By Nathaniel Nelson
Watching movies in 2016 was kind of like walking at night, under the MOONLIGHT—for a while it was tough to see anything good, but ultimately there was a lot of beautiful stuff. We’ve basically been here before: an average Marvel movie, a lame DC movie trying to keep up, corny Oscar bait, something from Woody Allen, and whatever the hell this was. But a select few pictures truly shined through, like MOONLIGHT on a cold winter road…
With the Oscars coming up, we’ve decided to take a look back at the year’s best MOONLIGHTS—ahem—movies.
NB: Only wide-release pictures are included in this list.
8. Hell or High Water
I’ve invented a drinking game for Hell or High Water: every time a pair of cowboys takes a break from their lives to stare out quietly into the horizon, everyone takes a shot.
Hell or High Water is a movie about a long game of cops and robbers. Basically, the cops have to pursue the robbers for the length of the movie, so there’s a story to be told, and then the criminals have to be brought to justice at the end, so the movie can end. That said, the film is directed with such maturity and finesse that you’ll leave the theater believing that it meant something important. Chris Pine plays a Wild West Captain Kirk, and Ben Foster gives his best performance since his appearance at my high school graduation back in 2013 (seriously, it was super random but that guy was at my commencement).
7. Manchester by the Sea
You know that feeling when, for one reason or another, you haven’t eaten in, like, eight hours—so you grab a bag of chips, and suddenly Doritos are the best-tasting thing in the whole world? Well, Manchester by the Sea is those Doritos. For all the perks of being a movie critic, it can be a pretty monotonous job when all you’re getting is Marvel movies and average foreign films. Sometimes—I’m looking at you, Gravity—it’s understandable that critics might get so hungry for anything resembling quality filmmaking that they collectively overreact. Manchester, the story of a loner handyman left to care for his teen nephew, is a really good film, but also very long and dry. It’s well worth your time, but you may have been better off without the expectations that come with a 96% Metacritic rating.
A beautiful novel in movie form, Indignation’s screenplay would be worth listening to even without a picture. It’s about a struggling college student in the 1950s, but no summary could do justice to the film’s strengths. Indignation’s protagonist speaks in paragraphs, and walks through spaces that seem narrated into existence by a great author. Composed of a largely wood-brown color palette, the story is handcrafted and wonderfully tragic.
5. The Lobster
It’s all terribly robotic, and yet, somehow this is a strength. The universe of The Lobster is alternate to our own—colorless, sterile, Kafkaesque. Weird and muted, this picture about a man’s unorthodox quest for love well worth your time.
Perhaps the only worthy direct offspring of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, Arrival’s focus on language offers a unique perspective on the alien-invasion trope. After his widely appreciated Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), director Dennis Villeneuve is on a certifiable hot streak, and his tense, dark style is perfect for Arrival’s story. With fewer green tentacles, more intellectual basis than your average space flick, and an Inception-like twist at the end, Arrival is all-around solid.
3. La La Land
Damien Chazelle is Hollywood’s most talented young filmmaker, period. This little Harvard dork has made two of the best movies of the decade already, his only problem being stiff competition (realistically, Whiplash (2014) and now La La Land are both better than just about any Oscar best picture winner of the 2010s). It’s not just that people don’t make movies like La La Land anymore, but that so few people are capable of conceiving and achieving such a grand scale vision. Even if you’re not into La La Land’s shtick though (you goddamn sociopath), there’s enough good music alone to make it a worthwhile watch.
Ah, fooled you! You thought Moonlight would be number one? Close!
Honestly, though, Moonlight is certifiably beautiful. Only a truly great movie can survive the extremely questionable use of a chopped and screwed remix of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” to soundtrack one of its most vital emotional scenes. More than anything, Moonlight, a Boyhood (2014)-style story following a man through childhood and early adulthood, benefits from existing in a world almost entirely unknown to cinema. Chiron, a gay black man growing up in poverty, may not remind you of too many other Hollywood protagonists, which feels good when every other movie out is the same old crap we’ve grown tired of.
1. Don’t Think Twice
‘Yes, and’: in improvisational comedy it’s a saying, a skill, and a way of life. ‘Yes, and’ means having your partner’s back and supporting them no matter what, even in spite of your own self-interest. It means functioning as a group, where one weak link can collapse the entire structure.
‘Yes, and’ may not be literally vocalized all too often in Don’t Think Twice, but it’s the driving force behind the plot and its characters. A story both hilarious and tragic, Don’t Think Twice is about much more than any of its component parts, and might have easily stood with this year’s top awards nominees had it not been for a weak marketing effort. I would not deny Moonlight or even a Manchester by the Sea-type a claim to a spot atop anyone else’s 2016 best-of list, but neither film reaches so wide an array of emotions, and hits every beat so truthfully as Don’t Think Twice does. But I have to stop typing now, as even just thinking back on the last scene of this movie is making me tear up.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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