Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Josh Martin's Top 25 Films of 2016

Another year has come and gone, and it is time to recap the best in film from 2016. Contrary to popular belief, this was another spectacular year for movies, filled with unique, original films that I truly fell in love with. Yes, it was a weak stretch for blockbusters, but when you have the first original big screen musical in years, a stunning alien invasion drama, and an instant classic buddy comedy, who needs the X-Men? There was plenty to celebrate in 2016, and there were hits in just about every genre. This was an exceptional year for horror films, animated movies, studio comedies, and most of all, the cinematic musical. Filmmakers like Damien Chazelle and Denis Villeneuve cemented their status as the best in the game, Ryan Gosling proved he could sing, dance, and make us laugh, and a small film about a teenage band from Ireland emerged as one of the best cinematic surprises in years. All things considered, this really was a special year for movies.

Now, I obviously have not seen every film that this year had to offer. I was able to watch and review 114 films from 2016, which is by far the most that I have ever reviewed (thanks, TIFF) in the span of a year. But unfortunately, that didn't include films like The Handmaiden, Lion, Don't Think Twice, and Florence Foster Jenkins. In addition, Silence, 20th Century Women, The Founder, and Patriots Day have yet to open in the Charlotte area, and as much as I'm looking forward to those films, I've decided against waiting for those hotly anticipated titles. So as we prepare to start things all over again in 2017, let's take one last look at the best of a great year for cinema.

Here are my Top 25 Films of 2016, along with a few special mentions.

Special Mention


I'll be completely honest here- I do have trouble placing documentaries on my end-of-year lists. It's tough for me to rank a non-fiction film alongside several narrative features, and although films take on a wide variety of genres, documentary filmmaking feels like an entirely different medium altogether. That being said, it would be a huge mistake if I didn't mention Ava DuVernay's 13th during my discussion of the best films of 2016. Few films this year felt as urgent and as thrillingly topical as DuVernay's intense look at the American prison system. It's a film that takes a clear-eyed look at the legacy of slavery and the history of the 13th Amendment, and it manages to condense so much material into a relatively short runtime. DuVernay creates a cohesive, complete argument, but she injects it with so much cinematic flair that the movie takes on a life of its own. In a divisive year, 13th is essential viewing.

Films that just missed the cut- Deadpool; Indignation; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Star Trek Beyond; Toni Erdmann

2015 film that I saw and loved in 2016, but won't make this list- Anomalisa

2017 film that will certainly be in contention for next year's list- Free Fire

The Top 25


Images courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Few films this year went to a place as dark and as heartbreaking as Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. An authentic, crushing drama about the lasting scars of death and grief, not many movies in 2016 felt quite as realistic as Lonergan's exploration of the citizens of a small New England town. Anchored by the terrific cast, which includes the tragically subdued Casey Affleck, breakout star Lucas Hedges, and likely Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, Manchester is a deeply moving film, and one that you won't soon forget. It's essentially a string of quiet scenes, all held together by the power of Lonergan's writing and the outstanding performances. While it's about 20 minutes too long, few films in 2016 were as richly written and as quietly devastating as Manchester by the Sea.


Images courtesy of Focus Features

This was a great year for animated films, and while other films from the medium placed higher on my list, no piece of animation in 2016 was quite as beautiful as Kubo and the Two Strings. A lyrical, almost poetic piece of cinema, Kubo benefits from the visionary work of the filmmakers at Laika, who have crafted their finest film yet with this Japan-set adventure. It's a story that feels mythical and quietly heroic, and the way that Kubo creates its own original world and creates such vivid characters and locales is nothing short of remarkable. Kubo is pure art, and I hope that more people are able to experience the vibrant universe that Travis Knight created.


Images courtesy of Lionsgate

Mel Gibson's return to cinema wasn't a full-blown triumph, but it sure was something. Hacksaw Ridge is nasty, visceral, and brutal, one of the most violent war movies I've seen in recent years. Essentially, it's a tale of two different films- the first is a quiet, old-fashioned courtroom drama about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) standing up for his beliefs, and the second is a horrific war film that instantly draws comparisons to Saving Private Ryan. Both sections of the film are impressive in their own right, and they combine to create something that feels like an achievement in classic Hollywood filmmaking, only with a modern touch of extreme blood and gore. Mel Gibson might never be fully embraced in the industry again, but if he continues to make films as good as Hacksaw Ridge, he'll be a-okay for the rest of his career.


