I may be a bit late to the party considering the Golden Globes aired last Sunday, but the Oscars won’t be announcing their nominations until the 24th so we’ll say this list was right on time. Then again, I’m not a member of the Academy so screeners don’t get sent my way. I have to watch movies the old-fashioned way – guilt-tripping my friends into coming with me then bribing them with food (you offer to buy dinner after the movie, so they have to stay). Here are the top ten films I gladly coerced people into seeing with me.
This list, much like my opinion of these films, is subjective. I know that using the word “best” implies that others not included are the “worst.” That’s not my intention. These are simply film recommendations I’d like to pass on. But that’s not an interesting title and “best” has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?
Growing up on Maui, you learn a thing or two about the famed demigod and his many heroic deeds, so I got quite the kick out of the film’s portrayal of Maui as a narcissist endowed with himself more than his own fans. I suppose it’s easy to lose yourself when you’re stuck on an island (as anyone in Hawaii will attest). While the characters learn that voyaging will be their salvation, the journey at the film’s core is one of self-discovery. Because not everything hinges on a climactic battle, nor does it have to. Sometimes we just need a reminder of who we were and where we can go, exemplified gracefully by the film’s breakout star, Auli’i Cravalho. Her charm and innocence is so endearing that it’s hard not to belt your own heart out during “How Far I’ll Go.” I also found myself tearing up during the film’s soaring “We Know The Way” voyage number because it didn’t occur to me how long it took for a Polynesian story to be brought to life on screen (I’m not even Polynesian, yet it felt important all the same). It was a mournful moment quickly overcome by joy because the door has now been opened for more stories of the Pacific all thanks to Disney’s capable hands. It may have taken a long time, but the wait was worth it.
- The Witch
I hated this film when I first saw it. Hated it. The trailer sold a very different movie (as trailers often do) and I walked out of the theater sorely disappointed. It wasn’t until afterwards that the film came to haunt me in a genuinely unnerving way. With my expectations gone, I began to think deeply about the story, specifically its implications. The characters in the film are constantly pleading for the Almighty to save them. God, of course, doesn’t intervene. Who shows up instead? The devil, and he makes his rounds accordingly. As their situation becomes increasingly depraved, parents William and Kate go so far as to sell their daughter, who happens to be blooming into a beautiful woman, which, in the Puritan society, presents the fear of temptation. Such was the mindset of 17th century New England, where God-fearing men dictated the fate of women. The myth of the witch was the product of religious propaganda used to sway public opinion to the church, channeling everything the Puritan man feared about women’s blossoming bodies. Fitting, then, that The Witch asserts there’s nothing scarier than a woman free from man’s constructs.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
How J.J. Abrams managed to sneak this one past us still puzzles me to this day. The most surprising thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is how it’s not a direct sequel in terms of style, but in execution. 2008’s Cloverfield utilized the uneasiness of the found-footage approach to great effect, capturing a sense of sustained panic and fear. Here, the approach is subtle but no less cinematic. We are told that Howard is a good man, mostly by Howard himself. He tells Michelle that he “saved” her and built the bunker, so she should be grateful. We should perceive him as the good guy, but intuitively we know that’s not true. Emmett, the other helpless person in the bunker, relays information about Howard that further complicates Howard’s image (he may or may not have had a daughter, and may or may not have ulterior motives). As events unfold, Howard displays questionably abusive and outright abusive behavior, and director Dan Trachtenberg turns the paranoia factor to 11 by making the audience wonder whether the real threat is outside the bunker, or within. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a chilling parable about abuse and the things men do to take advantage of women. This claustrophobic chamber-piece might have frustrated those who were waiting for the Cloverfield part of the title to come in, but I, for one, was engrossed every step of the way. Hitchcock would have been proud.
Leave it to Disney to tackle the subject of prejudice and still craft something light-hearted and fun. As a rabbit, Officer Judy Hopps has endured her fair share of prejudices. She is mocked for wanting to be a police officer, then winces upon being labeled, “cute.” The bias of her peers dictate that she cannot be seen as tough nor amount to anything other than what she appears to be – a disadvantage that fuels her resolve. Nick Wilde, on the other hand, sees no use in fighting the stereotypes and becomes the sly fox that society will only perceive him to be. It’s his cynicism (along with Bateman’s dry sarcasm) and Judy’s determinism that deftly navigates us through the film’s subtext. We cannot do anything about bias. But, as Officer Hopps discovers for herself, it’s when we’re at a disadvantage that puts us in the unique position to change that. Subtext aside, Zootopia features a delightful homage to The Godfather capped off by its own subversive twist. Assistant Mayor Bellwether, too, is the most subversive villain of the year. Virtually every character serves as a thoughtful reminder that “anyone can be anything,” and not just in Zootopia.
- Civil War
What more can I say about Civil War that I haven’t already said. It’s the best superhero film of the year and may very well be the best Marvel movie to date. Time will tell. This was certainly Marvel’s boldest. Cramming every superhero they could get their hands on and pitting them against each other, finally bringing a compelling villain into the fold, advancing the stories of each character, and still functioning as the definitive chapter in the Captain America trilogy. Civil War was a long time coming. This could not have happened in Phase One or Phase Two. It could only have happened after the tremendous buildup of tension between Cap and Iron Man. Rather than side-step or forgo it altogether, Marvel went all in and shifted the MCU on its axis, which goes to show Marvel’s fascinating commitment to evolving their characters and their relationship to one another. This might have been a jam-packed year for superhero movies, but Civil War demonstrates exactly why Marvel is leagues ahead of the competition.
