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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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Original Song

This was supposed to be Best Screenplay this week, but I kinda feel like getting ranty today.

The Best Original Song category is mostly crap.

Let me qualify that. The Best Original Song category is WAY too often not actually about the Best Original Song as it’s used in a movie. Rather, it’s often about the production values and the prestige, this is one of those categories that more often ends up being about who’s willing to pump money into selling things more than actual artistic achievement.

Best Original Song is a category that makes a whole lot of sense when you remember that the Musical used to be one of the dominant modes of Hollywood filmmaking when this category first started being awarded in 1934. When so many films actually had original songs written for them, it made sense to reward the best of them.

But as the musical has slowly faded out of the public love, the category has stuck around. Not for no reason. In the 80s, we had winners and nominees from the “Original Soundtrack” that accompanied every film. You know, that thing when you hired Kenny Loggins to write a few songs for your movie that we really don’t do much of anymore. In the 90s, this was the Honorary Disney Musical award, as they won 6 out of 10 in the years from 1989-1999.

These days though, it’s pretty rare to have either an original soundtrack or a major musical, so where do these nominations go? Well, the rules state that the song either needs to play during the film or be the first song during the end credits.

It’s that latter rule that pretty much seals up the majority of the nominations here. A lot of films (especially documentaries) get a famous performer to put a song together that plays over the end credits. No real thematic work integrating it into the film, just playing over the theater speaking as everyone is thinking about leaving.

It annoys the living hell out of me because it’s one of the laziest ways to get Award Prestige. Pay enough for a decent song connected to the movie and plaster it over the credits then call it done. Even when the song is great (“Glory” from Selma), it’s still a reward for the least well-put artistic part of a movie.

This year is looking a little different, but there’s plenty of potential slap-ons to get awarded this year.


“Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars” – La La Land
“How Far I’ll Go” – Moana

The fortunate thing about all my ranting is that first and foremost, the Academy is almost universally willing to award the songs of actual musicals. The Academy will always be a sucker for musicals and rewarding the songs of actual musicals comes first.

This year, the musical showdown is between La La Land and Moana.

La La Land‘s jazz-influenced numbers are already getting raves from the people who love the film and the worst the few detractors can say is that they aren’t total earworms. Set up largely as either individually sung or duets between Gosling and Stone, who don’t have traditional musical voices, we can already count on some love for the idea of getting Gosling and Stone to perform these live. If this one is a total darling as the expectations are, we can actually probably count on two nominations. My guess is the catchy “City of Stars” that is the forward push of this film and “Audition” because it’s apparently the emotional climax.

Moana has a bit different weight. Besides the fact that everyone loves the Disney musical, this actually could be a big deal. With this win, Lin-Manuel Miranda would become the youngest person to ever EGOT (the winning of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, signifying success in pretty much every area of entertainment) which would cap off his ascendancy into one of our great modern artists. “How Far I’ll Go” is the “Let It Go” of Moana (without the mind-numbing ear-burrowing of “Let It Go”) and something is gonna get nominated given the current love for Miranda and the general love for Disney. This one wouldn’t surprise me.


Runnin'” – Hidden Figures
We Know the Way” – Moana
Faith” – Sing
“I’m Still Here” – Miss Sharon Jones
A Letter to the Free” – Selma

So, from here on, a few groups of songs that get nominated.

First, let’s address two more from actual musicals. “We Know The Way” depends on how much love the voting body is looking to heap on Moana. I wouldn’t put it as likely to get nominated over “How Far I’ll Go,” but the potential of actually having Miranda performing this one is an undeniable attraction, plus the more unique Polynesian flavor of this track. Then “Faith” is one of the few original tracks from jukebox animal musical Sing, so if that thing is a crowd pleaser, I see no reason it might not make the journey on that goodwill. Think “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.

Which, speaking of, we have another category: Well-known people making songs for issues pictures. Pharrell is now a mogul of the songwriting world and his work on Hidden Figures marks his first major soundtrack. The love for him and for the film could coalesce, especially if he gets to perform at the Ceremony. Common is a thinking man’s favorite and already has his first Oscar for “Glory.” A second nomination for him wouldn’t seem out of place.

Finally, we have the memorial songs. These are rare, but we have one in “I’m Still Here.” Sharon Jones’ unfortunate recent passing may motivate a second and harder look at the documentary and the song she wrote for it.


Drive It Like You Stole It” – Sing Street
“Finest Girl (Bin Laden)” – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Now, for two that won’t ever actually get nominated, and that’s part of why this category sucks.

This really is a “Pay to Play” category, where it’s all about the weight of the name and the money anyone is willing to throw. Songs from non-Oscar pictures tend to have a harder time, and songs that aren’t from big names tend to be up the creek. Even if they work better in the actual movie or are just more enjoyable to listen to.

These two are case in point. Both are thematically better and more enjoyable as part of a movie than most of the ones I’ve listed that I’ve heard. Because they’re actually part of the movie. But no major names and no prestige or category navigation or money means they won’t be thought about.

So, rather than complain, I’m just going to leave you on those two. Have fun.

Next Week: Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted

Sing Street is all infectious joy

I may never recover from the muscle damage done by Sing Street. Seriously, smiling for over two hours straight at director John Carney’s latest ode to the power of one person and their guitar made kind of a Joker-rictus thing set in, as I’m still grinning ear to ear while I write this review.

Continue reading Sing Street is all infectious joy