It’s rather mind-boggling that the midway point of 2016 has already arrived. This year has been a particularly harrowing one, filled with tragic deaths (David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Anton Yelchin, the list depressingly going on and on) and tragic attacks both on our soil and abroad. It’s been a tough year for humanity in a lot of ways, from a not-exactly-inspiring Presidential race to the preponderance of terrorist attacks breeding a particularly odorous brand of xenophobic nationalism, a wave crested by the likes of Donald Trump and all those Brexit folks over in the UK.
To put it simply, 2016 is a drag, man.
But, it is drags like 2016 that make escapist entertainment like the movies such a vital part of our cultural identity. We watch feel good movies to remind ourselves of a life better than our own, a life worth striving for. We watch feel bad movies to remind ourselves that no matter how bad things are, it’s not as bad as it could be. The excitement of sitting in a movie theater full of strangers and having a unique shared experience never really diminishes, whether it’s a packed multiplex for the latest Marvel movie, a packed art house for the newest festival darling or anything in between.
This year’s been a bit of an odd one for movies, skating on giant tentpole sequels and remakes like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Jungle Book. I personally haven’t seen nearly as many films as I should, a mix of professional and personal obligations getting in the way, but I’ve still managed to check out more than a couple releases both in theaters and at home. And there have been quite a few gems hiding beneath the dirt. Here’s my five favorite from the first half of the year.
Just missed the cut: Zootopia, The Lobster
The longest film I saw this year wasn’t some superhero smackdown. It was this wonderful example of a film flying under the radar and popping up out of nowhere to surprise the hell out of you. The Wailing is a 2 hour, 36 minute opus of a film from South Korean director Na Hong-jin. A mystery puzzle box thriller doused in mood and dread, the film tells the story of a village paralyzed by fear as a series of brutal murders grip the sleepy hamlet, while a peculiar illness seems supernaturally linked to everything going to hell in a handbasket. A bumbling, provincial cop (Kwak Do Won) finds himself profoundly over his head attempting to get to the bottom of the terror when his daughter begins to present symptoms of the sickness and the homicidal mania that comes as a side effect. Marked by impressive, rain-soaked cinematography, and an impish slapstick-y sense of humor (not unlike the country’s mega hit The Host), The Wailing is aggressively unlike anything else that’s hit the screen this year. It came and went with little fanfare, but will stick in the mind of those who managed to catch it for a long time.
I almost don’t want to admit how in the bag I am for Nicolas Winding Refn’s deviant, twisted look at the fashion industry. Powerfully artistic in that uniquely Refn sort of way, The Neon Demon succeeds thanks to a vital injection of levity into the proceedings. Gone is the suffocating dourness of Drive and Only God Forgives, replaced by actual legitimate and purposeful humor, with Refn 100% in on the joke. As he continues to singlehandedly keep the neon light tube industry afloat with his particular brand of cinematography, the shift to a female protagonist and supporting cast breathes some life into the darkness. It is still wholly Refn, with his fetishism of extreme violence and extreme color and extreme Cliff Martinez soundtracks. And for a certain percentage of the movie-going audience (quite a large percentage considering its opening weekend box office), it’s a nonstarter, the violence and prurience too much to handle for the weak stomached. Indeed, The Neon Demon goes far off the deep end in its final act, but its destination is sublime, mischievous beauty.
Because sometimes you need a little light against the dark. And Richard Linklater is waiting for you with open arms. Light as a feather for most of its two hours, this Dazed and Confused throwback about a college freshman baseball player adjusting to his first time away from home revels in its utter lack of stakes. A cast of relative unknowns spends their last weekend before classes flitting from party to party, clique to clique and scene to scene, a rockabilly line dance here, a punk show mosh pit there. Consistently hilarious and keystoned by a magnetic turn from lead Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!! is an old fashioned sex comedy that still can’t shy away from Linklater’s incisive ability to forge a real, genuine relationship and surreptitiously slide it in amongst the debauchery. There is perhaps no director working today as dependably capable of throwing strikes as Linklater, and his trip down memory lane (he was a college pitcher himself) is the perfect antidote to a film industry increasingly obsessed with apocalyptic mega blockbusters. It’s okay to have a good time too.
Still awaiting an official theatrical release, this mind-bending festival darling documentary follows actress Kate Lyn Shiel as she embarks on a physical, emotional and psychological journey to find the core of Christine Chubbuck, the Fort Lauderdale news anchor who committed suicide live on air in 1974. Stymied at every turn by an alarming lack of non-anecdotal concrete evidence of her existence (much of her early understanding of the character comes from a few scant interviews with former coworkers and one still photo), she begins to take on her own conception of the character, a deep dive into the method acting process. Of course, the film she stars in and is purportedly being filmed to document doesn’t actually exist, turning the second half of Kate Plays Christine into something altogether more surreal and fascinating. Director Robert Greene plays with the form just enough that by the time you notice the edges fraying, they are already in tatters and the result is something far more interesting than the logline might have you believe.
The most singular cinematic experience of 2016 so far is also the best film of the year. Robert Eggers’ skin crawling puritan horror film pulls no punches in its throwback Kubrickian approach, lingering on the foreboding woods from which hell is unleashed on a banished family on the edge of civilization in 1630’s New England. Eggers relied heavily on genuine journals and newspaper articles from the time to give his script and production design a feel that is staggeringly authentic, so far removed from modern society that it can feel like an alien world. The dread unfurls like a thick fog billowing down the countryside, swallowing up all in its path as it bears down on this tiny little farm house. The occult is slowly making a comeback after decades of subservience to slasher films, jump scares and torture porn, with The Witch leading the way. This is a film with imagery that unnerves, feels wrong and profane, an affront to their God. With its stark, gorgeous cinematography and judicious editing, little reprieve can be found from the mounting terror. With a fantastic performance from Anya Taylor-Joy leading the way, The Witch is perhaps the apex of the recent independent horror renaissance, and seems destined to be a classic.
And there we have it. Here’s to six more months of movies, and maybe not nearly enough terrible news along the way.