2016 will certainly go down as one of the more fascinating years for film. It was a year of alternating highs and lows.
As is typical, January was terrible, but there was noticeable uptick in quality come February.
And then it all crashed and burned when summer rolled around with so many highly anticipated blockbusters just failing to live up to expectations.
Luckily, it all came back together before the end of the year.
All things considered, this is quite a strong crop of movies listed here, even if most of them weren’t box-office hits.
In fact, as of this writing only one movie chosen for a spot on this list has grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office.
The 10 films I picked below are based on personal preference.
This is not the end-all-be-all of ‘End of the Year’ lists. What I like someone else may not like, or vice versa.
Film is a subjective medium and can be interpreted in many different ways.
These are movies I enjoyed because they affected me either emotionally, intellectually, or both.
Before I divulge my picks for the best movies of 2016, here are a list of some films that didn’t quite make the cut, but are just as deserving of your attention.
Honorable Mentions: The Edge of Seventeen, Green Room, Deadpool, Moana, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
10. Hell or High Water
Deciding what to put in this number 10 spot was difficult because most of the honorable mention were on this list at some point.
Ultimately, it was “Hell of High Water” that won out in the end. There are some movies that have trouble crafting a setting for a story, but not this one.
“Hell or High Water” takes place in Texas during the recession and it does an impeccable job at building a lived-in environment.
This a film with an absorbing atmosphere. Nothing feels glamorized.
From the music to the landscapes to the way the citizens talk and dress, everything looks and feels like Texas.
It also engrosses its audience into the recession setting.
There are so many dilapidated buildings and foreclosure signs that you feel the desperation of these two brothers (played superbly well by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who are trying to save their family’s ranch, which struck oil, from foreclosure.
The film doesn’t paint the brothers or the police tasked with taking them in as the good or bad guys.
We want to see our two main characters succeed because they just want to save their rightful land from a greedy economic system that has jeopardized the lives of so many people.
Brimming with atmosphere, authentic performances from the entire cast (there is a waitress who gives quite possibly the briefest yet funniest monologue of the year), and a relatable emotional core at its center, Hell or High Water is the best modern Western to come along in years.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
The fact that this film went from nobody aware of its existence two months prior to release to garnering so much critical acclaim is astounding, but warranted because it’s just so good.
Director Dan Tratchenberg takes what could have easily been a disposable cash-in on the “Cloverfield” name and creates an intense, economical character study that is always intense, even when the characters are doing something as simple as eating dinner at a table.
The performances from its main trio of actors are all phenomenal, particularly John Goodman who creates the movie villain of the year in Howard, a character who can go from being reasonable, but awkward to outright terrifying in seconds.
The real heart of the story, however, is the highly-underrated Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who imbues her character Michelle with the resourcefulness, resilience, and vulnerability to be one of the best female characters of the year.
While the final 15 minutes of the film were polarizing, none of that negates any of what came before. I’m so happy “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a hit because I’m excited to see where this franchise goes next.
8. The Nice Guys
How this one ended up underperforming at the box office will always baffle me.
This is one of the thoroughly entertaining and appealing films I saw last year. “The Nice Guys” reminded me of one of my favorite movies, the 2007 action-comedy “Hot Fuzz,” in that the more you watch it, the more you pick up on details you didn’t notice on initial viewing.
This is a movie that has so many jokes and layers in the story that even after three viewings, I still don’t think I’ve caught everything.
It’s nice to have a film that constantly rewards its audience for coming back. On top of that, the film is hilarious. Co-writer/director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Iron Man 3”) is such a masterful storyteller that he can subvert genre tropes in ways I didn’t expect.
It also helps that he has two great actors, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who have such terrific chemistry that I want to see more movies with those two.
I know a sequel is a long shot at this point, but I hope it comes together someday. It’s funny, violent, cynical, and all-around brilliant.
I cannot recommend “The Nice Guys” enough.
7. The Witch
When it came time to revisit my Top 10 films of this year, the one I was hesitant to watch again was “The Witch.”
Not because I was afraid it would diminish in quality on repeat viewing (it didn’t), but because it is not a pleasant film to watch.
A movie about an excommunicated Puritan family slowly turning against each other due to sinister forces and superstition with horrific results is not exactly a feel-good experience.
However, I believe the fact that the film took me out of my comfort zone proves how effective it was.
