I’ve kept an annual list of films, TV and books every year since 2014. This year I’m going to add a ranked list of my favorite films of 2016 as well. My list is better than all the other “top 10” lists, because… mine goes to eleven.
1. Hell Or High Water
2. Manchester By The Sea
5. American Honey
6. Certain Women
8. Toni Erdmann
9. Don’t Think Twice
The above ranking obviously doesn’t include pictures I haven’t seen yet, and that’s a list of its own that includes THE HANDMAIDEN, SILENCE, SING STREET, PATERSON, HIDDEN FIGURES, FENCES, and JACKIE. I’m working on it.
Below is a complete list of everything I saw in 2016. As always, the list only reflects things seen for the very first time. If I came across JAWS or GROUNDHOG DAY or YOU’VE GOT MAIL already in progress on TV and sat there like a zombie through ’til the end, well, that’s not considered worthy of note. What is worthy of note: ZOOLANDER 2 is so very, very bad it makes you feel stupid for having liked the first one. THE LOBSTER is the other movie I regret having made the effort to go see in the theater. I’ll give it points for originality, I guess. Then I’ll take those points back for being a miserable, cruel, misbegotten thing.
Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.
MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
My Name Is Doris
Don’t Think Twice
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Star Trek Beyond
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Hell Or High Water
20th Century Women
MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
What We Do In The Shadows
Amira & Sam
Captain America: The First Avenger
Shaun The Sheep Movie
The Libeled Lady
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels
Lassie Come Home
The Shop Around The Corner
Swiss Army Man
The Mindy Project
Odd Mom Out
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
The Good Place
Game of Thrones
BOOKS and OTHER READING
Devotion – Dani Shapiro
60 or so screenplays for the Austin Film Festival competition
I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.
These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.
I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.
AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?
In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.
Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.
Poor Charlie Kaufman. I’m feeling absolutely everything in his recent interview for IndieWIRE. It’s called Charlie Kaufman Reflects On His Career: ‘I Feel Like I F*cking Blew It.’ and with a title like that, I expect you’ll feel compelled to click too. For those of you who don’t, here’s a summary of his bummery:
In 2008, coming off the success of three brilliantly original films for which he wrote the screenplays, Kaufman took on the role of director for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And the film lost money. His second and latest film, ANOMALISA, has done just about as well – that is to say, not well at all.
In the interview, rather than trying to put a happy face on things, he explicitly airs his anxieties. Which, it seems to me, is a perfectly Charlie Kaufman thing to do. It also seems to me Kaufman mistook his hot streak for his new normal. No disparagement is intended: that’s one of those things that can only be evident in retrospect.
But it’s also not hard to diagnose his doldrums: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND each had measured amounts of melancholy, always tempered with sweetness and delight. The two films he’s since directed have retained all the inventiveness of his past work, but minus most of the fun. ANOMALISA is pretty bleak, and SYNECDOCHE is downright morbid. And that’s coming from someone who liked it.
So maybe he needs a creative course correction. Or just some fresh air and exercise, and a movie title you can pronounce. I find it hard to believe his career is over. There are natural cycles: you’re hot; you’re not. Better to have been hot, with the chance of heating up again, right? Me, I’ve been aspiring to be Charlie Kaufman (or at least someone in his general vicinity) much of my adult life.
So I sympathize with the creative angst, but then again… count yer blessings, Chuck. And that journalist interviewing you is right: all you need is one success and your doldrums will be over.
That goes for you and me both.
Oh crap, I wrote a listicle. Recently a university film student wrote to me with some questions about my short film New. One of his questions was “what three tips can you give to a filmmaker entering a short film in festivals?” This is what I told him.
1) Have you made your film yet? If not, I’d say, make sure the script is as great as you can make it before you do anything else. If writing isn’t your forté, find some help. Once you have a script, get opinions from people you trust. Listen to them. Get some decent actors and do a table read. Listen to them.
2) Keep it under 10 minutes. The longer a short film is, the harder it is for programmers to fit it into their schedules. Once you pass 10 minutes TRT, you’d better have a fucking awesome film if you want to see it screen at a festival. “Gosh we all really love it, we just wish it were a little shorter” is not the call you want to get from the programmers at Sundance. Trust me. (The film in question was my short La vie d’un chien. 13 minutes.)
