June is here, and with Sundance, Berlin, SXSW and Cannes over, and the summer blockbuster season well underway, the year in the film world is starting to take shape. And while superhero clashes and fairy-tale remakes have dominated the mainstream talk, there’s been a lot more variety and depth to be found for anyone digging a little deeper, either in the mainstream or the arthouse worlds.
With a dozen or more movies opening virtually every week, it seems like it’s more easy than ever for films to slip through the cracks. So, as we approach the halfway mark of the year, we decided to look back at the early part of 2016 and pick out the best of the year so far.
Below you’ll find, in no particular order, 20 films ranging from giant blockbusters to microbudget foreign films that have reminded us why we love the movies so. Take a look, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” [Review]
It’s little more than a B-movie, but if we judge the J.J. Abrams-produced, Damien Chazelle-co-scripted “10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, against its ambitions, and credit it for approaching the franchise format with a degree of ingenuity, it’s actually a fairly resounding success. Borrowing the name and the marketability of a previous “mystery box” outing from Abrams’ Bad Robot shingle, and then basically ignoring that property until its divisive ending, there were those who saw it as a cynical cash-grab. But we’re pretty much fine with being promised one thing and having another delivered, if what’s delivered is as well-made as “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Featuring an excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead as our resourceful heroine and John Goodman as the maybe-psycho, maybe-savior (and no one does that lovable-to-homicidal switch-up better than Goodman), it’s a basement thriller entertaining enough that it buys the license to morph into something else. In fact, if it spawns other sorta-sequels, in which the individual story is prioritized over the another-episode-in-a-continuing-series vibe that makes most franchises so utterly formulaic, all the better.
It’s perhaps not super-surprising that a black-and-white period tragicomedy from Romania did not exactly set box offices aflame during its modest limited release, but it is a shame, as Radu Jude’s Berlin Best Director-winning film is actually a heap of fun, despite its serious core. A kind of oddball troubadour story, it follows a 19th-century magistrate (played by Romanian New Wave regular Teodor Corban) who is sent by a local landowner to track down the gypsy who slept with his wife. Falling into odd-couple step with a ratty young servant boy, Ionita (Mihai Comănoiu), the two have various Quixotic adventures as they venture across an 1800s Wallachia that Jude imagines almost more as medieval — a landscape of feudalism, traveling circuses, bawdy taverns and deep-seated, endemic racism. Part comedy western, part commentary on the roots of anti-Roma sentiment in Romania today, part scathing indictment of the just-following-orders mentality, “Aferim!” is a highly original and unique blend of parts, all bundled up in some of the most delicious arcane and involved insult language (even in subtitles) this side of Falstaff.
“Captain America: Civil War” [Review]
After a couple of false starts, summer blockbuster season finally kicked into an enjoyable high gear in the form of the third ‘Captain America’ outing and the gajillionth Marvel Cinematic Universe release, ‘Civil War.’ More of a team-up movie than a solo outing, and as such a better sequel to “The Avengers” than ‘Age of Ultron,’ ‘Civil War’ delivered a more interesting, less bombastic vision of the superhero movie, and it wasn’t just entertaining — it was a relief. With each successive comic-book property seemingly trying to top the last in the scale of external world-ending threat, ‘Civil War’ went smaller. But it didn’t want for spectacle either: The airport battle alone gave rise to both the funniest and the most dramatic moments despite the ostensibly low stakes. Also serving as a stellar intro to the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and a solid one for Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and giving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) strong beats too, ‘Civil War’ served up a temporary reprieve in superhero fatigue — until “X-Men: Apocalypse” opened and we all felt very tired and old all over again.
“Cemetery of Splendour” [Review]
Definitely the quietest and uncanniest of the films on this list, Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s ‘Cemetery of Splendour’ is a brilliant oddity, and the one title that, rivaled perhaps only by “Embrace Of The Serpent,” reminds us best that the elasticity of cinema’s storytelling potential knows no limits. Less a film you watch than one you are possessed by, ‘Cemetery’ is, very loosely speaking, the story of a group of Thai soldiers afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness during which, they tell us, they fight the battles of long-dead kings in the past. But that’s really only a small part of this vast and deeply peculiar palimpsest, in which the past lies over the present, statues come to life, and a woman (Apichatpong Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner) claims a comatose adult man as her son, hears his stories when he wakes, and talks to him through a medium while he sleeps. When Shakespeare wrote about there being so many more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, he might as well have been talking about the slow, infinitely beautiful strangeness of “Cemetery of Splendour.”
“The Club” [Review]
Pablo Larraín had established himself as one of our favorite filmmakers before “The Club” (and certainly long before this year’s blazing Cannes mindfuck “Neruda“), but the Berlin Grand Prix-winning title might have been the one that confirmed it. A dark, mordant, witheringly uncompromising story of disgraced priests living out a shadowy purgatory in a dingy house in a shuttered seaside town, “The Club” is a showcase not only for Larraín regulars Alfredo Castro and Antonia Zegers, but also for his behind-the-camera talent, particularly that of Larraín’s co-writers Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos; and his exceptional cinematographer, Sergio Armstrong. Shot in a deliberately low-contrast, twilight-ish palette and featuring certain monologues so excoriating they could strip wallpaper (particularly those delivered by Roberto Farías‘ child abuse survivor), “The Club” takes a wincingly intelligent look at a jagged subject. It’s far from an easy story, but the subterranean vein of irony Larraín mines also makes it vastly watchable and deeply compelling: It is exactly as dark as a film about this deeply upsetting subject should be, but it also reaches a point of blackhearted catharsis by the time it all plays out.