Matt’s Best Movies of 2016

1. Sing Street

Having fallen in love with “Begin Again” (number one on my Top 10 list for 2014), I was excited to see Director John Carney‘s follow-up movie, “Sing Street.” I was not disappointed.

“Sing Street” is about Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager growing up in a recession-stricken Dublin during the eighties. The love for music he shares with his older brother provides an escape for both of them from parents (Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) who constantly fight, and a way for him to deal with his own problems at school (bullies and a strict and overbearing Catholic school headmaster). Heavily influenced by new wave bands like Duran Duran and The Cure and movies like “Back to the Future,” Conor puts together a band of his schoolmates and starts shooting music videos starring Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the aspiring model who lives across the street. His band gives him purpose. It is his music, not his problems, that define Conor.

No filmmaker better understands the power of music to uplift, attract, inspire, or redeem better than Carney. No director has been better able to communicate that power through film. Even people like me (I am not huge music fan) get it after watching a John Carney movie. In “Sing Street,” the characters once again find purpose in themselves and in each other through their art. Music provides the driving force for their lives, their attraction to and love for one another. And at its core, “Sing Street” is about that love – romantic love, brotherly love, and love between friends – that forms the beating heart and soul of the movie. It’s both joyous and profoundly touching.

“Sing Street” is a worthy successor to “Begin Again” and features songs that are even catchier than those in its predecessor (I still can’t get “Drive it Like You Stole It” out of my head, and it’s been almost three months since I saw the movie). While all of the actors do fine jobs, Jack Reynor is an absolute standout as Conor’s brother, Brendan. You read it here first: this guy is going to be one of our next big breakout stars.

I enthusiastically recommend you see “Sing Street” as soon as you can. If you have a pulse, you’’ll love it.

2. En Man Som Heter Ov (A Man Called Ove)

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) lives in a small and close-knit bedroom community in Sweden. Ove is cantankerous and ill-tempered. He greets most people with a snarl instead of a smile, and can’t seem to tolerate his neighbors. Apparently, Ove’s sole raison d’etre is to make his daily rounds, walking the neighborhood to check on who is violating the community rules. We don’t know why Ove is so irritable; even when others try to act nice to him, he is generally crabby.

But there is more to Ove than his temper. As we learn in a series of flashbacks, Ove has had his share of heartache and loss. He misses his wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll) terribly. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Sonja was a bright spirit and Ove’s primary source of joy. When Sonja died, he sunk into a funk of sadness and self-pity, with no desire to emerge from it. It is only when Parvenah (Bahar Pars) moves in across the street that Ove begins to re-connnect with the world; Parvenah won’t allow Ove to continue to wallow in his sadness, instead insisting that Ove stay involved with the world and with life. As Ove starts to come out of his shell, we see that Ove is a man with a big heart that has a deep kindness and empathy for his fellow man.

As we learn more about Ove and the experiences that have formed his life, we begin to understand him on a deeper level. At its heart, “A Man Called Ove” is an amazingly touching love story of a husband and wife who built a life together. His and Sonja’s story is filled with both terrible and senseless tragedies and deep joy, and by watching Ove’s story unfold we realize why it so important to not judge a book by its cover. The need for connection runs deep in our humanity, and it is Ove’s ability to reconnect with the world around him that gives him new purpose in life.

It is this truth that is at the heart of “A Man Called Ove”; that love and compassion for one another can give us purpose, that one must join the world to appreciate its value and the joys, both little and big, that it can bring. Sometimes, with the world so divided and so infected by hate and intolerance, we need to be reminded that we are not all that different from one another, that our essential humanity binds us all. Although many films attempt to portray this simple truth, precious few are successful at transcending both the medium and language to capture and convey it.

Special movies like this come along only so often. We’re fortunate to have gotten two of them so far in 2016 (“Sing Street” being the other). Both of them are films you need to see, and I urge you to do so as soon as possible.

3. Demolition

“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, just examine everything, and then you can put it all back together.”