When I first saw The Neon Demon back in June, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. Nicolas Winding Refn's film is straight-up weird, with some the gutsiest and most disgusting scenes of the year. I saw this on a quiet Monday afternoon, and the only other guy in the theater walked out during, strangest cinematic sex scene of the year. Even I was slightly repulsed by the final act of The Neon Demon, and I'm not one to be easily disturbed by what I see in movies. But I had a reaction, and to me, that's a rarity in an increasingly safe Hollywood landscape. Refn has created his own unique beast with this film, and although it's still far from perfect, I have an insane level of appreciation for the slick, bizarro thrills of this L.A.-set modeling horror story. Elle Fanning is brilliant, the music by Cliff Martinez is some of the best of the year, and Refn's visual eye is completely stunning. And if your jaw isn't on the floor by the blood-drenched climax, I don't know what to tell you.


Images courtesy of Sony

2016 was a great year for horror thrillers, and while there are other flicks from the genre that place higher on my list, the biggest surprise was Don't Breathe. Fede Alvarez broke into the business with his 2013 remake of Evil Dead, but with this home invasion thriller, Alvarez has taken his career to the next level. Don't Breathe is a twisted concoction of insanity, a film that blends the horror archetypes created by John Carpenter and Alfred Hitchcock into something distinctly modern and terrifying. Jane Levy is excellent in the starring role, while Stephen Lang creates one of the great horror monsters in recent memory, a character who is much more sinister than you make initially think. Don't Breathe is a tight, compact film, and it is simultaneously one of the most unforgettable thrill rides of the year.


Images courtesy of Sony

Yes, Sausage Party is an incredibly juvenile film. It's crass, vulgar, and ludicrous, and on repeat viewings, the humor can seem a bit more lowbrow than I initially thought. But few movies in 2016 were as thrillingly innovative as Sausage Party, a film that opened up the boundaries of R-rated animation and somehow managed to deliver a complex meditation on religion. Because for all of the food orgies and talking condoms, this is secretly a religious satire that takes no prisoners in its mocking of culture and belief systems. It's a surprisingly thoughtful film about faith, and the end result is nothing short of shocking and hilarious. The third act of Sausage Party is among the year's best, and Seth Rogen continues to push the limits of comedy in exciting, wild new ways. It may be ridiculous, but it's also one of the year's funniest movies.


It was a good year for animated movies that were actually about something. Nobody really expected much from Disney's Zootopia, despite the fun premise and the fact that the trailers were quite amusing. The film came out of nowhere to shock everyone in March, weaving a fun film noir narrative and incorporating topical themes into a movie made for kids. In a divisive, wild political year, it was a strange breath of fresh air to have a talking animal movie that was literally about race relations in America. Zootopia is wildly entertaining to watch, but it's also a fun movie to discuss and dissect. It's a film populated by bright, colorful worlds, quirky characters, and big ideas, a combination that is simply irresistible.


Images courtesy of Focus Features

No movie has made me cry as hard as A Monster Calls did in a very long time. I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and by the time the third act rolled around, the tears were already rolling down my face. A Monster Calls is a shattering cinematic experience, a movie about grief that blends fantasy and reality in a heartbreaking, glorious way. It's filled with exceptional performances, including a breakout turn by young Lewis MacDougall and a devastating supporting role by Felicity Jones. But more than that, A Monster Calls feels like a classic fable, one that deals with big ideas and tough themes in a simple, poetic way. J.A. Bayona already proved himself to be a strong filmmaker with The Impossible, but with this wonderful tearjerker, the director takes his talents to another level.


In 2013, James Wan's The Conjuring was a total surprise. Nobody saw it coming, but it was instantly praised and became the horror breakout hit of the year. Three years later, the weight of expectations sat on The Conjuring 2, a bigger, bolder sequel that would continue the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). And while the film wasn't quite as widely beloved as the original, it remains one of my favorite horror films of the year, and it's possibly the best horror sequel of all time. With this London-set sequel, Wan ups the ante, but maintains the emotion, delivering massive scares while never losing sight of the characters at the center of the story. It's an excellent, creepy adventure, but it's also heartwarming in a comforting way, which isn't something that you can say for too many horror films these days. Before this year, James Wan was already known as the modern king of horror, but with this exceptionally terrifying sequel, he solidified his position as the best in the game.


