Note: I’m writing this list having not yet seen the majority of films that will be competing for awards at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, including (but not limited to): La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Silence, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Loving, Jackie, Elle, and Lion. When I finally have the means to see these and other noteworthy releases from 2016, I will post an updated list with relevant changes. If you have any suggestions or recommendations, feel free to comment or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Without further ado, my top 20 films of 2016 is as follows:
Directed by: Clay Tweel
Written by: n/a
Starring: Steve Gleason
Clay Tweel’s emotional Gleason was a knockout punch of a documentary that I didn’t expect to be nearly as affecting as it was. Focusing on the life of retired football star Steve Gleason, the film serves as a chronicle of Gleason’s life after being diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease). The purpose of Gleason’s video journals being to hand advice and wisdom to his future child – which he learns he is having shortly after being diagnosed with ALS. Gleason is a frustrating and heartbreaking experience, but also an incredibly uplifting one since Steve goes out of his way to help others who have been plagued by the disease. Gleason is probably the most difficult film I saw all year – watching a strong, healthy man slowly lose control of his entire body was not something I was emotionally prepared for. It’s an incredible, but emotionally draining, experience.
#19. The Edge of Seventeen
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
The Edge of Seventeen feels like the Mean Girls for the current era – it’s funny, well-intentioned, sweet, relatable to anybody who has gone through the rigours of high school. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s voice comes through loud and clear throughout The Edge of Seventeen – and it’s most definitely one worthy of listening to in the future. The film sees 17-year old Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) losing her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) after she starts dating Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). The film’s standout achievement is the lead performance of Hailee Steinfeld, who effortlessly steals the show with her dry wit, and her geeky sensibilities. Also worth mentioning is the performance of Hayden Szeto as love interest Erwin, who is undeniably charming and hilarious in his intense awkwardness. While The Edge of Seventeen may not be changing the landscape as far as coming-of-age films come, it serves as a fun, refreshing take on the well-tread genre.
#18. Closet Monster
Directed by: Stephen Dunn
Written by: Stephen Dunn
Starring: Connor Jessup, Joanne Kelly, Aaron Abrams, Isabella Rossellini, Mary Walsh
Another coming-of-age film, this time coming straight out of Newfoundland, Canada. Closet Monster is Stephen Dunn’s incredibly impressive debut film – immediately establishing the young Dunn as a talent to watch in the LGBT film scene. Closet Monster tells the story of Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup), a closeted teen living with his deadbeat single dad (Aaron Abrams) who looks to escape from his unsatisfying life through art and his own fantasy world. Dunn’s film isn’t just a coming-of-age film, but it also employs elements of horror and fantasy films to create a highly original take on a familiar story, as well as one hell of an atmosphere. Connor Jessup’s performance as Oscar is terrific, giving viewers a strong sense of both assuredness and confusion throughout the film. Another standout is Isabella Rossellini, who voices Oscar’s pet hamster. Closet Monster is atmospheric, relevant, and breathtakingly ambitious in moments – I can’t wait to see what Stephen Dunn does next.
#17. American Honey
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Written by: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a road trip movie for the ages, combining Arnold’s penchant for careful, deliberate pacing, loose narrative, and gorgeous visuals. American Honey tells the story of a young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) who is recruited by a travelling band of young door-to-door magazine salespeople, led by Krystal (Riley Keough) and her second-in-command Jake (Shia LaBeouf). The rest of the film sees a van full of misguided youths driving from city to city, stopping only to party, sell magazines, and recruit others into the lifestyle. At 163 minutes, American Honey is packed full of character development, intimate moments, and subtle themes about America’s crumbling rural communities. Arnold expertly combines the road trip film with an interesting take on the coming-of-age film (the third on my list), telling multiple stories of young people being lost in the shuffle. The music featured in American Honey is great – largely made up of hip-hop and electronic tracks, and adds a great deal to the party aesthetic of the film. While it may not be for impatient viewers or those who require a solid narrative, my time with American Honey was more than pleasant.
