Later this week, 2016 will cross the halfway mark, so now’s the time to take a look back at its first six months and round up our favorite films thus far. While the end of this year will bring personal favorites from all of our writers, think of the below 30 entries as a comprehensive rundown of what should be seen before heading into a promising fall line-up.
As a note, this feature is based solely on U.S. theatrical releases from 2016, with many currently widely available on home video, streaming platforms, or theatrically. Check them out below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions and films to keep on your radar for the remaining summer months. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Forget the Cloverfield connection. The actors who were in this film didn’t even know what the title was until moments before the first trailer dropped. Producer J.J. Abrams used that branding as part of the wrapping for its promotional mystery box, but the movie stands perfectly alone from 2008’s found-footage monster picture. Hell, 10 Cloverfield Lane perhaps doesn’t even take place within the same fictional universe as that film — although a friend asked if it’s secretly a Super 8 sequel, and, honestly, you could think of it as one without contradicting anything in either movie. Whether the Cloverfield name fills you with wariness or enthusiasm, it would be unwise to burden Dan Trachtenberg‘s film with such prejudices. – Dan S. (full review)
April and the Extraordinary World (Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
Most writing on Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci‘s April and the Extraordinary World speaks as though they’ve adapted one of revered Frenchman Jacques Tardi‘s graphic novels. This isn’t quite the case. What they’ve actually done is bring his unique “universe” to life with help from previous collaborator Benjamin Legrand (writer of Tardi’s Tueur de cafards) instead. Legrand and Ekinci crafted this alternate steampunk version of Paris as something inspired by the artist’s work rather than born from it. Tardi in turn helped by drawing original work later brought to life by Desmares’ animation team. The whole is therefore a culmination of its six-year production schedule populated by multiple creative minds working in tandem throughout. It may look familiar, but it’s very much brand new. – Jared M. (full review)
A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)
Despite a loose script that justifies little, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up feature to his glorious melodrama I Am Love is a sweaty, kinetic, dangerously unpredictable ride of a film. One is frustrated by the final stroke of genius that never came, but boy was it fun to spend two hours inside such a whirlwind of desires, mind games, delirious sights and sounds. Based on the 1969 French drama La piscine (The Swimming Pool), the story essentially begins as Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a couple vacationing on an Italian island – get an unexpected visit from her former lover and record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson). Harry, a raging bohemian who still harbors affections for Marianne, and Penny, a confident Lolita-type who has her sights set on the hunky Paul, will make sure feelings old and new get kindled, leading to frictions that may end up being more than harmless. – Zhuo-Ning Su (full review)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
If it is by now redundant to say that Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who understands pronunciation troubles and insists people call him “Joe”) is truly in a class of his own, we might blame both the general excellence of his output — a large oeuvre consisting of features, shorts, and installations — and the difficulty that’s often associated with describing them in either literal or opinion-based terms. The further one gets into his work, however, the more his marriage of dense visual style with Thailand’s historical, spiritual, and mystical bedrocks will cohere. These images —often set in nature (with billowing winds and shaking trees adding to the atmosphere); almost always composed in long shot that emphasizes a self-conscious artificiality; and frequently running a few minutes each, sometimes several, to create a laid-back rhythm— are, for viewers Thai and non-Thai alike, a gateway to less-definitive thematic undercurrents. To put this in different terms for neophytes: observing his art is not at all unlike the intellectual stimulation of, say, confidently working through passages of a dense 19th-century novel. On a piece-by-piece basis, Cemetery of Splendour is a bit more straightforward than Joe’s other work. – Nick N. (full review)
The Club (Pablo Larraín)
With his exceptional trilogy on the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship – Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012) –Chilean director Pablo Larraín proved himself a trenchant commentator on his country’s problematic past. He turns his attention to the problematic present in The Club, a scathing j’accuse directed at the institution of the Catholic Church that represents his most uncompromising and vociferous film to date. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski)
