Happy Anniversary, CineKatz! It’s been an honor to have been with this site for four years now. I have been thrilled to renew and refine my craft with every review and opinion piece I’ve written, and I have relished the opportunity to meet (Nick and Linus are the only Katzenjammers I’ve had the privilege to know in real life.) many talented, prolific, and opinionated movie watchers.
Oh, by the way, here’s my list of the previous year’s best films. You may think of these as the hidden gems (mostly) offering modestly pleasant surprises in the otherwise tumultuous and first-world disappointing year that was 2016.
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen every movie yet. Unseen films of immediate interest include The Dressmaker, Silence (I was all set to see it, then came a crippling cold), The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, The Mermaid, The Handmaiden, and The Midnight Special. And while it feels wrong to make a list like this with a Scorsese movie still on the must-see shelf, I am more excited to share my list because the films on it were truly extraordinary, and only two of them were box office smashes.
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The most gung-ho, freedom-loving movie of the year was made not in America but the outback of New Zealand, starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison. This off-beat but upbeat low-budget adventure comedy about a foster kid and his ambivalent adoptive father bushwhacking through the woods, evading hunters, dogs, and helicopters, looks better than most green screen features and has you bouncing from beginning to end. A lovely, weird little adventure movie that I went into without even having seen the poster – Hunt for the Wilderpeople is fun, charming, and dang it, now I want to visit New Zealand again!
9. Hell or High Water
Here’s another movie that snuck up on everyone. It works like this. Take the most conventional western thriller premise possible – two broke brothers (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) carry out a spree of bank robberies while an aging Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) relentlessly pursues them as his last hoorah before retirement – and complete that genre update by applying it to the theme of modern social breakdown. Hell or High Water has its reminiscing sights on the old Leone-western form while forging modern complexity through a sharp, economical screenplay, terrific acting, and a keen use of scope in the cinematography.
8. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s films are about their own journey. That’s why his writing is so unwieldly, and why his camera moves with an ever-slight detachment. But the spectacularly lame and non-lasting Boyhood proves that this direction needs a shrunken scale to work properly. Here it does, more effectively than Dazed and Confused, to which Everybody Wants Some!! is a spiritual sequel. It’s 1980 and a bunch of competitive, endearingly-vulgar college jocks of the reputable baseball team spend their three days before the start of the semester drinking, partying, and chick scoring in the age of rock & roll.
Like his excellent Before Sunrise, this story has Linklater romanticizing his own personal experiences. It’s not only a hilarious escapist capsule from start to finish – reveling in frat-boy antics too absurd to be fiction with the best soundtrack of the year – but also a near-perfect little emotional journey that never comes off like it’s trying. If you’re looking for an elaborate The Breakfast Club confession scene or deeper mystery to be resolved, look elsewhere because you’re no fun.
Also stay through the credits.
This is the most politically conscious movie of the year, even more-so than the others on this list that actually allude to immediately topical issues of great concern to voters. A triathlon of great storytelling, Jackie features Natalie Portman as Jacquelyn Kennedy, at once neurotic and grief struck, commanding the screen and narrating her story, wrestling with the meaning of truth in one of America’s most tumultuous political periods and trying to keep her composure throughout it.
Hyperbole of the sycophancy for her aside, Meryl Streep is overrated because, if for no other reason, in playing Jackie, Portman does Streep’s own method as well as she has ever done. No, she has not yet outdone herself from Black Swan, but Portman is captivating, and for more than just the voice and accent she puts on. Her presence is so magnetic that the camera rarely leaves her face, but that’s not really a swipe at the film because the narrative tracks her own complex and multifaceted emotional pacing. Jackie’s face reveals much without words.
Jackie appreciates the gravity of the moment. It is as much a tale of unsought leadership as it is of dealing with loss. In execution it is an exemplar in showing how gargantuan the smallest things can be, and how both the immediate and distant aftermath of a violent tragedy can be just as harrowing and as the moment itself (a theme we will be revisiting later on this list). And as weird as this is to say, it also has the best sound editing and mixing of any movie I’ve seen this year, which makes me excited to root for it in those categories.
Also, special shout out to Peter Saarsgard for his portrayal of Bobby Kennedy. He deserves his own movie.