- Rogue One
The Star Wars prequel we never knew we needed turned out to be a pivotal chapter in the saga. Rogue One not only shed light on the events preceding A New Hope, it also deepened the mythology of this galaxy far, far away by providing the kind of world-building that films so often have very little time for. Up until now, we’ve only known the Rebels as the “good guys.” For the first time we see how desperate they are, and how that desperation leads to morally questionable objectives (Diego Luna’s performance is a finely-tuned portrait of that despair). Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rogue One, aside from the visuals, the action, and a staggering third act, is how the film reflects the multicultural world of today. How often can we say that about a film, especially a big-budget film, where diversity matters and is accurately represented across the board. It made me hopeful for the future of cinema. Of course, one cannot mention Rogue One without talking about the film’s ending, which now serves as a brief but heartfelt tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. “I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever,” Fisher wrote in her memoir, The Princess Diarist. “I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.” May the force be with her.
- The Nice Guys
In a season dominated by superheroes, there’s something refreshing about a neo-noir picture thrown in the mix, maybe even rebellious (I say this knowing full well that Shane Black directed Iron Man 3). Perhaps that’s why Nice Guys finished last in May’s over-crowded slate, a month that was bookended by Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. I suppose this was a hard sell, despite a kickass marketing campaign. Two detectives venture down the rabbit hole of Los Angeles that involves porn, Detroit automakers, and the Department of Justice, all of which play a key role in a juicy corporate conspiracy. Only Shane Black, whose infectious handle on both dialogue and plot, can cleverly connect these dots and make it an absolute blast to digest (the mystery gets better on repeat viewings once you see how the pieces fall into play). It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s got two leads who are more than game to throw themselves into the material, sometimes literally. Ryan Gosling’s incompetence and buffoonery is the perfect foil to Russell Crowe’s conscientious tough guy. Gosling, in particular, demonstrates a surprising knack for physical comedy, and the two play insanely well off each other. The buddy-cop trope may not need any reinvention, but Shane Black’s stroke of genius proves that with the right pairing, you have the latitude to venture anywhere, especially the absurd. This criminally underseen gem was the comedy blockbuster of the summer. Do yourself a favor and check it out on Blu-ray so Warner Bros. can do us all a favor and commission a sequel.
- Don’t Breathe
2016 was a damn fine year for horror movies. Look no further than the masterpiece that is Don’t Breathe. It subverts the home-invasion thriller by flipping the chessboard. Genre convention dictates that the burglars are the bad guys. Here, the real villain is the man inside the house, which sets up a keen moral dilemma for the viewer since we are, in a sense, rooting for the burglars. We are culpable in that regard and thus, we deserve what’s coming. What makes Don’t Breathe such a visceral cinematic experience is how it subjects its viewer to the horror. Director Fede Alvarez literally puts us in the room by pulling the sound when the tension is at a fever pitch, making it is absolutely, painstakingly quiet (kudos to the innovative sound design). It’s so ferociously effective that I found myself covering my mouth out of fear that I’d give away their position. I felt everything these characters felt, the anticipation, anxiety, and impending dread that not only something terrible was going to happen, but that I deserved to watch it happen. Streaming this film on your laptop does NOT do it justice. Watch this on the biggest screen and the best sound system possible.
Dr. Louise Banks is selected as the linguist to herald the alien expedition after inviting a colleague to translate the sanskrit word for war. Her colleague provides the definition, “an argument,” while Banks provides the correct definition, “a desire for more cows.” This scene contextualizes the conflict of the entire movie, where the aliens’ presence is interpreted by some countries as an invitation, and to others, a challenge. We are one species, yet the language barriers that divide us distorts our ability to reach a collective understanding (this cultural misunderstanding gets multiplied by 12 with the aliens’ arrival). This agenda alone is nothing short of astonishing when you consider the familiarity of the premise, one so common in Hollywood that plays out the same each time: aliens invade, declare war, Bill Pullman gives a rousing speech, we destroy the mothership, roll credits. Thankfully, that’s not this movie. Arrival requires patience and an open mind, the two things that enable Dr. Banks to find a common communicative ground. Language shapes who we are and the way we think, and just as the aliens are teaching Dr. Banks about their unique vocabulary, director Denis Villeneuve teaches us through the visual language of cinema that if we can learn to empathize with each other rather than demonize those who are different, we might finally be able to cooperate, cooperation being paramount to our survival as a species. Featuring a beautifully internalized performance by Amy Adams, a brilliant and emotionally intuitive screenplay, and utterly gorgeous cinematography, Arrival is a rewarding sci-fi experience that proves that great films don’t just need to be understood, they need to be felt.
- La La Land
The modern musical is practically unheard of, but what makes this film such a rarity is its optimism. La La Land tells the story of two struggling artists trying to pursue their dreams. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, a dinosaur in today’s progressive music scene. Mia is an aspiring actress desperate for her big break, as everyone else in the room seems to be. Their inevitable fall for each other is as classical as they come, a dance that’s as timeless as the classics imbued in the film’s text and overall aesthetic. In this day and age where the brooding and the melancholy are apt to post a cryptic song lyric on social media followed by an appropriate emoji, there is something very earnest about Mia twirling down the street, or Sebastian singing to himself on the boardwalk. Some may find that cheesy. Others, however, will find it enrapturing. Breaking out into song is an unbridled joy that we have long forgotten and the film in its entirety is a delightful throwback to a bygone era, reminding us how cinematic it is to love, to woe, and to dream. La La Land is a love letter to the fools who dream. Creative endeavors may be a fool’s errand considering that art, much like our chance of success, is largely abstract. It can be soul-crushing. It can be heartbreaking. But like Mia and Sebastian, we risk it all for that one moment when everything sings. Here’s to the mess we make.