2016 was, shall we say, an eventful year. Between the number of shocking celebrity deaths, ongoing crises at home and abroad, and a political season that divided our nation even further apart, more than a few people were desperate to move into the dark, unknown abyss that promises to be 2017. There were so many more important things to talk about than what turned out to be among the best, worst, or most memorable film and television of 2016 but I think it’s worth reflecting on what the year had to offer us from a pop culture perspective. Some lessons were easily learnable while others may take a few calendar years to parse but 2016’s entertainment gave us plenty of momentary distractions to our own daily struggles.
OK, now onto my totally arbitrary categories and the all but inevitable “Top 10™ Films of the Year.” I hope you enjoy the read.
Most Overrated: Sausage Party
The gimmick of Sausage Party certainly offered some promise: an R-rated animated film that explored food’s horrific realization that they were on their way to being devoured by humans instead of reaching a holy paradise. But skeptics should’ve looked no further than the film’s creative team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, two of the industry’s greatest conmen who have gamed the system by profiting on mediocre comedies that chiefly appeal to past, present, and future stoners. I’ve never consumed an ounce of marijuana so maybe their particular genius is lost on me. The film gets points for making some interesting pokes at religion but immediately undercut them by leveling every conceivable racist and misogynistic stereotype known to man. Just because you have a few intriguing ideas doesn’t give you license to use every swear word you picked up on the back of the school bus. But the most confusing aspect of Sausage Party was critic’s near universal praise of it (86% on Rotten Tomatoes), leading to painful headlines like “Audacious Sausage Party is a delicious feast” and “Sausage Party Is A Hilarious Movie So Unwoke That It’s Woke AF.” Admittedly, it was a rough summer but just because a product’s in the bargain bin doesn’t give it any richer of a taste.
Most Underrated: The Accountant
Ben Affleck had a bit of a tough year. Sure, the guy played the Caped Crusader in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice but the movie didn’t do his scowling, CrossFit training character any favors. The film’s critical drubbing led to one of the saddest memes of the year with Sad Affleck. His shoehorned cameo in Suicide Squad was brief but only further dampened this new take on Batman’s future prospects. Live by Night, his flashy but confused gangster pic, had Oscar aspirations but proved inconsequential throughout awards season. But 2016 wasn’t all for naught for Ben Affleck if you consider The Accountant, arguably the most boring movie title this side of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The movie navigated the questionable minefield of having a hero operating with a high functioning form of autism who works as a mysterious accountant who may or may not be an in-demand international assassin/book cooker for the world’s most powerful criminal organizations with a surprising level of foolhardy aplomb. I won’t fault you for taking issue with the movie’s treatment of autism but I saw the film’s many subplots, weird detours, and unnecessary twists to read like an inspired collage made from a decade’s worth of abandoned screenplays found in an outgoing executive’s desk drawer. Movies like The Accountant certainly aren’t great but they’re too weird to ignore, especially when you consider its financial success inexplicably gives credence to its franchise aspirations.
Country Boy Can Survive (aka “Lookin’ Out for Me n’ Mine”) Movie of the Year: Hell or High Water
Among my favorite subgenres is the neo-western, which takes traditional western tropes and adapt them for a more modern application. One of my favorite movies of all time is the now nearly decade old No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers instant classic thriller that finds time to dwell on life, death, and all that comes between. While Hell or High Water doesn’t quite live up to that film’s intimidating presence in modern film, its souls at the center and the goofy little personalities that surround them are memorable successors. Jeff Bridges (recycling his True Grit accent) is getting his fair share of praise for the crusty but benign, “I’m getting too old for this schtick” sheriff. The always reliable Ben Foster nearly steals the movie as the brash but not so bright brother looking for a quick robbery that’ll hold him over until the next one. But it was the surprising turn from Chris Pine as Foster’s more mature brother who best exemplified the put upon world weariness that dominates the picture. Much has been made about the film’s many parallels to the rhetoric that dominated the year’s political discourse but it doesn’t distract you from how assured and flat out entertaining Hell or High Water is as a whole.
Unlikeliest Double Feature: Zootopia and Triple 9
Alright, let me pitch you two movies. Option one: a naïve rookie cop must navigate the tough urban jungle against a pack of ruthless animals who threaten not only to undo not only society’s safety but its very soul. Option two: a stylish cops and robber flick starring Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, and many more. I can distinctly remember seeing these two films back to back in March and being shocked by how much they mirrored each other. Sure, Zootopia was a bright and lavish Disney Animation production and Triple 9 was a dark (literally) crime film that made no bones about its heavy R rating. But both films spoke to the challenges of law enforcement in the modern world without outright condemning either the police or the citizens that can stand in their way. In an era rocked by incidents involving police brutality and corruption, it was heartening to see that Hollywood isn’t ignoring the incidents that barrage us day after day.
