By Ezra Stead
Well, here we are again, folks! Every year since 2001, I’ve made it my self-imposed obligation to see at least 100 new movies (104 in 2016) and then attempt to rank my ten (or more) favorite ones against one another. Notice I didn’t say these were the “best” movies of the year, but my favorite ones; the distinction is important, lest anyone mistakenly expect a shred of objectivity herein.
Anyway, this year, in the interest of championing underdogs and holding a light to some movies you might not have been constantly hearing about since November or so, I have decided to exclude any of the Academy’s Best Picture nominees from my top ten. If you want to know how I felt about those films, you can find my favorites, unranked, in the Honorable Mentions just below the main list, and if you want to know more than that, there’s always the annual MoviesIDidntGet.com Oscars Podcast, which you can listen to on this very site, very soon.
- THE VVITCH: A NEW-ENGLAND FOLKTALE – this is the best horror movie I saw all year, and honestly, I’d say it’s the best one to come along in years, probably since The Descent in 2005. Compared to, say, 2015’s It Follows, which I know a lot of horror fans embraced as some sort of second coming of John Carpenter, this is real, brutal, all-encompassing horror; whereas I would compare It Follows to slightly heavy garage/indie rock, The VVitch is just hardcore Satanic black metal. While most horror movies these days seem to get a lot of mileage out of the question of what is really happening versus what is merely in the characters’ heads, The VVitch lets the viewer know right from the start that supernatural forces of evil are in fact at work, while still managing to keep us uncertain as to what degree those forces are to blame, and to what degree our characters’ own fear and ignorance cause their own suffering. Another thing that makes The VVitch so scary is the extreme isolation and dependence on the elements of untamed nature with which the characters must contend; even if there were no supernatural elements in play, everyday life in this time and place was something of a nightmare. The cast is superb across the board, including the four child actors, who are among the best I’ve ever seen. This is one of the most beautifully crafted movies of the year, and certainly one of the most unsettling.
- SWISS ARMY MAN –words can’t begin to do justice to this batshit insane debut feature from Daniels (that’s Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), the writer-director duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” video, arguably the greatest music video ever made. If you’re familiar with that previous work, then you know Daniels are quite adept at creating striking visual oddities involving boners and bizarre physical contortions, but what’s so surprising and endearing about Swiss Army Man is how they use those visual skills to supplement what is actually a very sensitive, insightful narrative about love, loss, and friendship. Don’t get me wrong; it’s also a hilarious narrative about farts, vomit, and masturbation. The fact that such a range of textures and emotions can be found within the same 100-minute movie just hints at what a truly original movie this is.
- THE LOBSTER – this is also one of the funniest and most original movies of 2016, the English-language debut of Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos. While Dogtooth was a very dark movie with glimmers of surprising humor, The Lobster somewhat reverses that formula. While it is certainly very dark and cynical in its overall worldview, there is no denying that this is, first and foremost, a comedy; the fact that nearly all of its humor derives from abject misery and existential suffering makes it no less hysterical. Colin Farrell plays brilliantly against type (we’re talking frumpiness way beyond what they call “dad-bod” here) as a sad-sack who undertakes the preferred relationship counseling option of the future: an intensive program in which those who fail to find their “soulmate” within 45 days are surgically transformed into animals of their choice. It’s one of the best high-concept premises of all time, and its execution is flawless, leaving the viewer with some very upsetting insights about the nature of romantic relationships, albeit tempered by all the brilliantly dry comedy.
- 13TH – one would probably expect a movie that endeavors to elucidate the entire history of systemic racism in America—from the transatlantic slave trade to Jim Crow to the prison-industrial complex still in effect today—in only 100 minutes to feel overstuffed, overwhelming, and incomplete. It’s a testament to Ava DuVernay’s skill as a filmmaker that 13th is, instead, an endlessly engaging, gripping, and at times downright heartbreaking film of incredible power. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which most of us think of as merely the one that abolished slavery; however, part of its wording allows for the use of (practically) slave labor within the correctional system, which led to measures such as “mandatory minimums” and the “three strikes” law for drug offenses that have been used for decades to incarcerate black males in wildly disproportionate numbers. This is, in content and execution, probably the most important movie of the year.
