This has been one of those rare years where (most) of the films I saw that I really liked the best came out in the first half of the year. Or, at least, well before the traditional start of awards season. But, with one exception, most of the year-end "awards bait" left me totally cold.
Even my honorable mentions were bunched up at the beginning of the year. Neon Demon and Knight of Cups didn't quite make the cut, mostly because they felt more like dreams than movies. I'm not opposed to films having a dreamlike quality, mind you—Terry Gilliam's entire oeuvre depends on it, and a world without his cinema is a poorer one indeed—but there was something a bit too loose about Terrence Malick's Knight and Nicholas Winding Refn's Neon for my taste.
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And while I was tempted (sorely, sorely tempted) to include Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition on this list, I couldn't quite pull the trigger. But I would like to highlight, again, how much better the director's cut is from the theatrical cut. Warner Brothers should really get out of Zack Snyder's way and let him do this thing. Studios that don't let their geniuses breathe are studios that deserve to fail.
Note: I reserve the right to edit this piece next week and insert Martin Scorsese's Silence.
On to the top ten!
10. Hacksaw Ridge
(Review here.) I'm still not entirely sure how the first half of Mel Gibson's World War Two epic will play on repeat viewings—it's just such a throwback, so … earnest. But the second half is the best piece of war fighting captured on film since Black Hawk Down (2001).
9. Don't Breathe
(Review here.) A horror film that doesn't rely on supernatural silliness and jump-scare hokum to generate terror. I loved all the little touches, like seeing Stephen Lang touch random items to know where he is while the lights are on in the house, which renders his preternatural skills in the dark all the more believable—and, therefore, all the more terrifying.
8. The Nice Guys
(Review here.) A solid R-rated throwback comedy from the master of the genre, Shane Black. The Nice Guys is improbably convoluted, but it makes up for that by featuring a fantastic comic performance from Russell Crowe—you haven't lived until you've seen Maximus do a spit-take—and really reveling in the late-1970s decadence of Los Angeles.
7. La La Land
(Review here.) The only of the year-end films to really capture my attention, La La Land is a musical for people who don't really care for musicals. Its sad-sweet ending redeems a framing device I would normally disdain as hokey silliness.
(Review here.) Best documentary of the year. Weiner does a great job of showing a man in the midst of a professional and personal crisis without sugarcoating it or blaming someone else for its protagonist's problems. What a remarkable train wreck. (Anthony Weiner, not the film.)
5. The Witch
(Review here.) A deeply creepy film that perfectly combines setting (the wilderness of North America in the 17th century), score (creepily atonal instruments paired with howling vocals), and performances (Anya Taylor-Joy carries the movie and gives its climax, in which we learn that this is a movie about how radicalization works, real heft), The Witch is one of those movies that audiences sadly missed in theaters, but will endure as generations of horror fans discover it anew.
4. Love & Friendship
(Review here.) As La La Land is to musicals, Love & Friendship is to Austenite period pictures. Not the sort of movie I expected to fall in love with—and probably wouldn't have, sans the wit and wisdom of Whit Stillman. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Kate Beckinsale is getting totally snubbed this awards season, but the failure to acknowledge Tom Bennett's comic turn as Sir James Martin is one of the year's great crimes. Inexcusable.
3. Hail, Caesar!
(Review here.) This Coen Brothers flick probably has my three favorite individual scenes of the year. In descending order:
- The communist meeting.
- "Would that it were so simple."
- The religious leaders discussing the nature of God with a studio exec.
2. Hell or High Water
(Review here.) The movie that left me most emotionally devastated—far more so than Manchester by the Sea, which I thought worked better as a dark comedy than an earnest examination of grief—and did so in a way I simply didn't see coming. (Arrival‘s marketing team deserves its own award.) A movie about the importance of language to human understanding turned out to be a fascinating experiment in mucking about with the language of film. I can't recommend it highly enough.