Best Performance in a Bad Movie: Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train
Emily Blunt has been on a tear recently, starring in some great films like Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, and Sicario, all of which are principally made as mainstream entertainment that aren’t afraid to carry their respective strands of artistic ambition. Blunt played a key role in why all those movies succeeded, with her resolve offering just as much brain as it does beauty or brawn. She isn’t afraid to challenge men and the power that they all too often abuse. The Girl on the Train could’ve easily fit into this paradigm thanks to Blunt’s brave performance as a wayward reject who inserts herself into an ongoing missing persons case. The film works best in its first half, which focuses on the unfortunately novel theme of female alcoholism and the hollowness that Blunt’s character tries to alleviate by squirming her way into a situation that is only complicated by her presence. But the film’s final act wraps up the mysteries in a multitude of unconvincing motivations and conclusions that do nothing but undercut the greater journey that it’s lead endured.
Worst Original (?) Song: Fall Out Boy’s “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)” ft. Missy Elliott
It was unfortunate that this summer’s much maligned reboot of the 1984 “classic” Ghostbusters was principally judged as a battle between alt-right, gamergate types and self-proclaimed social justice warriors in a struggle that nearly tore the Internet to shreds. While I found it refreshing to see the likes of Kate McKinnon hamming it up in a big summer blockbuster, the truth of the matter is that Paul Feig and Sony failed to resurrect a premise that was already on life support thirty years ago. But the greatest crime the new Ghostbusters committed was entrusting Fall Out Boy with composing a remix of the beloved original title track. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a group as actively mediocre as Fall Out Boy, who I assumed got the name from the reality that their music would only be appealing in a situation akin to a nuclear holocaust that demolished every other cultural commodity, lived up to their reputation.
Best Character Name: Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) in The Magnificent Seven
While we’re on the subject of unnecessary remakes, let’s briefly touch on The Magnificent Seven. Though the film had absolutely no right to exist, it was a nifty little shoot em’ up that’s most interesting parts were in the margins. Let’s see, there was the refreshing cast of post racial, heroic goons that did little to hold up to historical scrutiny if you considered it for more than a few seconds. How about Vincent D’Onofrio’s character Jack Horne, whose voice sounded like an uncomfortable symbiosis of 90s wrestling luminaries Paul Bearer and Mankind? The one that took the cake was Ethan Hawke’s Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux, a ragin’ Cajun who likes to mow outlaws down and smile while he does it. The name alone is hall of fame worthy even if the movie itself wasn’t. Maybe this movie really was worth making…
Progress Report for Comic Book/Superhero Films: D-
Wow, and I thought last year was bad. 2016 is perhaps the weakest year for comic book filmmaking since X-Men made its triumphant debut in 2000. Deadpool, what many are considering one of the genres greatest efforts, for me was a self-satisfied bore that in its own way was an accurate depiction of the character’s comic book roots. The film took every chance to lampoon the medium itself and even the franchise it springs from (The X-Men) with an infantile glee that confirmed my reservations about Deadpool’s toxic place in comic book culture and fandom. However, X-Men: Apocalypse did nothing but confirm the laborious self-seriousness that a movie like Deadpool mocked. Marvel, reliably, softened the blow with the excellent and, dare I say, underrated Captain America: Civil War. The film may be a bit bloated but if you consider just how many threads are maintained, characters introduced, and action is staged, Civil War is likely to go down as one of the genre’s minor masterpieces. Doctor Strange, Marvel’s other 2016 entry, had a predictable script that gets a few allowances due to its introduction of a dense mythology and visuals that were extraordinary. However, the greatest failings this year came from DC. Still desperate to establish their own cinematic universe, the company produced two of the most depressing, putrid cinematic experiences of all time with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. The former was a personal, crushing defeat that disappointed the uniting of my two favorite characters of all time while the latter was just a miserable, cynical dumpster fire. 2017 looks like it should be more promising than the slate we got last year but there’s really nowhere to go but up.
