What didn’t appear to be a good year for movies at first glance turned out to have several notable, memorable films that entertained, informed and enlightened.
I spent most of 2016 lamenting what a terrible year for movies it was. The summer, especially, was one of the worst in recent memory, with many disappointing blockbusters that relied more on brand names and spectacle, rather than story and characters. But as typically happens, the late summer and fall provided much more substance. This was a year for unconventional storytelling, pushing the boundaries of what was previously acceptable, and challenging what’s possible while trying to reflect the culture we currently live in.
For me, the best movies of the year were those that dared to be different, that didn’t compromise their intentions even when popularity or conventional thinking dictated otherwise. But following formulas led to so much disappointment in 2016, which only made it natural that the vacuum would be filled with movies that provided something new and exciting. It’s always a fantastic feeling when a movie reaches into your head, into your chest, to make you feel something and leave you thinking about it for hours, days, weeks and months afterward. That happened plenty of times this year.
Maybe the biggest surprise is that it ultimately became difficult to reduce a list of the year’s best films to 10. Back in August, I wondered if I could even find 10 movies to fill a list without having to stretch a bit. Yet as happens most every year, there were tough choices and plenty of films that were left off. Just missing the cut were La La Land (which I surprised myself by leaving off), Kubo and the Two Strings, Arrival, Captain America: Civil War, Anthropoid, and yes, Sausage Party.
Rather than just paraphrase what I previously wrote, movies that I reviewed throughout the year include a link to the original review and a short excerpt. Considering some award candidates (Hidden Figures, A Monster Calls, Patriots Day) aren’t widely released until the first two weeks of January, we may even post a revised list at the end of this month. Thank you for reading our reviews here at The Comeback. We’ll be back with plenty more in the year to come, and hopefully do an even better job.
“Deadpool is also a triumphant moment for comic book movies, refusing to follow a now-familiar formula of complicated mythologies, shared universes, origin stories and hero’s journeys. No, this film couldn’t exist if other superhero films hadn’t previously cleared a path in pop culture. But while it follows that path, Deadpool also takes plenty of pleasure in traveling side roads, driving in the wrong lane, and leaning out the window, sticking its tongue out at convention. It’s a rousingly fun trip.”
9. Swiss Army Man – Daniels
“If you prefer not to look that deeply in this movie, maybe it can be enjoyed on a more superficial level — maybe as a smarter, more warped, less wacky Weekend at Bernie’s or a very twisted version of Cast Away in which Tom Hanks and that volleyball form a deeper friendship. At the very least, you’ll have the farting. And as mentioned, there is a lot of it. You may never have realized how much gas a corpse can pass from its body and to what uses that discharge can be utilized. At various points throughout the film, Manny serves as a jet ski, a firestarter, and a gun. His body also preserves gallons of rainwater for Hank to drink later on. When rigor mortis sets in, his limbs can chop wood. And his erection serves as a compass.
“Yes, that’s right. All of this is played for laughs, but if it’s something you don’t think you’re ready to handle, Swiss Army Man probably isn’t the movie for you. I think Daniels forces you to confront that eventually. Even if you enjoy yourself because you’re giggling so often at all that farting, the setting and story soon force you to consider what’s really happening and whether or not this, at its core, may ultimately be the saddest comedy you’ve ever seen.”
“What makes Captain Fantastic truly compelling and challenging is that it doesn’t tell the audience what to think. Both Ben and Jack are right about what they believe, and they’re also wrong in not acknowledging the other side. But if you believe the movie is casting any sort of judgment or attempting to send a message, that is likely you projecting your own personal views onto the story. And that’s not a bad thing. A movie should make you feel something and think about what you’ve watched afterwards.”
7. Weiner – Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
When watching a documentary, you might sometimes wonder why the subjects continued to allow themselves and their story to be filmed. Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner surely hired Kriegman and Steinberg for what was intended to be a triumphant comeback story. Resigning from Congress in the wake of a sexting scandal involving several women, Weiner decided to run for New York City mayor a couple years later.
What starts out as a film covering that campaign and Weiner’s attempt to revive his political career instead becomes an intriguing examination of a man whose lack of self-control and desire for power continues to cause his self-destruction. Those who remember Weiner as a fiery Congressman and a fierce fighter for Democrats will be frustrated to be reminded of how he sabotaged his career, arguably costing the party dearly. To see such a talented politician squander his potential is maddening.
Weiner is also fascinating — and sometimes painful to watch — because of Huma Abedin, the wife who stuck by her husband and supported his career, only to be humilated when Weiner is again caught sexting with women and having to answer for his indiscretions publicly. How she didn’t go after everyone with a baseball bat is one of the film’s greatest mysteries.
6. Sing Street – John Carney
Those who grew up in the 1980s and loved the rock and pop music of that time will almost certainly love Sing Street. The movie is something of an ode to Duran Duran, The Jam, Joe Jackson, The Cure and other British acts that exploded in popularity during that era. But even if you weren’t a fan of that music or didn’t grow up with it, you will likely relate to the story of a teenager forced to go to new school because of his family’s financial troubles (and parents’ deteriorating marriage).
But Sing Street is more about that time of life when you’re trying to figure out who you are and how to convey that to the rest of the world. Do you try to fit in and not draw attention, which might be the easier way to get through adolescence, or do you plant a flag and defy those who won’t let you embrace your identity? For Conor, the main character of this story, it’s initially about winning the affection of a girl he’s in love with. But in becoming a musician to get her attention, he realizes how much that music means to him, how writing songs and performing has helped him discover himself.
And oh yeah, the music is great.
