Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016

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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.

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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 RoomDon’t BreatheEmelie, Hush, The ShallowsThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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6. Tale of TalesIn 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 StringsThe 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.

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9. Midnight SpecialFocused 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.

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10. Hunt for the WilderpeopleThe 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.

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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The HandmaidenMoonlightArrivalShin 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.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Alli’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Handmaiden – Park Chan-wook has a way of crafting gorgeous Victorian-inspired scenery and making it work even if the setting (in this case, The Japanese Occupation of Korea) doesn’t necessarily call for it. I say “Victorian-inspired” because of the film’s occasional frilly costuming and elaborate, lushly decorated sets, but The Handmaiden is definitely sexy enough to make any room full of self-respecting Victorians faint. It’s such a lovely erotic thriller. Like any of Park Chan-Wook’s other films, it also gets gritty and brutal, but despite the tension and brutality, it’s my favorite love story of the year.

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2. The WitchThe Witch follows in the footsteps of Häxan and presents a more historical account of witchcraft. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, the film will make your skin crawl with atmospheric dread. It is beautiful and dark; and, like with every great horror movie, its soundtrack is amazing, just teeming with ominous ambient sounds. Also, how many movies have a goat as the star??? Black Phillip is the king of everything.

3. MoonlightMoonlight is a lovely deconstruction of the hazards of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the war on drugs. I can’t begin to say how important this movie is. It comes at a time when tensions in our country are high, and people are actually fighting to be able to discriminate against other people. To have a film like this right now, showing us how damaging these attitudes are, is vital. It helps that Moonlight is so good. It has such a tender earnestness in how it approaches the subject, and the way it’s told in three parts gives it a poetic rhythm.

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4. Ghostbusters – This movie was so much funnier than I expected. I think I was predisposed to like it anyway, because it made a bunch of man-children angry, but all the jokes landed and it captures just enough of the original film’s spirit while also having its own liveliness.  The cast really picked up the torch and ran with it. In particular, it was really great to see a lighter side of Chris Hemsworth that isn’t just his culture-shocked Thor act. I’m so glad that this movie didn’t just function as another unnecessary reboot.

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5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – I think we all need a good laugh this year, but we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both!  This is the story of a boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy. Though it’s funny and cute, even twee in a way that resembles a Wes Anderson movie, there’s a certain darkness to it. It doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – This movie is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible. The first time the origami flittered and moved, I just teared up at how wonderful it looked. I’m not even sure how they pulled this stuff off. Laika has done it again, and they deserve all the bragging rights.

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7. Tale of Tales – In a world full of fairy tale related 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 from a book of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales weaves together many stories which, while very old, feel very new. There is no Disney here. The stories told are everything fairy tales should be: strange, eerie, brutal, gory, and beautiful.

8. Hail, Caesar! – Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. It’s such a fun parody of McCarthy-era Hollywood. There’s the hyperbolized threat of Communism, old Hollywood scandals, moody directors, a musical dance number with Channing Tatum tap dancing and singing about gams, and the one guy in the background who’s just trying to hold it all together. On top of all of that is the Coen Brothers’ ability to assemble an amazing cast. I think Hail, Caesar! might just be one of their strongest works.

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9. Shin Godzilla – It’s very difficult for a franchise this old and with so many titles to it to offer a new take on the tale, but Shin Godzilla really pulls it off. Instead of a story about a giant lizard terrorizing Tokyo, it’s a deconstruction of Japanese bureaucracy and foreign policy with a giant hideous monster destroying Tokyo in the background. It’s In the Loop meets Kaiju and just about as strange and wonderful as you’d expect from that combo.

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10. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday – If The Handmaiden was my favorite love story of the year, the bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello might be my second favorite. Just like any Pee-wee movie, it’s just a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction being just as kooky or even kookier than the last.

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11. Into the Inferno – Herzog and his vulcanologist friend Clive Oppenheimer nerd out about volcanoes for an hour and forty five minutes. It’s a dream come true.  Part anthropological exploration, part nature documentary, Into the Inferno is gorgeous and enlightening.

