The Movies We’re Thankful For in 2016

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An annual tradition of giving thanks for great movies continues.

Neil Miller: We are gathered here for the 2016 edition of what has now become an annual Film School Rejects tradition: the airing of grievances. Actually, that’s not it. We’ll do that later. It’s our annual list of movies we’re thankful for. My instructions to the team were simple – even so, some of them had a hard time following them – they were each tasked with picking a single movie for which they are most thankful. While I’d prefer it was a new movie to 2016, it can also be a movie that said writer saw for the first time. What matters is that we take a moment on Thanksgiving – a day we otherwise take off as a site – and give thanks to one of our many cinematic experiences.

My pick spoils Nathan’s pick below, but he picked two films so this is what he gets. My first viewing of David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon was alone on a Friday morning in a near-empty theater. I walked away thinking about the craftsmanship of marrying an old story to new technology and the film’s ability to be utterly timeless. I also walked away thinking about my housemates, fellow dog lovers, and their dog who serves as my office buddy during the day when everyone else is at work. Following the heartwarming tale of Pete and Elliot, I wanted to run home and give that little stinky pooch a big hug. Because after all, it’s a movie for anyone who’s ever loved the company of pet. It’s about the friendships forged on an instinctual level. Ever the Disney movie, it’s also about believing in the magic that could exist around us. There’s magic not just in its digital sorcery, but magic in its DNA. It’s not every day – or even every year – that we get a pure shot of magic quite like Pete’s Dragon.

Nathan Adams: I’m thankful for movies like The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, which showed that films for the whole family don’t have to resort to bull horns, strobe lights, and bathroom humor in order to keep kids’ attentions. These movies are artful and thoughtful, and they trust their audiences – no matter what their age – to appreciate important things like character and storytelling over dumb things like hacky catchphrases and obnoxious pop songs. Kids need more entertainment that refuses to talk down to them, and instead encourages them to elevate their conversations, so it’s important to give thanks when those things come along.

H. Perry Horton: For me, the 2017 film that has made the deepest and most-lasting impression is without a doubt Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. I’ve seen it four times so far this year, and each time I press stop I just want to press play again. I think it’s the perfect amalgamation of what made Drive and Only God Forgives separately brilliant: seedy storytelling from a glamorized perspective blended with an aesthetic that seethes out of the background and bleeds into every periphery, soaking the film in neon and framing it in jaded reflections. Like Mulholland Drive, The Neon Demon is a horror film where the villain is fame and identity is the final girl. Refn found the perfect princess for his fractured fairy tale in Elle Fanning, whose doe eyes are windows to the soullessness of vanity, and his supporting cast – which includes Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Bella Heathcoate, Abbey Lee, and a cougar – make up a panoply of beautiful and broken (or is it beautifully broken?) predators eager for a taste of the new blood.

I know that, like most of Refn’s other work, The Neon Demon is polarizing at best, but for my money there isn’t a more interesting, more exciting, or more adventurous writer-director out there, unless David Lynch decides to return to feature work, and The Neon Demon demonstrates this maybe more than anything else NWR has done. If you haven’t seen The Neon Demon, you owe yourself a watch, and if you have, you definitely owe yourself a re-watch. It’s not the kind of film meant for singular consumption. Or at least that’s what I tell myself each time I press play again.

Danny Bowes: I’m particularly thankful to have seen Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro this year. Formally, its montage is immaculate, but it’s the content that’s indispensable here: vast amounts of footage of James Baldwin talking, his verbal language as beautiful and impassioned as his writing, and his subject the ever vital topic of white America’s culpability in sustaining and inflicting structural racism. Then, to top it all off, providing historical context is narrator Samuel L. Jackson, in some of the most deeply felt work of his career. On the rare occasion a non-fiction political film succeeds in being more than a didactic information dump, it should be hailed, but I Am Not Your Negro is far beyond that, a film that entertains with its form as a means of educating more effectively with its content.

