I usually do my pick list at the end of the year, but there’s been already so much good and I’m not expecting anything great in December. If something else does emerge, I’ll update the list by the new year. Films you will not see on this list include Arrival (which everyone loves but which I found to be as banal as Interstellar), The Legend of Tarzan (cheesy action adventure), X-Men: Day of the Apocalypse (the most surprising disappointment of them all), and Hacksaw Ridge (which was actually okay but weighed down by a few problems). Here are the real gems of 2016.
1. Little Men. 5 stars. I’ve seen it three times and may double that figure before the year’s end. Little Men explores a close friendship in a social parable about gentrification. Jake’s parents are new landlords who threaten to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents, but the boys’ friendship only grows the more the parents become enemies. The film doesn’t demonize the landlords (who are decent enough people and have their own financial problems) or over-extend sympathy for the poor Chilean tenant, but rather holds the adults at arms length so we can latch on to the boys and see things through their eyes. Jake is the shy introvert, Tony the bold extrovert (take a wild guess who’s who from the above picture), and it may even be that Jake is smitten by Tony. Their final scene together makes me cry every time, with Jake, who futilely begs his father not to go through with the eviction, and the epilogue is even more heartbreaking, showing there is no way back to recover the most intimate friendships. It’s a critical masterpiece (98% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences love it too, for every good reason. Reviewed fully here.
2. Silence. 5 stars. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame — and essentially reaped what they sowed.
3. The Witch. 5 stars. It’s loved by critics and hated by audiences, and you need to trust the former. It was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of horror movie with loud bangs and cheap thrills, instead of a period piece. Kubrick could have easily scored this, Bergman could have shaped the characters, and either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But the director owns his unique narrative about a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from the rest of Colonial America. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors”, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer in near orgasmic ecstasy. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. Reviewed fully here.
4. The Exorcist: Legion (The Director’s Cut). 4 ½ stars. This wasn’t released in the theaters, but I’m including it anyway. The original cut of The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) was famously reworked against Blatty’s desires, most notably to include an exorcism which made no sense. The original cut followed his novel Legion to a tee, and as such was a true writer’s sequel. Fans have wanted to see this lost version for years. But the news is good and bad. Good in that the Legion cut is definitely worth seeing. It’s more cerebral. The ending is more abrupt, but makes more sense, as the story doesn’t really demand an exorcism. The bad news isn’t really bad, just deflating: the theatrical version actually turns out to be superior after all. It’s true that the exorcism of the theatrical version happens out of the blue, but it has aged rather well. It’s stylish and creepy and not at all cheap, and it really does work for all its conceptual problems. Most important to me is the critical appearance of Jason Miller, absent in the new director’s cut. As brilliant as Brad Dourif is in both roles, it’s far more scary when Patient X changes from Jason Miller (Father Karras) to Brad Dourif (the Gemini Killer); when I saw the film in the theater back in 1990, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Jason Miller (Father Karras) who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. But in the director’s cut, it’s all Brad Dourif, and we don’t register that Karras’ body has been taken over, except on an abstract level. In any case, both versions are worth having, and both are excellent.
5. Hell or High Water. 4 ½ stars. Like Little Men this film is a socio-economic parable filtered through the close relationship of two men. This time it’s two brothers, one of whom (Toby) is divorced and dirt poor, the other (Tanner) a veteran criminal who just got out of jail. They begin a series of bank heists, not because they’re greedy assholes but because they’re desperate to save their family ranch, and are furious at the predatory banks who benefit from the misfortunes of homeowners. Their plan is cautious, as they rob branches in small increments so as not to attract federal attention, launder the money through a nearby casino, and then use the funds to pay off their mortgage to the very bank they are stealing from. This is all so that Toby can leave the property to his ex-wife and sons. Ultimately, Hell or High Water is a story of brotherhood that shows right and wrong to be relative concepts at every turn, even when Tanner ends up cornered and unloading gun fire on everyone.
6. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can make a case for this being the best entry in the Star Wars franchise, but I have to stick with Empire Strikes Back for its dramatic success on so many levels (and not least the character of Yoda). Rogue One is a close second though. It’s Star Wars for adults, and how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope. Here’s how I rank all the films.
