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The Best Movies of 2016 So Far

As 2016 hits the halfway mark, here are the films we're championing as the best released in theaters so far.

"Creative Control"

“Creative Control”

5. “Creative Control”

With its crisp black-and-white photography and snazzy effects, Benjamin Dickinson’s mesmerizing science fiction thriller “Creative Control” cleverly envisions a technology-dominated society that’s right around the corner. But the particulars of the plot, in which the Brooklyn-based developer of new augmented reality glasses loses touch with the world around him, imbues the target of its critique with a sharp contemporary edge. It’s at once otherworldly and familiar — a futuristic satire that stings with immediate relevance.

4. “The Witch”

Billed as a “New England Folktale,” writer-director Robert Eggers’ accomplished feature-length debut manages a tricky balance: On the one hand an elegant period piece about the dissolution of a New England family circa 1630, it’s also a genuinely unsettling horror movie about possession. Almost exclusively set at a drab cabin and the ominous woods surrounding it, the movie’s minimalist approach doesn’t lack for authenticity, as Eggers relies on court records and other documents to script the dialogue along with costumes from the period in question. The effect is a haunting narrative of otherworldly forces made especially scary due to the realism surrounding them.

"The Lobster"

“The Lobster”

3. “The Lobster”

It doesn’t take much to synopsize the fundamental weirdness of “The Lobster,” Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ marvelously offbeat English-language debut: It’s a movie set in a world where being single is a crime and subordinates get transformed into animals of their choosing. Perhaps understanding as much, Lanthimos gets that high concept premise out of the way upfront, establishing the plight of leading man David (Colin Farrell, mustachioed and pot-bellied, submerged in a wonderfully unglamorous turn), one of the unlucky bachelors in question. David is a hapless anti-hero less interested in rebelling against the system than simply letting it toss him around — until he wanders elsewhere and discovers love in an unorthodox place. Per usual with Lanthimos, the boundaries of a restrictive society were meant to be broken, and “The Lobster” excels at exploring the catharsis of escaping expectations.

2. “Neon Bull”

Many filmmakers obsess over characters living on the margins of civilization, but Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro has the rare ability to burrow inside their experiences. In two narrative features and a handful of documentaries, Mascaro’s filmography blends an textured storytelling with anthropological investigation. The newest of them, “Neon Bull,” offers startling proof of this talent. Mascaro’s vibrant depiction of Brazilian cowhands delivers a detailed look at a nomadic universe that’s simultaneously flamboyant and gritty. While technically a fictional narrative, it provides a bridge to Mascaro’s nonfiction background by emphasizing the sights and sounds of a contained environment. Lyrically involving and deeply sensual, “Neon Bull” showcases a full-fledged artist in command of his form.

"Weiner"

“Weiner”

1. “Weiner”

The second downfall of Anthony Weiner, during his disastrous New York mayoral campaign, became a national joke for obvious reasons. But the public couldn’t see the sheer mayhem of the Weiner campaign as the politician faced one of the greatest public humiliations in recent history. “Weiner,” which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, pulls back that veil to reveal one of the great farces of modern campaign history (at least prior to the current presidential season). Co-directed by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, the movie captures Weiner and his beleaguered wife, Hilary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin, through a series of cringe-inducing circumstances as the media continually preys on the family’s hardships.

Weiner’s attempt at pressing ahead against impossible odds results in a spectacularly entertaining look at the pratfalls of modern celebrity and the hubris involved in chasing power in the political arena. On the one hand, “Weiner” is first-rate cinema verite, capturing its subject’s constant humiliation and absurd investment in his campaign against impossible odds with striking details, even as the mayhem surrounding his downfall indicts the media’s obsession over his scandal as well. At the same time, it’s a boisterous editorial cartoon about the inherent madness of a system rigged for self-destruction.