Christine Makepeace: I went to see the Black and Chrome edition of Fury Road the day after the election. It was difficult finding the motivation to peel myself away from Twitter and venture out into the world, but I figured it would be worth it for one of my favorite movies.

Finding catharsis in cinema is nothing new, but I had no idea I needed a release until I was crying in the dark, staring up at Furiosa. I’m grateful for the strength and reassurance because, in that theater on November 9th, that’s exactly what I needed.

Max Covill: There are few films this year that brought with it as much pure joy as Sing Street. Director John Carey’s love letter to Dublin in the 1980s has a simple enough premise – Conor meets Rephina, becomes instantly smitten with her, asks her to appear in a music video for his band. The only problem is that he doesn’t have a band or a vague idea of how to play a musical instrument. Conor and his friends start their band and as the film continues, he is repeatedly introduced to new music by his older brother Brendan and it is reflected into the original music created for Sing Street. The songs are a significant step up from Carey’s previous musical Begin Again, taking on the 80s influences, while also fitting the age and aesthetics of the young musicians. Listen to ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ and try not to be instantly hooked. John Carey has recently said he is done doing musicals for the time being. Thankfully he left the genre with a film filled with hope and heart.

Jacob Oller: One of the movies I’m most thankful for this year isn’t even a movie I wholeheartedly liked. Swiss Army Man has some serious issues, though it being a movie about a farting corpse you’d think I’d be prepared for that. Despite my narrative quibbles, the film’s infectious joy and thumping vocal-electronic soundtrack compliment a visual style that explodes color from every inch of the frame. Seeing it during the dead of summer, when I was becoming familiar enough with my new home of Chicago to really embrace it, helped me find beauty all around me – finding friendship in something that may’ve only seemed like a farting corpse at the time.

Daniel Radcliffe has the funniest performance of the year and I found myself returning again and again to the soundtrack as background writing music, as its originals and ethereal (and hilarious) covers continued to whisk me away as the seasons changed and the weather got colder. On a more meta note, I get giddy every time I realize that a movie this weird was pitched, sold, distributed, and even found (minor) success. That’s one of many reasons I love movies and a reminder that even the weirdest fringes can bring people together.

Lisa Gullickson: Thanksgiving, for me, can be an annual tipping point that sends me tumbling headfirst into the rest of the holiday season. Perhaps it is just a tryptophan-induced malaise, but I inevitably find myself taking discontented stock in my life. I come from the generation that was told to dream big, you can be anything you want to be – shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars. Ten months of the year, I am happy with my severely modest aspirations but around the holidays between the stuffing and the nog, reality dishes me a healthy pang of guilt and resentment for my innate ability to be content with extremely localized recognition and faint praise. I am simultaneously stuffed with food and starved for permission to aspire in moderation and dream only as big as I can stand. That is why this year I am cinematically thankful for Mike Birbiglia’s indie gem, Don’t Think Twice.

The film is about a well-established, super tight UCB style improv group called The Commune, that finds itself at a crossroads when one member’s success becomes all of the members’ emotional spiral. While Don’t Think Twice may not be literally autobiographical like Mike Birbiglia’s first film Sleepwalk With Me, it feels emotionally autobiographical and entirely relatable. Anyone with an ounce of ambition knows how it feels to be surpassed and out-preformed by the ones we love. The holidays have me waxing melancholic, but the film is legit funny and heartfelt. There is plenty of insider ‘yes-and,’ ‘zip-zap-zop’ goodness for my fellow theater dorks, but really this is a film for any collaborative creative who asks themselves ‘what’s the point?’

Victor Stiff: 2016 may be a disappointing year for the Hollywood bean-counters, but that doesn’t mean the last 11-months haven’t been littered with cinematic gems. I feel a strong connection to the themes in Vikram Gandhi’s Barry biopic, and still can’t get the music from La La Land out of my head, but it’s an under the radar indie-flick that currently has me smitten. Don’t Think Twice, writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s second feature-length film has occupied my thoughts ever since the final credits rolled.

