Best Movies of 2016, so far

We already have a million year-end lists.  Do we really NEED these interim lists?  I guess so, because we're seeing more and more of them. We all have our favorite movies, whether it’s a thriller, a drama, or even a comedy. But maybe you want to see a new movie at the theater or On Demand from your TV. Here are some of the top movies (so far) of 2016.

Are your favorite 2016 films also in the list? Let me know if there are other movies we can't afford to miss this year.

10. The Hateful Eight

As much as any mainstream film consumer has an opinion, positive or negative, about "Star Wars," it is likely that they also have an opinion, positive or negative, about Quentin Tarantino, as big a brand as any working filmmaker. At this point in his career, he's the reason I go to the theater. I don't care what the subject matter is, who's in it, or when it's released. I will go see any movie Quentin makes, no matter what, because he's earned that at this point. When he makes a film, he does it with a voice and an attitude and a style that is clearly and unmistakably his, and by now, if you're even remotely interested in his movies, you have a pretty good idea what sort of thing you're in for when you go to see "The Hateful Eight."

In what seems very fitting in a year where some of the most interesting films are very specific variations on and updates of other films, Quentin Tarantino has created a sort of spiritual remake of "Reservoir Dogs." A whole bunch of very bad people get together in a locked-down situation and some bad things happen. It's really that simple, just like it was that simple in 1991, and of course, that doesn't remotely describe the experience of "The Hateful Eight."

9. the neon demon

There’s little question where Nicolas Winding Refn is aiming with his new film The Neon Demon. This is a savage, jet-black look at young women, the fashion industry, and the bloody, ugly place those two collide. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, and I doubt you’ll see a better fit for a performer in any film this year. Fanning has been working consistently ever since she recorded a voice opposite her sister for the American release of My Neighbor Totoro. She did solid work in films like Reservation Road, The Nines, Babel, and Deja Vu, but she was young and unpolished still. The first time I truly thought there was something special happening in her performances was when she made Phoebe In Wonderland, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Somewhere all in a row. You watch those films, and you’ll see a young actor discovering all the tools available to her. 

Nothing about this movie suggests that we’re meant to take anything we’re watching as literal. Things unfold with a weird dream logic, and Refn’s more than happy to leave story threads or character details totally unexplained. There is a definite narrative through-line, and it’s a fairly simple one, but Refn takes his time getting there. Long sequences unfold without any dialogue, and there is a pervasive sense of darkness pushing in at the edge of things from the first frame to the last. Refn’s films are about surfaces as much as they’re about anything else, and there is something sweaty and tactile about the world of The Neon Demon.

8. The long night of Francisco Sanctis

From the magisterial, empyrean viewpoint that Constantini employed both so wittily and chillingly in The Gods, the Little Guys, and the Police comes yet another anecdote of Argentinian political terror of a seemingly blind destiny that is actually controlled by evil's contrivance.

Francisco Sanctis is a milquetoasty, 41-year-old, apolitical bookkeeper in Buenos Aires in 1977. On a Friday afternoon he receives a call at his office from an old acquaintance, a woman who once fancied him but whom he found then unappealing. She must see him, she says on the phone--and, drawn on against his better judgement, Sanctis agrees. The meeting, however, turns out to be no incipient tryst; rather, the woman gives to Sanctis the names and addresses of two unfortunates scheduled that night to be picked up by the secret police in their black Ford Falcons.

Why Sanctis? A brief spell in his student past as a radical--but it can't be only that. It's fate, finally: the finger falling on him. He's scared of knowing the names, and would love to forget them but can't; when he tries to tell them to someone discreetly political, that's too scary; and finally--conscience thickening at the same rate as his terror--he himself goes to warn the men. 

7. Swiss Army Man

A wholly original enormously entertaining and deeply heartfelt look at what it means to be human Swiss Army Man is the feature film debut of acclaimed music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Bursting with limitless creativity in both form and content Swiss Army Man goes from the absurd to the emotional to the whimsical to the profound and back again.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island having given up all hope of ever making it home again. But one day everything changes when a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore the two become fast friends and ultimately go on an epic adventure that will bring Hank back to the woman of his dreams.

Swiss Army Man creates a world like no othera place of pure fantastical imagination brimming with magical realism yet featuring two characters whose dreams and fears are entirely relatable. Dano and Radcliffe both fully commit to their directors audacious vision and their work is exceptional finding the perfect balance of humor and heart that drives the whole film. A celebration of all the wonders cinema has to offer Swiss Army Man is ultimately all the more remarkable for using its dazzling originality to tell a universal story of human complexity and connection.

6. The Wailing (곡성 | 哭声)

The Wailing left me speechless in the very best kind of way. I gave up early in the movie trying to figure out exactly what was happening. I decided to enjoy the ride, and try to interpret the key plot elements on rewatches. If you think you can 100% understand this movie on one watch, you're a whole lot smarter than me.

