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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016

Written by on December 30, 2016 

40. Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery)

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A magical work that some might call “slow” or “dull,” and which I’d instead label as confident and unhurried, Pete’s Dragon proves that not all children’s films have to be flash sans substance. David Lowery‘s studio debut is a quietly moving film about loss and childhood that embraces the fantastical elements while still tweaking the foundation of the Disney original’s theme. Everything, down to the music, is a potent mix of nostalgia in a modern world. – Bill G.

39. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

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Sully is perhaps the grand culmination of Clint Eastwood’s fascination with deconstructing myths and American heroes. This is supported by the fact that it’s the one most about 21st-century living — its climax not the actual Miracle on the Hudson, but the ensuing trial that tried to render human action into ones and zeroes on a screen. And at a tight 96 minutes, it also comes as one of his most focused statements on a kind of pragmatic decency. – Ethan V.

38. Dirty Grandpa (Dan Mazer)

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In a particularly intolerable year of social media feeds that saw “political correctness” monetized by the left and straw-manned by the right, it came down to an uncool, raunchy comedy dumped in January, and unbeknownst to most, to offer the most hilarious mocking of both sides. Featuring a very game Robert De Niro in what just may be his Gran Torino, the titular dirty grandpa seemed to restore, to quote Kanye West, “that DMX feeling” on multiplex screens. – Ethan V.

37. A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)

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An emotional gut-punch of a movie, A Monster Calls carefully explores what it means to be old enough to have true emotions and, still, not quite know how to process them. We are put in that headspace by the fantastic performance by young Lewis MacDougall who is visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) while his mother is sick in a hospital. Each night, the boy is visited and told a story that challenges him. Each night, our attachment to the journey grows until it culminates in a powerful finale that mixes the magic of J. A. Bayona’s visual grandeur with his personal touch. – Bill G.

36. Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski)

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In which notorious cinematic psychotic Andrzej Żuławski goes out on a final jittery, stark-raving-mad note. How fitting that the year’s most intelligently directed film – what zooms and glides and stops and starts that drive this thing forwards, backwards, and sideways – would so furiously chart the dissolution of rational thought and action, though to even say as much might inaccurately suggest that its characters are anything but cracked. Special notice to Sabine Azéma for a supporting performance that plays as the entire picture in miniature. – Nick N.

35. A Dragon Arrives! (Mani Haghighi)

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Ping-ponging between doc and fiction in sublimely unexpected ways, the year’s most original thriller not only dares you to find the correct answers but to even ask the right questions. Writer/director Mani Haghighi, who embeds a murder mystery into his family history while making an implicit political statement, proves he can cook up Farhadi-esque plot twists just as brilliantly and bend storytelling forms like a true Panahi. By further giving the film its sensational look and sound, the Iranian master has crafted a cerebral workout so layered and cryptically spectacular it leaves you in an awestruck state of cinematic stupor you hardly wish to recover from. – Zhuo-Ning Su

34. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)

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Eight million dollars. That’s the budget of Ben Wheatley‘s wild ’70s romp High-Rise, a brilliantly adapted (by Amy Jump) descent into madness of J.G. Ballard‘s seminal novel. Nothing about the film shocks me more because of its stellar cast, impeccable art direction, and sheer scale of themes, visuals, and dystopian nightmare. It’s no surprise that shades of Terry Gilliam’s gonzo epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and masterpiece Brazil come to mind — the torch of directorial vision making mountains out of molehills has been passed. My review called it “dense, hilarious, and timelessly prescient,” and I stand by those words. This is an intellectual revolution of feral creatures rejecting the status quo. This is America circa 2017. – Jared M.

33. Little Men (Ira Sachs)

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Using the microcosm of a Brooklyn rental dispute as its backdrop, Ira Sachs’ latest film was both a timely comment on class in present-day liberal America and an emotional wrecking-ball account of adolescence — that time in a young person’s life when an earth-shattering family dispute can seem far less significant than a train ride home after a young love’s rejection. Little Men seemed to argue that while convenient liberalism and local businesses might be the first things to go when gentrification rears its head, far more tragic rifts will occur in the process. The whole thing resonated like a sad and beautiful farewell to the Melting Pot and, contrary to all the grown-ups’ bickering, it was Jake and Tony’s endearing friendship — which bridged class, ethnicity and, perhaps, sexual persuasion — that really lay in the balance. – Rory O.

32. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

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Actions should have consequences, which is exactly what Hell or High Water delivers upon in the end. In getting there, though, you have to wade through a bleak and dirty modern-day western as we follow two bank-robbing brothers out on a tear through West Texas. The film never strays from being honest about the despair many in the locale face while managing not to paint too-perfect a picture of the brothers as people with a heart of gold. The humor is often dry, but if you can find yourself on the good side of the lawman (played by Jeff Bridges) and see past his stereotyping wisecracks, it’s one of the year’s most well-oiled films. – Bill G.

31. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s welcomed return to the detective genre, gleefully wallows in quips, twists, and punches, lovingly paying homage to hard-boiled fictional tough guys of yesteryear. It’s a film anchored by two shamelessly likable performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, whose unexpected comedic chemistry makes for an incredibly rewatchable and entertaining experience. We have genuine fun in their presence, hanging out with the two of the world’s worst detectives as they stumble ever closer to a characteristically violent conclusion. The other star is unquestionably Black’s playful screenplay (co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi), which beautifully weaves the required elements of the detective movie formula around the peculiarities of its ‘70s Los Angeles setting. I predict that within ten years, we will have forgotten that The Nice Guys wasn’t the smash hit of summer 2016, as it clearly should have been. – Tony H.

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