The story – a love letter to the improv scene – follows a troupe of 30-something improv performers as they’re forced to consider they may never make it in “the biz”. The film oscillates between hilarious and heartbreaking in order to form a delicious dramatic-comedy cocktail that will appeal to a broad audience. However, Don’t Think Twice’s themes will deeply resonate with any artist whose soul has grown weary from chasing their unfulfilled dreams.

Justine A. Smith: This year I am thankful for Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno. Now in his 70s, Werner Herzog has lost none of his adventurousness or his keen sense of observation as he continues to travel to some of the most dangerous parts of the world. Taking on a collaborator, Clive Oppenheimer, the pair examines the rich interrelationship between man and volcano. Exploring the sheer volcanic power and the mythology that seems to billow around them – the film focuses on the unrelenting meaningless of our existence. Rather than indulge in purely apocalyptic considerations, however, the film focuses on the poetry of our impermanence – finding reassurance in humanity’s inevitable finality.

The volcanic clouds and searing rivers of magma seem sentient, embodied with the force and spirit of something greater than man. And over the course of the film, the mystery and power of the volcano suggest we have little control over our destiny: no political conviction or religious affiliation will save you from the ‘’Big One.’’ Herzog’s career-long obsession with the sublime, the invocation of both fear and wonderment in the face of nature, seem perfectly articulated through the volcano. Rather than cower in fear, Herzog remains at a safe distance – appreciating his life and that of humanity its delicate, finite glory: a much-needed perspective in these trying times.

Jamie Righetti: It goes without saying that 2016 has been an incredibly difficult year. Politics aside, we’ve lost true icons, remarkable and magical members of the film and music communities that have left a void felt worldwide. Perhaps now more than ever, I have found myself turning to films for solace and inspiration as the world has become increasingly darker and full of stinging loss. In doing so, I discovered 2016’s secret silver lining: this was a year for women in film. It is this moment and the many wonderful films that encompass it, that I’m most grateful for.

Where to even begin? We kicked off 2016 by choosing to live deliciously with The VVitch and we attended Karyn Kusama’s terrifying dinner party in The Invitation. We witnessed Kelly Reichardt’s quiet masterpiece Certain Women, the magnificent return of Sonia Braga in Aquarius, not to mention Isabelle Huppert’s defiant turn in Elle. It’s been a good year for films by and about women. But if I must choose just one, then I’ll jump on the trend of kicking off the holidays early and settle on 20th Century Women, which opens on Christmas Day. The film follows Dorothea (a superb Annette Bening), a child of the Depression who is trying to raise her adolescent son, Jamie, in 1979 Santa Barbara.

The film is intensely personal to director Mike Mills, who based Dorothea on his own mother, but I found so many scraps of my own life tucked away in the characters. Most of all, I was drawn to the music (Talking Heads, Black Flag, The Buzzkills) which reminded me so much of my own father, who passed away five years ago. My father was exactly like Jamie growing up, sneaking off to see punk bands at CBGB’s in the late 70’s and regaling his salad days to me years later. I miss my father immensely, just as I imagine Mills must miss his mother. There is an undefinable magic in 20th Century Women that extends far beyond my own memories but it’s the film that has made the deepest impact on me this year and one I look forward to see again quite soon.

William Dass: My Star Trek fandom is wrapped up in family. The first live action movie I have a memory of seeing in the theater is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I would have been 9, so it’s possible there’s something I’m not recalling. Every night an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the television, we would set up dinner on tray tables to watch the episode and take a meal together. For better or worse, that cemented the crew of the NCC-1701-D as my crew. Now, my wife has never really been into Trek. Not anti, but not pro either. My kids were mostly too young. Then J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek hit theaters. And that got my wife fully on board, because all in that’s a really fun movie. But, the kids were still too young.