Images courtesy of A24

The camera pans to an island. A man stands on a tree stump, preparing to hang himself and end his miserable life. Suddenly, there's a body on the beach. And it's.......farting? Yes, of course, we're talking about Swiss Army Man, the year's boldest and most thrilling comedy experience. The idea of Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting, multi-purpose corpse was viewed with skepticism by many at this year's Sundance Film Festival, but when the film entered wide release later in the year, it found an audience of weirdos like me. This movie is thoroughly bizarre and even vulgar in a strange way, but it's also a sweet film about a man learning to re-connect with the world around him. Radcliffe is absolutely sensational in a complex role, while Paul Dano delivers another standout performance. Swiss Army Man will certainly not be for everyone's tastes, but it's a memorable experience and the birth of two new brilliantly original directorial voices.


Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Biopics are well-worn territory in Hollywood these days, but Pablo Larrain and Natalie Portman reinvented the historical wheel with Jackie. A haunting, beautifully designed portrait of legacy, grief, and the American identity, Jackie is a true revelation. It helps when you have one of the best performances of the year from Natalie Portman, who channels the mannerisms and intelligence of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. But beyond the monumental performance, Jackie is a film with so much on its mind. It's a historical film that is uniquely interested in how history was created, and its portrayal of the Kennedy/Camelot legacy is nothing short of mesmerizing. Throw in a terrific screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, a chilling musical score from Mica Levi, and the excellent direction of Larrain, and you have a brilliant new American classic.


Images courtesy of Focus Features

Nocturnal Animals starts with a bizarre opening credits sequence, one that sets a tone of total unpredictability. For the next two hours, director Tom Ford follows through on that mood, delivering a thriller that is mesmerizing, terrifying, and nothing short of wholly original. Nocturnal Animals ended up being much more divisive than I imagined when I first read the reviews out of the Venice Film Festival, but when I saw the film in Toronto, that divide became clear to me. I was in love with this intoxicating combination of storytelling brilliance and cinematic composition, but I could tell that many audience members were positively baffled. Nocturnal Animals is certainly not a film that gives easy answers, but it's such a thrilling, unique ride. The performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are top-notch, the music by Abel Korzeniowski is outstanding, and the contrast between the sun-baked locales of Texas and the slick sheen of Los Angeles is brilliantly captured by Ford and Seamus McGarvey. Nocturnal Animals is haunting, gripping stuff, and a movie that I won't soon forget.


The most underrated and underseen gem of 2016, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is destined for cult classic status in the future. The Lonely Island's musical mockumentary is the best pure comedy of the year, a raucous, satirical look at the life of Connor4Real (Andy Samberg), a dim-witted pop sensation who undergoes a crisis after the failed performance of his latest album. Channeling the absurdist vibe of This is Spinal Tap for a new generation, Popstar delivers the big laughs and hysterical songs, while also featuring a surprising amount of heart. It's a brisk, short film, but one that never lets up from a comedic perspective. "Finest Girl," "I'm So Humble" and "Incredible Thoughts" are some of the best original songs of the year, and this may very well go down as The Lonely Island's finest achievement yet. Popstar is a blast, and it's really a shame that more people didn't check this out while it was in theaters.


Moana is so much fun, and while Disney animation has been on a roll recently, I never expected to love this movie like I did. Yes, Moana is the best animated film of the year, and the culmination of the Disney renaissance that started in 2010 with Tangled. This is a glorious, captivating animated feature, a film with vibrant colors, wonderful characters, a relaxing, charming vibe, and an exceptional soundtrack. Combining the talents of Dwayne Johnson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho to create something truly wonderful, Moana feels like a throwback to classic Disney with a distinctly modern touch. Very few movies in 2016 were as much delightful fun as Moana, and I can't wait to revisit it again and again.


Captain America: Civil War was one of the most anticipated films of 2016, and it did not disappoint. The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was clearly the best blockbuster of the year, and another excellent chapter in one of Hollywood's most consistent franchises. The Captain America trilogy had already gotten off to a fast start with The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, two of the most impressive films in the MCU, but with the third installment, Joe and Anthony Russo brought their A-game to create a dazzling, smart action film. The writing in Civil War (which exists as both a new chapter in both the Avengers and Captain America franchises) is outstanding, the characters are dynamic and complex, and the action setpieces are nothing short of magnificent, with many noting the airport battle as one of the best of all time. Civil War is nothing short of a blast, and in a year where most of the blockbusters were crushing disappointments, it was nice to at least have one film deliver the goods.


Hail, Caesar! was one of the first big releases of 2016, and it feels like the latest from the Coen Brothers has gotten lost in the shuffle. That's a shame, because few movies are as hysterically memorable as this Tinseltown satire, which follows a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). This is a film filled with moments of sheer perfection, and the fact that it all takes place in the crazy world of 1950s Hollywood (as imagined by the Coens, of course) makes it that much more dazzling. Alden Ehrenreich's pitch-perfect turn as Hobie Doyle, the side-splitting musical number with Channing Tatum, a monologue by George Clooney that just falls one note short of perfection, sly references to legends of Hollywood's past- it's all here in this wacky, delightful little film. The fact that it seems to have something strangely profound to say about religion and the difficulty of the movie business only elevates this awesome concoction. The Coens are brilliant masters of their craft, and they created another modern classic with Hail, Caesar!


