Top 10 Movies of 2016 (so far)

We’re now certainly past the halfway mark of 2016, but I wanted to take a moment to recognize some of the best movies I’ve seen from the first six months of the year. I know things are looking pretty bleak in terms of blockbuster fare right now, but if you’re looking in the right places, there’s been a lot of really good stuff this year. Here’s a look at my 10 favourites, so far.

Regrets on ones I’ve missed: Sunset Song, The Neon Demon, The Invitation, Hail Caesar

Love and Friendship

10. Love & Friendship

After watching Whit Stilman’s hyper-acerbic Damsels in Distress from a few years back, he never would have been the name I’d attach to a Jane Austen adaptation. But, as Love & Friendship shows, he actually might be the perfect person to take on the charm and subtle sass of Austen’s work. Whitman has a field day here loosely adapting one of the author’s early novellas, casting muse Kate Beckinsale as a self-serving widow who strikes up a friendship with a younger man (Xavier Samuel). The film is modern without feeling distractingly out-of-time and it manages to be both charming and scathing in nearly equal measure. Tom Bennett is particularly funny as the would-be paramour of Beckinsale’s daughter, but the whole cast here seems to embrace Stillman’s sly, cynical wit. Whether you love Austen or are decidedly anti-costume drama, there’s probably something for you in this unlikely crowd-pleaser.

Born to Be Blue

9. Born to Be Blue

Skittering just on the line of typical biopic fare, Born to Be Blue avoids succumbing to the worn-out tropes of similarly-themed films like Walk the Line and Ray. The film follows Chet Baker as he’s washed-up and looking for a come-back, and it succeeds partially because it focuses on such a specific time in the musician’s life. Writer-director Robert Budreau has a clear, melancholy handle on the material, and he does an excellent job of painting Baker as a fully-formed person, and not just a clichéd “troubled musical genius”. On top of that, Ethan Hawke’s performance as Baker is magenetic, and the film’s experimental, partially-fictionalized flourishes make it well worth watching. And that gut-punch of an ending? Most biopics would never have the nerve to end on such a dour, intimately authentic note.

Wiener-Dog

8. Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz’ distinctive brand of miserabilist comedy won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and in fact, I didn’t think it would be mine until I made my first foray into his work with Wiener-Dog. Told in four distinct parts, the film follows its titular wiener dog through various stages of life and as she gets passed around to different owners. It’s a bizarre, dark, and frequently funny film, but I was surprised by the amount of heart it had, as well. Solondz’ insights on humanity obviously lean towards the cynical, but the empathy he shows his characters is what prevents the film from veering into the mean-spirited. This is especially apparent in the portion with Greta Gerwig and a never-better Kieran Culkin, which, as well as serving as a quasi-sequel to Solondz’ own Welcome to the Dollhouse, shows the depth of the director’s emotional insight.

Eye in the Sky

7. Eye in the Sky

Precise and even-keeled, one could almost accuse Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky of being boring. But his multi-layered look at drone warfare is an example of such tight storytelling that Hood somehow makes a film largely about military conference calls into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Eye in the Sky takes place over the course of one day, showing how one seemingly small decision affects a huge swath of people – partly because it’s a decision that no one actually wants to take the responsibility to make. Is the film’s message subtle? No, not exactly. But with such taut storytelling conveyed by the likes of Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi, and Aaron Paul, the results are thrilling, often unexpected, and surprisingly affecting.

A Bigger Splash

6. A Bigger Splash

Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash feels like it could be a stage play. It’s extremely character-driven and anchored by four very strong central performers (Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson), exploring heady themes and doing so without a lot of visual pyrotechnics. But then again, if you were watching this story on a stage, you wouldn’t get the backdrop of the gorgeous Italian countryside. And you certainly wouldn’t get flair and whimsy of Guadagnino’s camerawork, which really brings the film to life. This is a film that is moving not because of its relatively well-worn story about disaffected rich people who can’t get their personal relationships in order, but because of the way that story is told. And what a journey it is.

