Welcome to the countdown of my favorite films of 2016! While this 16 of ’16 is technically one spot larger than last year’s 15 of ’15, it’s actually not nearly as expansive. Last year, I so purposefully kept up with all the big titles and indie favorites that I felt highly qualified to make a definitive list of the year’s best films, including fourteen Honorable Mentions to complement my fifteen choices. I’m still proud of that list, even though I’ve now seen three or four 2015 films that would screw around with the ranking. This year, I very purposefully saw fewer films, which means I must emphasize that these are my highly-subjective “favorites.” I disagreed with the critics more frequently than usual (which I shouldn’t make such a big deal about, yet I do), meanwhile there are many films receiving praise that I never had time to see. Hey, at least I saved some money this year, right?
Disclaimers aside, if you feel so compelled, step into Part 1 of my biased, Chase-ified, subjective ranking of the movies that did right by me in 2016, kicking things off with one of the more subjective and biased reviews I’ve ever written… You have been warned!
Oh, Martin Scorsese. Can he do wrong? Well, yes, yes he can, as displayed by his long-gestating labor of love, Silence. I planned on reading the 1966 novel on which the film was based beforehand, but I never managed it. To some extent, I still wish I had, in order to better temper my expectations. Still, there was no way I could have expected this to be one of the sloppiest wide-release films I’ve ever seen on the big screen. With inconsistently stylized subtitles, a few scenes oddly soaked in a saturation effect, countless lines of mismatched voiceovers, one scene where the voice recordings were staticky, and random moments of awful sound mixing, I was shocked to the point of honestly asking myself, “Did this theater somehow get sent an unfinished version of this film?” Thankfully, while these technical problems took me out of the otherwise-engrossing movie for brief moments at a time, they weren’t enough to drown out the storytelling. Silence primarily follows Father Rodrigues, played excellently by Andrew Garfield, a Jesuit priest who journeys to imperial Japan in 1639 with a fierce confidence that his mentor–Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’d been in evangelizing in Japan for over a decade–most certainly did not, as rumor would have it, denounce the Catholic religion. I refer to it as the “Catholic religion” and not as “Christianity” in general because the specifics of Catholicism, as opposed to Protestant Christianity, informs many of the decisions made by Rodrigues and his parter, Father Garupe (played by a compellingly tense and conflicted Adam Driver, who continues his run of impressive and diverse roles). When the two arrive in Japan and find a town filled with secret Christians, they’re reluctant to leave because, in their mind, no Christians can confess their sins without a priest to mediate their prayers (among other things that can’t be done without a priest to administer them). When another town reveals a number of Christians and a desire for a priest, the two main characters eventually part ways for good, which is when the movie really hones in on Garfield’s Rodrigues. Essentially, the Jesuits have brought Japan a religion that can’t be lived out independent of a priest leading them. This facet of Catholicism lays the foundation of the film’s most interesting conceit: Rodrigues’s God-complex, or more specifically, his Jesus-complex. This complex (or perhaps even, this hypocrisy) covers the film with layer upon layer of subtext, some details of which were only shown to my in reviews written by far more discerning critics than myself. The moment that struck me the most, though, was when Rodrigues, at the depth of his existential struggles, was praying for his circumstances to end, relating his situation to Christ in the garden of Gethsemane; then someone barges into the room, interrupts the prayer, and accuses Rodrigues that he’s probably comparing himself to Christ, as if Rodrigues’s struggles and Christ’s are the same. And it’s true: they aren’t.
(I apologize for this, but I’m about to get overly theological, which I don’t plan on doing in the next fifteen film reviews.) Something that might have been even more distracting to me than all the technical issues listed earlier were my endless thoughts about how different this movie would’ve been had the main characters been teaching post-reformation Christian doctrine rather than the traditions of the Catholic church. Anyone who knows me is probably well aware of the problems I have with Catholicism. Just look at my favorite film of 2015, Spotlight, which dug deep into a systematic problem of the church. If these Japanese people would’ve been taught the eternal security of their faith, they would’ve been less afraid to commit mortal sins that would cause them to lose their salvation. In the film (and this was actually true in 17th century Japan), the main tactic used to make people denounce the faith is that they step on a picture or carving of Jesus; I know plenty of Protestants who probably wouldn’t have thought twice about stepping, since many Protestants consider “graven images” of Jesus to be breaking the second commandment. Lastly, Rodrigues and Garupe wouldn’t have felt the unhealthy pressure to stay in each city, endangering the citizens in so doing, because they were “needed”; instead, they could have taken up something the apostle Paul did as a major part of his ministry, appointing leaders and overseers in each town and helping the different churches and cities be fully-functional and autonomous, independent of the apostles and removed from any sort of worldwide hierarchy.