Images courtesy of Lionsgate

As someone who is constantly absorbed by the world of cinema, very few films are able to sneak up on me. In one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water managed to do just that. The film made a quiet splash at the Cannes Film Festival, playing in the Un Certain Regard section to rave reviews. However, the film was overshadowed by more highly anticipated titles at the world's most famous festival, and it slowly crept its way onto the August release schedule. As more critics saw the film, a rare thing happened- the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic actually went up. When I finally got the chance to check out Hell or High Water for myself, I was blown away. It's a tense, surprisingly funny crime drama, an old-fashioned flick about the desolate economic landscape of the American midwest. It features excellent character work, terrific performances from its stellar cast, gripping action, and manages to stand as the most thrillingly urgent film of the year. That's no small feat, but this little gem pulled it off with ease.


We're going to be hearing about Dan Trachtenberg for a very long time. 10 Cloverfield Lane is the closest thing I've seen to a Hitchcock movie in the modern Hollywood landscape, and that alone makes Trachtenberg an incredibly interesting filmmaker. When I first heard about this film, it was listed on the release calendar as Valencia, and I was excited due to the Bad Robot connection alone. Later, it was revealed that the film was actually secretly related to the Cloverfield universe. J.J. Abrams is a master at the mystery box, and I love the idea of creating a modern Twilight Zone with this series. But in all honesty, that's beside the point. 10 Cloverfield Lane is one hell of a movie with or without the connection to the extended universe, a brutally intense thriller anchored by two of the year's best performances from Mary-Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Trachtenberg's direction is claustrophobic and clever, the score by Bear McCreary is incredible, and the final shot is one of the best of the year. I just straight-up love this movie- it's a prime example of an exceptional old-fashioned Hollywood thriller.


Back in May, a friend asked for a movie recommendation, and I responded with a few different films that I thought were worth checking out at the time. One of those movies was Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, which he eventually ended up seeing. Shortly after he saw it, he called me and said "Josh, what the **** was that?"

Green Room is that kind of movie. It's a gnarly, visceral thriller, one that puts its characters in a totally unwinnable situation. The film centers around a full-blown standoff between a punk band and group of Neo-Nazis, but it isn't exactly as simple as that. When things go wrong in Green Room, they go really wrong. People get hurt in nasty and unimaginable ways, and it all plays out in what is certainly the most harrowing, terrifying horror/thriller of 2016. Jeremy Saulnier is the real deal, and this film is just top-notch in every possible way. It also took a slightly tragic twist in June, when star Anton Yelchin died in a horrific accident. This is his finest performance, and it's a movie that puts Saulnier in the big leagues. It's a beautiful, gory adventure, and I love every second of it.


Images courtesy of A24

I remember watching the trailer for Moonlight on a quiet afternoon in July, and the film immediately burst onto my radar. There was barely any buzz on Barry Jenkins' film for months, but after the release of what just might be one of the best trailers of the year, Moonlight was suddenly at the top of every cinephile's watchlist. I got the chance to see the film in Toronto, and it was an experience that I won't soon forget. When I sat down to see Moonlight, it was a rainy night in the Great White North, and I was hitting a point of exhaustion. Watching Jenkins' masterpiece rejuvenated my spirits and seemed to make the whole world seem a bit brighter. I cannot say enough good things about this film, and there's very little that I can say at this point that hasn't been said. Moonlight is an instant classic, the kind of film that people will be talking about for a very long time. There isn't a single flaw, nor a miscalculation or missed opportunity- Jenkins has made a film that is rich and rewarding on every level. It's a mesmerizing film, one filled with dynamic performances, unforgettable moments, and one of the most flawlessly told stories in recent memory. It's simply incredible.


Denis Villeneuve is going places, guys. We already knew that he was a director to watch thanks to Prisoners and Sicario, but in my humble opinion, Arrival solidifies Villeneuve's status as one of the best directors in Hollywood. It takes a special filmmaker to bring something new to a genre as well-worn as the alien invasion film, but along with screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who deserves an Oscar nomination), Villeneuve turns Arrival into a revelation. For most of its runtime, this film is cold, calculating, and precise, the kind of movie that you would expect from Villeneuve. But when Arrival unexpectedly turns into the most emotional film of the year in the third act, I was knocked out. This is cinematic poetry of the highest order, and the fact that Amy Adams delivers one of the year's most incredible performances is icing on the cake. Arrival is a masterful piece of science fiction, and a film that I can't wait to revisit many times in the future. Bring on Blade Runner......


