SN&R’s best and worst films of 2016
Film critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane on simulated good dreams and cinematic nightmares
In a year that often felt like a nightmare, the simulated dream of the movies was especially alluring, while the medium's potential for transcendent empathy became more important than ever. In that spirit, SN&R critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane each compiled lists of the best (and worst) films of 2016. From a Hong Kong hospital to a Morro Bay aquarium, from 1930s Korea to 1970s Los Angeles, from stories of heroes and nihilists to stories of witches and giants, these are the dreams they couldn't shake.Wonderfully strange, insidious and sickening elegance
1. The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook’s aesthetically immaculate symphony of seduction and misdirection, set in a Japanese-occupied Korea heightened to the point of surrealism. Wonderfully strange and erotic, with dazzling performances from Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-Ri.
2. Three: A genre-bending, Hawks-meets-De Palma-meets-10,000-energy-drinks blast of action, intrigue, ethical ultimatums and escalating tension from Hong Kong legend Johnnie To, culminating with the most satisfying set piece of the year.
3. The Witch: Insidious horror, Puritan anthropology, gripping drama and caustic social commentary from writer-director Robert Eggers, who turned his lifelong obsession with witches into this story of a family falling apart on the edge of the wilderness.
4. American Honey: Like a documentary about a dream, Andrea Arnold’s road movie is more dizzyingly alive than any other 2016 film, saturated with a surprising blend of desperation and hope. Star Sasha Lane deserves a brilliant career.
5. The Salesman: A moral tale of sickening elegance from Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), who slowly weaves a spider web of shame, rage and world-crumbling dread from outwardly innocuous words and gestures.
6. Krisha: Trey Edward Shults’ debut feature feels like the family dinner scene from Punch-Drunk Love stretched to feature length. As the titular black sheep protagonist leads herself to Thanksgiving slaughter, the film practically vibrates with nervous energy.
7. Elle: Paul Verhoeven’s first film in a decade (the reality show byproduct Tricked hardly counts), and it’s the most Verhoeven-y thing you could want: perverse, cheeky, disturbing, penetrating, accessible, inscrutable and insane. This is Isabelle Huppert’s world, we’re all just visiting.
8. The Wailing: The biggest surprise of the year, a treacherously intense supernatural serial killer mystery about a slightly bumbling small-town cop (a sublimely over-the-top Do Won Kwak) whose daughter contracts a mysterious sickness blamed on a forest-dwelling foreigner.
9. Moonlight: Short on subtle symbolism but overflowing with empathy, beauty and love, Barry Jenkins’ tender drama uses three different actors to portray its bullied homosexual protagonist, but Mahershala Ali still walks away with the film as the boy’s tragically compromised mentor.
10. Right Now, Wrong Then and Paterson (tie): Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s shoegazing anti-romance and Jim Jarmusch’s New Jersey-set slice-of-meditative-life occupy opposite sides of the globe, but they share the same delicately wise balance of human frailty and mystical optimism.
Worst films of the year
1. Independence Day: Resurgence
3. Now You See Me 2
5. Birth of a Nation
The quirky, heartfelt and masterful
1. Arrival: You needn’t have read Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” to enjoy this alien-visitation drama, but it would help you appreciate how masterfully writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve adapted it. This movie reminded us that science fiction can be more than adolescent space opera.
2. The BFG: This magical masterpiece may have been too good not to flop. Never mind, its audience will find it eventually. Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison didn’t just film Roald Dahl’s kid-lit book, they transformed it; if only Dahl and Mathison had lived to see it.
3. Eye in the Sky: The moral and political implications of drone warfare got a wringing-out in this, a philosophical examination disguised as a thriller tense enough to make Jason Bourne hang his head. Fine performances all around, including the great Alan Rickman’s final one.
4. Finding Dory: Less a follow-up to Finding Nemo than a fulfillment of it (the way Toy Story 2 was for Toy Story), this was probably the sweetest and most purely entertaining movie of the year; writer-director Andrew Stanton (also the man behind Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, WALL-E and the underrated John Carter) may be Pixar’s secret weapon.
5. Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson may be persona non grata in Hollywood—but damn, that man knows how to put a movie together when he’s on his game. This war drama was brilliant on every level—including Gibson’s direction and the towering performance he drew from Andrew Garfield as war hero Desmond Doss.
6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: This quirky, offbeat buddy picture about two unwitting fugitives from justice in the wilds of New Zealand was the pleasant surprise of the year, with rough-and-warm performances from veteran Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison.
7. The Light Between Oceans: Writer-director Derek Cianfrance, the current darling of the art-house set, went mainstream to film M.L. Stedman’s novel. He should do it more often; his original scripts for Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines only fumbled for the depth, resonance and eye for telling details that he achieved here; Stedman must have made the difference.
8. The Nice Guys: Was this movie’s $36.2 million box office enough to turn a profit? I hope so, because it was a swell buddy mystery-comedy, with Russell Crowe and (especially) Ryan Gosling as a hilarious team. Writer-director Shane Black paid wry tribute to the sun-bleached LA of The Rockford Files, TV’s greatest detective show.
9. Risen: Roman centurion Joseph Fiennes searches for the body of the crucified Jesus so he can prove he hasn’t risen from the dead. Faith-based filmmakers, take note: This is how it’s done! Fine acting, intelligent script (by Paul Aiello and director Kevin Reynolds), good production values and a soft pedal on the preaching. This movie made it look easy.
10. Sully: Director Clint Eastwood, writer Todd Komarnicki and stars Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart were never better than in this telling of 2009’s Miracle on the Hudson. Eastwood and Komarnicki found a suspenseful angle on a story everybody knows, and Hanks and Eckhart vanished into their characters. Movie craftsmanship at its highest.
Bottom five films of the year
1. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: And, also, the death of fun. Billion-dollar box office or not, it stank. No doubt the next one will too.
2. Ben-Hur: Perhaps the least-necessary remake ever, this maiming of Gen. Lew Wallace’s novel never rose to the level of insignificance.
3. Dirty Grandpa: The absolute low point of Robert De Niro’s career. Zac Efron’s, too (and he was in both of the Neighbors films).
4. Max Steel: With this, Mattel unwisely followed Hasbro into movies. How bad do you have to be to make the Transformers series look good? Now we know.
5. Union Bound: Did this Civil War drama last even a week in theaters? Inept and amateurish, it looked like it was photographed with an iPhone.