I’m going to be honest. This was not a great year for film. The Star Wars film we got this year was meh. Both DC movies were abominable. Civil War was a really amazing airport scene. In general, the horror subgenre had more excellent films overall. That said, there were some truly great films this year. Allow me to count down my favorite films of the year:
10. Doctor Strange
Yes, you could make the argument that Deadpool goes here. In a year where we’ve definitely hit Superhero-oversaturation, both of these films were breaths of fresh air. Both innovated the genre, though Doctor Strange was subtler. It was basically the first Iron Man movie all over again, except that director Scott Derrickson turned the typical third act on its head: a destroyed city was rebuilt and the hero wins by refusing to fight the villain. Plus, it was visually stunning.
From start to finish, Moana was simply beautiful. The animation was unique and creative, and employed to tell the story in ways that felt especially mythic. This is the first Disney Princess story to have a complete absence of a love story. And Moana (who steadfastly refuses to be called a Princess) has a decidedly non-Anglo face. She is fierce and brave. An added bonus (one that decidedly elevates this film over Kubo and the Two Strings) is that the leads are played by persons of color. The story is set in Hawaiian islands (sort of), and the lead actors are both Polynesian.
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Cloverfield Lane has no obvious, direct association with the found-footage monster film Cloverfield. With another Cloverfield film dropping next year, it’s unclear if the films are set in the same universe or if they just share some thematic DNA in the mind of producer J. J. Abrams. It doesn’t matter. This film was a taut thriller that kept me guessing, had some incredible world-building, excellent acting and a crazy climax that more than paid off the promise of the first two acts.
7. Last Days in the Desert
This reimaging of Jesus’ wilderness temptation was powerful and profound. The director – a self-confessed non-Christian – wanted to explore Jesus’ humanity. There are few more appropriate places to do this than the wilderness. Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan, and I found Satan to be the most compelling figure in the film. The astounding cinematography, from master Emmanuel Lubezki, is stark and beautiful.
6. Under the Shadow
This Iranian film reminded me a lot of The Babadook, in all the right ways. Set during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war, it’s possible that an unexploded missile has brought djinn into the lives of the terrorized residents. The acting is excellent, the setting is appropriately claustrophobic, and the film slips back and forth between monster and metaphor effortlessly.
5. Manchester by the Sea
I haven’t quit thinking about Manchester by the Sea since I saw it. Everything you’ve heard about Casey Affleck’s acting is exactly right – expect at minimum a Best Actor nomination, if not a win. The film is about a family shattered by tragedy, but also flung back together by tragedy. It’s about how difficult it is to forgive and to heal. But most of all, it’s about the insistent inevitability of grace, and how it blooms often despite our best efforts to resist it.
4. Hail, Caesar!
It is difficult for the Cohen Brothers to release a film I don’t enjoy, and Hail, Caesar! is no exception. A strange mashup of Old Hollywood and the Passion story, Hail, Caesar! features a ton of fun performances, all held together by a studio exec whose suffering brings about movie magic. This film did come under sharp criticism for its complete lack of actors of color, and rightly so. The Cohens have proven thus far tone deaf to this problem in Hollywood, and I for one hope they take note and take action in their next films, lest their genius become as dated as the Hollywood represented in this film.
3. Neon Demon
I have not been a fan of Nicholas Winding Refn’s films, so I wasn’t too keen on Neon Demon. But from the moment this film began, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. The beauty of the shot composition captivated me from the first scene to the last. And though it’s slow-burn horror, when it pays off, it pays off. Thematically, the film is a rich reflection on our obsession with Beauty – how we are in fact horrified by the Beautiful.
You’ve no doubt been hearing a lot about Arrival. This alien invasion movie steadfastly refused to be what anyone expected, instead proving to be a film about loss, grief, fear and life. My favorite alien stories are those in which the aliens are truly alien (not just humans with funny shapes on their heads, all apologies to Star Trek). The heptapods perceive the universe differently from us. To say more would spoil a truly spectacular journey.
1. The Witch
This film is a rare, special thing. It’s set in the 1600s, on the American Frontier (which in those days was New England). The dialog is period-accurate and the whole film feels like you’re looking through a window into the past. That past happens to be horrifying, and it’s difficult to tell whether we should be more afraid of the witches in the woods or the patriarchal religion.
Moonlight was unquestionably a beautiful, powerful movie that is sure to rake in awards and appear on tons of Best of… lists. I really don’t know how to talk about this film other than to say I loved it. I don’t know if it will stay with me as long as the other films on this list, but it deserves every accolade it is bound to receive.
Hell or High Water is set in West Texas and is basically a revenge story about how the banks screwed everyone over and got away scott-free. Jeff Bridges is incredible. I’d expect a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Zootopia nearly took Moana for Best Animated of the year (and a pretty fierce debate is still raging on my Facebook page). It’s a fun, beautiful film with incredible world-building. It deals with racism, suspicion and fear beautifully. And it’s very funny. A+ all around.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was a giant mess of a movie. Zach Snyder basically read a bunch of awesome comics, took out the cool action beats, stripped them of logic, coherence or character and then smashed them into each other for seventeen hours. Or that’s how long the movie felt. THEN, as if that weren’t punishment enough, they released a Director’s Cut that proved it wasn’t just poor editing. Zach Snyder fundamentally misunderstands superheroes. He approaches them as a child playing with toys, not as myths for our modern era. We’re all poorer for it.
Suicide Squad might have been a good movie once. But then Batman v Superman tanked (which in Superhero movie terms means ‘didn’t make a billion dollars and pretty much everyone thought it was bad’.) So DC rushed in, completely changed the script, reshot a bunch of stuff and we were left with easily the worst movie of the year. Characters were introduced lazily and multiple times. Other characters were dropped in the film halfway through with no introduction. The plot made no sense. The villain made a giant sky laser by dry-humping the air, apparently. A bomb that kills a villain apparently because the good guys really want it to? Good guys who are really bad guys, but they only do good stuff, so they keep shouting, “Remember! We’re the BAD GUYS!” Oh, and a terrible Joker who should not have been in the movie.