10 Cloverfield Lane

5. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Most people seem to agree that it’s been a real dismal year for blockbusters so far. But while 10 Cloverfield Lane’s relatively scant $15 million budget doesn’t exactly make it a blockbuster, it’s easily one of the best things that’s passed through the multiplexes this year. There are lots of fantastic things about this movie, not least of which is the fact that what is essentially an indie-minded cinematic chamber piece made over $100 million at the box office. 10 Cloverfield Lane is thoughtfully written, compelling, tense, and wonderfully acted. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty much all I want when I go see a blockbuster, and it seems like audiences and critics were also fully on board. Perhaps Hollywood should take note.

Dheepan

4. Dheepan

After pulling off a surprise Palme d’Or win at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s latest, Dheepan, opened to surprisingly little fanfare stateside back in the spring. (To date, its total U.S. gross is a paltry $240,000.) This is a real shame, because I actually found Dheepan to be far more accessible than I was expecting. Granted, I realize that a French film about Sri Lanken immigrants (yes, there are subtitles) is going to be a tough sell to North American audiences. It was never going to be a big hit. But Audiard takes such a soulful and deeply engrossing look at the life of the titular Dheepan and his makeshift family as they start a new life together that I was completely sucked in from the start.

The Wait

3. The Wait

Juliette Binoche is always fabulous, and her performance in her latest European arthouse offering is no exception. The Wait marks the directorial debut of Piero Messina, who was perhaps previously best known for serving as assistant director on Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina proves to be a more than capable director in his own right here, making the most of his two lead actresses (up-and-comer Lou de Laage holds her own opposite Binoche, helping to turn the film into an enchanting two-hander), as well as the gorgeous setting that imbues the quiet film with a sort of haunting quality. I saw the film at TIFF last year, but it received such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release back in April that I won’t begrudge anyone who missed it entirely. But it’s certainly worth seeking out.

Green Room

2. Green Room

Okay, I’ll admit that my movie taste definitely trends on the side of indie. Some might call it character-driven. Some might call it boring. But even though Green Room is in some ways very much an indie film, it also in other ways very much IS NOT. This is a film that’s gritty and gruesome, taking a certain type of pride in the destructive path it leaves behind. It’s actually pretty difficult to classify, not quite falling under the “horror” title, but certainly influenced by many a cult film that has come before. Despite getting a fairly wide release, it never found much of an audience, which is a shame, as I really do feel like it would appeal to a surprisingly large variety of viewers. Rare is the film that manages to be both thoughtful and filled to the brim with thrills, but Green Room artfully and entertainingly strikes that balance.

Louder Than Bombs

1. Louder Than Bombs

At the risk of seeming too predictable – yes, here is another cerebral Jesse Eisenberg film at the top of my best-movies-of the-year list (see also: The End of the Tour in 2015, Night Moves in 2014, and The Social Network in 2010). And obviously, some of that does have to do with Eisenberg himself, who I like a lot as an actor (and he does turn in one of his most nuanced performances yet in Louder Than Bombs). But more than anything, I think he just happens to pick a lot of the types of movies that I’m drawn to. And Louder Than Bombs had a lot going for it for me from the start, being the English-language debut of Norwegian director Joachim Trier, whose 2008 debut, Reprise, I absolutely adore. He does it again here, telling an emotionally intricate tale of a family frayed at the edges. Gabriel Byrne is excellent as the family’s conflicted patriarch, as is newcomer Devin Druid, playing the petulant teenage son. Despite overall getting strong reviews, few seemed to love this movie as much as I did, but Louder Than Bombs has haunted me since I saw it at TIFF last September.

 

Green Room (2016)

Green Room

Grungy, gruesome, and way more fun than it probably should be, Green Room joins the ranks of culty arthouse thrillers like Funny Games, The Mist, and Drive that flagrantly glide back and forth over the line between high- and low-brow entertainment. But while most films of this type ultimately fall into one of those categories or the other, Green Room keeps the audience on their toes, never showing its hand and continuing to offer up surprises and thrills right until its final moments.

