Films are a major source of inspiration for me, and have been all my life. I try to see everything good each year. Below is what I personally thought of 2016. Also included are least favorite films, favorite performances, and favorite soundtracks.
FAVORITE FILMS 2016 (in order)
I like films that hit me emotionally and/or feel original/raw. I have no interest in guessing what other people like or what should win an award, so these are only films that connected with me personally.
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson). Lets you into the world of the person behind the camera capturing everything from quiet, special moments in nature to scenes documenting the worst of humanity. Leaves in moments before and after cuts, illuminating the connection between the cinematographer and their subjects. Very organic in the way she puts all of the pieces together. A shot of something as simple as pulling a rusted chain out of a box hits you right in the gut.
O.J. Made in America (Ezra Edelman). Not sure I’ve seen a better study on race, class distinctions, criminal justice, etc. exposed through this story. Could not stop watching this. Brilliant, even if you think you've heard enough about O.J.
Krisha (Trey Edward Shults). Some of the most raw, difficult scenes of any film last year that really reflect the pain in a deeply troubled life and how it affects loved ones. Strong performance by the lead and deft execution by the director. The use of Nina Simone’s song “Just in time” in this film still stays with me.
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie). Weaves brotherly love, family sacrifice, changing mores and times in small town settings. Strong performances all around, especially enjoyed Ben Foster’s. Not perfect, but I like this style of storytelling. Screenwriter wrote it in 3 weeks.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven). I loved Isabelle Huppert’s character. Smart, witty, very dark, phased by almost nothing. She plays her better than probably anyone could. From the director of the first film that fucked with me psychologically in elementary school, Robocop. This is of course something completely different. Verhoeven has taken a new path late in his career. I loved this film.
Gleason (Clay Tweel). Probably had the strongest emotional impact on me of all 2016 films. Illustrates the spirit of an athlete struggling through something ultimately unsolvable. There’s a scene of him trying to run during a faith healing session that is heartbreaking.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle). For some reason it became cool to hate this movie, maybe due to over-hype. I loved it. Felt super original by today’s standards. I’m a fan of Damien Chazelle’s taste and style.
Deadpool (Tim Miller). One of the best openings to a film I’ve ever seen. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick definitely share my kind of humor.
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan). One of those films that builds up to a single scene that is so powerful it makes the journey worth it. Two of my favorite performances of the year.
The Saleman (Asghar Farhadi). A simple story that probably had the best execution of suspense that any film this year. Iranian writer/director of “A Separation”, probably one of the most mind-blowing films I’ve ever seen. I can't recommend this film enough, the depth of expression on the actor's faces given the horrible choices they're faced with left me very moved.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck). Powerful look at the the history of US racism through James Baldwin’s reflections on murdered civil rights leaders. I’ve always admired James Baldwin’s writing, and the film captures some very profound notions he shares through archival interviews.
Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet). Very dark, original work using a subtly stylized visual treatment showing the young life of a fictional dictator. Like no other film this year.
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach). Not perfect, but a great illustration of the damage a bureaucratic system can do to someone through thousand of small slights. Reminded me of Bukowski’s poem, “The Shoelace”...”it’s not the large things that send a man to the madhouse…”.
Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar). I’ve been watching Almodóvar films for twenty years and he rarely disappoints. Not his greatest, but definitely worth looking at. Moody film noir-ish style.
Fire at sea (Gianfranco Rosi). While watching I couldn’t tell if this was a documentary or a narrative film. It’s a documentary about refugees coming from Africa to a Sicilian island, all willing to die for the chance of a better life. Many dying. Very timely. The aspect I appreciated most was its treatment of the contrasting narratives between the refugees and the local people. It was very organic, open, non-pedantic. Just watching, listening vs. forcing a contrived or obvious narrative bend. More just being there.
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch). Really simple story about doing something because you love it with little other purpose.
Colin Quinn: The New York Story (Jerry Seinfeld). Best stand-up special I’ve seen in a long time. Great example of how not being overly PC can actually bring us closer together when done with the right style and tone. Very timely given today's snowflake mentality that often goes too far, making us weak and overly sensitive.
Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Very slowly paced, but brings you into a new world and has very subtle pay-offs of great emotional expression. The look on the protagonist’s face at the end was powerful.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins). Simple story about human beings trying to connect. I had no idea what this film was about going in, which is the best way to see any movie. You become much more transported into the characters’ worlds if you have no preconceived notions. Simple themes about being an outcast, finding love, figuring out boundaries, etc. Has one of those powerful, quiet, endings like Lost in Translation.
On the Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig). Strong, special teachers can change your life profoundly. I had a few that really opened my eyes and I’ll always appreciate what they did for me. Hailee Steinfeld is ridiculously talented and her character’s relationship with Woody Harrelson’s character reminded me of some of the most important people I’ve had in my life.
Silence (Martin Scorsese) (Except the very end). Society’s and an individual’s relationship to religion has been, and always will be one of the most fascinating things to me in this world. Something I think about often. 99% of this film felt like a powerful exploration around this, but the very end left me feeling like the director departed form ambiguity in a way that narrowed the film. I might be reading into that too much, but I don’t think so.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog). Fascinating Herzog-ish (free-flowing, loosely structured/connected ideas) look at modern tech and it’s impact on humanity.
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve). Was not expecting what this movie turned out to be. Reminded me of how someone like Trump could fuck up the world due to lack of intelligence, patience, empathy...given the right circumstances. There were some logical problems, but overall the film was unexpected and engaging throughout. More films like this would make the world a better place.
American Honey (Andrea Arnold). Story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world without any meaningful guidance or mentoring. Beautifully shot, great soundtrack, convincing performances by what seemed to be a largely inexperienced cast.
Jim: The James Foley Story (Brian Oakes). I've always been fascinated with his life, work, and death. Someone who truly sought out a meaningful existence and then came up against one of my worst nightmares.
Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg). This is what egomania looks like. I can’t believe he allowed this access, so it would be a shame to miss a behind-the-scene glimpse into this man's world. Fascinating study into how twisted someone’s perception of themselves can be relative to others. This is the guy who may have helped Trump get elected. I really wish his wife and supporters would've cut ties much earlier to avoid such significant collateral damage to the United States.
Lion (Garth Davis). Simple, emotional story about the desire to understand our own place in the world. Not perfect, but it got to me.
Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman). Whit Stillman hasn’t made a lot of movies over his 25+ year career, but I’ve been following him since the beginning and most are good. This is something completely different and it takes some settling into. Kate Beckinsale carries it.
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn). I’m hit/miss with this director. He can be too pretentious or “weird for weird’s sake”-ish, but this film sort of worked for me. Probably the most fucked up movie of the year with a really cool visual style.
Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater). A minor film for him, but it explores his roots in baseball, something that’s always fascinated me because he’s such an artist, but has an athlete’s background. Athlete+intellectual+creative people are my favorite kind.
Morris from America (Chad Hartigan). Great soundtrack, simple story told well.
Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross). Climbers will find the rock climbing scene almost unwatchable, but I liked the ideas behind how this man raises his family. I also like that they are deeply flawed and he’s forced to deal with it. Viggo Mortensen is one of my favorite actors working today. I respect actors who make choices largely based on artistic merit of their projects.
Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen). Really underrated this year. Great treatment of old Hollywood and includes a lot of small moments that I really appreciated (e.g. Francis McDormand's film editor character).
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick). I've been inspired by Malick's work since watching Days of Heaven and Badlands as a teenager. This film still worked for me, but Voyage of Time later in the year was too much. I hope he tries something different in the future.
Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia). Hate most improv, don’t really like Birbiglia, thought I’d hate this. Didn’t hate it.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi). Pretty funny little film from New Zealand. Felt a bit contrived at times, but overall I enjoyed it.
LEAST FAVORITE FILMS 2016 (in order)
I try to avoid really bad films, so consider this relative to what I actually watched in 2016. Also consider I have the utmost respect for anyone who is brave enough to make a film. That said we all don't connect with some art and it's worth discussing.
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Could not finish it. Felt like a Wes Anderson film, but poorly executed and trying too hard to be “quirky”. Didn’t work for me.
