Oscar Goff is the managing film editor for Boston Hassle and the Boston Compass, and has written for Film Flam since 2013. He can usually be found skulking around the city’s cinemas or leaving flowers at the sites of former video stores.
Obsessive Hassle readers (and I truly hope there is such a thing) may have noticed that I didn’t write a year-end list last year. It’s not that I didn’t want to; 2015 offered no shortage of worthy films, and as much as I agonize over my choices, I do cherish whittling down my favorites to a seemingly arbitrary ranking. However, a confluence of obstacles stood in my way. First and foremost, this time last year found me logging a regular forty-five-hour work week; any precious free time not spent with actual humans would be earmarked for either my editorial duties or writing pieces with concrete expiration dates. There was also the inevitable fact that I rarely find the time or money to see all the new movies I want to in a given year (which I bemoaned in my lists for both 2013 and 2014). Both of those are perfectly reasonable excuses, but could have been worked out with a little discipline and time management.
No, the real reason I didn’t come up with a list last year is this: I saw Spotlight.
Spotlight is, of course, a great picture– the Best Picture, in fact, if you take the Academy’s word for it. It’s an important story, well written and professionally told. It boasts a powerhouse cast, including Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo (the latter two nominated, and rightly so). It even had the still-novel appeal of seeing my hometown played out on the big screen; getting out of the theater, I immediately texted all my friends who used to work at the South End Buttery. It was obviously one of the best movies I saw last year; by any rational metric, it was probably the best.
The problem, though, is that I don’t know if it was my best. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t get to see every movie that comes out, and the ones that I do see usually fall in the category of “Things I Would Like to See”: cult, oddball, horror, indie, the odd summer blockbuster. My year-end lists, subsequently, are deeply idiosyncratic, and purely subject to my own aesthetic. In this context, Spotlight is the oddball. How does one place a film like Spotlight on a list otherwise populated by the likes of It Follows and Mad Max: Fury Road (my would-be pick for #1, for those keeping score)? I can easily acknowledge that Spotlight is a better film than Crimson Peak, but can I honestly say that I liked it more? When both are in the running, how does one decide whether Spotlight ranks above or below Dangerous Men, the latest outsider oddity exhumed by Drafthouse Films? In the end, I couldn’t come up with an acceptable answer to any of these questions, and by the time spring came around, I officially declared my Year-Ender dead.
With all that in mind, I have decided this year to reaffirm my mantra from years past: the following ten films are subjectively selected, flagrantly non-comprehensive, and ranked purely on a basis of how much I liked them, or at least how much I remember liking them from this vantage point. I’m not going to pretend these are The Year’s Best Films; such meaningless quantification can be left to the robots at Rotten Tomatoes. These are simply ten films that I liked, for whatever that’s worth. If you’re wondering if this list applies to you, read some of my other articles, and try to gauge how closely my tastes match yours. For my money, that’s how criticism is supposed to work.
ANYWAY! Let’s start listing movies!
10. Deadpool (2016) dir. Tim Miller
Of course, all that being said, I do still have my crit-cred to defend, so I will once again use the #10 spot to sneak in my unironic love of big doofy superhero franchises. While Doctor Strange combined by loves of occult weirdness and oddball character actors, and the action figure smash-up of Captain America: Civil War kept a big goofy grin on my face for its entire running time, I’m going to give the #10 nod this year to the one superhero film that gave us something we haven’t seen before. Thanks in part to a decade-long viral push by star Ryan Reynolds, and in part due to the fact that superhero films pretty much poop out money these days, Deadpool seems to have been given the freedom to do whatever it wants. While occasionally perhaps overly crude, Deadpool is refreshingly free of world-building, content to fashion itself as a snotty live-action cartoon. That it also smuggles in a genuinely felt love story, and stands as one of the most faithful comic book adaptations to date, is the icing on the cake.
9. The Neon Demon (2016) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
With its dreamy ambience and La-La Land setting, the most obvious point of comparison for Nicolas Winding Refn’s fashion satire is David Lynch’s similarly weird Mulholland Drive. For my money, however, The Neon Demon has more in common with an older cult film: Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Both films feature an eye-popping color pallette; both maintain an unnerving (some might say pervy) gaze on their leading ladies; and both go completely off-the-rails bugfuck insane in their final twenty minutes. It is this last point that won me over; in its last act, what could have been pretty-but-empty arthouse pretension is suddenly elevated to gloriously gleeful pulp anarchy (while I’m trying to keep this piece spoiler-free, suffice to say that several of the film’s central metaphors become abruptly literal). Does it go much deeper than pretty colors and bonkers perversity? Perhaps not, but it does those two things exceptionally well.
8. Belladonna of Sadness (1973) dir. Eiichi Yamamoto
The well of lost cinematic masterpieces, it seems, is bottomless: each year, a new handful of little-seen oddities are exhumed, restored, and trotted around the country before landing on a lavish blu-ray. This year’s most memorable resurrection comes in the form of Belladonna of Sadness, a trippy-as-fuck animated feature about a persecuted witch. Actually, “animated” might be a strong word: for the most part, Belladonna could more accurately be described as a series of blacklight posters set to music and narration. Far from a candy-coated nostalgia piece, however, Belladonna is at times downright harrowing in its depictions of the witch’s trials, and surprisingly life-affirming in its conclusion.
