20. Hail, Caesar!
A bountiful, spirited, and splashy valentine to post-war Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is a quick-witted comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen that zeroes in on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a film industry “fixer” in Tinseltown in 1951.
Eddie’s been hired by Capitol Pictures to figure out WTF happened to leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who was kidnapped from the set of a sand-and-sandals epic currently being filmed and costing the studio some major moolah. Seems a strange cult-like organization calling themselves “The Future” have kidnapped the superstar and are demanding a $100,000 ransom.
Everything from Busby Berkeley-style water-ballet musicals, drawing-room dramas, singing cowboys, religious epics, and more are adoringly spoofed by the Coens, and with an all-star cast including Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum, Hail! Caesar is an intoxicating and enamoured sendup of the bright lights of yesteryear. Utterly satiating, and startlingly good-natured, this is one of the Coen’s finest bene-factions.
19. The Fits
Formative, atmospheric and utterly mesmerizing, The Fits marks the astonishing debut of writer-director Anna Rose Holmer. What at first appears to be a very uncomplicated story about an 11-year-old tomboy named Toni (Royalty Hightower, wonderful), who’s trying to fit in with her companions after joining an all-girl dance team when a pandemic of strange and unheard-of spasms befall the dancers. What ensues is as riveting as it is inimitable in one of the most breathtakingly energetic visions of magical realism to grace the screen in this or any other year.
The young cast, comprised of many real-life West End of Cincinnati dancers and athletes adds to the authenticity and strangeness of what Holmer so engagingly and dexterously depicts onscreen. Part rite-of-passage and poetically hypnagogic urban chronicle, The Fits also indulges in some stirring and impressively muscular long shots clearly announcing the arrival of a unique new director. This is introspective, absorbing, and joyful filmmaking at its finest.
18. Midnight Special
Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Loving) offers something a little different in this moody sci-fi thriller that delightfully pastiches Spielberg’s Golden Age (that’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) with some of John Carpenter’s Starman thrown in for added zip.
The atmospheric and always withholding story revolves around one Roy Tomlin (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and his 8-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who’ve escaped from a wackadoodle religious cult in rural Texas. The government want Roy and Alton, too, particularly as it seems the boy has some spooky special powers that may have an extraterrestrial origin. An ambitious film about fatherhood, faith, and hard science fiction, Midnight Special is a calculating and studious thrill.
17. The Wailing
This cleverly constructed and incredibly atmospheric South Korean horror film from director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) is a disturbing journey deep into the heart of darkness. Uncertainty and unhealthy suspicion decays into hysteria when rural Goksung villagers connect a string of ferocious murders to the arrival of a mysterious Japanese visitor (Kunimura Jun).
Investigating Officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) soon finds himself in the center of a savage and genuinely formidable fright film with shamans, femme fatales, demonic possession and other assorted nightmares. This brief descriptor is deliberately vague so not to give away anymore of this surprising genre mashup in what’s one of 2016’s most surprising, powerful, and ominously imaginative chillers.
16. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a stunning fetish revenge tale set in 1930s Korea, smartly adapted from Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith”, and gorgeously lensed by celebrated cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon.
The primary players are pickpocket named Sook-hee (Park regular Kim Tai-ri), a charlatan named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and a mentally unstable heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But nothing’s what it seems as the director of Stoker (2013) and Oldboy (2003) gleefully runs wild in this mischievous mingling of sexploitation and vile revenge. The Handmaiden epitomizes excessive entertainment and opulent visuals in this highly eroticized and riveting psychodrama.
15. The Neon Demon
Probably the most polarizing film since Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 mindfuck Under The Skin, The Neon Demon comes to us courtesy of partition-adoring Danish auteur du jour Nicolas Winding Refn.
