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2016: The Masterpieces

I’d hoped that I would’ve had more time for this, since so many awards hopefuls and critical darlings didn’t get wide releases until the last week of 2016 or January 2017. But since I may very well be snowed in for the second weekend of this winter so far, this seems like as good a time as any to get the ball rolling. For those who are new to this, here are the rules that all my year-end lists will be following.

1. The only films considered will be those that I’ve personally seen and reviewed. My cinematic diet was especially curtailed this year, due to a variety of personal events and the general craziness of 2016. As a direct result, I couldn’t get around to Cafe SocietyLovingThe HandmaidenEverybody Wants Some!!Our Kind of TraitorThe InfiltratorMike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and others. This also means that Oscar contenders I haven’t gotten to yet — such as JackieWhen A Monster CallsHidden Figures, etc. — will not be considered here. But there are three cases that deserve special mention.

Suicide Squad — Jared Leto and David Ayer pulled some immoral shit on their colleagues, Warner Bros. actually embraced and promoted that as a reason to see the movie, and I decided I couldn’t support that.

Sausage Party — Again, this one came down to ethics. When animators for this movie came forward and detailed all the ways that they had allegedly gotten screwed over, I promptly checked out.

Deepwater Horizon — I made it half an hour into this movie before the whole theater lost power. Not enough to write a review, but enough for me to lose interest in coming back to see the whole thing.

2a. Movies released before 2016 are disqualified. This includes foreign releases in 2015 or earlier. Which means that The LobsterBeauty and the Beast (2014), and Tale of Tales are all out.

2b. Festival screenings in 2015 or earlier don’t count. For example, The Witch was put on a lengthy festival tour in late 2015, but it wasn’t publicly released until February of 2016. The filmmakers and distributors could’ve done anything to the movie in the intervening time. So as far as I’m concerned, and for the purposes of this list, any festival screenings are considered unfinished products.

3. Only one award per movie, and only one movie per award. I don’t want any tied wins because that’s lazy, and I don’t want any one film to win everything because that’s boring. Note, however, that there is no limit on how many nominations a film may be awarded.

4. No more than five nominees to a category. Because I have to draw the line somewhere.

All of that aside, let’s start with the Masterpieces of 2016.

Best Light Drama

This seems like as good a place as any to put Swiss Army Man, as it was a defiantly oddball movie that refused to fit any particular category. It was a sweet little film, if perhaps a little too quirky for its own good. Similarly, Maggie’s Plan was a deliberately messy film, for better and for worse. Another highlight was Captain Fantastic, even if it fell apart at the end.

I’m giving this one to Manchester by the Sea, though it seems odd to call it a “light drama” when so much tragic shit happens. Even so, the movie feels so much more authentic than any of the aforementioned films. It’s more memorable, the characters are more interesting, and it very effectively conveys the feeling that we’re witnessing an especially turbulent moment in the lives of actual people. It’s the best written, best acted, and best directed film of the bunch.

Best Coming-of-Age Drama

Most people would probably call Moonlight the clear winner, but while it’s admittedly a good film, I just couldn’t bring myself to rave over it like most other critics. Something about the presentation just put me off. I was way more fond of Girl Asleep, with its boundless energy and creativity, but I don’t know if a 77-minute film technically qualifies as a feature.

My choice is Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an utterly fantastic film with laughs and tears aplenty. It’s poignant, it’s thought-provoking, it has some fantastic character arcs, it has a wonderful climactic car chase… what more could anyone need?

Best War Drama

The year started out with an unexpected surprise, as 13 Hours turned out to be way more thrilling and intelligent than anyone expected. Another surprise came from Tina Fey, who tried her hand at a war dramedy to mixed results with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In the setting of WWII, we got Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which sadly watered down its outstanding “war is hell” presentation with so much extraneous bullshit. Allied has its detractors, but I’m just not seeing why — I honestly thought it was a fine spy thriller.

But I’m handing this award to Eye in the Sky, a gripping and whip-smart look at the ethics, mechanics, and international tensions of 21st century warfare. From the innocent bystanders to the drone pilots, from the politicians and bureaucrats to the generals, it feels like every last detail of this one drone strike is subject to intense scrutiny on the part of the filmmakers. The cast is exceptional, the subject matter is sublimely examined, and I was hooked through every second.

Best Crime Thriller

War Dogs started out well enough, though it sadly fell to pieces in the back half. Nocturnal Animals was a heartbreaking revenge thriller inside a pretentious and borderline useless over-story. The Accountant had elements of a crime thriller, but it also had so many elements of other genres and none of them really stuck together all that well.

