The Best Movies of 2016 Part 1

. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

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Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is a thrilling showstopper focused on its headliner as he completes his two-year 20/20 Experience World Tour with two final shows at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand (in January 2015) alongside his enormous backing band, the Tennessee Kids.

 Kill Zone 2

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Hong Kong gangster (Louis Koo) who sells organs on the black market and plans to kill his brother so he can steal his heart, a Hong Kong undercover cop (Wu Jing) intent on infiltrating this kingpin’s gang, and a Thailand prison guard (Tony Jaa) trying to save his daughter who is dying of leukemia.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

Image result for Ouija: Origin of Evil In this case, those are a mother and two daughters who, while running a séance scam out of their home, wind up in real supernatural trouble when the youngest of their clan (Lulu Wilson) makes contact with what she initially believes is the spirit of her dead father. Another superb chiller from director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush)—mainstream horror’s best new filmmaker—about the peril that can come from grieving lost loved ones, this stylish work is a throwback in terms of not only its setting, but also its preference for hold-your-breath suspense and unforgettable otherworldly imagery over cheap scare tactics.

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 Alvarez’s latest concerns three kids (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto) who, desperate to get out of their working-class circumstances, decide to rob a blind man (Stephen Lang) reportedly in possession of a stash of money hidden in his dilapidated home.

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The Handmaiden finds him back in familiar terrain, given that it charts a con man’s scheme to use a young female pickpocket to help him marry, and then commit to an insane asylum, a mentally unstable heiress—a ruse that gets hopelessly complicated the further it progresses thanks to a series of didn’t-see-that-coming twists. Rearranging characters around his narrative playing board like a devilish chess champion, Park stages his material with serpentine sensuality and playfully grim wit, all while presenting a vision of femininity that, true to his prior form, is seductive, sinister and empowered.

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 At a remote rural cabin, a deaf-mute author named Maddie (Flanagan’s wife, Kate Siegel) finds herself menaced by a masked predator whose intentions don’t extend past wanting to torment and then kill her. Their cat-and-mouse showdown is plotted with a preponderance of rational decision making and a dearth of stupid what-are-they-doing? moments, and the material’s consistent character-based internal logic goes a long way toward maintaining its sinister suspense.

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Shane Black perfected the mismatched buddy-cop formula with 1987’s Lethal Weapon, so it’s no surprise that, 29 years later, he’s delivered another bickering-duo gem set in the L.A. underworld. In this thoroughly amusing 1970s neo-noir comedy, Ryan Gosling is a bumbling private investigator who finds himself paired with Russell Crowe’s for-hire enforcer on a case involving a missing girl and a dead porn star. As they make their way through a seedy showbiz landscape, Crowe and Gosling prove an irresistibly combative, cantankerous pair, with Crowe’s gruff exasperation clashing with Gosling’s doofus bumbling.

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Casey Affleck gives one of the year’s most affecting lead turns as a Boston bachelor who, after the untimely death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), is saddled with custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) in Kenneth Lonergan’s stomach-punch of a drama. That situation is created by tragedy, but it’s not the only instance of traumatic loss addressed by this expertly calibrated portrait of grief and recovery, given that Affleck’s loner—divorced from the mother (Michelle Williams) of his children—is already a deeply scarred individual with his own agonizing sorrow to shoulder. Affleck’s muted embodiment of this fractured young man conveys volumes about misery, guilt and regret, and he’s matched by a sterling supporting cast that delivers similarly unaffected, bone-deep performances.


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Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s films have always been guided by something of a ramshackle poetic spirit. That’s once again the case with Paterson, the understated story of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who shares the same name as the city in which he works, and whose days and nights are spent listening in on passengers’ conversations, hanging out with his flighty, artistically minded wife (Golshifteh Farahani), taking evening walks to the bar with his not-very-nice dog, and scribbling poetry in his notebook. Set over the course of a relatively uneventful week in its protagonist’s life, Jarmusch’s story is far less interested in big dramatic incidents than it is in the small details of Paterson’s routine life, which slowly coalesce to form a muted, melancholy portrait of everyday existential despair.

