Jeff’s Favorite Movies of 2016

1. Sing Street – Both of writer/director John Carney’s previous movies—2007’s Once and 2013’s Begin Again—made my end of the year list, so I went into his newest movie expecting to enjoy it. What I did not expect was for the movie to connect with me on a personal level the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. Why I felt such a connection is hard to say. It is not as if I can directly relate to the plight of the main character as I have never been a child of divorcing parents or the bullied kid at a new school. The director has said that the movie is about wish fulfillment and something in that speaks to me. There is something about the way that Conor, our protagonist who dreams of one day becoming a rock star, so confidently walks up to a beautiful woman and asks her to be in the music video his then non-existent band is making, then doggedly put that band together, begin writing songs, and making music videos. Then, through his music, Conor begins to take control of his life and his future. The movie is about how putting ones whole heart into something that you love can yield wondrous results and that is the message that I believe I connect to so strongly. Of course, it helps that the music in the movie is as catchy as hell, with lyrics that help tell the story of our hero’s journey.

2. Captain America: Civil War – I have been a devoted fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since it debuted with 2008’s Iron Man. Some of the now 14 movies in the expanded franchise have been less thrilling than others for sure, but to date there has not been a single one that I did not enjoy. I half expect a drop off at some point, but that surely did not come this year as I would argue that this movie is the best of the bunch. One of the main things I like about it is that despite featuring the majority of the Avengers who have been introduced so far, the movie is not about them saving the planet from a villain bent on world domination. The villain in this movie actually has a motivation that is personal and compelling. The climactic battle does not have our heroes fighting off drones of Xeroxed henchman as some device threatens to destroy Earth, but rather a fight between the two heroes we have come to identify most within the franchise: Iron Man and Captain America (with a little Winter Soldier thrown in for good measure). The action is off-the-charts incredible with the highlight being the epic battle at the Berlin airport that comes at the end of the second act. And as would be expected, the movie brings with it a wonderful sense of humor. It also introduces two great new characters to the universe in Black Panther and Spider-Man, both of whom prove to be totally captivating. 2016 sure proved that some franchises are wearing out their welcome, but the MCU is not one of them. If this movie is any indication, the MCU is only just now peaking.

3. Hell or High Water – The plot sounds like a dozen others: two brothers go on a bank robbing spree and are pursued by a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement. But it is the execution and the small details that make Hell or High Water so special. It is the elderly bank customer packing a pistol while cashing in coins, the sassy waitresses, and the townsfolk intent to deliver justice themselves in the film’s big chase scene. It is in the way that the movie presents the poverty-stricken West Texas which leads right into the motivation behind the bank robberies, something the movie wisely takes its time revealing to us. Chris Pine and Ben Foster both deliver career highlights and Jeff Bridges, always a delight to watch, is expected to earn yet another Oscar nomination for his performances as the Texas Ranger on their heels. It may not be at the very top of my favorites list, but if someone were to make me pick a movie that was the “best” of 2016, this would probably be it.

4. Swiss Army Man – When people ask me what this movie is about, I find myself incoherently babbling. This movie is so unique that it is nearly impossible to describe. There is not even a movie that I can compare it to and that is one of the main things I like about it. In a world dominated by remakes, reboots, and sequels, it is refreshing to find something so completely original. On its most simple level, the movie is about a shipwrecked young man who is ready to give up on life when he discovers a corpse whose flatulence gives him incredible abilities. Yes, you read that right: a flatulent corpse with skills. Paul Dano is the shipwrecked man and Daniel Radcliffe plays the farting corpse. It is a far cry from Harry Potter for Radcliffe, but in a way, just as magical. At first, Swiss Army Man looks to be just a goofy comedy full of bodily function gags, but as it goes on it turns into a sweet examination of life and love. It is no use trying to describe it any further; you simply have to see it for yourself.

5. The Lobster – This unconventional comedy takes place in a society where it is illegal to be single. The movie opens with Colin Farrell’s David being left by his wife for another man. Because he is now unmarried, he must report to a kind of resort where he has 45 days to meet a new mate. If he doesn’t, then he will be turned into an animal. His choice is the lobster of the title. I don’t dare say any more about the plot, because we learn more and more of this society as the movie goes on and it is endlessly fascinating. It’s deliberately paced and very quiet for an eccentric comedy, but the more you watch it, the more you discover the many wonderful comedic touches, such as the random animals that wander through dozens of scenes. Like another movie on this list, in a world with so many movies that are just more of the same, it is nice to see that there are still movies being made that are as unique as this.

