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January 3, 2017

The Mike's Top 11 Films of 2016

Yeah, I'm surprised to see me writing this too. It's been a while.
I'm not gonna do one of those all about what's been up with me paragraphs, the simple explanation for my absence is that I wanted to write a book so I tried that and failed for a few reasons and then just kinda didn't want to write anymore. So I didn't. 
But today, I wanted to write a list. So I am. Maybe I'll give writing another go, maybe I won't. Let's all just take it one day at a time.
Speaking of one day at a time, let's talk about 2016 - one of the weirdest years I can remember in my life. If you're an American, like me, you know how disastrous our political climate was this year, and how we've basically devolved into being unable to be civil with each other. Celebrities died left and right, people complained about either how bad the year was or how bad people who complained about celebrities dying are, and then we rinsed and repeated. It was a really bad year for empathy, and that put a lot of people - including me - into a bit of a funk at times.
But, as is always the case, the movies were there for us. The movies of 2016 are another thing I heard a lot of complaints about; I'm here to tell you to cut that crap out. There are always good movies being made. Sometimes it's harder to find them, but they're out there.
Here's the ones I found. No qualifiers, not genre specific, just movies that I loved. Let's do this.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
10 Cloverfield Lane, Blair Witch, Blood Father, Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2, The Girl on the Train, The Infiltrator, Swiss Army Man
First Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):
Everybody Wants Some!!, The Invitation, Keanu, Midnight Special, The Neon Demon, The Nice Guys, The Shallows, Star Trek Beyond
The Mike's Top 11 Films of 2016
11 - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 
Directed by Gareth Edwards
This is the Star Wars movie I've been waiting for. It doesn't match the pure spectacle of The Empire Strikes Back or provide the escapist thrills of last year's The Force Awakens, but it's got all the drama I wanted. Led by a wonderfully diverse cast and strong direction by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One gives us a darker set of characters and deeper look at what went into the rebellion we've come to know through its glossier brethren. 
As the final act unrolls, we know the doom that the characters we're following are facing. But there's an uplifting hope that comes from watching them fight back in the face of impossible odds, and the film's emphasis on faith in their cause resonates as much as any other message in the series. One character repeats "I am one with the force, and the force is with me" throughout the movie, and every time we hear it it gets harder to deny the hope that the characters in this story are providing to us through their selfless actions. Rogue One might not be the best Star Wars movie, but right now it's the one that speaks to me and seems to mean something.
10 - Sing Street
Directed by John Carney
We jump from an interstellar rebellion in a galaxy far, far away to a rebellion against normalcy by a group of Irish teens in the 1980s. Once writer/director John Carney hit another home run with Sing Street, in which a youngster - inspired by his brother's music library and, of course, a girl - decides to start his own rock band with his classmates. 
If you don't think this sounds like the kind of movie I'd usually write about, you're correct - but it's really difficult to resist this movie's gleeful charms. Featuring a soundtrack that's inspired by bands like Duran Duran, The Clash, and The Cure, Sing Street provides a touching love story and a soundtrack full of criminally catchy tunes that tell the story of young love and finding your voice. You might not believe me when you start watching Sing Street, but I think you're probably going to have a big grin across your face by the time the movie ends.
9 - Hush
Directed by Mike Flanagan
One of my long time favorites, Mike Flanagan, brought at least two incredibly effective horror movies to audiences in 2016 (I missed Before I Wake, or maybe it hasn't been released yet, I'm not sure anymore). Ouija: Origin of Evil was a surprisingly effective sequel (to a terrible film) that made it to theaters in October, but it was the Netflix exclusive thriller Hush that really knocked my socks off. 
Keeping it simple is one of the most important things in horror, and Flanagan and his co-writer/star Kate Siegel did just that with this tale. Siegel stars as a mute writer who lives in a secluded home in the woods, and if you're thinking "Hmmm, that sounds like someone who would get targeted by a psycho killer in a horror movie" right now then YOU ARE EXACTLY RIGHT. While that premise doesn't seem too inventive, it's the execution by director and star that really makes Hush work. Siegel gives one of the year's best performances - I actually believed she was deaf in real life - and when the game of cat and mouse between her and her attacker picks up in the final act the film becomes a great battle for survival. It makes its home invasion plot feel fresh, which is an achievement in 2016.
8 - Don't Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
I know as much about improv comedy as I do about fly fishing, which is to say that I know absolutely nothing about improv comedy except for where it occurs and the fact that people do it. So when a cast of comedians I love brought me to Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice I found myself learning a lot about an art I was completely clueless toward. I also found myself caught up in the film completely; I actually watched it twice in a row when I first saw if because I wanted to take it all in again.
Don't Think Twice does a great job of managing humorous people in situations that aren't very humorous. This is a tale of jealousy and changing friendships that doesn't give the viewer a lot of easy answers about what they should think about each character's personal dilemmas. It's a complex drama, and this complexity allows talents like Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key to show off their range. Birbiglia has shown through his comedy and writing that he has a true gift for finding the silver lining in loss and fear (see Sleepwalk with Me, one of my favorite movies, for another glimpse at this), and Don't Think Twice works on this level really well.
7 - Shin Godzilla
Directed by Hideaki Anno
If you know me you know it's no surprise that I loved a Godzilla movie, but I'm personally surprised that this movie is here. Shin Godzilla, which could serve as the starting point for a fourth series of Godzilla films by Toho Studios in Japan, is unlike anything else we've seen featuring Big G. 
Not a remake or reimagining, Shin Godzilla starts completely anew with the monster we've come to know and love over the last sixty years, showing us a first appearance to humanity by the monster that's set against the world's current political climate. On that note, large sections of the film focus on politicians and scientists in conference rooms as they work around the clock to figure out just how to approach the situation we find them in. It's not what you'd expect - those who criticized the 2014 Godzilla film for being "talky" will be maddened by this.
Shin Godzilla has been met by a love it or hate it response from a lot of viewers. I understand the concerns about this being an entirely different Godzilla - in both appearance and substance - but I think the premise was handled well and there was just enough of the big guy that I couldn't turn away. If Toho keeps making Godzilla movies like this we could be looking at a bright future for the King of the Monsters.
6 - The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers
I watched The Witch at a theater on a dreary February afternoon this year, and I remember two phases of that viewing. I alternated between leaning forward in my chair, grinning as I anticipated where the story might go next and pressing myself back against the seat, bracing myself for whatever the shrill musical score was telling me was about to happen. I was entranced by this old-fashioned horror tale, and I couldn't have been happier about that when I walked out of the theater. 
It's become common for modern horror films to do their work on the viewer by attacking the senses, as shown by the likes of Insidious and The Conjuring, but The Witch provided me with a lot of the same sensations and seemed to put in a lot less effort. This is a deliberate folktale, and I dug its approach, I loved the big reveal in the final act, and I thought the ambiguous ending was perfectly haunting. The Witch is my kind of high-art horror movie.
5 - Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
I've probably watched Hot Rod ten times since it came out, and I know you might be walking away from reading this right now because I am definitely biased, but please stay with me. The Lonely Island trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer know what they're doing when it comes to musical parodies - as evidenced by their success as a band on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere - and their approach to the mockumentary here is one of the funniest comedies Hollywood has produced in years.
Popstar is full of catchy songs (I dare you to not laugh at Finest Girl's combination of sex and Bin Laden) and great supporting turns (Tim Meadows has never been better), but it's the A-list musical cameos and how seriously everyone approaches the ridiculous pop music scene that really made me smile. I didn't think people like Ringo Starr and Nas (I don't really even know who Nas is!) would make me laugh so much in 2016, which is what makes Popstar such a perfect comedy. 