This advice – given to Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhall) by his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) – is the engine that drives “Demolition,” the newest film from director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club“). Davis is a successful investment banker working for Phil’s company who seemingly has it all: the Porsche, the flashy modern house in the suburbs, the beautiful wife, the designer clothes, and an impressive office perched high up in a gleaming skyscraper. In an instant, a car accident takes the life of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), and suddenly, Davis doesn’t know how to act. As a human being, Davis knows that he should be grieving for his loss, but in truth he can’t feel anything. His co-workers, parents, and in-laws all expect him to be overcome with sadness, but he isn’t. He’s numb, and he admits to himself and to his doctor that he’s felt that way for a long time. Davis wants to feel something about Julia’s death, and he feels like he’s broken because he doesn’t.

Part of Davis’s problem is that he realizes that he never really knew Julia. He married her because – in his mind – that’s what society expected of him and it was the easiest thing to do. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t miss her but he’s trying to. So he takes Phil’s advice quite literally and begins “taking apart his marriage” by disassembling or destroying the shiny things he and Julia accumulated during their marriage. Along the way, he strikes up a unique friendship with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who is drawn to Davis and his soul-searching honesty. It is through his new relationship with Karen and her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) that we see Davis begin to find again what he feels that he lost.

“Demolition” is an expertly-crafted reflection on the nature of marriage and the value we give to our lives and our loved ones. Who is this person we’ve chosen to live our life with? Are we appreciating our spouse for who she or he is, or do we see that person as another thing we’ve collected; a status symbol, a way to signify to ourselves and others that we’ve made it and that we matter? And even if we married for the “right” reasons – for love – what will happen to us if we don’t take care of that love? It is these very human questions that “Demolition” explores and attempts to answer, and I adored every minute of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t just cast well as Davis. He OWNS this role. I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off as well as he did: Davis’s mien may be inscrutable, but he’s not; he may appear cold-hearted, but he’s not; he may seem unaffected by his wife’s death, but he’s not. He’s struggling with his humanity in a world where he’s learned to place far too much value on facades and the trappings of success without learning what it means to live richly. Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance perfectly captures the dichotomy between how the world views him and how he views the world. This is expressed not only through what’s been left on the screen for us to see, but also through his inner monologue, which we hear expressed as a series of letters written by Davis to a customer service department for a vending machine company. This technique for expressing voice-over narration may sound gimmicky on paper, but in execution it works beautifully.

As Karen and Phil, Watts and Cooper are also excellent as usual. But apart from Gyllenhaal, the other standout in this movie is Judah Lewis. As Chris – a young adult confused about his own life, sexuality, and place in the world — Lewis serves as Davis’s mentee and partner-in-crime. Take it from me: this young man is an actor to watch.

In its contemplation of big ideas about marriage, society, love, and the ways in which we seek to define ourselves to others, “Demolition” acquits itself admirably. It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s very, very human.

4. Green Room

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his festival favorite (and entry in my 2014 top ten list) “Blue Ruin” with this gory and suspense-filled tale of ordinary people coping with extraordinary situations.

The story is simple: a struggling punk/metal band gets a gig playing a neo-Nazi skinhead club in rural Oregon. One of the members sees something he wasn’t supposed to, and quickly the band becomes trapped in the titular green room.

A completely fresh take on the siege movie, the characters in “Green Room” aren’t combat vets. They aren’t experienced with weapons. They know little about strategy. Instead, they are forced to rely on their imperfect wits to deal with ever-changing circumstances in a fight for their lives as the body count continues to rise. Allegiances shift and hidden motives become revealed as the movie continues to surprise. We’ve never seen a siege movie quite like this one.

Tautly constructed with relatable performances (including a memorable turn from Patrick Stewart), the story movies quickly and the suspense remains gripping throughout.

Oddly enough, Louisa completely disagreed with me on this movie and didn’t find it compelling at all. That rarely happens. I would love for more people to see this one and let us know which one of us you agree with.

5. Masterminds

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. They also say that “Masterminds,” the new movie from director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite“, “Gentleman Broncos“) is based on a true story. How much of it is true and how much of it is fiction I don’t know, but what I do know is this: “Masterminds” is one wild, hilariously funny movie. And boy is it ever strange.

