This past year saw the releases of some excellent movies. Established franchises had worthy sequels and installments while new movies sated our appetite for stuff that’s a little less superhero genre specific. A few of our favorite directors showed up to give use new stuff this year, while a few newcomers showed that there’s still some originality left in Hollywood, if only they’d give them a little money.
Hopefully, you’ve already had the opportunity to get yourself to the theater, but if you haven’t been to the movies all year, there are a few movies you should make a concerted effort to see. In that vein, we’ve compiled a list of films you should see before saying your final goodbyes to the year. Here are our picks for the best movies of 2016.
Manchester by the Sea
It’s good to see the Affleck brothers are finally getting their due, because they had a weirdly negative reputation for awhile. There was definitely a dip in quality, but Good Will Hunting was good enough to earn quite a bit of slack from us. Casey Affleck was one of the better characters in Good Will Hunting too, which is a testament to his talent, since most of what he said was improvised. We knew from there that he was a good actor, but Manchester by the Sea cemented his talent.
Come to think of it, everyone’s performance is great. There’s such nuance, weight, and authenticity to the emotional aspects of the movie that we’re a little surprised this wasn’t a documentary. Sometimes movies built on tragedy rely too much on the tragedy itself, where the crux of each character is basically grief incarnate rather than everyone being actual people. But Manchester by the Sea presents fully formed people trying to navigate a personal tragedy and doesn’t take any shortcuts inside that narrative. This is the kind of movie you put on at night, throw on a blanket or two, and pay full attention to.
This is absolutely a thinking man’s sci-fi movie. Arrival takes the time to get into the realistic challenges of first contact that most stories barely bother to address. Central to the plot is the issue of language barrier. Most movies explain it away with universal translators, which is an acceptable way to keep their plot moving forward. But Arrival acknowledges that visitors from light years away almost certainly wouldn’t speak English. We share a planet with people whose languages we don’t speak, so why would interstellar visitors be any different?
It’s also good to see Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams in a movie without superheroes. Marvel is killing it and DC is starting to find its way, but these are people who should have careers outside of comic book movies, simply because they’re excellent actors who deserve more roles. Plus, after the misstep that was Lois Lane in the current DC universe, Adams is owed some screen time outside of being rescued and bathtubs.
The movie’s also going to frustrate you with global politics. There’s no challenge in imagining humanity totally screwing up our first contact with extraterrestrials. Each nation’s government would have their own Rooseveltian big stick they’d want to hit aliens with, whether that’s diplomacy, violence, or something in between. That might also be the best case for a government keeping aliens secret. It’s not from the public, it’s from all the other governments who’d have fifteen ideas each on what to do with little green men. Or whatever other form aliens come in.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black writes and directs some of the most consistently clever movies we’ve ever seen, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being one of the better, if not the best, example. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are one of the best pairings in cinema history and Black’s dialogue might be the most natural sounding lines Downey’s ever had outside of Iron Man. We didn’t think Black would be able to do better than he’d done with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, since everything just seemed to fall into place to make that movie work. Then he made The Nice Guys.
We’re not saying it’s better than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but we are saying it might be. The Notebook did not prepare us for Ryan Gosling being an actor with excellent comedic chops. Even Lars and the Real Girl and Crazy Stupid Love, where Gosling started to show some promise, didn’t prepare us for his on-point performance as Holland March. He nails the elusive delivery Black’s scripts demand. Add in the counter-intuitive but surprisingly natural chemistry between him and Russell Crowe and this movie easily sits among our favorite movies.
Your first viewing of The Lobster takes some adjustment. It doesn’t watch like any movie you’ve seen before. The central drive of the movie, where you get turned into an animal if you’re single for too long, is a weird one and might set up the wrong tonal expectations. This is not an exercise in British absurdity and isn’t nearly as topically comedic as the trailer portrays. One of the biggest adjustments is the dialogue. Everything is stunted and utilitarian, there’s very little in the way of colorful language or eccentric delivery. It’s odd, but it makes sense in the world of the movie and helps enhance some of the desperation these characters must feel.
Rachel Weisz is an enormous credit to the movie and actually does a better job of rooting the story in tangible love than male lead Colin Farrell. Not that Colin Farrell’s performance is lacking in any way. It’s definitely not. It’s just that Weisz gives the audience something to relate to, since this is a love story at its core. Although, that might just be because we’re guys. Girls who watch the movie might think the same thing about Farrell. If the movie’s about falling in love, maybe you start to love the character you’d be attracted to in real life.
For some, this might be a movie of multiple viewings. There’s a lot to unpack, as most of the deeper character development happens in subtle, nonverbal ways. The rules of the hotel are never explicitly stated, so some of the weirder behavior of the staff and customers requires heavy inferences. The movie’s challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
You can’t talk about Hacksaw Ridge without talking about Mel Gibson, so let’s get all the Gibson crap out of the way. It’s hard to know whether he’ll ever get back in society’s good graces. What’s more, maybe he doesn’t deserve to. He pulled some shit that’s hard for people to forgive or forget. For this movie, maybe the best way to watch it is like watching modern Woody Allen. You have to divorce the man from the movie if you’re going to enjoy anything about it.
If you can do that, Hacksaw Ridge is a respectable entry into the World War 2 genre and the main plot mirrors WWII movies pretty well too. We’ve had dozens of movies about killing German and Japanese soldiers, but we haven’t had any about saving lives quite this way. The Great Raid came close, but all the main characters had guns. In this one, based on a true story, Desmond Doss becomes the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, forgoing weapons in favor of the role of combat medic. Hacksaw Ridge is an excellent return to the Second World War, a conflict that even 70-odd years on, can’t seem to stop producing stories.