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No filmmaker has been more adept at examining China’s political/culture climate than acclaimed director Jia Zhangke, and his latest only reaffirms that standing. A story split in three, Zhangke’s trifurcated drama—with each chapter shot in ever-expanding visual aspect ratios—concerns three friends caught in a love triangle on the eve of the millennium. While that dawn-of-a-new-century moment is infused with pressing hope, the subsequent development of these men and women’s lives—involving marriage, children, divorce, and illness—provides depressing rejoinders to their early optimism. Rife with bemused commentary about the alienating role technology plays in interpersonal relationships, and opening and closing with tonally opposite dance sequences that further underline its intricate thematic arguments, Mountains May Depart is an alternately funny and morose study of a country’s (and global society’s) evolution, and its positive and negative ramifications for its inhabitants.

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Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale about a homosexual African-American boy living in Florida. That basic plot description, however, does little to convey the incisive poetry of Barry Jenkins’ film, whose narrative is divided between three stages in the life of its protagonist, Chiron (aka “Little” as an adolescent, and “Black” as an adult). From its astounding opening shot on a street corner circling around a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who’ll come to be young Chiron’s surrogate father figure—since his mother (Naomie Harris) is a junkie—this evocative drama captures an overwhelming sense of both place and character. As Chiron grows up, enjoying fleeting moments of euphoria amidst routine abuse and neglect, Jenkins charts thorny individual and interpersonal dynamics in which both salvation and damnation seem to stem from the same (or, at least, similar) source. Sensitive, subtle, intense and complex, it’s a triumph of both expressive direction and—courtesy of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, as well as André Holland and Janelle Monáe—nuanced, heart-rending performance.


. Jackie

 

Pablo Larrain’s cinema is one rooted in the knotty relationship between influential historical leaders and the people over whom they govern (or rule with an iron fist). That’s true of both his superb 2016 releases, although in the final tally, his Neruda falls just shy of the piercing majesty of Jackie, an unconventional, hauntingly lyrical snapshot of Jackie Kennedy (played by an astounding Natalie Portman) in the week immediately following the November 23, 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Framed by an interview between Jackie and a reporter (Billy Crudup), Larrain’s masterful drama uses incessant close-ups to dig deeply into the conflicted interior condition of his subject, who finds herself both battling with grief and struggling to immediately lay the groundwork for her husband’s legacy. Graceful and gripping, it’s a period piece character study that cannily speaks to the way in which words—and, tellingly, also visual images—are the tools by which we shape history.


. The Fits

About a young African-American girl named Toni (superb newcomer Royalty Hightower) who, while living in Cincinnati’s West End, spends her time working out at a local boxing gym with her brother, even as she increasingly finds herself drawn to the championship-winning dance team that practices in the same facility. Holmer’s precise aesthetics echo her protagonist’s detachment from both the pugilistic and dance cliques from which she seeks acceptance, and her slow-motion sequences of the troupe’s rhythmic routines have an overpowering, hypnotic grace and splendor. Fixated on Hightower’s subtly expressive countenance and her spatial (and emotional) relationship to her peers, the film is more than just a coming-of-age saga; it’s an expressionistic snapshot of a young girl trying to transcend her estrangement, define her identity, and find a place for herself in the world.


. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to last year’s Sicario boasts the same brand of gorgeously portentous widescreen imagery as well as a female protagonist thrust into head-spinning territory. In this case, however, the subject isn’t Mexican drug cartels but aliens, who mysteriously arrive across the globe in giant ships, and who don’t communicate in anything like a decipherable human language. Enter Amy Adams’ linguist, who—paired with Jeremy Renner’s mathematician—is tasked by the U.S. government with finding a way to communicate with these extraterrestrials, known as “heptapods” because of their seven-limbed physical form. What endues is a thrilling “first contact” drama that also splits its focus to concentrate on Adams’ protagonist’s grief over the loss of her daughter—twin narrative threads that eventually dovetail into a poignant portrait of the circular nature of life, and the way in which written and spoken language help connect us all to our pasts, present, and future.


.Elle

“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,” says Isabelle Huppert’s French video game mogul Michèle to her best friend late in Elle, and that sentiment certainly pertains to every one of the twisted characters found in Robocop and Basic Instinct auteur Paul Verhoeven’s stirring examination of intersecting passions. Beginning with Michèle’s rape by a masked intruder, his story proceeds to confound expectations at every knotty turn, eschewing for long stretches any resemblance to a revenge fantasy as it investigates Michèle’s relationship with numerous relatives and acquaintances—mostly male—who are, in some form or another, sexually intertwined with her. That Michèle has a deep dark daddy issue only further mires the material in deranged and deviant (semi-masochistic) desire, although Verhoeven’s composed and chilly direction proves as adept at eliciting laughs as it is at generating suspense. Even after its rapist “villain” has been identified, it proves to be an exhilaratingly mysterious thriller-by-way-of-character-study about power, eroticism and need—a one-of-a-kind work energized by a lead Huppert turn of such rich psychological complexity (and contradictions!), it leaves just about every other 2016 performance in its wake.


10. Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie’s outlaws-on-the-run saga concerns two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a bank-robbing spree in order to raise enough money to save their family farm from foreclosure—a conceit that lends the film a piercing timeliness. Nonetheless, the true power of this rugged genre effort comes from its stars and its attention to both atmosphere and character detail. As yin-yang siblings compelled to embark upon their mission by need, fury, and inherent recklessness, Pine and Foster share a compelling chemistry. And they’re complemented (and, in fact, surpassed) in the charisma department by the always great Jeff Bridges. As the just-about-to-retire sheriff hot on their trail, Bridges delivers one of his finest performances, radiating both wit and regret as an old-school relic who—like the criminals he’s pursuing, and the beaten-down land that he roams with his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham)—is on the precipice of transforming into a ghost from a bygone era.


9. Gleason

 

Steve Gleason was a sturdy New Orleans Saints safety who became immortalized in team history when, during the squad’s first game back in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, he blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons—a play that came to symbolize the city’s indefatigable comeback spirit. Tragically, at the too-young age of 34, and on the eve of his first child’s birth, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). Using copious footage shot by the former athlete himself (some of it addressed to his unborn kid), J. Clay Tweel’s documentary details Gleason and his wife Michel’s struggle with that incurable condition. To say Gleason is heartbreaking is a vast understatement, but amidst its tears-inducing horrors, it conveys a genuinely uplifting sense of its subject’s refusal to quit, especially once he endeavors to use his fame to help others with ALS. The story of a man, and family, torn asunder by disease, and yet unwilling to just accept defeat, it’s the non-fiction film of the year.


. Green Room

 

The most hardcore thriller in years, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Blue Ruin is another exercise in extreme, nail-biting suspense, this time about a just-scraping-by punk band (comprised of the late Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) that unwisely decides to accept a gig at a rural neo-Nazi music club. When they happen to witness the aftermath of a murder, they become captives of the resident skinheads and their leader (a terrifying Patrick Stewart), leading to a prolonged showdown which Saulnier stages as a series of quiet, panic-stricken moments and bursts of brutal violence—a storytelling rhythm in tune with the sludgy punk and metal thundering through the venue’s speakers. A relentless assault on one’s nerves that pummels viewers with the same all-out viciousness exhibited by the racists slam-dancing around the venue’s grimy, beer-soaked floors, Green Room (which we dubbed “mosh-pit cinema”) leaves a lasting mark.


. The Lobster
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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is one of the strangest movies in recent memory—and one of the most hilariously (and surprisingly profound) ones as well. In this pitch-black future-society saga, a single man (Colin Farrell) checks into a hotel where, by law, he must find a mate within 45 days or be transformed into the animal of his choice. (His preference? A lobster.) In that wacko locale, Farrell’s lonely loser pals around with other equally strange sorts, and tries to forge a romance with a female counterpart, before eventually fleeing for the woods where anti-monogamy rebels are stationed. A deadpan dystopian comedy that also functions as a bizarro-world examination of love, relationships, marriage, and the basic human desire for connection, Lanthimos’ film is that rare thing in today’s cinema: an unqualified original.


. O.J.: Made in America

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There will be those who argue that O.J.: Made in America—a documentary that runs seven hours and 47 minutes, and is divided into self-contained chapters—is in fact a long-form TV documentary. Nonetheless, thanks to a limited theatrical run in May, Ezra Edelman’s non-fiction opus is eligible for 2016 movie awards, and even in a year overflowing with gems, it stands head and shoulders about the rest.

.Embrace of the Serpent

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Something like a cross between a long-lost documentary and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra’s drama charts two hallucinatory courses—during distinct, and yet eerily similar, time periods—through the Amazon. In both stories, a German interloper seeks assistance from a native shaman in his quest for a plant that reportedly has magical healing qualities, with both separated-by-decades journeys revealing the ways in which Western interlopers has affected the region and its indigenous cultures. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Guerra’s trance-like tale is rich in ethnographic details, and its lead performances from non-professional actors Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama (both as the shaman) are unaffected and haunting. Though highly critical of the damage wrought by modern civilization in this untamed land, it’s a film that refuses to simplistically lecture, instead ultimately expressing a mature ambivalence about colonialism’s complicated legacy.

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