If there’s any way to synthesize the many pieces that form the bull-in-a-china-shop filmmaking that is Andrzej Żuławski‘s Cosmos, an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz‘s novel, consider its status as his first feature in fifteen years. Might some sense of long-awaited release account for its why and how — the intensity of its performances, the force of its camera moves, the sharpness in its cuts, the bombast of its emotions? I’m inclined to think so, but it’s possible I’m only proposing this in search of a “what” — what’s going on, what he was thinking, and what we’re meant to take from any and all of it. Answers, if they do come at all, will only gradually present themselves, and they won’t arrive via exposition or, with some exception, clearly stated themes. A filmmaker who values the power of shock, but not necessarily thrills for thrills’ sake, Żuławski elucidates material with tools that announce themselves in their presentation — surprising camera dollies, fast pans, sudden cuts, overly prominent music cues — and raise complex questions about their relation to one another. – Nick N. (full review)
De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)
Earlier this year, Kent Jones’ Hitchcock /Truffaut — a documentary on the famous interview sessions between the two directors — boasted perhaps the most chaotic, dignity-threatening queue of any film screened at Cannes. There is a craving for this sort of thing among cinephiles it seems and it’s easy to see why. Directors just seem to open up much more when speaking to one of their own kind. Brian De Palma, the subject of this fine documentary, says that they’re “the only ones who understand what we go through.” Over the last five years, fellow directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow shot over 30 hours of interviews with the movie icon and have distilled them down into this rich feature-length documentary. De Palma is a fascinating, revealing and compelling overview of a remarkably eclectic career, but it’s also a seldom-heard first-hand account of what it’s like to work inside and outside the Hollywood system. – Rory O. (full review)
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
I have a weakness for heart-of-darkness films, and Embrace of the Serpent ranks amongst the best (and most gorgeous) I’ve seen. It’s also the only one I can think of that successfully adopts a native perspective in charting the white man’s journey down the river, thus offering a moving elegy to the myriad cultures that were destroyed in the process instead of just probing into humanity’s vilest instincts. – Giovanni M.C.
Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
Near the end of his essay for the Criterion release of Dazed and Confused, Kent Jones writes, “[Richard] Linklater has a keen, poetic memory for exactly how we did nothing.” Like the best American directors, Linklater understands that the roots of Americana are in a formless wandering, one that was as often about bullshit as transcendence. Everybody Wants Some!!, the spiritual sequel to his 1993 feature, is another rumination on transition, following the residents of a baseball house the weekend before classes at an unspecified college in 1980. It’s a weekend bacchanalia filled with rule-breaking parties, masculinity endurance tests, hotboxed bedrooms, closed-door hookups, and the flickers of a romance that could be about more than getting off. – Michael S. (full review)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
If one appreciated the stripped-down brutality of Jeremy Saulnier‘s Blue Ruin, his follow-up Green Room is a whole other beast. In mostly one location, Saulnier is able to eke out every bit of tension possible and will have one squirming in their seat in a number of sequences. While it features a number of great performances — including a menacing Patrick Stewart and Imogen Poots’ best turn yet — it’s the late Anton Yelchin that carries it with a do-or-die scrappiness. – Jordan R.
Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Dozens of films try to copy the Coens every year, and yet no one ever comes close. They have developed such a delicate, fluid witches’ brew of talent behind and in front of the camera, and a writing style that’s consistently funny and melancholy (often at the same time), that it seems impossible to replicate. Hail, Caesar! is a film that could only ever be made by the Coens. Just as the brothers themselves love to present dialectics about the duality of triviality and seriousness, so, too, does Hail, Caesar! constantly skate back and forth between feeling slight and monumental. – Michael S. (full review)
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
With a relatively small theatrical roll-out earlier this year, it’s likely you haven’t heard of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, but Stephen Cone‘s drama is one of the best films of the year thus far. Authentically capturing a conservative upbringing and the repression therein, it takes place over one day as we follow Henry (Cole Doman, in a wonderful break-out performance) and his group of friends — as well as adults from the local church — as they skirt around trauma, burgeoning sexuality, and more. Directed with a level of intimacy and emotional truth by Cone simply not present in most dramas — regardless of budget — it’s an essential watch. – Jordan R.
