15 December 2016

Goodbye 2016: Top Films Seen for the First Time in 2016

Alright folks, here's a very interesting list. Beyond the films that actually came out in 2016, I saw a whole bunch of films for the first time. You can see them along with everything on earth I watched right here. At the mid-point of the year I assessed where I was at, but let's dig into this with another six months under my belt. And for sure it's shifted quite a bit!

So as of right now, I've seen 113 films for the first time, and by the absolute end of the year I will likely have added a couple to that. If anything really cracks the Top 10 I'll make some adjustments, but for now, this is what we'll work with. I covered a much larger range than I did last year, and there were some tough decisions to make to sort through this. A lot of this is subjective, really, with recency working pretty well, but here's a smattering of what I was most jazzed up about this year:

#10: The Witch (2016)

At the midpoint of the year this was my #1, but I think it's degraded a bit over the last couple months. Spoiler, but obviously an appearance here begets an appearance for the Top 2016 movies as well, where I'll get into it a bit more, but while the maudlin cinematography, perfect historical context, daring plot, and tragic characters are all supreme, somewhere between the mumbling father and annoying Black Phillip-worshipping kids, this went from great to very good.

#9: Green Room (2016)
I also went on a large Anton Yelchin kick this year. RIP

One thing I realize is that since this is my highest-ranked film from 2016, it ought to be my #1 film for the year, right? In an awful bout of indecisiveness I'm still debating that, actually, but for now, I have a deep soft spot for Green Room, which has been conspicuously absent from most end-of-year lists. Maybe it's just too dirty and brutal? Maybe because it features a whole horde of Neo-Nazis but doesn't say enough to denigrate them or show their racism other than being totally evil dudes? There certainly isn't really the message here that other Oscar-baity films have, but the pacing, tension, and attitude here is spectacularly well crafted. The ending is kind of a miff, but for now, I'm still pretty high on it.

#8: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

So now we broach the part of the list where I embarrassingly reveal films I had actually never seen before 2016. Beverly Hills Cop. It had been a huge pop culture gap for me, which makes me even more ashamed now that I've finally seen it. From the phenomenal score to a script that absolutely trashes any other 80s Buddy Cop comedy (yes, including Shane Black), this flick is incredible. Eddie Murphy at his peak is an absolute force to be reckoned with, especially once we've gotten more used to tame Eddie instead of the ridiculously confident instigator he plays here - one of the all-time greatest iconoclastic heroes.

#7: Rope (1948)

Here's my first deep cut that I really enjoyed, going all the way back to prime Hitchcock. I was mostly curious about this film for its one-take gimmick, which Hitchcock himself seemed to partially disown. Context does weird things, though, and in the Gravity (2013) / Birdman (2014) / The Revenant (2015) age (not to mention the more genuine efforts of something like Victoria [2015]) I was curious to see a supposed one-take film from 70 years ago. Rope may not be well-regarded among Hitchock faithful, but it was still the seventh-best film I saw this year, which is saying something. Past the gimmick, which largely works for the themes of the film, adding constant tension, technical  mastery, and continued engagement, the characters are thoroughly defined and bounce off each other well, especially as they begin to confront the fairly high stakes. It also starts as close to the end of the story as possible, opening with a murder and taking it from there. I'd be curious how cinephiles react, because this film seems to largely be brushed aside, but it's still damn good.

#6: Stoker (2013)

That's the wrong kind of Looking Glass
I was half-heartedly into this, mostly because I have a weird uncontrollable crush on Mia Wasikowska (when you see the final list for the year you'll indeed see an unnatural amount of Wasikowska films), but I was ultimately blown away here. This dropped quietly in 2013, bizarrely written by Wentworth Miller (yeah, the guy from Prison Break and currently known as Captain Cold) and directed by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy (2003) fame. That ought to be enough to gain this flick some cred, but it seems eternally underrated. Everything about this is perfectly creepy and off just enough to leave you wanting to figure out what the hell is going on - and when that shoe drops it's a bit predictable, but the how's, why's, and what the characters do next is what makes it worth seeing. Wasikowska owns everything here, even if it takes her until the final scene to decide what kind of girl she's going to be, and it may not be too much of a spoiler to say that choice isn't a great one for anybody. It almost exists outside of any time period, that didn't feel like present day until they actually dropped some specific dates, ages, and started interacting with the outside world. Hey, Alden "Han Solo" Ehrenreich shows up, too, along with Matthew Goode, and a surprisingly involved Nicole Kidman, who has never been better.>

#5: The Lobster (2015)

There's some debate whether or not this is a 2015 or 2016 movie. It saw its US release in 2016, which makes a good case, but I'd still go with its 2015 film festival debut. For that reason I'm inclined to leave it off my 2016 list, which meant that I had all the more motivation to cite it here! The Lobster is genuinely unlike anything else you've ever seen, and Colin Farrell once again proves just how good he is. Haters back off. He floats between an array of incredible supporting characters, from Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, and Olivia Colman in its first half to Rachel Weisz (who rises to his equal) and Léa Seydoux in the second half. Everything exists in a world similar to ours but simultaneously so completely and drastically different in terms of social norms, particularly dating. It's an extreme version of the pain we all feel falling in and out of love, the desperation, sacrifice, and line between hope and hopelessness that we all straddle. It's all these figurative metaphors made literal in a brilliant genre-defying exercise in cinematic majesty.

