Looking at my 2016 discoveries, I can divide them into two groups, with the exception of one film...
And that was Stagecoach (1939). I'm not all that familiar with John Ford, having only seen The Searchers which I especially appreciate for its scale and surprisingly nuanced performance from John Wayne, but where The Searchers is "epic", Stagecoach is quick, lean, mean, straight to the point. Simple premise, characters that you've seen before, but (in what almost sounds Hitchcockian), you stick them all together, introduce some obstacles and the result is something that's surprisingly thrilling for what I've seen from its era of cinema.
The rest of my discoveries were first, films that I wanted to see from directors I greatly admire. And second, in an effort to try to watch films that were just plain fun, unique and offbeat, I found myself adding to my Netflix queue what was much more escapist genre fare.
Martin Scorsese- The Aviator (2004) is an epic made with all the gusto you'd expect and an insanely towering/commanding performance from DiCaprio. Cape Fear (1991) was also unexpected in that Scorsese tried to make it perhaps feel like an "older film" with jarring cuts and angles, a Saul Bass intro, and Bernard Hermann/Elmer Bernstein's classical score... the actors give it their all with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte's frantic cat and mouse dynamic (or instead of a cat, a rabid dog) being much more interesting then I expected the pairing of those actors to be.
Quentin Tarantino- I was worried about Kill Bill (2003-2004)'s combined length, but even with a day long break between the two volumes, it really holds up as a five hour Tarantino flick. Each scene and moment full of his unique perspective and energy and where Jackie Brown ends with a quiet reflection and The Hateful Eight ends in a moment of intensity... Vol. 2 ends somewhere in between with a tense showdown juxtaposed by the deep and meanginful connection Bill and the Bride have. The last scene with Thurman and Carradine ranks as one of QT's best. Also some of the best action sequences of any Tarantino project.
Paul Thomas Anderson- Punch-Drunk Love (2002) feels like an outlier in the best way possible to PTA's work. Sandwiched between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood (2007), it's shorter, sweeter, but still with that focused character work found in any of his scripts that brings out the best in any actor and in this case, Adam Sandler is perfectly cast. Next, I was worried There Will Be Blood would feel like a titan of a film to get through. But like everything Anderson does, it's just as intimate and because of its style and setting, Anderson's more careful approach still feels just as strong and suitable. Day-Lewis makes a three hour film feel like it went by all too quickly.
Adam McKay- My favorite absurdist filmmaker whose comedy I put on a pedestal alongside Judd Apatow and dare I say Mel Brooks, but with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), McKay skewers America just like he did with Anchorman and The Big Short. He gets the best from Will Ferrell, whose characters may seem too similar, but when he works with McKay you can see his understanding of which 'type' of film McKay wants and Ferrell adapts to that.
Nicolas Winding Refn- A lot of these films are full of intensity, but Bronson (2008) takes the crown in that regard. It's a raging movie. It starts and doesn't stop. Refn, being far from conventional, uses Charlie Bronson on a stage as his framing device and it makes both him and Hardy seem like these master manipulators who are directly asking us to revel in and experience the chaos.
Richard Linklater- Dazed and Confused (1993)... Maybe the greatest coming of age film I've seen. And it's just about people freaking walking around on the last day of school and the night that follows. Funny and random, but never a dull moment with every piece of this ensemble bringing life to characters everyone knows, but no one can find in the same place unless you're at... well a school. Waking Life (2001) is challenging, and I don't tend to want to just laud a film for there being nothing like it, but there is nothing like this. I didn't get a lot of it. I just listened to it and I let my attention wander because I think it was almost supposed to. Like a dream, I find myself sort of zoning in and out as characters rattle on, but when it ended, I felt like I still had an experience. Bernie (2011) is more straightforward, but like the other two films, I'd hate to call this tradititional. It has a biting wit to it and such fun and perplexing performances from everyone. The use of unknown, or maybe even non-actors, lends such a great flavor to it.
