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Top 20 Films of 2016

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 sgtpeppersfilmclub@gmail.com.  Without further ado, my top 20 films of 2016 is as follows:


Steve Gleason, Michel Gleason, Rivers Gleason#20. Gleason
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.


THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN#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.


la-et-mn-mini-closet-monster-review-20160926-snap#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.


americanhoneysashashia-0-0#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.


2-chevalier-2-copyright_haos_film#16. Chevalier
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.


its-only-the-end-of-the-world-marion-cotillard-vincent-cassel-gaspard-ulliel-lea-seydoux-nathalie-baye-filmz-ru_f_227307#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.


maxresdefault#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.


2457_d047_00237r-0#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.


1200-1#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.


love__friendship_2#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.


the-nice-guys-crowe-gosling#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.


sing-street#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.


jeff-bridges-hell-or-high-water-0#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.


howtobuildatimemachine_2523#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.


green-room-movie-image-2#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.


1200#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.


maxresdefault-1#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.


dm_160513_30fro30ojmiatrailer2964#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.


the-witch#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.


arrival-2016-screen2#1. Arrival
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.

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Filed under End of Year, Lists, Reviews

End of Year 2015 – Honorable Mentions

99Homes-2768-1440x60099 Homes
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Written by: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern

A tremendously thrilling film about the years following the financial and housing crisis in late 2000’s United States, carefully directed by Ramin Bahrani.  Bahrani directs Michael Shannon to an incredible performance that has become the most celebrated part of the film.  Andrew Garfield delivers a heartfelt lead performance, showing exactly why he should be given the chance to star in more award worthy dramatic films.  99 Homes sat at the very top of my list until a disappointing rewatch revealed many of the screenplay’s flaws, especially during the film’s very rushed last act.  On top of the lackluster third act, the over-acted supporting performance by the talented Laura Dern only hurt the believability of the movie.  Still, there’s a great deal to appreciate in 99 Homes, and it’s clear that Ramin Bahrani is a name to look out for in the future.


bridge-of-spies-03_0Bridge of Spies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his incredible Lincoln in 2012 sees him once again teaming up with Tom Hanks, this time for a post World War II/Soviet era period piece featuring elements of spy and espionage thrillers.  Bridge of Spies features more terrific cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, another Spielberg regular. The film looks and feels like its 1960’s era setting, but somehow manages to feel more modern in its film-making techniques and use of lighting and darkness than other period pieces.  Tom Hanks delivers a typically solid performance as lawyer James B. Donovan, but it’s relatively unknown stage actor Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel who absolutely steals the show.  Rylance disappears into the role of the alleged German spy Abel, and delivers what I believe to be the second best supporting performance of the year.  It’s terrific to see Rylance up for an Academy Award, and to see Bridge of Spies be deservedly recognized in the Best Picture and Best Writing categories.  I wish it luck in the next month, as it’s up against some terrific competition.


end-of-the-tour-03The End of the Tour
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Written by: Donald Margulies
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg

David Foster Wallace is a man who has greatly interested me ever since hearing about the epic novel Infinite Jest, one of the most intimidatingly deep pieces of modern English literature ever published.  The End of the Tour chronicles journalist David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) interactions with the famously reclusive writer (Jason Segel).  Foster Wallace eventually opens up to Lipsky after a number of days spent together, forming a bond with the young journalist.  Jason Segel gives a career best performance as David Foster Wallace, and is very easily the highlight of The End of the Tour.  Segel is almost unrecognizable in the film, paying homage to Wallace through the use of the writer’s famous quirks and paranoias.  Jesse Eisenberg proves once again that he’s a skilled supporting performer when the screenplay is strong enough, and he too gives an impressive outing as Lipsky.  James Ponsoldt, who directed 2013’s beautiful The Spectacular Now, films The End of the Tour with a subtle hand, never making any sort of judgment on the characters of either man.  The End of the Tour is a perfect example of an interesting and brief biopic that never overstays its welcome, and doesn’t try to become something bigger than it is, and I can’t wait to see what Ponsoldt does next.