The film’s plot is both simple and bizarre. It follows a young punk band called The Ain’t Rights, who, after getting shafted on a gig while on tour, wind up being given a compensatory show playing to an aggressive crowd of Nazi skinheads in rural Oregon. After their set, things take a turn backstage and the goal then becomes simply to make it out alive. And thus, we have our movie.

Our protagonist is Pat (Anton Yelchin), the band’s quiet bass player, who is joined by guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner). Back in the eponymous green room of horrors, the band also meets Amber (Imogen Poots), whose allegiances are murky, but who becomes an ally by necessity. Though we don’t get much in the way of backstory or character development, our main group of “good guys” feel wholly believable, unveiling more about themselves in the ways they respond to the insane situation unfolding around them. Particularly effective was how Cole’s quietly sturdy presence is laced with an undercurrent of rage from the start, making it feel natural how Reece boils over once stuff really starts hitting the fan.

The film’s primary focus is thrills, which are in no short supply. It’s pretty much a perfectly paced film, holding back on its violence through much of the film to make it even more impactful when it does erupt. But Saulnier is clearly interested in creating more than just an action-packed thriller. He sticks to his signature aesthetic and careful camerawork throughout, right from the misty, pastoral opening scenes through to Green Room’s most horrifying scenes, including one involving some …creative… use of a box cutter.

On that note, one could probably spend a long time debating whether or not Green Room qualifies as a horror film. At most, I’d say it falls into the category of “survival horror” – films that aren’t necessarily “scary” in the traditional sense, but whose “horror” stems from the seemingly insurmountable situations the characters face (usually in some sort of isolated environment). And indeed, Green Room probably won’t seem groundbreaking unless you haven’t already seen some of the staples of this subgenre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, the aforementioned Funny Games, etc, etc.) But Saulnier’s riff is so self-assured and gripping that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re enjoying the artistry, the plot, or both, Green Room is a completely compelling 90-minute ride.

How to Be Single (2016)

HtBS

How to Be Single immediately brought to mind a couple of other recent films that take a “real” look at love through the lens of an impossibly attractive ensemble cast. You know the ones. He’s Just Not That Into You. Valentine’s Day. Prom. Probably a few others that I’ve either already forgotten or never saw. But while How to Be Single is riddled with problems of its own, it does get points from me where those other films don’t: it’s sometimes funny, and occasionally real.

The set-up is almost too cliched to bother explaining. Alice (Dakota Johnson) is coming off a four-year relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York in hopes of “finding herself”. She moves in with her control freak older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and befriends her wild new colleague, Robin (Rebel Wilson). This all tenuously links into another side plot concerning Tom (Anders Holm), a lothario bar owner, and Lucy (Alison Brie), his supposedly “charming” and “wacky” upstairs tenant who loiters in his bar for the free wi-fi. Single people. New York. Hijinks.

After a rather dire first half hour spent establishing all of this, the film settles into something a little more interesting as the various relationships start to intertwine and the comedy starts to kick in. Yet, even though both the comedy and drama of this film are intermittently effective, they also never really stop feeling at odds with each other. One minute we’re forced to endure physical comedy gags about somebody dropping their laptop out a window and the next minute poor Dakota Johnson is trying her best to accurately portray the feelings of emptiness and confusion that plagues so many 20-somethings. The film mentions Bridget Jones’s Diary multiple times, which is clearly a strong influence, yet it doesn’t have the wit or the genuinely felt emotional punch to land within the same realm of that rom-com high-water mark.

Before I get too down on How to Be Single, though, I would like to say that it got a few things surprisingly right. It’s not reinventing the rom-com genre by any means, but it DOES semi-boldly reject some of the genre’s most tightly-held tropes. I did like how much emphasis it put on being your own independent person, rather than reinforcing the idea that you need to fall in love and find your “other half” in order to be complete. Especially towards the end of the film, it felt like they were really fighting against some of the traditional values of the genre, and it was refreshing to see a film that champions female friendship and independence over traditional romantic love. (I was pleased to see that two of the three screenwriters are female, and their perspective was very much welcome in a medium where the female voice is usually depressingly absent.)

