Let’s talk about 2016. Though you may understandably be reluctant so to do.
I don’t think many will disagree when I say this has been a bad year. They might take exception to the word “bad.” Which is fair. It might be better to say this year has been so crushingly weak.
But do the next two months offer some hope of salvation? That’s what I hope to determine.
First off, let’s just take stock of the shitshow that has been this year. I’ve seen 70 films so far this year that I’ve rated and ranked. Only 5 of them earn **** from me, and none score above 88. And of those five films, one is a European production which some would argue should count as a 2015 release (The Lobster), and two are documentaries (Weiner and Tickled).
That means only two dramatic narrative films which unequivocally hail from 2016 earn my top star rating: Finding Dory and Don’t Think Twice. They’re both delightful films. But the fact that they represent the pinnacle of narrative cinema in 2016 (at least from my admittedly limited vantage) is sobering.
My top 10 continues with a drama (Indignation) which comes very near **** but just misses, a superhero epic (Captain America: Civil War), a very good modern western than others considered great (Hell or High Water), a very good animated film let down by a weak third act (Zootopia), and a bizarre, incredibly divisive film which on the surface is about a farting corpse but underneath is a rather poignant bromance (Swiss Army Man, as if it could be anything else).
You might reasonably point out that, anymore, studios withhold their best films until the end of the year to increase their chances of Oscar glory. But there’s more to it than that. There are two other factors to consider which form the basis of my generally low view of this year.
First, the sheer of number of films this year which proved actively disappointing, to myself or to others. I’ll go into more detail when I do my Overrated/Underrated list, but here a few films which especially left me wanting:
- The BFG: Steven Spielberg adapting a Roald Dahl novel should produce more inspiring results than this. Instead, it’s one of his least memorable films ever.
- The Birth of a Nation: Setting aside the importance of the story and the ugly past of its creator, it’s not a good film. It’s bad history and problematic drama.
- Hail, Caesar!: The Coens tried to make a trifle and ended up with a film so insubstantial the trailer outright lied about how much plot it had. One of their weakest.
- Knight of Cups: I defended To the Wonder, but this was the point where Malick’s abstractions finally collapsed in on themselves.
- Midnight Special: Ambiguity can work in a film’s favor when there’s weight behind it. Here, it’s ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, leaving the story and characters so attenuated that the only thing which makes a real impact is Michael Shannon’s performance.
And there are others which let me down to lesser degrees: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Nice Guys, Equity, High-Rise, The Witch, Love & Friendship, and Kubo and the Two Strings all fell short of my expectations – though most of them had redeeming qualities.
Second, there’s the matter of how many of this year’s films, regardless of what score I gave them, am I likely to return to often or at all. That’s a pretty damn subjective category to place films into, but I get too caught up in stars and numerical scores as it is.
Just at a glance, The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, and possibly High-Rise. Maybe Deadpool. And perhaps Hell or High Water. But beyond that…just not much that feels like it’ll draw me back time and again.
So here we are, nearly 10 full months into the year (though, given the release patterns of awards-season films, the year in film really has 13 months at least), and unless you’re lucky enough to attend major film festivals, you may well conclude that this will go down as one of the weakest film years in recent history.
But, as always, there is hope. And after some consideration, I’ve compiled a list of 50 films I have yet to see (and some of which the world has yet to see) which stand a fighting chance of redeeming this year.
I’ll start with what I consider the 10 most promising:
- Arrival – Denis Villeneuve may have stumbled a little bit (for me) with Sicario, but I can’t deny his talent and this first-contact story (starring Amy Adams as a linguist!) not only looks awesome, but has the reviews to back it up as something special.
- Elle – Paul Verhoeven can be brilliant (RoboCop) or terrible (Showgirls), but he’s never been bland, and this rape-revenge thriller starring Isabelle Huppert is apparently one of the year’s most potent films. A friend has already seen it and vouches for it.
- Fences – Just look at that trailer. One of the most acclaimed American plays of the last 40 years, brought to the screen by one of our most accomplished actors. At the very least this should be a showcase for some great acting.
- Jackie – I’m not all that interested in Jackie Kennedy, and I’ve long considered Natalie Portman overrated. But by all accounts (and the trailer certainly seems to back it up), Pablo Lorrain has crafted one of the best biopics of the year. So I’m in.
