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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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Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Animated Feature Film

With today’s release of this trailer:

I figure there’s no more appropriate day to discuss the category that the original Beauty and the Beast kicked off (albeit, not right away), Best Animated Feature Film.

A little history. Best Animated Feature Film is the youngest category at the Oscars, having been first awarded in the 2002 ceremony. While there’s never necessarily been any rules against Animated films qualifying for awards, the perception of animated films as “kid’s stuff” kept them from getting any real attention.

That is until 1991 when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film nominated in the Best Picture category. While it didn’t win (that was Silence of the Lambs’ banner year, another film that broke out of the perception of being of a lesser genre), it opened up the idea of rewarding animated features. The Academy had been resistant for years and remained resistant though, preferring as they did to only occasionally reward particularly exceptional examples (almost always from Disney).

But with the rise of DreamWorks and other competitors, the Academy finally relented and created an award, contingent upon at least 8 submitted films. This year will actually be the most competitive in some time with 27 submissions. Let’s take a look at who might be in play.

SURE THINGS:

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Zootopia

Despite being created almost solely because Disney had competition, this has still pretty much been Disney’s award in any given year. Disney (and Disney subsidiaries, thanks Pixar!) wins by a 2:1 ratio here and they’ve only had one year without a major competitive nomination since the first time this was awarded in 2002 (2005, probably their worst year on record). Since the 2007 ceremony, they’ve only lost one (!) year.

All of this is to say that don’t be surprised when Disney competes here and when they own the category. It often comes down to which Disney wins. It’s usually been Pixar, but Disney’s own animation studio has made a really strong comeback the last few years, producing films with a great deal more thematic weight and impressive style, loaded with talent out the wazz.

This year, Disney Animation put out two (making up for having none last year) and both look to be fierce competitors.

Moana is the latest in the Frozen mode with a new princess, the charisma of Dwayne Johnson, and the hot property Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the songs. This one is gonna get attention for potentially giving Miranda his EGOT anyway, but the gorgeous animation and the wide appeal could be the kicker.

Zootopia was however a surprise hit, a surprisingly relevant little allegory and a potent bit of animated noir. This one has had a lot of attention and a lot of really positive feedback, and hell, this thing is still on a lot of lips after a March release. I think advocation of kid’s filmmaking to have a little more brains and relevance could really prop this one up, minus the whole country falling head over heels for Moana like they did for Frozen.

Of course, all that doesn’t mean Pixar isn’t gonna compete. Look, I’ve grown slightly more lukewarm on Finding Dory over time, especially given its lack of after-the-fact resonance. But there’s still an undeniably strong bit of narrative and animation work there and the Pixar name alone carries a lot of cache.

And as far as Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika hasn’t missed a nomination since Coraline. That plus this thing’s almost universally rapturous reception and mature take means that I see no doubt for it as a lock.

MAYBE THINGS:

Miss Hokusai
Sausage Party
The Little Prince
The Red Turtle
Sing

So, this is the small group of films competing for the last spot. None of them have any particularly better chance than the other at this stage, but they represent the other categories we see.

Miss Hokusai and The Red Turtle are our Japanese animation representatives, the latter having the Studio Ghibli pedigree. Both are receiving powerful reviews (with The Red Turtle‘s being slightly more enthused) and it’s certainly common for complex anime to get nominated here. I’d bet The Red Turtle thanks to the Ghibli name, but that’s just me.

Sing is the occasional encroachment from actual standard children’s fare in this category, usually just due to being a crowd pleaser. Sing looks like a major crowd pleaser and it may get some votes off name recognition.

The Little Prince is one of those that’s only standing a chance if Netflix throws the money behind it to try to make themselves a legitimate competitor in the Oscar race. They’ve announced themselves at the Emmys, this is their best chance this year to break into prestige awards for fiction films (because nothing else seems to be working).

Then, Sausage Party. This is one of my controversial picks for the year because I think this thing has a better chance than anyone is giving it. Surprisingly well-reviewed, more to chew on than expected, and an announcement that Sony is actually gonna pursue an Oscar campaign. I think out of sheer name recognition and enough glad-handing, Sausage Party is gonna make it onto the nomination list and be an actual competitor.

NO-GOs:

Pretty much anything else. Nothing else has the broad-based support or the respect for it. Maybe Your Name if they’re aggressive enough (the thing was a major Japanese blockbuster), but since it won’t be out for the general public until March in America, I don’t expect any other competitors.

UPDATE:

CATEGORY CALLS:

I’m going to periodically make category predictions, where I make a full-blown run down of what I think will end up getting nominated based on what I’ve covered so far. These are very subject to change.

Also, note that all of these assume a fully-filled out category. Categories can have fewer than their allotted numbers if there aren’t enough films that beat the percentage threshold.

Best Picture:
Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Live by Night
Loving
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Silence

  • Arrival is definitely my lowest-confidence pick on this list. I think the “smart sci-fi” thing along with its generally popular reception and the increasing love for Villeneuve will all only help, but I wonder how the tangled plotting will go over.
  • Live by Night is gonna be a real spoiler. Never doubt Affleck’s ability to turn meat-and-potatoes thrillers into prestige pictures.

Best Actor:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Tom Hanks, Sully
Denzel Washington, Fences

  • I haven’t read the room on Andrew Garfield yet here, but I think the first half of Hacksaw Ridge might kill the second half for him. Still, if anyone surprises here, it’s gonna be him.
  • Hanks as Sully feels about right. I don’t think the lack of recognition for the movie as a whole will keep him away.

Best Actress:

Amy Adams, Arrival 
Annette Benning, 20th Century Women
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land

  • Regardless of Arrival‘s place in the Picture category, I think Adams lands here.

Best Director:

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Martin Scorsese, Silence

  • I think your potential spoiler for Nichols (who rides in here because I think Loving will be a favorite) is Affleck, who stands the chance of getting more than we expect for Live by Night. 

Best Animated Feature Film:

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Sausage Party
Zootopia

Next Week: The Supporting Categories

 

Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic tale of death and storytelling

“If you must blink, do it now.”

It’s as much a boast as a mission statement for Kubo and the Two Strings, a film that demands and earns your absolute rapt attention. A film of remarkable intimacy and sensitivity, as well as breathtaking scale, that wears its meditations on death and who lives, who dies, and how our story is told long after we may leave as much in the subtle folds in the face of its puppets as it does in its largest moments of awe.

Continue reading Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic tale of death and storytelling