4 - Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
If you had told me one year ago that this many movies with musical numbers would end up in my favorites list I'd have thought you were nuts. But hey, it's not like that's the most surprising thing about 2016.
What's not surprising is another great film from the Coen brothers, who won me over with their comedic tale of Hollywood communism in the 1950s. A cast of superstars makes sure the film is full of memorable scenes, but it's young Alden Ehrenreich who steals much of the movie as the young western star that links much of the story together. And at the center of everything is George Clooney, a Hollywood leading man playing a caricature of a Hollywood leading man, whose final scene on the set of a biblical epic is one of the best of the year. Hail, Caesar! isn't the Coens at their most ambitious, but there's a lot of fun to be had with this much talent and a plot that has this much fun poking jabs at one of the more infamous moments in Hollywood history.

3 - Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie

Hell or High Water is another refreshingly original film from 2016, a simple crime story in which well written characters are brought to life by incredibly talented actors. It's a subtly political story disguised as a modern day Robin Hood tale, but by not resorting to making one side the villains and the other the heroes it keeps the viewer interested in the fate of everyone involved.

While the world is caught up in turmoil due to people's inability to see the other side's point of view, Hell or High Water managed to serve as a refreshing counterpoint to our current reality for me. It's nice to see a film take on a human matter without demonizing one side or the other, and the film's final scene is one of the great compromises I've seen in cinema. Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan manage to take an ethical approach to a criminal situation at all turns, which makes Hell or High Water one of the great successes of the year.

2 - Arrival
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve

Arrival has been one of the most debated films of the year - unlike Hell or High Water, its message is not at all subtle - but I think it's the most important piece of cinema I saw this year.

It's a simple premise - aliens show up, the military and scientists try to figure out why - but its unique approach to language and communication makes it something completely new to viewers. and the way Villeneuve frames the action is so poetic and deliberate. The first encounter between our main characters and the aliens - from their ascent into the ship to the first contact between man and creature - held me in a trance for its entirety. I could watch that scene on repeat for two hours and be perfectly content.

Arrival talks too much for some viewers and weaves its way to a controversially one-side conclusion, but I can't say that bothered me one bit. This is a special movie that does things its own way, and it is stuck in a great cinematic experience.

1 - Green Room
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Green Room tops the list as my favorite movie of 2016 and, as much as I loved all of these other films, it wasn't even close. Every time I think about this incredibly tense, unfathomably gory slice of cult cinema...I smile.

With great performances - led by the fearless Imogen Poots (who also popped up in a funny role in Popstar) and the late Anton Yelchin - and some of the most brutal scenes we've seen in a long time, it would be easy to point out a lot of reasons why Green Room works. For me it all boils down to one simple point though: this is a film about people who run into a bad situation where they're faced with heartless evil, and we experience first hand everything they have to do as they fight to survive. It's hard to watch at times, because things don't go as you expect them to and at any point it's possible the entire film will jump in another direction. Green Room feels so real and so raw, and that makes this bleak backwoods clash so gripping. From the opening scenes to the perfectly hilarious final line, Green Room is a one of a kind film that shouldn't be missed.
So that's the list. I probably haven't seen that movie you want me to list, but I might want to. Maybe I have seen it and just wasn't sure what to make of it yet. (I'm looking at you, The Lobster!) Feel free to hit up the comments and tell me what you loved, or to tell me off. Either way we'll be talking about movies, so we'll be in a place I want to be.

Now let's get to 2017. I'm sure the first great movie of the year is sneaking up on us right now and we don't even know it. And I love that feeling.