While it can feel like Marvel, Star Wars and the less successful franchise attempts like Batman v Superman and Fantastic Beasts collectively soak up all available cinematic oxygen, 2016 proved the ongoing vibrancy of the independent and mid-budget movie ecosystem. Amazon Studios and Netflix are pioneering new ways to connect movie-makers and audiences, sometimes bypassing theaters entirely. Meanwhile, innovative distributors and production companies like A24 and Drafthouse Films have proven the continued value in connecting new voices to new niches. While the blockbuster bubble continues to inflate — turning every weekend into a big-budget slugfest between safe sequel bets, remakes and “brands” — the upswell of fantastic independent and micro-targeted genre productions made 2016 a year at the movies worth remembering.
Paring down this year to just seven movies means making hard choices. But since you’ll be able to read gushing praise of films like Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight everywhere, including throughout the upcoming awards season, I’ve opted for some oddities and oddballs that may not represent the heights of craft; movies that haven’t dominated the best-of talk as I understand it. Instead, these are the seven movies that most set my imagination on fire, stretching movie storytelling and form, proving that film will always find new ways to shake you by the shoulders.
But first, some honorable mentions.
The end of Moonlight, as Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) reunite in Kevin’s diner, is the most romantic scene of 2016. Maybe the century. Exploring similar themes of isolation and love, the titular character of Krisha brought us inside the pain and possibilities of opening ourselves to others (plus, it was John Waters’ favorite movie of 2016).
The year’s outstanding dramas had a gory mirror image in The Eyes of My Mother (our review), which transformed what could have been a gimmicky premise into a disgusting and moving portrait of human aberration. The Invitation (we spoke with director Karyn Kusama) proved that you can be up front about a “twist” plot, instead wringing tension out of a will-they-won’t-they anticipatory dance. Another Evil reinvented the ghost movie, especially with Os’ elaborate spirit traps (our interview with Mark Proksch, who played Os), which look like something the Ghostbusters would make if they were trapped, naked and feverish, in a Hobby Lobby. Meanwhile, Don’t Breathe and The Conjuring 2 (with its weird, propagandistic overtones) strapped us into more traditional, but electrifying, horror thrill rides. It was a good year for horror.
All that, plus The Lobster, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Wiener-Dog, Green Room (this decade was feeling light on people taking shotgun blasts to the face), 20th Century Women, The Nice Guys, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Zootopia, Hail, Caesar, Silence and documentaries like Rats, The Last Arcade and The Dwarvenaut.
2016 Movies Still To See : Elle, Toni Erdmann, La La Land, Paterson, The Wailing, Embrace of the Serpent, Everybody Wants Some!!
The Worst Movies of 2016 : Assassin's Creed, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
But it’s the following seven movies that most made my 2016.
Stark, still and beautifully composed, The Witch succeeded by preferring the fears of its 17th century Puritan characters over ours. When not smearing baby butter on her broom, the witch torments William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy and Jonas with crop failures, ominous portents and their own repressed sex drives, breaking apart a family too rigid to bend. Thomasin’s choice, made under grave circumstances that would sound silly to describe, turns The Witch from horrific to triumphant and darkly enchanting.
Truth can be terrifying. Adam Curtis’ most recent BBC documentary provides a sprawling answer to a primal question: why does the world seem so broken? Here’s how he summarized his answer on a fascinating episode of podcast Chapo Trap House:
“So many different groups in society, faced by growing complexities, retreated from trying to deal with those complexities, and, for different reasons, invented a simplified version of the world that increasingly became detached from reality.”
But fully answering requires a sprawling, expansive video essay enfolding Syria, the birth of the world wide web, soul-sucking algorithms, suicide bombers, windsock men, and yes, Donald Trump. Watching Hypernormalisation is like injecting a lifetime of YouTube conspiracy videos, minus the the whole "being complete bullshit" part.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
You know those threads with a slew of scorning GIFs falling upon someone who just got owned? The Georgians were so much better at that than us. Watching Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) rhetorically wither stiff, British aristocrats — outwitting each and every cravat on her way to the top of the socio-romantic ladder — illuminates the cutthroat parlor politics under those polite exteriors. Witty and fast-paced, Love & Friendship (based on a Jane Austen novel) is a comedy that will leave you with a lingering paranoia: who are the unrecognized conversational predators in your own life?
After Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s English-speaking directorial debut, it was possible to wonder if Chan-wook was all style, no substance, like a more sadistic Baz Luhrmann. But The Handmaiden — a sumptuous, twisty erotic thriller — slowly transforms from a violent and harrowing tale of deception and abuse in Japanese-occupied Korea into one of the most romantic movies of the year. If not for Moonlight, there’d be nothing in the love department to top Sook-Hee stacking suitcases to help her princess over a garden wall. Visually stunning, repulsively violent and loaded with completely bonkers, over-the-top sex scenes, it’s remarkable The Handmaiden is so sweethearted.
SHIN GODZILLA (our review)
Not only does Shin Godzilla rewrite the Godzilla mythos, it tells the story in new and unexpected ways. While Godzilla movies have long alternated between the monster’s urban destruction and a small cast of human characters, Shin Godzilla attempts to capture the full scope of a kaiju attack. Much of the movie takes place in various committee rooms as government bureaucrats attempt to sift through the incoming information and plan responses. It may sound boring, but the result is absolutely fascinating, as press conferences, on-screen text and detailed accounts of military capacities combine to provide a bird’s-eye view narrative unlike any other. (and that last shot!)
THE GREASY STRANGLER (our review)
Between the greasy farts, thumbed-out eyeballs, weird penises, decapitations and catchy swearing (bullshit artist!), it’s easy to forget that The Greasy Strangler is mostly about the dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. But you’ve never seen a family story quite like this. And while most of the pleasures are visceral and greasy, The Greasy Strangler also has fantastically weird and oddly moving spectacles, like Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) dancing under a streetlight in his special disco suit, complete with penis-shaft-cleavage cutout.
THE LOVE WITCH
Though it’s glittering with Technicolor splendor and occult production design worthy of horror classics like Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, there’s so much more to The Love Witch than affectionate genre pastiche. A parable of female empowerment, The Love Witch pits Elaine’s (Samantha Robinson) sex magic against the indifference, self-absorption and hostility of the patriarchy. That means black magic spells, forest rituals, hallucinogenic potions, rainbow hypnosis and a big body count of men with oh-so-70s haircuts.
What’s Ahead In 2017
Split, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Lego Batman Movie, A Cure for Wellness, Kong: Skull Island, Raw, Free Fire, Ghost in the Shell, The Lost City of Z, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: Episode VIII.