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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Harper's Top Ten Films of 2016

For much of this year, I remember thinking, "Man, this is a terrible year for movies." It didn't feel like 2014 or 2015, where there were dozens of films vying for my favorite movies of the year. However: as we've talked about on the podcast, this is an unfortunately skewed perspective due to the big tentpole blockbusters being by and large disasters (see Batman v SupermanX-Men: ApocalypseIndependence DaySuicide Squad, etc.), but the benefit there is that it allows us to look a little harder for the gold nuggets in independent films. I had the pleasure of attending more film festivals than ever this year, and got to see by far more new films than in any other year, so I had the chance to see some really wonderful if lesser known movies.

All of that is basically to say: this was a year with some excellent movies! Here are my picks for the top ten films of 2016:

10. Nova Seed
Dir. by Nick DiLiberto

This one might be tough to find, but hot damn is it worth it. This 100% hand animated movie is about the closest thing you'll get to a modern Heavy Metal movie, complete with psychedelic visuals, non-stop action, a super fun story, and catchy music. Most of all, it's absolutely gorgeous and totally unique. More about Nova Seed here in my review from the Buried Alive Film Festival, and please check out the film's site for updates on how you can see it! Check out the trailer here.

9. Cheerleader
Dir. by Irving Franco

Another festival favorite from this year, Cheerleader is the stylish 80s teen dramedy you didn't know you needed in your life. The film is impressively well done for a indie directorial debut, and there is a ton of heart poured into every frame. This is one that has stuck with me throughout the year, and although it might be hard to find I can assure you it's worth it. You can read my full review from the Atlanta Film Festival, and watch CheerleaderTheMovie.com for updates. Check out the trailer here.

8. The Handmaiden
Dir. by Chan-wook Park

This film starts as one that is beautifully shot, but seemingly very straightforward, but as the film progresses in its three perspective skewed segments it becomes a twisty, seductive tale that is a real pleasure to unwrap. The Handmaiden is gorgeously shot and endlessly fascinating as it uses a Rashomon-like narrative to almost provide a second (and third) viewing within the film itself as the story unravels.

7. La La Land
Dir. by Damien Chazelle

Chazelle's Whiplash was one of my favorite films of 2015, and despite my usual inclination to shy away from musicals I was very excited for this one. La La Land is one of the most enjoyable films of the year, full of catchy tunes and technicolor dance sequences in the vein of old Hollywood. This works especially well given that the film uses nostalgia for old Hollywood and jazz music as a metaphor for the honesty (and sometimes tragedy) of following traditional dreams. It's extremely well done and surprisingly thought provoking. [Official GeekRex Review]

6. Arrival
Dir. by Denis Villeneuve

Villeneuve has made a few near-great films, but it seems like there's always something to somewhat derail it; not so with the excellent and prescient sci-fi Arrival. It's hard and smart science fiction that doesn't pull punches in how it explores the challenges of a real world alien encounter, but that surprisingly doesn't take away from the human emotional thread that goes throughout the film. The way Arrival explores and uses language (both literally and in cinematic terms) is quite brilliant, and manages to avoid the pitfalls of moralistic sci-fi. [Official GeekRex Review]

5. Shin Godzilla
Dir. by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi

Toho's latest Godzilla outing shows that this 62-year old character is shockingly more relevant than ever. Shin Godzilla explores the political and bureaucratic reality of a kaiju attack, and the results are equal parts hilarious and intensely brutal. Moreover, Toho reinvents the physical mythos of Godzilla and seems to ask for the first time, "how does a marine creature adapt so well to land?" and has some wonderful creature design. The metaphor for the real life 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disasters is unsettling and clever, and Shin Godzilla without a doubt sets the bar for a new era of the classic kaiju. [My GeekRex Review]

4. Everybody Wants Some!!
Dir. by Richard Linklater

Linklater has long been the master of making casually incredible films that make small, personal stories into subtle philosophical explorations, and Everybody Wants Some!! makes that even more fun. The story of a college baseball team enjoying their last few days before classes begin again is full of characters that are equal parts hilarious and real, and is just straight up one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in years. Excellent soundtrack + great characters + an unabashed and realistic look at how we try out different selves as we turn into adults = an awesome and eminently rewatchable movie. [Official GeekRex Review]

3. The Edge of Seventeen
Dir. by Kelly Fremon Craig

This directorial debut by Craig took me entirely by surprise. Rather than use the tired stereotypes of a PG-13 coming of age dramedy, Craig and co. create an R-rated tale that is funny, original, brutal, and masterfully put together. The story is achingly familiar, and the chemistry between the principle players in the family and friends of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld, in a career defining performance) is wonderful. Easily the finest coming of age film in years–this one is going in my regular rotation of watch-anytime-films! [Official GeekRex Review]

2. The Witch
Dir. by Robert Eggers

I was psyched for The Witch, but I fell in love with it for all the things it did that I didn't expect: its complete lack of ambiguity, its rigid adherence to period, and its heart. Rather than go the route of an ambiguous and purely atmospheric creepfest, it instead presents the evil presence almost immediately, and to horrifying effect. That isn't to say it isn't creepy or atmospheric, because it absolutely is, and Eggers shows tremendous promise with his masterful reservation. Most of all, I love its darkly fascinating themes that challenge our ideas of good and evil and subtly ask some interesting questions about morality and pleasure. If you haven't seen this yet and are a fan of horror, I have one question for you: Would you like to live deliciously? [My Short Review] [Official GeekRex Review]

1. The Lobster
Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos

Maybe it's not surprising that the film I love the most this year is one that's all about love itself. The Lobster is absurdist comedy firing on all cylinders, and with a phenomenally deadpan cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and more it ticks off all the boxes of a fantastic film. Lanthimos, a Greek director with some real experience in this kind of thing hit a home run with his first English language feature, one that is as laugh out loud funny as it is extraordinarily smart. The Lobster seeks to ask some uncomfortable questions about love and relationships, and the final moments of the film culminate its central concern: is changing yourself for someone you love a foolish and dangerous mistake, or the truest expression of compassion? I am thrilled to discover a filmmaker with an accomplished backlog of films to explore, and I'm fully invested in everything Lanthimos has coming up! [My Full Review]

That's just the top ten–there are plenty of other really cool movies that came out this year! If you're interested in my thoughts, you can see my complete ranking of all the movies I saw this year over on Letterbox'd. Here's to a great year of movies!
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