Ill-See-You-In-My-Dreams-The-GirlsI’ll See You in My Dreams
Directed by: Brett Haley
Written by: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Starring: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, Malin Akerman, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place

I’ll See You in My Dreams is a relatively small film that has gone mostly unnoticed by the masses this past year, featuring an incredible lead performance and subtle and sensitive direction.  It may not be a thrill ride on par with some of the year’s biggest films, it’s undoubtedly a very touching and poignant drama that I wish would have found a bigger audience.  Veteran actress Blythe Danner gives an amazing performance as Carol Petersen, a widow who is struggling to find meaning in her life.  Through a series of events, she meets the young Lloyd (Martin Starr), and the two form a friendship that inspires Carol to start living her life once again.  She meets Bill (Sam Elliott), and falls in love with his natural charm and charisma. Director Brett Haley brings very impressive performances out of the entire cast, which is fairly unique for somebody with such a short resume.  If I’ll See You in My Dreams had found more of an audience, there’s no doubt in my mind that Blythe Danner would have been a major Oscar contender this awards season.  I’ll See You in My Dreams is a quiet, charming, and very funny film that I implore everybody looking for a lovely drama to look into.  You won’t be disappointed.


a393a54df1802728358b99e85b3448f4445c7669Goodnight Mommy
Directed by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Written by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz

The creepy and incredibly atmospheric Austrian horror film directed by the team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala garnered a great deal of critical acclaim this past year, and rightfully so.  Goodnight Mommy is a slow-moving, but tremendously atmospheric and dread-filled horror film that actually does a great deal to spook its audience.  While there may not be anything truly groundbreaking about Goodnight Mommy, it’s an incredibly tense and wonderfully directed film that managed to disturb and scare critics.  The direction by Franz and Fiala is beautiful, slow-moving, and handles the film’s many haunting reveals incredibly well.  Goodnight Mommy never settles for cheap jump scares, but ramps up the sense of dread and suspense between every horrific reveal and scare.  The performances by child actors Elias and Lukas Schwarz are quite good for child actors, and by the end of the film even I was kind of creeped out by them, wondering whether or not they were in the right.  It, in addition to It Follows (my #1 film of the year) did a great deal to further the so-called “horror renaissance” the world of film has been seeing since the release of James Wan’s The Conjuring in 2013.  I can’t wait to see what 2016 offers in the way of unique and genuinely scary horror films.


magic_mike_joe_manganiello.0-1940x1090Magic Mike XXL
Directed by: Gregory Jacobs
Written by: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Amber Heard, Donald Glover, Elizabeth Banks, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell

Effortlessly charming and incredibly fun, 2015’s sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is another great example of a sequel that for the most part just works.  Gregory Jacobs takes the driver’s seat of Magic Mike XXL with Soderbergh as his cinematographer, enlisting the services of most of the cast of the original film, as well as some welcome additions in the form of Donald Glover, Amber Heard, and Andie MacDowell.  This time, Channing Tatum and the boys are on a road trip to Myrtle Beach for a stripping convention that will close out their careers.  Along the way, the gang of wily male strippers meet an assortment of new and interesting characters, have incredibly funny interactions between themselves and generally whoever they cross paths with, and find any and every excuse in the book to take off their shirts and look damn good doing it.  Magic Mike XXL is hilarious and incredibly fun, and while it may be a little too long and bloated for its own good, is still a fairly memorable moviegoing experience.  Tatum is incredibly likeable and charismatic as the titular Mike, and the entire supporting cast make this a very memorable, if minor, experience.  Don’t let the naysayers talk you out of seeing both Magic Mike films, as they feature fun performances, hilarious moments, terrific soundtracks, and tremendous direction for sure odd little films.  


Phoenix_11_27_47_20Phoenix
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens

After seeing Christian Petzold’s 2012 film Barbara, I knew immediately that the German director was going to be one to watch.  His latest film Phoenix shares a great deal in common with Barbara, including its lead stars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, their post WWII settings (Barbara takes place in East Berlin in the 1980’s, Phoenix in post-war Berlin), and the understated but powerful stories that Petzold tells with his camera.  I’d say that Petzold has easily outdone himself with Phoenix, telling an incredibly mysterious and morally ambiguous tale of a woman searching for the love of her life, even after her love may have sold her out to the Nazi’s.  Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a holocaust survivor who has undergone facial reconstruction surgery.  When she meets her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), he has no idea who she is and the two hatch a plot to collect Nelly’s family inheritance.  What follows is a heartbreaking, thrilling, and incredibly subtle drama about a relationship that may not have been everything it seemed to be.  Phoenix is a terrific film from director Christian Petzold, and I hope he continues to hone his craft by telling such beautiful and personal stories.  Phoenix will be released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in April 2016.