The best crime thriller of the year was always going to be Hell or High Water. It’s an impeccably made movie with a stellar cast, hard-hitting action, a highly intelligent cops-and-robbers conflict, and a wide variety of thought-provoking themes. It’s a phenomenal neo-western that damn well deserves recognition among the year’s best.

Best Biopic

We’ve got three noteworthy contenders this year, all uniquely flawed in their own ways. There’s Queen of Katwe, a touching little story that couldn’t overcome its own pacing issues or make chess interesting to watch. There’s Sully, an outstanding portrayal of the recent “Miracle on the Hudson” water landing, though it was weighed down by a transparent and utterly useless bureaucratic subplot that had absolutely no basis in an event that we all remember from freaking 2009. Then of course there’s The Birth of a Nation, which did an outstanding job of showing the audience with unflinching honesty how good men allowed the evils of slavery to continue. Even if the film’s authenticity could charitably be described as “controversial”. It’s more than a little troubling that the climactic battle at Jerusalem never actually happened, and it’s disturbing how Nate Parker invented a rape scene and fridged almost every single female character for the sake of his protagonist.

Parker took utterly reprehensible liberties that made for a less authentic portrayal of its subject, even if it resulted in a better movie about the degradation and eventual rebellion of antebellum slaves. By comparison, Clint Eastwood is only guilty of putting in his libertarian politics where they don’t remotely fit, leaving a much more visible impact on the film but taking less away from its portrayal of the main subject.

It’s a tough call, and I could go back and forth on this all day. But when it comes to biopics, I think I’m going to err on the side of the more authentic portrayal. And anyway, Sully did a remarkable job of putting us in the headspace of its title character, and taking us back to a time when our bitterly divided nation needed a hero. The choice to portray the water landing several times from different perspectives was inspired, and it made for a neatly uplifting tribute to the American spirit. The subject may not be as hard-hitting, but it’s still a well-made film that provides a badly-needed message of hope.

Best Mindfuck

Oh, we’ve got some great candidates this year, folks. Again, Girl Asleep is a fine choice and you should totally track it down if you already haven’t. This was also the year of The Neon Demon, which was, uh… well, it was a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Arrival is probably the crowd favorite, with its mind-bending presentation and utterly ingenious premise.

But my choice has to be Midnight Special. While the movie does have an infuriating Lindelof-esque tendency to answer questions with unsolveable riddles, it’s still a fantastic movie that makes really bold choices and offers a poignant story powered by stellar performances. But what really pushes this one over the line for me is in how it dances between science and spirituality. The film’s revelations play out in ways that beg to be interpreted in any number of ways, and the ambiguity makes for a personal experience that’s greatly enriching.

Best Star Vehicle

This was the year that brought us Hello, My Name is Doris, which was a sweet little trifle even if nobody needed another reminder that Sally Field is awesome. Likewise, Fences is a wonderful movie (even if it suffered a bit in adaptation), but it’s not like Denzel Washington has anything to prove at this point.

Miss Sloane, on the other hand, is the Oscar vehicle that Jessica Chastain has so richly deserved for several years now. She completely brings the house down in the title role, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s supported by a long list of powerful talents. While the climax is admittedly a touch iffy, this is still a phenomenal political thriller that explores a lot of great themes in potent and surprising ways.

Best Masterpiece

This was a tough choice for the longest time. All year, I kept waiting for one picture that well and truly knocked me over. The film that made me genuinely excited to tell everyone — online and in person — that this was without question the defining cinematic masterpiece of 2016. And that feeling never came. Until the last minute.

In every possible way, on every conceivable level, La La Land is a marvel. The central romance is enthralling, the visuals are gorgeous, the music is phenomenal, the choreography is breathtaking, the writing is funny and tearjerking, the central themes about pursuing happiness and shooting for the stars are beautifully portrayed through jazz stylings and old-school cinema style… seriously, folks, I haven’t been able to stop raving about this film since I saw it. No film in all of 2016 left such a huge impression on me. I have absolutely zero problem saying that it’s the absolute best this year had to offer in cinema.


Do you agree with the list? Is there anything I left out? Be sure and leave a comment. There are two more lists coming — one for the Disappointments and one for the Wild Rides — so be sure to stay tuned.


  1. Ping from Jack:

    I was hoping you would see Silence so that it could be eligible for this list.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Alas, it hasn’t come to Portland yet.

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