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12. Rogue One – How political can a Star Wars movie get while the producers vehemently deny it? Very. Rogue One is about the rebel group who smuggled the Death Star blueprints. Somehow, it manages to take a 40 year old franchise and frame it in such a newly dark light. Also, despite the all haters, I thought that CGI Peter Cushing was very impressive.

-Alli Hobbs

Brandon’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Neon Demon -At once Nicolas Winding Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting, The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. It’s exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets uncivilized filth. Months later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. It’s tempting to reduce this achievement to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel about it.

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2. Tale of Tales – It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. The film is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. Its three tales all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Tale of Tales 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).

3. Hail, Caesar! – A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies. 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. Every classic genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded, so it’s shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with these beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ comedic work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings – Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. Kubo and the Two Stings is an overwhelming triumph in its attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense visual spectacle as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive, though, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for storytelling as a tradition.

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5. The Witch – A haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. This movie has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was scary, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying. Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early on that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horrors about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can often be when it too closely plays by modern rules.

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6. The Fits – Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature isn’t a standard coming of age drama or a medical thriller or a supernatural horror, so much as a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence. The Fits sidesteps strict genre classification by aiming more for a loosely menacing art house tone than a traditional A-B story structure. Though, even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age narrative about a young girl deciding between the rigidly gender-divided realms of dance & boxing at her local gym, Royalty Hightower’s stoic lead performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would still make the exercise more than worthwhile. As is, it’s quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination, an act of strange majesty that’s sure to divide audiences in its swing-for-the-fences ambition.

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7. High-Rise – Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash, High-Rise is a modern reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various devices of “convenience.” High-Rise’s never-ending consumerist party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long descent into the darkness of the human soul. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. It’s an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a rare nightmare of a good time.

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi is on a wicked hot streak. His 2007 debut Eagle vs Shark wasn’t half bad as an off-center romantic comedy, but his last three films (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople) are pretty much perfect works. In its best moments, Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Waititi’s best to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable). One thing I haven’t heard enough of a fuss over yet, though, is how great the music is, from the novelty of the “Ricky’s Birthday” jingle to the legitimate action movie sounds of tracks like “Ricky Runs.” If it weren’t for The Neon Demon’s surreally intense synth submersions, it’d be an easy pick for soundtrack of the year for me.

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9. Midnight Special – Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Jeff Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. This may be the director’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. An incredible work with a near-limitless scope, it’s one built on an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old-fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation.

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10. NerveThis teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing. Nerve uses its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame through a hideously self-described “game of truth or dare without the truth” obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. The film manages to Trojan horse a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell, presenting a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of more insular.

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11. The Dressmaker – There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most admirable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with the campy tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. At once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, the film plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.

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12. The Nice Guys – If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir.” A miracle of Frankensteined movie science, the film’s general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, an unlikely tonal mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality, The Nice Guys finds a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Shane Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects among its more straightforward gags. Black understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.

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13. Zootopia – This animated Disney film isn’t exactly about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. Zootopia instead addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined, all-purpose dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the talking animals that populate its CG concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. The attention to detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film.

14. Moonlight – Besides functioning as a queer narrative about how homosexual desire violently clashes with traditional ideas of black masculinity in the modern world, Moonlight also works as a coming of age & self-acceptance story for a single man who’s forced to navigate & survive that clash. A large part of what saves the film from dramatic banality is its basic structure as a triptych. We see our protagonist as a child, a teenager, and an adult man. Narrowing down Chiron’s life to these temporal snapshots allows us to dive deep into the character instead of casually empathizing from the surface. Director Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make this meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on its visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively. What could have been a potentially middling, by the books queer drama avoids woe & despair mediocrity to instead find an ultimately life-affirming adoption of Under the Skin levels of visual & aural abstraction. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing.