Directed by: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Written by: Efthymis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari
Starring: Makis Papadimitriou, Yiorgos Kendros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Sakis Rouvas
Chevalier is a Greek film directed by female filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, notable for her 2010 film Attenberg. It sees six wealthy men aboard a large luxury yacht on a fishing trip. The men decide to play a game called “Chevalier” in order to entertain themselves and to compete with one another – the rules of which are established over dinner one evening. Each man is to decide on a competition or a set of tasks which the others will participate in and be judged on. These competitions include who can clean the fastest, who has the largest penis, who can skip stones the best, who can produce the best results from a blood test, and more. Chevalier is a highly intelligent and humourous take on the lengths men will sometimes go to prove their masculinity to others, and the competitive nature of human beings. Tsangari’s direction is careful and detail-oriented, building six rich, fully-developed characters in the process. The cinematography is gorgeous, with most of the film being shot on the water. Chevalier serves as a compelling, rewarding, and slightly disturbing take on male masculinity, and I can safely recommend it to any fans of international cinema.
#15. It’s Only the End of the World
Directed by: Xavier Dolan
Written by: Xavier Dolan (based on Juste la fin du monde by Jean-Luc Lagarce)
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux
The Cannes reception to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World has made it clear that his films are not for everybody, and it’s Grand Prix win at the same festival shows just how divisive the director can be. I’m pleased to say that I very much enjoyed Dolan’s latest, but I can definitely see why it may not be for everybody. The film tells the story of a writer called Louis returning to his family after an extended absence. His plan is to tell them that he is dying, but things aren’t always as easy as they seem, especially when it comes to family. It’s Only the End of the World perfectly paints the picture of a broken and dysfunctional middle class family trying to enjoy a few hours together. Everybody is faking enthusiasm, putting on false smiles, and going through the motions in order to please Louis. Some are able to fake it better than others, but eventually everybody cracks and the facade is dropped. Dolan’s film feels genuine in a way that so many other movies fail to, telling a story of a family without hope, holding up their forgotten Louis to impossible standards. The film absolutely isn’t for everybody. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll probably dislike it if the general consensus is everything to go by. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny Dolan’s style and voice. He’s one of the world’s finest up-and-coming filmmakers, and It’s Only the End of the World only reinforced that for me. It’s tough to swallow, but in the end feels cathartic in some ways, though it features no real answers or conclusion. It’s dark, it’s frustrating, it’s angry; it’s life.
#14. The Fits
Directed by: Anna Rose Holmer
Written by: Anna Rose Holmer
Starring: Royalty Hightower, Da’Sean Minor
The Fits is the debut film from director Anna Rose Holmer, and she immediately established herself as a compelling voice in American cinema. It tells the loose story of an 11-year old girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower) joining a dance team at the local rec centre. Shortly after she begins dancing for the team, her fellow teammates begin to experience fainting episodes and seizure-like symptoms. The Fits is an atmospheric, stylish, intriguing mystery from start to finish – it truly was unlike anything I saw all year long. Director Anna Rose Holmer immediately establishes an eerie mood which never fades from the film, instead it continues to build to a satisfying conclusion. Her direction is quiet and slow, but this works in the film’s favor – further adding to the unique atmosphere. The young Royalty Hightower’s performance as Toni is impressive for somebody so young, delivering a curious, dreamlike turn. The Fits feels like a third or fourth feature film – it’s assured in its pace, beautiful in its aesthetics, and careful in its loose storytelling. The fact that it’s a debut picture should be exciting to any fan of the medium – Anna Rose Holmer is one to watch.
#13. Hail, Caesar!
