Post by Ryan Pumroy
Ryan Pumroy reveals his picks for the top ten films of 2016.
What a year.
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. America elected a reality TV host and man with his own line of steaks as the 45th president. We lost the likes of Prince, David Bowie, Michael Cimino, Vilmos Zsigmond, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and many more wonderful talents.
In the world of film, we saw a bevy of reboots, spin-offs, and sequels garner mixed results. Ghostbusters, Rogue One, Captain America, and Star Trek Beyond, to name a few.
Deadpool proved superhero movies can be rated R and be successful, Batman took Superman to court (and we lost), and Suicide Squad should have killed itself.
Mel Gibson returned to Hollywood’s good graces, while some other well-known directors had flops: Steven Spielberg (The BFG), Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Jodie Foster (Money Monster), Oliver Stone (Snowden), Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply), and Martin Scorsese (Silence).
To use one of my favorite quotes by longtime studio executive John Calley: “The [film] business is, at best, a crap shoot.”¹
With all that said, let’s get to the good stuff.
In this post, I present my top ten movies of 2016, listed alphabetically. I also include ten noteworthy movies – some great and some not, but nevertheless interesting.
The Top Ten Movies of 2016
All the Way
Bryan Cranston stars in an acting tour de force as President Lyndon Johnson. All the Way follows Johnson as he suddenly finds himself president after the Kennedy assassination. It’s an engrossing, interesting, and oftentimes humorous look at power and politics during a critical era in American history. Directed by Jay Roach.
Denis Villeneuve directs this science fiction drama about extraterrestrials visiting Earth. While that concept is nothing new, the film uses a unique approach: it focuses on communication and language. What we get is a movie which is thrilling, mysterious, and intelligent. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards.
After years in the making, Deadpool hit theaters last February. Made for a modest $58 million (as far as superhero movies are concerned), it was a massive success which grossed more than $780 million worldwide. Raunchy, dirty, bloody, and darn funny, Deadpool showed us two things: (1) superheroes can go R and make money and (2) Ryan Reynolds is a great actor. Directed by Tim Miller, his debut for a feature-length film.
La La Land
I hate ranking movies, but if I had to pick the best out of this top ten, it would be La La Land. In his follow-up to Whiplash (2014), Damien Chazelle creates a movie which is magical. Hearkening back to 1950s Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, La La Land depicts the romance between two artistic types as they try to make it big in Los Angeles. Not only are the songs good, but it’s a sweet, well-made film which showcases the talents of its leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It’s a Cinemascope, Technicolor dream where people still flip you off on the freeway, but only after a big song and dance number.
Manchester by the Sea
In my December review, I named Manchester by the Sea one of the best movies of the year. It’s a superb combination of moments which are painful, awkward, beautiful, and funny. Making that balance work is quite an achievement. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
One day, Susan (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript written by her ex-boyfriend, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads it, we discover more about their pasts, relationship, and youthful aspirations. Tom Ford wonderfully blends reality and fiction, jumping between the film’s present, flashbacks of Susan and Edward, and the allegorical world of the manuscript. Nocturnal Animals is ultimately a revenge story; a lesson about how you treat people may come back to haunt you.
O.J.: Made in America
Over five parts and nearly eight hours, Ezra Edelman examines the life and times of Orenthal James Simpson. O.J.: Made in America is an amazingly in-depth examination of race relations, policing, the judicial system, blackness, fame, and the American Dream.
Martin Scorsese has never really been a commercial filmmaker. If you look at his 50-year career, most of his films have not been box office successes. With that in mind, perhaps the reaction to Silence is fitting. Made for something in the $50 million range (not including marketing), it has grossed less than $7 million and become one of the biggest flops of the year. Box office, however, is contextual and doesn’t reveal the value of the film itself.
Almost thirty years in the making, Scorsese finally was able to film this faithful adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel. It’s a long, winding, somber epic about strangers in a strange land: Portuguese priests secretly operating in 17th-century Japan, where a ban on Christianity is fiercely enforced. Its themes are quintessentially Scorsese: loneliness, self-doubt, the struggle with a higher power. The style is more “tame” than you see in other Scorsese films – the whipping pans/zooms are limited to only a few moments. Music is used sparingly.
Critical reaction was largely positive, but Silence had its notable detractors. The general negative consensus seems to be that the film is overlong, boring, and not compelling. For those critics, that may very well be true, but I would encourage them to give the movie another try.
Southside with You
1989 – Chicago – the South Side. Michelle, a young lawyer, spends the day with Barack, a summer intern at her law firm. Together, they explore Chicago, talk about their hopes and dreams, and catch a screening of Do the Right Thing. A truly charming, engaging indie movie anchored by two excellent performances (Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers). Written and directed by Richard Tanne – his first feature film.
The Witch is what horror films should be: dark, creepy, mysterious, and unsettling as hell. It does not rely on jump scares. Rather, horror is in the mind; it’s in the atmosphere. The film follows a family cast out of their community in the New World. Slowly, they are turned against one another as fear and paranoia consume them. Highly recommended. The Witch was written and directed by Robert Eggers – his first feature film.
Ten Noteworthy Movies of 2016
Maybe I’m cheating by including these “noteworthy” movies, but ten is an arbitrary cutoff for a “year in review” post. These aren’t necessarily the best movies of the year, but they do deserve some sort of recognition.