However, if you’re looking for some great feminist message, this still isn’t going to be your film. I thought the Alison Brie role was especially problematic and just unpleasant, presenting Lucy as a borderline insane person who strikes one note over and over again. We learn nothing about Lucy other than that she’s love-obsessed, and her only two purposes in the film are 1) represent the butt-of-the-joke cliches that they didn’t want to saddle their other female characters with and 2) serve as the catalyst for change for one of the male characters. There are also some definite problems in the way they represent Rebel Wilson’s character in terms of her weight (though they’re certainly not the first film to do so), but Wilson is funny enough that (for better or worse) I found myself forgiving those issues more easily.

Most of the cast here deserves better. (Particularly Jake Lacey, who is given a thankless and bland “love interest” role but somehow still turns in a hugely charming performance.) However, How to Be Single at least tries to explore some different ideas, even if it doesn’t fully succeed at articulating them. I’d rather this kind of movie be moderately ambitious and fall short instead of skating by on the status quo. If you’re looking for a bit of light fun, you could do worse.

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour

Perhaps less a truly great documentary than it is a capital-I Important one, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers the kind of thorough behind-the-scenes look that we never see of most major news stories.

We all know about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked classified documents to the press and revealed the U.S. government’s deception regarding surveillance. But Citizenfour offers insight into Snowden the person, showing his surprisingly cool-headed approach to leaking the documents and, subsequently, dealing with the immediate fallout from his actions.

A lot of what makes Citizenfour so remarkable is the extremely unusual amount of access that Poitras is given to a situation in real time, as everything is unfolding; because Snowden has “gone rogue”, there’s no red tape holding Poitras back. What results is an uncensored and unforgiving expose of the government’s surveillance tactics, which Snowden himself describes very concisely through much of the film. Snowden’s eloquence simultaneously makes him an interesting subject and damns the NSA more by the minute.

Speaking of Snowden, Poitras paints an interesting and complicated portrait. As a filmmaker, she isn’t shy about making her own biases known in regards to surveillance, even evoking her own personal experiences. (Though I wouldn’t say that this bias overwhelms the film.) However, she takes a more even-handed and human approach to Snowden, showing a few different sides of him that were surprising. For example, while the film overall paints a flattering portrait, scenes where Snowden is crafting his next media move and even openly embracing the fact that he’s headed for international notoriety are fascinating to watch unfold.

Citizenfour loses some steam in its second half after the classified documents have started to be published, as some of the tension built earlier on starts to dissipate. Of course, being a documentary, Poitras can only manipulate things so much in the name of dramatic effect. Maybe all I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to the fictional retelling of the story (which is, of course on its way courtesy of Oliver Stone). But in terms of storytelling, I just thought that things could’ve been structured more deftly.

Nonetheless, Citizenfour is illuminating, shocking, and vital. The fact that someone was there to capture that moment in time is incredible, and it’s just a bonus that the central figure is charismatic and surprisingly likeable. What results is a compelling and well-made film that proves the power of documentary.

Best Movies of 2015

It’s January 2, but top ten lists are still cool, right? Here are my favourite films of 2015.

The Keeping Room

10. The Keeping Room

I was surprised how much The Keeping Room stuck with me after seeing it at TIFF 2014, since it is in some ways not much beyond a standard home invasion thriller. But something about the setting, the actresses, and the tone left this one lodged in my brain all year. Director Daniel Barber creates a tense thriller that also manages to be a slow-burner, which is always a combination that I admire. Meanwhile, screenwriter Julia Hart crafts a script more nuanced and revealing than the film’s plot-driven story should allow. Combine all of that with the film’s absolutely gorgeous use of lighting and you’ve got an atmospheric and unforgettable cinematic experience.

LA

9. Little Accidents

I watched Little Accidents relatively early in the year and really enjoyed it. I was surprised to find how much it stuck with me as the year progressed, from Boyd Holbrook’s breathtaking performance to director Sara Colangelo’s delicate handling of material that could have become very melodramatic. I really don’t understand the largely negative reviews.

