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The best films of 2016 so far: The A.V. Club’s catch-up guide

Photo: The Witch
Photo: The Witch

Once upon a time, dear reader, A.V. Club film editor A.A. Dowd and staff critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky were just like you: thirsty, sweaty, forced to pay money out of their own pockets to see movies. Then, they got low-paying customer-service jobs that let them see all the movies they wanted for free.

Sure, they eventually became film critics. But before that, one worked in a video store and the other in a movie theater. (Actually, they both worked at the same movie theater, but Ignatiy got fired.) Now, they are drawing on their combined years of experience in helping complete strangers pick out movies based on only the most vague of criteria—as well as the fact that they make their living writing about film for The A.V. Club—to put together a guide to some of the best and most interesting movies released so far this year.

So, what kind of movie do you feel like watching?

Movies to make you cringe, even though you can’t look away

Weiner (Photo: Sundance Selects)

Making people squirm isn’t great for business, which is why Hollywood tends to offer nothing but an endless buffet of comfort food. But some of the best cinema tests boundaries and gets under the skin; for some valuable discomfort, you have to look past the major studio movies. Corneliu Porumboiu, for example, specializes in a particularly minimalist strain of cringe comedy. The Romanian writer-director’s latest, The Treasure, scores bone-dry laughs from the sheer boredom of a backyard scavenger hunt, as a pair of middle-aged neighbors spend a whole day scanning a field for a buried fortune. It’s a film that treats tedium like the height of hilarity and the annoying beep of an unreliable metal detector like a running joke.

Two more of the year’s prickliest comedies focus on embarrassing public spectacle, as clueless characters broadcast their total lack of self-awareness. In the French wincefest Marguerite, the character is a wealthy baroness buying her way into an opera career, despite a woeful lack of talent. (The character is based on real-life socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, subject of an upcoming, official biopic—though we have a hunch that Stephen Frears’ take on the story will be more frothy than painful.) There’s also deadpan Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, in which a guys’ weekend becomes a figurative and literal dick-measuring contest, as a group of insecure dudes try to determine who is “the best in general.”

But in terms of making both viewers and onscreen subjects hot under the collar, fiction has had nothing on non-fiction in 2016; you could practically program a whole film festival of the year’s most awkward documentaries. Conceived as state-sanctioned propaganda, Under The Sun paints both an “official” image of modern North Korea and a less-flattering unofficial one, thanks to director Vitaly Mansky’s decision to keep the cameras running. Holy Hell, similarly, began life as a kind of propaganda: Its director was a loyal cult member who filmed 22 years from the inside, then reshaped that footage into an undercover exposé when he lost faith in his phony guru. Meanwhile, Tickled unwraps an insidious conspiracy involving (wait for it) young men tickling each other, while Weiner gains full access to Anthony Weiner, his family, and his staff during a spectacularly unsuccessful mayoral campaign. In a year of truly mortifying political spectacle, seeing Huma Abedin dragged through the dirt on camera may take the cringe cake. [A.A. Dowd]

Movies to see (and argue about) with that special someone

The Lobster (Photo: A24 Films)

South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo has become this century’s soju-soaked answer to Éric Rohmer, making movies about men (many of them Hong-esque filmmakers) and women meeting or breaking up that all seem like variations on the same themes. A lot of the time, those variations are internal, as in Right Now, Wrong Then, which replays the same story—a visiting director meets a female fan while sightseeing, and they spend an evening out together—with key differences.

Whit Stillman is a fellow traveler of the Rohmer school of witty, talky movies about people navigating relationships, though his own stated allegiance has always been to Jane Austen. Now, over a quarter-century since his hilarious (and Austen-referencing) debut, Metropolitan, the eccentric American independent has finally gotten around to adapting an Austen novel. Love & Friendship, based on the little-known Lady Susan, is as clever and seamless a marriage of source material and sensibility as one would expect, and gives Kate Beckinsale—a gifted comic actress who somehow ended up in a latex-fetish vampire franchise—the kind of role she too rarely gets.

Why all these mentions of Rohmer? Perhaps because the French have something of a monopoly on making deft movies about phases of romance. In The Shadow Of Women, an unexpectedly funny relationship cautionary tale from the doomy and poetic Philippe Garrel, centers on a hypocritical documentary filmmaker who cheats on his wife, but can’t stand the thought of her with another man. Meanwhile, Arnaud Desplechin returns to the characters of My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument—the ’90s ensemble relationship comedy to beat all ’90s ensemble relationship comedies—for My Golden Days, an eclectic exploration of memory and first love in a working-class town in the 1980s.

But what good would this guide be if it didn’t implore you, dear reader, to consider The Lobster, one of our absolute favorite modern comedies? The English-language debut of Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), this absurdist dystopian comedy offers up a near future in which all single people are required to find a partner within 45 days or be transformed into an animal of their choice, with extensions for those who hunt down and tranquilize rogue “loners” who live in the woods and listen to electronic music. From this surreal satirical premise (played straight by stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, the former very effectively cast against type), The Lobster develops into something deceptively complex. And if you’re really adventurous—and interested in uniquely unconventional relationships—you might try Afternoon, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s minimalist documentary about his creative partnership (and unrequited not-quite-romance) with his longtime leading man, Lee Kang-sheng. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Movies to make you think about family and close friends

Only Yesterday (Photo: Gkids)

Family comes first. Even without Vin Diesel and his Fast & Furious crew around to say the word a couple dozen times, the movies of 2016 have taken that lesson to heart. The best of them haven’t just made familial themes a focus, but have developed their onscreen relatives well enough to make viewers feel like they’re part of the extended clan—or at least invited to the dysfunctional reunion.