Hell or High Water
This is a movie born in significant part from the anti-banking sentiment caused by the 2008 economic crisis. Two brothers turn to robbing banks to pay off an unreasonable loan taken out by their mother, gaining a fair bit of public support along the way. It’s an exploration of the drastic measures people will take when pushed to the financial breaking point, as well as the relationship of two grieving, loyal brothers. Basically, everything about this movie is set up to make you like the main characters, even though a little bit of that work feels a little wasted, because one of them is Chris Pine and everyone likes Chris Pine.
It also feels a bit like a modern Western. The movie’s set in Texas, they’re robbing banks, and they’re up against a Texas Ranger. The setup is classic Eastwood. Where the difference comes in is the subject matter. Like we said already, this is a movie inspired by 2008. These are people dealing with corrupt, heartless banking policies in the only way they see left to them. They’re some of the more relatable characters put to film because it’s easy to imagine a scenario where the average person might have to make some of the same choices.
Let’s also take a second to acknowledge just how good an actor Ben Foster is. No matter how good the movie he’s in is, he’s never turned in a poor performance. Normally we’d tap 3:10 to Yuma for his best performance, but Hell or High Water is something to rival it. He’s quickly becoming one of those actors with chops enough that you’d go see a movie just because he’s in it.
Everybody Wants Some!!
The 80s are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, recently. That could be thanks to an intense sense of nostalgia that’s sweeping the country, but we’d like to think that’s not the case. Stranger Things wasn’t made because the 80s were so fun and awesome, it was made because it tells an excellent story with great characters and clear motivations. Everybody Wants Some!! is similar. It takes an era most people are familiar with and uses the audience’s innate 80s willingness to tell them a funny, honest story.
There are a lot of similarities between it and Richard Linklater’s earlier Dazed and Confused. You sympathize with the characters and care about them as people. They’re deeper than the caricatures they could have easily been and there are real-world implications for that idea. This is also all stuff you absorb subconsciously, as this is a movie you watch to laugh. It isn’t until later that you realize you accidentally learned something.
It’s rare for the Coen brothers to venture out of R territory, since most of their movies feature enough violence and language that any socially conservative parent would be traumatized if their children saw any of it. But Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were both PG-13 and they were two of their best movies, so the fact that Hail, Caesar! is one of their PG-13 installments shouldn’t discourage you from seeing it.
The movie still has all the beats you’d expect from one of their productions. The dialogue bounces along with inherent wit and natural intelligence we’ve come to love. Add in the fact that this particular movie carries a far more star-studded cast than the Coens usually get, and Hail, Caesar! becomes a respectable and worthy entry into a high quality filmography.
Their movies almost always feature Frances McDormand and she’s a national treasure. If she’s in a scene, there’s a pretty big chance she’s the best part of it. Hell, she’s most of the reason Fargo works as well as it does, since we can’t think of another actress who could pull off pregnant, genius, fearless, small town police chief. We’re also big supporters of the diversification of Josh Brolin’s career. He’s great in everything, so letting him play around with some comedy can only mean good things.
Don’t Think Twice
Improv’s a hard thing to separate from your personality. It’s why improvisers can get a bad reputation and why they sometimes seem a little disingenuous. Half the comedy on TV will take shots at improv, despite some of those shows themselves being improvised or their actors have roots in improv. This reputation and tendency of improvisers to never stop performing is exactly why Keegan Michael Key’s character in Don’t Think Twice turns into an audition tape as soon as he hears there may be talent agents in the audience. He’s desperate for success and has always dreamed of making it to a show like SNL, or their movie’s equivalent. Don’t let improvisers fool you. Most of them are just as cutthroat and ruthless as everyone else in show business.
Alienation quickly becomes a theme in the movie. People who claim to be supportive of each other clearly have other motives. Some think improv is an unassailable art form (it’s not), while others see it only as an avenue to success (it’s also not that). The unique relationships improv creates are on full display and rendered extraordinarily faithfully, seeing as how most of the people in the movie have significant experience in the industry.
It might be unexpected to say, but if you’ve done or do improv, you might not like this movie. It levels some hefty criticism at the form, both subtly and overtly, and improvisers tend to take that kind of thing personally, for whatever reason. But if you can get past that, or have no experience in the field, then the movie promises an intimate look at relationships, show business, and their effect on one another.
The first time we saw Adam Driver, he was Lena Dunham’s boyfriend in Girls, and our first impressions weren’t particularly favorable ones. We couldn’t get through the first season of the show and Driver doesn’t play a likable character, so put those two things together and we weren’t huge fans of his work. Time’s slowly been proving us wrong though. He played one of the more likable characters in This is Where I Leave You (which we apparently need to rewatch, man did our opinion not match up with critics), and his time as Kylo Ren was childishly menacing, which we mean as a compliment. He was also in Inside Llewyn Davis and we flat out refuse to acknowledge anything bad in that movie, so he must have been great.
In Paterson, he shows off a bit more range, playing a sentimental, bus driving poet named Paterson from Paterson, New Jersey. It looks to be a great character study, both of Paterson the character and Paterson the place, with the bus driver spending a lot of his time doing some friendly eavesdropping on his passengers. He incorporates most of what he hears and does into his poetry, which emphasizes daily minutiae.
One warning. The trailer hits the “your poetry is beautiful and you should have confidence” beat a little hard for our taste. We like poetry, we’re just not big fans of when a writer writes a movie about how good the poetry of one of the characters is, when the writer’s the one who wrote the poetry in the first place. But from what we can tell, it doesn’t look like that’s going a giant part of the movie, so we’ll give the benefit of the doubt on this one. At the worst, we get a movie where Adam Driver gets to act his ass off, and we’re fine with that.