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum
The Coen Brothers’ most recent directorial effort wasn’t one I fell in love with immediately, but instead came to greatly appreciate it over time. The beauty of Hail, Caesar! comes in the form of its solid script, bringing with it absurd comedy, nods to beloved Hollywood classics, and difficult themes like religion and communist politics. Hail, Caesar! sees movie studio official Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) dealing with a wide variety of problems with the studio’s stars, including the disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), an unenthusiastic director (Ralph Fiennes) working with a new star (Alden Ehrenreich), and a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson). The performance of future Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich as western star Hobie Doyle is perfect, and easily my favorite thing about the film. It may not feel like a major work by two of the greatest living American directors, but it’s quickly wormed its way into my heart. Hail, Caesar! is funny, intelligent, and unique in its views on 1950’s Hollywood.
#12. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Directed by: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Written by: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Starring: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a film I wanted to hate – I went into it with the sole intention of laughing it off as a complete joke, but instead I fell for its goofy charm, hilarious sense of humor, and its many cameos from some of the music industry’s biggest names. Directed by Lonely Island duo Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, and starring Andy Samberg, I should have known I’d enjoy Popstar from the beginning. The film is told in mockumentary style following Conner Friel (Andy Samberg) as he embarks on a promising new solo career following the breakup of his rap group The Style Boyz. While it may not be as funny or as timeless as something like This Is Spinal Tap, Popstar is still more than deserving of a mention when it comes to the mockumentary subgenre. I see it as a modern Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but with less spoof elements and more outright absurdity. It’s a film I absolutely can’t wait to revisit, and features a soundtrack I listen to more than I’d care to admit. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a gem deserving of far more attention and praise.
#11. Love & Friendship
Directed by: Whit Stillman
Written by: Whit Stillman (based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen)
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry, Chloe Sevigny
Any year with a new film from the always high-quality Whit Stillman is almost certainly going to be a special one. His latest, Love & Friendship, based on the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, is perhaps his strongest work yet. Starring Kate Beckinsale as the titular Lady Susan, and featuring a cast full of veteran character actors, Love & Friendship is everything that is right about independent film. A period piece about a woman pursuing a man who is originally intended for her daughter shouldn’t be nearly as fun as it is, but that’s exactly what makes Stillman’s film so special. It brings the class and high-drama of typical costume dramas, but Stillman injects it with his trademark sense of sly, unblinking humor and turns it into the sort of thing worth revisiting over and over again. I adored it, and I think most everybody reading this will too – as long as you can get past its costume drama nature.
#10. The Nice Guys
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley
The sleeper hit of the summer came in the form of Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, harkening back to the days of good ol’ buddy cop movies. Black and Bagarozzi’s hilarious and intelligent script sees the unlikely duo of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe trying to solve a series of adult entertainment-related murders and disappearances in 1970’s Los Angeles. Serving as both a tribute to the films of yesterday and as an original movie aimed at adult audiences, The Nice Guys was a breath of fresh air in a season focused largely on men and women in spandex beating the hell out of each other. Gosling and Crowe have incredible chemistry together onscreen, and the laughs come at you a mile a minute. The Nice Guys did the impossible and managed to stand out on its own during one of Hollywood’s most contested release period. If you’re looking for quality entertainment that doesn’t pander to younger crowds devoid of an attention span, The Nice Guys is absolutely for you.
#9. Sing Street
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney (story by John Carney, Simon Carmody)
Starring: Aidan Gillen, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor, Lucy Boynton
As somebody who adores musical films, John Carney is absolutely one of my favorite working directors, creating two of the best musicals of the last decade or so in Once and Begin Again. Carney’s Sing Street features the best elements of both those films, perhaps eclipsing both of them in terms of filmmaking and tremendous songwriting. Set in mid-1980’s Dublin, Sing Street follows a young man named Cosmo as he establishes his very own DIY alternative rock band while navigating the ups and downs that are growing up, including falling in love, dealing with bullies, and a turbulent family life. Sing Street is absolutely infectious in its energy and optimism, making it one of my favorite movie experiences of the year. It may feel minor in comparison to your typical heavy-hitting Hollywood drama, there’s nothing slight about John Carney’s Sing Street.
