The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

10 2016 Films to See

The best part about a new year is that sense of a clean slate, that belief in the infinite possibility of the upcoming twelve months. Every year, we are greeted with the possibility of hundreds of new films: wide releases across the nation, independent gems in the art houses, huge swaths of new opportunities at a litany of film festivals. It’s basically impossible to really know what to look out for in the coming months. Sure, everyone’s going to see the new Star Wars spinoff and the next Captain America movie and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Misery or whatever it’s called. And more and more of the country will get the opportunity to see some of last year’s late December awards releases, your The Revenants and your Anomalisas and your Son of Sauls and your Carols (count me in the Son of Saul camp). Today, I’m going to attempt to shine a light on some releases to come from directors I love. These ten films, some with concrete release dates, some not so much. But, based on scant plot summaries and the expectation of quality from prior work, they are certainly examples of the infinite possibility of a new year.

Note: the order has been essentially randomized, with directors included in parentheses.

The Witch (Robert Eggers)

The one film on the list that is here not because of a director or studio or animation style I love, The Witch makes the list purely due to festival hype. Receiving its debut at last year’s Sundance festival, and making the rounds at TIFF and festivals in England and Australia, those who have seen it have heaped some high praise indeed upon in. Telling the story of a family in 1630’s New England whose lives are torn apart by the forces of witchcraft and black magic. I’d like to talk about it more, but I’m doing my best to avoid checking out trailers or any other information about it moving forward. This will begin its release rollout at the end of February and is likely to be quickly forgotten similar to last year’s It Follows, which made some ripples in the offseason before receding back into the ocean. Let’s hope The Witch doesn’t follow the same fate.

Everybody Wants Some (Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater is among the most dependable filmmakers working today; it is rare to find a project with his name behind that is even disappointing, let alone outright poor. His first film since my #2 release of 2014, Boyhood, looks to be another great example of the man’s versatility, as he comes back to where he began and mounts a spiritual sequel to his seminal second feature, 1993’s Dazed and Confused. He’s traded the 70’s for the 80’s and high school for college, and has brought along a cast of relative unknowns to play the group of college baseball players coping with being unsupervised “adults” for the first time. This should be pretty close to a slam dunk.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Damien Chazelle is the mastermind behind 2014’s excellent Whiplash, and he follows it up for his third feature with La La Land, a musical dramedy starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist who falls in love with an aspiring actress, played by Emma Stone. This is the third major time Gosling and Stone have been paired (after 2011 rom-com Crazy Stupid Love and the less-said-about-the-better Gangster Squad from 2013), and their chemistry has always been exciting on screen, even if the movie isnt’ (i.e. Gangster Squad). The cast is rounded out by some strong supporters in the form of Finn Wittrock, Rosemarie DeWitt and the always dependable J.K. Simmons, whose last collaboration with Chazelle resulted in his first Oscar win. Chazelle will have the microscope firmly trained on him for the first time in his career (even though Whiplash was his second feature after Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, he was still essentially unknown when he waltzed into Sundance in 2014), and hopefully he’ll bring the goods to back it up.

The Circle (James Ponsoldt)

James Ponsoldt, the director of Smashed, The Spectacular Now and last year’s stealthily excellent The End of the Tour returns in 2016 with The Circle, an adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel about a woman getting in over her head at her first job out of college. Ponsoldt has been a reliable director on the independent scene for years now, and his name alone is becoming trustworthy enough to turn heads, but when you throw in a cast that includes Emma Watson, newly minted Star Wars superstar John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton, Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane in his first major followup role, Patton Oswalt and some obscure actor whose name is apparently “Tom Hanks,” you have the recipe for an intriguing thriller indeed.

Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

I have a deep, abiding love for stop motion animation that came from being a very impressionable nine year old when The Nightmare Before Christmas was released back in 1993. Laika has become one of the gold standards of the form with its first three features, Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, and if the trailer is any indication, Kubo and the Two Strings just might be their most ambitious project yet. The animation looks beautiful as always, with more of an Eastern/Japanese flair than Laika’s previous projects (though the voice cast seems a little, um, white considering that, though it’s tough to quibble with a cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Charlize Theron and Ralph Fiennes). This is the first time a Laika film has been directed by Travis Knight, the President and CEO of the company who has worked as an animator on their other projects, and it should be fascinating to see how this will turn out. Regardless of the quality of the story, this will certainly be one of the most beautiful films of 2016.

Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

It is a wonderful gift to receive a new Coen Brothers film, and while it might not happen as often as it should, the care with which they treat their projects rarely if ever leads to disappointment. Hail, Caesar! is their follow-up to 2013’s immaculate comedic drama Inside Llewyn Davis, though if the (unbelievably fantastic) trailer is any indication, its tone will be something much more along the lines of the Hudsucker Proxys and the Burn After Readings of their oeuvre. With the sort of cast that almost shouldn’t be allowed to all be in one film together for fear that a natural disaster would rob Hollywood of so much talent (I mean, look at that cast list: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johannson, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and a billion others), the Coens have turned their cameras on a screwball-y look at 1950’s Hollywood as a production is thrown into turmoil after the abduction of one of Tinseltown's biggest stars (Clooney). I rarely if ever advocate for trailers (I essentially avoid them beyond when I see them in the cinema itself), but I cannot recommend the teaser for Hail, Caesar!. The Coens should be all you need. The cast should be all you need. The trailer should be all you need. Combine all three and we could be on the precipice of the divine (hyperbole provided free of charge).

