Year in Review
BEST OF 2016
Featuring Jackie, La La Land, Zootopia, and more.
By Blake Peterson
De Palma by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
What it’s about: Legendary director Brian De Palma sits down with filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow and discusses every single movie he’s ever made.
Why it’s great: Even for those not as indebted to De Palma’s body of work, there’s much to enjoy here. With enough dirt dug up on dramas between actors on his sets, with enough delineations regarding the circle of filmmaking friends he surrounded himself with throughout his career (he was close to Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Schrader), and with enough private leakages to make him considerably more human, entertainment value is to be found no matter one’s devotion to him. Of course, though, aficionados are going to be the ones having a field day. And I’m among them.
Everybody Wants Some by Richard Linklater
What it’s about: In Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, interest circles around the last twenty-four hours before the first day of college for a group of baseball hopefuls.
Why it’s great: If Linklater’s two decade plus long career has taught us anything, it’s shown us that he mimics a magnificently gifted flâneur more than he does a stereotypical Hollywood filmmaker. With a filmography that mostly leans toward the art of the character piece, Linklater doesn’t so much write characters as he does individuals that swell in their three-dimensionality, their motivations never as connect-the-dot simple as some movies would have you believing. Everybody Wants Some is no different. The more we familiarize ourselves with the central, Texas living collegiate baseball players as they get to know one another, we find that in front of us are not the boorish jocks we thought we hated in high school. In front of us are hotshots who don costumes of apparently invincible confidence as a way to hide their insecurities and their fears, making the most their physical assets and their temporarily notable statuses before they’re forever lost in the oblivion of the past. And there’s a stir to that.
Eye in the Sky by Gavin Hood
What it’s about: A military surveillance team (led by Helen Mirren) is afflicted with moral dilemma when a child inadvertently comes in close contact to the dangerous terrorist headquarters they’re planning to bomb.
Why it’s great: Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky is one of the best thrillers of the year, but I doubt you’ll find another that intellectually arouses you in the ways that it so proficiently does. Here, there are no emotional payoffs, no cathartic sighs of relief, no actions completely inarguable in their being “right.” In place is a battle of egos, a battle of differing moral compasses struggling to band together in their making a decision in an unwinnable situation. Much of its suspense is procured by an overpowering sense of doom; a satisfying final resolution is nowhere in sight. What we have in its ending is not a conventional conclusion but a temporary buffer.
Love & Friendship by Whit Stillman
What it’s about: Calculating socialite Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) utilizes her sex appeal and wicked intelligence to seduce the powerful (albeit dim-witted) Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) after her wealthy husband suddenly passes.
Why it’s great: After coming back from a thirteen year absence from filmmaking with 2011’s amiable (if forgettable) Damsels in Distress, 2016’s Love & Friendship finds Whit Stillman roaring back to the top of the indie food chain. As it goes for period pieces aplenty, we’re uniformly more drawn to the otherworldly, aristocratic dreamworlds set in motion than we are to the material at hand. But Love & Friendship, without fail, puts its sharpened dialogue before anything else, its sheen lavish but nevertheless toned down as a way to heighten Stillman’s bougie targeted commentary. We have no choice but to lap up its canniness, and Beckinsale, who reminds us just how often she’s wasted in movies that don’t know how to use her, gives a wonderful, shrewd performance.
The Invitation by Karyn Kusama
What it’s about: A dinner party, riddled with tension, turns sour after it’s revealed that the hosts (Tammy Blachard and Michiel Huisman), who haven’t been seen by their group of friends for years, have intentions much darker than mere re-acquaintance.
Why it’s great: With a deliciously twisted ending acting as the cinematic cherry on top to the succulent sum of its parts, The Invitation is horror with enough emotional tugs and enough categorical terror to stick with you as a minor masterpiece not to be reckoned with. On display is confident filmmaking only a veteran of Kusama’s sort could achieve. (One could say that it’s a comeback for the filmmaker, who broke out with 2000’s Girlfight but was sidelined by the failures of the critically panned Æon Flux  and the undeservedly underrated Jennifer’s Body .) It’s a (brutally dark) comedy of manners with Buñuel in its head and Polanski in its heart.
