Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2016

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

Below you will find lists of my favorite films of the year, divided by narrative (fiction) and documentary (nonfiction) formats (I do not separate animated films from either genre, and there are examples of at least one animated film in each category). This is the first time I have broken down my lists in this way, and it largely has to do with the sheer number of documentaries I now watch and review in my position as lead film critic for Hammer to Nail, which makes me want to highlight even more of the great work being done by the 21st century’s exceptional nonfiction filmmakers. As always, the main factor that motivated me to include a film among my favorites is whether or not that film surprised or moved me; was there something in it that reached deep down into my cinematic soul and woke me up as I watched it, even if the film as a whole may have had some flaws (perfection is a subjective reality, anyway).

Not all of the movies mentioned received some kind of theatrical or online release in 2016, though most of them did; a few may still be looking for distributors after making their festival rounds. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie (whether for Hammer to NailFilm Festival Today or this blog), the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. If I only wrote a brief capsule review of a film after seeing it at a film festival, then I link to that write-up, however short it may be. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film, I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page and written a (very) short description of it, just to explain what I admire (or don’t).

If a film that you, yourself, saw and liked is nowhere mentioned here, then it is possible that I did not see it (or saw it and liked it, but not enough to include among my favorites, or saw it and, of course, did not like it). As many films as I watch every year, I do not see everything; Swiss Army Man is but one example of a movie I missed. If you have questions about any omissions, feel free to comment and/or send me a note. And really, what separates the “Top 10” from the “runners-up” is very little.

Enjoy! Over the next three weeks or so, as always, I will publish a separate list of the best acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 10 Narrative Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Best of 2016 Narratives Part 1

Best of 2016 Narratives Part 2

  1. Captain Fantastic
  2. Certain Women
  3. Hell or High Water
  4. La La Land
  5. Loving
  6. Manchester by the Sea
  7. Moonlight
  8. Rams
  9. Toni Erdmann – Perhaps excessively long (perhaps), this delightful German film is nevertheless a profound (and very entertaining) meditation on familial bonds that features one of the best uses of nudity to ever grace the silver screen.
  10. 20th Century Women – Mike Mills (Beginners) delivers a loving fictional portrait of his mother that is also a tribute to the strength of women, of all ages, everywhere.

2016 Narrative Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

2016 Narrative Runners-Up Part 1

2016 Narrative Runners-Up Part 2

  1. Claire in Motion
  2. The Edge of Seventeen
  3. Fences
  4. The Handmaiden – Bound meets Rashomon in this  twisted Korean period thriller from Chan-wook Park (Stoker) that offers us a satisfying frisson both sexual and intellectual.
  5. Hunter Gatherer
  6. The Lobster
  7. Miles Ahead
  8. Moana
  9. Silence – An adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, this chronicle of the plight of Portuguese priests in 17th-century Japan is director Martin Scorsese’s best work in years.
  10. Zootopia

Top 10 Documentary Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Best of 2016 Documentaries Part 1

Best of 2016 Documentaries Part 2

  1. Cameraperson
  2. Chicken People
  3. In Pursuit of Silence (linked to my interview with director, which includes a brief capsule review)
  4. The Last Man on the Moon
  5. Newtown
  6. Plaza de la Soledad
  7. Salero
  8. Tower
  9. Under the Sun
  10. Weiner

2016 Documentary Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

2016 Documentary Runners-Up Part 1

2016-documentary-runners-up-part-2

  1. Abortion: Stories Women Tell
  2. Almost Sunrise
  3. Audrie & Daisy
  4. The Bandit
  5. The Dwarvenaut
  6. The Eagle Huntress
  7. The If Project
  8. National Bird
  9. Ovarian Psycos
  10. Sonita

Documentary and Narrative Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Worst Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):

Stay tuned for more posts in the week ahead, where I will list my favorite performances and technical achievements of the year, as well.

 

SXSW2016, Part 3 (Wednesday-Thursday, March 16-17)

And so the week at SXSW has continued. Since the last post, I have had only two more pieces published on Hammer to Nail – an interview with the director and producer of The Dwarvenaut and a review of The Bandit – but you can expect many more pieces soon. Here are my capsule reviews of three other films for which I will not be publishing reviews on that site.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

Actor Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), in his directorial debut, has crafted a brilliant cinematic portrait of jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). At times funny, at others tragic, the film is an improvisatory riff on the great innovator that would make the master proud. Kudos to Cheadle for refusing to make a standard biopic; instead, he has opted for an impressionistic approach that flashes back and forth between different eras in the man’s life. Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and cocaine at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (Beginners) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. A film to be watched by all who love both movies and music.