A kinda sorta obeisance of giallo cinema, The Neon Demon mixes elements of arthouse horror, sticky satire, and Marquis de Sade-level savagery in the seductively sordid tale of of sixteen-year-old wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) and her terrifying odyssey into the Los Angeles fashion industry, where bloodlust, libido, carnal cravings and cannibalism all combat for the whip hand with a velvet glove.
A suitably amorous and atmospheric score from Cliff Martinez –– an inspired minimalist electronic fusion that pastiches Kraftwerk with John Carpenter –– helps the unabashedly sensual and endlessly eerie film unfold with just the right amount of hallucinatory expression to this beauty-obsessed tale of exploitation and WTF antagonism.
As pretentious and indulgent as it is glossy and pretty, this unflinchingly gruesome film is a brilliant conception. Intensely intriguing, The Neon Demon artfully conjures the dreamlike juxtaposing of bloody disturbance, decadent experience, and psychological splatter. You’ll either love it or hate it and that’s okay.
14. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
“I didn’t choose the skuxx life,” declares 13-year-old Ricky Baker (a terrific Julian Dennison), “the skuxx life chose me.” See, Ricky’s a troubled problem kid and being the subject of a manhunt through the New Zealand wilderness with his curmudgeon foster father Hec (Sam Neill) isn’t doing him any favors either, in this delightful adventure film from Taiki Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows).
So joyful and sweet-natured, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the best feelgood films you’ll find, full to brim with charming performances, wonderfully quotable dialogue, and consistently non-saccharine sentimentality.
Waititi does an outstanding job in adapting Barry Crump’s comic 1986 novel “Wild Pork and Watercress” making one of the most unfeigned, from the heart, and funny familial depictions around. You’ll be rhapsodic and sore from laughing by the finish, easily forgiving the few narrative imperfections because a film as ungrudgingly jubilant as this is a rare and welcome delicacy.
Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-the-making passion project, a spiritual and responsive musing on humanity as glimpsed through the eyes of two Christian missionaries (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) is every bit as prodigious and impressive as you might expect. Based off of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, Silence is an epic tale set in 17th century Nagasaki, Japan.
Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Driver) are Jesuit priests relocated from Portugal who are desperately searching for their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in this historical fiction which has some true-life antecedents –– Garfield’s missionary is loosely based on Giuseppe Chiara.
Scorsese offers a lucid, harrowing, and often punitive visceral experience. It won’t sit well with most viewers, for all of the graphic violence and punishing martyrdom on display almost makes Raging Bull look debonair, but as far as experiential cinema goes, this is a master class in contemplative misery and gut reactions.
Elegiac, and deeply introspective, director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner), with Jackie, offer one of the finest biopics in recent memory. After her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) reels with heartache and mental strain. Captured with an intimate eye and yet conceived and captured as a kind of operatic choreography, almost like a lithe ballet, Jackie is a penetrating and profound spectacle.
Dread and horror dances with bereavement and sorrow as the First Lady decommissions Camelot. Has a wife’s anguish and a viewer’s contretemps ever been detailed in such a breathtaking measure as this? Perhaps not. Larraín’s loving closeups of Portman wield a soaring and heartening dynamism. Combined with Mica Levi’s ascending and sorrowful score, Jackie is a dewy-eyed and coolly wrought accomplishment.
11. La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s irresistible old-school musical is a dreamy Cinemascope rhapsody, romantic and full of feeling, La La Land is a footlight parade for a contemporary crowd. While it never quite reaches the Busby Berkeley heights it strives for –– and how could it? –– this tour de force symphony is the next best thing.
Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring starlet, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated jazz man, and together in the “City of Stars” this kismet couple, easy on the eyes, will dazzle and delight even the most jaded “I hate musicals” audience member.
Old-fashioned to a fault, La La Land is a ravishing, and endearing entertainment. It may play heavily on novelty, nostalgia and cinematic sorcery, but isn’t that what we go to the pictures for in the first place? Destined to win a pile of awards, this is one of the best big screen experiences of the year. Just go with it.