By Vincent Abbatecola
10) The Witch – These days, it seems like for every great horror movie, there are 10 bad ones. But when you one gets released that breaks apart from the rest, it’s a terrific feeling to experience that film, which is what happened with Robert Eggers’ directorial debut. He tells the tale of a Puritan family in 17th-century New England that’s banished from their village because of their radical religious beliefs. Shortly after establishing their new settlement on the edge of some woods, the family’s infant son is mysteriously taken from them, and they soon realize there may be a witch living just beyond their home. Anya Taylor-Joy gives a wonderful breakthrough performance as the film’s protagonist, and the rest of the cast does an effective job in conveying the paranoia and dread that slowly tears away at their lives. One of the strongest qualities of Eggers’ direction and screenplay is how, instead of going for outright horror and cheap jump scares, he lets the interesting characters and deeply unsettling atmosphere do the work, and the film is tremendously better because of that. This isn’t only one of the best horror movies to come out in the last few years, but it’s also a chance to see the rise of a new filmmaking talent.
09) Midnight Special – After several superb films about rural America and some of their everyday individuals being thrust into significant circumstances, writer and director Jeff Nichols takes this narrative approach to the science-fiction genre. Set in Texas, a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), rescues the former’s young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious group that views him as a higher being, due to his otherworldly abilities. While on the run from the cult, Roy, Lucas, Alton, and his mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) also have to evade the FBI, who believe Alton to be a risk to national security. When you look at the very different stories in Nichols’ filmography, you see that he’s someone who taps into people’s prime instinct to protect those they love, and it has never been more evident than in this film. The performance from Shannon is understated, yet emotional as a father who will guard his son at any cost, and Lieberher offers an aura of mystery around his character that keeps us interested in his journey. And Nichols, always a subtle filmmaker, succeeds in making us ponder the story’s deeper implications by placing clues in certain bits of dialogue, instead of explaining every little thing. He engages his viewers to think, making this the type of sci-fi movie the film studios should be giving us more often.
08) Kubo and the Two Strings – Now more than ever, Disney is a major force in big-screen animation. However, Laika is a studio that seems to escape our minds (including mine) when it comes to this filmmaking style, and this shouldn’t be the case, especially with their latest stop-motion animation masterpiece from director Travis Knight. The story takes place in ancient Japan and follows a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who must find a powerful suit of armor that once belonged to his late father and use it to defeat a malevolent spirit from his past. Aside from talented voice work by Parkinson, Charlize Theron (a standout), Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes, the film’s visuals are vibrant and beautiful, offering some of the finest animation in any movie this year. It’s one of those films where you really feel like there’s literal magic being performed on the screen, from the well-rounded characters to the emotional story to the striking details of the lands visited by the main trio. This film effortlessly immerses you in its world, transporting you to a fun, thrilling, and rich fairy-tale adventure, making this movie one of the most enchanting cinematic experiences of the year.
07) Don’t Think Twice – The road to stardom is wrought with challenges, as some eventually make it to the big time, while others aren’t quite as lucky. This is a concept that’s explored both comically and dramatically in writer and director Mike Birbiglia’s latest film. The story centers around a close-knit group of six improv performers (Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher) in New York City. When two of them are given the chance to audition for the famous variety show, “Weekend Live,” the rest of the troupe must come to realize that some of them may not find success in show business. The cast members display strong on-screen bonds, and the film is accomplished in focusing on all of its main characters to equal degree, giving us enough insight to see what goes on in their day-to-day lifestyles as they strive to make their dreams come true. Although the film has its funny moments, Birbiglia succeeds with mixing in the bitter reality that some of the characters must face when it comes to their aspirations. It’s an honest portrayal of what it means to work towards the spotlight, while also dealing with the possibility of rejection and having to move on, all of which creates a genuineness that gives the movie its heartfelt impact.
06) Everybody Wants Some!! – Richard Linklater is a top writer and director when it comes to dealing with coming-of-age stories, and he brings us another one with his newest comedy. The film takes place in Texas during the ‘80s and centers around Jake (Blake Jenner), an incoming college freshman and baseball pitcher who, over the last few days before classes begin, will build relationships with his teammates and learn to navigate the wild frontier of college. The whole cast provides very natural performances, coming across as actual people behaving how true college students would, making this movie not just fun, but also relatable. While some viewers may see this as Linklater replicating the nostalgic formula he used when portraying the ‘70s in “Dazed and Confused,” there’s some truth to that, but because of the change in the time and setting, the experiences that the characters have are different enough to make this movie its own entity. Rather than having a traditional plot structure, the narrative is made up of vignettes that follow Jake and his friends through the college landscape, which allows the story to have a sense of randomness as the characters go from one fun experience to another, all while not knowing what kind of antics they will get into next. Just like “Dazed and Confused,” this film will have viewers reminiscing about the crazy and unforgettable times they had as young adults, a sort of yearbook in the form of a movie.
Come back next week for part two of the 10 best films of 2016!