Jackie (Pablo Larraín). I have contempt for people who like queens and princesses and astrology and all of that bullshit. This felt like a movie for someone who’s followed the Kennedy’s because they were like “royalty”. I found the conversations with the priest trite. I could see someone appreciating this as a character study, but I couldn't connect with it.
Kate plays Christine (Robert Greene). Hard to watch.
Loving (Jeff Nichols). Tackled a super important issue about racist marriage policies in the US. The story should be told, learned, etc. That said the film itself was very boring and predictable. Important issues don’t always make good films. Nick Kroll felt like a bizarre choice.
The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau). Baffling why this was reviewed so well and no one seemed to notice the obvious, outdated, imperialist themes that run through it. Jon Favreau is a favorite director, I'm kind of surprised he did this. I guess if you turn off your brain and go with your kids or get nostalgic, it works.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer). “Art” film reviewed very well, but ultimately very boring and empty for me. Just couldn't connect with it.
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo). So many logical problems it turned me off. Those matter to me, I’m that type of filmgoer. The worst was some epic battle at an airport based on a misunderstanding that could’ve been cleared up with a one minute conversation. I'm OK with camp, but they way it was executed here didn't work for me.
Star Wars: Rouge One (Gareth Edwards). Watched it because nothing else was playing. Met my low expectations. Irony with these films is that “nerds” like them a lot, but they often have ridiculously flawed plots and scenes from a logical/realism perspective (within context of the film's created universe). Knowledge is cool, but for me overlooking so much BS shows a lack of analytical capability and belies the "upsides" of poindexter-ism. As a counter, if the logical errors in these movies contributes to educational opportunities that people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson will exploit, I'm all for it.
Dr. Strange (Scott Derrickson). Premise was ridiculous. Got old. The whole conversation about chakras and that bullshit almost made me puke up the sour patch kids I was eating.
Office Christmas Party (Josh Gordon, Will Speck). Was really bored and watched this. Got what I was expecting, a shit movie.
Girl on a Train (Tate Taylor). Had a lot of potential, ended up feeling like a Lifetime movie due to poor writing/direction choices in the third act.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier). Reviewed well. Felt like the type of “indie” film someone who spends a lot of time in Portland coffee houses in the 90s would like.
Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick). Would love to see him go in a new direction. I’ve been with him all this time but this film was just too much of the same. Amazing visuals of course.
Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford). I actually recommend this film, but the ending bothered me so much I’m putting it at the bottom of this list (meaning it was the best film on this list).
FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 2016 (in order)
Or really the overall visual look of a film, which can include animation, stop motion, heavy VFX, etc.
Silence (Rodrigo Prieto). Style felt more natural in contrast to some of Scorsece's more recent, commercial films, yet still interspersed with hyper-real elements, many clearly done with post-VFX. Prieto shot night scenes digitally for better low light sensitivity, and film for daylight shots. Some camera movements shot with longer lenses brought really augmented the character movement in context of the narrative in a visually compelling way, while remaining subtle. E.g. Andrew Garfield pacing in his prison in Nagasaki. Overall the film felt like a powerful contrast between the natural beauty of Taiwan (posing for Japan), and a darkness of the subject matter (religious evangelicalism and persecution). A lot of metaphoric layers in the visual treatment that reflected/augmented the narrative. A lot of focus on character expressions via close-ups, which always reminds of the ultimate example of this, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Prieto has worked with auteur directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu, Oliver Stone, Pedro Almodóvar, Ang Lee, and Spike Lee.
Childhood of a leader (Lol Crawley). Shot on 35mm film, the film has the look of a moving painting. Beautifully dark, naturally lit settings and characters and some experimental camera movements that worked in support of the style of storytelling.
Kubo and the Two Strings (Frank Passingham). The visual style of this film felt like nothing I've seen before. I guess it was a hybrid stop-motion + CG approach. This video gives a glimpse into what went into crafting such a beautiful look. The film itself was too cliche/melodramatic for me wrt narrative, but the visual style is something to experience.
