10. The Witch
I will remember this movie for a long time mainly due to its striking imagery. I don't know what its influences are that make the environment be such a strong part of the storytelling ... Kurosawa? But that's what I took from it. A feeling of dread, as the trees close in around you, and with no God to listen to your fears.
I think a science fiction movie where the primary emotion you feel is a kind of moody, meditative sadness is very bold. That it remains uplifting is surprising. It also never feels simplistic or pat when it comes to the plot; I adore the source material and though the film departs in several ways, I think the spirit of it was well-captured. Expect to see more (all?) of Ted Chiang's stories adapted in the near future.
8. Hell or High Water
It's an indie-crime movie crossed with the current zeitgeist and without the latter I think it would have been pretty forgettable. But then you have beautiful, haunting scenes of the impoverished southern country people who still proudly remember when their families were heroic frontiersmen. It helps that this was also my favourite theater-going experience of the year, with family all equally into what we were seeing.
Does the script hit the theme a little too hard? Maybe. I am a sucker for melodrama though. Also, I have to say that Chris Pine continues to surprise me. After this and Finest Hours (not a good movie, but he's great in it), I can no longer write him off as a wise-cracker (though maybe he just needs Ben Foster next to him from now on to elevate his performances).
7. Triple 9
Good cops-and-robbers movies are hard to come by. This is probably the best example since Heat, but I found it to be less mythic than that film and more ... existential, maybe? Having seen Casey Affleck play cool and collected characters it was refreshing to see him playing naive so well, which is probably more challenging than it looks. The riot-shield action set piece is every bit as awesome as the big gunfight scene from Heat though, in fact the direction in general is less self-indulgent than Michael Mann can be.
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
For complete, breathtaking beauty, you can't beat animation, and this was the most beautiful animated film of the year. When you realize that everything you see in this film is not CG, but hand-crafted stop motion, you appreciate it even more. It's a real shame it didn't have the kind of marketing support that other animated films did this year. Of the characters, Charlize Theron's performance is the real draw here ... easily as good as Meryl Streep was in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and with the kind of complexity you don't often see in animation.
5. Hail, Caesar!
It's easy to write this off as a "Minor Coen brothers" movie, like Burn after Reading or Intolerable Cruelty. I think it's better than both of those ... probably their funniest movie since Big Lebowski, and somehow in between the hilarious scenes you get depiction of the 50's Hollywood studio system that seems gently over-the-top in each individual scene yet feels authentic as a whole. It also feels that the Coens have outgrown their smugness, and truly love these characters. I want more movies where Clooney plays a clueless dunce.
4. La La Land
Critics everywhere have explained ad nauseam why this film is great, so let me just explain why I loved it: Emma Stone. She is so amazing in this ... what a performance. Her emotions are right there at the surface, it's like her heart was right out there to be trampled on in every single scene. The colours and beautiful camera work (like, what seem to be insanely long takes during the dance numbers) and all the art in the production design is just magical. I challenge anyone to maintain their cynical shield watching it. And the ending is as romantic as Casablanca's ... yes, I said it.
3. Captain America: Civil War
I don't know if this movie would have worked without all that we've been through with these characters. Compared to what DC is doing these days, it's so pulpy and bubbly it might as well be a mimosa. Which is just what I wanted from a AAA superhero blockbuster in 2016 ... or a comic book. There is real delight in every scene, like the actors are just enjoying each other's company, and the action sequences are so lively and entertaining. It's also great to see an African superhero with substance added to the mix who can stand up to Captain America or Ironman as an equal. I can watch this over and over again and not get tired of it.
2. Everybody Wants Some!!
I'll put my cards on the table -- I think Dazed and Confused is arguably Richard Linklater's greatest film, a real masterpiece. I don't think Everybody Wants Some is as good as Dazed and Confused, but it taps into the same feelings for me. I don't think it's just a retread. Some of what I love about it are the subtle differences between the two films. I love how the characters are college freshmen vs. highschool freshmen, and as such they're a little more confident. I love the period details, the way it captures a sort of ephemeral "between" time moving from the 70's to the 80's, when people had turntables and VCRs, when styles and music trends were changing while others hadn't yet. I love how Linklater sees all his young characters so warmly, not as shallow stereotypes, and lets them mingle across cliques the way people actually do. And I love how he paces it, how the rhythms of life seem to just ramble along and the kids express truth as they see it, in the simple, self-conscious, silly way that kids do.
1. Green Room
Here is a thriller where everything is working in harmony to deliver pure, visceral suspense, the way early John Carpenter or even Hitchcock used to. Film school students should study this movie as an example of how to do exposition well: the kids in the band have their own jargon after being together for months on the road, and the villains speak in a clipped shorthand that represents their own secret instructions, and what matters from one moment to the next gradually becomes clear at the same rate as the tension mounts. I loved every minute of it and after it was finished I let out a long shaking breath and then laughed in joy. Such a terrific cast, and it is such a bummer to see how good Anton Yelchin could be and be reminded of how soon we lost him. See this if you haven't!