10. Green Room
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is not a man of mercy; he is a furious god of wrath who spews hellfire upon his audiences the second the lights go down. His third feature operates with a remarkably simple premise; after electing to play a show at a known White Supremacist hangout, punk band the Ain't Rights witness an act of violence, and are held hostage by its perpetrators in the four walls of the movie's title. To say that Green Room earns its R rating is the ultimate understatement, Saulnier ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels before lashing out into spurts of stunning, stinging violence. Besides being an expert craftsman of sweat-inducing anticipation and mania, the 40-year-old auteur also has tremendous rapport with his actors, each member of the band and the staffers that hold them captive fully realized and believable, while Patrick Stewart stalks the sidelines with the soft-spoken menace of movie-bad-guy legend. Losing Anton Yelchin at such a young age is a tragedy that still stings from the middle of last year, so lets be grateful that he went out in a blaze of glory, face paint on and guns blasting.
9. The Nice Guys
Even if you haven't seen The Nice Guys, you really have. Writer/director Shane Black is not only completely disinterested in remaking the wheel, he'd prefer if we'd stopped messing with it way back in the 80's. His latest buddy cop comedy stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a Private Investigator tasked with finding a missing pornstar in 1970's Los Angeles, at first deterred and then joined on his mission by the burly, battered Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The Nice Guys is all fun all the time, from Black's slick direction and gut-busting script, to the immediate and irresistible chemistry between its leads. Gosling, in particular, gives a performance for the ages, reaching a level of physical comedy genius that we usually only associate with the silent film era. This one goes straight to the One-Liners Hall of Fame, and if there's any justice in the world, the inevitable TNT reruns that it feels destined for will turn more people on to its many charms.
8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
And now to the part where I try to explain how I could possibly have an SNL spinoff movie in my top 10 of the year. After years of digital shorts and even a few full-length albums, The Lonely Island finally have their own movie, chronicling the meteoric rise and seemingly endless fall of band leader Conner4Real (Andy Samberg). There is nothing of sustenance in Popstar, only utterly delicious empty calories that manage to never fill you up, and continuously replenish themselves. Clocking in at 87 minutes, the movie would probably collapse under the weight of another 5 minutes, but it would be equally damaged by slimming down by that same number, nearly each and every single gag and cameo completely obliterating its target. What's more, first-time directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (the other two members of The Lonely Island beside Samberg) turn the concert sequences into actual spectacle, shooting an editing them as if they were the real thing while the absurd lyrics coming out of Samberg's mouth work overtime to convince you that they're not. Impressive drama's come out and impress every year, but I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed as consistently as I did through Popstar and its expert skewering of celebrity culture. It's a 'turn your brain off' classic.
7. Hail, Caesar!
I suppose when you've made as much amazing art over the years as the Coen Brothers have, a few of your winners will sort of slip through the cracks, but I still can't help but wonder if everyone saw the same Hail, Caesar! that I did. Set in 1950's Hollywood, the film follows a couple days in the life of famous fixer Eddie Mannox (Josh Brolin) as he juggles egos, unexpected pregnancies, surly directors, missing persons, and communist blackmailers. The delights of the movie are too numerous to list them all here, but the lavish, note-perfect costumes and production design deserve special attention, as does the outrageously talented cast of household names, all here and ready to make a mockery of themselves. Despite being headlined by the likes of George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson, its newcomer (and impending young Han Solo) Alden Ehrenreich who steals the movie as a stuntman turned most unfortunate actor, though Channing Tatum's 10 minutes of screen time will not be forgotten anytime soon. As much as the movie works as a simple excuse to play in the sandbox of film's yesteryear, it also weaves in a theme of loyalty and faith, equating political and religious beliefs with the all-mighty power of the silver screen. When the Coen Brothers have fun, we all win.
6. 20th Century Women
In 2011, writer/director Mike Mills gave us the deeply-moving Beginners, a film about the last several years of his late father's life, and the ways that they impacted his worldview. Six years later, he's back with that movie's spiritual sequel 20th Century Women, focusing in on his complicated relationship with his mother (Annette Benning) and the other women who shaped his teenaged paradigm during the 1970's. Mills is the least antagonistic director working today; no one cares as deeply for his characters and wants them to succeed as much as he does. It's this level of warmth and generosity that defines the movie, an overt exploration of feminism through the eyes of a young heterosexual male, and a celebration of the ideas and songs and people that shape a person in the early-goings of life. Benning has never been better, easy-going and nonchalant until pushed out of her relatively small comfort zone, her eyes and face rendering every thought and emotion through the smallest of gestures. There were more impressively made movies released in 2016, but none with a bigger heart.