Favorite Piece of Film Writing: “Even Superheroes Punch the Clock” by A.O. Scott, The New York Times
This sad state of affairs for comic book movies was shared by the majority of mainstream summer entertainment this year, leading to the usual cries of “the death of cinema.” However, A.O. Scott, The New York Times’s wonderful film critic, astutely observed that this summer was actually rather routine not just in terms of quality but of how the movies are unintentionally reflecting the banality of everyday life. Scott posits that many of this summer’s movies (Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, etc.) are not so subtly obsessed with problems and constructs that rule the modern office: crisis management, romances, I.T. hiccups, and so on. “Every action movie is a workplace sitcom in disguise,” Scott observes. He points to Suicide Squad and Ghostbusters in particular as examples of team building gone awry before they are made whole again. Modern movies’ preoccupation with business, big and small, feels inevitable when you consider the industrial structure in place to create them. Isn’t it peculiar when our escapism is caught up in its own form of repetition and monotony? I highly recommend you read the article yourself to get the full argument but rest assure that Scott concludes by excusing and condemning the Hollywood system itself quite deftly in one fell swoop.
Best Pre-2016 First Time Viewings: Gone with the Wind (1939) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
I saw a lot of great older films for the first time this year, ranging from romantic (The Apartment), minimalist (Locke), inventive (I’m Not There), underrated (Something Wild), to the very definition of bizarre (Eraserhead). However, two films stuck out from the pack and they couldn’t be more different. First, I finally sat down to definitively experience the four-hour saga known as Gone with the Wind. What I expected to be a grueling chore turned into a layered and impactful family saga that uses the most American of backdrops (the War Between the States) to stage its narrative. It’s easy to dismiss the film as apologetic propaganda for “the Old South” but I think that reading misses how the film reads nearly eighty years after its initial premiere. It must be remembered that Gone with the Wind’s point of view is squarely seen through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara, played with prideful gusto by Vivien Leigh. This lends the film a nostalgic, rose colored perspective that is in keeping with O’Hara’s selfish desire to regain control over a kingdom that time had thankfully ravaged. We’re not reading a textbook but rather a diary, filled with biases and personal details that can easily be mistaken for truth by the author penning them. Clark Gable gives a nearly as great performance as the roguish Rhett Butler, a commanding “southern gentleman” if there ever was one. Along with The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind exemplifies the pinnacle of Classic Hollywood, when art and commerce worked in regular concert with one another.
And now for something completely different…While independent cinema has always existed to an extent, it wasn’t until the late eighties when it sprouted up a self-sustaining industry. One of this era’s defining cornerstones was Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 absurdist comedy Stranger Than Paradise. The film follows an unmotivated New York City hipster (John Lurie), his visiting Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint), and their peppy friend (Richard Edson) as they ramble between New York, Cleveland, and eventually Florida with no particular goal in mind. I would forgive you if you thought that logline sounded like a dull parody of an indie movie as it fails to describe the poetry between the film’s many ellipses. Stranger Than Paradise is an exquisite portrait of disaffected early adulthood that still manages to be very funny. There have been many great independent films made over the past thirty plus years but very few are as idiosyncratic and satisfying as this one.
Favorite TV Show of the Year: Documentary Now! (Season 2)
It was a bit of a weak year for the hour long drama, leading some to say that the half hour comedy or dramedy had supplanted the drama as “the TV genre of our time.” A show curiously absent from discussions about the half hour’s ascension to greatness was IFC’s terrific series Documentary Now! Created by Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen, the show stars Hader and Armisen spoofing notable documentaries (Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, The War Room, etc.), often times expanding off into their own bizarre directions. Every episode is directed by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, who slavishly recreate their subjects to a degree that would likely fool a casual channel surfer. Hader and Armisen are brilliant even when they’re in isolation, with the pair delivering intrepid solo outings with “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” (Swimming in Cambodia) and “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) respectively. However, the season highlight is the spoof of the famous doc Salesman entitled “Globseman,” which follows a group of globe salesmen in the 1960s. Armisen delivers an Emmy award worthy performance as Tom O’Halloran, a down-on-his-luck peddler who still harbors regrets about not becoming a fireman like his father. The laughs are inevitable and already baked into the premise but the unexpected tragedy, as well as a menacing final moment that creeps up on you, proves that Documentary Now! has much more to offer than a funny homage of famous documentaries. The show may be niche in its pitch but the execution is so expert that it makes it all the more rewarding.
OK, now onto the top 10. Before we proceed, I should list a few movies that I would’ve loved to have seen, am confident would’ve found a place on my list, but were unable to catchup with: Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, 20th Century Women, American Honey, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Also, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed my list (in no particular order): Moana, Captain America: Civil War, Swiss Army Man, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Don’t Breathe.