5. O.J.: Made in America – Ezra Edelman
It almost feels unfair to include O.J.: Made in America here because ESPN provided director Ezra Edelman with so much more time to tell his story than other filmmakers — documentarians or otherwise — would get for their films. How many other documentaries might have been even better had they been allowed eight hours to provide the depth that may have been lacking in a two-hour run time?
Of course, an eight-hour documentary needs a story worthy of all that time and O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall certainly qualifies. This isn’t just a nonfiction retelling of the Simpson murder trial. Edelman covers everything that contributed to creating this American tragedy. Made in America is a story about civil rights and race relations, athletic achievement and entitlement, African American identity, celebrity worship, media, domestic violence and the criminal justice system. Simpson was a man who seemingly had everything, yet lost it all when he eventually couldn’t get something he wanted and became unhinged.
Eight hours were needed to tell this whole story, which ESPN Films executive producer Connor Schell and Edelman realized. It’s powerful and daring, challenging viewers with difficult information and visuals to remind us that two people were brutally murdered, and somehow the culprit was inexplicably acquitted. Yet that was almost understandable, considering everything that led up to that verdict. Justice may have eventually been served, though not in the manner it should have been.
“Though this sounds like a potential Coen brothers comedy (and it would be fun to see Bridges in another of their films), the stakes are a bit higher. Sheridan’s script is surprisingly funny, filled with several witty lines and insults. (Mr. Pibb drinkers might be offended, though.) But while Hell or High Water has plenty of amusing moments that provide relief from what could be a heavy, gloomy story, it’s most certainly not a comedy. There are plenty of scenes that might make you think otherwise at times, particularly when Hamilton frequently slings racist insults at his Native American partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). When Alberto reveals he’s part-Mexican, Hamilton responds by saying that gives him a whole other load of insults to throw at him.
“Sheridan and Mackenzie save what might be the most funny scene — involving Hamilton and Alberto visiting a bar with a very limited menu and a waitress that takes zero shit — for when it’s probably needed most, placing it before the climactic showdown between cops and robbers that you know can’t possibly end well for one or both sides. It’s a nice touch to give the audience a good laugh and let everyone take a breath before the movie gets deadly serious. Sheridan’s script also shows a touch for bitter irony, as the events that compelled Toby to robbing the banks that screwed over his family also ends up knocking down his carefully laid plans.”
“The title of the film comes from the animal that the main character David (Colin Farrell) chooses. Why a lobster? They have a an extremely long life span, live in the sea (which David has always enjoyed) and stay fertile for their entire lives. We never actually see one of the Hotel guests turned into an animal, only the final result, though there is a room where the transformation takes place. (David’s brother has been turned into a dog and accompanies him to The Hotel.)
“Though the premise is extremely bizarre, it also provides an outlet for some extremely sharp and funny commentary on the importance that we place on people to be part of a couple — especially at a certain age. Of course, this isn’t just a pervasive societal pressure, but also a self-imposed one. How much of our lives do we devote to finding someone to avoid being alone, either on a short-term basis or to spend the rest of our lives with?”
“What Manchester by the Sea gets so right, what feels so authentic, is that there’s no one right way in dealing with tragedy. There can be wrong ways to react, but people — especially family and friends — generally understand how difficult it is to navigate such territory. Even when you try to push people away to cope in your own way with problems that just seem too big, you do need something to lean on. And no one can be more of an anchor than family, even if it might feel like it sometimes weighs you down.
“This isn’t a perfect film. Many people will not like how it ends, not necessarily because of what happens, but because of what doesn’t. It’s possible that Lonergan didn’t quite know what else to do once Lee’s primary dilemma is resolved and he makes the best decision, even if it’s one not everyone agrees with.”
1. Moonlight – Barry Jenkins
Asking what a movie is about is a natural question from someone when discussing and recommending a film. Most of the time, that’s an easy question to answer. And it should be. But once in a while, it’s not an easy question to answer. Sometimes, that’s because a movie hasn’t made itself clear. In the best instances, however, that question can’t be answered because it’s just too basic and doesn’t adequatly explain everything that a film offers. That’s the case with Moonlight.
One way to describe Barry Jenkins’ film would be to call it a coming-of-age story. Movies, literature and music are filled with those. It’s a familiar narrative. But for a generation or two, that might call a John Hughes film or something like Stand By Me to mind. “Coming-of-age story” is just too simplistic, too reductive. This isn’t about a boy who’s trying to win a girl’s heart (or the other way around). It’s not about standing up to a bully. It’s not about someone finding out who he or she is and where they fit in this world. All of it set to a catchy, radio-friendly soundtrack, of course.
Actually, Moonlight is about all of those things. Thankfully, there’s no catchy soundtrack. It would be too intrusive on the images and outstanding performances seen throughout this film. This is a coming-of-age story, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen one like it. The movie follows a young man named Chiron through three stages of his life as he progresses through boyhood, adolescence, and then adulthood.
It’s a near-impossible life to endure, having to struggle with adolescence, in addition to cultural and sexual identity, without the support system that most of us depend on to survive. What Chiron goes through as he grows up is heartbreaking and infuriating. Yet as unfortunate as he is to have an utterly selfish mother (Naomie Harris), he does eventually find an unconventional parental figure (Mahershala Ali, who may have had the best year in pop culture) who provides the sanctuary and guidance he needs.
Where Chiron ends up at the end of this film and what he ultimately wants from a life that was harder than anyone deserves is a path that is difficult to watch, yet also affirming. Maybe it’s a happy ending, maybe it isn’t. But you can see how he got there, and can’t help but wonder how many other people in this country, in this world, endure a similar struggle. It’s a story everyone should see.