The dark horse to come in and steal La La Land's Best Picture statue at Sunday's Oscars, Moonlight is undoubtably the most adored film of last year, and it's not hard to see why. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid who grows from boy to man in three distinct passages, each chronicling an important moment in his life. Director Barry Jenkins is an avowed Wong Kar Wai disciple, a fact that is evident in every frame of Moonlight, a film made of eye-popping color, sensual undertones, and repressed passions. James Laxton's cinematography is gorgeous and intimate, just like the story itself, which feels personal to the point of being autobiographical. It brings you in close, declining to make bold declarations, preferring to whisper gently in your ear.
4. Manchester By the Sea
Manchester By the Sea is like many moody, depressed adult dramas in the sense that it walks right up to the pit of despair. What separates it is that instead of simply gazing down, it does a full-on nose dive straight in. Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a silent, prickly type spending his days doing custodial work until a phone call beckons him back home to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) whose father (Kyle Chandler) has just passed due to cancer. If that doesn't exactly sound like the easiest premise in the world, you couldn't possibly prepare for the places Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece of a script decides to go, presenting tragedy in a matter of fact way that strips them of the schmaltz most directors would apply. It's somehow one of last year's funniest films as well, drawing you close with sly humor before leveling you with hard-earned pain. Affleck is a marvel in the role, playing a man who is rudderless and all out of feeling, a zombie forced to deal with the issues of the living. Manchester asks what a person's responsibility is to the rest of the hopeful world after they've completely given up on themselves, and its exploration of the idea is just as fascinating as it is heart-breaking.
3. La La Land
Tomorrow's all-but-certain Best Picture winner has already and will continue to receive an avalanche of backlash, detractors accurately pointing out its self-congratulatory air, underwhelming vocalists, and white appropriation of black art. I see those things too, but I'll come clean; this one had me at hello. After a couple of chance meetings start to resemble fate, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) fall in love as they follow their dreams out in the city of stars. No really, that's the whole story, but La La Land harkens back to a simpler way of storytelling, one driven by movie star performances, and broad, sweeping emotion. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has obviously studied his classics, every idea and element of his latest film owing their life-blood to the musical boom of the 1950's, from the rich, over-saturated colors to a climax that openly steals from An American in Paris. But the movie's greatest accomplishment is in its approximation of the feeling of falling in love, with its all-powerful pull and invigorating, fool-making sweep. Yes, La La Land has just as many flaws as the next movie, but its ambition and charm are entirely too much for me to resist. Sometimes you're just a sucker.
2. The Witch
We all know that ghosts and monsters and sorcerers have the capacity to frighten, but that's all surface level stuff. The Witch deals with a much more terrifying notion; what if everything you ever believed in crumbled right before your eyes, and holding fast only made it worse? Set in New England of the 1630's, the movie tells the story of a Puritan family who is forced out of their society and onto the edge of a forest wherein a titular evil-doer might just be lurking. First-time writer/director Robert Eggers is largely disinterested in the jump scares and gory killings that define many modern horror movies, preferring to create a deep-seeded, omnipresent feeling of dread and anxiousness. Awash in ashen shades, the film explores the limits of faith, and just how far a person will go to preserve said beliefs even as their errors present themselves openly. The cast of largely unknowns is powerful and memorable, reciting olde english dialogue as though it was their everyday speech, believable descending into madness. There is a wicked darkness at the heart of The Witch, and enough unsettling questions and ideas to unpack for years.
No 2016 film took on more, accomplished more, or meant more than director Denis Villeneuve's latest masterpiece. Trying to talk people into an alien invasion movie as some sort of life-affirming classic isn't exactly the easiest task, but this story of a linguistic expert's (Amy Adams) effort to bridge the communication gap between humans and an extra-terrestrial race that descended on earth with no warning is more than worth your effort. After all, this is a film's whose primary moral is the virtue of patience, and the ways that understanding can emerge from simply withholding judgements. Amy Adams gives what might be the best performance of her already-awe-inspiring career, under-playing every scene in a manner than belies her incredible intelligence, and open-minded curiosity about the ever-expanding universe. The technical accomplishments on hand present an embarrassment of riches, from Bradford Young's sleek, pristine cinematography to Jóhann Jóhannsson's leering, unsettling score, but the main attraction is Eric Heisserer utterly unparalleled script, which balances not only the story described above, but pulls off a twist whose fall out is emotional in nature, rather than a mere plot mechanism. Arrival doesn't suggest that we abandon our fear of the unknown, but rather embrace it, understand it, and make the difficult decision to move past it. Given the present state of the world, I couldn't possibly think of a more timely message.