The Grateful Eight: My Favorite Films In 2016

by Ashley Naftule

The New Year creeps ever closer, which means we’re in List-O-Mania season! I’m not immune to the list-making fever, but in lieu of doing a ranked to top 5/10/15/500 movies of the year list, I’d like to present my “Grateful 8” list. Here are eight films I’ve seen in 2016 that left the deepest impressions on me, the films I still think about months after viewing them, the ones that I’m truly grateful I got a chance to see in theaters. They aren’t necessarily the 8 BEST movies of the year, but they are the ones I’d ride or die for (as the kids would say).

Moonlight

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Real talk: If I was gonna do a straight-up 10 Ten Best Movies Of 2016 list, “Moonlight” would be sitting pretty at #1. Nothing else that I’ve seen this year can match it. The stellar acting, the absolutely stunning cinematography, the writing, even the music choices: It’s the kind of movie that will be hailed as a landmark in American cinema in the film textbooks of the future (that is, presuming the robot uprising or Super-Flu doesn’t kill us all first).

I could say more, but I’ve already spelled out my thoughts on it in greater depth elsewhere. If you want to know more, check out my review of “Moonlight” on De’Lunula.

The Love Witch

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One of the last movies I’ve seen this year, “The Love Witch” also happens to be one of the best. It’s a goofy and eccentric film: A homage to Technicolor cinema, “The Love Witch” feels like a glorious throwback to “hippie-sploitation” movies. From townspeople panicking over “a witch epidemic” to the square-jawed cop who looks and sounds like he got picked up from a Dragnet casting call, the film feels like it’s from a different era entirely. But its subversive views on gender, sex, and power are thoroughly modern.

“The Love Witch” is an impressive accomplishment, when you consider that filmmaker Anna Biller wrote, shot, edited, AND did all the costuming for the film. It’s a visually sumptuous film, with fun aesthetic flourishes like an apartment decked out with occult paraphernalia and a drug sequence with flashing wheels of light. The performances seem to be intentionally stilted and corny, which just makes the film even more strange.

In a way “The Love Witch” feels like a goofy cousin to “The Duke Of Burgundy”. Both films are commenting on modern relationships through a lens of genre tropes. Whereas Burgundy is going for a European arthouse softcore style , “The Love Witch” is all about getting down in the valley of the dolls and shouting “It’s my happening and it’s freaking me out!”

It’s the kind of film that movie freaks and occultniks will flip for (Pro tip for you black magick types: This movie is basically a stealth adaptation of LaVey’s “The Satanic Witch”). Go pour a pentagram of butter on your popcorn and take a ride on this film’s broomstick.

One More Time With Feeling

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A haunting meditation on loss and growing old, “One More Time With Feeling” is also an insightful look at the life and creative process of Nick Cave. Shot in rich, luminous B&W (save for one color sequence that feels totally out of place), it isn’t just the best music documentary of the year; I’d say it ranks up there as one of the best non-fiction films of 2016.

I’ve also written a review of “One More Time With Feeling” on De’Lunula, so I’ll keep this entry short. Click ze link if you want to read my in-depth take on it.

Neon Demon

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Out of all the films on this list, this is the one I’m kind of on the fence about. In a lot of ways, it’s a mess. Nicolas Winding Refn fills the films with weird imagery and allusions that don’t quite pay off. The cast (who are quite solid, especially Keanu Reeves as a creepy motel owner) don’t get a lot of room to play with their characters: They’re all working in the same cold, removed register. And the last half hour is just a mess. The film’s got a bad case of “Return Of The King Disorder”: There’s at least FOUR points where I thought the movie was going to end and then it just kept going…

What can’t be denied, though, is the visuals. I can’t think of a more stunning film I’ve seen in 2016. Imagine if David Lynch got to do a feature-length perfume ad. Refn’s film is full of gorgeous and arresting images: A mountain lion in a motel room; A mock snuff-film photo shoot; A bathtub full of blood.

It’s a cold, hollow film where everyone is either a sap or a monster. Everything is a glossy photo-ready surface, a layer of chilly Victoria’s Secret beauty painted on top of a pile of glistening guts. In most other films, this kind of emptiness would be a problem; In “Neon Demon”, it makes perfect sense. It’s a lot easier for demons to possess an empty vessel.

The Lobster

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If eHarmony, Tinder, and dating algorithms existed in Franz Kafka’s era, he probably would have written “The Lobster”. The film’s premise of a dystopian future where single people who aren’t paired off within 45 days get transformed into animals already sounds pretty Kafkaesque; Watching the elaborate bureaucracy and stage managing the single people have to go through at their prison/resort (right down to being joylessly dry-humped by the staff) underlines that connection further.

It’s also easy to see the ghost of Godard in “The Lobster”. When Colin Farrell’s character escapes into the woods and meets the single rebels, who in their own way are as cold and dogmatic as the “matchmakers” at the hotel, it’s hard not to think of the brutal revolutionaries in “Weekend”. No matter where you go in this world you’re fucked, doomed to be shot by both sides.

That isn’t to say that “The Lobster” is just a Frankenstein’s Monster of stitched together influences. The script is savagely funny and clever. It has a strong visual sensibility, especially in its first half at the hotel (where at times it almost feels like a bizarro Wes Anderson movie). The cast is fantastic, esp. Farrell as the hapless protagonist.