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (John Cameron Mitchell)

I did not know this existed until rather recently. I believe at some point I had heard some grumblings about someone adapting Neil Gaiman’s short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but assumed it had fallen to the wayside like so many Good Omens rumors. Turns out, this one is actually in post-production, with Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman standing out among a cast of otherwise lesser knowns. But, perhaps even more excitingly, it marks a return to the director’s chair for John Cameron Mitchell for the first time since Rabbit Hole in 2010. Rabbit Hole felt like a massive departure for Mitchell, whose two previous films, the landmark Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, were these wild, colorful unbridled explosions of bohemian energy, but it also proved Mitchell’s versatility. How his skills will translate to Gaiman’s surrealistic sense of humor remains to be seen, but finding out will surely be exciting.

The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour)

Ana Lily Amirpour exploded onto the scene in 2014 with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the genre mashup Iranian feminist vampire Western that felt like the crossroads of Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. The log line for her follow-up, The Bad Batch is pretty much all you need to know: “A dystopian love story in a Texas wasteland set in a community of cannibals.” In the wrong hands, that sounds more like a SyFy made for TV movie than something to be excited about, but considering Amirpour’s preternatural talent for splicing genres, if anyone can make it work she can. She’s also managed to step up the cast in a big way, attracting names like Keanu Reeves, Jason Momoa, Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi and Diego Luna to tell her story. Barring anything else, The Bad Batch will at the very least be a unique filmgoing experience.

Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)

Okay, so I get that everyone already knows about Rogue One, the first (ever! Well, sorta thanks to Clone Wars) theatrically released spin-off Star Wars movie. Disney’s decision to go with lesser knowns in the director’s chair continues with the decision to hire monster movie specialist Gareth Edwards (he of Monster and the surprisingly impressive Godzilla reboot) to helm this film, set prior to the events of A New Hope. Expanding on that film’s opening crawl (“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon”), Rogue One looks to perhaps strip away the space opera pomp and circumstance of the main films and revel a bit more in distinct genre filmmaking, in this case a good old fashioned heist picture. The cast is formidable in talent but refreshingly low on star power, full of dependable character actors like Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Alan Tudyk. Rogue One is going to be an interesting case study for the Star Wars franchise moving forward. Unfettered by continuity or world-building (theoretically), it should have the freedom to just relax and tell a rip-roaring adventure without all the baggage we see so often with franchise tentpoles these days.

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols’ first three features (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) have made him one of the big burgeoning names on the independent scene, and Midnight Special seems poised to continue that trend. Once again teaming with Michael Shannon (returning to the starting role after a bit part in Mud), this is Nichols branching out into new territory, a science fiction road movie where Shannon’s character is forced to go on the run after discovering his son has mysterious powers. This was originally planned to hit theaters in 2015, but delays pushed it to a Spring 2016 release. The film also stars Kirsten Dunst (who has been quietly enjoying a nice little mid-career renaissance after her turn in Melancholia), Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton, and should be an interesting litmus test to see what sort of range Nichols has at his disposal.


So far, 2016 hasn’t gotten off to the greatest of starts. Last night’s Golden Globes was a bit of a tragedy in just about every form, from Ricky Gervais’ strained attempts at edgy humor to the censor happy ad libs to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s newest misery machine The Revenant winning all the major prizes, feted as more than it is. Arguably, there were approximately three worthy moments in the entire three hours broadcast: 1. Rachel Bloom’s speech for winning Lead Actress in a Comedy for the CW’s My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which has succeeded in fomenting my desire to watch My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 2. Aziz Ansari’s cutaway gag during the announcement of the Lead Actor in a Comedy nominees. 3. The official beginning of the ascent of Brie Larson, who is awesome. The rest of it can go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned.

And then, of course, the world (well, the East Coast, really) awoke to the news that David Bowie, the legendary musician, actor, artist, everything, really, died after a privately waged eighteen month battle with cancer, some two days after he celebrated his 69th birthday with the release of what would be his twenty-fifth and final album, Blackstar. I haven’t girded up the courage to listen to it yet, but I’ve been a dedicated Bowie fan for much of my adult life (one of my earliest college memories was going to Newbury Comics in downtown Boston during Orientation in order to buy his newest record Heathen, which proceeded to explode my brain when I heard its first track, “Sunday”), and I’m sure it’s divine. No one person can or could ever put the legacy of David Bowie into adequate words, but all of us coming together to celebrate the man in all of his chameleonic forms, all of his music and his films and his work, just might be able to begin to scratch the surface of the absurdly massive effect he has had on this world.

Give him our hands. Because we’re wonderful.