Peace Officer

8. Peace Officer

I saw documentaries about Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin this year (both of which were excellent), yet the most captivating and charismatic non-fiction subject of 2015 for me was easily Peace Officer’s William “Dub” Lawrence. (Dub is pictured above in his younger days.) The hook of Peace Officer is that Dub is a former sheriff who instituted Utah’s first SWAT team… and then 30 years later watched that SWAT unit kill his own son-in-law. However, the film spends relatively little time on that incident, then branching out to explore the drastic increase of police militarization in the United States. It’s a captivating and extremely timely exploration, and also extremely strong as far as documentary filmmaking goes. I personally left the theatre shaken, and I can only hope that more people will check out this vital film.

Sils Maria

7. Clouds of Sils Maria

What a wonderfully beguiling film from the great Olivier Assayas. I’m not sure there’s another working director this good at exploring the process of aging and what it can do to a people at any stage in life. Clouds of Sils Maria covers that territory more obliquely than Summer Hours or Something in the Air, but it’s no less captivating. It may be his best film yet.

Eden 2015

6. Eden

One thing that struck me about Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, having seen it over a year ago at TIFF 2014, is how difficult it is to represent out of context. None of the publicity stills from the film do it justice (luckily I found the website of the film’s still photographer, Carole Bethuel, for some lovely images that do capture the tone of the film), and the trailer seemed to be hinting at some sort of Greta Gerwig-driven romance film that just doesn’t exist. And indeed, listening to the synopsis about a drug-fuelled DJ from the ‘90s, nothing about Eden sounds spectacular. But with her third film, Hansen-Love crafts something that feels both sweepingly epic in its timeframe and achingly intimate in its scope. This is not a movie about the ‘90s house scene, but rather a love letter to the music from one (fictional) player within in the movement.

Far From the Madding Crowd 2015

5. Far from the Madding Crowd

Can all period pieces be directed by Thomas Vinterberg? At face value, Far From the Madding Crowd seems like it fits the costume drama formula, but Vinterberg offers his own subtle flavour. I loved everything about the film’s visual style, and it’s so much less stuffy than this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel could have been. Romantic, dramatic, and smart.

Tom at the Farm

4. Tom at the Farm

This Xavier Dolan film has been kicking around for a while, but finally got a U.S. theatrical release after the success of his last film, Mommy. It’s funny that this is the one Dolan entry that struggled to find distribution, as it’s arguably his most accessible film yet. It’s my personal favourite of all his work, combining his visual flair with a Hitchcockian slow-burn thriller. The atmosphere makes it an edge of your seat psychological thriller, despite the fact that not all that much is happening. Whether you’re a Dolan fan or decidedly not a Dolan fan, don’t let this one slip by.

Mustang 2015

3. Mustang

I’ve already written about Mustang at length, but Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut feature is one of the year’s absolute best. It also makes an interesting companion piece with Crystal Mozelle’s documentary, The Wolfpack, also from this year, as both films explore groups of siblings coming of age in an oppressive household. Both movies are worth checking out, but despite being fictional, Mustang is the one with true, haunting emotional resonance, as well as a sly sense of humour.

99 Homes

2. 99 Homes

It seems that a running theme of this list is “unlikely thrill ride”, and 99 Homes follows that trend. From the intense eviction sequence early on straight through to the end of the film, director Ramin Bahrani crafts so much genuine tension from what is essentially a human interest story. The way he sets up the cat-and-mouse dynamic is so taught that I felt like I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. With Michael Shannon deservedly scooping up some Oscar buzz for his performance, hopefully 99 Homes will gain the audience it deserves.

The End of the Tour

1. The End of the Tour

This film is in no way a “thrill ride” in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it is virtually plotless and mostly is about two neurotic men having a few conversations with each other. However, I didn’t have a more captivating and ultimately moving film-watching experience in 2015 than I did with The End of the Tour. I could write a few thousand words on why I liked this movie so much, but for the sake of keeping things relatively brief, I’ll just say that everything – from Jason Segal’s revelatory to performance as David Foster Wallace to the film’s little gut-punch of a coda – is perfect in my eyes.