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson). Johnson has a real talent for capturing humanity with an observational style which captures profundity simply. We get to see a little bit of what goes into getting these shots via audio+footage between shots that made final cuts of the related projects (sewn together for this film). She clearly has genuine interest/empathy for her subjects. Her motivation for real human connection comes through via a thoughtful and dedicated cinematographic approach.
Cemetery of Splendor (Diego García). 95% locked off, tripod shots with all diegetic sound creates a mood that brings you into that world at a very slow pace. A very subtle, observational style feels both passive and immersive.
The Neon Demon (Natasha Braier). Highly stylized, constrast-y/colorful surreal visual style that also includes some very beautiful natural lit shots interspersed to fit the narrative/characters. Definitely the "boldest" look along with La La Land and Hail, Caesar! in 2016.
La La Land (Linus Sandgren). Similar to Hail, Caesar! in that it was very coloful, contrast-y, yet still had sort of an old-style film-ish look. Maybe not as far back on the spectrum of the former. Maybe that's a terrible description, but the look of the film was definitely a primary character in telling the story and something that definitely increased my emotional response/engagement to the whole thing.
Lion (Greig Fraser). The childhood scenes in India stood out for me as beautifully captured. The Australian scenes did as well when Mara Rooney was in the frame. Mara Rooney is like Jessica Chastain for me, it's hard for me to tell if the cinematography is especially good or if those actresses' features are just that interesting to look at.
Hail, Caesar! (Roger Deakins). Rich color palette shot in a old-Hollywood style film by design. Like all of Deakins films you definitely feel like you're watching something that was crafted by a master. A lot of good stuff shot on film this year. I imagine this is a film you could study for a whole semester in a film class, citing various old film homages, lighting styles, how those were adapted, etc.
Moonlight (James Laxton). Influenced in part by Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together (Christopher Doyle, cinematographer), the rich contrast-y colors help to convey the film's emphasis on the emotional states and developments of its characters. The look feels very stylized, but in a way that's carefully crafted to support the narrative vs. some kind of empty cinematographic virtuosity.
American Honey (Robbie Ryan). Sort of a natural, handheld style with beautifully shot scenes setting natural elements against powerful human experiences. Examples include an intense sexual encounter in rich green grass at sunset, a darker problematic scene trying to earn money in a truck in front of blazing oil fire.
Arrival (Bradford Young). Definitely a departure from some of the more colorful films this year like La La Land, Moonlight, The Neon Demon, etc. Almost muted, it stood out for me for it's use of natural light (or natural looking light), while being what appeared to be a big-budget alien flick. In that respect it's visual style reminded me of Prometheus (Ridley Scott/Dariusz Wolski). The subdued style blended well with the black-and-white alien drawings, which like the cinematography felt downplayed/simple, yet layered.
Fire at sea (Gianfranco Rosi). Still amazed this was not shot as a narrative film as the shots seem to be so well setup/composed, in some instances I'm just not sure how the filmmaker would do it without a lot of interference. Not sure I've seen a documentary that has achieved something like this yet.
Krisha (Drew Daniels). The visual style surrendered itself to the power of highlighting the lead actresses expressions in close-up, which were really the heart of the film. There were some interesting stylistic choices with camera movement that also served to bring you further inside her deteriorating psyche.
FAVORITE PERFORMANCES 2016 (in order)
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Krisha Fairchild (Krisha)
Ben Foster (Hell or Highwater)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or Highwater)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
Kate Beckinsale (Love and friendship)
Hailee Steinfeld (On the Edge of Seventeen)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Sasha Lane (American Honey)
Francis McDormand (Hail, Caesar!)
FAVORITE SOUNDTRACKS 2016 (in order)
Childhood of a Leader (Scott Walker). The whole original score is unlike any other this year.
A Bigger Splash. Use of pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Morris from America (Various). From Faure and Schubert to Jeru the Damaja’s 1994 “Come Clean” and Craig Mack, Biggie, etc.
Krisha. Use of Nina Simone singing “Just in Time”.
American Honey (Various). E-40’s “Choices”, Lapsley, some other artists I hadn’t heard but liked the choice and how the director used their stuff.
La La Land (Justin Hurwitz). The music made the film. Don't hate.