In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel)
While fitting snugly in the overall cohesiveness of Philippe Garrel’s filmography, In the Shadow of Women nevertheless feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, the 2013 critical hit Jealousy. Garrel’s latest is also shot in black-and-white, kept within a similarly svelte running time (73 minutes), and its pared-down story of marital infidelity again takes the jealousy intrinsic to adult relationships as its primary theme. In the Shadow of Women revolves around Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau), a married couple living in a run-down Parisian apartment and struggling along as documentary filmmakers. The strain in their relationship is apparent from the outset and both soon embark on individual affairs. The contrast in their respective motivations – Pierre’s is physical; Manon’s is emotional – and reactions upon learning of the other’s unfaithfulness – Manon is understanding; Pierre is seething – lays bare the asymmetries in their marriage, forcing a confrontation with truths hitherto swept under the carpet. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)
At its heart, Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a meditation on the struggle between traditionalism and modernism. Through the story of one man’s journey through Chinese cities — Kaili to Zhenyuan — Bi focuses on characters who lament the people and ideas that they’ve lost as the world’s changed around them. But this is not just another screed against contemporary life; it finds a cruel beauty and gentle soul in the transition between elemental landscapes and the unfinished, industrialized future. And there’s personal serenity for some of these characters in being able to leave behind their old lives. – Michael S. (full review)
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
You know the deal: “Late” Terrence Malick — a period that ostensibly begins with The Thin Red Line and truly begins to bloom, stylistically speaking, once Emmanuel Lubezki came aboard for The New World — looms too large to simply divide cineastes into “pro” and “con” camps, instead fueling debate about anything that could remotely be considered “cinematic,” and perhaps whatever else a person feels like fitting into their argument. Knight of Cups was far from an exception; rather, it broke that chasm open only further, and at this point there may be no turning back to the consensus masterpieces of the ’70s. That our own review, published out of Berlin last year, couldn’t settle in one camp and, almost 18 months later, we place it here should be sign enough — and we (or at least I) get it. But most criticism seem feeble when facing this movie’s grandest moments, which can render our contemporary world’s most banal components into something altogether new — has a drive down an L.A. street ever felt so majestic? — just as its reaches towards pathos reveal an eye for experiences far outside the hermetic world of Christian Bale‘s central character. (Claims of sexism are especially strange when the most piercing sequence is couched firmly in female perspective and experience. It’s almost as if considering this possibility is harder than simply pointing towards nudity as proof-positive of one’s “misogynistic impulses.”) Knight of Cups is not Terrence Malick’s best film — it might even trail behind To the Wonder for me — and that’s fine. An artist daring to go further into the depths of human feeling and coming out with something new should never be considered a failure. – Nick N.
Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)
Though writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults hardly turns the dark family drama genre on its head, Krisha compensates with exceptional acting and an infectious atmosphere of dread. If the bare bones of cliché are there simply so that artists can pack on their own meat, then Krisha Fairchild surely makes the most of the provided opportunity. Though I increasingly grow perturbed over “raw” performance in modern film that is maybe / sort of just misery porn, her three-legged-dog embodiment of Krisha’s mounting desperation is undeniably riveting. She attempts to tamp down her neuroses the same way she keeps her medications in a lockbox, but her every attempt to reach out to estranged siblings and in-laws and such is hobbled by the fear (or maybe resigned knowledge) that she will be rebuffed. – Dan S. (full review)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The eminently idiosyncratic films of Yorgos Lanthimos revile the societal constructs that stifle and pervert human interaction. In laying bare these structures’ inherent hypocrisies, the films exaggerate their logic to absurd extremes, with conformity’s noxious ramifications always at the crux of Lanthimos’ critique. His exceptional breakthrough Dogtooth eviscerated the institution of the modern family, representing it as emblematic of society’s greater normative oppression. Dogtooth’s similarly incisive yet less warmly received follow-up Alps exposed the pretence fundamental to the forming of social identity. His newest film, The Lobster, takes on the rigid preconceptions surrounding relationships. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Master of poisonous tongues and vicious schemes in the world of the rich and the poor, Love & Friendship is perhaps writer/director Whit Stillman‘s most potent mix of comedy and social commentary. He’s got Jane Austen to thank, whose novella ‘Lady Susan’ serves as the inspiration for this tale of Lady Susan Vernon (a pitch-perfect Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a flirtatious reputation, determined to well re-marry well at whatever the cost. Often laugh-out-loud funny and downright mean at the same time, Stillman is in top form here. – Dan M.