It’s deliberately paced, but this approach pays off because everything about the movie hooked me so well that by the time it reaches its climax, I felt the film had reached the point where it could have done anything and it would not have shattered my suspension of disbelief.
I walked out of the theater completely unnerved, which rarely ever happens to me.
This is writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut and he made one hell of a first impression.
He crafted an engrossing story on the fear of the unknown and the nature of evil. And it’s one that still haunts me even after seeing almost a full year ago. Especially that last shot.
6. Sing Street
One of the breakouts at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Sing Street” could have done better at the box office if not for the fact that its distributer, The Weinstein Company, totally botched its release.
Aside from that, there is no reason this film should’ve underperformed.
Its tone is so charming and infectious, it has an absolutely incredible soundtrack (“Drive It Like You Stole It,” “Up,” “To Find You,” and “Brown Shoes” are my favorites), and the characters are so endearing and relatable that you want to see them succeed.
It seems we live in a world that is determined to tear itself apart. “Sing Street” is about the strength in unity and when you are made to feel worthless or ostracized, the best way to fight back is create something can’t be destroyed.
Individuals and power are temporary. Art and ideas are eternal.
As long as we have those, the forces of oppression can never win. “Sing Street” is a rousing celebration of outsiders, misfits, and rebels.
If you’re feeling down, put this film on and it will lift you up.
I already did a review of the film a couple months ago, so I won’t say much about it.
I will say that “Arrival” has stuck with me more than any of the other movies on this list.
Not just because of its important and timely message on how language and communication are essential to resolving a conflict or understanding those we deem “the other,” but also because of its ending.
I didn’t touch upon it much in my review and I won’t go too far into detail due to massive spoilers, but “Arrival’s” ending masterfully re-contextualizes the entire film.
It’s even more enriching when you realize Amy Adams (giving quite possibly the best performance of her career) is being directed in two very different ways.
I won’t any further beyond saying when I was putting the pieces together at the end, my mouth was hanging open and I was on the edge of my seat.
“Arrival” is the smart science fiction we so desperately need right now and I’m so eager to pick it up and watch it again on home video.
At this point, it’s safe to say Disney Animation is in the midst of another renaissance period.
Though I’ve enjoyed all their recent entries (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6”) to varying degrees, “Zootopia” has to be their most ambitious, yet socio-political film to date.
In an era of American history where racial tensions are high and the need for diversity is stronger than ever, this was one of 2016’s most relevant films.
It may be targeted for children, but it has plenty of deep, politically-charged ideas to explore.
Set in a world comprised entirely of anthropomorphic animals, “Zootopia” tackles touchy subject matter like prejudice, misogyny, self-fulfilling prophecies, racism, and even politicians who systematically target minorities to achieve power.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t take these hot-button issues lightly and they are all handled with serious deft.
Even putting aside all the social and political subtext. It’s still a fun movie to watch.
As someone aspiring for a career in animation, “Zootopia” is masterful on a technical scale.
The amount of thought, effort, and detail that went into creating this world is so visually stunning and eye-popping that I would watch the film multiple times and catch things I didn’t notice on the previous viewing.
The entire team at Disney Animation should be applauded for delivering two beautifully-crafted films in the same year (the other being “Moana”).
On top of that, it has some of the best visual comedy I’ve seen all year. I dare you to watch the DMV scene without cracking a smile.
This is a film that works on so many levels. It’s a highly entertaining family picture and a plea to end bigotry that never feels fake.
It was one of the biggest releases in 2016 so if you still need convincing, know that there is an excellent “Breaking Bad” joke in the third act. That’s all.
Watching “Moonlight” reminded me of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”.
Both films tell the stories about following young boys from childhood to adulthood with only a few “big” moments punctuated throughout.
Unlike “Boyhood,” in which we see every year over the character’s 12 year journey, “Moonlight” is divided into three acts.
Each focusing on the protagonist Chiron during three different stages in his life: Child, teen, and adult.
All three acts are separated by a title card that doesn’t inform us how much time has passed in between each act, but rather Chiron’s own name or the nicknames ascribed to by bullies as a child, such as “Little” and “Black.”
Writer/director Barry Jenkins weaves through different stages in Chiron’s life without resorting to tedious exposition in subversive ways.