3) And if the film is done: do your research about festivals. It costs money to enter them, and there are LOTS of festivals. You could spend a fortune and have little to show for it. Find festivals that show the kind of film you have. Beyond that, I always ask myself: is this a prestigious festival to play at? …and if not, is it in a city I can drive to and get home from in one day? …and if not, is it in a city I’d like to visit?
Comparing 2015 to last year’s list only makes me appreciate the films of 2014 more. Following a year that brought us UNDER THE SKIN, HER and BOYHOOD, this new batch looks pretty weak. Even worse when you consider that the best film I saw on the big screen last year was Bennett Miller’s tremendous FOXCATCHER, and that was a late 2014 release. That said, I did enjoy most of these titles quite a lot. 2015 from my perspective was a year with a lots of very good movies, lacking in any great ones. Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.
MOVIES SEEN IN THEATER
Into The Woods
While We’re Young
Burnt In Memory
Mad Max: Fury Road
I Want To Be A King
Bridge Of Spies
The Good Dinosaur
The Heart Of A Dog
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
MOVIES ON BLURAY/DVD/DVR/TV
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Lego Movie
Grey Gardens (1975)
Je, Tu, Il, El
Two Days, One Night
Defending Your Life
Orphan Black (Tatiana finally got her Emmy nom. Yay! Didn’t win, though. Boo.)
BOOKS and OTHER READING
World War Z
Our sci-fi short film NEW debuted online November 2, and the response has been very gratifying indeed. As I write this post, we’re coming up on our 15,000th view. For a three-day period in early November, we were clocking around 3000 views per day! Those might not be spectacular numbers for, say, a 30-second kitten video, but for a quiet, 17-minute drama it’s pretty damn great. Even better: the smart comments the film has received. More about that in a moment.
The film has been featured at sites like Film Shortage and Alltop. And I particularly enjoyed the generous selection of screen caps and long, English-as-a-second-language plot summary over at Singaporean short film site VidSee. Fun… but don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet!
Last week, I did an interview for a TV station in Switzerland called BeCurious TV – they’ll be airing that interview soon, along with NEW and two of my other shorts.
Best of all, we’ve been covered at io9.com, the go-to site for all things science fiction. I’ve been trying to get them to write about NEW for over two years! They were my white whale. Back when we were crowdfunding the budget, I sent the editors emails brimming over with all the charm I could muster, detailing the sci-fi epic being cooked up in their very own backyard (the site is based in San Francisco). All to no response… until now. Fair enough. I imagine they wanted to have a finished film to show people before writing about us.
But write about us they did, last month, with a nice review that declared NEW “pretty heartbreaking.” When their story was published, it shot our view count through the roof for a couple of days. A month later it’s still a major driver of traffic to the film. Thank you, io9.
MOVIES SEEN IN THEATER
The Wolf of Wall Street
Under The Skin
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy
This is Where I Leave You
(My “best of” list is topped by UNDER THE SKIN. Jonathan Glaser’s finest film to date turns a “vampire from outer space” premise into an artful meditation on the concept of alien-ness. Followed closely in ranking by Spike Jonze’ HER (read my 6-tweet mini-review here), BIRDMAN, and BOYHOOD. Meanwhile LUCY has the distinction of being the dumbest movie I paid good money to see on the big screen in 2014.)
MOVIES ON BLURAY/DVD/DVR/TV
Leviathan (2013) (my 6-tweet review is here)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Tell No One
Friday Night Lights
The Bells of St. Mary’s
This Is The End
Synecdoche, New York (ow, my mind. ow, Charlie Kaufman’s mind)
Saving Mr. Banks
In A World
20 Feet From Stardom
The Way, Way Back (sweet)
Now You See Me (terrible)
Love and Other Drugs
12 Years a Slave (over-rated)
August: Osage County (under-rated)
Orphan Black (where is Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy?!)
True Detective (Season 1)
BOOKS and OTHER READING
I confess: December 31 finds me still nibbling on the same volume of short stories by Mike Resnick that I’ve been working on all year. So much for my resolution to “read more.” I read my friend’s screenplays. And plenty of essays and articles and film criticism, or course, most of it online. The one that has stayed with me was this transcript of Jonathan Lethem’s “State of Cinema” address to the San Francisco Film Society. Really smart. Read it.