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The Best Films of 2016: #20-11

Let us make one thing clear. 2016 was a shitty year in a lot of ways, I think I and countless others have said that enough. But the one place it thrived and soared was in film. While the blockbusters this year were by and large disappointing, ranging from the grimly grandiose to the inanely incoherent (and that’s just Warner Brothers), those willing to dig under the surface found a wealth of treasures.

2016 was full of film that, in the smallest ways and in the largest ways, reminded us of the vitality of film art and made it clear why we’ve gone to the movies for a century now. They made us laugh and cry and drop our jaws often all in the same sequence. In a year of films that I absolutely loved, here are the 20 that stood (for me) above the rest.

20) Don’t Think Twice

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Personal, bittersweet, and surprising, Don’t Think Twice is perhaps the surest sign that Mike Birbiglia has become one of our most potent storytellers in the world of comedy. Broaching just a little bit outside of himself, Birbiglia weaves a compelling ensemble with stories that are deeply touching for anyone who’s ever been creative and forcing themselves to make compromises. Perhaps the biggest pleasure here is his cast, featuring a host of comedians who are doing some of their best work, including Keegan Michael-Key and Gillian Jacobs in two of this year’s most overlooked performances. In a year of films that struck deep, almost nothing forced you to confront yourself quite like Don’t Think Twice. 

Best Scene: The Commune’s Last Show

19) The Nice Guys

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No film this angry has ever been this much fun. Shane Black’s darkly humorous tale of two amateur gumshoes in 1970s LA is a barrel of laughs and violence that’s seeking to figure exactly why the powerful have screwed the country up. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s told to you by one of the best duos of the year. Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe weren’t (before this year) two guys known for their comedy chops, but the two are an almost effortless comedy team, finding almost endless comedy just in the way that they conduct their investigation. It helps that they’re assisted by Angourie Rice whose role as the precocious daughter of Gosling’s detective is the secret foundation of this movie. The Nice Guys is just the kind of adventure only Shane Black can bring, and we’re never going to be appreciative enough that we have him.

Best Scene: Party at the Porn Producer’s House

18) Sing Street

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Sing Street is the kind of film bred to be a cult classic, a deeply beloved darling among a few. Director John Carney fixes every mistake from previous Begin Again (most notably by writing songs that you want to listen to outside of the movie) and retains the huge beating heart and earnestness that make everything he’s made at least worth a watch so far. A great cast of kids anchors Sing Street, most notable because they feel like actual teenagers, not simply the construct of someone trying to remember that era. Their hopes, their fears, their sorrows, the way they process love hits so close to home, and the joys of watching them discover themselves can’t be missed.

Best Scene: “Drive It Like You Stole It.”

17) Green Room

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Green Room certainly wasn’t a film that we hoped or expected would be in the zeitgeist, but Saulnier’s story of Punks v. Nazis holds up to its surprising pressure admirably. An unrelenting blast of raw cinematic violence, I’m sure this one was responsible for more than a few claw marks dug into seats. It’s loud, it’s intense, it’s fast, it’s political and brutal. In other words, it’s punk. In a year of great films about music, no film let the ethos of its genre seep quite so deep into the bone as Green Room. 

Best Scene: “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”

16) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Taika Waititi has quietly become one of our cinematic treasures, a director who can put together a pitch-perfect story and cast and make it seem like he didn’t put an ounce of effort into pulling it off, that it’s just as natural for him as breathing. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rousing adventure flick, a young boy (the wonderful Julian Dennison) and his reluctant father (Sam Neill) against the wilderness and the world. It’s a film of deep charm that finds you in love with its characters from minute 1, the kind of film that makes your day just a little better.

Best Scene: Ricky and Hec meet three hunters

15) The Lobster

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If you’re single and you feel bad about it? Just watch The Lobster. I mean, you won’t necessarily feel better. You’ll laugh a lot, sure, but as much as is from the quiet absurdity of the jokes in Yorgos Lanthimos’ script, there’s plenty that ends up just being the uncomfortable recognition of real life reflected. The Lobster is a dark, brutal satire that deadpans its way through all of what it has to say, knowing it’s the quiet fury that hits all the harder. Colin Farrell’s David is perhaps one of the most surprising performances in years, an actor abandoning all vanity to give himself completely over to a character firmly opposite to him, and that chance lays dividends. The Lobster is a gorgeously bleak and hilarious and all too recognizable film.

Best Scene: David and The Shortsighted Woman’s tense walk through the mall

14) Kubo and the Two Strings

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Kubo and The Two Strings is a deeply felt film, that wears surprisingly difficult ideas about death, moving on, and the power of storytelling inside every frame of its epic video-game inspired adventure. Laika went bigger than they ever had before and it paid off, making a film of the kind of sweeping power that can mean something different to everybody. For kids, they see the trials of growing up. For adults, they see the trials of moving on. It’s also possibly one of the most gorgeous pieces of animation in years with its rich color and heartstopping motion and moment after moment where you just can’t imagine how they pulled it off. Yet it’s not in the biggest moments that Kubo finds visual strength, but in its smallest, in its textures and its facial expressions. Kubo is a stunning piece of animation and a deeply affecting one.

Best Scene: A beautiful goodbye to end the movie.

13) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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Joke for joke, this is probably the funniest comedy of the year. The Lonely Island crafted a movie that exemplified everything that brought them their deserved fame: their specificity, their enormous talent, their willingness to go weird and out-of-the-box, their ethos that anything and everything about a scene can be a joke, and the fact that they’re actually pretty strong songwriters. Popstar nails its target so dead-on that it excuses the well-worn ground they trod. It even makes you grow to care about these ridiculous people a little while you laugh at them.