Zach Galifianakis plays David Ghantt, a southern boy with very low ambitions who works for an armored car company. David becomes infatuated with sometime coworker Kelly (Kristen Wiig), who on behalf of her friend Steve (Owen Wilson) talks David in to stealing money from the company vault. $17 million worth, to be exact, making it one of the largest cash robberies ever on American soil. The actual theft goes off unusually well; it’s what happens after, when the co-conspirators must face the reality of having suddenly become obscenely wealthy, that things start to get really crazy.

And I do mean crazy. Masterfully madcap crazy. These good ol’ boys and girls from North Carolina, having spent most of their lives in trailer parks (including a “high rise double wide”), have absolutely no self-control. David gets shipped off to Mexico by the crew with a very small cut of the money while the others live the high life, the kind of which these formerly poor rednecks could only dream about. As the southern folks would say, they are “country come to town.” They spend extravagantly, buy expensive toys, and wear “fancy” clothes. When they become worried that Ghantt is going to finger them for their participation in the robbery, they hire the services of an insane and inept hit man to take him out of the picture. Put simply, they can’t cope with being rich and act like fools.

I’m not from the South but Louisa is. Having lived with her for a long time, I think I have a better idea than most about Southern culture. Having this perspective is probably essential to appreciating “Masterminds,” which has a bit of a Foxworthian sense of humor. Not that all of the jokes are cultural, necessarily; there are quite a few bits that are funny all on their own, without reference to background.

As a comedy, “Masterminds” is incredibly well-constructed. The characters are not one-dimensional and the film expertly walks the line between playing to stereotypes and devolving into caricature. Scenes are set up and people act according to type and personality, and the comedy flows naturally from it. Galifianakis is perfectly cast as Ghantt, playing the part with a pitch-perfect sense of timing and delivery. Wiig is reliably strong but is easily outshined by her “Ghostbusters” costar Kate McKinnon. Jason Sudeikis is hilarious as the hitman, and Ken Marino is given very little to do but has one of the best side-splitting scenes in the movie.

I realize humor is subjective. Many people are going to scratch their heads at “Masterminds,” and lots of people won’t enjoy it (our screening featured only one outright walkout but Louisa and I were mostly the only ones laughing). Having given you that warning, I will say with confidence: “Masterminds” not only tops “The Bronze” as the funniest movie of 2016, it is one of the funniest movies of this decade.

6. Hell or High Water

Beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens and based on a screenplay by “Sicario” scribe Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” is a western fable of and for our times.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are brothers who are committing a series of robberies of small-town Texas banks. Toby is the sympathetic mastermind behind the crimes while Tanner is the muscle, and each heist is pulled off with precision. The Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton ((Jeff Bridges) are hot on the trail of the Howard brothers, but they are seemingly always one step behind.

Directed by David Mackenzie, “Hell or High Water” perfectly captures the desperation of broken families, broken homes, and broken people living underneath the shadow of ruthless profiteers that seek to exploit the ninety-nine percent. Pine and Foster play off one another well, with Foster playing the unhinged sociopath while Pine is the understated father trying to do right by his family. In this world, the lines of criminal versus law-abiding citizen are blurred and morality is a relative concept. It’s hard not to sympathize with the brothers, at least to a point. Their struggles are authentic and of our times, and the conflict between them and the lawmen that pursue them equally so. It is no surprise that the movie is connecting with audiences nationwide.

Just as “Unforgiven” was a singularly new take on the classic western, “Hell or High Water” stands as a potent reminder of the times we live in and the realignment of the classic struggle of good versus evil in an age of “me first” greed and selfishness.

7. The Nice Guys

“The Nice Guys” is not an easy movie to review. It defies compartmentalization as it exists in a category all its own.

Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a sad-sack private investigator who is pretty good at his job but even better at drinking and bilking his clients. Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, a thug-for-hire. In the course of investigating a routine missing-person case in 1970s Los Angeles, March crosses paths with Healy, who has been hired to scare March off the case. The two team up to find the missing girl and in so doing run afoul of the mob, the adult film industry, and the Justice Department — not necessarily in that order.

To say that “The Nice Guys” is unusual for a big summer blockbuster is an understatement. To start, the movie has an offbeat sense of humor that will frustrate or confuse most casual moviegoers (for example, one of the funniest scenes involves a teenage boy that aspires to be a p*rn actor because of his…endowment). Then there is a significant subplot involving the adult film industry — and there is no shortage of nudity to punctuate this point. Those who come for the star power may end up feeling frustrated, as this movie is not standard fare for either actor.

