If year-end top tens are silly – and they are, as much as I love them – then a half time top 10 is sillier still, but what the hell, I still enjoy them (not sure why so many outlets now post their half time top 10s in early June – that seems to be making an already silly process even sillier).
Anyway, I’ve seen 61 films so far from 2016, which is a little bit less than normal, but then I often spend a little bit more time in the early part of the year revisiting classics (or watching ones I’ve never seen before) – before I pick up the slack sometime in the summer and catch-up.
Some of the titles I would have liked to have seen but didn’t get around to (either because they only played in Toronto, and came and went quickly, or in some case, pure laziness) so far include: Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari), Demolition (Jean Marc Vallee), Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood), Hello My Name is Doris (Michael Showalter), Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller), The Measure of a Man (Stephane Brize), The Meddler (Lorene Scafaria), Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle), Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro), The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn), Sing Street (John Carney), The Wailing (Hong-jin Na). Then there are films that, unless I missed them, haven’t played in Canada at all that I want to see, including: City of Gold (Laura Gabbert), Cosmos (Andrzej Zulawski), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer), Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo Garcia), Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier), My Golden Days (Araund Desplechin), Pervert Park (Frida Barkfors & Lasse Barkfors), Tickled (David Farrier &Dylan Reeve), The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu), A War (Tobias Lindholm), Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg).
But enough about what I haven’t seen, and onto what I have seen. It has actually been a pretty good year so far, with quite a few highlights so far. Films that I considered for the top 10 but didn’t have room for include: A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino) an incredibly sexy thriller and drama, with four great performances for Ralph Fiennes, Mathias Schoenarts, Dakota Johnson and especially Tilda Swinton, in director Guadagnino’s (too) long awaited for follow-up to the even better I Am Love. De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow) is a fascinating, film-by-film, breakdown of the director’s career by the man himself. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) is not Audiard’s best film, nor did it deserve to win the 2015 Palme D’Or, but it has two great performances, and is three quarters of an excellent movie, that kind of goes off the rails in the end. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater) was billed as a spiritual sequel to his Dazed & Confused, and it works like that – meaning that perhaps it just seems like minor Linklater, until you watch it over and over again, which you definitely could, since it’s so effortlessly fun. Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton) isn’t top notch Pixar, but it’s better than any other mainstream animated film you’ll likely see this year. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley) is an excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s work, getting the tone right, the look and feel right, and has a great Tom Hiddleson performance in it – even if, after an hour or so, it repeats itself. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama) is a tense thriller about a dinner party from hell – with a great ensemble cast. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau) was easiest the best of the big blockbusters this year, wondrously entertaining and fun, brilliant special effects and the type of film that is destine to become a family classic. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick) is not top tier Malick, especially since it really does repeat itself (over and over again), but it is brilliantly well made, and kept me enthralled for most of its runtime. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) has no plot, and is meaningless trifle, but it is pure fun from beginning to end, with great performances by Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett. The Nice Guys (Shane Black) is exactly what you want in a Shane Black, 1970s set, L.A. comedy/noir, with a great performance by Russell Crowe, and an even better one by Ryan Gosling. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo) is a wonderful film – I really wanted to include it above, and perhaps I should have – where Hong basically tells the same story twice, with some subtle and not so subtle differences. Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore) was Disney animation at its finest, and is pure fun, that also has something to say.
And now, onto the top 10. If you’re curious, I think the top 3 have a legitimate shot at placing on my top 10 at year’s end (that is, if I decide #1 will be eligible – I’m not sure yet, but for a half time list, I’m not going to question it). A quick note – I don’t spend much time on the actual ranking here – not nearly as much as I’ll do at the year end, so it may well change by then.
10. Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)
In many ways, Krisha sounds like a typical indie – a recovering drug addict comes home to their family for Thanksgiving – and ends up making a mess. But Krisha is hardly the kind of comforting indie, quirky dramedy that makes waves at Sundance and then is forgotten when it hits theaters – it’s actually a devastating film, anchored by one of the very best performances of the year by Krisha Fairchild – as the drug addict. The film is also brilliantly well made – almost as if John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and David Lynch collaborated on a project, as the movie begins with realism, and gradually becomes surreal. The overall arc of the movie isn’t too surprising – once you realize this isn’t going to be a film that seeks to comfort the viewer, there’s really only one way for all this to end, and the third act of this film that doesn’t even run 90 minutes feels rushed. Still, it’s a remarkable debut film by writer/director Trey Edward Shults – and an even better performance by Fairchild.
9. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a horror movie about a teenage girl and her family in 1600s New England – with a father who has ostracized the rest of their community, a mother willingly embracing delusions, and the girl at the center becoming a woman – and just what that means in many different senses. The film is a slow burn – it starts with a bang, with a baby going missing – but from there, it’s all about mounting tension – the sins of the parents coming down on the children, and ending with a memorable climax, that should stir up debate among audience’s members. There are nightmare inducing moments in the film – and Eggers knows how to build these properly – but it is basically about this family, who more or less, destroy themselves. This is a great horror film, in a year that has had several so far – I probably need to re-watch it, as I haven’t seen it since TIFF last September (who knows, maybe it should be higher on this list).
8. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special continues his streak of interesting films that grow in your mind once they are over. This is his “biggest” film to date – inspired in equal parts by early Spielberg and John Carpenter – yet also distinctly Nichols own film. The film, which stars Michael Shannon (of course) in a great performance as a father on the run with his very special son – aided by Joel Edgerton, and eventually his former wife, Kristen Dunst – Midnight Special goes to unexpected places, on its way to a climax that, months later, I’m still turning over in my mind. Does it all work? I honestly don’t know – the film is more “flawed” than previous Nichols films like Take Shelter and Mud – but it’s also more ambitious. One thing is for sure, I still cannot wait to see what the man does next.
7. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke followed up my personal favorite of his films – A Touch of Sin – with this triptych of stories about the every changing landscape in China, and the emergence of capitalism and what it means to the country (basically, what Zhangke has been addressing for his entire, brilliant career). The first part is set in 1999, as a young woman (Jia’s wife and muse Tao Zhao) has to decide between two friends – the one who owns the local mine, and the one who works for it. In the second, set in 2014, death and divorce has come down on some of the players from the first part – as Zhao tries to re-connect with the son she realizes she barely knows. In the third, in 2025, that son is now grown up and living in Australia – having forgotten about his homeland almost entirely. The first two segments are brilliant – as good as anything Jia has ever done. The third one works thematically more than in practice – in part, I think, because it’s the first time Jia has worked in English, and the dialogue runs false. Still, two thirds of a great Jia film (and 1 third an average one) is still better than what most filmmakers could come up with.
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Count me as someone who didn’t really need a Cloverfield sequel (or spin-off, or whatever the hell they ended up calling this thing) – but I loved this film just the same. I liked the original Cloverfield as well, but prefer my thrillers like this – tense, claustrophobic, with legitimately surprising twists and turns, and wonderful performances (which I won’t reveal here, because if you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to spoil it). Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, the film builds tension as three characters –played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. – who bounce off each other like ping pong balls. The ending of the film is a treat – even if you kind of see it coming (because of the name). This is how you make a a mainstream thriller, on a budget – and how you market one, keeping it secret until fairly late in the game, before springing it on people who didn’t even know they wanted it in the first place.
5. Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino)
Andrew Cividino’s wonderful debut film is one of the best Canadian films in recent years – a film about three boys on summer vacation – one rich, and a pair of cousins who decidedly are not – and the petty jealously and masculine posturing that lead them into real trouble. In many ways, the film feels familiar – and yet, I think it’s that familiairity that makes the film so disturbing and powerful as it reaches its climax – which pushes beyond where many films of this ilk would go. This is not a reassuring film about youth – but it’s also not one that tries to raise the alarm bells with being needlessly provocative – instead it’s a film about small actions have large consequences. All three performances by the teens at the center are great – none more so than by Nick Serino as the volatile Nate, who acts the toughest, because he is really the most vulnerable (where the innocent seeming rich kid, is really the one who sets everything in motion). Sleeping Giant is a sneaky film – in that it sneaks up on you as you’re watching it, than refuses to leave you once you have seen it. This one has only grown in my mind since I saw it.
4. Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Audiences didn’t really like the Coen’s latest film, and too many critics dismissed it as minor Coens – an entertaining trifle. Entertaining it certainly is – trifle, it certainly isn’t. The film is though one of the Coen’s most positive films – a Christ story, wrapped up in a love letter to Hollywood, where the brothers brilliantly recreate many styles of films made famous in the studio era – especially musicals (the dance number with Channing Tatum is in particular a highlight), There are many other highlights in the film however – like every time Alden Ehrenreich is on screen as a seemingly dimwitted Western star, who the studio hilariously tries to cast in a period romance (Ehrenreich gets my vote for performance of the year so far). The film is clever and funny, brilliantly well made, fun, but with a little more heft than people give it credit for. It’s not a Coen film – like No Country for Old Men or Fargo – where everyone immediately knows it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of those Coen films – like The Big Lebowski – that everyone realizes was great, five years later.
3. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a great genre film – an intense, claustrophobic thriller that verges into horror territory, as a young, punk band finds themselves at the mercy of a group of neo-Nazis, after a show when they stumble onto the aftermath of a murder, and spend most of the movie locked in a room with the dead body – with the neo-Nazis outside just waiting for them. On that surface level, the film works brilliantly – Saulnier, whose last film Blue Ruin, was a similarly bloody thriller, ups the ante here. He gets great performances out of the entire cast – Patrick Stewart, as the weary leader of the Neo-Nazis is a highlight, but there’s fine work by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat as two of the band members, Imogen Poots as the quiet heart of the film, and Blue Ruin star Macon Blair, as someone who gets what he wants, but doesn’t want it anymore. There are layers to Green Room though that elevate it about most thrillers – levels of politics associated with both groups embracing outdated ideology. And the entire film works, I think, as a metaphor for being young and stupid – thinking you know everything about the world, and then realizing with brutal clarity that you know nothing. The film didn’t become the hit it deserved – but it’s masterful, and confirms that Saulnier is one of the best young directors around.
2. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is a deadpan comic masterwork. The first half of the film is about Colin Farrell’s David – an accountant (of course, because when you need a loser in a film, you make them an accountant) – who goes to a hotel, where he has 90 days to find a mate, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. This part is hilarious, as it skewers society’s obsessive with love and marriage – how society forces the traditional ideal of a nuclear family down on everyone, whether they want it or not. Yet, the second half of the film – out in the forest, does almost the exact opposite – pushing back at those who push back too forcefully at those ideals. Somehow, against all odds, Lanthimos has made The Lobster into a real love story – one whose outcome we still don’t know at the end as the film with a masterfully ambigious ending. This is a funny, challenging, ambitious, brilliant film – worth the year it took to be released after it debuted at Cannes in May 2015.
1. O.J. : Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
While it may sound like hyperbole, I firmly believe that O.J. Made in America is the best documentary of the 21st Century so far. This seven and a half hour doc, made for the great ESPN 30 for 30 series (which has many great episodes – though strangely, the best one before this was Brett Morgan’s June 17th, 1994 from 2010 – which played like channel surfer on the craziest sports day ever – including OJs run in the Bronco). The reason the film is as brilliant as it is, is because director Ezra Edelman takes a wide view on Simpson – never concentrating solely on the man and his actions – although that is there too, of course – but on his place in society, and what was happening around him. The irony that Simpson, who spent his entire professional career distancing himself from other African Americans, and their causes, would end up being a cause for celebration in Black America with the trial, is not lost on Edelman – it’s almost the point of the documentary. The film joins the ranks of films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) as the greatest ever made about race relations in America – it uses O.J. as a lens to explore that, and placing him on a continuum that includes the Watts Riots, and decades of police abuse, specifically Rodney King (and by inference, to what is happening today). Words don’t do justice to this film – which is a masterpiece. When it comes to my year-end top 10 list, I’ll have to make the decision as to whether it should be eligible or not – they did qualify the film for Oscars by releasing it in L.A. for a week before its premiere, although that’s basically a technicality for what is essentially a TV movie. Yet, no matter what you call the film, it is a masterpiece – pure and simple – and certainly the best way to spend 7 hours and 45 minutes this year.