All the dirt, news, culture and commentary for Oklahoma's second century.

Bell picks the best films of 2016

Black Label Media
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in "La La Land," Keaton Bell's top pick of 2016.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
Help support Red Dirt Report

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Here’s a bright spot for 2016: This was a fantastic, jaw-droopingly good year for film. Whether on the festival circuit or down the street at their local theatre, audiences had a bounty of picks in a year filled with all manner of cinematic gems. Because let’s be honest, every year is a good year for movies. Sometimes you just have to wander off the beaten path a little bit to find something worth watching. 

From musical epics to Puritan horror to heady sci-fi, these were my favorite movies of 2016. Not just the ones that meet every standard we apply to “good” films, but the ones that left the most indelible mark on my pop culture-riddled psych. It’s enough to make you already excited to see what 2017 will hold, because if we really are living in another golden age of cinema, those films can’t come soon enough. 

20. The Shallows: What, you’re too good for a movie where Blake Lively fights a CGI shark? Okay you probably are, but give this scrappy little thriller a chance before you completely write it off. The Shallows knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and for all intents and purposes delivers a 90-minute B-grade thriller bolstered by Lively’s surprisingly strong performance. Is it occasionally silly? Yes. Does it bombard you with cheap thrills and clever stunts as our heroine tries to out-wit a shark keeping her stranded on a rock 200 yards from shore? Of course. But it’s all in the service of a fast-paced slice of summer entertainment that works as the ultimate perfectly stupid guilty pleasure. 

Propelled by more than flatulence, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe make Swiss Army Man a gas, gas, gas! (A24)

19. Swiss Army ManYou’ve never seen something quite like Swiss Army Man. To describe the plot is beside the point, but here goes: A man (Paul Dano) stranded on a deserted island befriends a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) and goes about on a surreal journey reanimating him from the dead. And that only touches on the absurdist delights populating Swiss Army Man, a film that needs to be seen to be believed. But thankfully the film is more than an exercise in cinematic oddities, possessing a certain painful fragility that makes the proceedings engaging to the heart as well as the eyes. It’s weird, yes, but also beautiful in the way it fills you with a heady sense of hope and optimism about the world around you. 

18. American HoneyAt almost three hours long, American Honey is a sprawling mess of a film that wears its scrappiness like a badge of honor. In her acting debut, Sasha Lane is terrific as a young woman who joins a traveling magazine sales crew and gets caught up in their law-bending, hard partying world of excess as they make their way through the Midwest. In many ways it plays like a modern Easy Rider told from a female perspective, detailing a literal and metaphorical journey towards freedom and self-discovery. And with luscious visuals, a bonkers soundtrack, and a delightfully unhinged performance from Shia LaBeouf, American Honey is occasionally hard to watch but impossible to look away from. 

17. HushIt’s really easy to make a bad horror film, and next to impossible to craft a good one. And trust me when I say that Hush is really, really good. A deaf writer who lives alone in the woods is forced to fight for her life in silence when a masked killer stages a home invasion. The deaf aspect adds a terrifying layer to the proceedings as we watch our heroine, a terrific Kate Siegel (who also co-wrote the screenplay), defend herself through means we’re not accustomed to as horror viewers. Everything from the ingenious set-up to the bloody climax are satisfying on every level, resulting in one of the finest slasher flicks to grace us in some time. 

A boy with special powers, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the key figure in Midnight Special. (Warner Bros.)

16. Midnight SpecialWhile director Jeff Nichols is receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for the civil rights drama Loving, it’s a shame that it’s coming at the expense of another film he directed that came and went earlier this year. Midnight Special is the story of two parents who are on the run from the authorities and a bizarre cult after they discover their son possesses special powers. With a pulsating score and fantastic throwback aesthetic, Midnight Special feels like a forgotten John Carpenter flick from the ‘80s. While grander scale science-fiction like Arrival may be soaking up all of the awards attention, don’t let that dissuade you from checking out this subtle masterpiece. 

15. How To Be Single: I think my fellow rom-com lovers can all agree that How To Be Single is the movie we’ve been waiting for. The genre isn’t known for being particularly groundbreaking, with almost every film following a pre-determined path with any number of romantic cliches or comedic pratfalls. While How To Be Single isn’t a satire by any means, it flips the genre on its head through its depiction of a group of young adults navigating love, life, and relationships in NYC. The writing is consistently sharp and everyone from Dakota Johnson to Rebel Wilson shine in their respective roles, elevating the material to great heights along the way.