Anne Thompson, Editor at Large

5. “A War”

Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s Venice Fest entry “A War,” a tough hand-held Afghanistan movie (shot in Jordan and other locations) focuses on the stresses on the captain (“R” and “Borgen” star Pilou Asbæk, who’s co-starring in “Game of Thrones” and “Ghost in the Shell”) as well as his wife (Tuva Novotny) and family back home. Lindholm is a strong writer (Oscar nominee “The Hunt”) who does his research. When he read that a soldier returning from Afghanistan was more afraid of being court-martialed than of being killed, that inspired him to write and direct “A War.” The movie became Denmark’s Oscar submission over chief rival, Josh Oppenheimer doc “The Look of Silence,” and landed a nomination. It makes sense that Kathryn Bigelow would want to executive produce “A War,” as Lindholm’s cast of veteran soldiers anxiously pick their way across IED-infested Afghanistan terrain. She became a fan after seeing his taut high-seas thriller “A Hijacking.” Lindholm’s now collaborating with Paul Greengrass on period Berlin drama “The Tunnels.”

"Everybody Wants Some!!"

“Everybody Wants Some!!”

Paramount Pictures

4. “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Richard Linklater’s college comedy ”Everybody Wants Some!!” is hugely entertaining, shot with the familiar ”Dazed and Confused” aesthetic (and many of the same crew) and cast with young discoveries, including Wyatt Russell (son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) and Zoey Deutch, (daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howie Deutch). While high-school movie “Dazed and Confused” dealt with a gang of girls and guys dealing with confinement, Linklater’s college world feels exhilaratingly free— and gender-segregated, with boy and girl dorms, fraternities and sororities. Linklater admits that this decade-later follow-up is “a total young man testosterone movie.” Linklater cast his young ensemble with ex-athletes who remember how to swagger and play baseball as well as act. And college women expand young men’s horizons, as Jake (Blake Jenner) meets a dancer (Deutch) who starts to open him up in unforeseen ways. Linklater also samples a rich range of 1980 musical genres, before the corporate world took over the recording industry. Finally, Linklater mixes an intoxicating cocktail.

3. “Born to Be Blue”

Writer-director Robert Budreau’s low-key portrait of melancholy jazz junkie Chet Baker stars Ethan Hawke, who is finding his stride as a nuanced thespian in his 45-year-old prime. Sometimes maturity is an asset for an actor—experience brings emotional depth and gravitas. Hawke deserves the raves —and Oscar buzz—he’s earned as tragic trumpet maestro Baker—for which he learned how to play the trumpet (for the camera) and perform Baker’s signature crooning. This jazzy romantic biopic gives us a slice of Baker in mid-career, when he gives up heroin for a short period, and tries to make a comeback. Hawkes plays Baker as a charismatic seducer who loves his music more than anything, but needs help keeping his life together. “I’ve got some habits,” he tells the actress (strong counterfoil Carmen Ejogo) he meets in a never-completed black-and-white Baker biopic (in real life it was never shot), who helps him to get back on his feet by nursing his wounds, physical and emotional. She teaches him how to be both a better man —and lover.

2. “Dheepan”

At the start of Jacques Audiard’s Tamil emigre drama “Dheepan,” our title character (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is thrust together with two strangers, young woman Yalini (Klieaswari Srinivasan) and a nine-year-old orphan she has just collected at a Sri Lanka refugee camp (Claudine Vinasithamby) to form a makeshift, instant family unit. They are impersonating another dead trio, and take their passports in order to fly to Paris, where they are eventually settled as the caretakers of a rough gang-infested housing complex. All three are barely recovering from their battle scars and losses, while needing to survive in a foreign country with a language only the young schoolgirl learns quickly. Audiard, a gracefully instinctive director, uses meticulously researched detail (the rookie actors are natural and believable) to throw us into their daily lives as they each learn to adapt and build a family, cooking meals, crafting homemade tool belts and clothing, acquiring computers and phones, despite various setbacks. Inevitably, the ex-Tamil Tiger is drawn into a gang conflict that requires channeling his soldier chops. And just as crucially, women are a civilizing influence. We root for these three to grow together, with no guarantees that they will succeed. Critical reaction at Cannes was respectful, not enthusiastic. The Cannes jury agreed with me, awarding the IFC release the 2015 Palme d’Or.