As I review this list, I notice that many of these come from prestige directors: Ang Lee, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and the Coen brothers. It was an interesting year for big name directors. Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson had hits, and the Coens did alright. But Ang Lee, Warren Beatty, and Martin Scorsese had massive box office flops.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn is admirable for a number of reasons. It’s a film about the Iraq War, PTSD, and the disconnect between the battlefield and the homefront. Ang Lee made interesting choices in technology, choosing to shoot the film in 3D, 4K, and at 120 frames per second. The film also provides opportunities for Steve Martin and Vin Diesel to show their talents outside of comedy and the Fast & Furious franchise, respectively. However, the story isn’t told in a compelling way. We feel disconnected from the characters. The technical aspects may be responsible. Keep in mind that only two cinemas in the United States are able to show this film in its intended format, and even the critics who saw it in that format found it extremely unpleasant. Shooting the film with those specifications places constraints on Lee and on the actors. The high frame rate requires much more lighting than the typical 24 FPS rate. Shooting in 3D forces certain compositions and camera movements, and 4K resolution provides so much clarity in the image that it does not look like what we are used to seeing. The ultimate results is a generally washed-out look, and we are often treated to extreme close-ups where actors stare down the barrel of the camera. There are some excellent uses of this (see the still above), but overall it becomes very unsettling, and it doesn’t feel like that was the intention.
Following a car accident that ends his career, a narcissistic brain surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes on a mystical journey to heal himself and fight evil. While the plot is too convenient and “tight,” it’s a very enjoyable Marvel film. Oscar-nominated special effects. Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Elvis & Nixon
The very odd, very true story of when Elvis Presley suddenly shows up at the White House in 1970 and wants to meet President Richard Nixon. Michael Shannon is outstanding as Presley, as is Kevin Spacey as Nixon. A very funny and fascinating look at an awkward encounter between two men who turn out to have a lot in common. Directed by Liza Johnson.
This was the year Mel Gibson returned to the good graces of Hollywood. Gibson can be something of a sensitive subject, so, if we can, I want to leave aside the personal in this post and focus on the professional. Gibson is among the best directors we have. I have soft spots for The Man Without a Face (1993) and Apocalypto (2006). I can tell you from talking to current college students that Apocalypto has a serious fan base.
After a ten-year hiatus, Gibson is back directing. There’s a lot to like about Hacksaw Ridge. Andrew Garfield is very good in this (interesting that he starred in two films this year about the silence of God), as is Hugo Weaving. Some scenes are brilliantly done. Yet, the movie as a whole does not hold. There are a number of moments where the production is less than great due to one or more issues (performances, editing, poor CGI, apparent reshoots, etc.). I really did want to love Hacksaw Ridge, but having seen it twice in theaters, I’ll settle for the occasional great moments and the hope that Gibson will be back in the director’s chair more often.
I love the Coen brothers, but it usually takes time for their films to sink in. No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski took multiple viewings to fall in love. I’m close with The Man Who Wasn’t There and Barton Fink; still working on Burn After Reading.
Hail, Caesar! will probably take a few viewings, too. It’s a send-up of the Classic Hollywood studio system in the 1950s that produced the occasionally homoerotic Technicolor musicals, pompous biblical epics, and countless B-grade westerns. The Coens put a lot of love behind the humor — they grew up on this stuff. The cast is amazing: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenrich (who is absolutely outstanding in this film), Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and the list goes on.
Despite the largely negative reviews, I found Hardcore Henry to be an interesting experiment. How often do you see a tiny, Russian, first-person POV action film released wide in the US? It’s a unique experience. It isn’t the greatest film, but it’s worth checking out. Here’s a look behind the production. Directed by Ilya Naishuller.
The Jungle Book
Placing a 12-year-old with little to no acting experience in a blue screen environment can be risky, but you have to commend The Jungle Book‘s star (Neel Sethi) and director (Jon Favreau) for making this movie work as well as it does. It is not my favorite movie of the year, nor in the top ten above, but it is a fun adventure. I’m surprised this movie did not receive more awards consideration — it’s largely being pigeonholed into visual effects categories. Check out the behind the scenes here.
Moonlight is not my favorite film of the year. I have seen it once, and after my first viewing, I was left emotionally wanting something more. But, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t beautiful and important for our time. It has clearly resonated with many people. Barry Jenkins’s film examines the evolving identity, masculinity, and sexuality of Chiron at three points in his life. Cinematically, it is gorgeous; plus it is filled with some very good performances.
Rules Don’t Apply
It took Warren Beatty 18 years to direct another film after 1998’s Bulworth, and he was not greeted kindly. Rules Don’t Apply was a box office failure, and received highly mixed yet fairly lackluster reviews. Let me declare loud and clear that I liked this movie. I like Warren Beatty. I like Alden Ehrenreich. I like Lily Collins. Come on – you don’t think this is good?
Being a huge fan of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, it was interesting to see another film dealing with Howard Hughes’s life. This is a very different film from Scorsese’s in style and depiction. Beatty plays Hughes as an odd fellow, childish at times, but he goes easier on the tragic elements. This film is largely about sex — particularly religious abstinence, saving yourself for marriage.
Clint Eastwood is a remarkably productive filmmaker. Since 2000, he has directed 13 films, the most recent being Sully. In his later years, Eastwood seems to be focusing on films which deconstruct American heroes and myths. Take for example Flags of Our Fathers (2006), which tells the story of the men credited with raising the US flag on Iwo Jima and how they handle fame; not to mention J. Edgar (2011) and American Sniper (2014). Sully shows us the inner doubt of a hero. Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) constantly questions his actions. Did he do the right thing by landing the plane in the Hudson River, or did he endanger everyone’s lives? It’s a compelling subject and the performances are good, but for a story to which we already know the ending, the journey isn’t as well told as it could be.
¹Quoted in “Kubrick’s Greatest Gamble.” Time, December 1975. A PDF is available here.
Ryan Pumroy is an advisor and occasional instructor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of The 2 Shot. His other writings have appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture and In Media Res.