And without further ado, here’s my top 10…
- Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams playing a stuck-up art gallery who reads her ex-husband’s novel dedicated to her, leading to a dual narrative where the lines between fact and fiction begin to uncomfortably blur. I know, I know. Nocturnal Animals sounds like the very definition of a pretentious time waster. Director Tom Ford, world famous fashion designer, makes no qualms about his two-hour act of self-indulgence, staging plenty of surreal imagery to complement the film’s high concept. An adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals makes the wise decision to lean into the limitless talent of its movie stars Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and even a surprise turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Ford manages to craft sequences that simply involve Adams reading a book alone in her house as vividly cinematic. And just wait until the film’s gets to its most lurid moments. Nocturnal Animals is the occasional example that sometimes letting talents chase their tail just for the sake of it can lead to elliptical and enduring art.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Just hearing the elevator pitch for Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (the Lonely Island making a mockery of Justin Beiber, Macklemore, and the modern music industry) immediately sounds like a funny but unmemorable entertainment akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Though Andy Samberg, Akiva Shaffer, and Jorma Taccone go for some easy jokes that you can see from a mile away, it’s the dozens that inch up behind you to pie you in the face that confirm Popstar is much more than just an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. The trio enlist an all-star comedic cast that each provide some signature gags before being replaced by yet another unexpected cameo. Picking a favorite moment from Popstar is very difficult but the bee scene left me in stiches like few movie scenes ever have.
- Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers have been on a hot streak for a decade now. While the siblings have routinely churned out great films since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, their consecutive run of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis has continued to prove why they are among our most vital living filmmakers. Hail, Caesar!, their light and hilarious romp through 50s Hollywood, fits snuggly right into this strong recent showing. Fans expecting a cynical yarn on par with their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink were undoubtedly surprised by the film’s more forgiving look at the industry that has brought triumph to some and grief to many more. Caesar’s blithe acceptance of the hard fought and usually hidden victories of the industry further solidify Fink as a reflection of angry geniuses butting up against meager opportunities. We should be so thankful that the Coens had two and a half decades of worth of material to talk their younger selves off the ledge.
Arriving a year after the infamous #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Moonlight’s awards chances were automatically sealed, no matter how good the film turned out to be. Even before last year’s egregious snubs, Moonlight’s story of a poor black boy named Chiron from Miami, growing into adolescence into eventual manhood, who struggles with his own sexuality sounded like the stereotype of self-righteous Oscar Bait® that the Academy would nominate sight unseen. But that’s the thing about great art: it transcends easy labels that fail to grasp its many nuances. Barry Jenkins’s film is a delicate exploration of the human experience that finds universal resonance in its highly specific tableau. Mahershala Ali is stunning as Chiron’s benign father figure who just so happens to be a drug dealer. But signaling out Ali threatens to diminish the terrific work from Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, and Andre Holland. Moonlight isn’t afraid to take a beat or two to ruminate on the little moments that make or break us.
- The Lobster
The Lobster, the English language debut of director Yorgos Lanthimos, may have been spoken in my native tongue but I could’ve swore I was hearing another form of speech entirely. The movie is set in a dystopian future where men and women are forced to form lifelong romantic partnerships in forty-five days or be transformed into an animal of their choice. This leads to a rash of hastily formed relationships, platonic and intimate, that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to ones that frame our own lives. The first two thirds in particular are very reminiscent of the Dogme 95 landmark The Celebration, which itself is filled with a number of disconcertingly amusing moments that out the audience itself as shameless voyeurs. If all this sounds like a drag trust me: it’s not. Colin Farrell’s mustache and John C. Reilly’s accent alone are worth giving The Lobster your time.
As a Christian who counts myself as a cinephile, it’s tough to find films that present faith in a level headed but genuine way. You either get something reverent to the point of being inane (God’s Not Dead) or blindly critical in a way that categorically denies any of religion’s many rewarding qualities (see my above screed on Sausage Party). Martin Scorsese’s Silence somehow finds a way to toe this fragile line quite skillfully. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver give it their all as two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries searching for their wayward mentor (Liam Neeson) in 17th century Japan. The film is punishing both in its length and subject matter, making for one of the year’s most challenging works. Scorsese, the medium’s greatest champion, has a reputation for making energetic, masculine films that are light on plot and heavy on style. Such a broad assessment of the veteran’s career ignores his cinema’s intense dedication to enlightenment in the face of near certain defeat. Silence makes this theme explicit maybe more than any other film he’s ever made and it’s all the better for it.