The Chaser, The Yellow Sea and now The Wailing. Director, Hong-jin Na is now a 3 time winner at the game of making marvelous movies. The cinematography is spectacular. The script is one insane rollercoaster of emotions. The gore. The drama. The intensity. The feeling of dread. This is a real horror movie. Nothing cheap. Nothing gimmicky. Simply, pure holy terror.

I talk about the need for smart horror. This wins a gold medal for intellectualism. I don't want to give away too much, but there's a long extended scene of a shaman performing a ritual, that's cinematic bliss. The acting is beyond amazing. So many cool twists and turns. So many things done just right. I might've been clueless at the end, but what a ride The Wailing is! 

5. American Honey

American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s two-hour and 43-minute, documentary-style looks at a teenager who runs away from abusive/neglectful parents to join a shady group of travelers.

Writer-director Arnold has compassion for the poor, while viewing them with an unflinching eye. She doesn’t romanticize characters, including the tender but corruptible Star. At the same time, she shows how some of us start our lives with winged shoes and some immediately get fitted for a ball-and-chain. She’s less strong on details. I never believed prosperous people would invite strangers who stank of pot and booze into their homes, let along teens with multiple piercings, filthy clothes, insolent manners and gangster-style tattoos.

4. The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

La tortue rouge tells the story of a man who tries to escape from a deserted island and battles a giant turtle. The film, which has no dialogue, follows the major life stages of a castaway on a deserted tropical island populated by turtles, crabs and birds.

In the absence of dialogue, Perez Del Mar’s music is naturally the most important “voice” in the film. It is performed by the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Oleg Kontradenko.

3. Anomalisa

It's fair to say that "Anomalisa" is unlike any movie you've ever seen, which is something fair to say about pretty much any movie Charlie Kaufman is involved in. Kaufman, who wrote "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," is the writer and co-director of this genuinely original, mostly brilliant movie involving love, loss, lust, lechery and longing.

All played out among puppets. Why not? If Kaufman, who adapted his radio play for the film, imagines it, he can bring it about. Why puppets? One might think they would give the film a more impersonal feel, but the effect here is the opposite. There is something about the stop-motion animation — the weird lines across the faces, the familiar-but-different settings for the various scenes — that makes it seem so real it is painful, at times. Perhaps we think we can reach out and control Michael when he does something idiotic (his present from his trip to his son is one hilarious example). And yet, no. We can’t. Kaufman and King somehow give felt puppets an independence they might otherwise have lacked. 

2. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

Beginning in 1999 in the Chinese city of Fenyang (birthplace of director Jia Zhangke), MOUNTAINS MY DEPART tells the intertwining tale of three childhood friends: Liangzi, a coal miner, Zhang, the owner of a gas station, and Tao, the town beauty. Charming and naïve, Tao is torn in her affections for the two men but eventually marries the more assertive Zhang. Flash forward to 2014 as Tao has divorced the money-hungry Zhang who subsequently emigrates to Australia with their young son, tellingly named Dollar. For the last third of the film, Jia brings us into the future: Australia in 2025. Dollar is now 19 and can barely communicate with his now bankrupt father.

Chinese master Jia Zhangke scales new heights with MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. At once an intimate drama and a decades-spanning epic that leaps from the recent past to the present to the speculative near-future, Jia’s new film is an intensely moving study of how China’s economic boom and the culture of materialism has affected the bonds of family, tradition, and love.

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1. Kaili Blues

Ugh. I do not knew where to start, this movie is an ultimate masterpiece.

Kaili Blues, an award-winning feature by emerging young Chinese director Bi Gan, is set in the director’s hometown of Kaili, southwest China.

The film uses a strong visual narrative device to underscore its themes of memory and time and explores the challenges of the past and the conflicts of daily life. Gan enables the audience to experience and reflect on their own memories of love and loss through the the story of the protagonist Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong), a doctor from Kaili. Gan builds on Chen’s story, without being overbearing, through the use of the director’s published poetry, complemented by panoramic views of Kaili.

Poetic and hypnotic, the power of this film comes from its deceptive simplicity; it washes over you so easily that its depth and the contents themselves can too easily fall by the wayside. The whole film is a sort of daze and watching it in the uncertain hours of the night I wasn’t sure if I didn't dream it all. But to simply call it a dream would be to discredit the details and quirks - and the effort - of all those involved in putting this together.

Wide camera angles of the mountains surrounding the area and the winding paths and roads that lead into the valley gives the feature a sense of detachment from the rest of the world. For all the moments of beauty and some amazing cinematography, there’s some ambiguity to Bi’s message at play. It’s certainly not a film that casual audiences will flock to, but for those who find themselves in front of Kaili Blues, they’ll be taken on a dreamy solitary journey of introspection.

Kaili Blues is indifferent to plot but has a compelling fantastical quality. The film will surprise you in many ways with its hybrid of conventional and unconventional tastes.