The multiplex may be bogged down with sequels and reboots, but that doesn't mean there's nothing worthwhile in theaters. Any number of great movies have already been released in 2016, and with the end of June upon us, we took it upon ourselves to choose our favorites of the year so far. With a caveat: L.A. Weekly film critic April Wolfe got to choose her favorite, then film copy editor/freelance writer Michael Nordine would pick his, NBA-draft style.
April's #1 pick: The Invitation
Karyn Kusama's ensemble cult film The Invitation made me so uncomfortable, I kept turning to my partner to say, “Oh God, what's going to happen?” With a big cast in a small space, it's no small feat to make every shot feel perfectly composed or to prolong tension for so long in lieu of any actual violence, especially for a “horror” film. But the payoff is big, and it'll make you rethink all those shitty L.A. parties you stayed at and wish you'd left.
Michael's #1 pick: The Lobster
Everyone involved in the Greek Weird Wave seems to deny that the Greek Weird Wave actually exists, but whether the rise of filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari constitutes a proper movement or not is secondary to the quality of their work. All due respect to Dogtooth and Attenberg, but The Lobster may be its high-water mark. Its premise — all singletons are sent to the Hotel, where they have 45 days to fall in love or else they get turned into an animal of their choosing — is irresistibly strange, but it's the genuinely moving bond that forms between Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz's starfish-crossed lovers that leaves the most lasting impression in Lanthimos' pitch-black comedy.
April's #2 pick: Tickled
OK, fair enough: You get The Lobster, but I'll be waiting to swoop it up after it ruptures an Achilles' tendon in the next draft. With The Lobster gone, my No. 2 was a bit of a surprise for even me. I wasn't going to pick it, because I'm rarely impressed by documentaries (or anything), but when I realized it was THE movie I was telling strangers about, I knew David Farrier's Tickled was going to be on the list. Farrier uncovers a global conspiracy enacted by a man from one of America's most powerful families — and it's all about tickling. More broadly, the doc tackles internet bullying, doxxing and the overarching power we've granted to the wealthy in the United States. Well researched and without pretension, this is one of the best doc thrillers since The Imposter but with the grassroots, can-do feeling of a Kickstarter project.
Michael's #2 pick: Knight of Cups
Tickled is certainly the most “stranger than fiction” documentary I've seen all year, but I have to defer to my main man Malick for No. 2: Knight of Cups. Ol' Terry is very much in IDGAF mode at this phase of his career, which suits me just fine — no one has earned the right to do whatever they want as he has. It also helps that Terrence Malick making a vaguely Bret Easton Ellis–esque L.A. movie is a dream come true for me, Fabio cameo included. We'll probably never see anything on the scale of The Tree of Life again — other than its spinoff IMAX documentary supposedly coming later this year, that is — but Malick is versatile enough that what he's making movies about matters far less than the fact that he's still making them at all.
April's #3 pick: The Fits
After interviewing Teresa Palmer a few years back right after she filmed Knight of Cups — she got a phone call from Malick and then a cryptic note with her character's name and a place to show up the next day, WITH NO SCRIPT — I was very intrigued. While I love the free-flowingness of that film, I'm going with a tight, spare beauty in the form of Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, starring an impressive newcomer, the young Royalty Hightower, as a girl who gravitates from her brother's boxing training to the all-girls dance team amid some almost otherworldly phenomena, where the girls succumb one by one to some strange fits, almost like a subdued The Crucible. Set in Cincinnati's predominantly African-American West End neighborhood, with an off-kilter sound design in the form of atonal woodwinds, the story's filtered through the eyes of a girl who can't ever seem to fit in — and oh my God, I just finally got the other meaning of the film's title.
Michael's #3 pick: Kaili Blues
Oh, The Fits — the first 30 minutes of that one are a knockout. My third pick is also a debut film marked by unexplained happenings, though the similarities more or less end there. Bi Gan's Kaili Blues is my kind of dreamy political reverie, with an uninterrupted 40-minute shot, long-dead characters attending street concerts and an arresting performance by Guo Yue. Ostensibly about a man sent on a quixotic mission to deliver a few keepsakes to his business partner's former lover while also looking for his missing nephew, it's really a meditation on memory (both personal and political). It's difficult to move on from the past when its ghosts are right there in front of you.
April's #4 pick: High-Rise
Did you mean to make a boxing pun? Because you did. My No. 4 is going to swing in a completely different direction and will likely get a few people wondering if I've lost my mind. But Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump's High-Rise unexpectedly swirled my brain with an orchestration of sound and vision in their adaptation of the J.G. Ballard classic, about a class war that erupts in an apartment building when the power goes out. It's a loose narrative, to be sure, but the details in production design, the inspired performances and some dark, dry dialogue made this one a memorable kaleidoscope of off-kilter fun — even though people get murdered and eaten on the regular. The narrative backflips from tension to release and vice versa multiple times, but the gang of wealthy, elite thugs may be my favorite part; they treat a trip to the grocery store as if it were a trip to the moon.
Michael's #4 pick: The Witch
No pun intended, actually, so let's call it a happy coincidence. We're so friendly after these first four rounds — I figured we'd be fighting over some of these. This next one won't change that, as I know you weren't quite compelled by its power: The Witch. How anyone doesn't instantly give themselves over to a film in which two creepy-as-hell kids sing and dance around a menacing goat named Black Phillip is, I suppose, one of those mysteries of the universe. (Or maybe I'm just an easy date when it comes to animals in supporting roles.) I'm also all about any horror movie that shows little and tells even less — there's almost never anything more frightening than what we come up with all on our own. Except in this case, that is. So yes, Black Phillip, I would like to live deliciously.
April's #5 pick: Chevalier
I can't deny the power of a Black Phillip; I just wish the rest had lived up to the goat's memorable essence, but that's another (long) conversation. My No. 1 was a toss-up. Could it be the inventive blockbuster Deadpool, the fantastical Tale of Tales, the creepy The Ones Below? I narrowed it down to Todd Solondz's signature deadpan-hilarious Wiener-Dog and Athina Rachel Tsangari's quietly complex comedy Chevalier for their individual dark humor. And I'm gonna go with … Chevalier. I can't get out of my head the images of a middle-aged Greek Richard Branson with a ponytail buzzing around on a Jet Ski and waking up his vacation buddies with a mad erection to prove he's still virile. Tsangari's portrait of a bunch of rich men competing over who can be “the best, in general” showcases male vanity in a way we rarely see in film. It is the best, in general.
Michael's #5 pick: Valley of Love
The bench is pretty strong this year, and I've been mulling several prospects to take the last spot — I liked The Neon Demon more than it probably deserves, and I'm team Tale of Tales as well — but I have to go with my heart on Valley of Love. I'll admit that my affinity for Guillaume Nicloux's slow-burning drama has a lot to do with the way it co-opts a piece of music from Hans Zimmer's The Thin Red Line score and a stellar last scene, but the atmosphere really is immersive throughout. Speaking of alluring premises that actually get delivered on, this one is great as well: Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play grieving parents who travel to Death Valley in order to reunite with their dead son at the exact time and date he said, in his suicide note, that he'd appear to them. Valley of Love is just as melancholy as that description makes it sound — and occasionally transcendent, too.