Dazed and Confused is the greatest high school movie ever made, and one of my all time favorites as well. So going into 2016, anticipation was high for Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!!, which was billed as a spiritual sequel to that 1993 film. Thankfully, the film exceeded my lofty expectations and then some. Everybody Wants Some!! is one of the most delightful films I've ever seen, a laid-back joyride through the first weekend of college. On the surface, it may seem like a typical dude-bro college movie, but there's so much more going on in this insightful, tremendously funny film. The cast is wonderful, the atmosphere is intoxicating, and the film's relentless optimism is a burst of fresh air. Everybody Wants Some!! is about a world of endless possibilities, and the joyous beauty of the college experience is on full display here. It's a film that I can watch again and again, filled with incredible moments, lovable characters, and a devotion to the good times in life.


The Nice Guys was my most anticipated film of 2016, and to be quite honest with you, I knew that I was going to love it. A Los Angeles-set '70s noir comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe? Count me in. Thankfully, Shane Black somehow even managed to exceed my lofty expectations. The Nice Guys is just so much fun, and this is one of the movies from 2016 that is endlessly rewatchable. Every line of dialogue written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi is pure comic gold, and the twisty, compelling narrative is fascinating and funny on multiple levels. And I haven't even mentioned the performances yet! This was definitely a film outside Russell Crowe's typical comfort zone, but he absolutely nails it as the macho Jackson Healy. And of course, Ryan Gosling has never been better than he is here as Holland March, the bumbling P.I. who exists almost entirely as a Looney Tunes character. The Nice Guys is a blast of old-school buddy cop fun, and it's a shame that it didn't get much recognition during the summer season. This should have been one of the highest grossing blockbusters of the year, but for some bizarre reason, audiences ignored it. But in the future, I have a feeling that we'll be referring to this wonderful comedy as a smart, hysterical classic.


Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company

There's nothing quite like sitting down in a movie theater with no expectations and being blown away. In the culture of endless hype that we live in today, there are very few opportunities for a film to be a total surprise in any serious way. In late March, I sat down in a theater for an early screening of a film called Sing Street, and although I knew that it was a hit at Sundance, that was the total extent of my knowledge. I avoided trailers, didn't read any reviews, and I hadn't even seen John Carney's previous two films. I went in almost completely blind.

And then out of nowhere, I was blind-sided by one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time. Sing Street is a masterpiece. It's John Carney's best film by a country mile, and it's one of the most joyous pieces of cinema I've ever seen. On the surface, it's a simple story of a boy, a girl, and a band, one that seems like it could likable, but derivative. But Sing Street slowly reveals a more thoughtful core, which conveys a profound message about finding optimism in the darkest of times. It's a film about the eternal hope of stardom, the thought that one day, you might be able to make something of your life. There are few moments in film this year as completely perfect as Jack Reynor's final jump for joy, as Conor's boat sails to sea on that fateful journey. This film is astonishing, and I'm so glad that the world is finally catching up to its genius. As I said in my review, it's one that I will cherish forever, and a film that is perfect in just about every way.


Images courtesy of Lionsgate

Choosing my #1 film of 2016 was a near-impossible task. I absolutely adore Sing Street, and it's a film that I have been championing since March. But when we look back at 2016, it'll be known as the year of La La Land.

I have seen Damien Chazelle's musical masterwork four times now, which is the most I've ever seen a film in theaters. The fact that I still intend on seeing it one or two more times speaks volumes about how great this film is. From the very first moments of the film, La La Land has an infectious energy that just won't quit. It's bittersweet and joyous and beautiful, paced to perfection and led by two of the year's best performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have created some of the most perfect movie moments of the year, and this is a love story that I think will endure for a very long time. The opening burst of "Another Day of Sun," the funny, gorgeous "A Lovely Night," a trip to the stars at the Planeterium, Mia's powerful "Audition," the final melancholy blast of an alternate reality- these are superb moments that will stand the test of time. La La Land is a film about the magic of movies, the magic of love, and surprisingly, the opportunity cost of success. It's a profound, breathtaking journey that will lift your spirits and break your heart, and yes, it is the best film of 2016.

And with that, this crazy year has come to a close. 2016 was filled with incredible movies, and we can only hope that 2017 will be even better.

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