In Pursuit of Silence

In Pursuit of Silence (Patrick Shen, 2015)

In today’s world, it is harder than ever to escape noise. Some people react to this situation with a vow of silence, like Greg Hindy, one of the many interesting characters we meet in this awe-inspiring new documentary from Patrick Shen (La Source). Others study the phenomenon, such as George Prochnik, author of the book In Pursuit of Silence (from which this film borrows its title). Shen takes us on a global journey – beautifully photographed – in which he explores what it means to be a human being, genetically predisposed to a pre-industrial universe, in a landscape of increasingly loud machines. With a musical score that emphasizes silence as much as it accompanies it, the film even dwells, for a bit, on John Cage‘s seminal 1952 composition 4’33”, in which a pianist walks up to a piano, sets it up, and then does nothing for four and a half minutes. The movie is a majestic achievement in which art and philosophy are blended in a perfect meditative mix. It’s an important film for our time.

SXSW2016_2016-03-17_Pee-wee premiere

Producer Judd Apatow, Star/Co-Writer Paul Reubens, Co-Writer Paul Rust and Director John Lee

What a joy it was to be at the world premiere of the new Pee-wee Herman film! The audience went wild as soon as Paul Reubens – aka, Pee-wee Herman – came out on stage. The film went live on Netflix a few hours after the screening, so everyone can now watch it (and you should), but I am so happy I was there for that first night.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee, 2016)

To be honest, I was too old to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it hit it big in the 1980s. But the first feature film, in 1985, starring the titular character –  Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – and directed by Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), in his feature debut, did make it on to my radar. Still, I was never a huge fan. I was nevertheless dismayed by the persecution that Reubens suffered after his bust in a porn theater in 1991, as he seemed like an otherwise decent enough human being. Well, let us not shed too many tears for the man, as a close study of his biography reveals the many projects – Pee-wee-related and otherwise – that have kept him busy since that unfortunate incident. And now he’s back in full force with a new cinematic adventure for Pee-wee. And it’s a winner. With jokes both dumb and sophisticated, made with zip and pizzazz, the movie should delight Pee-wee aficionados of all ages. Check it out. You’ll be sure to have a good time.

Be sure to read my first and second posts on SXSW2016!

SXSW2016, Part 2 (Monday-Tuesday, March 14-15)

The last two days of the festival have seen me continue with more of the same – movie screenings and interviews with directors and actors. Here are the reviews and interviews that have been published on Hammer to Nail since Sunday, March 13:

And now, below, are my thoughts on the two films I have seen on the ground for which I will not be writing reviews for Hammer to Nail.

Tony Robbins SXSW 2016

From l-r: Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film; Joe Berlinger, Director; Tony Robbins, subject

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (Joe Berlinger, 2016)

I am a big fan of the two documentaries by Joe Berlinger I had seen previously – Under African Skies and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger – in both of which he demonstrated a commitment to journalistic principles that is sorely lacking in this, his new film. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is a film about the titular self-help goliath – a titan in both physical size and monetary wealth – about whose life and work I knew nothing before sitting down in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, to watch the film. I assumed that, whatever the subject, I was going to be treated to a solid piece of filmmaking by a man whose credentials were more than solid. During his introduction to the film (pictured above), however, Berlinger quite explicitly stated that this was unlike his earlier work, as he had had a life-changing experience recently and was offering up a positive portrait of a man he has come to admire.

He wasn’t kidding.

But more than a “positive portrayal,” it’s an infomercial. Robbins has made himself wealthy by charging high sums for his six-day “Date with Destiny” workshops, in which he practices his own personal brand of physical, and psycho-, therapy. He seems genuinely interested in people, but since the film never offers up much more than surface-level storytelling, we have no way of really discovering anything other than what Robbins wants us to see. That such a man as Berlinger could make such a movie is, to say the least, disappointing.

sxsw2016learningtosee

Learning to See: The World of Insects (Jake Oelman, 2016)

In this beautiful documentary, which filmmaker Jake Oelman (Dear Sidewalk) has made as a tribute to his father – insect photographer Robert Oelman – we witness the transformation of a dispirited fifty-year-old Bostonian into a lively seventy-something visual chronicler of the South-American rainforest. Instead of going to one of Tony Robbins’ workshops (see, above), Dr. Oelman, a psychotherapist depressed by his work, took off in the 1990s for Colombia, where he fell in love with the people and the landscape. Soon, he bought a house, and has lived there ever since. As he settled in, he took an interest in photography, and eventually in insects, and began working with macro lenses to better capture the natural world around him. Now, over 20 years later, Robert Oelman is a recognized artist and documentary photographer, whose work is seen as vital in the global effort to draw attention to our rapidly vanishing biodiversity. As one expert in the film says, “Until you value something, you’re not going to undertake meaningful action to protect it.” Let this lovely little movie stand as a testament to Oelman’s vital contribution to saving our planet.

To read about how the festival began, for me, check out my first post on SXSW2016.