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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 Original and Adapted Screenplay + A Few Awards Start To Shape The Race

Alright, folks, it’s only been a week, but we’ve got a goodly bit of ground to cover. Let’s start with a delayed bit of talk before we move into the first injection of some actual motion in this race in a little bit.

BEST ORIGINAL AND ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

So, this is another one of those categories that tends to be Best Picture-lite. If you look at the list down below, it’s pretty much my Best Picture list with a couple switch-ups. Only one film isn’t going to make that list by the end of this article anyway, so basically The Lobster is the odd man out.

It’s because we tend to look at the Screenplay category as an extension of what we look for in Best Picture. Coherent and interesting films as a whole must have well-done blueprints right? The only difference tends to be if a film was just a little too weird or off-putting for larger audiences, but the screenwriters could recognize the work and power that went into it in the writing process. But most of the time, it looks like this, it’s pretty much just choosing which ones end up getting the nod and which ones the Academy didn’t think were about the screenplay.

By the way, quick rules note. Original means that it’s not based on previously published material, Adapted means it is based on previously published material. Moonlight is a tricky one because it’s based on a play that’s currently not published or widely performed, so it does qualify for Original, which is where it’s being campaigned.

Original:

Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
The Lobster

Real quick, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight are the obvious ones. These are the three that are the center of this race right now and the three that are going to end up sharing the bulk of the fights up and down the categories. So, easy enough.

Hell or High Water’s tight and focused genre work combined with the smarter and subtler bits of its political message makes it an obvious choice for screenplay, as so much of that strength is in the way the dialogue and relationships reveal themselves.

The Lobster is your odd man out. But the recent LAFCA win makes me a little more inclined to believe in it. It’s a weird, quirky little thing with a lot of impressive metaphor work and some truly unique character and dialogue choices. There’s always a bone thrown to movies like this (think Nightcrawler), so I could see this being the one.

Adapted: 

Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion
Silence

Again, same deal, these are all Best Picture nominees and I think there’s gonna be enough conflation of the qualities of the film and the script that there won’t end up really being too much variation. These are just the ones that are big script contenders.

If you ask me, this is Arrival’s best chance at recognition. The difficulty of the structure of this film as well as its smart handling of a whole lot of emotional resonance and hard science is actually impressive, and seeing a film like this get an honest shot at an Oscar would be great.

THE FIRST AWARDS

It’s the official beginnings of Awards Season, as we got the first set of awards. So, let’s just start with a few links below, listing the four biggest awardings over the past week or so.

LAFCA
NYFCC
Gotham
National Board of Review

So, the big trends?

  • Two wins for Moonlight, one for La La Land, one for Manchester By The Sea.
  • Barry Jenkins has won every Best Director awarded (Gotham doesn’t award Best Director).
  • Isabelle Huppert has won 3 of the Best Actress awards so far, being double-awarded for Elle and Things to Come in two of those.
  • Most are giving different screenplay, but Manchester by The Sea is in the top conversation most of the time.
  • Casey Affleck is owning the Best Actor race, only losing at LAFCA (where he was still runner-up). I’m curious if some of the sexual harassment will start to hit him come the later races.
  • Mahershala Ali and Michelle Williams getting those Best Supporting awards. Sounds about right.
  • NBR is the biggest outlier here, but they’ve always been. I think NBR was a lot of what propelled Fury Road’s momentum last year, but nothing shocking enough to really get it going.
  • Fences and Silence, the biggest late game question marks in this race, are getting pretty much shafted. LAFCA and NBR and NYFCC all saw them, but minus a runner-up Supporting Actor (for Issey Ogata) and a Script award at NBR both for Silence, nothing yet.

Now, minus some momentum shifts, these awards probably won’t have terribly much overall effect on things. Remember, it was mostly critics voting so far, who aren’t voting in the Oscars (mostly). This is a temperature of the room thing, what the intelligentsia is thinking. The actual campaigning is just ramping up, the bigger awards are still to come. Most importantly, most of the major films haven’t had time to sit yet. La La Land isn’t out broader and Fences and Silence still won’t be out until the end of this month.

While I expect Moonlight, Manchester, and La La Land to be your trio of competitors for the year, that could change as it moves away from the critical conversation. These are critics’ films, so we’ll see how it goes when it goes broader.

But this does give us a little more idea how things are looking, which means…

UPDATED CATEGORY CALLS

Best Picture:
Arrival
Fences
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Loving
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Silence

  • The big switch here is Live by Night for Hell or High Water. Some clear enthusiasm among early voting for the latter film combined with some incredibly tepid subtweet reactions and a lack of desire for anything but tech awards on the part of the former means the switch makes sense for me.

Best Actor:

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

  • No changes here. I still don’t think we’ll end up seeing Garfield in the main category, Hacksaw Ridge seems to be getting less attention after its release.

Best Supporting Actor:

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dev Patel, Lion

  • I know I put Patel in at Lead, but he’s apparently getting campaigned at Supporting because Oscars. Lion seems to be getting a little more love as it expands and there’s enough support that I feel like it needs an Acting Oscar bone. Apparently Patel is amazing, so seems right to slot him in over the “Not Much In The Film” Neeson, if the book is anything to go by.

Best Actress:

Annette Benning, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle 
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land

  • Take back what I said last time. Part of my confidence in Adams was on the critical love getting her in. I was thinking Cotillard from Two Days, One Night. But it’s become pretty clear that Huppert is the critical darling this year, and she had to take a slot. So out Adams goes. We’ll see how Benning in 20th Century gets out there to see if she gets back in.

Best Supporting Actress: 

Viola Davis, Fences
Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

  • I’m holding this category here. It could change, but nothing seismic for now. Besides, this is still Davis’.

Best Director:

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Denzel Washington, Fences

  • Move Washington in. Fences seems already getting him the attention for getting powerful performances out of his actors. Seems like enough to me.

Best Original Song: 

“Runnin'” – Hidden Figures
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars” – La La Land
“How Far I’ll Go” – Moana
I’m Still Here” – Miss Sharon Jones! 

  • The Sharon Jones posthumous vote is gonna be powerful.
  • This is still the EGOT v. Awarding a Musical Battle. Moana v. La La Land.

Best Animated Feature Film:

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Sausage Party
Zootopia

  • I haven’t really seen anything to change my mind yet. I want to hold onto my crazy theory until more comes out of The Red Turtle. 

NEXT WEEK: Best Visual Effects!