Typically, this is the part where I'd blow through the intro, because I think long-winded intros attached to top ten lists are a) obnoxious and b) a real waste of time for the writer (my suspicion has long been that most people skip straight to the list itself). This year, I've actually got something I'd like to go on record with.
Namely: this has been a tremendous year for movies, and for the first time since I've been doing this professionally ("professionally"), I found myself agonizing over which films would make the cut. In the end, I was able to avoid a full-blown panic attack by allowing myself a list of "honorable mention" titles at the end ... only to break into an immediate sweat when I realized I'd still have to rank ten favorites from the films I'd chosen.
The lineup below was finalized about half a dozen times before I finally settled on one I could live with.
Let's get to it.
As a big fan of both mockumentaries and The Lonely Island (Hot Rod forever), I was in the bag for Popstar pretty much the moment it was announced. Good news for me, then, when the film turned out to be an all-timer, absolutely worthy of standing alongside other faux music docs like A Mighty Wind or This Is Spinal Tap. By turns hilarious, heartfelt and surreal, Popstar has my vote for the best straight-up comedy of the year. It only gets funnier every time I see it.
Added bonus: the soundtrack is hot fire (favorite tracks: "Mona Lisa", "Humble" and "Finest Girl"). In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Lonely Island makes better pop music than most modern pop artists. #StyleBoyz4Lyfe
Ben Wheatley's High-Rise is a morally ugly, mean-spirited, chaotic, drug-injected kaleidoscope of a movie. It's difficult and dense and - if we're being honest - features no genuinely likable characters. When it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, it provoked reactions ranging from baffled to disgusted (and a few walkouts, if I remember correctly). So of course it blew the roof off the place when it screened at Fantastic Fest a few weeks later.
Admittedly, High-Rise isn't for everyone. Like most Wheatley efforts, you are either on this movie's wavelength or you are not. And if you aren't, well, that's just more High-Rise for the rest of us.
Shout-outs are in order for MVP Luke Evans, Portishead's cover of "S.O.S.", and one of the funniest lines of the year, which I can't quote here without looking like a psychopath.
8. THE INVITATION
Speaking of Fantastic Fest: I missed The Invitation when it screened there a few years ago, and spent the months afterwards wallowing in regret. Then I actually saw Karyn Kusama's film, and realized I hadn't regretted it enough. I love this movie.
Featuring a pitch-perfect cast (including Logan Marshall-Green and the Zodiac himself, John Carrol Lynch) and a slowly-ratcheting sense of dread that ultimately explodes in one of the wildest third acts of the year, The Invitation is an intense, astoundingly well-crafted thriller. Hitchcock would've adored it.
Anyway, it's difficult to discuss the film at length without getting into spoiler territory, so I'll just cut this short and recommend that you make a point to see this film as soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.
7. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
I suppose, in the wake of What We Do In The Shadows, we shouldn't be surprised that Taika Waititi's Hunt For The Wilderpeople turned out to be one of the year's most delightful films (and, really, there's no better word for it: it's delightful). In a very short span of time, Waititi has proven himself a nimble, natural talent; Hunt For The Wilderpeople feels like one more step towards us considering him one of the industry's most reliable working directors. He feels like a Kiwi Edgar Wright waiting to happen.
And with Hunt For The Wilderpeople, he made one of those movies that's impossible not to be charmed by. The script (also by Waititi) perfectly balances heart and humor, the performances (particularly from leads Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison) are across-the-board excellent, the cinematography (by Lachlan Milne) captures the New Zealand outback in all its lush beauty, and the ending - which comes right up to the edge of being too sweet without going over the line - leaves you wanting much, much more time with these characters.
This thing is a well-oiled machine. God, I can't wait for Thor: Ragnarok.
6. THE NEON DEMON
Confession: I walked into Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon convinced that I would hate it.
Refn's always been hit or miss with me, and everything I'd heard about The Neon Demon sounded suspiciously like everything I hated about Refn's previous film, Only God Forgives. A buddy of mine told me he'd walked out of Neon Demon halfway through, but offered to accompany me to see it, presumably because my friends enjoy seeing me fly into fits of exasperated rage. When the film ended, I was in love, and he was dumbfounded (my dude still does not like this movie).
It's true that every complaint I had about Only God Forgives could be reasonably applied to Neon Demon. But for reasons that continue to elude me (even after multiple viewings), Refn's latest worked like gangbusters for me. If history is anything to go on, this probably means I won't love his next one, but whatever: I now have The Neon Demon to fall back on.
Bonus points for one of the best scores of the year, courtesy Cliff Martinez.
5. THE WITCH
Note: These next two films, Robert Eggers' The Witch and Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, switched positions more than any other titles on this list. Eventually I had to flip a coin to determine their placement.