Steven Spielberg- I expected The Color Purple (1985) to be 'middle-of-the-road-Spielberg'. Maybe it's because attention and emphasis is placed on the race and background of the cast and crew that make movies, but Spielberg gets Alice Walker's story because of its undeniable humanity. Coming off of Indy and ET, I also feel he energizes this piece appropriately. He knows when to have his camera whipping around and when to let the acting and writing speak instead. I think it's fair to say this is where you see the start of the Spielberg that we came to see in Schindler's List, Amistad or Saving Private Ryan. Whoopi Goldberg's performance is also a revelation. You feel everything she is going through. You want to stay with her and when the movie ends, you miss her character.
Werner Herzog- The filmmaker that I came to know the most this year. Grizzly Man (2005), Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and Into the Inferno (2016) showcased his stunning relationship with nature and how little we can comprehend our lack of control over it (ranging from animals to fire to ice). The photography in these pieces are remarkable, you see images that you can never see anywhere else and that a still shot that isn't part of a sequence of music cues and edits couldn't possibly convey. But I found Into the Abyss (2011) to be his most stunning work. What I do love about Grizzly, Encounters and Inferno are the moments where Herzog interviews people. The characters he finds... but with Abyss those normally humorous and amusing (although Grizzly Man has some foreboding elements) interviews now have a tragedy and somberness to them. The film challenged my own thoughts and opinions about capital punishment and watching these people in this film, seeing the reality and truth in their eyes- it's a damn good arguement to present to someone who isn't sure how to feel about the issue. And yet Herzog still allows room for us to get to that place of thought on our own.
Steven Soderbergh- His work always moved between commercial and arthouse, but Erin Brockovich (2000) may seem like a kitschy 'checks-all-the-boxes' sort of story, but only if you come to the film with that agenda. I'd be the first to admit it doesn't deserve the high honors it received at many awards ceremonies, but it's such a well constructed film. Susannah Grant's script, especially its dialogue, shows us these characters in such a plain and endearing way and can move from comedy to tragedy with ease. And talk about unexpected chemistry, but I never thought Julia Roberts and Albert Finney would be one of my favorite pairings. The back-and-forth they have just keeps the film zipping along. Soderbergh's skilled hand guides us, but he knows enough to let the story, which is compelling in its own right, be the star.
The Coen Bros.- Barton Fink (1991) and O' Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) both leave me at a loss. It's not that I don't want to sit and talk about every aspect of the movies, but a Coen Bros. film just engrosses you to the point where you've lived in their world(s) enough that any observation or statement is better off just being experienced by watching the film. Fink feels as epic as No Country or True Grit, but that could just be because the the visual of John Goodman running down a hotel corridor engulfed in flames should be one of the more defining images of all time. And O' Brother is just so much fun. No one plays self-righteous better than Clooney.
Clint Eastwood- With Unforgiven (1992) being about ten years before the Academy Awards would develop a love affair with his films, it's funny to think of it as almost a "cap" on Eastwood's career. I almost want it to be the last thing he makes because the behind-the-scenes poetry of that would match the poetry found in the film. Then again, that doesn't matter. It's a great film on its own merits. You don't even need to think of this as a revisionist western and be familiar with the trappings of that genre. It's about men when they come to face their potential ends and obsessions. Eastwood's patience and Hackman's persistence make the film feel less than its running time (which I realize isn't long, just saying how involving they can be in their performances).
Spike Lee- Similar to what I said about Spielberg and Purple, I figured He Got Game (1998) would be 'middle-of-the-road-Spike'. But he takes this story (which he also wrote) and imbues it with a unique point of view and style and emotion that you just buy into it. Such an earnest film and for how stylized it is, it never feels like it isn't authentic or trying to lead us on. Aaron Copeland's compositions are reminiscent of Lee's work with Terrence Blanchard in what I guess I'd call scoring against the grain. The music is never what I'd expect and never plays when I expect it to. Also, RAY ALLEN CAN ACT?!?!?!?! The guy is holding his own with Denzel Washington! That long take with him and Rosario Dawson on the bench in the green light (if I remember correctly) was brilliant.
It's late and I'm tired and I'll check back tomorrow for Part 2 and to check for spelling/grammer. I look forward to reading what everyone else posts whether its links, lists or pictures. This is one of my favorite yearly threads as well.