The Cinesthete’s Favorite Films of 2016

2016 looked to be a sad year for film, but then something happened around October. The new releases just kept getting better and better. It turned out to be one of my favorite film years in recent memory.

I usually make a Top 10 favorite films, but sometimes I draw a line a little higher or lower depending on how many I feel are worthy for attention. This year I feel there are twelve movies everyone should check out.

Listen to Episode 7 of the ReelFriction Podcast to hear all of our Top 5’s, but if you want to dive a little deeper into my cinematic-brain, please enjoy my twelve favorite films of 2016.

busan12) Train to Busan

Sang-ho Yeon, South Korea, 118 min.

From the opening this has the feel of a fun big-budget disaster film. Multiple characters are introduced and thrown together on a train during what appears to be an outbreak of zombies. What follows are real scares, real thrills, really well designed set-pieces and just solid film-making, This is the best zombie film I’ve seen in a long long time.

nocturnalanimals11) Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford, USA, 116 min.

A layered story of a woman (Amy Adams) on the verge of marital disaster, who receives a draft of the new novel by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). Half the film tells that story, while the other half tells the story of the novel as she is reading it: a twisted revenge thriller. Lots of symbolism, great performances (which include the always-dynamic Michael Shannon and the unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and startlingly good direction make this a film that stuck with me.

hailcaesar10) Hail, Caesar!

Coen Brothers, USA, 106 min.

Who better to tell the story of a 1950’s Hollywood fixer than the Coen Brothers? It’s obvious they know their films by the loving recreations of several genres of the time. It was a joy to watch Josh Brolin navigate the personalities and events of the time period. And the cast, wow. Take a look at the cast list. Squint into the grandeur!

arrival9) Arrival

Denis Villeneuve, USA, 116 min.

Amy Adams is compelling as a linguist tasked with trying to communicate with a new alien species. This a great big sci-fi idea film with heart. When was the last time you heard that? The great script tricked me, and the direction felt stolid and pressing. It all built up to an ending that is more emotional and more rewarding than you would expect.

elle8) Elle

Paul Verhoeven, France, 130 min.

Isabelle Huppert is stunning as a businesswoman navigating the relationship with the various men in her life. When she is violently sexually assaulted in her own home in the first scene of the film, her reaction is initially baffling. But as she navigates that incident, and the relationships with the other various men in her life, you come to understand how deep the character and the performance actually are.

lalaland7) La La Land

Damien Chazelle, USA, 128 min.

I went into this film worried that it would be a shallow rehash of old Hollywood musicals. I was extremely pleased to see that this wasn’t the case. Yes, there are some throwback moments to the films of yesteryear, but La La Land is very modern. The music, the direction, and especially the content. Things happen in this film that never happen in films from 50 years ago. It’s clear that everyone involved had a unique vision and weren’t just pandering on nostalgia.

midnightspecial6) Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, USA, 112 min.

Part 80’s Amblin Entertainment film, part intense  and unerring road movie, and part emotional drama. Jeff Nichols knows how to generate forward momentum in a film, and this one starts off strong and doesn’t let up. Couple that with a unique and intriguing story of a child with strange powers on the run from a cult and the government and you have a winner.

fences5) Fences

Denzel Washington, USA, 139 min.

The film feels like a play for the opening moments because the dialog is dense and full of monologues. Very quickly though the film transcends to more than its material because of the skill behind the camera and the raw and incredible performances in front of it. That’s not to say the script is poor, just the opposite. It’s beautifully written, full of emotion, and builds to a very very good final scene.

silence4) Silence

Martin Scorsese, USA, 161 min.

Scorsese has been working on getting this film made for over two decades. It shows. The script is deliberate and powerful. The production design and cinematography are rock solid. You really feel like you are following Jesuit priest’s journey into a dangerous Japan of the 1600’s. The caliber of acting needed to bring this story to life is consistently present. The questions raised by what happens had me thinking for days afterwards. It wasn’t received well, but I think in time people will look back at this film as a masterpiece.

handmaiden3) The Handmaiden

Chan-wook Park, South Korea, 144 min.

This is a gorgeous, sexy, and twisted story of con-artists, unrequited love, and chamber-piece drama in 1930’s Korea. The script tricked me several times, and Chan-wook Park had me in awe of his direction. There is a lot going on, and all of it is handled so beautifully and so satisfyingly. It’s a joy to watch a master at work with a dynamite script on a production that isn’t afraid to take some chances. Not to mention provide the money to make the film look the way it should. 

americanhoney2) American Honey

Andrea Arnold, USA, 163 min.

A group of teens travel cross-country selling magazines, live in a van and cheap motels, have sex with each other, listen to hip-hop, party, smoke pot, and just live their lives one minute at a time. The film follows all this without a strong narrative arc, but with an unerring sense of reality and a keen-eye for beautifully framed cinematic shots. Arnold knows how to find and direct young non-actors and keep the momentum driving forward. Shia Labeouf is great as an older magazine salesman (and one of the only recognizable faces), but the real star is Sasha Lane in her first screen role.

hellorhighwater1) Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie, USA, 102 min.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this film even if I tried. The story of two brothers robbing banks while an aging Texas Ranger is hot on their heels seems so predictable. But this isn’t just an action-thriller. The script winds its way to a very satisfying conclusion and doesn’t lack thrills or humor along the way. It’s an ode to the small towns and working class people of Texas. A Texas that is always bathed in sunlight and full of open space. It brings that area to life so well that I thought most people in the film were non-actors they just found off the street. That isn’t true, and that goes to show how authentic they made the whole experience feel. 

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