It's hard to believe, but we are officially halfway through 2016. While we haven't gotten to the bulk of the year's releases yet, I'd say it's been a pretty solid six months of cinema. When putting together my list of favorites, it occurred to me that the biggest complaint from audiences - "there's nothing original anymore!" - can be put to bed. I say it every single year and it gets truer every time: with the dawn of digital cinema, not only are there more venues for exhibition than ever before, but there are more avenues for filmmakers of any pedigree to create high-quality films. If you think everything is a reboot, remake, or sequel, you're just not looking hard enough. Yes, my below list does contain a sequel, but it's a very, VERY good one, which happens all the time too. Happy Halfway-Point, Cinedelphians!
- Embrace of the Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra)
One part artsy-fartsy, one part adventure, and two parts road movie. This black & white film tells a tale of two similar quests occurring a few generations apart. The novel storytelling device serves the characters well in that it explores the deep roots that can lead to culture clash, as well as illustrating just how the seeds for such a thing are planted in the first place. You may fear that this film is pretentious, but it's much more accessible and enjoyable than its art-house shell lets on.
- Weiner (dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
Perhaps the best documentary about our political landscape ever made. It's a study of not just what it takes to be a politician, but of the many ways the public reacts to a scandal. How far do values really go when it comes to public office, and just what does it mean to be good? While so many documentaries struggle to avoid artifice, Weiner succeeds because the completed film is not the one that the filmmakers set out to make. The story happened unexpectedly, and the cameras happened to be on. This movie is election year homework. Don't miss it.
- Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Just because it's a genre film doesn't mean that it has to be empty. Taking the format of Assault of Precinct 13 and imbuing it with strong character work, Saulnier both honors and subverts the siege-movie template. It's appropriate that this movie makes the viewer feel as if they've just survived a killer mosh pit: thrilled, tired, sweaty, and excited to do it again.
- The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)
Shane Black doing what Shane Black does best, and in effect creating the exact type of movie that likely inspired him to start making movies in the first place. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a comedic chemistry that has to be seen to be believed. Yeah, it's dirty, mean-spirited, and none of the heroes are even remotely good, but that's what's so fun about it. One gets the distinct feeling that this set was never a tense one, and that every performer and crew member was having a blast. Can we get a spin-off TV show??
- Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (dir. John Lee)
No one can figure out why Pee-Wee works, but he does, and in the decades since his last cinematic effort (to which Big Holiday is wildly superior) it seems that the man-child's oddball charm can't be extinguished. Last time I cheesed so hard during a movie was The Force Awakens, which provided the exact same mix of nostalgia and legitimacy. Joe Mangianello wins MVP, however. His buddy-romance with Pee-Wee is a grand comic performance. This is the type of movie that oozes purity and goodness while maintaining a fair amount of bite. Welcome back, Pee-Wee.
- The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
A beautiful bit of absurdity pointed at the value our society places on couples culture. Simply put, if you can't find a mate, you're no better than an animal. Colin Farrell's tragic, deadpan performance showcases just how good of an actor he can be now that he's not just some hunk. For such a large, star-studded cast to commit to such an insane idea, each performer nailing the unique tone is so rare, and in this instance, sublime. While it's certainly lighter than Lanthimos’ previous work, it's just as deliciously scathing.
- Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
So many have dubbed this as "Coen-light" but I couldn't disagree more. Their entire filmography has been a meditation on storytelling and faith, and Hail, Caesar! is the combination of these themes boiled down to as close to a meta-textual experience as these filmmakers are apt to offer. Josh Brolin delivers his finest Joe Polito, and the Channing Tatum tap dance sequence is going to go down in history as a true piece of iconography. Watch this one and laugh, then watch it again and be blown away. Would that it t'were so simple.
- High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley)
The Kubrick torch has been passed into the able hands of Ben Wheatley. It terrifies me to anticipate what he'll do next. High-Rise is a showcase of not just his technical skills, but of how bold and fearless he is. Double kudos to writer Amy Jump who adapted J.G. Ballard's novel into something pertinent and cinematic. Clint Mansell's score (one of the best EVER) captures the gruesome, madcap circus inside the titular tower. Nobody leaves this cultural criticism without a wound. The target of the critique? Civilization as a whole. Filmmaking at its most-refined ... and most feral. I'm getting chills just writing about it.
- The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
The strongest hype-to-delivery ratio of recent years. The Witch left my soul shaking for long after the credits rolled. They just don't make horror like this any more. And really, did they ever? The Witch is a completely unique experience that, if not for the supernatural elements, feels like a true window into Puritan New England. What happens when our desires are suppressed? They rot us from the inside, and morph from something potentially beautiful into something rank and inhuman. While not my favorite movie of 2016 so far, it is undoubtedly the best. You'll never look at a goat the same way again.
- Everybody Wants Some (dir. Richard Linklater)
This film tops my list for many reasons, but the most prominent is that the whole thing is awash with love. Linklater loves his characters and treats them with such warmth, that he reclaims the frat-boy comedy from the realm of creeps and crassness, and brings it into a world of fun and hopefulness, without sparing any of the humor. I laughed myself silly for the entire runtime, and emerged from the film fulfilled on a thematic level as well. Time stops for nobody, and Linklater's look into the scariness of maturity - and how beautiful it can be when handled with love and enthusiasm - is the type of fun I can get behind. Even though it is aptly billed as a "spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused," the description still seems reductive. Both films are coming of age stories from a master filmmaker, but Everybody Wants Some! has a wisdom about it that is engaging and warm. It's like hearing a story from your cool uncle.