I know it’s a bit of a flogged horse at this point but: Man, fuck this year.
I am so ready to put 2016 in the rear view that I’m getting my Top 10 Movies of the Year list out of the way more than half a month early. Obviously there are more movies coming out in the next few weeks but nothing that I anticipate making a dent on my list. All of the awards-contenders ruffling feathers in the States aren’t due out here in the UK until at least January, which isn’t even to say I think they would make the list if they came out earlier. Like most years, my choices don’t really line up with what any sort of awards body would go for.
Speaking of other years, I didn’t write up a Top 10 for 2015 because my headspace was so utterly dominated by Mad Max that it immediately topped any list I would write, leaving the other nine entries for Fury Road puns. If you’re interested in my choices for 2014, they can be found at this piece I wrote for The Evans Review back then.
So, here’s the countdown. These movies were all leagues ahead of most cinema fare this year and worth your attention…
#10 – Moana
Well, I didn’t see this coming, which is actually pretty odd given how much I genuinely enjoyed both Tangled and Frozen (that piece of shit Snowman fucker notwithstanding). Disney princesses have long been a staple in pop culture but the way that the Mouse House has been willing recently to reassess just what it means to portray a young female protagonist and update their themes and characters for the times has been nothing short of heartening to see. Broad branding choices aside, Moana is great. It’s colourful, vibrant and energetic as hell. Dwayne Johnson threatens to overwhelm the movie with sass as the aberrant sidekick but the voice of Moana, Auli’i Cravalho, absolutely owns her role grounding the the movie with a real sense of desire and strength.
The music herein deserves commendation for all the opposite reasons that Frozen did. Frozen only really had one memorable track whereas Moana only has one song that didn’t click with me. At the same time, none of the music felt especially earworm-y. None of the songs grabbed me but even with just one viewing, I felt a gnawing to go back and revisit the soundtrack that only grew with time. These songs aren’t gimmicky, they’re just really, really good and it’s been a long time since any Disney movie has produced music anywhere near this good.
Also, Moana had a sequence that turned into an incredible Fury Road pastiche, so obviously it makes the list.
#9 – Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie is fast becoming a director to watch. His last feature, Starred Up, also took the #9 spot on this list two years ago which I only realised once I’d decided where to put this movie on this list. Unlike that prison drama, I can’t profess that his neo-western stands above its peers as an especially gritty example of genre. Compared to the likes of No Country for Old Men, it’s outright bouncy and actually acts as almost the antithesis of the Coen Brother’s effort.
Hell or High Water is happy to provide satisfaction and it does so from just about every perspective. Arid scenery, strong story, performances that are outright great (although when two of your leads are Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, you’d expect as much) and a surprising amount of quirky humour and energy result in a movie that’s engaging and unafraid to invoke a sprinkling of pathos where required.
#8 – Zootopia
For some reason, this movie is called Zootropolis here in the UK, but I think that sounds dumb so I still call it by its real name.
Zootopia is everything I want kids movies to be. Oftentimes film-critics will be happy to point out that a certain kids flick will have jokes set aside for ‘the parents’ but I’ve always found this practice pretty lazy. Zootopia bypasses this issue by including jokes smart enough that at first glance they appear to be ‘for the parents’ but upon closer inspection reveal themselves as having been constructed in just such a way that kids can understand and appreciate them too. Even more impressive, this jokes are usually simultaneously statements about some pretty heady shit, like racism and sexism and…you know, all that bigotry we’re still surprised by even though movies spent the whole year warning us about it.
With really gorgeous design and animation and a really funny voice cast, Zootopia (along with the likes of Moana and Frozen) make a tremendously strong case that Disney animation is going through some sort of second renaissance. Or at the very least, that Pixar have no right to be the premier animation studio in the Magic Kingdom any more.
#7 – 10 Cloverfield Lane
It’s about time to strap in because at least five (possibly six) of the following films are, to some extent or another, horror movies.
So let’s board the nightmare train with 10 Cloverfield Lane, a spiritual successor to 2007’s Cloverfield which time has proven to be a movie that is, simply put, divisive as hell. For what it’s worth, I’ve always been Team Clovie. Obviously, this entry should show that’s still the case.
10 Cloverfield Lane is haunting. It leaves me with the same feeling I’d get if I was in a room with a psychopath sat in the corner, patiently running a razor blade up a spool of piano wire. It’s tense as all fuck and you’re just left waiting for the shoe to drop because, sure as you’re born, that shit will land and it’ll be with a deafening thud when it does. Some people won’t like that thud, but I was on board one hundred percent.