Okay, rant over. I’ve fully exited the realm of proper film criticism and crossed the river into the land of “reading into it.” Religious differences aside, I can’t imagine viewers of any religious or non-religious party not being emotionally moved by the stalwart faith of this film’s many Japanese martyrs, some of whom die in sickening fashion because of their willingness to take their faith to the grave. The Japanese actors in this film, including Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yōsuke Kubozuka, and Nana Komatsu, should not go without praise. The Japanese believers seem to understand something about the faith that even the Jesuit priests do not get; one pathetically humorous picture of this comes when the priests, so desperately needy, embarrass themselves by stuffing their faces with food while the onlooking Japanese believers are shocked that the priests didn’t pray to bless the food first. Again, all my personal problems with the film and even all the technical issues should not distract (too much) from how every frame of this film is ripe with subtext, waiting for interpretation. Look no further than the philosophical peak of the film, where (minor spoiler alert!) the return of Father Ferriera leads to one of the best-acted, best-written conversations I’ve ever seen put to film. As sloppy as this film can be, Scorsese still does a lot of good.
#15. Manchester by the Sea
I can imagine many circumstances by which I would come to like Kenneth Lonergan’s critical darling Manchester by the Sea much more than I currently do. By all means, this is an extremely well-conceived and well-acted film. I’ve seen it once, and the movie started at a disadvantage by being second in a double feature, following a film I loved very much (and which will appear later on this list). Perhaps my expectations for Manchester to be one of my favorite films of the year were too high. Perhaps I’ll better understand Lonergan’s style by watching one of his older films; I mean, I did recently purchase a copy of You Can Count on Me. Perhaps I’m too basic of a filmgoer to be fully pleased by a film that never offers a catharsis. Perhaps I’ll revisit this film far in the future, after I have a wife and kids, when this story’s emotional core can provide the gut-punch that I’m sure most older viewers experienced. Or maybe I’ll never really be able to get behind this film because of how much I dislike the central character, as portrayed by Casey Affleck. Affleck nearly has a lock on the Oscar for Best Actor, and his performance as the locally infamous Lee Chandler really is a monumental one, brimming with emotions that Affleck never allows to overflow. We spend most of Manchester by the Sea watching him sink deeper and deeper into a pit that he quite convincingly believes he’ll never get out of. While the plot is initiated by the death of Lee’s brother, Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler, who appears in a large number of well-executed, memory-like flashbacks), and the predicament of who gets guardianship over Joe’s son, the emotional dilemma lies within Lee’s divorce and the surrounding circumstances that brought about Lee’s infamy in the titular hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. What baffles me, though, is that in all the flashbacks prior to Lee’s life-devastating divorce, Lee seems relatively like the same self-involved, cold, alcohol-dependent person that he is in the present. And yes, it bothers me that my own moral feelings about a character have clouded my judgment of the film’s artistic value; I never intend for my film reviews to be this subjective. I invite anyone to show me where I’m mistaken–feel free to use the comment section below–but my first viewing of this film has me convinced that the script presents a life-changing event but forgets to change the character. In every other regard, this film has a superb script, and if nothing else, this is a very good drama. I do not take it lightly that this is my favorite critic’s favorite film of the year, nor do I take lightly the film’s score of 96 on Metacritic, (one point higher than my favorite film of all time). At this point, you may be wondering why I’ve ranked this as one of my favorite films of the year at all. I’ll end with this: the film did have one perfectly-acted and heart-wrenching scene that I have not been able to shake since seeing it. The lead up to this scene and the repercussions of it alone make the film worth experiencing.