As for The Witch - good lord, what a debut. Atmospheric, authentic and legitimately terrifying, this gets my pick for horror movie of the year. I spent months ranting and raving about this movie after catching it at Fantastic Fest 2015, so in all likelihood you're tired of hearing me talk about it. That's fine, just so long as you promise to see The Witch.
PS: Don't let any knuckleheads try and tell you this isn't a horror movie. Such people have bad opinions and are not to be trusted. There's an evil goat, a witch and possibly Satan himself in it. Of course it's a horror movie, you clowns.
4. GREEN ROOM
Speaking of horror movies: lately I've seen some chatter as to whether or not Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is a horror movie. It is not. What it is, is a gut-wrenchingly intense siege movie, one that literally had my stomach in knots the first time I saw it ... and the second time. Not so much the third, but even then it's quite a thing to behold.
Anchored by one of the greatest performances of Patrick Stewart's career (who'd a thought he'd make such a great neo-Nazi?) and shot through with moments of extremely unpleasant violence (none of us will ever look at a machete the same way again), Green Room is a masterclass in suspense filmmaking. It ain't for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach it, you'll probably agree that it's an all-timer.
The only question is: how will Saulnier top it? I can't wait to find out.
If you're a new member of the Denis Villeneuve Fan Club, it's probably because of Arrival.
Working from a pitch-perfect script by Eric Heisserer (whose work adapting Ted Chiang's intricate short story is surely worthy of an Oscar nomination), Villeneuve delivered a smart, timely sci-fi spectacle that we can comfortably speak of within the same breath as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This movie floored me at Fantastic Fest, it floored me when I saw it again a few months later, and it floored me again recently when I went back for thirds. I love everything about this movie, including the stellar work turned in by leads Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (both of whom I really like, and both of whom have never been better).
A piece of advice if you only saw Arrival once: see it again. More than any other movie on this list, Arrival rewards repeat viewings. Second time through's almost like a completely different movie.
2. SWISS ARMY MAN
Note: for months, Swiss Army Man clung to the #1 spot on this list. But in the end, with only weeks to spare, it got bumped back to the #2 spot. Let the record show that it was still a very, very close race.
Swiss Army Man is a remarkable piece of work, easily the year's most daring and original film, and comes with the added bonus of introducing us to a powerhouse directorial combo by the name of Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, if ya nasty). It is, in short, a movie I will be testing potential friends with for years to come.
You can - and should - read more of my thoughts on Swiss Army Man here, but I'd like to take this opportunity to say the following: Daniel Radcliffe absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination for his work on this film (he won't get one, but he deserves it), "Montage" should absolutely be nominated for Best Original Song (if only we can see how they'd stage that madness on-stage at the Oscars), and Daniels should absolutely get to work on their next film immediately. I cannot wait to see what they have in store for us in the years ahead.
1. LA LA LAND
When it comes time to make a top ten list, I believe you can make your picks one of two ways: you can pick the best films of the year, or you can pick your favorite films of the year. That's an important distinction. I like to go with my favorites. And with that in mind, Damien Chazelle's La La Land is my favorite movie of the year.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what to say about the film beyond what I already said in this post, but seeing as how this is the #1 spot, I suppose I can't just hyperlink to that editorial and call it a day. That'd be a cop-out. So let's give this another go (be aware, some spoilers follow; if you've not seen the film yet, just skip this next paragraph entirely).
La La Land is special for a dozen different reasons - the fact that it's a musical that doesn't contain a single bad song, the wildfire chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the eyepopping colors it throws in your face every few seconds, the fact that it's way funnier than anyone anticipated - but for me, the film's true power lies in its willingness to tell the kind of love story we rarely see onscreen: that of two people who love each other very much, but who aren't meant to be together. That sounds like it'd be a huge bummer, but La La Land pulls off the incredible magic trick of ending on something of a down note ... while still making you feel hopeful and inspired by everything that came before. I've talked to a number of people who call the film's third act "bittersweet", and I suppose that's true enough. But for me, it felt more complicated than that: La La Land is true to life, and all that that implies.
La La Land hit me square in the heart, and hasn't let go since that first viewing. This is a movie I'll be watching for the rest of my life, a film legitimately deserving of the term "instant classic". Indeed, much like last year's Mad Max: Fury Road, this is one of those incredibly rare line-in-the-sand movies, the type where - if you tell me you don't like it - I'm going to have a hard time not judging you for it. In time, I may learn to live with your bad opinion, but rest assured I will be giving you some amount of side-eye forever after.
That's how good La La Land is.
It's my favorite movie of the year.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order): Jackie, Moonlight, Weiner, The Nice Guys, Edge of Seventeen, OJ: Made In America, Tickled.