- KRISHA – along with The VVitch and Swiss Army Man, this is one of the most impressive debut features of the year. Trey Edward Shults’s excruciatingly painful family drama often feels like a horror movie, from its ominous opening shot of its lead staring fearlessly into the viewer’s soul over an eerie soundtrack (a moment that is brilliantly bookended by the film’s final shot), but there is nothing supernatural going on here. The horror (and humor, and pathos, etc.) is all too human, as the camera unflinchingly portrays a disastrous Thanksgiving in which estranged aunt Krisha (Shults’s real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild) returns to try and make amends after a decade of mysterious, negligent absence. Fairchild deserves all the acting awards going around this season, but unfortunately the movie was apparently just too small (and, likely, too harsh) to pick up the audience it so richly deserves.
- TONI ERDMANN – this is a decidedly more upbeat look at family than the previous entry on this list, though the father-daughter unit in this one has a similarly strained and bizarre relationship. Writer-director Maren Ade somehow deftly brings together the disparate elements of a zany prankster comedy and a sobering, deeply melancholy existential drama into one incredibly breezy 160-minute movie. The lengths to which the titular character (Peter Simonischek) will go to cheer up and enliven his daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller) are epic, and though Erdmann is quietly heartbreaking at times, the strongest impression it leaves is one of unbridled joy and a love of life in all its messy uncertainty.
- HUSH – with all due respect to the highly acclaimed Don’t Breathe, for me, this was the home invasion thriller of the year. Mike Flanagan (director of 2013’s similarly underrated haunted mirror movie Oculus) is quickly proving himself to be one of the most exciting new voices in horror movies, and he’s currently at work on a Stephen King adaptation, so I couldn’t be more onboard with that. Here he has collaborated with the film’s star, Kate Siegel, on a taut, clever (but never self-congratulatory about it) screenplay for a sort of updated riff on the classic Wait Until Dark. The difference is that, in Hush, our terrorized protagonist is deaf, rather than blind; the ways in which she uses her wits to level the playing field and fight back against her attacker, though, are every bit as gripping.
- REMEMBER – by now my loyal readers (thanks to both of you, sincerely) have probably noticed a distinct tendency of mine to favor genre films over the more prestigious dramas that tend to soak up the awards season spotlight. Well, here is a movie about an elderly man coping with the decades-past loss of his family during the Holocaust, so surely this is a much more somber affair than some of the stuff on this list. Ha! Just kidding. One of the things I love most about Atom Egoyan’s latest is the way it effortlessly subverts audience expectations so that, before you know it, you’re watching a delightfully nasty, lurid thriller instead of the dry, melancholy drama you at first expect. Christopher Plummer has never been better as the dementia-addled Zev, who goes searching for the Nazi who killed his family with the help of his more lucid friend Max (an also terrific Martin Landau). The film certainly never makes light of the terrible events at its core, but it is refreshingly pulpy, much more Inglourious Basterds than Schindler’s List.
- NUTS! – this is probably the most overlooked gem I saw all year. The incredible true story of Dr. John Brinkley, who discovered a cure for impotence in the human male using glands derived from goat testicles, is the subject of this documentary from director Penny Lane, and if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this eccentric doctor or his miracle cure, well, there’s a very good reason for that. Using whimsically handmade-looking animation and a voice cast with a real flair for the larger-than-life, vaudevillian nature of the story, Lane brings the story to life in a breezy and endlessly fun way that recalls a modern-day F for Fake. High praise, indeed.
- UNDER THE SHADOW – this list started with a uniquely frightening horror movie, so it might as well end with one, too. And it’s another first feature, too! Writer-director Babak Anvari sets his terrifying tale in 1980s Tehran, a war-torn region in which Shideh (Narges Rashidi) finds it difficult to get work because of her past participation in the country’s revolution. Her life becomes even more difficult as her husband is forced to go to work as a medic on the front lines of the war, leaving Shideh and their young daughter alone in a home that soon begins to be haunted my mysterious evil spirits after a missile crashes through the building’s roof but fails to detonate. The impending doom conveyed by the hanging warhead is a striking image that recalls Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, and the film has also ben favorably compared to The Babadook, but many of its best visual effects are entirely original, such as one inspired sequence in which Shideh is attacked by a phantom taking the form of first her absentee husband and then the blanket under which he had just appeared to be asleep. The disembodied, floating blanket calls to mind the hijab Shideh is forced to wear out in public; in perhaps the film’s best sequence, Shideh and her daughter flee their haunted home, only for Shideh to face jail time for neglecting to put on the garment as she ran screaming into the streets. Much like The VVitch, much of the real terror of Under the Shadow derives from the specificity of the time and place in which it is set.