- La La Land – Whiplash was pretty damn good, and the way it infused musical rhythms into its storygtellin boded well for Chazelle’s future as a musical filmmaker. So, naturally he followed it with an original film musical, and has been praised for it.
- Manchester By the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama looks a little dry, but the buzz has been building for months as to it being one of the primary Oscar contenders of the year. I’m going to let this one surprise me as much as possible.
- Moonlight – I’ve already mentioned how excited I am for this tale of a gay black youth at three points in his maturation. But it bears repeating: this film looks incredible, is apparently incredible, and opened to smash per-theater grosses.
- Nocturnal Animals – Years ago, A Single Man impressed me and many others tremendously. Now Tom Ford returns with a metafictional thriller that looks like a Sirkian delight. The reviews are a touch mixed, but it looks like my cup of tea.
- Silence – I’ve been making my way through the novel, which is a bit of a slog. But a new Scorsese film is always an event, and in his hands the struggles of priests in feudal Japan should be compelling viewing. Should be.
- Toni Erdmann – This German family comedy-drama got some of the best reviews at this year’s Cannes festival. Again, I’m going to let it surprise me, but between the plaudits and the intriguing epic length, I’m excited to see it.
In addition to those 10 are another 15 I think stand a strong chance of impressing me:
- Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt directing a fine ensemble (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Laura Dern);
- The Eagle Huntress – an acclaimed documentary about a Kazakh eagle trainer;
- The Edge of Seventeen – an acclaimed high school comedy-drama with Hailee Steinfeld’s best work since True Grit;
- Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson returns to directing with this WWII epic about a pacifist medic (Andrew Garfield);
- The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park directs an epic-length erotic thriller period piece and the critics go wild;
- I, Daniel Blake – British social realist master Ken Loach wins his second Palme d’Or with this story about the failings of the UK’s social services;
- The Love Witch – a feminist horror film which is also an homage to 60s horror, and to that end shot on film and crafted a lush period aesthetic, the result at least looking gorgeous;
- Loving – Jeff Nichols returns with the true story behind Loving v. Virginia, featuring awards-contending performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga;
- A Monster Calls – a boy grappling with his mother’s terminal illness finds a friend in a monstrous entity voiced by Liam Neeson;
- Neruda – Pablo Larraín, after making the most enticing biopic of the year with Jackie, gives himself a run for his money with this look at the life of poet Pablo Neruda;
- Paterson – Jim Jarmusch’s lauded portrait of an American poet (Adam Driver), based in part on the work of William Carlos Williams;
- Personal Shopper – after earning career-best reviews working with Olivier Assayas on Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart reteams with him for this thriller and might just outdo herself;
- A Quiet Passion – Terence Davies continues the parade of promising pictures about poets with this portrait of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon);
- 20th Century Women – Mike Mills returns with a comedy-drama boasting Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and strong reviews;
- Voyage of Time – frustrating though Knight of Cups may have been, Terrence Malick is always worth seeking out.
And then there are 25 more – 25 films which could be great, could be awful, could be forgettable, but all of which I want to give a fighting chance to:
Allied, Always Shine, Assassin’s Creed, The Bad Batch, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Chevalier, Christine, Collateral Beauty, Doctor Strange, The Founder, Gold, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, Hidden Figures, Lion, Live by Night, Miss Sloane, Moana, Passengers, Patriots’ Day, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Rules Don’t Apply, The Salesman, Sieranevada, Sunset Song, and Una.
Some of these films are more promising than others – some, I confess, I have considerable doubts about. And some I just don’t know; Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s first film in 15 years and first directorial effort in 18, is a rom-com in which he plays Howard Hughes. It has a starry cast and looks just as bizarre as it sounds:
Like, what the hell is that going to end up being? Awesome or just a trainwreck?
Or take Collateral Beauty, starring Will Smith as a man who writes letters to Love, Death, and Time:
What the fuck. Really. What the fuck is this?
All that said, I do have hope. I’ve listed enough films that give me enough cause for it to think that, when I assemble my film awards (almost exactly three months from today), I’ll be happy with what I see.
And to that end, I’ve decided to do my first and only round of predictions for my awards. I’ll confine myself to the major categories: Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress, and my three writing categories.
