I didn’t make a best/worst list last year because I was in full-on new parent mode, meaning I missed far more movies than I caught. I rectified that in 2016. There are a few holes in my viewing list (namely, The Monster, The Wailing, and Train to Busan), but I had no trouble finding five movies I absolutely loved (and a few I didn’t).
1. The Neon Demon – Following a polarizing theatrical release, I had a pretty good idea what to expect out of this. A neon-soaked, narratively obtuse nightmare just like the director’s previous Only God Forgives, right? Not exactly. The Neon Demon is a fairly straightforward descent into madness. A slow crawl through a world where jealousy and insanity seem like the only logical outcomes. Nicolas Winding Refn may not be for everyone, but he speaks my language. The Neon Demon is the year’s best, horror or otherwise.
2. Green Room – For pure suspense, Green Room reigned supreme this year. Nearly 90 minutes of sustained tension, bolstered by strong performances by everyone in the cast. Who knew Patrick Stewart could be such a bastard? Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier showcases genre mastery, making this kind of picture look easy. His previous outing, Blue Ruin, was a massive jump from his Murder Party debut. Green Room isn’t as big a leap, but it’s a refined and compelling thriller without a wasted moment.
3. The Shallows – If I had my way, Jaume Collet-Serra would leave the world of tepid Liam Neeson thrillers behind for good and focus on horror. From House of Wax (2005), Orphan (one of the genre’s best modern efforts, period), and now The Shallows, we find a director unafraid to tackle potentially schlocky premises with earnest flourish. The Shallows might’ve been Hardbodies vs. Sharks in lesser hands, but Collet-Serra fashions the material into an agreeable survival metaphor. Blake Lively is fierce and carries much of the movie on her shoulders, with only Steven Seagull to lighten the burden as the year’s best co-star. I love this damn movie.
4. The Witch – The Witch features an oppressive atmosphere that takes hold from the start, suffocating viewers in a way that matches our protagonist’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) inward journey. Here’s a fable about a young woman’s discovery of independence, handled without judgement or manipulation. It’s also cool to see a period horror film again, and 1630 New England is impressively recreated on a $3 million budget. General audiences balked at this, but fuck ’em. The Witch is a dreamy bedtime story peppered with genuinely terrifying moments. After this, I’m eager to see whatever director Robert Eggers comes up with next.
5. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” (Season 2) – Ash’s second season is a huge leap forward, quality-wise. Season 1 relied a bit too heavily on the charisma of its star while sitting on its laurels for everything else. Season 2, on the other hands, benefits the entire cast while, more importantly, harnessing the funhouse-style energy from Sam Raimi’s films. This year hit the ground running and refused to stop. The end result is something that feels like a worthy sequel in the series. And as the show hit its stride, I’m giddy at future possibilities.
I want to add a qualifier up front: I’m not necessarily arguing these as the “worst” films of 2016 (if that actually means anything). I no longer scrape the bottom of the barrel of yearly offerings just to be a completionist. Instead, these are movies I went into wanting to love, only to walk out profoundly disappointed.
1. 31 – I’m not down on Rob Zombie. I really like House of 1000 Corpses and love The Devil’s Rejects and Lords of Salem (the later being my favorite of his films). His Halloween remake is an indefensible mess, though, while its sequel at least has a vision and a purpose behind it. Did 31‘s micro budget prevent it from being any good? It’s doubtful because its problems run deeper (although the lack of scope and blocking are a detriment). The script is inane, goes nowhere, and amounts to nothing. An incredible waste.
2. Don’t Breathe – Nothing about this mess works. The protagonists deserve everything they get and worse. The antagonist is more likable until the movie decides to turn him into a rapist for no other reason than to get you to stop rooting for him. On a technical level it looks nice, but director Fede Alvarez doesn’t know the first thing about escalating tension or sustaining suspense. As such, this piece of crap sputters along in fits and starts, collapsing beneath a mountain of unintentional hilarity and bad taste.
3. Blair Witch – As a fan of the franchise thus far, I’ve never felt like more of a sucker than when I plunked down my hard-earned cash to see this cash-in. Sixteen years after the last sequel, and Lionsgate can only deliver a souped up remake? And does this movie imply that the well-established mythology may in fact be extraterrestrial in nature? Blair Witch depresses more thanks to the incredible talent behind the camera. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have made some of my favorite movies of the last few years, and this franchise revival attempt feels beneath their talents.
4. Morgan – Morgan is an awkward, clunky, and half-baked sci-fi story. It’s like director Luke Scott shot the first draft of a script filled with placeholder notes. It’s aggressively stupid stuff. Every character just gives up at the halfway point, becoming willing fodder for the title character. An assortment of so-called “professionals” so terrible at their jobs, and so lacking in common sense, they’d strain credibility in a generic slasher movie. But in a movie that so desperately wants to be about something, it plays even worse. There’s no verisimilitude here. There’s nothing.
5. The Boy – Stop trying to make Brahms happen.
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