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The Top Five Movies of 2016 (so far)

June 30, 2016

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Every year around this time, film enthusiasts bemoan the state of cinema, claiming ‘there’s nothing out there’ or ‘it’s been a lousy year’ and every year I say that’s a load of hooey – you just have to know where to look. Of course, it’s all subjective. As Paul Simon said, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”, meaning you might think Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” is the best film of the year (so far) and I may wish you well, while feeling the total opposite. We all have out preferences and predilections and some films will have a greater impact than others. The films that show up on this list are the ones that surprised or impressed us in some manner, but most of all they’re the ones that resonant the most out of all the films we’ve seen from January to June – the ones we’re happy to champion and eager to revisit. 

So, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed “Deadpool” and “Captain America: Civil War“, they’re not making my list. Sure, I’d watch them again in a heartbeat and they’re great, well-crafted standouts in their genre, but they also come with certain expectations – I kind of know what I’m in store for. I really liked “The Witch” too, but that one was so unsettling, I don’t know if I can handle watching it by myself again. For a rewatch of that horror flick, I’d have to introduce it to a first-time viewer – sounds like a good date night with the wife!

Of course, there are certainly movies I want to revisit and soon – some of them I have yet to write reviews for. Since I love the work of writer/director Jeff Nichols, I still have to give his latest, “Midnight Special” another viewing before I make up my mind. It was highly-anticipated for me and I was slightly let down by it, yet I’m open to changing my outlook on that one. I also can’t wait to watch Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room”, a punk rock/white supremacist thriller that filled me with anxiety and left me pretty shell-shocked.

Other movies I really liked that didn’t make this list (in no particular order): “Hail, Caesar!“, “Sing Street”, “Louder Than Bombs”, “Embrace of the Serpent“, “Sembene!“, “10 Cloverfield Lane”, “Zootopia“, “The Nice Guys”, “Sunset Song“, “The Lobster”, “Dheepan” and “In Harmony” – are just some that come to mind. Of course, there are films on my radar that I’ve yet to catch up with: “Love & Friendship”, “Born to Be Blue”, “Eye in the Sky”, “Weiner”, “Cemetery of Splendor”, “Krisha”, “Neon Bull” and “OJ: Made in America”.

There were memorable films that I saw at film festivals this year – like the Iranian Film Festival in February and the month-long European Union Film Festival in March, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Then there’s also all the great films I saw in May at the Music Box Theatre for the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Too many to list here, some of them have upcoming release dates, while others are still waiting to get picked up by a distributor.

Since there are so many films that floored me I have to set some parameters for myself in how I comprise such a list. Therefore, the common thread in my selected five is that each provided a certain degree of discovery for me. It turns out my five are first-time viewings from each of these respective directors. I didn’t plan that, it just worked out that way. Some of these films may have received a release date first in 2015, but they’re Chicago releases were in 2016.

It’s an honor to once again have my colleague Steven Attanasie join me in this mid-year analysis as he picks his favorites from this year as well. Without further ado, here’s what we consider to be the top five films we’ve seen so far this year….

 

 

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Deadpool

5.

 

Steven Attanasie – DEADPOOL

I have to say that I’m glad I held off on seeing “Deadpool” until it was released on blu-ray. This meant that I got to see it after the overwhelming major league comic book movies that followed: “Batman v Superman”, “Captain America: Civil War”, and “X-Men: Apocalypse”. It was a true breath of fresh air that clocked in well below two hours and didn’t concern itself with the world-ending consequences that almost every other comic book movie has for the last five years. Ryan Reynolds finally found a vehicle that fits his unique brand of man-child handsomeness, and the film’s self-aware tone and lack of reverence for just about every single trope of the genre made this one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

David J. Fowlie – UNDER THE SHADOW

For a movie that will be described as “that Iranian horror film that’s kind of like “The Babadook”, there’s a lot more going on in writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut than just that. But whatever gets people to see this fascinating psychological thriller that also happens to have some potent social commentary. This story takes place in the late 80s, during the Iran-Iraq war, where Shideh (Narges Rashid) a struggling mother is trying to make sense of a mysterious evil that is haunting her and her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), in their apartment complex, where the threat of bombing looms. As the child becomes ill and nightmares fueled by anxiety and insecurity increase for her mother, Anvari builds a palpable sense of frenzy, while acutely portraying how cruelly women are treated in Iran. But if it wasn’t for the tremendous performance from Rashidi, the legitimate scares and supernatural element that Anvari injects wouldn’t have been convincing. I look forward to more work from her and the director. This is a movie that is ripe for discussion long after viewing.  I caught “Under the Shadow” at the Chicago Critics Film Festival – look for it to get limited theatrical release and Netflix streaming later this year.

 

 

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Mountains May Depart

 

4.

 

Steve Attanasie – THE JUNGLE BOOK 

I wasn’t quite sure this film was going to work at all. Let’s face it, it’s got a dark history and the story was crafted in a time that’s not quite as culturally sensitive as it is now. However, Jon Favreau managed to exploit both the darker elements of the original story as well as the cartoony fun of the Disney animated original to make the most wholly satisfying live action adaptation of their work yet. The 3D was immersive and incredible to look at in IMAX, and the film retained just enough edge to make for a future favorite among the hip kids.