Few have crafted stronger drama out of family conflict than A Separation director Asghar Farhadi, who apparently developed his gift for plumbing the crevices of middle-class Iranian life as early as 2006. Fireworks Wednesday, which took 10 years to make it to American theaters, turns a heated husband-and-wife spat into a typically engrossing study of how marriages become subject to the influence and judgment of outsiders. It was joined in U.S. theaters this spring by another belated import, the 1991 Studio Ghibli classic Only Yesterday, whose tale of a young woman thinking back on her childhood is animated but definitely not cartoony. The film might make an interesting double feature with Jia Zhangke’s flawed but ambitious Mountains May Depart, which similarly investigates the relationship between the past and the present; spanning decades, countries, and aspect ratios, the film finds Jia again diagnosing the effects of globalism—this time on a wife, her husband, and her son.

A couple of the year’s finest dramas used dazzling formal tricks to reveal the private emotional spaces of distressed relatives. Krisha, a strong directorial debut, creates an audio-visual language of social anxiety, boldly capturing the feelings of estrangement experienced by the title character (Krisha Fairchild) as she attempts to reconnect with the family she abandoned. No less stylistically, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs investigates the mourning period of a widower (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Devin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg), visualizing their dreams, fantasies, memories, and desires. Sound emotionally exhausting? Chase these heavy family portraits with a loose, ecstatic vision of a surrogate one: Everybody Wants Some, in which Richard Linklater returns to the brotherhood of his college baseball days, emerging with another feature-length party, but also a sneaky study of adulthood coming on fast, like the effects of a giant bong hit. [A.A. Dowd]

Movies to give you a sense of mystery and awe

April And The Extraordinary World

Movies, best seen in a big dark room full of strangers, are uniquely suited for creating and sustaining a sense of captivating mystery, and few films have done it better this year than Midnight Special, the latest from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). Part terse sci-fi chase thriller, part parenthood parable, this story of a former cult member (Michael Shannon) trying to protect his supernaturally gifted son never lets on more than it needs to, expressing itself in subtleties and nuances in a style that brings to mind classic films by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Those that prefer their wonders to be visible rather than implied can check out the French animated film April And The Extraordinary World, an intricate vision of an alternate high-tech past, based on a story by French comics great Jacques Tardi.

Those willing to get a little more esoteric should check out Kaili Blues, the poetic debut feature from Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan, in which flourishes of film noir (an ex-con, a missing boy who may have been sold, small-town gangs) are mirrored in the mundane and the mystical, recalling the films of the great Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (However, one couldn’t imagine the Thai filmmaker pulling off something like Kaili Blues’ pièce de résistance: a 41-minute unbroken handheld shot choreographed across an entire village.) Weerasethakul’s own Cemetery Of Splendour—set at a hospital full of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness—rewards those willing to be carried by its drift. Those who prefer their unclassifiable movies more homegrown should look to Anna Rose Holmer’s debut The Fits—“George Washington by way of George Romero,” in the words of our own Noel Murray.

Terrence Malick, the top name in poetic reveries in American cinema, risks accusations of self-indulgence with the cryptic, ambiguously personal Knight Of Cups, which follows a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) as he runs his hand along walls, overhears improvised conversations by comedians, and romances more beautiful women than he can keep track of. Yet Malick’s repetitive navel-gazing is intoxicating, almost narcotic—as confessional and mystifying as an old diary. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Movies to make you bite your nails

Green Room (Photo: A24 Films)

2016 has been drenched with dread, from the horror of today’s headlines to the paralyzing fear of what tomorrow’s might read. Why should the movies be any different? Reflecting the anxiety of the age, this year’s best thrillers have run a gamut of phobias, from the environmental terror of Norwegian disaster movie The Wave to the paranoia of ill intentions that informs Karyn Kusama’s supremely creepy slow burn The Invitation, about a seemingly friendly dinner party and the one guest who begins to suspect that things are not what they seem.

The Wailing, from South Korean director Na Hong-jin (The Chaser), flavorfully mixes genres with its tale of a village torn asunder by both unholy forces and the crusades of zealots. “Conducting a witch hunt is an irreversible evil in itself,” concluded our own Ben Mercer, and the sentiment could naturally be applied to the old-world puritan horror of The Witch, which could be pro- or anti-religious hysteria, depending on how you read it, but whose merits—the meticulously researched period details, the striking imagery—are indisputable. Like The Exorcist, it’s a supernatural fright flick that provokes serious discussion.