When a character (whose name I won’t spoil) disappears from the film after the first act, their absence is felt and Jenkins trusts his audience to put the pieces together themselves.
He is also able to get incredible performances out of his entire cast. There is not a single weak link among these actors.
Chiron and Kevin, a character who sporadically drops in and out of Chiron’s life, are each played by three different actors.
All their performances floored me because of how each actor imbues their respective character with idiosyncrasies that are carried over into the next act, but with all the wisdom and experience that comes with growing older.
Like some other films on this list, “Moonlight” is also about not shying away from emotion and embracing one’s true self.
Chiron is tormented for most of his youth by bullies who chase him down and hurl homophobic insults his way.
Society tells boys from an early age to bottle up all emotion that doesn’t resemble a stoic demeanor because it’s considered “weak” or “girly.”
Chiron and Kevin are pressured by toxic masculinity to either stay as hidden as possible or conform to social norms to survive.
Chiron’s struggle with his own masculinity is a universal one. One that has been shared by every male at some point in their lives.
It’s when we finally let our emotional barriers down and open up to someone that we see who we really are.
This is a unique and intimate tale of love, time, and coming of age that I hope more people make an effort to check out because stories like this are more essential than ever.
2. Swiss Army Man
Of all the films I’ve seen this year, this one is the most original of them all.
Kudos to the Daniels (the directing duo behind the “Turn Down For What” music video) for taking something as infantile as farting and turning it into beautiful metaphor for the things we keep to ourselves to avoid embarrassment.
It’s surprising to say that a story about a man who befriends a magical farting corpse is beautiful, but it’s true.
Aside from being hilarious, “Swiss Army Man” is poignant because it can find wonder and beauty in things we find off-putting, specifically farting.
We humans fear many things. We fear loneliness, death, rejection, and humiliation.
These things keep us expressing our emotions or taking actions because we fear what others will think of us. It’s a cruel way to live, and “Swiss Army Man” confronts this head-on, reckless abandon.
It’s a fearless picture further enhanced by two fearless actors, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, who throw everything they got into their performances.
They inhabit their roles so well that it’s hard to imagine any other actors filling these parts.
These two are such a joy to watch in a film already so enjoyably odd. I wrote an article months back on the most underrated films of the summer.
If I had seen it earlier, “Swiss Army Man” would have been at the top of that list.
Not only was it underrated in the summer of its release, it was the most underrated film of 2016.
This is one I’m eager to show to friends just so they too can experience something so unique and fresh. “Swiss Army Man” is so irresistibly strange that I look forward to seeing it again soon.
1. La La Land
Every once in a while, I see a film that reminds me why I love movies so much. This year, that film was “La La Land.”
With his follow-up to his 2014 film, “Whiplash,” co-writer/director Damien Chazelle proves himself to be one of the most exciting talents working behind the camera today.
On the surface, “La La Land” feels like its cashing in on the nostalgia of classic Hollywood musicals (it was shot on CinemaScope just like those films), but it has its eye on how to further evolve the genre.
It’s not a film stuck in the past where the filmmakers lament how the present isn’t like “the good old days.”
In fact, despite being about the excitement of chasing one’s dreams, and falling in love against the backdrop of a city where everybody wants their voice to be heard, “La La Land” strikes the perfect balance between joyous fantasy and harsh reality.
In real life, things don’t always work out the way we want them to.
In a perfect world, we would get everything we want all the time without having to make any difficult choices or sacrifices.
However, the film recognizes this romanticized version of reality keeps us from growing as individuals.
Whereas “Whiplash” has a dark and brutal perspective on what we sacrifice to reach greatness, “La La Land’s” is more bittersweet.
It’s an emotional journey, but luckily we have two great characters played by two great actors, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to follow.
Aside from just having terrific chemistry, Stone and Gosling bring such depth to their performances that I was fully enamored with their respective plights.
I wanted to see Stone’s Mia achieve her dream of being an actress as much as I wanted to see Gosling’s Sebastian succeed in opening his own jazz club.
I was with these two every step of the way. I loved how they complement each other and in the end, make each other better people than they were before.
Along with boasting an excellent soundtrack, “La La Land” is a technical achievement with humor, energy and has an endearing romance at the center of it all.
This is a film for anyone who is in love or has had their heart broken, to all those who struggle to make their dreams come true, and to those who want to be reminded of the power of cinema.