It’s that time of year when publications and writers of all kinds put forth their lists for the best and worst cinematic productions of the year. Usually it’s compiled with the best-of-the-best. Films that are either clear Oscar bait or just of such impeccable work that they can’t be ignored. This is not that list. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Moonlight, Hell or High Water, Jackie, Nocturnal Animals, or other films that have received such high acclaim that I’m a bit ashamed to have missed them. So if knowing this now turns you off, feel free to look elsewhere.
Instead, I offer to you films that, once seen, I have immediately wanted to show others. To share. To discuss. To make as widely known as possible. Some of these you’ll be hearing about during the ramp up to the Oscars, especially with the Golden Globes nominations so recently released, while others may disappear into obscurity. I encourage you to take a look at this list and track down as many as you can as soon as you can. They are all absolutely worth it.
Release date: Feburary 12, 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Lead Actors: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, and Brianna Hildebrand.
It’s easy to dismiss Deadpool as one of the strongest films this year because it’s a silly, violent, often grotesque comic book film based on a character whose most well-known trait is he’s all too aware he’s a fictional character. Maybe it’s star Ryan Reynold’s innate charm, director Tim Miller’s deft touch, the script that took nearly ten years to write from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, or the fact that 20th Century Fox stepped back and let them all do their thing because Deadpool delivers on every level imaginable. The story is solid, the action amazing, jokes hilarious, and the cast clearly put everything they have into the performances. Deadpool is every comic book readers fantastic made real because it feels exactly as it should, which only highlights why so many superhero films feel hollow – they are mass produced for a wide audience. Something Deadpool is not. It knows what it is and who it’s for, which is why we all came out in droves to watch the Merc With The Mouth do what he does best – kill people and quip.
Release date: March 4, 2016
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush
Lead Actors: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, & J.K. Simmons.
I didn’t catch Zootopia when it hit theaters initially (I have a toddler, so theater visits are special occasions), but since the DVD release, this film has been on a tight rotation. (In fact, as I type, Shakira’s Try Everything is getting its third run-through before Baby Dictator’s bedtime.) The film, however, hasn’t lost its luster in the six months since dropping on BluRay. In 108-minutes, Zootopia tells an impressively engaging, thoughtful, and hilarious tale about the strength it requires to believe in yourself, the courage to get up off the mat, and true compassion for your fellow creature. Zootopia’s the rare gem that’s simultaneously engaging for kids and adults. If you missed it, it’s streaming on Netflix now.
Release date: April 15, 2016
Director: John Carney
Lead Actors: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, and Percy Chamburuka.
Writer/Director John Carney (Once/Begin Again) possesses a gift for telling stories centered around music and Sing Street may be his finest work. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is an Irish lad of the 80s who forms a ragtag band to impress a girl, all while dealing with a new school and his parents imploding marriage. The songs are catchy, the actors are charming, and the story has more sincerity than you’d expect from what could be a simple coming-of-age tale. Luckily for you, Sing Street is currently streaming on Netflix.
Swiss Army Man
Release date: July 1, 2016
Director: Dan Kwana and Daniel Scheinert
Lead Actors: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Take a moment to image this: A man, shipwrecked on an island and clinging to life, is about to kill himself when the corpse of Harry Potter washes ashore. Finding the body capable of propulsive gas bursts, the man latches himself to the body and rides him straight off the island. While this sounds like a horror show, it’s actually the first five minutes of the most life-affirming film I’ve seen all year. Though slightly dark and morbid, the cheerful approach of Swiss Army Man conjures feelings of innocence and hope as Daniel Radcliffe’s slowly re-animating corpse, Manny, learns about love, life, and death from Paul Dano’s Hank during their journey to get home. From its bizarre premise and beautiful use of practical effects, Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, cry, and feeling surprisingly joyful.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Release date: August 19, 2016
Director: Travis Knight
Lead Actors: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara.