"Maggie's Plan"

“Maggie’s Plan”

1. “Maggie’s Plan”

Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s festival hit “Maggie’s Plan” is a delicious relationship triangle comedy starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Miller (the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) has been a talent to watch since her 1995 debut, family drama “Angela,” through early digital experiment “Personal Velocity” and “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” starring her husband Daniel Day Lewis, to “Maggie’s Plan,” her most accessible and entertaining movie to date. Based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, this witty New York comedy of manners has been compared to Woody Allen. Gerwig stars as a 30-something academic who seeks to have a child on her own and arranges for a sperm donation from a handsome friend. But she winds up in love with a professor (Hawke) who is writing a book and raising two children, but not feeling supported by his careerist wife (Moore). Complications ensue as this well-matched cast carries off Miller’s amusing—and unpredictably twisted— plot.

David Ehrlich, Senior Film Critic

5. “The Lobster”

Yorgos Lanthimos, droll demi-god of contemporary Greek cinema, didn’t lose anything in translation when switching into English for this dystopian romantic fable about a world in which single people are doomed to become literally less than human. Colin Ferrell has never been better than he is as a lovelorn divorcee who’s desperate not to be turned into an animal for the rest of his lonely existence. The movie might falter with its jarringly different second half (time, and repeat viewings, will tell), but it already resonates as a unique take on the thrall of monogamy and the institution of marriage.

4. “A Bigger Splash”

Luca Guadagnino’s long-awaited followup to “I Am Love” is a total barnstormer from its opening shots, in which Tilda Swinton fulfills our fantasies of a Bowie biopic as she walks towards the stage of a packed concert arena. By the time Ralph Fiennes starts lip-synching to the Rolling Stones a few minutes later, there’s no doubt that we’re in for a sun-baked sex drama of a very different stripe. A romantic rhombus that melts into a bizarro Patricia Highsmith story, “A Bigger Splash” is a sensualist delight that cuts away at its characters until the whole movie feels like an exposed nerve. And give it up for Dakota Johnson’s turn as an overgrown Lolita, the artist formerly known as Anastasia proving once and for all that she’s capable of far more shades than any softcore studio movie is interested in exposing.

"Hail, Caesar!"

“Hail, Caesar!”

3. “Hail, Caesar!”

The Coen brothers knocked it out of the park by turning a satire of classic Hollywood into a beautiful and characteristically tilted examination of faith and the future (and faith in the future). Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year and a script that allowed the studio-skewering siblings to flirt with a handful of different genres, “Hail, Caesar!” was underserved by critics and under-seen by audiences, but time will be kind to it — this is the film that made Alden Ehrenreich a star, it’s the film that cemented Channing Tatum as the new Gene Kelly, and it’s the film that gave us “Would that it were so simple.” The “Dames” sequence alone is better than almost any other movie that’s been released in 2016.

2. “The Witch”

Would you like to live deliciously? Not only is Robert Eggers’ first feature easily the year’s most striking debut, it’s also one of the most brilliant and terrifying horror films… ever? Riffing on a simple premise — a family of devoutly religious early American settlers are banished from their township and forced to build a new home on the lip of a haunted forest — Eggers uses Kubrickian rigor to mine an all-time scary story from the annals of American folklore. The whole thing is an immaculate “fuck you” to the patriarchal spirit that has sucked this country dry for hundreds of years, but the last 15 minutes are truly transcendent. All hail Black Phillip.