All the actors involved here do a tremendous job but the movie belongs to John Goodman. Goodman’s played menacing and scary characters before but never has he been so outright goddamn creepy as he is here, wheezes and all.
#6 – The Invitation
I’m not going to say a goddamn thing about The Invitation. I’m not touching its story, its characters or even its genre. More on that in the next entry.
What I will say is that it’s the sort of movie that doesn’t necessarily reward patience but demands it. Director Karyn Kusama takes her time explaining anything including who we’re watching, how they know each other, what they’re doing or what’s going to happen next. It’s the rare sort of movie that will actively keep you on your toes because no matter which avenue it eventually chooses to travel down there are enough tangents set off to examine.
Sure, it’s slow. Sure, it can be docile. Sure, it might be infuriating in spots.
It’s also the one of the very best movies of the year.
#5 – Arrival
Much like with The Invitation, I almost don’t want to say anything about Arrival. The short break down is that it’s an alien invasion movie and, again, I kinda daren’t mention any particular genre because the first half of the movie did a great job keeping me guessing just what sort of movie it was going to turn out to be.
Both of these movies deserve a lot of credit for that. They not only manage to subvert expectations frequently but they weave that sense of uncertainty into the larger view of the picture without necessarily turning their respective stories into puzzles like, say, a Nolan joint. If you can stick out that willingness to play with your perception, there’s a lot to love in both flicks.
Also, kudos to Amy Adams for a terrific performance (more on her, shortly) and to director Denis Villeneuve for packing in so many interesting ideas without letting any of them feel under-utilised or stale.
#4 – Kubo and the Two Strings
I should mention that as we pitch into the top four, that all these choices are going to start becoming increasingly personal for me. I think that all of the previous six movies can and should be appreciated by everyone. From hereon out, if you saw any of my top picks and absolutely hated them…I couldn’t really blame you. But they really spoke to me.
What I love about Kubo and the Two Strings is how it looks. A seamless melding of stop-motion and CG animation, set in a bright and captivating feudal Japan, Laika’s latest movie is gorgeous from top-to-bottom. It’s also something of a relic and a reminder of a bygone age. As much as I think it’s stunning from top to bottom, it’s using such an entirely different visual playbook that some people must look at it and think that by today’s standards it all just looks…wrong. If that’s the case, I hope they can stick with it because Kubo touches on everything I want kids movies to be. It’s smart and emotional and funny. It’s interesting and creative. Seeing how Laika have approached a world of samurai through a fantastical mythological lens is altogether good fun and it’s the sort of storytelling I think more kids (and adults, actually) should be exposed to.
#3 – Nocturnal Animals
I’m kind of surprised that anyone other than me likes Nocturnal Animals at all. It’s such a strange and nasty little movie that pulls no punches and dictates as much with its opening shots. Directed by Tom Ford, fashion icon turned film director, and the follow up to his debut feature (A Single Man), Nocturnal Animals wants you to know immediately that this is an entirely different sort of story.
For those who didn’t see it A Single Man is a (very good) movie all about repression from the narrative following a gay university professor in 60’s California to its subdued colour palettes. Nocturnal Animals has none of that restraint. It’s cold and it’s hard and it bites with teeth bared beneath perfect crimson lipstick.Amy Adams features (again, in dazzling fashion) as a woman reading a novel written by her ex-husband, the movie takes on the feeling of a predator toying with its food and the food is the audience. Which audience? Well, that’s the fun of it all.
In a role as far apart from her turn in Arrival as possible, Adams shines through the murk of her characters despondency. The beauty I’d expect from a Tom Ford picture is still present but is offset enough against the wretched spitefulness of the narrative to feel truly unsettling and enthralling all at once. For a man who has made such a career out of clothing that people love, I’m wholly impressed by the lengths he’s taken to make a movie that most people will hate. So of course, I loved it.
#2 – The Witch
Speaking of movies that people hate…
To date, I believe I know one other person who has seen The Witch (sometimes stylised as The Vvitch which is way fucking cooler). She and her boyfriend bailed on the movie about 20 minutes in, citing it as ‘hilarious’. They aren’t on their own. According to CinemaScores, audiences leaving screenings of The Witch gave it an average score of C- which, by their metrics, is fucking awful. Even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (i.e, the worst one) got a B+.
