The best feature films of this year take place in alien spaceships, getaway cars, Hollywood back lots and colonial New England cabins, among many others. They boast young directors and seasoned veterans. They exhibit stars we know and love and newcomers poised to take their places. Every year brings with it new and exciting films that speak to all of us differently. These 10 spoke to me:
10. Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The whirlwind experience of the film is just life for Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the film's centerpiece caught in a spider's web of plots and subplots all happening at fictional Capitol Pictures in the 1950s. Mannix is having a crisis of conscience while he juggles the problems of movie stars and he's primed to be cosmically humbled knowing the Coens' penchant for this brand of existential paralysis. In years to come, Hail, Caesar! will be remembered as the film that made us all take Alden Ehrenreich seriously. He will become a giant star and people will ask where he came from. But, the newest film from the greatest American filmmakers is much larger than one performance. Ehrenreich may be the unlikely stand-out in one of the great all-star casts of 2016, but Hail, Caesar! belongs firmly to the Coen brothers and the fates.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama school project entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, this film has true vitality that lives and breathes with every scene. You can feel the dread in Moonlight as director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) traces the story of Chiron, a young black male, through three difficult periods of his life using three different actors. Despite the stylized method of the director and the intense acting performances of the entire cast, Moonlight works on a visceral level. It feels important and heavy and true. This is a giant leap forward for Jenkins. He's made a movie that will be remembered for a long time.
8. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Any fans of Chris Lilley's Summer Heights High and his Jonah character will recognize the set-up here. Ricky (newcomer Julian Dennison) is always in trouble and ends up in the hands of hippie foster parents living off the land in New Zealand. He bonds with his foster mom, but his new dad (Sam Neill) is a tough-nosed man with little patience for Ricky and his unearned swagger. Of course, the two end up on an adventure together and bonding ensues. Waititi's movie boasts the hilarious sweetness of his previous comedies (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows), and the madcap humor of Wes Anderson while also forming a complex, realistic drama with people you care about.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Arrival may be the best movie of its kind since Inception. Both use cinema the medium as a narrative device that unfurls in their third acts. Villeneuve is giving you the ending throughout the movie and betting on your preconceptions about film to not be able to identify the story's truth. If that doesn't make sense, you should see the movie. Aside from the structure, Arrival is a straight up glory of a sci-fi picture. Aliens land on Earth in over a dozen places, echoing Independence Day and others, but war doesn't ensue. The film follows a language expert (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) as they meet with the aliens in one of their ships and try to communicate. As progress is made, the film enters philosophical arenas and challenges us to decipher what's happening.
6. Nocturnal Animals
Directed by Tom Ford
Deserving of multiple viewings, Nocturnal Animals may be the year's most complete film. It's certainly the most beautiful and visually extraordinary movie of 2016. Fans of Ford's first film, A Single Man, have been waiting a long time for this and the fashion magnate delivers a powerfully sensual movie involving three separate time threads and dozens of characters. Meanwhile the camera blossoms in style and color, giving even the most disturbing images a powerful beauty.
5. Don't Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
There's something endearing about character who're friends and also work together. Don't Think Twice is very much about friendship and very, very much about working relationships. Set mostly inside a New York theater where an improv troupe called The Commune perform for small audiences on a regular basis, the movie gives us their performances (which are hilarious) while also focusing on each character outside the troupe and their hopes for the future. When one member is cast on a SNL-style sketch comedy show, it brings out the truth in the entire group. Walking a thin line between farce and melodrama, Don't Think Twice somehow pulls off being a real movie while goofing off half the time. It's funny and sweet and that's more than enough.
4. The Handmaiden
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Every shot in this movie is worth a pause. Chan-wook Park, the Korean master, seems to be getting better as he ages. In The Handmaiden, he instills urgency and terror into the story of a con-man who devises a plan to marry a rich heiress and take her money. Partnering with a young pickpocket who becomes the heiress' handmaiden, the con-man watches the two women become closer and closer while he watches from the sideline. How Park fills this movie with emotion, both serious and humorous, is an experience and each of the performances are on point.
3. Little Sister
Directed by Zach Blake
As a political statement, Little Sister works and, on an emotional, we-all-love-our-families-level, it works as well. These two themes co-exist harmoniously when they should clash and distract. But, helped by a star-making lead performance by Addison Timlin and savvy direction by Blake, the story organically channels truth in unexpected ways. The riveting, original plot helps. Timlin plays a novitiate set to take her vows when her estranged mother requests that she come home for the first time in three years. Set in 2008, Colleen's (Timlin) brother is home from the hospital burn ward after having his face blown up in Iraq and he's not looking to socialize. But, Colleen, a former goth, soon reminds him that life is worth living and their relationship rekindles. Set against Barack Obama's campaign, Blake (who also wrote the script) captures the spirit of the time period while telling a grounded, near-perfect story.
2. The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
Any movie that asks the question, "Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?!" is gonna be a favorite of mine. The Witch isn't only the year's best horror film, it's the best period film as well. Set in colonial times when men hacked it out in the wilderness for their own survival, a family becomes the target of an evil that dwells unseen in the dark and madness ensues. The performances are chilling, down to each of the children. And Eggers' script uses actual dialogue from the witch-scalping time, giving the movie an authentic edge that adds to the realism. It's the scariest thing you'll see this year and scarier if you grew up in the woods of New England like me.
1. Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
This movie is good on so many levels, it's kind of hard to believe. First, it works as a straight-up heist film with a satisfying ending. Second, it works as a modern allegory for life in America. Third, it works as a rip-roaring neo-western with all the tropes of the genre, repurposed beautifully for 2016 (cowboys and indians anyone?). And, lastly, it works as a family film about two brothers who would die for one another. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the Howard brothers, two Texas boys on a suicide mission. They plan to rob as many banks as they can in a week, launder the money at casinos and then pay off the reverse mortgage on the family ranch. They're gonna pay off the bank with its own money, something one character in the movie accurately describes as "Texan." Aside from that tantalizing premise, Hell or High Water is beautifully written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan. His script is the most satisfying thing you'll invest in this year. It's honest and hard-fought, often hilarious and wickedly smart. Oh, and Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger hunting the brothers. He's pretty good.
The Next Ten: Everybody Wants Some!!, La La Land, Sing Street, Manchester By the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Loving, Midnight Special, The Birth of a Nation, Love and Friendship, Sunset Song