6. The Nice Guys
This movie ROCKS! Continuing with his graduation from buddy cop action comedies to buddy detective action comedies, Shane Black refines his formula once again in unleashing two valiant but bumbling, violence-addicted men and an upright daughter into the center of a late-‘70s Los Angeles sex/murder conspiracy. Like the portrayal of West Texas in #9, this is another story of a decrepit and morally-sleazy society that serves as a perfect powder keg of mayhem for two well-intentioned idiots to ignite. It’s funny, fast-paced, packed with delightful twists that ramp up the action, and keeping the core chugging is the chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in what is by far the year’s best comedic duo. See it, and then kick yourself for having missed it over the summer.
This movie will blow your mind.
If you’re looking for an alien invasion resulting in a battle to save humanity, all I’ll say is that that’s not what this film has in mind. Arrival is a big, sweeping science fiction thriller with a great conceit and a terrific ending that really brings it together. You have to see it to believe it, and if you haven’t yet seen it I will not give it away.
Earlier on this list I mentioned how a movie can show the aftermath of an intense moment of crisis being just as emotionally hard and harrowing as the moment itself. This is the central thrust of Sully and the result is as moving as it is poignant. This 100-minute drama is the John Henry folklore, updated to reflect the age of automation – revealing the true flip side of Miles Bennett Dyson’s passion in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and vindicating Colonel Rhodes in Iron Man who stated that “no unmanned aerial vehicle will ever trump a pilot’s instinct, his insight, that ability to look into a situation beyond the obvious and discern its outcome, or a pilot’s judgment.” Sully presents an honest confrontation of cynicism and character assassination that punish extraordinary (and extraordinarily modest) people who find themselves in difficult situations and then, worse even, the agenda-hungry bureaucratic spotlight.
3. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel has reached a new operatic peak. A political and emotional climax for a near decade-long superhero franchise, structured as a razor-thin thriller, presented with gusto, and concluding with a devastating brawl between two brothers who have evolved with and past one another and are each helpless before the other. It isn’t just grand and unexpected, with the franchise’s most intriguing and compelling villain; its central core of power and responsibility is now as much the essence of the entire superhero mythos and genre as anything else, and I can’t think of how Marvel can possibly top it.
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
This film is perfect. In fact, it’s the most perfect movie of the entire year, and an astounding achievement in stop-motion animation. Add the tender story of family, great action, and a beautiful sense of musical showmanship in narration and what we have is a movie repairing the broken fabric of society with the power of the story itself.
1. Hacksaw Ridge
There was none better, and I am hard pressed to believe that any remaining 2016 movie even could be better than Mel Gibson’s now second magnum opus. It’s cheesy, bloody, and painstakingly earnest, dramatizing the true and incredible story of a man’s determination to keep his personal faith as he endures relentless persecution by those he intends to serve and then the worst of the Pacific theater’s bloodiest war.
When in the moment, few other war films feel so passionately directed against their own subject. Indeed there are many who have and will continue to misunderstand the meaning of Hacksaw Ridge as propaganda for its claustrophobic and literal down-to-foxhole-earth panning of gore and hellfire that no doubt appeals to the savage animal in all of us. But this is the fatal blind spot so many have of films that drive just as hard to honor the men on the ground as they do to depict war’s futility. What keeps the film certain is the focus on Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss. It is his character’s unrelenting love for his fellow man spurring him into thrilling heroics in willful defiance of that savagery – a state of man repeatedly shown to be futile for so many of those serving beside him. In the thick of Okinawa, no one can truly be the kind of action movie star Gibson himself used to be.
It is ironic, then, that a film so brazen in its crystalized, dramatic execution can have such a subtle universal impact. In the end, there was no film more hard hitting and genuinely moving as Hacksaw Ridge, and I am proud to stand by it as my movie of the year.
Since in every year before this one, CineKatz has done Top 11 lists instead of Top 10, I figured I’d incorporate a piece of that tradition into the addendum. Here are two other lists, with its six entries in no particular order.
HONORABLE MENTIONS of 2016:
Knight of Cups
Star Trek Beyond
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
10 Cloverfield Lane
WORST FILMS OF 2016:
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Happy 2017 and here’s to the great films still to come.