The Nice Guys by Shane Black
What it’s about: Odd couple detectives (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) team up to sift through a porny 1970s to search for a missing little girl lost with connections to the Department of Justice.
Why it’s great: Reminiscent of the Lily Tomlin/Art Carney headed The Late Show (1977), in itself an extraordinarily fun romp about an odd couple venturing to solve a crime, The Nice Guys goes far and wide with the snappy hilarity that flavors Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi’s pitch perfect screenplay and the breathless chemistry between Gosling and Crowe. Its storyline may be convoluted — comparable to 1998’s unfollowable The Big Lebowski — but its entertainment value is so fluent that it doesn’t much matter to keep oneself up to date in regards to character motivations and supposed plot twists.
The Witch by Robert Eggers
What it’s about: A publicly shamed seventeenth century New England family struggles to survive at a new property on a rural plantation. The combination of winter and visitations by apparent supernatural evil test their limits; all ends in an explosion of violence.
Why it’s great: The Witch does often rely on its titular villain for sanctimonious terror, but I think the movie is at its most interesting when the spotlight is taken away from paranormal malevolence. Writer/director Eggers doesn’t just rely on the mystical to ensure visceral impact; he also explores the effect newly formed adulthood can have on a dysfunctional family, how grieving can be a painful, sometimes violent force, how assigned expectations of gender can disturb one’s placing of their identity. With his ideas solidified by an award-worthy cast, there’s never a moment in The Witch that isn’t saddled by turmoil, whether anguish be caused by opposing forces or one’s self.
Zootopia by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
What it’s about: A bubbly bunny rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) living in a world comprised only of anthropomorphic animals becomes a cop and proves herself to be a great deal more scrappy than your typical newbie after she begins investigating mysterious disappearances that seem connected to the government.
Why it’s great: Zootopia is a disarmingly smart whodunit/buddy cop comedy bursting with personality, so jam packed with sly one-liners and cultural references that its lurking social commentary (paralleling racial prejudice) proves itself to be the icing on top of its tasty dessert of escapism. It’s a rich cake of bright humor, subtly humanistic drama, and awe-inspiring visuals, and its energetic voice cast, featuring everyone from Tommy Chong to Shakira, is the very thing that makes it unstoppably winsome. So take what you can get — it’s a dependably ingenious work of supple entertainment. Here, we can have our cake and eat it, too, and there’s no shame in being older than an average elementary schooler and hoping for a sequel.
Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
What it’s about: This gut-punching documentary follows Anthony Weiner’s doomed 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City.
Why it’s great: By now, the misguided, sext obsessed politician has become a laughing stock, a pathetic embodiment of disappointment. And that’s why Weiner is such a fascinating work of nonfiction. Stripping away the stinging jokes of Stephen Colbert and John Stewart, the constant reminders that Weiner felt the need to victimize a toothy twenty-two-year-old named Sydney Leathers under the alias Carlos Danger, and the sniggering that generally comes along with even uttering his last name, the doc’s more inclined to figure out why the man’s such a notorious dick. Though answers may not come easily.
La La Land by Damien Chazelle
What it’s about: Two industry hopefuls (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) respectively try to make it in the music and movie biz in modern Los Angeles.
Why it’s great: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash ) believes that Hollywood is as much a boulevard of broken dreams as it is a flavorsome Tinsel Town in which everything proves to be affectionately Technicolor if you look hard enough, and those intertwining beliefs give weight to his daydreams in the winning modern-day musical La La Land. A proponent of both the idealistic Hollywood Golden Age and the darker romanticism of the latter day musical, he finds a wispy balance between old school tribute and game-changing revolution and ends up with something a little Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and a little All That Jazz (1979). Gosling and (especially) Stone are Oscar worthy, as is Justin Hurwitz’s instantaneously classic score.
Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie
What it’s about: Down on their luck brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) start robbing banks in an attempt to get themselves out of impending financial doom. Good old boy sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his ever patient partner (Gil Birmingham) are hot on their trail.
Why it’s great: Without the modern technologies that sometimes salt the atmosphere, it’d closely resemble Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) or Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). It’s a character study hiding in an amalgamation of genre tropes, a heist thriller doused in greatness. Its pitch-perfect writing, perceptive performances, and skillful direction are so electrifying to behold that it, with clichéd exasperation, is the kind of movie that makes one believe in the movies again.
The Edge of Seventeen by Kelly Fremon Craig
What it’s about: Defiant teen (Hailee Steinfeld) finds herself in the midst of consuming despair when her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her popular brother (Blake Jenner).
Why it’s great: The Edge of Seventeen is the perfect tragicomedy and the perfect teen movie, equal parts hysterically funny and movingly sad. Some of Nadine’s problems (and Veronica Sawyer-esque one-liners) bring us to unflinching fits of laughter, from her accidental sending of a sexually explicit message to her crush to her every exchange with her favorite teacher, portrayed by a sardonic but eventually superheroically sympathetic Woody Harrelson. From a vapid outsider’s perspective might Steinfeld’s Nadine resemble a post-football, post-braces Marcia Brady. But through director Craig’s compassion are we provided with a multifaceted heroine whose sorrows are treated with the gravitas of a Shakespearean heavyweight.
A Bigger Splash by Luca Guadagnino
What it’s about: The sun-soaked vacation of recovering rockstar Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a former lover (Ralph Fiennes) and his lusty daughter (Dakota Johnson).
Why it’s great: An erotic thriller unabashed in its love of skin flashing, sexual tension, beautiful people, stunning locales, and, of course, murder, it is a sensual slow burn of sexual politics gone wrong, of clashing egos pushed to their respective breaking points. Delectably tense and effortlessly entertaining (with much of its success having to do with its throwback celebration of hedonism), A Bigger Splash is one of the best movies of 2016.
The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos
What it’s about: In a dystopian society, singlehood is not an option for the adult population. Without a spouse or a lover by your side, you’re forced, by the government, to live in a ritzy hotel to find someone to call a mate. If forty-five days pass and you’re still independent, you’re turned into an animal. The film follows middle-aged introvert David’s (Colin Farrell) antics within the walls of the aforementioned hotel and later outside of them after he rebels. Things are complicated, though, when he falls in love with a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) he faces an impossible future with.
Why it’s great: Written by Efthymis Filippou and director Lanthimos himself in deadpan style so cutting it’d seem monotone if not for the film’s precise incongruousness, The Lobster, like a callous game of cinematic Operation, rips apart the societal norms associated with marriage with vigor so deadly and so needle sharp that it’d perhaps be impolite to regard the screenwriters’ satirical vision as anything less than magnificent. Because the approach to its absurdities is chiefly clinical, heightened is the film’s outlandish humor and its mordant trimmings.
Jackie by Pablo Larraín
What it’s about: The life of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the month following her husband’s 1963 assassination, divided into three respectively brilliant narratives.
Why it's great: Consider Pablo Larraín’s Jackie to be the very first masterpiece utilizing the Kennedys as its human targets. For once, all consuming is not just the personas of those immersed in the perceived-to-be short-lived world of early 1960s presidential glamour. Riveting, too, is the film’s study of the disconnect that rests between the perception of the outsider and the perception of the self when they’re intertwined with international fame and, later, trauma and tragedy. With the entirety of the movie spent in the aftermath of a crisis, every moment is cloaked in the kind of corporeal bereavement that keeps its characters, and sometimes us, so fragile that an emotional breaking point is near constantly waiting to be pushed past. The world is perpetually closing in, crashing down.