#14. Don’t Think Twice
All of the people who now call their friends A-A-ron, Tim-oh!-thy, and Buhlah-kay probably did not expect future cinematic greatness from the comedic duo Key & Peele. The lanky and loudmouthed star of the aforementioned “Substitute Teacher” skit, Keegan-Michael Key, has been jumping into movie roles left and right over the past two years, but Don’t Think Twice is undoubtedly his finest motion picture yet, taking the slapstick, off-the-cuff humor of his now-defunct television series and applying it to a painfully bittersweet ode to teamwork, friendship, and the passing of time. The film’s success is primarily indebted to writer, director, and co-star Mike Birbiglia, coming alongside Key as members of The Commune, a tight-knit improv troupe in New York City. Don’t Think Twice balances the “dramedy” hybrid-genre by telling a story that is dramatic in its plot points yet populated with characters who are ceaselessly funny as part of their wellbeing. We can focus on their “jobs” as comedians, just like they do, instead of focusing on their other jobs as baristas, clerks, or teachers of poorly-attended comedy classes. The crux of the story comes when Key’s character Jack accomplishes something none of his teammates can: getting hired as a writer and actor on Weekend Live (a very obvious stand-in for, and hilariously spot-on satire of, Saturday Night Live). The movie also explores the tried-and-true theme of whether finding artistic success is worth the sacrifice of abandoning artistic merit, but the film thankfully never loses its focus on the people. Each of the troupe’s six members appear onscreen as tangible, lived-in characters with believable experiences and aspirations. The improv troupe represents a group of best friends whose ties get pulled on until they break, which is especially true with the core relationship between Jack, who loves being the center of attention and often steals it, and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, who does a great job with the multifaceted role). The movie is not without its awkward moments–some of them painfully so–but the experience altogether is endearing and charming, filled with friends you’ll want to spend more time with once the film is over. And thankfully, through thick and thin, we can leave Don’t Think Twice confident that most of these characters will want to keep spending time together after the credits roll, too.
#13. Kubo and the Two Strings
It’s odd that an animated film almost didn’t make my favorites this year. Pixar’s output from 2007-2010 was responsible for four of my all-time favorite films of any genre, and I’m consistently impressed with every film that comes out of Studio Ghibli, Aardman Animations, and Laika Entertainment. Yet as I reflected upon 2016, this financially lucrative year for animated films comes up short, for me at least, artistically. Finding Dory was a real treat, one I was happy to pay to see twice, but it was also a simple pleasure (and one I’ve written more than enough about already). Zootopia spent half its runtime lazily getting to the plot by filling the screen with wonderfully clever, yet not particularly funny, animal jokes. Moana was thoroughly forgettable in every regard except its animation and a few songs (although I might think differently about the movie if it simply would have ended faster). When I remember seeing Kubo and the Two Strings, though, my only problem with the stop-motion feat is that I’m still unsure how the ending sits with me morally and philosophically. (Why are three of the four films on this list morally conflicting for me??) In every other regard, from the unique animation to the empathetic characterizations to the riveting score to even the movie’s fairly singular and visionary concept, the movie’s a masterpiece. It’s fascinating to see a movie boldly introduce new ideas at the ending, especially ideas that the film doesn’t take to their logical conclusions, but I’ll never complain about seeing a movie that forces you into hours of good conversation afterwards. I won’t spoil what those ideas are, but they tie in perfectly with Kubo and the Two Strings‘ overall theme of memory: what is it like for a boy to grow up with a mother who’s losing her memory? How can a boy learn about his deceased father when the mother’s memory is growing worse with age? How does memory relate to good storytelling? These questions set the foundation for this adventurous film, and it’s sad and heavy fare unlike anything you’d see released by Illumination Entertainment (Sing and The Secret Life of Pets, both of which I refused to see) or Dreamworks Animation (Kung Fu Panda 3, which in all honesty I liked a whole lot, and Trolls, no comment). It’s comforting to know that Pixar isn’t the only dependable and artistic studio working today. Laika, which first came onto the scene with 2009’s Coraline, has achieved a new high water mark with Kubo, promising even greater things to come.
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For further resources on these films, I highly recommend Nathan Hall’s review of Silence on Chorus.fm (here) and the Reel World Theology podcast’s highly informative and in-depth episode on Manchester by the Sea (here).