#4: Melancholia (2011)

I wrestled with this one quite a bit, since it's so damn weird. At times incredibly frustrating, it's also a positively hypnotic way to spend 135 minutes of your life, from the insane slo-mo opening to the slow crawl descent into depression and madness exhibited by a somehow amazing Kirsten Dunst. This is also a film that spins at its midway point, when Lars von Trier staple Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over dealing with the emotional fallout of both her depressed runaway bride sister and the coming collision of Earth with Melancholia. Yeah, there is weird shit here, and like The Lobster it functions of that weirdness being taken for granted within that world. The establishment of the rest of the cast that doesn't quite understand or accept Dunst's mental state in the first half, and then the stripping down of the entire lot as drama unfolds between family, planets, and within our own minds takes over in the second half. It's an incredibly patient and breathtaking meditation on acceptance, depression, and the movement of interplanetary bodies. Yeah, weird is apt.

#3: Take Shelter (2011)

I suppose this is actually a bit similar to the other 2011 film on this list, Melancholia in its own way - one man on his own, disregarded and shunned by his own society has to find his way and his own belief in coming disaster. Michael Shannon is the shit here, way better than Jean Dujardin, who won the Oscar in 2011. Shannon was not nominated. Jessica Chastain also shows up as a preview to the amazing shit she'd be doing for the rest of her career. It's ultimately a long drawn out character study that slowly inches Shannon along (until he super-explodes), casting doubts to his belief all the way, but we're continually drawn in by his conviction. And when everything seems like it's finally going to be alright, we get one of the best ending shots in any movie ever. Jeff Nichols' stock has only risen in the past five years, whether it be priming McConaughey with Mud (2012), or this year's double dose of Midnight Special and Loving, the former of which was kind of meh, but the latter of which could earn some serious end of year award consideration.

#2: The Lost Weekend (1945)

The last two are two oldies but goodies. Well, I'm not sure you'd call The Lost Weekend a happy feel-good movie, but it certainly features a lot of drinking. Ray Milland won the Oscar for this, and unlike Dujardin, he deserved it! Damn that's cold. Not as cold as the bottom of a glass of Rye Whiskey - and this epitome of self-destruction that bends and twirls towards an alcoholic's rock bottom would be a special film if it came out today, much less three months after World War II ended. It also nabbed Best Picture and Best Director, and rightly so. Everything here leads our man along the wrong path, and even though he seems to turn a corner at the end, there's enough evidence to expect the worst in his demented, addicted character. The final interpretation is really more ambiguous than you'd think, although certainly it was meant to wrap up a bit tighter. Also this flick really turned me on to Ryes. They're great. Oh no...

#1: Seven Samurai (1954)
FUCK YEAH BRO!! That's a direct translation of most
of this movie.

So, this is probably pathetic that I had never seen this before, but really, how many of you seek out 1950s non-Godzilla Japanese films? Even if they do come from Kurosawa? It's amazing just how much of this film you see everywhere these days. From its basic premise that's been repeated everywhere from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to The Three Amigos (1986) to A Bug's Life (1998) to...uh...The Magnificent Seven (2016), to its core narrative structure and movement editing, it's the great granddaddy for the modern motion picture. And yeah, I hadn't seen it - I'm not totally familiar with Kurosawa or what the big deal was, but now I'm in debt. Each character shines through with incredible care and detail, notably Toshiro Mifune as the bonkers Kikuchiyo. Kurosawa has such a great technical awareness, though - from the establishment of complicated geography to tracking the amount of bandits killed and balancing everyone in a truly epic film. It's the shortest-feeling three-and-a-half hour film you'll ever watch, and it even ends on a Pyrrhic Victory! There's a lot of greatness here, and as I prepared to watch it I was curious if I really would think that one of the supposed Greatest Movies of all time would hold up with my Fast and the Furious-loving sensibility. As it turns out, it's #1 for good reason and I'm glad to have finally caught up with it.

Honourable Mentions

I'm not sure if I even like listing Honourable Mentions. These are the Top 10, dammit! If they were any good, they'd have made it! I will say that I long debated between The Witch and The Duke of Burgundy for the #10 spot, but I ultimately felt that the latter was too obtuse despite me loving every part of it. I'll also give props for Bone Tomahawk (2015), The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) as Jackie Chan finally wins an Honorary Oscar, and Quiz Show (1994), which is a totally incredible never-talked-about-anymore film.

You know what else I saw that was kind of incredible, that I'll obnoxiously leave you with? I streamed Snake Eyes (1998) on Netflix - and yeah, it ended up being kind of dumb and cliché, but the intro is fucking incredible! As is most of the first half where Brian de Palma deftly shows the same mystery assassination from a multitude of perspectives and angles, without getting showy like Vantage Point (2008) or something. It's got to be up there in Nic Cage performances, too. Ugh. Snake Eyes. I really like this column as an excuse to talk about movies that otherwise we'd have no excuse at all to talk about.

What did you see this year?

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