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15. The Handmaiden – An erotic lesbian crime thriller with meticulous dedication to craft and a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, The Handmaiden is a gleefully tawdry art piece. Park Chan-Wook’s latest takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & set design, which allows for plenty of room to accommodate its deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. If it were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. Fortunately, it’s carefully calibrated to be too fun & too beautiful to resist.

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16. 10 Cloverfield Lane – A tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture, 10 Cloverfield Lane locks its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors collectively suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It not only clouds the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings, but also introduces a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique, but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicate that narrative allows it to crawl under your skin in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs.

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17. Shin Godzilla – The latest entry in the longest-running film series of all time is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. The film barrels through its ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the inventive framing & mixed medium experimentation of a modern indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow. This is Godzilla done exactly right.

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18. Arrival – To convey its story about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages, Arrival similarly has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Once you learn the film’s language, though, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

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19. Swiss Army Man –At once an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner, Swiss Army Man is loaded with feel-good scatological bleakness & divine absurdity. The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. A teary-eyed journey featuring a farting corpse & an unlikely budding romance, the Daniels’ long-form cinematic prank is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies.

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20. Girl Asleep – Romantic awkwardness, papier-mâché costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape. Personally, I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being this intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. Often, when movies choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama, filtering the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm. The results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged.

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HM. Lemonade – Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly when it aims at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.

-Brandon Ledet

Tale of Tales (2016)

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fivestar

“Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.”

It’s almost a cliché concept to explain at this point, but traditional fairy tales are not the saccharine Disney romances they’re often believed to be. Fairy tales are often horrifically brutal stories of otherworldly magic meant to warn real world people, often children, about the dangers of human follies like lust, greed, selfishness, or curiosity. It isn’t often that an authentic-feeling, appropriately brutal fairy tale makes to the big screen. It’s even rarer that it’d be live-action and an original property, rather than an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Tale of Tales is a once-in-a-lifetime gem in the way it not only fills this requirement, but also excels as an intricately detailed piece of high art & cinematic finery.

I didn’t expect to see a more exquisite, idiosyncratic work than Hail, Caesar! all year, but Tale of Tales might’ve blown it out of the water. It’s like The Fall, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all rolled into one hideous fairy tale directed by Cronenberg in his prime. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.

The film opens with Selma Hayek & John C. Reilly sitting as the king & queen of a fantasy realm kingdom. Hayek is perfectly regal on the throne while Reilly feels plucked from an especially expensive episode of Wishbone, recalling his blissfully clueless husband role in We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s a strain on their relationship and, thus, the kingdom as it’s revealed that the couple cannot conceive a child as a future heir. Advised by an old, wizardly fella who lives in a cave, the royal couple addresses this problem by slaying a sea beast & eating its heart after it’s cooked by a virgin. The trick works & the queen carries her pregnancy to term over the course of a single night. And that’s when things get weird.

I reveal this plot detail only to illustrate just how varied & far-reaching the territory Tale of Tales covers can be. The tale of the sea monster’s heart is just one facet of just one story that continues to spiral out from there over the course of the film. All told, there are three tales covering three adjacent kingdoms that give this film its shape. Inexplicably, the Hayek & Reilly royalty aren’t even the most interesting characters of the bunch. Tale of Tales is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. The three tales told here all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Each character featured here suffers a hideous fate because of their own obsessive selfishness. And if there’s any who don’t, they likely suffer at the hands of others’, especially the ones who supposedly love them.

I urge you not to watch the trailer to this film if you can avoid it. It both spoils way too much of the plot(s) that you’re better off discovering on your own and completely misreads the tone of the film as a whole. Tale of Tales 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). Don’t be fooled when the film threatens to devolve into modernist showboating with its explicit gore or its exploitative lesbian make-outs in the early proceedings. It’s very much in the tradition of fairy tales in their purest form, immense beauty, cruelty, warts, and all. I highly recommend lending it your full attention & willing imagination, especially if you have the chance to watch it on the big screen. You’ll both love & loathe the places it takes you.

-Brandon Ledet