Although 2016 is already almost a month behind us, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my favorite films of the year. On a personal note, it was an excellent year for me trying new things, in no small part due to my budding pursuit of a film major and some regular attendance at weekly film club screenings.
Just a quick caveat: not all of the films on this list were released in 2016. Rather, this is a shortlist of movies that I watched for the first time in 2016, which includes some from years past that I had just never seen before (actually, there’s quite a bit from 2015!).
So, without further ado, here’s a sampling of films that I enjoyed watching this past year:
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
After watching this film take home six Academy Awards and hearing a lot of carryover buzz about it from the previous year, it was super exciting to finally get to watch Mad Max: Fury Road among friends. Even with such high expectations going in, this film still managed to floor me with its staggering practical effects and compelling story, told with surprisingly sparse dialogue. I think the spectacle of it is its greatest strength; its gas-guzzling tankards complete with flame guitars and pole vaulters may seem like a stretch to describe without any context, but when placed in the film’s world of post-apocalyptic decay, they not only seemed Awesome with a capital A–they were oddly sensible. One thing was certain to me after the credits began: I had never seen a movie like this one before, and I doubted I would ever see one quite like it again.
I harbor a great amount of love for the superhero genre, so it’s safe to say that I’ve seen quite a few films starring wisecracking, spandex-clad fellas. And yet, Deadpool proved itself as another film the likes of which I had never seen before; it has all the elements of a smart (and raunchy) comedy, enough hyperreal violence to make Tarantino proud, and, my personal favorite, a generous amount of fourth-wall shattering. All of these components fuse together to create the ultimate anti-hero hero film, which in turn throws into sharper relief the perfection that is Ryan Reynolds’ title performance. In any case, I may or may not be continuing to sulk about its lack of Oscar nominations, chimichanga in hand.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I had never seen a Coen Brothers movie before 2016. I know, I don’t know how I lived either.
Fargo is pretty much anything you’d ever want a movie to be; it’s hilarious yet dark, compelling and smart, well-acted, well-scripted, well-shot, and like any other great Coen Brothers film, quite odd. This movie also gives its viewers the gift of Marge Gunderson, the intelligent, mild-mannered yet determined cop who just so happens to be very, very pregnant. She quickly became one of my favorite female characters ever portrayed on film.
Room is a film that’s simultaneously suspenseful and sweet, a rare thematic combination brought out by the beautiful chemistry between Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Charming, emotional, and even devastating at times, its Best Actress win was incredibly well-deserved. It’s the kind of movie that stays with you long after you watch.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Civil War just might be the greatest Avengers movie that isn’t actually an Avengers movie or The Avengers. Its effectiveness is largely due to the Russo Brothers’ knack for making sharp, politically-motivated action films that also happen to star all of your favorite superheroes. The introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man were the most exciting elements of this already exciting film for me–I’m counting down the days to both of their solo films.
Let’s just say that I have a complicated relationship with Disney’s new wave of live-action remakes. Having been more than a bit skeptical of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it took the insistence of a close friend to finally get me to sit down and watch this film–and wow, did I swallow the tastiest helping of “get-off-your-high-horse” pie ever served. The costumes and sets alone were enough to make me swoon, and yet there was so much more that I came to love about it; Cate Blanchett’s performance as Lady Tremaine proved to be particularly delightful, and I still never fail to get butterflies at the mere thought of Lily James’ swirling ballgown or Richard Madden’s impossibly blue eyes. Suffice it to say, I was so charmed by this film that it’s now resolutely among my favorite pick-me-up movies ever. What can I say, I can be made of cheese.
The Shining (1980)
Quite possibly one of the greatest movies ever made, The Shining simultaneously terrified me and enthralled me during the week of Halloween. I scare pretty easily, so I don’t tend to watch a lot of horror films; however, I’m so thankful to have taken the leap by watching this one. Kubrick crafts suspense here like a master, with every turn of Danny’s tricycle and every clack of Jack’s typewriter. The gripping nature of it reminded me of another one of my favorite films, Spielberg’s Jaws.
I think The Shining‘s most effective technique of dread-building is the inevitability of its finale. From the moment that Jack takes the job at the Overlook and is told the tale of its previous innkeeper, the whole audience just knows how the film going to end. Thus, it’s not the unknown, but rather the known that keeps you guessing throughout.