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
While I’m waiting for Jeff Nichols to make a truly great film — Take Shelter comes awfully close — Midnight Special is another calling card for his welcome brand of patient, well-crafted mythic filmmaking. This time taking the form of a sci-fi thriller, his first studio effort certainly features his largest scope yet, and while there’s a number of remarkable setpieces (one at a gas station comes most to mind), it’s once again the emotional catharsis he builds that is the most effective element. Midnight Special won’t be like any other alien feature this year, and it’s all the better for it. – Jordan R.
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Though vastly more moderate than its predecessor, the ultra-violent A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart continues the director’s move away from the extremely measured, observational style that characterized much of his earlier work. Even as his narratives have become more charged, however, Jia’s thematic focus has remained constant and Mountains May Depart offers his latest reflection on the momentous societal changes that have swept over China as a result of its entry and ascension in the globalized world economy. If A Touch of Sin expressed Jia’s rage at the contemporary impact of capitalist progress on Chinese society, Mountains May Depart is his lament over the direction in which it is headed. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days bears some superficial similarities to national compatriots Eric Rohmer and Olivier Assayas, two directors who tend to make films about beautiful, young, artistic people going through tough times that results from some combination of inner conflict, government, and the sensibilities of other, equally fashionable people. Of course, these directors aren’t especially alike; Rohmer is concerned with the way a person’s desires and actions — or their ideas and realities — may conflict, particularly in concerns of (heterosexual) love; Assayas’ characters drift apart and float together through means largely outside their control, or at least through means incident rather than integral to their decisions. (His protagonists are generally undone by loneliness and isolation, whereas Rohmer’s encounter trouble when they interact with one another.) My Golden Days contains much of Rohmer’s hapless romance and Assayas’ internal depression, but it is temporally expansive and deploys new tricks at every turn in a way that the films of Assayas and especially Rohmer — whose work takes place in subtly but rigorously established worlds — never would. – Forrest C. (full review)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
It’s been over 40 years since Chinatown, and roughly the same amount of time separates the events of that film from those of The Nice Guys, another tale of a private detective in Los Angeles taking on an initially simple case which leads him to a vast, environmentally centered criminal conspiracy. The Nice Guys even carries on Chinatown’s heartbeat of individual helplessness when confronted with the casual body disposal of profit-hungry industrialists. So, too, does the movie bring the sensibility of its time to its throwback setting — while Chinatown’s L.A. is a distinctly ‘70s landscape of grim stoicism, The Nice Guys‘ L.A. is suffused with nearly as much irreverent contemporary irony as it is smog. The 1938-set Chinatown is a more faithful reflection of the city in the ‘70s than the 1977-set Nice Guys. It’s particularly appropriate that, in the new film, we aren’t even really looking at L.A. at all most of the time, but rather a skillful artifice fashioned out of Atlanta. – Dan S. (full review)
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
The presence of a mother is quite clear in Chantal Akerman’s best-known work, whether it be the one communicated back and forth to in News From Home or the titular Jeanne Dielman, a woman relegated to homemaker and cook for her son. Assuming the influence this woman has had on one of cinema’s most rigorous formalists and staunch feminists, making a film on her final years may conjure up a certain mental image, yet many will be surprised by the ensuing two hours. – Ethan V. (full review)
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
I was generally puzzled by the rhapsodic critical praise lavished upon virtually every one of Hong Sang-soo’s staggeringly frequent — and unabashedly homogenous — new features, but with Right Now, Wrong Then I finally “got” it. The film is a veritable masterpiece of understated filmmaking, one so deceptively simple that its depth catches you by surprise and leaves you in awe of a director capable of approaching the human condition with such empathy and sensitive insight. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra)