#8. Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
David Mackenzie’s socially relevant and thrilling Hell or High Water was the biggest surprise I had at the movies in 2016 – it’s funny, features a cast of compelling characters, and features some incredible breakneck action sequences. Hell or High Water sees two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) who carve out a modest living as bank robbers, focusing specifically on Texas Midlands Bank branches. Little do the brothers know that they are being pursued by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who quickly notice a pattern in the brothers’ behavior and think they can predict the next robbery. Hell or High Water features classic elements of Western filmmaking, but with a more modern twist. David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan build four interesting, developed characters, making viewers care about the wellbeing of all four. The standout is Jeff Bridges, whose slightly racist, cynical Marcus Hamilton never failed to elicit laughter from this reviewer. Bridges has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and has his eyes on locking down an Oscar nomination going into awards season. Hell or High Water is thrilling, violent, and thematically relevant in its look at the decline of the American working class – it’s a perfect modern take on the western genre.
#7. How to Build a Time Machine
Directed by: Jay Cheel
Written by: Jay Cheel
Starring: Bob Burns, Don Coleman, Ronald Mallett, Robert Niosi
How to Build a Time Machine is Canadian documentarian Jay Cheel’s beautiful and intimate look at the lifelong passion of two men who were introduced to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine at a young age. Both men have two completely different motivations for their exploration into the world of time machines, and both are developed and delivered to the audience masterfully. Dr. Ronald Mallett hopes to send a message to his late father that would see him getting medical help before the massive heart attack that would lead to his untimely death. Rob Niosi, even more interested in the work of Wells, wants to build a scale replica of the time machine found in the popular 1960 film. Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine could have easily been a disposable fluff piece or a lame special interest documentary that we’ve all seen a million times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s clear that Jay Cheel sees how special what he has captured is, and he just lets things flow naturally. This isn’t a film about obsession as some have suggested, but rather extreme, at times misguided, passion. I smiled for 90 minutes straight, and that doesn’t happen to me often. How to Build a Time Machine is an instant classic – and one I very much hope audiences latch onto.
#6. Green Room
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Patrick Stewart
In 2013, Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (the director’s second film) took the independent film scene by storm with its grounded, brutal realism and expert direction. You can imagine my surprise when his follow-up Green Room was every bit as good, especially with the description essentially being “punk band clashes with neo-Nazi’s after a performance”. For something that sounds like a B-level horror film, Green Room absolutely brings the goods. It’s violent as hell, tense, and features the same realism that made Blue Ruin so great. Green Room also features excellent performances from its entire young cast, consisting of the late Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, Imogen Poots, and Alia Shawkat. Stealing the show is the veteran Patrick Stewart in an extremely intense and commanding role, showing that the aged actor isn’t afraid to venture outside of his comfort zone. In a weaker year, Saulnier’s Green Room would most definitely be at the top of this list. It’s truly an experience you can’t miss, as long as you can stomach it.
#5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Taika Waititi (based on Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump)
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Rhys Darby, Oscar Kightley
In 2014, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s hilarious mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows took its place as my top film of the year, and his latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly did, too. Waititi’s film tells the story of a boy named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and a man named Hec (Sam Neill) trying to survive in the New Zealand wilderness – both of them on the run from the authorities after an unfortunate misunderstanding. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is hilarious from start to finish, but also unexpectedly touching in many instances. Waititi proves once again that he knows how to write compelling comedic characters in Ricky Baker and Uncle Hec, both of whom are multi-layered and quirky in their own ways, and both of whom develop into their own by the end of the film. While it never reaches the impossibly high comedic precedent set by What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s latest film is one of the most charming, sweetest, most unexpectedly beautiful movies of the year. Hunt for the Wilderpeople has everything – a great performance from a young actor, action set pieces, impressive practical special effects, and beautiful, affecting moments.
#4. Everybody Wants Some!!