My oldest daughter turned 7 in August. We let her pick a birthday movie and she chose Star Trek Beyond. Technically, she chose that and Ghostbusters. Fortunately for her, I’m a pushover and she saw both. But, she identified Trek as the voyage she wanted for her actual birthday flick. No siblings. Just me, her, and her mom. During the film, in the camp rescue sequence (where Taylah is fighting Manas and Kirk, god help him, is riding a dirt bike around), I happened to look over at her. She. Was. Into. IT! No foolin’, when Jaylah and Kirk wound up back on the teleporter pad, she legitimately did a fist pump and whispered “Yes!” I’ve never seen her more into a movie. This year, there’ll surely be other movies higher in my rankings than Star Trek Beyond. But, leaps and bounds, this is the movie I’m most thankful for. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to create a memory like that for my daughter. Plus, she’s been hyping it to her sisters. I’m very hopeful Star Trek: Discovery will be their TNG experience.

Brad Gullickson: No one is more surprised at how much I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond than me. As a proud member of the Trekkie subculture, I was profoundly moved by how J.J. Abrams managed to craft a sequel as well as a reboot for the 2009 film. This was not exactly the crew we saw portrayed by Shatner & company (thanks to timeline shattering Romulan bastards, how could it be?) but there was enough of their essence to warm my nostalgic heart. Then came Star Trek Into Darkness, and all that warmth went out the airlock in exchange for Khan super blood, and an embarrassing 9/11 Truther analogy. My Trekkie soul grew cynical, and seeing that original Guardians of the Galaxywannabe trailer for Star Trek Beyond engaged a serious eye roll.

For the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I spent a good chunk of this year rewatching the original series, and blitzing through the motion (and motionless) pictures. I love these people. I love them like family – heck, why shouldn’t I? I’ve spent nearly as much time with them as I have my mother, father, and wife. DON’T YOU JUDGE ME! I know how Kirk, Spock, & McCoy would react around the ready room as much as I know how my family’s going to battle around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Star Trek Beyond took the alternate reality personalities of the original series crew, gave them character scenes to breathe amongst the action, and delivered a new adventure for my old friends.

I am most thankful to have the reminder of Gene Roddenberry’s original utopian dream at a time when I feel a great unrest on this planet. It’s easy to start dreading the Soylent Green post-election, but growing up a Trekkie, I have been trained to reach for the stars. Sure, right now, we need our anger, and we need our fear. We’ve got a fight on our hands. But we also need some serious hope. We need a vision, a dream to work towards. For all it’s nonsensical shape shifting alien shenanigans, Star Trek Beyond carried that wonder of unity. The added bonus is that it even allowed me to let go of some of that over-exhausted fanboy moaning held back from Into Darkness. We sure could use less of that these days too.

Erica Bahrenburg: One of the many, many things I am passionate about when it comes to movies is their ability to transport us to another time, place, or even world. For the runtime of the film, we become connected to the characters and their stories in a deeply personal way. Maybe something hits a little too close to home or the score sweeps you off your feet or the craftsmanship of the entire film blows you away. The one movie that has made me feel that way this year is Kubo and the Two Strings. In the hands of perhaps a less capable studio and team, Kubo would have been just another animated movie, but the incredible crew at Laika has created something extremely special with this one.

Kubo is a classic quest movie where the young hero accidentally unleashes a vengeful spirit and then joins forces with two lovable sidekicks in order to defeat the spirit. But, despite its familiar plot, it is the jaw-dropping visuals and depths the story reaches that are what make the film so refreshing and exciting. The whole film is set in an ancient and magical Japan and the filmmakers pay respectful homage to some of the greatest Japanese filmmakers: Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. It is a kid’s movie that teaches audiences about taking on and accepting personal responsibilities and carrying the weight of those. It is a stop-motion film so expertly and masterfully crafted you forget that that people built and controlled these characters by hand. So many of the visuals in the film just take your breath away at how unbelievable they are (that 18-foot skeleton comes to mind). Kubo and the Two Strings is one of those rare movies that takes huge risks, pushes the boundaries of technology and animation, and still manages to tell a poignant and charming story. Watching it truly does take you somewhere else and, wow, what a place it is.