Here, in alphabetical order, are 20 more movies from 2016 that I would strongly recommend, including five of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. I could probably make this list about twice as long, since I would estimate that I really liked at least half of the 104 movies I saw last year, but in the interest of brevity, let’s just go with roughly a third instead. Here are the best of the rest, in my humble opinion:
10 Cloverfield Lane; Arrival; Captain Fantastic; Chevalier; The Handmaiden; Hell or High Water; The Invitation; La La Land; Look Who’s Back; Manchester by the Sea; Midnight Special; A Monster Calls; Moonlight; Morris from America; Paterson; Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping; Sully; Tower; The Wailing; Weiner.
WORST MOVIE OF 2016 – YOGA HOSERS – most of the worst movies I saw in 2016 were sequels or franchise builders of some sort (looking at you, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), and this one is no exception. Despite being a full hour shorter than B V S, my other strong contender for this “award,” Yoga Hosers takes the cake for sheer wasted screen time. It literally takes 45 minutes for this terrible, terrible movie to go anywhere, and by then, it’s definitely a case of too little, too late. For some reason, writer-director Kevin Smith has come to the conclusion that Canada is somehow inherently funny, and he bludgeons that misinformed idea to death throughout those interminable first 45 minutes. My scorn for this particular movie is all the stronger for the fact that I was actually a big fan of Smith’s previous film, Tusk, to which this is basically a sequel. I still think Tusk is great after a more recent second viewing, but this one is borderline unwatchable.
MOST OVERRATED – DEADPOOL – I hope I’m not courting the wrath of the nerd armies here, but the long-awaited (I guess) Deadpool movie is really nothing all that special. It’s really just a pretty standard superhero origin story (which we’ve obviously seen plenty of over the past decade or more) spiced up with a lot of corny jokes, swearing, fourth-wall-breaking irreverence, and of course, graphic violence. It’s all entertaining enough, and Ryan Reynolds’s charisma carries it pretty well, but it’s not half good enough to justify its stellar box office returns and overly devoted fan club.
MOST UNDERRATED – THE BFG – while Steven Spielberg is rightly considered one of the very greatest living movie directors, his less prestigious efforts of late have been unfairly overlooked (like the wonderful The Adventures of Tintin), while his more adult dramas (like Lincoln or Bridge of Spies) remain as acclaimed as ever. I have no pet theory as to why this may be the case, unless it’s a loss of goodwill left over from the fourth Indiana Jones, but as a huge Roald Dahl fan from way back, I can testify that his adaptation of The BFG (it stands for Big Friendly Giant, for all you gamers out there who have a different acronym in mind) is delightful. Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T. and unfortunately died before this movie was released) capture not only the wit and whimsy of Dahl’s book, but also its sense of melancholy and loneliness, perfectly, and the magical world of Giant Country really comes to life with Spielberg’s flair for world-building and action-comedy set pieces. This ranks as my third favorite Dahl adaptation only because the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches have both held such special places in my heart for decades now.
BEST SHORT FILM – THE ART OF THE DEAL: THE MOVIE – I debated whether to count this one as a feature, but at only 50 minutes, it’s really more the length of a television episode, and its content basically amounts to an extended comedy sketch. But, oh boy, is it a great comedy sketch. Though Johnny Depp was pretty much as intolerable as everything else about Yoga Hosers, he has never done finer work than he does here as an all-too-accurate caricature of the “man” who has now become our “President,” Donald J. Trump. Taking Trump’s infamously ghostwritten 1987 memoir as its jumping off point, its satire is much more pointed and intelligent than much of the parody we’ve seen thus far of our jackass-in-chief. Like so much of the best comedy, it’s funny (and SAD!) because it’s true.
BEST DECADES-LATE SEQUEL – PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY – for some reason, 2016 was rife with brand-new sequels to movies from a dozen years ago or more, some better (Zoolander No. 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) than others (Kindergarten Cop 2, Punk’s Dead – the SLC Punk sequel that few wanted and even fewer saw), but none that I saw was any better or truer to the spirit of its source than this third Pee-wee Herman movie. Paul Reubens’s irrepressibly innocent loner/rebel of a man-child returns nearly 30 years after his last big-screen appearance, this time on a mission to get to the big New York City birthday party of his new friend, actor Joe Manganiello (gamely playing a lovably bizarre version of himself). It’s all very light, whimsical, and more than a little homoerotic – truly fun for all ages!
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com