2979968-star-wars-bb-8-force-awakensStar Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill

When I finally got around to seeing the new J.J. Abrams directed Star Wars film, I walked into the theatre almost certain that I was going to come out disappointed.  Having never been a huge fan of the franchise, I rewatched the films in the week prior to my viewing of The Force Awakens, and found myself feeling much the same about the series.  I enjoyed The Phantom Menace much more than I remembered, hated Attack of the Clones, somewhat enjoyed Revenge of the Sith, adored A New Hope, liked The Empire Strikes Back (but not nearly as much as others do), and very much enjoyed Return of the Jedi.  But at the end of the day, they all just felt like fun sci-fi films and not much else.  I’m pleased to announce that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably my second favourite film of the entire series, and that it successfully managed to charm its way into my heart.  Everything from the new characters, to new settings, to the sweeping action set pieces had me absolutely floored and rooting for our new cast of loveable characters.  Though I wasn’t crazy about the original cast cameos for the most part, they did their part and didn’t hog the spotlight from the incredibly talented ensemble of Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega.  What I got in The Force Awakens is what I hope for (but never get) in every major blockbuster franchise: a coherent and not overly complicated origin story that manages to subvert tired tropes and cliches, a cast of strong and well-developed characters, believable and epic settings, and incredibly fluid action scenes.  J.J. Abrams and company managed to prove me wrong again and again, and I absolutely can’t wait to see what happens with the rest of the new trilogy.  

Side note: As much as I like the guy in other films, Domhnall Gleeson was absolutely awful in this.  He managed to ruin my immersion on more than one occasion, and I hope he stops overacting in future installments of the trilogy.  


jafar_article_story_largeTaxi
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Jafar Panahi, Hana Saeidi

Iran’s badboy filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been banned from making films for half a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing some of the most interesting works of his entire career.  His latest film Taxi furthers the idea that Iranian directors REALLY love driving and filming the acting of driving, but it’s much, much more interesting and thought-provoking than that statement makes it sound.  Panahi plays himself as a cab driver in the Iranian city of Tehran, picking up fares and driving them around the sprawling city.  Panahi interacts with his customers, all of whom are different ages, from different walks of life, and going about their daily lives in different ways.  Many of his fares recognize him as the famous outlaw movie director, and all of his fares feel like they could be situations straight out of real life.  Taxi blends the line between fiction and documentary filmmaking, creating something that is almost indescribably dense and full of anger towards the government of Iran for their notorious censorship and oppressive nature.  The highlight of Taxi sees Jafar Panahi picking up his young niece, who is making a film for her class.  Hana, Panahi’s young niece, details all of the rules of filmmaking she must abide by, while her uncle slyly comments on and scoffs at the enormous list of rules.  Taxi is an incredible experiment the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and shows that Panahi is willing to bend the rules even further when it comes to pursuing his passion.  It’s a beautiful, unique film that I wish more people would seek out.


201505757_6Victoria
Directed by: Sebastian Schipper
Written by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper, Eike Frederik Schulz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski

Sebastian Schipper’s incredible experimental film was shot in one complete take, one of the first feature-length films of its kind.  Victoria never hides its cuts like other famous “one take” movies like 2014’s Birdman or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but instead is completely unblinking and seemingly flawless in its timing and blocking of scenes.  The film sees a young woman, the titular Victoria, taken in by a group of rowdy young men for an evening of fun.  The men and their new friend become embroiled in a large-scale robbery plot.  After falling for one of the young men, Victoria is recruited as the getaway driver, further complicating matters.  Victoria isn’t just a one-take gimmick, but also manages to tell an incredibly tense story and features a cast full of characters that are easy to root for (or against, depending on your perspective).  While it may have been a little too long for my preference, there’s no denying the impressive craft that went into the making of Victoria.  The tonal shift taken halfway through the film only helped to raise the stakes and further my dedication to the film, and I was very thankful that it went where it did in the end.  Victoria is a terrific exercise in tension and unique filmmaking that everybody should check out at least once.  It may not be perfect, but it looks and feels like something of a trailblazer in its best moments.