14. The Neon DemonElle Fanning stars as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality make her a rising star and a target amongst a group of beauty-obsessed women who’ll do whatever it takes to get what she has. What begins as a cautionary tale of the dangers of fame and excess becomes a droll mix of violence, cannibalism, dark comedy, necrophilia, and fetishism. It’s the most beautiful film you’ll ever see where Jena Malone masturbates on top of a corpse, which is just one surreal sequence in a movie chock-full of them. Many may criticize The Neon Demon for savoring style over substance, but that’s exactly the point in a film that analyzes a world where appearances are everything and the only way to survive is by embracing the superficiality of your surroundings. It may ostensibly be an art-house horror film that operates in its own macabre world, but The Neon Demon is a lot closer to our reality than many might be comfortable to admit.  

13. Sing StreetJohn Carney became a director to watch with his 2007 breakout Once, but he’s solidified his reputation as a modern auteur with this criminally under-seen gem. The story is simple enough, detailing a young boy in 1985 Dublin who starts a band to impress a girl. But while the plotting may be familiar, the film feels like a breath of fresh air thanks to a sturdy mix of nostalgia, romanticism, and irresistible charm. It might be a little premature to call Carney my generation’s answer to John Hughes, but Sing Street earns its place among one of the best teen films to come out of the new millennium. It’s worth viewing just for the incredible music alone.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star in the 1970's-set neo-noir thriller The Nice Guys. (Warner Bros.)

12. The Nice Guys: It’s an honest-to-god travesty that this action-comedy didn’t catch on with viewers when it was dropped into the middle of a busy summer movie season. Set in 1970s Los Angeles, The Nice Guys follows a pair of mismatched private eyes investigating a missing girl that leads to a larger conspiracy connected to the porn industry, government cover-ups, and more. It’s a helluva ride, which is to be expected when you have a writer-director as talented and delightfully bonkers as Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) at the helm. Plus Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are the greatest cinematic pairing you didn’t know you needed so badly, making this a buddy comedy worthy of repeated viewings. 

11. Don’t Breathe: I hate when writers speak in cliches, like when movie poster blurbs boast that a film will “keep you on the edge of your seat!” or that it’s “nail-bitingly suspenseful!” But I’ll be damned, those both apply to Don’t Breathe and then some. It focuses on a group of three friends who try robbing a blind man’s house but get more than they bargained for after he ends up trapping them inside. This film is relentlessly, brutally intense, grabbing you by the neck in the first frame and refusing to let go until the 90-minute runtime is up. This is horror at its ghoulish best, with a stellar lead performance from Jane Levy and countless set-pieces as thrilling as they are inventive. Lean, mean, and terrifically brutal, there are a few images so indelible I don’t think I’ll ever erase them from my memory (you’ll never look at a turkey baster the same). And isn’t that what good horror is supposed to do? 

10. Manchester By The Sea: I’ll admit that when I first saw the trailer for this film, it looked like nothing more than another indie flick made for the sole purpose of collecting Independent Spirit Awards. Starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, it tells the story of an uncle who’s forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies. But Manchester By The Sea, while simple in theory, lives up to its hype as one of the most powerfully affecting dramas in years. Director/writer Kenneth Lonergan is often criticized for the prolonged time it takes him to complete his films, with this one coming out almost almost ten years after the completion of his last film Margaret. But it’s hard to complain when the fruits of his labor are as poignant and surprisingly humorous as Manchester By The Sea

9. The WitchPre-release hype can be very detrimental to a film, particularly when it’s a horror flick touted by early reviews as one of the most bone-chilling creations ever made. So when Robert Eggers’ The Witch was finally released after months of viral buzz, critics praised the film’s atmospheric tone while audiences were underwhelmed by its lack of jump scares in favor of more low-key thrills. But that’s exactly what makes the film such a pleasure in subdued horror. Centered around a 17th century Puritan family encountering evil forces in the woods near their New England farm, The Witch is a slow-burning exercise in cinematic restraint. It manages to crawl under your skin by touching on the metaphorical horrors surrounding a family in religious peril, making for one of the most triumphant directorial debuts in recent memory.  

8. Bridget Jones’s BabyIt’s necessary to attend to “important” cinema like Arrival and Moonlight, but it’s just as vital to open ourselves up to movies with more modest ambitions: The ones that only want to amuse, entertain, and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Bridget Jones’s Baby plays like a hug, and it’s hard to think of a single film released this year as charmingly relatable as this one. The silver screen is always a brighter place with Renee Zellweger on it, and she slips oh so comfortably back into the role that made us all fall in love with her in the first place. With Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey rounding out a brilliant ensemble cast, Bridget Jones’s Baby is the ultimate feel-good rom-com that oozes joy and dares you not to have a good time.

Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen. (Gracie Films)

7. The Edge of SeventeenHailee Steinfeld is just the gift that keeps on giving. Ever since she made her film debut in the Coen Brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit, she’s only continued to prove herself as one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. And she truly shines in The Edge of Seventeen, the only recent coming-of-age film I can think of that truly captures the agony and angst of modern teendom. It follows Steinfeld’s character Nadine, whose already frustrating life becomes even more unbearable after her best friend starts dating her older brother. Boasting one of the boldest and funniest screenplays of the year, The Edge of Seventeen goes beyond the call of duty to deliver a refreshing new addition to teen cinema. 

6. JackieIn a word, Jackie is transcendent. I have to admit my own personal bias because I’ve always been intensely fascinated with Jackie O and the tragically fascinating life she lived. But what makes Jackie work so well is how it’s not a true biopic or re-telling of JFK’s assassination, although there are elements of both present. It’s a glimpse into the complicated emotional state of a woman dealing with a changing world. Watching her pick up the pieces of her life while grappling with the legacy of her husband is visual heartbreak made all the more potent by Pablo Larrain’s elegant direction. And there’s nothing that hasn’t already been said about Natalie Portman’s enthralling performance as Jackie, so just let me reaffirm it here: she’s just as phenomenal as you’ve heard she is and the Academy should just hand her the Oscar now.

5. The LobsterDoes an absurdist dystopian romantic comedy-drama starring Colin Farrell sound appealing to you? It should, because The Lobster is one of the most bizarre viewing experiences you’ll likely ever have. Set in the near-future, the film focuses on Farrell’s character navigating a hotel where single people are sent and forced to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or get turned into an animal of their choosing then sent into the wild. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos takes that premise into all kinds of twisted and hilarious directions, creating an uproarious and surprisingly moving cinematic oddity along the way. It may be a twisted love story on the surface, but there’s a darkly funny satire on the state of modern romance at its core. 

Amy Adams in Arrival. (Planet Photos)

4. ArrivalDenis Villeneuve’s excellent sci-fi character study couldn’t have come at a better time. In a year marked by violence, division, bigotry, and anger, Arrival’s themes of unity and the importance of globalism feel especially relevant. When spacecraft suddenly appear all over the earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to help translate the alien communications. “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” she remarks early on, further cementing the film’s focus on thoughts and ideas as opposed to action and spectacle. This is the thinking-man’s science-fiction, where each line has a purpose and every frame is packed with meaning. And Adams is the glue holding everything together, delivering a performance that’s further proof of her status as one of our generation’s most gifted actresses.

3. Nocturnal Animals: Proving that the success of his debut film A Single Man was no fluke, Tom Ford’s return to the director’s chair has reaffirmed the idea that the fashion designer may have a second career in film. Amy Adams stars as an art gallery owner who’s haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller that she interprets as a veiled threat due to their troubled history together. A tale of redemption, revenge, love, and cruelty, Nocturnal Animals plays like the twisted love-child of Gone Girl and True Detective. It has bleak visual style to spare, with supporting turns by Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson keeping it compulsively watchable. And like all great art, it stays with you long after you leave the theatre as you try to piece it all together and think through all of the possible interpretations.

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight. (A24)

2. Moonlight: If there’s one movie you see this year, please for the love of God make it Moonlight. It’s a simple story told in a universal way via three parts: a bullied boy (“Little”) growing up with a lack of love and guidance, his life as an isolated, misunderstood teenager (“Chiron”), and finally the culmination of all these previous life experiences as a grown man (“Black”). There’s a lot of thematic heft crammed into Moonlight, touching on everything from homophobia and fragile masculinity to motherhood and black identity. But in writer-director Barry Jenkins' careful hands, Moonlight is never heavy-handed in its examination of lives too rarely seen in cinema. Combined with a beautiful score and absorbing cinematography, Moonlight is a cinematic revelation that moves like a poem and haunts like a memory. It’s a gift, to say the least. 

1. La La LandIt’s a miracle in itself that a movie like La La Land is even able to exist: an intimate big-budget musical from an up-and-coming director with original songs that nobody knows? That’s just one red flag after another for studio heads. But the universal appeal shows in the finished product because La La Land is so show-stoppingly good, it reminds you why you love going to the movies in the first place. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the most irresistible cinematic pairing imaginable, and they sing and tap their way across the screen and into the audience’s hearts from the very first scene. It manages to be both a light-hearted musical-romp as well as an emotional sucker-punch that any person who’s ever struggled with finding their place in the world can relate to. La La Land is being heralded as the best film of the year, and you best believe the hype: it’s a masterpiece, musical or otherwise. 

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

read more

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

Member of the Oklahoma Press Association
Member of Investigative Reporters & Editors
Member of Diversity Business Association
Member of Uptown 23rd
Rotary Club of Bricktown OKC
Keep it Local OK