It’s a strange beast, the half-year list – we’re reacting to a body of work that is very brief and still very young; perceptions change over time. Nevertheless, the first half of the movie year have rushed by, resulting in massive blockbusters, smash sequels, successful rubbish, and fat flops from first-rate filmmakers, which begs the question: Has 2016 produced any movies so far that could be fairly categorized as award-caliber or memorably good?
It may be true that the last five years’ Best Picture winners were released in the last quarter of the year, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t gems to be found in the months before summer chills to fall. 2016 has already offered a wealth of inspiring fare for the cinephile – and here’s our solid top 20.
Cemetery of Splendor
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul returned to Cannes earlier this year with his first substantial feature length work since 2010’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
His new flick is an amazing, surreal meditation on... You know what, just see it – it’s impossible to reduce to a couple of sentences. What we will say is that Weerasethakul cleverly combines subtle, deadpan humor (nurses giggle as they touch a sleeping soldier’s erection) with a mysterious and supernatural state of being. It’s beautiful.
O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
Edelman’s film examines the history of race over the last several decades through the lens of O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall. Given the recent controversy surrounding police shootings and violent retaliations, the doc has certainly surfaced at an interesting time.
That said, the seven-hour ESPN documentary doesn’t really offer new evidence. But neither does it leave any stone unturned as it churns out detailed information, telling stories about our obsession with celebrity, the way a fair defense depends on a defendant’s riches, the public’s endless appetite for coverage of tragedy, and the inability to “transcend race.”
Men & Chicken
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Men & Chicken is a dark, slapstick comedy about a pair of socially-challenged siblings who discover they are adopted half-brothers in their late father's videotaped will.
An absurd Danish comedy featuring cartoon style violence and a title that is a lot more literal than you ever imagined, you’ll probably be left asking yourself “What the absolute f*ck did I just watch?” But Mads Mikkelsen’s dynamite performance is just one of the many draws here, in a tonally bizarre flick that seems to be a twisted inquiry into the characters’ origins and mankind’s own search for meaning.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Director: Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s latest is a comedy that follows a group of friends as they navigate their way through the freedoms and responsibilities of unsupervised adulthood.
The air is thick with testosterone and the musk of well-used jockstraps. In fact, on the face of it, Everybody Wants Some!! has more in common with National Lampoon’s Animal House than it does with the gentle, observational style of Boyhood. But dig a little deeper, and the semi-autobiographical comedy, which has been described as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, is unmistakably a Linklater movie – and a goddamn delightful one at that.
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Remember the time Disney made a movie about the crack epidemic and race relations in America? This sharp comedy is set in a world in which all the different animal species have put aside their natural positions on the food chain to coexist in harmony. The film focuses on a small-town bunny who, along with a sly fox, drives an investigation into the city's spate of predator disappearances.
It’s lavish to look at and full of wit, color and meaning. The computer-animated film creates a convincing, thoughtful allegory of social politics through a world populated by animals. Why can't all buddy cop films be this good?
Director: Laura Poitras
Although he’s still confined in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange made an appearance at the Cannes Film Festival this year – via Laura Poitras’ documentary, which was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. Poitras, who profiled another celebrated data warrior, Edward Snowden, in Citizenfour, filmed with Assange from 2010-2012 and Risk covers the period when the WikiLeaks data dumps were triggering international outrage.
Sometimes, all a documentary needs to do is to get us in the room with somebody we're curious about, which this insightful portrait of Assange most certainly does. We also get to see guest questioner Lady Gaga rocking up to the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to interrogate her hero...
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The Coen brothers' star-studded Hollywood satire tells the comedic tale of Eddie Mannix, a fixer who worked for the Hollywood studios in the 1950s. The story finds him at work when a star mysteriously disappears in the middle of filming. It’s profoundly moving in the Coen brothers' digressive way: We see many people miss the point, which in itself turns out to be the point. And that's why it's important to do the right thing.
It’s hysterical, light, and so well put together. The entire cast give life to a decidedly outrageous world, from Josh Brolin's long-suffering Mannix, to Alden Ehrenreich's honest and lovable cowboy. Roger Deakins’ vivid, richly colored cinematography is flawless – just give him an Oscar already.
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Tomboyish Toni is caught between the boys’ boxing team and girls’ drill team, but her indecision escalates into horror when the girls in her community center drill team start to break out into seizures – cause unknown. Viewers are largely left to determine for themselves what drives Toni away from the boys and toward the girls, given that she doesn't fully fit into either group.
The Fits is a moving depiction of girlhood that is more deftly confident than anything else we’ve seen this year, with a booming score, surreal set pieces, and a perfect cast (Royalty Hightower, we salute you.) and it does for the inner city what Beasts of the Southern Wild did for the South. You’re not gonna stop thinking about this one for a while.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Expanded from the 2014 short film with the same name, Krisha, the debut feature from Trey Edward Shults, is a dirty bomb bursting at a million frames a second. At the center is a woman struggling with her demons at a Thanksgiving family get-together.
A striking and emotionally wrenching film that transcends its low budget and amateur cast to tell a heartbreaking and wholly cinematic story of a broken family, Shults' direction works to place the audience in the minds of the characters, culminating in a well-crafted film with an honest story. Not since Requiem for a Dream has a film looked at substance abuse with such veracity and technical creativity.
Director: Robert Egger
New England in the 1630s: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness. When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, the family starts to turn on one another. This is an unconventional folktale that will have you checking under the bed for weeks to come.
It’s a meticulous, masterful meditation on religion and femininity. What’s most impressive are the ideas that the film has lurking beneath its surface, a bit like The Babadook. Those desaturated colors, the woods, the unknown... If this is the direction horror films are going, we can't wait for more.