Movies I’ve yet to see from 2015 include:

Amy
The Assassin
Black Mass
The Brand New Testament
Cartel Land
The Danish Girl
The Good Dinosaur
Hard to Be a God
Joy
The Keeping Room
The Look of Silence
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Mustang
Pawn Sacrifice
Shaun the Sheep the Movie
Son of Saul
Straight Outta Compton
Trumbo
When Marnie Was There

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End of Year 2015 – Best Films of 2015 (#5-#1)

meearl5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Jesse Andrews
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton

A film that has seemingly dropped in esteem since its film festival run earlier in the year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is easily the most touching film I saw all year long.  It managed to surprise me with its ending, despite constantly giving me reason to doubt the film’s bravery.  Me and Earl the Dying Girl sees a film-obsessed young man (Greg) and his bestfriend (Earl) befriending Rachel, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  The two young men decide to make a film for young Rachel, and along the way do a lot of soul searching and finding of themselves.  It’s a beautiful and hilarious coming-of-age story that features highly energetic direction in the vain of Wes Anderson, and the performances from Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and RJ Cyler are all the best breakout performances of the year.  While it may not be a film for everybody, I found it to be undeniably charming and full of life, and at the end of the day, that’s all I ask for a film to be.  You can read my full-length review here.


SICARIO14. Sicario
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber

Another movie I reviewed earlier in the Fall, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was a thriller the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty back in 2012.  The film sees FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) enlisted by mysterious government agents (played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) to aid in the war against major drug cartels along the border area between the United States and Mexico.  Villeneuve’s Sicario is incredibly suspenseful, and has a great deal to say about the morals and ethics employed in the war on drugs in North America.  It’s a film that features only the greyest of moral areas throughout, rather than giving everything to the audience in easy to understand, black and white ideals.  Villeneuve’s direction is tight and deliberately paced, never opting for cheap thrills but instead opting to build suspense like a beautiful crescendo.  Backing up Villeneuve’s understated direction is more incredible photography by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is widely considered to be one of the best in the game.  Emily Blunt gives a career best performance as Kate Macer, never feeling too comfortable in her own skin, nor is she able to trust anybody around her – whether they’re considered to be friend or foe.  It’s a wonder that Blunt wasn’t nominated for Best Actress at this years Academy Awards, but that says a great deal more about the strength of that category.  Blunt’s lead performance is wonderfully complemented by that of Benicio Del Toro, who had an incredible return to form in Sicario.  Brooding, mysterious, and dangerous as hell, Del Toro’s Alejandro is easily the most intimidating film character of 2015.  If you’re not sold on Sicario, you can check out my full-length review of it here.


1401x788-Screen-Shot-2015-11-02-at-11.06.31-AM3. Anomalisa
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Writer-director Charlie Kaufman stole my heart years ago after I saw Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich, all of which he penned.  Kaufman’s latest feature, Anomalisa, hits familiar notes – but does it in such a human way that it’s undeniably genius.  After falling in love with his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, I was convinced that Kaufman could only go up from there.  And boy was I right about that one.  Anomalisa follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer service expert in the city for a convention, as he struggles to make any significant connections with those around him.  The entire cast (save for two characters) is voiced by Tom Noonan, with the exceptions being David Thewlis’ Stone, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa.  The animation – which is a sort of blend of traditional computer animation and puppetry – coupled with hilarious and unique voice acting, makes Anomalisa a truly once in a lifetime experience.  It’s deeply moving, always funny, and depressingly thought-provoking, an even greater feat, seeing as how Kaufman’s second film is merely ninety minutes long.  I can’t promise you that it’s going to feel satisfying, nor can I promise you that Anomalisa is going to spoon feed you answers, but I can promise you that you’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s an incredibly important look at loneliness, anxiety, and depression, masked as a relatively quirky and relaxed dramedy.  This film easily would have been my number one film in a weaker year.  


the_revenant_trailer_grab_h_20152. The Revenant
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

