“‘2016 is a bad year for film’ is just another way of saying ‘I really blew it when I chose what films to watch in 2016,'” producer Keith Calder recently said. Taking this statement to heart, as summer winds down, there’s no shortage of writing about how the season was a disappointment overall — but, on the contrary, there have been gems throughout the last four months, and we’ve set out to name our favorites.
All of the below films received at least one-week theatrical runs in the United States from May to August, and while some are still in theaters, many are now currently available to stream. Check out our favorites below and let us know what you most enjoyed this summer. One can also see our fall preview series, which just kicked off this week, here.
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)
Blood Father (Jean-François Richet)
If this be the movie jail that Mel Gibson is destined to die in, it could be a whole lot worse. Blood Father, directed by Jean-François Richet (Mesrine, Assault on Precinct 13), works remarkably well as a grindhouse throwback, sporting a screenplay (from Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff, based on Craig’s novel) that’s better than it has any right to be. Though the running time is technically 90 minutes, end credits account for nearly a tenth of that. This is a quick B movie, full of practical effects that feel startlingly fresh and clever moments that are both smart and self-aware. – Dan M. (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 of 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)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water is a gritty, darkly humorous, and fiendishly violent neo-western. Or, in other words, the type of film you might expect from a non-American director working in the United States. It borrows heavily from the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy, but it does so very well, thanks largely to a terrific script from Taylor Sheridan, the red-hot actor-turned-screenwriter who broke onto the scene last year with Sicario. It might usher in a new chapter of the Cambridge-born director’s career having come back strong in 2013 directing an inspired Jack O’Connell in Starred Up. Indeed, this relocation to the States should go some way to explaining an enjoyably plastic impression of West Texas, where T-bone steaks are served only medium rare and people say things like, “Sideways don’t wanna meet me. Unless it wants to find itself at the short end of a long street.” Or something like that. – Rory O. (full review)
Hunt For the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
If one imagines a real-life version of Up with a bit of Thelma & Louise thrown in, they get Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi‘s charming on-the-run adventure comedy. Based on Barry Crump’s book “Wild Pork And Watercress,” the story follows Ricky (Julian Dennison) as a rambunctious foster child on his last straw before juvenile prison. An expert in stealing, graffiti, kicking things, and many more offenses, he’s yet to find a foster family that can put up with him. – Jordan R. (full review)
Indignation (James Schamus)
After helping filmmakers such as Todd Haynes, Ang Lee, and Todd Solondz shape their careers, James Schamus has finally made the leap from producer to director with an adaptation of Philip Roth‘s 2008 novel Indignation. The 1951-set feature follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a Newark-bred Jewish teenager heading to his first semester at a Lutheran college in Ohio. In doing so, he avoids the draft for the Korean War, which is claiming extended family and friends as victims. While a morally sound, eloquent, and confident individual, at college he grapples with sexuality and a distinct indignation, primarily inflicted by Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). – Jordan R. (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)
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Actors put themselves in others’ skins — or they put others’ heads inside their own. Television journalists adopt a persona and try to deliver important information. Women erect calculated fronts to navigate environments not built for them. Many people suffering mental illness do their best to maintain a semblance of “nothing’s wrong.” Film directors orchestrate elaborate works of emotional manipulation. Documentary film directors do so with factual material. Such performances often overlap in the course of life and work; all of them intersect in Kate Plays Christine. – Dan S. (full review)
Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
While there’s a distinct novelty to all of their work — whether it’s based on books by Neil Gaiman or Alan Snow — Laika have returned to genuinely original material with their fourth animation. This time around, the company’s CEO and lead animator on their first trio of films, Travis Knight, makes his directorial debut with Kubo and the Two Strings. Steeped in the mythology and fables of Japanese history, it’s another fantastical adventure from the studio with innovation and awe at every turn, despite a story that could benefit from having more specificity and focus. – Jordan R. (full review)
Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo García)
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of last year’s Sundance Film Festival slate, Last Days in the Desert, follows Jesus (and Satan), both played by Ewan McGregor, as he’s in the final steps of his contemplative 40-day journey before returning to civilization in Jerusalem. Far removed from the recent bombastic Biblical tentpoles Noah and Exodus, Rodrigo García‘s beautiful, spare drama can frustrate as much as it allures with meditations on finding meaning in one’s life (and beyond). – Jordan R. (full review)
Little Men (Ira Sachs)
As with all of Sachs’ films, Little Men is a study in compassion and humanity where each character deserves a film of their own. As thorough in his writing (he co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias) as he is detailed in his direction, Sachs offers his audiences the opportunity to embrace complex moral dilemmas the likes of which mainstream American cinema has practically dispensed of. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, Sachs’ films are about soul-searching, and Little Men might just be his most profound work to date. – Jose S.
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.
Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller)
There is a moment early on in writer/director Rebecca Miller‘s Maggie’s Plan in which the titular Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and John (Ethan Hawke) trade their respective titles at New York City’s The New School, and proceed to describe what exactly they mean. It’s a scene full of big words and fast talking, most of it sounding a little ridiculous and plenty smug. These characters seem to half-understand how insulated their world is, and we’re meant to laugh both at, and sometimes with, them. – Dan M. (full review)
Morris From America (Chad Hartigan)
Coming to Sundance with his tender character study This is Martin Bonner a few years back, director Chad Hartigan triumphantly returns with the coming-of-age comedy Morris From America, a stylistic leap forward that still retains a keen sense of humanity. Telling the story of our title character attempting to keep his identity while making friends in the foreign land of Germany, it’s also an acutely funny testament to single parenting and the specific bond it fosters when both sides put in their all. – Jordan R. (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)
Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery)
Unburdened by expectations — unlike some Sundance alums who have carried the weight of Hollywood’s biggest franchises — David Lowery is the ideal director to take on a new version of this fantastical adventure about a boy and his best friend. Carrying on a lyrical, timeless approach that served his break-out drama Ain’t The Bodies Saints so well, his update of Pete’s Dragon has an emotional sensitivity, aesthetic clarity, and all-around sense of fun that creates what feels like an unearned miracle in the current summer tentpole season. – Jordan R. (full review)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer)
While independent screens offered up the biggest laughs with Love & Friendship and Weiner, the funniest studio comedy of the summer was easily The Lonely Island‘s mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which failed to crack $10 million at the box office. Although the laugh-a-second barrage of gags means not every single joke works, we imagine that the ones that do will only improve on countless rewatches. – Jordan R.
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)
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)
After you check out the above films, we also highly recommend the following (click titles for reviews): Afternoon, Captain Fantastic, The Childhood of a Leader, Dark Horse, Dheepan, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, Don’t Think Twice, The Fits, From Afar, High-Rise, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, The Innocents, In Order of Disappearance, Kill Zone 2, Land and Shade, Life, Animated, The Measure of a Man, Microbe and Gasoline, Miss Sharon Jones!, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Nuts!, Phantom Boy, The Seventh Fire, Southside With You, Star Trek Beyond, Three, Train to Busan, Valley of Love, Viktoria, The Wailing, and Zero Days.
What are you favorite films of the summer?