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell
Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who at this point in his career shouldn’t require an introduction, but is sadly not the household name he deserves to be. Linklater has directed such incredible films as Boyhood, the Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight), Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and Bernie. Everybody Wants Some!!, the spiritual successor to the aforementioned Dazed and Confused, fits perfectly among this eclectic list of tremendous films. The premise is simple: the film sees a college freshman on his first weekend of college, making friends, meeting girls, playing baseball, and partying his face off. We follow an incredibly lovable band of jock-y varsity baseball players doing everything college kids do best, and I couldn’t have possibly had a better time doing so. Everybody Wants Some!! features sharp, hilarious writing by Linklater, a living, breathing 1980’s Texas backdrop, a hell of a soundtrack featuring the very best of the 70’s and early 80’s, and fun performances from a band of young up-and-comers. It may not seem like much at first, but as the saying goes: don’t judge a book by its cover. There’s much more to Everybody Wants Some!! than meets the eye, and anybody open to the experience is going a great time diving into it.
#3. O.J. Made in America
Directed by: Ezra Edelman
Written by: n/a
Starring: O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown, Ron Goldman
ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of sports-related documentaries has an impossibly high turnout of incredible works, and their latest epic miniseries is without a doubt their greatest achievement yet. O.J.: Made in America methodically chronicles the life, career, alleged crimes, and subsequent trial of former football superstar O.J. Simpson. Made in America runs for nearly 8 hours, but every minute of this documentary is riveting, and really helps you understand how the prosecution fumbled a case that seemed so simple to win in the beginning. ESPN’s latest project looks at the socio-political climate of America in the early 1990’s, and without saying it implies that our currently climate is very similar. O.J.: Made in America is peppered with phenomenal archival footage, and features in-depth interviews with those closest to O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman. This documentary is a triumph, and nobody reading this should let the daunting runtime scare them away: O.J.: Made in America is a modern documentary masterpiece, and an experiment that I hope 30 for 30 and ESPN attempt again somewhere down the line.
#2. The Witch
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Filmed a short distance from my lovely little city, The Witch is the hotly-contested Sundance award-winner and incredibly impressive directorial debut of filmmaker Robert Eggers. Set in 17th century New England, The Witch sees a young family exiled from their home settlement and sent to live on a farm on the edge of a large, menacing forest. From the moment the family touches down on their new home, they begin to experience unimaginable horrors. The Witch is without a doubt one of the most atmospheric horror films I’ve ever seen, filling viewers with feelings of dread every step of the way. Robert Eggers directs with an expert hand, bringing levels of subtlety that most novice filmmakers could never even dream of. This expert direction coupled with beautiful washed out photography by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and a solid, genuinely frightening script make The Witch one of the most memorable horror films of the past ten years, sitting alongside modern masterpieces like It Follows and The Babadook.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer (based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
My initial experience with Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival was a slightly frustrating one, mostly due to my own misunderstanding of some key plot elements. After a second trip to the theatre, I can safely say that Arrival is an instant classic. In it, we see linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) recruited by US military officials in order to decipher the language used by alien invaders who have recently landed at twelve points on the Earth’s surface. Louise, along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) form a bond with the visiting “heptapods” through the teaching of human writing, and the learning and understanding of heptapod writing. Arrival is a beautiful, unique, inventive, and incredibly intelligent film about language, communication, and understanding, wrapped in an alien invasion film. Its depth and ambition took me by surprise from the get-go, and kept me guessing, asking myself unexpected questions, and wanting answers. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a science fiction film, and far more. Denis Villeneuve may have topped himself with Arrival, going from a promising dark, mysterious talent to one of the most prominent voices in American filmmaking today. After seeing Arrival, I’m fully convinced that his next project, Blade Runner 2049, has the rare potential to be a worthy sequel to the incredible original film – even if it’s only half as good as this. Arrival is breathtakingly bold, beautifully filmed, delicately told, and refreshing in every single way – it’s a modern masterpiece worthy of your attention.