"Sunset Song"

“Sunset Song”

1. “Sunset Song”

Terence Davies has been enamored by Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” for more than 30 years, and the legendary British director has been actively trying to adapt the novel for the screen for almost as long. The wait was worth it — this World War I-era story about a young Scottish woman coming into her own and surviving the tyranny of men vividly captures the bittersweet beauty of life on earth. Shot with a natural splendor that feels at once both romantic and unforgiving, “Sunset Song” sparks with the same sweep as “The Tree of Life,” defining Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) by her relationship to the land around her and the time she’s given to walk it. It’s a masterpiece, and Deyn — most famous as a fashion model — gives the best performance of the year, so far.

Kate Erbland, Film Editor

5. “Midnight Special”

Jeff Nichols’ trademarks and obsessions are all over this one, from the bond between fathers and sons to the alienation endemic in modern society, but that’s also wrapped up in what’s easily the filmmaker’s most ambitious outing yet. A sci-fi story distilled down its most human elements, the film features a stellar cast, including Nichols regular Michael Shannon and his “Loving” lead Joel Edgerton, alongside Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and newbie Jaeden Lieberher, all of whom deliver excellent performance. Moody and compelling and mysterious, the film also offers up a satisfying ending and some heart-stopping action.

4. “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Richard Linklater’s long-promised “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused” delivers on its promise, big time. While the story of a group of hard-partying college baseball players in low on plot, it’s massive on humor and charm. It’s essentially a feature-length version of the best weekend you ever had at college, bolstered by sweet eighties jams and even cooler period-appropriate clothes. Linklater’s sprawling cast runs the gamut from pretty boy to burnout and back again, but there’s no one here you wouldn’t want to actually hang out with, and that’s the best part about the film: You want to hang out with these dudes, forever. It’s nothing but a good time.

"Sing Street"

“Sing Street”

The Weinstein Company

3. “Sing Street”

John Carney’s latest musical is pure cinematic joy, the kind of dance-in-the-aisles, stand-up-and-shout movie experience that’s so infectious that you actually don’t have time to be embarrassed by all that standing and shouting and dancing you’re doing. And who would notice, anyway? They’re doing it too, after all. Carney’s Sundance premiere moves away from the slightly more dramatic stakes of his previous efforts, including “Once,” instead focusing on a rag-tag group of eighties-era school boys who decide to start a band when their leader hits upon the idea as a solid way to charm a pretty girl. Lots of important lessons about growing up (and the montages, oh, the montages) zing across the screen as the boys cycle through different styles of music and dress, and with the addition of catchy tunes and scads of charming performances (some by first-time actors), the film is both totally entertaining and endlessly compelling.

2. “Krisha”

A film festival success story of the highest order, Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budgeted, DIY, homespun family drama came seemingly out of nowhere and took SXSW by storm last year, snapping up both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award. Shults wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film (alongside most of his own family), an intimate (to the point of claustrophobia) story about a down home Thanksgiving gone seriously awry. But although its indie pedigree is inspiring and certainly helps write some catchy headlines, the most important thing about the film isn’t its budget or its background, it’s that it’s just damn good. Engaging and funny and strange and very, very honest, “Krisha” is a true rarity and one that deserves every eyeball it can get on it.

1. “The Lobster”

Yorgos Lanthimos’ specific brand of off-kilter humor and piercing behavioral comedy isn’t nearly as “weird” as the “Greek weird wave” label often slapped on his films makes him out to be, and while films like “Dogtooth” and “Alps” lean heavily on playing up the bizarre, they always manage to find deep truth amongst their more outsized elements. That’s certainly the case with his latest, festival darling “The Lobster,” which takes concepts like contemporary dating, romantic expectations and even hotel living and pushes them to their absurdist brink. But while the film’s concept – that everyone in the world has to have a mate, or else they’ll be forced to find one at a hotel pulled out of some “The Bachelor” producer’s wet dream and if they fail there, they’ll be turned into an actual live animal – is big and bold, the film itself is actually quite funny, honest and surprisingly romantic. As the film’s down-on-his-luck lead, Colin Farrell manages to find both humor and pathos in his role, and when he meets Rachel Weisz, “The Lobster” instantly transforms from biting satire into a wonderful romance with major heart.

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