It’s easy to hate on him as an actor: He had the misfortune of being relentlessly pushed on us by Hollywood as being the next big thing with a series of forgettable, crap movies. Time has been kind to Colin Farrell: Aging has softened him up and given him depth as a performer. The guy who years and years ago was being pitched to audiences as a bad boy Irish sex symbol is now perfectly believable as a soft-spoken, indecisive schlub who can’t get into a relationship to save his life.

Above all else, the real reason why “The Lobster” is on this list: It’s a biting and (unfortunately) all-too-relatable take on modern love and dating. I don’t think I’ve watched anything else that captures the “musical chairs” horror of dating as you get older, the fear that if you don’t find someone soon you’ll be left standing around like a doomed schmuck. And the way the characters court in this film by hyper-focusing on singular qualities (Whishaw’s character fakes a nose-bleeding problem to court a woman who’s only distinguishing characteristic is, you guessed it, nose-bleeding) hits real close to home for anyone who’s dipped their toes in online dating.

Green Room

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For pure chills and thrills, few things top this tight, nasty movie. A throwback to classic “siege” movies like John Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13”, “Green Room” has one hell of a hook: Punks Vs. Neo-Nazi scum. It’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off: The Movie”, shot with grimy style and pulling zero punches.

No kidding on the “zero punches”: This is a BRUTAL movie. When characters die, they die badly. Throats get torn out by slathering dogs, people get gutshot and turn paler than milk… “Green Room” doesn’t sugarcoat or downplay the violence.

What makes the violence so hard to watch at times is that (unlike most horror/thriller movies) the film has the balls to get us to really like and care about the main characters before shoving them through the skinhead meat grinder. The first half hour of “Green Room” is a great snapshot of a broke-ass hardcore band on the road. Stealing gas, crashing on shifty promoters’ couches, doing college radio interviews that go nowhere: It all illustrates and builds up the camaraderie of our punk quartet. It’s interesting enough to watch on its own that the whole film could have been them touring and I still would have dug it.

And lest I forget to mention: It also has International Treasure Sir Patrick Stewart as the grumpy, cold leader of the skinheads trying to annihilate our heroes. “Green Room” would be worth watching just to see him execute such a great heel turn: Rather than flipping the overacting switch and going Full Ham, Stewart plays his Nazi as all-business, a ruthless old man trying to keep everybody’s shit together.

I imagine that rewatches of this movie might be weird, in the wake of Anton Yelchin’s death (whose character, to be blunt, gets his shit rocked in this movie). But as last notes to go out on, this is a hell of a way to go (more so than that last “Star Trek” movie).

Sing Street

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2016’s OTHER great movie about being in a band, this one trades in blood & guts for New Wave duds and heartbreak. “Sing Street” is a feel-good movie, the kind of film that reaffirms the power of creativity to keep people sane and happy. Set in Dublin in the 80’s, it follows a teen who escapes the tedium of school and the ugly collapse of his parent’s marriage by starting up a band for the same reason that 90% of people start bands: To impress his crush.

Most of “Sing Street” alternates between the band’s evolution (they hilariously adopt the styles and sounds of every band they get into, going from The Cure one week to Hall & Oates the next) and the love story between our young Simon Le Bon and his older girl crush. The latter storyLINE isn’t as interesting as the former: It feels like the same underdog-gets-the-girl story we’ve seen play out a thousand times before. The band’s struggle to find an identity and their dawning realization that this isn’t just a hobby but the thing they should be devoting their lives to, though, THAT’S a fascinating story.

The most interesting relationship in “Sing Street” is between our main character and his record snob older brother, who schools him on what to listen to and clearly has mixed feelings about his brother coming into his own while he’s stuck in a mid-20’s rut. I have an older and a younger brother: I’ve been in both those character’s places, so part of the reason why “Sing Street” struck such a deep chord with me is how well it depicts fraternal relationships. The mix of jealousy and pride, the fear and pleasure of watching “the pupil” outshine “the master”- That’s not something you see onscreen very often, and certainly not depicted as adeptly and honestly as it is in “Sing Street”.

“Sing Street” only stumbles towards the end, when it goes for a happy ending that feels a little TOO happy. But it IS a film that wears its heart bleeding all over its sleeve. For a film that’s about the power of art to help us transcend and escape our lives, it’s hard to fault it for saying “fuck it” and going for the triumphant fist-pumping finish, even if it is kind of preposterous.

Don’t Think Twice

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Last but not least: “Don’t Think Twice” is the older brother to “Sing Street”. If “Sing Street” is about the optimism of youth, the feeling that art can take you anywhere, “Don’t Think Twice” is the fear that art may be taking you nowhere fast.

To be fair: It’s not quite that pessimistic. But it is a sobering watch for anyone who’s struggling to make it in the arts. The movie follows an improv troupe that has to deal with two crises: The impending closure of their space, and one of the members making it big on TV as a cast member on an “SNL”-style show. It forces them all to question the direction their lives are taking. Are they happy staying where they are, or do they want more?

“Don’t Think Twice” doesn’t necessarily pick a side. It makes the case for taking a risk by trying to put yourself out there, while also showing why (for some people) staying where you are could be the healthier, more fulfilling option.

But all this “should I stay or should I go?” hand-wringing would be meaningless if the film was boring. Thankfully “Don’t Think Twice” is a compelling film. It’s funny and affecting, building strong relationships with its core group of characters and giving them all something interesting to do. It’s a true ensemble film, exhibiting the best qualities of improv: Spontaneity, teamwork, and being in the moment.

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