7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) dir. Gareth Edwards
The Star Wars saga, at its worst (and even at its best), has frequently been derided as a series of 2+ hour toy commercials. Who’d have thought that we’d see an entry, only one calendar year into its revival, so willfully downbeat? Like Deadpool, Rogue One uses the luxury afforded by its blockbuster status to take a surprising amount of risks. Rogue One feels less like a space opera than it does a historical drama: you know what these characters accomplished, but unlike pretty much every blockbuster action movie since the first Star Wars, there is no implicit guarantee that any of them will survive. Paradoxically, its connection to the biggest film franchise of all time allows it to be more self-contained than it ever could have been otherwise. (A side note: I didn’t get to see Rogue One until it had been in theaters for two weeks, and man… that final shot probably packs a much bigger punch than it did opening weekend).
6. Green Room (2016) dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Similarly, I didn’t see Green Room until well after it came out – mid-November, to be precise. How different would my take have been if I’d seen it upon its initial release, in that carefree bygone age when young star Anton Yelchin was still alive and neo-nazis were still relegated to backwoods clubhouses? Honestly, probably not very much; it is, by any metric, a crackerjack thriller, meticulously structured and filled with terrific performances, snappy dialog, and a series of deft yet brutal set pieces. But in the wake of Yelchin’s death (which was horrible even by 2016 standards) and a series of political events that would bring a smile to the face of Patrick Stewart’s icy skinhead ringleader, Green Room has, for better or for worse, become a hell of a lot scarier. Nazi punks fuck off, indeed.
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) dir. Dan Trachtenberg
In what has become a standard page in his Spielberg-cum-Barnum playbook, producer J.J. Abrams didn’t announce 10 Cloverfield Lane until about a month before it hit theaters. While it’s safe to say that nobody was expecting a sequel (much less a “sequel”) to Cloverfield, Lane is even more surprising for what it is in its own right: a tense, closed-door thriller starring three actors in a single location, which somehow made it into mainstream multiplexes (and made a sizable chunk of change in the process). Like Night of the Living Dead or some of the best Twilight Zone episodes, 10 Cloverfield Lane draws its scares largely from its script, its performances (particularly John Goodman, who really ought to have an Oscar by now), and its grasp of human nature. Oh, and it also prominently features the fake VHS art of Rob Schrab, which is pretty rad.
4. Arrival (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve
Is “sci-fi weepie” accepted as a subgenre yet? If not, it should be: sweeping epics grounded in reality and focused on the man’s pettiness in the face of the uncompromising hugeness of space (see: Interstellar, Contact). Denis Villeneuve’s brilliantly elliptical Arrival stands firmly in this tradition, but it also brings its own tricks to the table (again avoiding spoilers, its interest in the conventions of language extends beyond its central translator character). And while the film can feel at times like an emotional gutpunch (few actors can wring as much pathos from a wide-eyed stare as Amy Adams), its take on mankind is ultimately surprisingly hopeful. In today’s uncertain climate, the suggestion that diplomacy isn’t beyond salvation is nearly as out-there as space creatures who communicate in sepia.
3. The Love Witch (2016) dir. Anna Biller
In paying homage to sexploitation horror films of the 1960s and ‘70s, The Love Witch risks being lumped in with the sub-Troma softcore films currently glutting your streaming services. Those willing to look closer, however, will realize the tremendous care and personal vision poured into the film. Director Anna Biller practically handcrafted The Love Witch, not only writing, directing, producing, and editing, but also writing the songs, building and painting the sets, and hand-stitching the jaw-dropping costumes. It’s a pity movies like The Love Witch don’t win Oscars; if the Academy were to judge by sheer achievement, it would make a clean sweep of the below-the-line categories.
2. Stranger Things (2016) dir. Matt & Ross Duffer
A cheat? Perhaps. But consider that television is at its undisputed zenith, arguably operating at the same level as film in the ‘70s, or pop music in the ‘60s. Consider Netflix’s strategy of dumping an entire season’s worth of episodes at once, blurring the line between “TV Show” and “Really Long Movie with Recommended Stopping Points.” And consider that, in a year marked by death, division, disappointment, and despair, Stranger Things was a rare and desperately needed moment of consensus and pure joy. Its carefully concocted brew of nostalgia (primarily Spielberg and Stephen King, with a healthy dollop of John Carpenter and a lovingly compiled ‘80s pop soundtrack) was spot-on without feeling on-the-nose, and the whole thing felt satisfyingly self-contained, even if Season 2 is on the horizon. Winona Ryder gave a career-best performance, hopefully paving the way for a comeback the world didn’t realize it craved. However, the heart and soul of Stranger Things lies in its young cast, who manage to be both undeniably adorable and wholly believable (Millie Bobbie Brown’s Eleven in particular is destined to be mentioned in lists of best-ever child performances for years to come). The world might not have deserved Stranger Things in 2016, but thank god we got it.
1. The Witch (2016) dir. Robert Eggers
In a genre frequently characterized by wild excess, The Witch stands apart for its discipline. First-time (!) director Robert Eggers eschews genre references and set pieces for slow, creeping dread and jaw-dropping period authenticity (similarly to The Love Witch’s Anna Biller, Eggers hand-built his sets with period-appropriate tools, and lit the film entirely by daylight and candles). The Witch is a serious film, with layers upon layers of commentary on religion and repression in colonial Massachusetts (Film Flam’s Beth Kelly has a much deeper examination of the film’s themes). This is not to say that The Witch is bloodless or stuffy; it breaks one of cinema’s biggest taboos within its first five minutes (peekaboo!), and, in malevolent goat Black Philip, creates an instant oddball icon of horror. Even in the midst of of the quiet horror renaissance creeping across theaters, The Witch is something special.