating this business is).
Nocturnal Animals - The movie within the movie--the one starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson--is a character-driven, white-knuckle suspense thriller that was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in a theater. Unfortunately, this amazing film is for some reason intercut with a boring and turgid wrap-around story filled with unlikeable, self-absorbed rich people. Every time the inner story picks up speed and starts to get really really good, we pause to watch Amy Adams take a bath for 15 minutes. So frustrating.
A few other movies I liked: Operation Avalanche, My Father Die, I Am a Hero, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, The Good Guys, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moonlight, Rogue One, Don't Breathe, Domain (which I saw the world premiere of and will hopefully be released in 2017).
Most overrated: Manchester by the Sea.