Director: Jeff Nichols
In the sci-fi thriller, writer-director Nichols proves again that he is one of the most compelling storytellers of our time, as a father played by Michael Shannon (who played a man haunted by apocalyptic visions in Nichols’ Take Shelter) goes on the run with his son, whose special powers make him a target of government agents.
Nichols is a master at depicting real and beautiful families, the way they interact and deal with each other. David Wingo is a great composer, and he always delivers perfect music for Nichols' films. Shannon continues being fantastic, but we might even think Joel Edgerton steals the show a little bit. Subtly, but so perfectly.
The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Shane Black is an old-school kind of guy – he’s littered movie theaters with sordid tales of L.A. for 30 years now, from 1987’s Lethal Weapon to 2013’s Iron Man 3 and his 2016 release, The Nice Guys, doesn’t mess with that formula.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling star as a pair of sound-hearted guys off on the trail of a missing porn star in the crime caper. It feels like a movie you should already be referencing as an example of the type of movie that studios don’t make anymore, but you can’t because it’s new. Black builds a comedic duo like no one else, but Gosling and Crowe take every frazzled, frustrated, blumbering word and morph it into hilarity… The definition of pure summer pleasure.
Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
The pairing of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen is one that probably wouldn’t have occurred to us, but, now we know it exists, it kinda makes sense. Stillman's whole career has been spent producing erudite upper class comedies and here, he adapts Austen's little-known novella Lady Susan.
Chloë Sevigny, who co-starred with Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco, makes light work of Lady Susan’s American-exile friend and confidante, with Stephen Fry lending cameo support as her dreary husband. But, surprisingly, this is Beckinsale’s show, and she draws our eyes and ears at all times with a performance of poise and precision.
Director: Tim Miller
The long-awaited Deadpool movie didn’t disappoint. Based on Marvel’s unconventional anti-hero, who’s subjected to a rogue experiment which leaves him with accelerated healing powers, it’s a freight train loaded with jokes, dripping in irony, and chock full with pop-culture gags.
It’s massively different from anything we’ve ever seen within the genre and even more different than anything you’ll see this year. It’s a mixture of fourth wall-breaking, irreverent humour and genius casting that leads to the most satisfying rendition of not only this particular comic character but any comic character to ever reach the screen. And – as much as it might hurt us to admit – Ryan Reynolds is beyond perfect.
Director: Dawn Porter
Trapped could hardly have been more timely. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of a restrictive Texas law that would have severely limited abortion access in the state. The film, which premiered at Sundance, follows the ongoing struggles of abortion clinic workers in Texas, fighting against so-called Trap laws to keep the procedure safe and legal.
Porter’s film is armed with a mass of troubling data to make her case, but it’s the personal stories she captures that make her argument so compelling. It’s totally one-sided, but by keeping the film narrowly focused, Porter succeeds in illustrating the severe consequences that political decisions can take on individual lives.
Director: Gabriel Mascaro
The essence of Brazil is masterfully caught by Neon Bull, an impressive feature by Mascaro that's set amid Brazil's version of rodeo, the “vaquejada,” exploring sexuality, environmental issues, and suffering – both human and animal.
Mascaro plops us into a back-country reality most of us have never seen and reveals it to be stranger and dreamier than we might think. While there's not much plot, the flick is filled with funny bits, be it Galega giving herself a Brazilian wax in the front seat of her truck or Iremar and Zé heading off to commit a ridiculous heist.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
The jaw-droppingly gruesome neo-Nazi story follows a punk band who, after witnessing a murder (life lesson: knock first), are forced into a vicious fight for survival against a group of maniacal skinheads.
The amount of buzz that this film received after 2015’s film festival circuit was incredible, and the best part is that it was totally deserved; nothing could have prepared us for the experience of watching this film. The movie’s star, Patrick Stewart, talked about how the film’s script disturbed him. After reading it, he “put the script aside and I went all around my house, checking that all the doors and windows were secure and locked…and poured myself a large glass of scotch,” he said.
Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
In the biblical portrait Last Days, Jesus (Yeshua) struggles with the Devil over the fate of a family in crisis, setting himself up for a dramatic test. It's not much on paper, but it’s so brilliantly unexpected in so many ways: It's not an approach to the temptation story we’ve seen before, it's not an approach to the character of Christ we've seen before, and it's not a performance from Ewan McGregor we've seen before.
The narrative, dialogue, and visuals are all very sparse, meaning this drama unfolds as a series of short episodes interspersed with large spaces – both of time and, literally, the open space of the desert. It's beautiful in that stark way.
Captain America: Civil War
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
The MCU flick follows the events of Age of Ultron when collective governments of the world pass an act designed to regulate all superhuman activity. This polarizes opinion amongst the Avengers, causing two factions to side with Iron Man or Captain America, which causes an epic battle between former allies.
Just when we thought we were sinking into superhero fatigue, the Russos came along and restored our faith in the genre. Characters with clear motivations, stakes that actually mean something because we like the characters we know, the introduction of Black Panther and Bucky (when we die, we hope heaven is Bucky stealing that motorcycle on loop). They even managed to make us care about Spider-Man, and we haven't cared about him since Spider-man 2.
Director: John Carney
Sing Street follows a boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s, who escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes. The movie tells about first love, about what a boy will do to get a girl and, mostly, about the impact an older brother can have.
The original music is absolutely brilliant. It has the polish of a fully grown songwriter, but the intuition of a young lover. The '80s new romantic musical influence drenches the film in an ever-changing spectrum of fashion and culture. What’s more, Carney clearly has an acute understanding of adolescence and the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies growing up… That entire sequence where the kids are dancing to pop music while their parents are arguing in the background may be one of the best paradoxically happy-sad moments we’ve witnessed in film.