Another year, another hundred or so movies to sift through. Since the Oscars’ credibility has long since gone to seed, the esteemed Fast and Fentress rankings remain your best bet for quality film recommendations. So here’s the list everyone’s been waiting for, my top ten movies of the year.
10. Hell or High Water
This modern-day Western tells the story of two desperate brothers who turn to bank robbing to save their family homestead. The three central performances are all excellent, but it’s Ben Foster as the id-driven Tanner who stands out the most. The only problem: it just feels a little too similar to contemporaries like Sicario and No Country for Old Men for its own good. Still, the tragic and timeless story it tells is well worth a watch.
9. Sing Street
The story of an amateur teenage band in 1980s Dublin, Sing Street follows its main character as he navigates high school and finds himself through music. It won’t win any points for originality, but it’s easy to forgive the winning Sing Street for this. Thanks to its great soundtrack, lovable characters, and unabashed feel-good heart, it’s a movie that’s hard to resist. And really, why would you want to?
Anchored by Natalie Portman’s Oscar-worthy performance, Jackie focuses on the 35th First Lady in the dark days following her husband’s assassination. Smartly limiting its scope to a span of only a few days, the movie offers a painfully intimate portrayal of a nation in crisis, and the woman charged with the Herculean task of holding it together.
7. Nocturnal Animals
Another entry in the modern Western genre, Nocturnal Animals has enough unique elements to set it apart. Chief among them is its ambitious story-within-a-story structure, which switches between a gallery owner’s lavish but hollow daily life and the disturbing novel sent to her by her ex-husband. At first glance, the two tales are completely different, but the movie reveals their parallels by its end. Dark, nihilistic, and compelling, Nocturnal Animals pierces you with its barbs and refuses to let go.
6. Edge of Seventeen
Coming-of-age films are never in short supply, but these days it’s rare to find one that stands out. Edge of Seventeen is that movie, and just might end up alongside classics like The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls. Hailee Steinfeld nails the lead role, perfectly conveying the neurotic and hormone-addled experience that is adolescence.
5. Hardcore Henry
“Gimmick” is often a dirty word when it comes to movies, but Hardcore Henry proves that it doesn’t have to be. Shot entirely from the first-person perspective of its titular hero, the movie follows its mute protagonist as he punches, shoots, and blows up anyone standing in the way of his beloved wife. With minimum story, maximum thrills, and plenty of gleefully batshit touches, Hardcore Henry is pure adrenaline-fueled fun.
4. The Invitation
Though The Witch and Don’t Breathe were met with more fanfare upon their release, they pale in comparison to this unbearably tense slow burn. Two years after his son’s death, Will returns to his former home for a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband. But soon after he arrives, Will can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong. To say anything more would spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that The Invitation is a thoroughly disturbing and eerily believable horror story, one that will stay with you long after it’s over.
3. Manchester by the Sea
A Boston handyman receives sole custody of his nephew after his brother suddenly dies, throwing a wrench into his purposefully isolated life. In the wrong hands this premise could easily devolve in to sadness-porn, but thankfully the movie eschews Oscar-bait melodrama for unaffected realism. Manchester by the Sea is blessed with a lightness of touch that lets the story work on its own terms without ever once resorting to emotional manipulation. Melancholy, thoughtful, and not without a sense of humor, it’s a painfully honest meditation on grief.
After an alpha-female CEO is assaulted in her home, she begins to suspect that the masked rapist is one of her acquaintances. Essentially unclassifiable in terms of genre, Elle is part thriller, part corporate mystery, and part family drama. But most surprising is its brutally hilarious streak of black comedy, which mines laughs from the most unexpected sources. Elle isn’t a movie for the easily triggered, but it’s an incendiary, brilliant piece of filmmaking.
1. The Handmaiden
A thief plans to rob a wealthy heiress by having his protégé pose as her handmaiden, but the plot soon spirals into a series of love triangles and double crosses. Though its premise is simple at first glance, The Handmaiden is anything but. Comprised of three vignettes, each from the perspective of a different character, it creates a pleasingly complex narrative tapestry. Each story builds upon the previous one, parsing out information that causes the viewer to constantly reevaluate what they’ve just seen. The Victorian-era Korean setting is realized through gorgeous cinematography, creating images that are as sensual as the love story at the movie’s core.
Arrival: A thought-provoking sci-fi tale about bridging the human-alien language gap, Arrival offers strong performances, smart writing, and arresting visuals. Unfortunately, it loses its footing in a sloppy and meandering second half. Still, there’s enough here to warrant a solid recommendation.
Moonlight: Though it’s certainly a candidate for 2016’s most overrated movie, Moonlight isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s quite an artfully made film, full of stirring images and excellent performances. But it’s brought down by a lead character who’s never defined as anything more than a perpetual victim, as well as a few glaring storytelling blunders.
Popstar: Popstar provided me with plenty of laughs in the theater, but now I can barely remember it. It feels more like a series of sketches – very funny sketches, mind you – than a cohesive movie, and its staying power suffers as a result. Still, thanks to a tight running time and an endless barrage of jokes, it definitely deserves at least one watch.
The Witch: A classic example of a movie that I admired more than I enjoyed, The Witch is undeniably atmospheric, but it failed to stay with me the way great horrors do. This period piece is scary and effective in the moment, but it’s ultimately moodier than it is substantial.
La La Land: One has to admire Damian Chazelle for his vision, if nothing else. La La Land is undeniably the work of an auteur, a movie with the kind of laser-focused passion that could never be replicated by a committee. And yet, the whole thing feels inconsequential; for all its elaborate music numbers and grandiose themes there’s just not that much going on at its core. Perfectly pleasant but insanely overhyped, La La Land’s record-tying amount of Oscar nominations serves far more as evidence for Hollywood’s narcissism than its cinematic quality.
The Neon Demon: Nicholas Winding-Refn’s dark satire of the modeling industry is about as understated as a ten-car pileup, but fans of his stylish visuals and neo-80s soundtracks will find plenty to like here.
Well, that’s all, folks. Stay tuned for my Worst of 2016.