But all of those things — which some may view as negatives — add to the film’s charm. While the writing is uneven, when the movie is at its best the script (by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi) is whip-smart. Black, who also directed, is clearly having a ball here with his material. The setting is used to maximum effect (with plenty of shots of Hollywood and the Sunset Strip circa 1970) and teeters right on the edge of being gimmicky, without ever succumbing completely to the temptation of emphasizing setting over story. There are some outrageously fun set pieces (namely, a party in the Hollywood Hills and an auto show) that maximize time and place. Crowe and Gosling work nicely together; Crowe is understated and Gosling (ever the chameleon) shines in a role that is very different from those he’s taken previously.

Taste, style and subject matter make “The Nice Guys” difficult to recommend, as I have a feeling that most people won’t enjoy it as much as I did. But if you aren’t offended by the subject matter, nudity, or the offbeat humor, you might have a great time watching it, too.

8. Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)

I thought the zombie horror-thriller had been done to death. With “Train to Busan,” Korean filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon conclusively proves that there’s still life in the genre.

Easily the best zombie movie since “28 Days Later”, “Train to Busan” opens with hedge fund adviser and father Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) trying his best to avoid having to deal with his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) on her birthday. Seok is a bit of an a**hole, both in business and in his personal life. It’s only when Soo-an tells her father that the only thing she wants for her birthday is to go to the city of Busan to be with her mother that Seok finally relents and agrees to take her there by train.

Moments after the train pulls out of the station, the entire country quickly erupts into chaos as a mysterious disease causes a massive zombie outbreak. As the virus spreads on the train, compartment-by-compartment, Seok, Soo-an, and their fellow surviving passengers (including the amazing Dong-seok Ma) must figure out how to contain the virus on the train and, eventually, fight their way through car after car filled with zombies.

What makes “Train to Busan” great isn’t that it’s new and different; it isn’t. There isn’t much in “Train to Busan” that you haven’t seen before. Why the movie succeeds – often spectacularly so – is that it’s a particularly effective and seamless mash-up of other films that improves on much of its inspirational source material. “28 Days Later” is well-represented, but so are “World War Z,” “I Am Legend,” “REC,” and non-zombie movies like “Snowpiercer” and “The Mist.”

Director Yeon is especially effective at his use of space; although most (but not all) of the action is confined to the titular train, the movie continues to evolve and use that environment in new and different ways that never get repetitive. As with most well-done zombie pictures, the film’s best moments are born from the relationships between the characters, which are exceptionally well-developed.

“Train to Busan” is without question one of the best genre films of the year. You should make a point of seeing it.

9. Indignation

In the 1990s, there was a trend in movies and television that featured would-be philosophers with an expansive vocabulary who practiced the art of verbal sparring. At the time, I found the trend annoying. Particularly vexing was the fad of precocious children and teens who apparently saw themselves as the reincarnation of Immanuel Kant and used a lexicon that was completely inauthentic to the time and the person. Examples were everywhere, from movies like “Reality Bites” and “Clerks” to television shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and, at times, even “Beavis and Butthead.”

And then the 2000s happened.

At some point after the close of the millennium, there was a noticeable shift in pop culture away from these amateur Aristotles and towards our society’s apparently endless fascination with watching celebrities, competition shows, and disastrous personalities destroy themselves in front of our eyes. Our societal journey towards the future predicted by “Idiocracy” has sped up to a breakneck pace, and if the success of the Trump campaign is any indication, the brake lines have been severed. In the midst of this, I’ve actually found myself nostalgic for the movies of the 90s.

To keep the analogy going, “Indignation” is like an emergency off-ramp on the highway to cultural idiocy. It’s about a teenager from New Jersey who leaves home for a small college in Ohio. While he’s away at school, young Marcus (Logan Lerman) finds himself in the midst of a series of new trials that have nothing to do with his academics: his roommates are loud, insensitive guys who don’t really care about Marcus but have no respect for his privacy; the Dean of Students (Tracy Letts) won’t respect Marcus’s wish to focus on his studies to the exclusion of a social life; an avowed atheist and cultural Jew, he is nevertheless required to attend Catholic services at the school once a week; and the girl he is dating (Sarah Gadon) is moving too fast for his comfort.