Although Stephen King famously disliked this adaptation of his book, I’m looking forward to reading the novel to pick up on its differences with the film. I’m just waiting for a very snowy day to start…
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
My enthusiasm for the characters of Rogue One is so unbridled that I fear I may be wearing out my roommate, and we’ve only been back at school for four days.
There was just so much in this film that made my heart swell, from its subtle nods to the Star Wars Rebels TV series to its emotional final battle. I particularly loved its tone–Rogue One is more of a World War II-epic than a space opera, which asserts its standalone status in the Star Wars universe of films. That said, it didn’t feel dissociated from the other films in the series either. In fact, the aesthetics of Rogue One‘s costumes, sets and technology (the Death Star plans appearing to be the world’s bulkiest floppy disc was amusing in the best way) meshed seamlessly with the look of A New Hope, which was quite satisfying to watch.
Most of all, the political relevance of Rogue One cemented it as an experience I sorely needed upon its release. That may sound a bit dramatic, but there’s no denying the major arc of the Star Wars saga, that being its depiction of an ongoing battle against totalitarianism and darkness. The since-deleted tweets from writers Gary Whitta and Chris Weitz bear witness to this. All in all, it was simply powerful to watch this scrappy group of rebels take a stand for a cause they believed in, assured in the knowledge that the Force of Others is with them.
The gorgeously animated world of Moana quickly solidified itself among my favorite Disney animated features, fitting right in alongside the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Tangled, and the dozens of other great films from the studio’s storied history. The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i was a particular strength–so much so, in fact, that my aforementioned roommate can catch me belting it at any given point, and she’ll likely join in. She’s pretty much the best ever.
Moana herself was compelling not only as Disney’s newest princess, but also as an empowered and dimensional lead. The way she resolved the film’s major conflict had me nearly out of my seat–in that moment, each perfect element of the movie (music, characters, animation, and story) just meshed together in a nearly overwhelming sequence. The added strength of her supporting cast of characters–including but not limited to demigods, village chiefs, and even a Bowie-esque hermit crab–was an exceptional bonus, especially her Grandma Tala and, of course, Dwayne Johnson’s Maui.
In short, Moana is one of the best animated features to come from Disney in recent memory, and that’s including some other quite enjoyable films. I’m looking forward to its home video release with an embarrassing amount of anticipation.
La La Land (2016)
When I made this list of favorites on New Year’s Eve, La La Land was an easy choice. Its score is breathtaking, its coloring similarly so, and it stars Emma Stone in one of her best onscreen performances to date. La La Land also has a rejuvenating quality to it–it’s an earnest film, one that rejects cynicism and validates dreamers. I, for one, gobbled it all up the second the opening number began. Like I mentioned before, I can be made of cheese.
I also saw this film for the first time the day after Debbie Reynolds passed away. As a fan of classic musicals and Singin’ in the Rain, the enthusiasm that this film put forth towards Hollywood’s golden age pretty much shattered me. I loved how Damien Chazelle bridged classical styles with contemporary aesthetics–this review from Variety summarizes pretty much every positive feeling I have about it.
All this having been said, though, there’s a lot of understandable negativity surrounding the film at present. I’m not going to sit here and deny that La La Land can easily be problematized, or throw chairs at anyone who liked it but didn’t love it. Rather, I feel compelled to include a footnote here: we can criticize things and still love them wholeheartedly. As long as meaningful discourse isn’t stunted, we can recognize the faults in the films we love and still come out beaming as the credits start rolling. So, here La La Land remains towards the top of my list, jazz hands waving in earnest.
Although I’ve been pretty self-indulgent by writing this list in the first place, I just can’t help myself–there are so many movies out there to get excited about! So, with that said, here are some other first-time films that I loved watching last year:
- Good Will Hunting (1997)
- Hot Fuzz (2007)
- Lemonade (2016)
- Spotlight (2015)
- Before We Go (2014)
- The Little Prince (2015)
- Dead Poets Society (1989)
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
- Roger and Me (1989)
- City of God (2002)
- Ed Wood (1994)
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- Creed (2015)
- Blackfish (2013)
- The Last Five Years (2014)
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
- Ray (2004)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
- Zootopia (2016)
- Juno (2007)
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
- Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Sing Street (2016)
Overall, 2016 may have been the pits for a number reasons, but at least we can take some comfort in discovering new works of art that affect us. So, here’s to another year of enjoying that art, whatever it may profess or prove to be.