The sun is shining on a pristine, secluded beach — a kind of cove consisting of white sand, a coral reef, and an outlying island that looks like a woman in repose. As the tide goes out, a small rock appears from out of the crystal-clear waters, ringed in fire coral and crawling in small crabs. A woman, bleeding and terrified, finds purchase upon this rock and tends to the wound on her leg. In the water surrounding her small slice of sanctuary, a 15-foot great white shark circles, crazed with the scent of her blood, waiting for the rising tide to sweep her back into its domain. The beach is empty, the sun is setting, and no one knows where she is. Such is the refreshingly simple set-up of The Shallows, the newest film from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night). There are plot and character details that flesh out the narrative, but the driving force behind the plot is, without a doubt, the simple and timeless tale of man versus nature, man versus mortality. Or, to be more correct, woman versus nature and woman versus mortality. – Brian R. (full review)
Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
A tension is formed by a cut, quickly transporting our heroine from an expansive wheat field to a confined classroom. We’re not just talking the difference of 70mm for the former and the Ari Alexa for the latter, but that of, to quote Kate Bush, the “sensual world” versus the punishment of destiny. Based on a mainstay of Scottish classrooms, Sunset Song is a triptych of sorts chronicling farmgirl Chris’ (Agyness Deyn) womanhood; the first deals with her abusive father (Peter Mullan) and the pain he inflicts on her and the others in the family, the second follows her falling in love and marrying Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), while the third sees Ewan enlisting to fight in World War I and coming back a violent man that resembles her father. – Ethan V. (full review)
The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Though regularly grouped with the directors that comprise the Romanian New Wave, Corneliu Porumboiu’s brand of social realism is all his own. Dispensing with the shaky cam so popular amongst his peers, his fictional features capture the world through contemplative long takes, their duration and frequent immobility allowing for careful observations of the subjects’ relationship to their environment, which is always reflective of wider-reaching concerns. The Treasure, his fifth feature and the winner of this year’s Un Certain Talent Prize, is the latest gem in the director’s exquisite filmography — another tightly focused, minimalist and enchantingly humane story of individual struggle within the broader social reality of contemporary Romania. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)
It’s often said that no writer can craft a character as complex and compelling as the subjects in some of our best documentaries. Enter the consummate example: Anthony Weiner, a seven-term former Congressman who became a political pariah following sexting scandals, the second of which occurred during his unsuccessful 2013 run for New York City’s mayor. Delivering one of the most intimate character studies in some time, Weiner confronts not only the media’s frenzied sensationalism but one’s own participation in the public amusement of an individual’s tragedy — in the most Greek sense of the word. – Jordan R. (full review)
Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
As uncomfortable a viewing experience it may be, the best films from Todd Solondz slowly reveal themselves with their character intricacies and distinct touches, burrowing deep inside as they replay in one’s mind. In his latest feature, Wiener-Dog, he’s crafted a series of incisive, perceptive vignettes mutually connected by the shifting owners of his title character. Aptly described by Solondz as Au Hasard Balthazar meets Benji, there’s no denying it bears his brand of humor and heartbreak in every scene. – Jordan R. (full review)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
“We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us,” foreshadows our patriarch in the first act of The Witch, a delightfully insane bit of 17th century devilish fun. As if Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell co-directed Kill List, Robert Eggers’ directorial debut follows a God-fearing Puritan family banished from their settlement in a colonial New England, only to have their deep sense of faith uprooted when our title character has her way with their fate. – Jordan R. (full review)
Honorable mentions (click titles for review): 88:88, Afternoon, Dark Horse, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Francofonia, Dheepan, The Fits, From Afar, High-Rise, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Invitation, Kill Zone 2, Last Days in the Desert, Land and Shade, Louder than Bombs, Maggie’s Plan, The Measure of a Man, Men & Chicken, The Mermaid, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Neon Bull, Nuts!, Rams, Sing Street, Sworn Virgin, Three, Valley of Love, Viktoria, The Wailing, and A War
What to look out for the rest of summer (click titles for reviews): Life, Animated (7/1), The Innocents (7/1), Captain Fantastic (7/8), Don’t Think Twice (7/22), The Childhood of a Leader (7/22), Seventh Fire (7/22), Indignation (7/29), Little Men (8/5), Hell or High Water (8/12), Kate Plays Christine (8/19), Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (8/19), Morris from America (8/19), Southside With You (8/26), and The Intervention (8/26)
What are you favorite films of the year so far?