I suppose my only saving grace is that I’m not alone. Critics lapped The Witch up. Like some of the other films on this list, it’s slow and drawn out. It picks a very specific style and it fucking sticks to its guns the whole way through. In this case, that style is that of very old fashioned English language being spoken as a puritanical family are cast from their New England colony and left to fend for themselves in the woods. It’s super about religion. Oh, and also there might be a witch, just in case the title didn’t give that away.
So, yeah, I can kinda see why it might not hold a great deal of mass appeal but I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t an incredible piece of horror. The interesting thing about it is that at no point watching The Witch was I frightened…but I don’t think I was supposed to be. I walked away haunted. Haunted by the characters, by the world, the visuals, the belief, the language. It all stuck in my head and rattled around until I couldn’t see the hell for all the hate harboured in the little wooden cabin that the film takes place almost exclusively within. It’s a movie that inspires poetic thinking in the same way that reading Dante or Poe does, which is to say that if you like it then you might walk out of The Witch as an artist.
That art might not be very pleasant, though.
#1 – Green Room
Before we take a look at Green Room, let’s compare it to my top picks for the last two years. 2014 was the year of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that I still consider to be the most energetic Marvel movie to date. Last year was all about Mad Max: Fury Road, a cinematic masterpiece that was already 50 miles past ‘all-out’ by the end of the first set-piece. And now there’s Green Room.
Let me put it this way: I’m seeing a trend.
Green Room is the sort of movie that cuts your heart in two with a rusty nail pried from a splintered door, jams one half in your throat and the other in the pit of your stomach. It’s a movie that takes everything good about the world and turns it into a weapon. It’s the sort of film that knows less is more, weakness can be as dangerous as strength and nothing is absolute. It’s freaking awesome.
Set in the titular green room, a young punk band is witness to a murder and trapped by a group of murderous Neo-Nazis hellbent on covering up the whole mess. That’s pretty much it but it’s well more than enough. There is a lot of terrible, grotesque shit that goes on but the real magic of Green Room is how unsettling it all is considering that you don’t actually see very much of it. Framing, sound design, horrible ratcheting tension and more are among the tools used to keep you squirming in your seat with eyes peeking through fingers because even though it’s mostly pretty lacking in gore, Jesus Christ, it couldn’t possibly be more upsetting.
Nor could it necessarily be more creative without spilling into the realms of absurdist dogshit. Every character in Green Room is entirely believable and empathetic given the circumstances which means that when shit goes from worse to “WHAT THE FUCK?” with only a split-second of warning, you kinda want to yell exactly that. Director Jeremy Saulnier, who cur his teeth on the great Blue Ruin a few years back, milks that technique (giving you just enough information to figure out what will happen next but executing before you’ve reached the conclusion) for all it’s worth and it results in an experience that is as gleefully harrowing as they come.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t also an incredibly rich experience. It’s a movie that, as horrific as it is, isn’t afraid to be calm and cute and oh-so-funny in spots. And some of the world building used with the briefest of visual motifs is impressive on the level of being so obvious that it’s somewhat annoying that nobody else has thought of it by now.
In a year in which I’ve essentially split the difference between kids movies and horror flicks it feels especially prescient that my favourite turned out to be a horror movie about a bunch of kids. It’s the sort of movie that I can’t even say they don’t make anymore because I don’t think they ever really did. It’s a force entirely unto itself with originality, charm and terror to spare. It’s exactly the sort of movie I would want to see more of if I think it could be done any better…but I honestly don’t think it can.
So that probably makes it my favourite movie of the year.
Honourable Mentions (more kids movies!):
In what was a generally bullshit year for blockbusters (more on that below) I wanted to throw out a few less honourable mentions than usual:
The Jungle Book, The Nice Guys, Hail Caesar!, Hardcore Henry (kinda?), Star Trek Beyond, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, The Girl on the Train,
A Reflection on the Superhero Shitshow:
It’s interesting to look back and see that I put Captain America at the top spot for that year because, holy shit, did comic-book movies generally drop the fucking ball this year. X-Men might have been the most forgettable movie of the year, Batman v Superman was about as unwieldy as its title, Suicide Squad is a movie that I enjoyed through sheer force of will alone and Doctor Strange is at best a reasonably entertaining reboot of an already over-rated Marvel movie. Don’t get me wrong, Civil War was pretty good but it didn’t have quite the same spark as Winter Soldier and Deadpool was very funny but ironically wound up being upstaged by its own marketing campaign. I don’t even think I’ve been especially fatigued by superhero movies, I just think this was an off-year, which generally reflects most of what I saw in the cinema this year anyway.
Like I said, fuck this year. Let’s hope I’ve a little more positivity to bookend the 2017 list.