Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
I saw 78 films released in 2016, but which ones were my favorites? Here are the best films I saw in the year 2016…
#11–20 (in alphabetical order)
Florence Foster Jenkins
And now for #6–10…
10. Don’t Breathe
9. La La Land
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
6. Hell or High Water
And now… the final countdown…
5. The Conjuring 2
The most terrifying experience I’ve had in a movie theater in years was watching The Conjuring 2. Director James Wan has really come into his own as a horror director since the original Saw (which also made my top ten list in 2004), and after making the smash hit action blockbuster Furious 7, he returned to his roots with this chilling sequel that fixed everything I didn’t like about the original and delivered on endless scares, spooky demons, and a terrific eerie atmosphere from beginning to end.
4. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater is an American treasure, one of my favorite directors by far. I’m not sure if any have made my top ten lists with three movies in a row, but Linklater’s done it, with Before Midnight in 2013, Boyhood in 2014, and now his spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, the ridiculously entertaining Everybody Wants Some!! Featuring a stellar young cast and the kind of compelling naturalism that Linklater is known for, this film is a pure delight from beginning to end.
Some great films stick with you, and some great ones don’t. I loved a lot of the movies on my #11–20 list, but a lot of them in the weeks following faded from my mind, not having left a major impact. Such was not the case with Jackie. This movie shook me on the day that I saw it, and months later I still can’t stop thinking about it. Portman gives her best performance since Black Swan, and the unique cinematography and inventive editing and haunting musical score work together to create a piece of art that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
2. De Palma
Director Brian De Palma sits in a chair and talks about his career for two hours. That’s basically all this documentary is. So why the hell does it get the #2 slot? This movie’s amazing because it does something I rarely see in documentaries about film: it tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. De Palma talks about all his films, both the good (like Carrie and Blow Out) and the bad (like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars), and he tells personal, revealing, sometimes painful stories about his fifty years in the film industry. This is not a love-fest on De Palma, not the kind of obvious documentary that features thirty talking heads boasting about how great or important he is. This is just De Palma taking us through the highs and lows of his long career, and I was engaged in every second of it.
This was an easy choice. I haven’t had to think too hard about my top pick of the year since 2012, and this year was no different, Barry Jenkins’ hypnotic Moonlight proving in so many ways just what the film medium is capable of. This movie is a punch to the gut in the way it handles space and time, and it’s also one of the most tender love stories I’ve seen in any film in years. I can’t imagine anyone not being affected by this film in some way. With a terrific cast, absolutely gorgeous cinematography, powerful editing, and a well-structured narrative that builds to a romantic, ultra-satisfying finale, Moonlight is the best movie of 2016.
Watching Like a Writer
So what’s my one big takeaway as a writer for the films I most loved in 2016? Of course my top five movies are all doing different things, innovative things, but if there’s one takeaway that I can find in my favorites, it’s the search for truth. When it comes to my writing, I’ve written novels that are escapist entertainment, but the few that I’ve written that have been the most worthwhile for me are the ones that dig deeper, that reveal something personal, that take the reader on a journey someplace new. These are the kinds of stories that I want to focus on in the future, and they’re the ones I’m always searching for at the movies.
What is a story personal to you that you haven’t written yet but might want to try investigating in a work of fiction in the future?