Laika Studios is a force to be reckoned with in the field of animation, though few are likely to know them by name. The creators of ParaNorman and Coraline prove once again that stop-motion in cinema can convey powerful themes all while being sold as a children’s story. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings draws its inspiration from Japanese folklore, in particular the connection between man and the mystical realm. In this tale, communing with spirits is as natural as breathing to its inhabitants, which makes it perfect for tackling themes of loss, grief, and the courage to forgive. To be clear, Kubo is not a tale for young children as this animated tale serves a parable for the young at heart to remember that family is more than those that raised you. However, just because this lesson is wrapped in a supernatural adventure of a young boy restoring his family to the peace it deserves doesn’t make it any less valuable or poignant.
Release date: October 14, 2016 (limited) and various festival dates throughout year.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Lead Actors: Tae-ri Kim, Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, and Jin-woong Jo.
South Korean writer/director Chan-wook Park developed a reputation for delving into the seedier side of humanity through stories that twist and turn from beginning to end. Though the materials frequently feature dark violent acts, even sexual deviation, it’s never gratuitous; rather, it’s an aspect that serves the story. More than anything, Park tells stories where what you see is not what it appears. His latest, The Handmaiden, falls perfectly in line with his catalogue and is possibly his finest work. The main thrust of the story involves intrigue and betrayal, but there’s a deeper story about love and freedom that runs throughout. To know more would ruin the experience, and The Handmaiden is the rare film that should be expected as virginal as possible.
Release date: November 11, 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Lead Actors: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Arrival proved to be an unexpected treat this year. Seeming like standard alien invasion faire from the trailer, Arrival proved to be something else entirely as it borrowed the concept of “eternal parental love” from 2010’s Inception and “time travel as a tool, not narrative” from 2012’s Looper. The story of humanity clashing against itself while communing with The Other is not new, but the intriguing story and fantastic performance from Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks resonated with critics and audiences-alike. Arrival raised a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer, yet, somehow, that’s perfectly ok within the sphere of the story. Ultimately delivering a deeply affecting, personal story of a woman seemingly locked in grief as the epicenter for hope, love, and humanity’s safety.
I Am Not Your Negro (documentary)
Release date: December 9, 2016 (NYC/LA Limited Run) and February 3, 2017 (wide).
Director: Raoul Peck
Lead Actors: Samuel L. Jackson (narration) and James Baldwin (subject).
I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful reminder of the continued struggle within the United States that so many have assumed to be concluded. Though Civil Rights Leaders are not as prolific as they once were, the need to recognize that, as citizens, we’re moving sideways – not forward – in equality. What makes for the greatest impact in the documentary is seeing how Hollywood’s representation of Black America has greatly contributed to the normalization of racism, even when trying to encourage the deconstruction of segregation. With Neo-Nazi/Alt-Right/White Supremacists ideology becoming more comfortable in daylight, it seems more important than ever to remember our past so we can better prevent it.
La La Land
Release date: December 16, 2016 (wide)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Lead Actors: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling
An Homage to the days of musical cinema, La La Land is a beautiful story of love and sacrifice in the pursuit of achieving your dreams. Stone and Gosling deliver Oscar-worthy performances, the music is infectious, and writer/director Chazelle proves that he’s not a one-hit wonder. There’s been a lot of talk among critics and audiences alike for La La Land and it absolutely delivers from start to finish. Though the songs aren’t likely going to get under your skin like the previously mentioned Sing Street, you will find yourself humming the main theme – “City of Stars” – more often than you realize. Like a persistent desire you can’t get free of, La La Land will get under your skin long after you leave the theater.
Release date: December 25, 2016 (limited) and January 6, 2017 (Wide).
Director: Theodore Melfi
Lead Actors: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, and Glen Powell.
Adapted from the Margot Lee Shetterly novel, Hidden Figures is the untold story of the African American women instrumental in astronaut John Glenn’s space ride around the globe. Featuring quippy dialogue, a toe-tapping soundtrack from Pharrell Williams, and a high-caliber cast, Hidden Figures possesses all you need for a great time at the movies. Gratefully, the script also doesn’t shy away from the social issues of the 1960’s, as if to ignore the inherent racism or the movement of change running through the country at the time. It’s a difficult balance to manage, yet director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) not only strikes it, but manages to maintain it throughout the length.