The story is familiar to anyone who traveled far away from home to start their life as an adult. While we may not all be cut from the same cloth as Marcus, he’s a sympathetic character who it’s impossible not to respect. He is highly intelligent and respects logic above all, and it’s when those around him don’t share his worldview that things become difficult. Marcus may not have his peers figured out, but he knows exactly who he is. So when Dean Caudwell begins challenging Marcus and his values, they lead to some epic verbal battles where the two butt heads.

And it’s in these verbal sparring matches that “Indignation” really shines. The two scenes featuring Caudwell and Marcus are easily two of the best scenes on film this year. These encounters are much more exciting than any scene from any action movie of 2016; I was much more invested in these confrontations than any civil war between Iron Man and Captain America. Why have we (apparently) collectively forgotten the thrill of a good debate? Why don’t we value the matching of wits over physical strength and athletic prowess? When did the rivalry of Holmes and Moriarty become less interesting to us than Jason Bourne versus some secret agent guy?

I loved “Indignation” for what it is, and what it’s not. It’s a potent reminder of how we can be entertained without explosions or superpowers.

10. The Purge: Election Year

Whereas most franchises are characterized by sequels that degrade in quality over time, “The Purge” is one that continues to improve. The first movie was a good premise in search of a story. The second in the series, “The Purge: Anarchy” was a marked improvement, and “The Purge: Election Year” is clearly the best one yet.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, the concept behind these movies is simple: the government of America fell after mass unrest and crime eventually led to revolution, and out of the rubble a new party rose. They call themselves “The New Founding Fathers” party and they have discovered a way to dramatically decrease crime and placate the populace: for one 12 hour time span each year, all crime — including murder — is legal. This annual bloodbath is known as (wait for it) “the Purge.”

In this newest installment, the annual Purge has been in place for two decades. When she was younger, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) was forced to watch as her entire family was murdered in front of her during the Purge. Having survived the horrors of the Purge, the Senator is running for President on an anti-Purge platform that is gaining popularity. Threatened by Senator Mitchell, the New Founding Fathers use the Purge as an opportunity to wipe out their competition by sending a squad of assassins to hunt her down. Protected only by her head of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, reprising his role from “The Purge: Anarchy”), the Senator must go on the run to survive the night.

In “The Purge: Election Year,” the annual bloodbath is used as a platform to talk about the growing tension between the haves and the have-nots. Because they lack the financial means to protect themselves, the poor are disproportionately victimized during the Purge. In this world, legalized murder is a way for the wealthy and political elite to ensure a placated populace and control the poor. When the victimized start to realize that they are pawns in a game played by the privileged, they start to fight back… by any means necessary.

The elite in this world are typified by ultra-conservative hypocrites who are quick to subvert religion and re-shape their displayed and false piety to advance their own agenda. Murder tourism is encouraged, and the powerful are quick to espouse the wisdom of permissive gun laws. Sound familiar at all?

My chief criticism of the movie is that it got perhaps a little too heavy-handed in its messaging at times, and the horror aspects of the story suffered as a result. At times, the film more closely resembles an action movie than a horror flick, which is a little disappointing for a franchise that excels in displaying inventive — if horrific — kills. Those kills are the moments that stay with you the longest and the ones that keep you up at night. The imagery that we do get is powerful, but it becomes increasingly scarce as the movie progresses.

While it’s not a perfect movie, “The Purge: Election Year” is that rare horror movie that is both entertaining and has something interesting to say. Whether or not you agree with its politics, it’s an interesting vehicle to use for a message that has resonance in our current culture. I just fear that the message will be lost on most.

Best Movies of 2016, Honorable Mentions:

This list of movies came close to making it into my Top 10 of the year. Here are 11-20, all worthy films:

11. Carnage Park

12. Bølgen (The Wave)

13. The Bronze

14. Eddie the Eagle

15. Kubo and the Two Strings

16. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

17. Nocturnal Animals

18. London Has Fallen

19. The Neon Demon

20. Where to Invade Next

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