Making the definitive alien invasion movie is perhaps one of the few accomplishments that Hollywood has yet to crack in its now century long existence. The risk of going a tad preachy (The Day the Earth Stood Still), laughably earnest (Independence Day), or intentionally outrageous (Mars Attacks!) places these science fiction epics on a spectrum that unevenly finds a way to check all three boxes. Against all odds, Arrival eschews these easy pitfalls and gets as close to the pinnacle as any effort in the subgenre is bound to reach. After mysterious oval shaped spaceships position themselves at various strategic locations around the planet, the nations of Earth scramble to communicate with the extraterrestrials with an urgency always suggested but rarely earned in these types of movies. Amy Adams plays a linguist tasked with unlocking the aliens’ language before governments, foreign and domestic, threaten to endanger the world’s chances of survival. Denis Villeneuve makes yet another artful genre film and is greatly enabled by cinematographer Bradford Young’s hazy, dark frames that never fail to haunt.
It’s astounding that a fully rendered depiction of Jackie Kennedy, the iconic First Lady of the United States, took over fifty years to come to fruition. But it’s hardly a shock that Natalie Portman, herself a model for endurance and grace on the silver screen, would be the model vessel to portray the stylish figure of history. Always overshadowed be her husband’s short lived presidency and tragic assassination, Jackie takes a deep-dive into the intense hours, days, and weeks that defined a nation for decades to come. The film takes a page out of recent biopics’ handbooks (Lincoln and Selma) that follows their leads through a shorter, specified period of time that gives a lightness impossible in more traditional cradle-to-grave stories. The film packs a lot into its hour and a half running time, navigating Mrs. Kennedy’s stubbornness, crisis of faith, insecurities, and accomplishments with an ease and not so hidden pride befitting of the woman herself. It may be a cliché to award a performance rooted in a real life character of historical importance but Portman’s Jackie truly is deserving.
- La La Land
Haven’t we all wanted to just jump out of our cars in the midst of a traffic jam, sing and dance to our heart’s content, and then be able to jump back in our vehicles and act as if nothing has happened? La La Land, the latest film by filmmaking wunderkind Damien Chazelle, delivers on this fantasy in its opening moments. But this propulsive number is immediately undercut by our heroine (Emma Stone) furiously memorizing lines for what turns out to be a fruitless audition. The struggling actress doesn’t have to wait too long before she discovers a romantic partner in Ryan Gosling’s talented but contentious jazz musician. It’s this seesaw between joy and sadness that La La Land balances us across up until its very conclusion, which is among the most gratifying sequences of the year. A large swath of media today uses nostalgia as a crutch but La La Land takes ample opportunity to challenge its own youthful convictions of a superior past more mythic than practical. I don’t count myself as the biggest fan of musicals but even I was charmed endlessly by this modern twist on an old song.
- Green Room
Punks vs. Nazis. A setup like that is dynamite just waiting to be ignited. Confrontation is one of the few forms of currency either group has so you can bet they’re not going to pass up the chance to cash it in. Jeremy Saulnier’s white knuckle thriller features the late Anton Yelchin as a member of a punk band (the Ain’t Rights) who witnesses a murder in a rural Oregon bar ran by a nasty band of white supremacists, led by the great Patrick Stewart. Things manage to escalate quickly as the Ain’t Rights must fight tooth and nail in a cramped green room that all but promises to be their grave. The movie is a masterclass is suspense, quiet one minute and cacophonous the next. Green Room’s politics are so inherent to its premise that Saulnier doesn’t feel the need to belabor them. But in a year as divisive as 2016, it’s hard not to read into them. The movie finds the angry, white middle class doing battle with itself in an uncompromisingly destructive way. Saulnier surely didn’t have Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on his mind when he was writing and producing his film but he no doubt must’ve smelt some blood in the water.
Well, that bout wraps it up. I hope you enjoyed the read and the movies that made it up. Have a happy 2017!
 At least the calendar change allows for a somewhat “fresh start.”
 Zoolander 2 was NOT the best idea.
 Did Allied really break up Brangelina?
 Come for the nihilistic milieu, stay for the random but welcome turn from Kate Winslet as a Russian mob boss.
 Except it’s not. #SorryNotSorry
 A remake of a remake. I mean…c’mon.
 For the record, I actually quite liked Apocalypse in a guilty pleasure capacity.
 Jarmusch described his sophomore film in a much more interesting way: “a neo-realistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and The Honeymooners.”
 I’m looking at you Vinyl and Roadies.
 Which, for the record, is a masterpiece.
 Which, for the record, is not a masterpiece.
 Which, for the record, is one of my favorite movies.
 Is there any other kind?