1. The Witch – A cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last, The Witch at once acts like a newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, a “Hansel & Gretel” type fairy tale about the dangers of the wild, a slice of Satanic panic folklore, and an impressively well-researched historical account of witchcraft unmatched in its eerie beauty since at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, this film will make your skin crawl with dread. Each captured moment is elegant and haunting, transporting the audience back to the 17th Century and tempting those along for the ride to question their sanity. The Witch is a true New England American Gothic piece. It sidesteps the mushy romances and familial dramas typically set in New England, one of the most beautiful areas of the country, in favor of a spine-chilling Satanic tale that features dense layers of historical & moral subtext, an amazing soundtrack of ominous ambient sounds, and a breakout star in its scene-stealing goat, the almighty Black Phillip. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horror works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but even as a beautiful, slow-building art film & a mood piece it just might be the spookiest movie of 2016.
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Far better than it has any right to be, this sequel in-name-only combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and the supernatural thriller to craft an intimate, difficult-to-categorize indictment of doomsday prepper culture. In a year that saw an excess of great confined-space thrillers (Green Room, Don’t Breathe, Emelie, Hush, The Shallows, The Invitation) 10 Cloverfield Lane stands above the rest by locking its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors and a complexly monstrous John Goodman. Relentlessly & intoxicatingly tense, this Louisiana-set woman-in-captivity horror will rattle you in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. It will disturb you, surprise you, and confirm your deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs, largely thanks to a career-altering performance from someone we formerly knew as the cool dad from Roseanne.
3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The pop music version of This Is Spinal Tap, Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date thoroughly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. In a larger sense, it also functions as an incisive & withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Popstar can be easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film. In its smaller moments, it often delivers the quintessential mindless humor we all need to endure this increasingly shitty life & its throwaway consumer culture. There’s legitimate criticism lurking under its frivolously parodic mockumentary surface, though. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness, from EDM DJ laziness to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism to the industry’s creepy fetishization of military action & nationalism. Do yourself a favor and at least download the song “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” to sample the film’s well-calibrated sense of pointed, yet absurd satirical humor.
4. The Boy – There’s really no pleasure quite like a campy horror movie about a haunted evil doll. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and The Boy is fairly run of the mill in its light supernatural tomfoolery. That is, until a sharp left turn in its third act completely obliterates its more generic psychological/supernatural slowburn to delve into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among all schlock junkies looking for entertainment in pure novelty. The Boy delivers both the genuinely creepy chills and the over-the-top camp that we crave in our horror flicks, ultimately feeling like two memorable genre pictures for the price of one. In its own goofy way, it completely upends what we’ve come to expect from the modern PG-13 evil doll movie as a genre in recent years, offering a surprise breath of fresh air in its last minute deviation from the norm.
5. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday – Our favorite Netflix Original in a year that saw many, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that Pee-Wee Herman fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. Following a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction proving to be just as kooky (or even kookier) than the last, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s most immediately endearing aspect might be the love story of the year: a steamy bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello (who are both billed as playing themselves). Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle and the queer subtext certainly doesn’t end there, eventually blossoming into a really sweet, very romantic story about two souls who just can’t get enough of each other. We can’t get enough of those two either. In fact, we’re ready for a sequel!
6. Tale of Tales – In a world full of fairy tale media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted instead from the more rarely-seen source of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales is narratively unique, visually striking, morbidly funny, brutally cold: everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. The film fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). There is no Disney-brand fantasy to be found here, only black magic, witches, ogres, and giant insects, each waiting to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson about the dangers & evils of self-absorption once you let your guard down in a dreamlike stupor.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings – The latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible, an overwhelming triumph in Laika’s continued attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. At heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic, Kubo and the Two Stings finds inspiration in Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics to craft an immense visual spectacle and to explore dramatic themes of past trauma & familial loss. This allows for a darkness & a danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but what Laika most deserves bragging rights for is the mind-boggling way they pulled off this awe-inspiringly beautiful innovation in the moving image, the most basic aspect of filmmaking.
8. Hail, Caesar! – Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies, Hail, Caesar! might be one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest works to date. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. There’s the hyperbolic threat of Communism, ancient Hollywood scandals, endlessly moody directors, a musical number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and, behind it all, an unsung hero just trying to hold everything together off-camera. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with its stunningly beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that’s becoming a rare treat on the modern comedy landscape.
9. Midnight Special – Focused more on mood than worldbuilding, Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi chase epic mirrors the best eras of genre cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter. Midnight Special is surprisingly accessible for an original sci-fi property, never getting wrapped up in the complex terminologies and detached-from-reality scenarios that often alienate audiences in the genre. This may be the Nichols’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. You never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. And, if nothing else, a world-weary Michael Shannon’s studied command of his role as the father of a child with godlike, unexplainable powers is something truly special, a grounded, believable performance that everyone should witness at least once.
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – The story of a young boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Taika Waititi’s best feature to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. We all need a good laugh this year; we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both! It’s funny, cute, and even twee in a way that sometimes resembles a Wes Anderson movie, but there’s also a certain darkness to the film that doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of recent memory (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable), but there’s so much more going on in the film than a mere assemblage of a long string of jokes.
Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The Handmaiden, Moonlight, Arrival, Shin Godzilla, Ghostbusters, and Keanu. They may not have made our Top Ten, but they’re each worthy of praise & attention in their own various ways.
-The Swampflix Crew