Best Scene: A killer bee attack while the camera is turned off.

12) The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden is not the stuffy art film the picture above makes it appear. Yes, it’s an immaculately-composed work of Gothicism from Korean master Park Chan-Wook and yes it has plenty of ambiguity and dark psychosexual mindgames. It’s all that but it’s shoved into one of the most thrilling capers the year has to offer with a wicked sense of humor and a plot that twists every which way imaginable. It’s also got a masterful cast with two leads who deserve to be up at the Oscars this year. The Handmaiden is about as exciting and enjoyable as any blockbuster and as smart and well put-together as any art film. But that’s Park Chan-Wook for you, who continues to prove why he’s one of World Cinema’s best filmmakers.

Best Scene: This is a film where I don’t think I can pick a best scene, everything is so interconnected. Gun to my head? An early scene between our two leads in a bathtub.

11) The Edge of Seventeen

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Boy, I saw a few horror films this year and nothing made me avert my face from the screen quite as much as The Edge of Seventeen. A painfully identifiable look at teenagerdom through the eyes of the kind of teen we don’t see a whole lot on screen (not popular, not outwardly geeky, not some kind of saint), this is a film destined to join the canon of great teen films. Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut is a nimbly put together work, one that gives plenty of room to a wonderful script and an impressive cast that includes Blake Jenner showing he’s got chops and perhaps the most Woody Harrelson role that he has ever been able to play (and in that, he soars). But if Hailee Steinfeld wasn’t already a star, this would definitely be the movie that makes her one, giving one of the most impressive and nuanced performances of the year that never loses its capacity to find truth. Just a film of deep thought and feeling that wears every bit of emotion on its sleeve.

Best Scene: A confrontation between Nadine and Drian

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The delightful, wonderful Hunt for the Wilderpeople

SPOILERS. THEY’RE EARLY ON AND FUNDAMENTAL TO THE WHOLE STORY, BUT THEY’RE SPOILERS IF YOU’RE SENSITIVE.

The very New Zealand-based director Taika Waititi is the most exciting young director working right now, at least for my money and my blood and whatever other collateral I can put down that apparently reinforces my opinion. He’s assembled a little collection of smart, impossibly sweet yet not too sentimental, masterfully made pictures that are unabashed in their love for the weirdoes that populate their frames. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is simply one of the best encapsulations of that skill and that attitude.

Based on the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress, it’s the story of young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a “gangsta” young boy who’s been in and out of countless foster homes. He’s sent to the country to live an older couple, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Aunt Bella quickly takes Ricky into her home, but Uncle Hec is decidedly more resistant to letting the boy in.

Which makes it all the more difficult when Bella suddenly passes away, leaving Ricky’s home with Uncle Hec in jeopardy. Which is fine by Hec, until Ricky runs off into the Bush before Child Services can arrive, which eventually spirals into a nationwide manhunt since they believe that Hec kidnapped Ricky.

It’s a good old-fashioned “us-against-the-world” adventure story that marks Waititi’s return to more traditional narrative film, after his shockingly successful (and delightful) mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. In a slightly less literal way than that last traditional narrative, Boy, this one wears its 80s influence on its sleeve, for all its wonder and synths feeling like a lost film of the Stephen Spielberg-produced family film canon.

Perhaps its greatest charm is that family film feeling. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t feel made just for Waititi’s sake, but rather to be shared with everyone. On every level, there’s something to enjoy about this film, something you can take away as entertainment and as message. It’s a film for kids that has rollicking good times and a message about growing up and trusting others. For adults, there’s all that, but there’s also a touching poignancy to much of what happens and a story about loss and moving on.

Though as much as it’s in the text of the film, the seeming universality of this one is also just thanks to the sureness of Waititi’s directorial hand.  Nothing gets an idea across quite like someone being able to clearly convey it to you and to keep you engaged, and that’s what Waititi’s best at. He draws you into these weird, singular worlds and helps you to understand it the way he does, with the love that he has, and never in a way that even the most uncharitable observer could call dull.

Waititi’s style could be best described as Wes Anderson without the melancholic artifice or Edgar Wright with the volume turned down. Every image is composed within an inch of its life and the camera is always gently moving through or snapping to the next necessary point. There’s a sense of excited explanation, that the camera is just showing you something he finds amazing and the eye is showing you what’s so great about it. Whether that’s the action on screen or the country that he lives in, his camera brings you inside the world.

Of course, it isn’t just on Waititi, though I’m gonna give him one last bit of praise, because it’s a great segue. Waititi also just knows how to make a relentlessly charming set of characters every time. He specializes in loveable weirdoes, not quirky, but just people who don’t seem to know any other way.

It also helps that he gets solid casts and this one is no exception. Person by person, everyone is great, but I want to give a particular shout-out to the two leads Julian Dennison and Sam Neill. Julian Dennison plays Ricky, and he does a PHENOMENAL job for what is only his third role ever. He makes Ricky’s energy seem fun rather than annoying and he’s all too natural in a role where a lot of child actors could easily be cloying.

And Sam Neill’s just great. Didn’t even know he was a Kiwi until this movie (exposing a bit of a blind spot in my film viewing I’m sure), but he does the rugged mountain man thing so well, and again, he plays a part that could be thin or closed-off in a way that actually makes him feel relatable and loveable.

It’s hard to say too much other than I love this film. It’s sweet and well-made and charming. It’s the kind of film that had me and my companion walking out in just the best damned mood. It’s a film everyone can see and I think is worth everyone checking out, even if only to see the immense skill on behalf of the dude who’s gonna be directing Thor 3.

GRADE: A