7. Don’t Breathe. 4 stars. This acclaimed home invasion manages to terrorize with a claustrophobic setting and limited choices of its characters. The story is simple: three kids break into a blind man’s home in order to rob him of his reportedly huge stash of cash. The blind man turns out to be a punishing adversary and a psychopath, and in short space traps the kids inside the house. How many of them survive I won’t say, but it’s not pretty. Don’t Breathe has been well received for good reason. It’s incredibly ruthless and the kids manage to keep your sympathy; they are jerks, but likeable enough jerks, and they follow an intelligent script that doesn’t have them making stupid decisions so they can be cheaply punished. I was glad I saw this on big screen.
8. In a Valley of Violence. 4 stars. I usually deplore the plot device of bullies who kill a protagonist’s pet dog. It’s a cheap way of sending the audience on a moral holiday (I’m looking at you, Dance with Wolves) so we can cheer on the hero as he brings everyone down in bloody vengeance. But it works in In a Valley of Violence, because the film is making fun of itself half the time, almost in a Tarantino sort of way. Ethan Hawke plays an army deserter who has killed too many Indians in the Kansas area for his liking, and is now trying to get to Mexico. He comes across an uncouth Irish priest who goes from town to town saving souls, but robs people as it suits him, and this sets the tone right away for a western in which any semblance of morality is a farce. There is indeed a town in the Texas valley where sin and lawlessness reigns, and is run by a marshal played by John Travolta — an honorable enough man who does his damnedest to keep his henchmen in check, but to no avail, and Hawke’s character brings them all down in the inevitable shootout.
9. Neon Demon. 3 ½ stars. Depending on the reviews you read, The Neon Demon is either a brilliant avant garde experiment or pretentious porn, and I’m with the former. It’s about a sixteen-year-old, Jesse, who moves to LA from a small town with naive dreams of stardom, and because of her beauty lands instant success as a model. Agents and designers love her, while her newfound “friends” seethe with jealousy over her effortless success in a career that they have sweat bullets for. They exploit her insecurities with backbiting venom, and one of them, a girl named Ruby, is in love with her but spurned, which drives Ruby to have sex with a female corpse to relieve her frustrations. Things deteriorate to gang revenge, murder and cannibalism — shocksploitation, to be sure, but gorgeously handled. The director (Nicolas Winding Refn) said he wanted to explore female violence after his three films about male violence (Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives). Honestly those other films didn’t do much for me, but Neon Demon works for the reasons many critics dislike it, by use of a hyper-stylized approach that makes the whole thing feel like a hypnotic fever dream.
10. Eye in the Sky. 3 ½ stars. This thriller is an exercise in collective buck passing. Military combatants, lawyers and politicians are involved in assassinating a well-known terrorist who now resides in a “friendly” country not at war. Right as they’re about to launch a missile, a little girl appears on the street corner of the hit site to sell bread, but they have to launch now or never, lest the terrorist get away. Everyone starts arguing the moral, legal, and political merits of firing the missile which would likely kill the girl: in London, the general finally loses patience with bureaucrats who seem more concerned with saving face than saving lives; in Nevada, the drone pilot agonizes over pulling the trigger from the safety of his airbase thousands of miles away from the combat zone; and in the target area of Nairobi, a military agent gets dangerously close to the terrorist’s hideaway using flying bug cameras. Seldom are thrillers this nail-biting when carried almost entirely on the suspense of postponed action and heated arguments.
11. Green Room. 3 ½ stars. This horror flick deserves a rewatch after Trump’s victory. In the above scene, our heroes antagonize a skinhead crowd with a lively performance of the Dead Kennedys’ classic song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. After the concert they retreat backstage and stumble on a crime scene, and from that point the “Nazi punks” want them dead and silenced. The kids lock themselves in a room, and the white supremacists (led by a terrifying incarnation of Patrick Stewart) seal off the escape routes, which is essentially the plot device of Don’t Breathe — kids trying to escape the domain of a man hell-bent on murdering them.
12. Into the Forest. 3 ½ stars. Finally, a post-apocalyptic film that isn’t an action, suspense, or horror thriller, but a character drama and feminist piece. It’s adapted from Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel of the same name, and examines two sisters played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. They live in northern California, in a secluded glass house with their father, when an unknown global catastrophe hits out of the blue, and kills the electric power, and isolates everyone from communication and resources. The best part are the performances of Page and Wood, and it’s best to take the film on that merit alone. As a post-apocalyptic tale, the film seems to forget its own genre half the time — it just doesn’t do much meaningful with the theme. But I always like watching Ellen Page, and this a solid enough piece about feminine bonds in isolation.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015.)