The Revenant is a film I’ve been waiting patiently for since Inarritu’s Best Picture winning Birdman was released last year.  I went in with incredibly high expectations, and still managed to walk away feeling like they had been far exceeded.  Every aspect of Inarritu’s The Revenant is nearly perfect: from the ambitious, high-energy direction, to the gorgeous cinematography, the incredibly physical performances by our lead actors, and the solid and unobtrusive score.  The Revenant is the incredible story of one man’s survival in the dense American wilderness, braving his own colleagues, wildlife, and the angry war-party of Native American warriors who are hunting the trapping party through the forests.  After being viciously attacked by a bear and left for dead, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunts for the man who left him and killed his son, and he’s not going to let anything get in his way.  Alejandro G. Inarritu’s follow-up to the incredible Birdman takes advantage of excruciatingly long takes in the same way his previous film did, but never feels forced or like a gimmick.  Instead, Inarritu’s film feels dreamlike, while also maintaining a great deal of authenticity and gritty realism.  It’s also very clear that his photographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, has learned a great deal from his time working with director Terrence Malick.  The scenery is breathtaking in every last shot of The Revenant, bringing the film to life with the incredible use of natural lighting.  Inarritu manages to direct another very good (but flawed) performer to what I would call the best performance of their career in the film, finally shutting up those on the “give Leo an Oscar” bandwagon.  DiCaprio has never been better than he is under Inarritu’s direction, disappearing completely into the role of Hugh Glass.  His performance is so physical that it’s painful to watch, making me believe every bit of pain and desperation being felt by the abandoned guide.  Complementing DiCaprio’s terrific performance is Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the man who has left Glass for dead.  Hardy is incredible as well, and I’m astounded to hear that he’s finally picked up the Oscar nomination that he so truly deserves.  The Revenant is a nearly perfect film that is being unjustly picked apart by critics for being “empty and soulless”, which is a hilarious criticism in a year that saw Mad Max: Fury Road of all films become one of the most universally praised films of this decade.  Don’t listen to the detractors, do yourself a favour and see The Revenant now.  It’s an experience the likes of which comes all too rarely in Hollywood filmmaking, and one you absolutely shouldn’t miss out on.


deb8edab-19f9-43c4-bf02-b904ebdcb5841. It Follows
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Written by: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary

A controversial pick for my favourite film of the year, but one that still stands out from the pack even six months after seeing it last.  It Follows is the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen, a statement I absolutely don’t say lightly.  While its thrills and chills may not linger in the back of your mind like that of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Conjuring, The Babadook, or other such supernatural (and psychological) films, It Follows is one of the only movies that has ever kept me up at night as a fully grown adult.  The rare highly-acclaimed horror film, directed by David Robert Mitchell in his sophomore effort, does things differently than most modern horror movies do.  It’s funny at times, features an incredibly likeable cast of principle characters, and has a plot that most anybody on this earth can relate to in some way.  It does for sex what Jaws did for the ocean, and what Psycho did for showers.  It Follows sees the young Jay (Maika Monroe) develop a sexually transmitted disease (or curse) from her late-Summer lover.  He explains the rules of this curse to her, and tells her that she has to pass it on before it’s too late.  She can’t trust anybody, because it can disguise itself to look the somebody she loves, or a complete stranger.  There is no cure, and it will find her.  With the help of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her friends, Jay is going to find the answers she needs in order to get rid of the curse that now plagues her every waking moment.  Mitchell’s film is genuinely frightening, thanks in part to his terrifically subtle direction.  It Follows does not feel like a second film, but instead feels like something coming from a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood scene.  Mitchell never tries to insult the audience by going for cheap scares, instead building up the tension until you can’t possibly take anymore.  It’s in these moments where the film is at its scariest, and when you can feel your skin crawling as you watch young Jay and her friends struggling to survive something completely incomprehensible.  It Follows is made even scarier by the fact that absolutely nobody can be trusted, whether they look friendly or not.  You know something’s coming for them, no matter how far away they can possibly drive.  The paranoia felt throughout the film is unlike anything I’ve seen, harkening back to films like 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and the original film, of course).  The script is smart, never panders to its audience, and never underestimates our intelligence, either.  The lead performance by Maika Monroe is incredibly believable, bringing her from a lovely young woman in the beginning, to a tired, anxious, and paranoid one by the very end.  On top of incredible writing and direction by David Robert Mitchell, and terrific performances by most of the cast, It Follows features one of the most unique scores of the year.  Composed by Disasterpeace, the electronic score is incredibly unsettling, and to be honest just sounds pretty amazing when you’re out and about taking a walk.  It’s a soundtrack I’ve returned to over and over again since viewing the film, and one that has sadly missed out on awards season because of the film’s small stature.  It Follows is a horror masterpiece, and without a doubt my favourite film of 2015.  It may not be perfect in the eyes of everybody, but I’ve never experienced a film so charming and terrifying all at the same time.  If you love horror films and somehow haven’t seen it yet, seek out It Follows by any means necessary.  It’s tremendous.


Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here
Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here
Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here

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