The Witch’s woodland farmhouse setting also counted as one of many backdrops of dread, pinning in the year’s unluckiest of movie heroes: the quiet, empty spaces of a Manhattan mansion, where the young caretaker of Mickey Keating’s Repulsion homage Darling comes violently unglued; the London haunted house of James Wan’s bigger, sillier The Conjuring 2, a spring-loaded funhouse ride of a movie; and the claustrophobic underground bunker of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which proved less a sequel to its blockbuster “cousin” than a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. But no space was smaller and more dangerous than the green room of Green Room, whose pressure-cooker scenario has provided 2016 with its most suffocating, white-knuckle thrills—complicated, granted, by the death of leading man Anton Yelchin and the uncomfortable parallels between the film’s hatemongering villains and the real ones bellowing at rallies across the country. [A.A. Dowd]

Movies to freak you out

The Neon Demon (Photo: Broad Green Pictures)

Are you kind of moviegoer who considers “weird” and “unclassifiable” high praise? Do you just like your movies a pinch lysergic? Or with a hint of nightmare? If your answer to any of these questions was, “Yeah, obviously,” then there’s a pretty big chance that you’re a fan of the late Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, you just might not know it. Żuławski’s final film, Cosmos, is a droll and surreal send-up of vacationing detective stories in which the unexplained goings-on at a bed-and-breakfast seem to collapse in on themselves once its guests venture into the misty woods nearby. And what is it with forests and slippery realities, anyway? Swiss Army Man, the outré debut of music video duo Daniels (a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan), casts Paul Dano as a suicidal castaway who survives in the California forest with the help of a talking, farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe; the imaginatively gross premise might be the movie’s big selling point, but it’s the performances that carry it to a charmingly deranged finale.

Few freak-out film experiences are more rarified that the forgotten oddity, and this year saw the release of a movie that’s been begging to be re-discovered for decades: Belladonna Of Sadness, a 1973 Japanese animated feature conceived with the help of Osamu Tezuka and directed by his longtime collaborator, Eiichi Yamamoto. A nightmare of witch trials, revolutionary slogans, and obscene psychosexual imagery, Belladonna Of Sadness was one of the most unusual and challenging animated films of its time. Keeping with that film’s medieval European setting, you could also check out Tale Of Tales, a macabre collection of stories within stories—featuring sea monsters, giant fleas, and water-breathing albino twins—from Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah).

Maybe tripping on fairytale subtexts isn’t your thing; maybe you just want to bask in the nightmare of vapid materialism. Have we got a movie for you: High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s decadent, psychotic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s cult novel. An impeccably cast Tom Hiddleston stars as a new tenant at a super-modern (by mid-1970s standards, anyway) apartment building on the outskirts of London, who watches his neighbors collapse into post-apocalyptic anarchy and inter-floor warfare. If the movie’s manic, elliptical pace is a little overwhelming, opt instead for The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s attempt to stretch the dream sequence from Paul Schrader’s Cat People to feature length. Glacial, but unexpectedly funny in spots, the latest from the reigning king of “style for style’s sake” is a cautionary tale about beauty and the fashion industry in which everyone looks like a vampire and every scene sounds like it was recorded in a mausoleum. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Movies to just have a goddamn good time

Kill Zone 2 (Photo: Well Go USA)

Hollywood might be synonymous with big-screen entertainment, but it often pales in comparison with Hong Kong’s masters. Three, the latest from the unparalleled Johnnie To, is a twisting, crisscrossing suspense flick set over a few hours in a hospital—strikingly conceived in blues and greens, with doorways and privacy screens that limit point-of-view and build tension—where a cop, a wounded criminal, and a surgeon are forced to match wits and wills. Even more operatic (and delirious) is Kill Zone 2, from onetime To protégé Soi Cheang; the endearingly contrived story of an undercover cop and a Thai prison guard (Tony Jaa) who join forces to take down an organ trafficking ring, Kill Zone 2 has enough style to make Brian De Palma sweat, dazzling with its martial arts choreography and theatrical flourishes. And then there’s The Mermaid, which springs from the wacky, freewheeling imagination of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). A monumental hit in China, Chow’s comic fantasy was badly mishandled in its American release.

Of course, you could also watch the latest Marvel extravaganza, Captain America: Civil War, which is kind of the same movie as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but with characters. But fun as Civil War might be, why not take a look at The Nice Guys, the shaggy, often funny, 1970s-set riff on the mismatched buddy formula, long ago perfected by director Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, made the cult favorite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and, yes, directed Iron Man 3?

But aren’t unexpected and un-pedigreed pleasures some of the most rewarding? Our own Mike D’Angelo is high on A Monster With A Thousand Heads, citing the way the modest Mexican thriller turns a ludicrous premise into a fascinating and often suspenseful genre piece. Or what about documentaries? Feel-good underdog sports stories have a reputation for sappiness, but Dark Horse—about Dream Alliance, a racehorse owned by a working-class group from Walesis “done very right,” in the words of our reviewer Noel Murray. Noel frequently reviews under-the-radar documentaries for us, and his highest grades for the year so far also include City Of Gold, about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold and his passion for the cheap local eats of Los Angeles, and Nuts!, a partially animated re-telling of the fascinating life of John R. Brinkley, a quack doctor and radio pioneer who implanted his patients with goat testicles. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]