Christopher Campbell: I tend to like cerebral movies. They can have heart, too, but mostly they have to get my brain churning. I’m just not as receptive to emotional drama. Yet my favorite movie this year, the one I’m most thankful for, is Moonlight, which isn’t the sort directed at your mind. Not that it’s not smart, just that it works more on a sensuous level through empathy than an overtly intellectual manner. I want to say I can’t stop thinking about it, but it’s more that I can’t stop feeling about it. Nothing about Moonlight is stereotypical or predictable. Everything about it is wonderful.

Chris Coffel: Nobody saw the Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and that’s just too bad because it’s the funniest movie since Wet Hot American Summer and after a few more viewings it may actually surpass Wet Hot. That’s a span of 15 years, or a decade and a a half. A lot of movies have come out in 15 years and none have been funnier. That’s an impressive feat and that’s why I’m incredibadly thankful for Popstar.

On the surface Popstar is a dumb, silly movie which probably explains why nobody saw it. But it’s also layered and very smart. It’s not just a bunch of parodies of popular songs but it’s a clever jab at the music industry and the best such jab since This Is Spinal Tap. But most importantly it’s ridiculously funny. I’ve watched it three times now and every time I’ve laughed uncontrollably. ‘Thriller, Also’ is one of the best individual jokes in years. Plus there’s an amazing offscreen bee attack. A good comedy should make you laugh and that’s exactly what Popstar does.

Matthew Monagle: A few months ago, while visiting family, my wife Andrea and I found ourselves flipping through our streaming video services in search of a movie to help kill some time. We landed on Weiner, an incredibly uncomfortable 2016 documentary about New York politician and frequent tabloid fodder Anthony Weiner. For the next 96 minutes, we stared at the television in a mixture of horror and disbelief as Weiner allowed the most intimate aspects of his public nightmare be documented by a camera crew. “Why would he let them film that?” was shouted at the television more than once during the film. Slowly, our sympathy towards Huma Abedin overwhelmed all other rational thought.

What made Weiner such an important part of 2016 for us, though, was that it kicked off a weekly documentary night in our household. I have often overlook documentaries in favor of more commercial fare; for her part, my wife invariably prefers watching a movie with a true-life component but needed a push to make it part of her schedule. Since watching Weiner, we’ve also picked up documentaries ranging from The Thin Blue Line to Citizenfour, filling in the gaps in our movie history and making ourselves well-rounded moviegoers in the process. Every Wednesday is a new film, with both Andrea and alternating the choice of the title. Sure, by itself, Weiner would probably still be good enough to end up on my end-of-the-year list, but without the right movie at the right time, we probably never would have gotten our movie night off the ground. I owe Documentary Night to Weiner, whole cloth.

Rob Hunter: I’m not sure if this counts as a cheat, but one of the movies I’m most thankful for this year hasn’t even been released yet. Inexplicably, it hasn’t even found a distributor. Safe Neighborhood is a home invasion thriller featuring a babysitter and her young charge who find themselves under threat from an outside force, and it’s a rarity in a few exciting ways.

The script is sharp to the point of being air-tight, and at no point does it leave you questioning a character decision or wishing they were smarter. Too often thrillers like this feel contrived to a degree as it forces a situation or conflict, but here each moment feeds into the next beautifully. The thrills and turns are plentiful, and while too many horror/thrillers drop the ball with their ending writer/director Chris Peckover nails his perfectly.

Even beyond the script the movie just works from top to bottom. The cast is strong, the suspense and thrills are balanced with charm and humor, and the Christmas Eve setting keeps things bright and colorful throughout. It’s an immensely entertaining and satisfying movie – I’ve seen it twice now, and even knowing the story turns on a second viewing failed to lessen my enjoyment.

Safe Neighborhood is a new holiday horror favorite, and I’m thankful that I’ve gotten to see it on the big screen. Twice. Now I just wish some smart distributor would pick it up so everyone else can see it even once.

What movies made you thankful in 2016?

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