- La La Land
- The Lobster
- Nocturnal Animals
- Toni Erdmann
I just took my ten most anticipated films and swapped out one (Manchester By the Sea) for The Lobster, which I can’t imagine not getting on. If it gets nudged out, then this will be the best year for film since…2012?
- Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
- Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
- Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
- Paul Verhoeven, Elle
- Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Taking a bit of a shot in the dark here. Ford and Jenkins’ films look beautiful. Lanthimos did an amazing j0b. Verhoeven and Villeneuve are just good directors working with very promising material.
But Scorsese, Park, Larraín, Reichardt, and Anna Biller (The Love Witch) are very much potential threats.
- Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
- Joel Edgerton, Loving
- Andrew Garfield, Silence
- Michael Keaton, The Founder
- Denzel Washington, Fences
Another crap shoot. Edgerton and Washington seem very strong, Affleck has a lot of buzz, Garfield has a plum role, and Keaton is on a hot streak.
But there’s also Warren Beatty (assuming he’s lead), Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals (assuming he’s lead), Ryan Gosling in La La Land, Peter Simonischek in Toni Erdmann, Adam Driver in Paterson, Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake, and the possibility of a special nominee for the three actors – Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert – playing Chiron in Moonlight (kind of like what I did for Love & Mercy last year).
- Amy Adams, Nocturnal Animals
- Isabelle Huppert, Elle
- Ruth Negga, Loving
- Natalie Portman, Jackie
- Emma Stone, La La Land
A stronger category than Actor. Viola Davis has opted to go Supporting for Fences (and I’ll go along unless she’s too unquestionably a lead), which eases the pressure a touch, but there are still ample contenders for the final five slots.
Also in contention are Adams (for Arrival), Rebecca Hall for Christine, Sandra Hüller for Toni Erdmann, Annette Bening for 20th Century Women, Kim Min-hee or Kim Tae-ri for The Handmaiden, Hailee Steinfeld for The Edge of Seventeen, any of the three leads of Certain Women, Hayley Squires in I, Daniel Blake, Kristen Stewart for Personal Shopper, Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion, Jessica Chastain for Miss Sloane, and Rooney Mara in Una (if it opens this year).
- Jovan Adepo, Fences
- Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
- John Goodman, Patriots Day
- Liam Neeson, Silence
- Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Supporting categories are a lot trickier to predict because supporting performances tend to be less emphasized in trailers. Ali is the only one I’m really confident in, although if Washington and Davis are award-worthy for Fences, Adepo (as their son) might well come along.
Goodman is just a guess. Neeson has the kind of role that gets nominated. And I’ve always liked Sarsgaard as an actor (he plays Bobby).
Other possibilities: Mykelti Williamson in Fences, Yōsuke Kubozuka in Silence (he plays Kichijiro, for those who’ve read the book), Lucas Hedges for Manchester By the Sea, Michael Shannon (or Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for Nocturnal Animals, and Ha Jung-woo in The Handmaiden.
- Viola Davis, Fences
- Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
- Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
- Naomie Harris, Moonlight
- Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea
Again, it’s not always easy to tell what performances will count as Supporting or be standouts, but Davis is getting on somewhere, Harris has earned glowing reviews, Williams has strong buzz, Gladstone looks like a possible breakout, and I just generally like Gerwig.
Also contending: Gerwig (for Jackie), Felicity Jones in A Monster Calls, Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion, Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women.
- La La Land
- The Lobster
- Manchester By the Sea
- Toni Erdmann
Moonlight was supposedly based on a play, but as the play was unpublished (and possibly unperformed), it’s being pushed Original. No matter.
La La Land is slightly iffy, just because musicals are often less about the writing. Don’t Think Twice, 20th Century Women, I, Daniel Blake, Personal Shopper, and…let’s say Sieranevada are the other likely contenders.
- Certain Women
- Nocturnal Animals
Very strong category here. The other strong contenders are Silence, A Monster Calls, Una, Sunset Song, and my current #1, Indignation.
- The Founder
- A Quiet Passion
I’d put on Rules Don’t Apply, but that looks so ahistorical I’m not sure I can.
Not much besides those. Christine, Patriots Day and Lion, I guess? My current #1, Florence Foster Jenkins, is also a possibility.
And now we just see what happens.