6. La La Land – I always enjoy a good movie musical, especially the classic Hollywood ones like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, and La La Land is a blatant homage to those movies, even while taking place in the modern day. The movie is a bright, colorful work of art with songs that are as catchy as they get. The opening number is a dizzying single take that makes it somewhat of a challenge to catch all of the lyrics, but that’s something the numerous listens through the soundtrack I downloaded easily cured. And one only needs to listen to the “City of Stars” cut on the soundtrack to know that the chemistry between stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is off the charts. And watching them on screen is even better, because we get to see two of Hollywood’s brightest young stars win over each other and us with Oscar-worthy performances.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – I count this New Zealand comedy adventure among my discoveries this year and after a couple more viewings and some time, I could even see it crawling further up this list (I’ve already moved it up one spot since first writing this list). The movie is about a rebellious teenager who runs away to the woods where he is followed by his grumpy foster father (Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill) and the two soon find themselves wanted by the police. Instead of turning themselves in and explaining the misunderstanding, they go on the run which leads to a hilarious adventure. Julian Dennison plays the kid in the movie and he is such a delight to watch. He is a unique character among movie teenagers and had me laughing through this entire movie. Do yourself a favor and seek out this endlessly entertaining movie. It should also be noted that the director, Taika Waititi, is about to join the blockbuster race as he will be taking over the reins of the Thor franchise with next fall’s Thor: Ragnarok.

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – I admit to having a slight bias towards this one, but hey, it’s Star Wars! I love what Disney and LucasArts are doing with the Star Wars franchise. Both this film and last year’s The Force Awakens have felt more like Star Wars to me than the prequels ever did. It feels like these movies are taking place in the real world that the original trilogy films took place in and not some hyper-real animated one. Although this movie starts slow, it kicks into gear in a big way in the second half with some truly enjoyable action sequences. I also enjoyed how this movie led directly into the plot of the original 1977 film, which makes sense considering the events of this movie are essentially the events described in the opening text crawl of that film. I have read some complaints that some of the action in this movie—especially that involving Darth Vader—is too exciting in comparison to A New Hope and therefore lessens that movie. But let us not forget that although these movies may take place days apart, they were made fifty years apart. And if the major complaint about a movie is that it is “too exciting”, well, I am perfectly willing to live with that.

9. Eddie the Eagle – How much did I enjoy this underdog sports movie? It came out way back in February and yet is still on the top of my mind at the end of the year. Taron Egerton plays the real-life Michael “Eddie” Edwards who through nothing but pure determination became a fan favorite and the British record-holder in the Ski Jump at the 1988 Olympics; the same Winter Olympics that featured the Jamaican bobsled team featured in the movie Cool Runnings. That must have been quite a year. Hugh Jackman co-stars as Eddie’s reluctant coach. Not only is the story inspirational, but the movie is also a lot of fun.

10. Hacksaw Ridge – There were a few true stories told in movie form this year, but the story of World War II soldier Desmond Doss is the one that amazed me the most. Doss, played terrifically by Andrew Garfield, won the Medal of Honor and saved dozens of lives in battle despite refusing to pick up a weapon. It is an incredible story of bravery and conviction. The movie is directed by Mel Gibson and it is his first English-language movie as a director since he took home the Oscar for 1995’s Braveheart. Here, Gibson tells what might be the best WWII drama since Saving Private Ryan. The battle scene when Doss and his fellow soldiers first arrive at the top of the titular ridge is absolutely brutal and I mean that in the best possible way.

11. The Nice Guys – Writer/director Shane Black made one of my favorite movies of last decade with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. After that, he got a little lost in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man 3, so I was delighted when I saw that he was returning to the buddy action comedy genre with The Nice Guys. Ryan Gosling delivers my favorite performance of the year as a down-on-his-luck private eye. The actor gets a chance to show off a tremendous talent for comedy that he rarely gets to display. He teams up with Russell Crowe’s muscle-for-hire to solve the murder of a porn star and the niece of Gosling’s old lady client. The movie gets so lost in its twisty plot at times that it can seem like a mess, but it is such an enjoyable mess that I am perfectly willing to just role with it.

12. Sully – They say that you usually know whether you are going to like a movie or not within the first ten minutes and ten minutes into this one, I was not expecting to be very high on it. It seemed like it was only going to be a matter-of-fact recounting of true-life events and that is exactly what it turned out to be, but somewhere along the line this movie hooked me in and I was emotionally invested by the end. The key to its success is the performance of Tom Hanks. I think sometimes we take Hanks’ acting talent for granted because he is so good every time out, but let us not forget that we are watching one of the all-time greats do Oscar-worthy work every time out. My two favorite moments in this movie come first when Sully learns that all of the passengers have been accounted for and second when he pulls his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) aside to celebrate the realization that they are about to be found fault-free. The acting in these moments is subtle, but powerful. The same can be said for the movie as a whole.

13. Pete’s Dragon – I have not been a fan of Disney turning all of their animated classics into live-action films. To me, it seems akin to colorizing black and white films. It’s not necessary. The movies have been okay, but none have succeeded in being as enjoyable as the animated originals. The one exception has been Pete’s Dragon (and yes, I know that the original was not animated, but the same theory applies). Maybe it is because I was able to take my nephews to this movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this fun family adventure and still think about it months later. What separates this movie from the other Disney remakes is that it essentially throws everything about the original away with the exception of the basic premise—an orphan boy who befriends a friendly dragon. It is its own movie and thanks to incredible special effects and wonderful performances by both its young and established stars, it stands out from the rest. If you have not yet met the 2016 version of Pete and his friend Elliot, I highly recommend you find the time to enjoy it.