The Best Movies of Summer 2016

Our critic picks the ten best movies of summer.

Anyone who says there haven’t been very many great films in 2016 is wrong, but there’s no denying that this has been an odd summer at the box-office. Franchises, tent poles, and sequels had a particularly tough time convincing audiences to buy tickets, and while there are exceptions quite a few of these hopeful film series were stopped dead in their tracks.

It’s no surprise then that a look at the best movies of the past four months would be heavy on films that never even approached the level of blockbuster. The ten films below represent the best that I’ve seen (as of now) of films released from May through August, but they’re not ranked by quality. They’re all great, so instead of a numbered ranking I’m putting them in decreasing order of their box-office returns.

Here are the ten best movies of summer 2016.

Captain America: Civil War

Yup, Marvel’s sequel is the only blockbuster to make the cut, and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Captain America films remain Marvel’s high-point, and while this third entry is a bit too packed at times with characters the over-populated never hurts the film’s sheer entertainment value. Big, glorious action sequences sit side by side with intimate dramas between friends, and all of it is layered in a tremendous sense of humor that finds numerous laughs big and small.

The Shallows

In retrospect, of course a shark attack movie from the director of Orphan and starring Blake Lively was going to be a good time at the movies, but at the time it was only natural to be skeptical. I’m happy to have been proven wrong though with a movie that delivers real thrills in its story of a smart shark terrorizing a lone surfer on a gorgeous but abandoned stretch of beach. Sharp cinematography, an efficient script, and a leading lady giving her most compelling and capable performance yet results in the second best shark movie since Steven Spielberg’s classic, and that’s something to celebrate.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the best films of the 21st century – screw you BBC critics! – and his return to the buddy cop sub-genre he calls home is a cause for celebration. The script is a lesser version of his earlier film, but it still manages to deliver one hell of a funny, charismatic, and twisted ride. Credit is due equally to the two leads (Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling) for showing comedic chops superior to most traditionally-comedic performers, and they make this darkly humorous descent into a Chinatown-infused Los Angeles a hilariously memorable journey.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika is the rare studio to follow their own drum without ever giving in to the pressures of the times or their peers, and the result is a gift to movie lovers in the form of painstakingly, hand-crafted, stop-motion animation. Their latest is their most gorgeous effort yet as it recounts a fable inspired equally by fantasy, legend, and Japanese culture. The story is slight at times, but the simplicity pairs well with the intricate nature of the animation and feel of a legend passed down through the generations. It’s the kind of film you lose yourself in, and if you’re a parent it’s the kind of film you share with your children.

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth) English-language debut retains his pitch-black sensibility and pairs it with a beautifully satirical commentary on modern relationships and societal pressures. Colin Farrell has never been better (although I’d argue his performance in True Detective is just as good), and supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, and Rachel Weisz add to the magic. The writing is sharp, the delivery is dry, and the romance is unique – to the point that some viewers might not even see its romantic beauty. Lanthimos is not a filmmaker with mass appeal, but fans of originality will fall in love.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi’s (What We Do in the Shadows) latest is something of a kid-friendly action/comedy that feels at times like a cross between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and 1980’s The Earthling. That’s quite the varied mix, but he juggles the style, laughs, and adventure terrifically throughout. The tone threatens to get away from him in a couple instances, but he and his cast (Sam Neill, newcomer Julian Dennison) consistently reel it back in with warmth, heart, and some very funny performances.

Swiss Army Man

It’s rare to find a film that mixes serious themes of regret, sadness, and isolation with an incredibly sophomoric imagination, but writers/directors The Daniels (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert) have crafted just such a creatively moving and inventively dizzying concoction of farts and feelings with their feature debut. There’s perhaps not enough of the serious and a bit too much of the goofy, but the film’s technical polish – as well as two terrific and odd lead performances from Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe – help keep all of it moving forward with the promise that something even crazier, more unexpected, and possibly heartbreaking is just around the corner.

The Wailing

Na Hong-jin’s third feature is every bit as dark, vicious, and spellbinding as The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, but he adds a supernatural twist to his usual blend of blood, blades, and violent souls. Thrills and chills are spaced throughout the film, steadily increasing across a 156 minute running time that feels much shorter, but the first act is somewhat deceptive in its lean towards the absurd and goofy – we’re laughing unaware of the nightmares to come. It’s big, earthy, nerve-shredding entertainment the likes of which we rarely see from American filmmakers, and it’s not soon forgotten.

The Fits

Director/co-writer Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut is a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale. There’s meaning here for viewers to decipher, and it adds an undercurrent of unease and wonder to the film culminating in a subtly, powerfully mesmerizing final five minutes. It’s a short film clocking in at just under eighty minutes, but it manages to be as much character study as it is coming of age story. Woven between those two, binding them together with beauty and awe, is an important and necessary nod to young women everywhere.

Kill Zone 2

Summer is often thought of as the season for action movies, but the best action film of the year was released and no one even noticed. Soi Cheang’s sequel in name only to the Donnie Yen classic stands firmly on its own two feet – when it’s not sending them flying through the air into someone’s face – and while the script is an exercise in contrivance the action more than makes up for it. We get multiple set-pieces ranging from one on one fights to large-scale brawls, and each of them feature an abundance of rapid-fire kicks/punches, high-flying hits, and blistering brutality. All three leads – Wu Jing, Tony Jaa, Zhang Jin – get several opportunities to showcase their fighting skills against random enemies and each other, and none of them fail to impress.

Honorable mentions: A Bigger Splash, Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, High-Rise, Indignation, Princess, Spa Night, Tickled, Weiner

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