Is it acceptable to put together a "Best Movies of 2016" list without having seen MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and LA LA LAND? It's not the way I wanted it, but I can live with it. Besides, you've no doubt already heard multiple critics (including those who reviewed the films for this blog) tell you how good those movies are. If you're serious about movies at all, you will eventually see them. I know I will. Just not in time to be considered for this list.
On the plus side, that means I have to dig a little deeper for my list. And as bad a year for movies as 2016 sometimes seemed to be, it wasn't that hard to find 10 movies that I really enjoyed. In fact, I ultimately decided to do a Top 15. plus a few more honorable mentions. I've also compiled a separate list of documentaries (only 10 there). Considering how many high profile bombs there were this year, it can't hurt to highlight a few more good movies, especially given how many of these flew under the radar.
As of this writing, I have seen 150 feature films that had their Cleveland debuts in 2016, either theatrically or on various home video formats. A few of those films may have been released elsewhere in the country or the world a year or two earlier. But if it was not legally possible to see a given film in the Cleveland area until this year, it counts as a 2016 release for me. My list, my rules.
Now, without further ado, here are my favorite films of the year.
Bob's favorite scripted films of 2016
15. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – First off, I'm just a sucker for stop motion animation, and that technique is used to excellent effect here. But beyond the technical artistry, this is a film with a genuinely compelling story. Plenty of action and laughs, but there's substance, too.
14. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN – Being a teenager has never been easy. Modern technology can make it even harder, especially for a socially awkward girl still reeling from the loss of her father. That old line about high school being "the best years of your life" may be bullshit, but there's no denying those years are filled with more than enough drama (and comedy) to make a good movie.
13. KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE – A very meta film about an actress researching the life and death by on-air suicide of seventies TV newswoman Christine Chubbuck that blurs the line between documentary and scripted drama. An indictment of the "if it bleeds, it leads" ethos of TV news that also holds its makers and its audience complicit.
12. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE – An odd little family film in which a young boy shuffled around by New Zealand's foster care system escapes into the woods with a gruff father figure who doesn't particularly want to be bothered with him.
11. BLEAK STREET – Two down on their luck "little person" Mexican wrestlers have an encounter with a pair of desperate prostitutes that ends in tragedy. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it's a gripping tale of fringe dwellers on a collision course with doom.
10. TRAIN TO BUSAN – The high-concept pitch is "zombies on a train", but TRAIN TO BUSAN not only delivers on that premise, it turns out to be more than that. The mix of horror and action draws you in, but this is a zombie movie with heart. Sure, bring your barf bag, but also bring some tissues.
9. ARRIVAL (Review by George M. Thomas) – This alien "first contact" film asks its audience to wrap their heads around complex ideas about time and communication. But it's on an emotional level that it really connects, as its protagonist (played by Amy Adams) begins to realize the personal implications of what she learns from these strange visitors.
8. I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVESIN THE HOUSE – A minor masterpiece of quiet horror that recalls Robert Wise's 1963 version of THE HAUNTING and John D. Hancock's 1971 obscurity LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH in the way it explores horror through the fragile psyche of its female protagonist.
7. MUSTANG (2015 release that opened in Cleveland January 2016) –A Turkish "girls coming of age" story that illustrates the tensions of a society torn between religious fundamentalism on one hand, and progressive secularism on the other.
6. LOVING (review by George M. Thomas) – The "based on a true story"/social issue movie done right. Director Jeff Nichols' film about a couple whose case led to the legalization of interracial marriage in the United States is not some stiff, preachy history lesson, but an emotionally resonant, human story.
5. THE NEON DEMON – Nicholas Winding Refn once again shows himself to be the master of style over substance with this neon-lit, synth-throbbing horror allegory for our culture's obsession with beauty. The plot is thin, and the themes are obvious, but it's practically bursting at the seams with bravura filmmaking energy. And damn, it looks and sounds good.
4. KRISHA – An estranged family member's attempts to reconnect at Thanksgiving end in disaster. An emotionally powerful and visually stunning film that shows it's still possible to make a great movie on a shoestring budget.
3. THE WITCH – A slow-paced period piece about a family whose strong faith proves not so much a rock to lean on in times of trouble, but rather the root of their destruction. THE WITCH is a challenging film whose chills are more intellectual than visceral, and one which requires careful attention to fully appreciate.
2. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015 release that opened in Cleveland March 2016) – A shaman reflects on his past interactions with white explorers as well as his own people, and realizes he has something he still needs to do. A beautiful film that is both an exciting adventure, and a powerful social commentary.
1. SWISS ARMY MAN – A castaway is about to kill himself when a corpse washes up on his island and becomes his new best friend, as well as providing useful tools for survival. A twisted, funny, and utterly original film that will be hated by most and passionately embraced by a few.
Honorable Mention: 45 YEARS (2015), ARABIAN NIGHTS TRILOGY, BASKIN, DER BUNKER, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR, THE CLUB, DEADPOOL, DON'T THINK TWICE, THE GREASY STRANGLER, GREEN ROOM, HAIL CAESAR, HELL OR HIGH WATER, THE INVITATION, THE JUNGLE BOOK, LITTLE MEN, NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH, NICE GUYS, SAUSAGE PARTY, SNOWDEN, SOUTHBOUND, A WAR (2015), ZOOTOPIA
Bob's favorite documentary films of 2016
10. WEINER – A portrait of raw narcissism, ambition, and cluelessness in the political arena. Finished and released before its subject, Anthony Weiner, played a role in the recent Presidential election.
9. DO NOT RESIST – Taking a "fly on the wall" approach, DO NOT RESIST documents the militarization of policing in America.
8. GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM – A tragic true story of loneliness, mental illness, and death.
7. INTO THE INFERNO – Director Werner Herzog shows both the magnificent power and beauty of volcanoes, and the strange ways they have shaped human culture.
6. THE WITNESS – The murder of Kitty Genovese has burned itself into the American psyche as an illustration of human apathy, particularly as it applies to the "big city". Decades later, the victim's brother sets out to find the truth.
5. RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE –The true story of 3 friends who decided, at the age of 12, to do a shot-for-shot remake of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. 25 years later, they set out to get the one scene that eluded them.
4. CAMERAPERSON – Unused footage from a life spent shooting other people's movies is crafted into a surprisingly deep and personal film.
3. THE PEARL BUTTON – Another compellingly poetic rumination on Chile's past, present, and future from director Patricio Guzman.
2. 13TH – Ava DuVernay draws a line from slavery to mass incarceration to show the devastating effects of institutional racism in America.
1. TOWER – This animated recreation of Charles Whitman's August 1st, 1966 mass shooting spree at the University of Texas focuses not on the murderer, but on the ordinary people who crossed his path that fateful day.
Honorable Mention: BELIEVELAND, DEPALMA, DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN'S FANTASTIC FOUR, FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE, GLEASON, LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD, NUTS, REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM, THE RESURRECTION OF JAKE THE SNAKE, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, WE ARE TWISTED F***ING SISTER