David J. Fowlie – MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART 

This touching and heartbreaking Chinese drama by writer/director Jia Zhangke was one of the six movies I watched flying to and from Bucharest in April. The film was the best out of them all and it follows the life of three specific stages in the life of Tao, a woman who chooses between two suitors to marry, rides through the tumultuous marriage as she raises her only son and deals with unfortunate hardships that come when extreme change occurs in life. The actors excel at complex roles with challenging emotions, but Zhao Tao (the star and director’s wife) is the heart of the film. Heavy and light emotions match the Zhangke’s artful mise-en-scene in “Mountains May Depart”, reminding viewers how life’s joys and heartaches cannot be avoided, but we can connect and reconnect as many times as it takes to find fulfillment.

 

 

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Keanu

3.

 

Steven Attanasie – KEANU 

Here’s another film I doubted up until the minute it began. I love Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, but wondered if they could break out of the confines of sketch comedy. They certainly did so more successfully than “Popstar”, which I also loved, but was piecemeal sketch comedy to the core. Key and Peele are a dynamic team who bring out the absolute best in one another, and this highly self-aware parody of over the top action movies like “John Wick” manages to land joke after joke. Anna Faris gets her best role in years and Jason Mitchell follows up his fantastic performance in “Straight Outta Compton” with his scene stealing work here.

David J. Fowlie – L’ATTESA (THE WAIT) 

I can confidently admit that the directorial debut from Italian filmmaker Piero Messina (a disciple of Paolo Sorrentino) is impressive, but all I really have to say is that its lead actor is Juliette Binoche and that right there will tell you why “L’Attesa” made my list. She’s magnificent, luminous and one of the best grievers in independent cinema. Guided by Messina’s artful hand, Binoche plays a single mother who is struggling with unsurmountable loss and grief in her and then meets her son’s girlfriend for the first time, during a challenging and awkward time. Binoche beautifully navigates a variety of behaviors and emotions, guiding us through pain and sadness with a stillness, grace and strength. The story in “The Wait” may be overly vague for some, but it does remind me that we as cinema viewers are often simply observers. Observers rarely have all the details pertaining to the lives of those they are watching. Sometimes the little information that can be gleaned is more than enough to go on and Messina knows this.

 

 

 

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My Golden Days

2.

 

Steve Attanasie – ZOOTOPIA 

Zootopia was also, sadly, another film I severely underestimated. The creative team at Disney animation has flourished under John Lasseter, and Zootopia might be their best wholly original product since Wreck-It Ralph. I love that Disney is no longer hamstrung by the musical formula. That worked well in the 90s, and can still work well as it did in Frozen and The Princess and The Frog, but I love seeing Disney find these deep non-musical oddities. The film’s message is timeless and connects with people old and young, and its humor is deeply rooted in satire, making it one of the most biting animated films of the last few years. You could honestly tell me that this was a stealth Pixar film, and I’d believe it. It’s that good.

David J. Fowlie – MY GOLDEN DAYS 

I’ve seen quite a few coming-of-age films this year, but Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” really spoke to me and  his handling of memories is really honest and real here. The film, which was co-written by the French director as well, is a mesmerizing and profoundly endearing look at the unforgettable memories we hold on to (whether or not we realize it). We all have them. There are childhood occurrences, eye-opening moments during the teen years and that first love – all of which linger and rise to the surface of our minds, throughout years of life experiences.  His distinctive choices, such as: split screen, dissolving iris shots and on-screen character narration directed at the audience, serve to enriched the storytelling process and viewing experience. If we take anything away from the film, anything from Paul’s memories, it’s that they are his, just as the ones we own are our own and they are ours to tell.

 

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THE NICE GUYS

1.

 

Steven Attanasie – THE NICE GUYS 

If you’re noticing a trend thus far, it’s that I went into a lot of movies this year with super low expectations. Oddly, The Nice Guys was the one film I went into with sky-high expectations and it met and exceeded every last one of them. Ryan Gosling has finally found his voice in comedy and it’s a truly brilliant thing to watch. Russell Crowe has a total blast making me regret ever underestimating him, and Shane Black is right in his sweet spot as both a writer and director. Like his directorial debut “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, I look forward to revisiting this film over and over again. I’ve already begun quoting it, and if that’s not the sign of an instant classic, I don’t know what is.

David J. Fowlie – THE WAILING 

This will be a film I will remember by the time the end of the year comes around. Korean writer/director Hong-jin Na (“The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea”) has made an epic horror thriller and not just because it has a length that exceeds two hours. This mesmerizing and absorbing film has so many conventions of horror flicks in it – a living/breathing ghost, a mysterious demon, a possessed child, a flesh-eating zombie and spiritual rituals – that is seems so unbelievable that it ends up being a masterpiece. Yet it is, for many reasons. There’s the dense screenplay which offers a fully-realized environment in a South Korean mountain village that is being ravaged by a strange and violent illness once an old Japanese fisherman moves there. Kwak Do-won, who plays the main character, Jong-gu, a somewhat inept police detective (often crippled by cowardice) determined to save his daughter, is so fascinating to watch. As the potential antagonist, Kunimura is nerve-wracking and unpredictable. In fact, there’s never really a moment where you feel like you know where this film is going and that’s both extremely satisfying and surprising. The climax and conclusion of “The Wailing” is a whopper and while it may not be a tidy one, those are still the best kind of endings. Afterwards, you may still wonder what you just witnessed, who was who and what was what, which is exactly how the characters in the film felt.

 

 

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