Well 2016 has come and gone very rapidly, and although it wasn’t the best year for major blockbusters aside from some Marvel and Disney releases, it was a great year for smaller and more modest, personal films. From smaller, more intense horror films that weren’t afraid to scare people out of their wits, or intense dramas that got at the core of how people experience grief, this was a very diverse year. Just as in years past, there were some that decried the “death of cinema” but as always those calls were antithetical to the wide slate of excellent films of all sizes and sorts that we got last year. I went through various levels of appreciation for this past year in cinema while it was happening, from high anticipation at its beginning, to worrying about the state of big-budget features at the height of the Summer, and finally a sense that last year was full of great films as long as one was willing to look for them.
So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2016, starting with some honorable mentions:
Captain America: Civil War
After the poor performance of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made me lose hope for the DC franchise only two movies in, I was hoping that Marvel would make up for it with a new step forward in their acclaimed cinematic universe. Luckily my prayers were answered. Captain America: Civil War was all that I asked for, bringing together not only Captain America and Iron Man in the best film with the two since the first Avengers movie. Not only did it accomplish that, but it managed to introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man with perfect execution and make me very excited for the future of the franchise. Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo was one of the better Marvel villains, and I will continue to ask for a Black Widow movie until it happens. And it was all delivered with worthwhile action sequences, and has made me very much ready for this year’s Spider-Man movie.
In a year with plenty of superhero movies, and plenty that crashed and burned, the one that could have had the most impact would have been Deadpool. It was an R-rated movie, a passion project for Ryan Reynolds, and a much-needed breath of fresh air that the superhero genre needed. It all worked and more, thanks to a deft combination of comedy, thrills, and just enough edge and intelligence to make it special. Although not every part of the story worked for me, it was an excellent step in the right direction, and it has made many, myself included, ready for more R-rated big-budget movies. Now with Logan and more coming out in the near future, I have high hopes for the future of both the Deadpool franchise and many others.
Garth Davis is a commercial director who made a big leap forward in 2016 with the release of his first feature film, Lion. Starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, the movie focused on Patel and Sunny Pawar as Saroo Brierley, a young Indian-Australian man who got lost in a train station as a child and used Google Earth to find his home in India. The film does an excellent job of maneuvering past much of the cliches of its genre, and leaves an uplifting mark on its audience. Davis establishes himself as a director to watch out for, and Patel and Kidman remind us of why they are some of the best actors of each of their generations. Lion is a heartwarming story about how the modern world connects us, while also making sure to keep its eye on the individual stories and humanity of its characters. However, the film is just a little awkward in the end for my taste, and doesn’t achieve the emotional heights that it aspires to.
In a year full of plenty of potential turning points in genres, including in the superhero and musical genre, Zootopia reminded us that cartoons can appeal to the whole family, especially by examining real-world themes like police brutality and violence. I was reminded of how good this film was just a week ago when a friend of mine told me about the particular subtleties of language that the film uses like the word “articulate” to describe its minority characters’ speaking. Not only could it not have come out at a better time for its message, but it does so while providing great voice performances by the likes of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, and J. K. Simmons, and a great screenplay to boot. The film has received praise and money in droves, and it’s all deserved for one of Disney’s most worthy animated offerings in years.
The Top 10
10) Hidden Figures
The story of Hidden Figures is one that has gone too long before being told in a way that can reach so many people as with film. The movie follows three African-American mathematicians Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, as they become some of NASA’s most important number-crunchers and engineers. The acting by all three is perfect, and Henson and Monáe are revelations as strong and energetic characters that always elevate the material when they appear. Spencer provides one of the best performances of her career, and very deserving of the praise she has received. Kevin Costner also delivers as Al Harrison, the leader of the Space Task Group in their mission to put a man into space and return him safely. The film also features great music by Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, and its unbridled energy and spirit is what allows the film to transcend lesser films like it. Hidden Figures makes it onto this list because of its timeliness, reminding the audience that nothing is impossible, and manages to be uplifting without being didactic or saccharine. It’s a film that will leave you with a smile on your face when you leave the theater and has a near-universal appeal.
Speaking of timely and necessary movies, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH surprised audiences with its secretive production and release back in September at the New York Film Festival. The film is a documentary that traces the history of race-based incarceration in the United States, and begins with an explanation of the mechanisms of slavery and its effect on the African-American population directly after the Civil War in the American South. Although you may think that you know where it’s going, 13TH always manages to have an emotional impact on the viewer and to provide them with plenty of information that they don’t know about how American prisons work today. Although it can’t be argued that the film is trying to be neutral on the issue, it behooves it that it is not, what it does do is leave the viewer floored when it’s finished. The film is surprisingly sprawling, covering decade after decade of American history, while always working with specifics to make its point. 13TH is an infuriating and empowering call-to-action and another excellent work from the brilliant mind of Ava DuVernay.
8) The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is a film that I saw earlier in the year, around June, that managed to stick with me throughout the year for its unique characters and humor. Directed and written by Shane Black, writer-director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, one of the best dark comedies of recent years, The Nice Guys finds Black back in top form in the buddy cop genre. However, this film, like his previous work, doesn’t necessarily revolve around the police, but rather two private investigators, played hilariously by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, both showing off some amazing comedic chops. In addition to them the film serves as a welcome introduction for newcomer Angourie Rice as Gosling’s daughter in the film. The movie centers on a complex story in 1970’s Los Angeles, including such disparate elements as the mob, the Justice Department, and the porn industry. Although the plot is needlessly convoluted, the film is both constantly delivering with gut-busting laughs and at times welcome moments of heart and emotion. An underseen film, The Nice Guys will almost certainly have a healthy afterlife on DVD, and will hopefully return with a much-deserved sequel.
7) Hell or High Water
Taylor Sheridan is quickly establishing himself as one of the film industry’s top screenwriting talents thanks to 2015’s Sicario, and with an upcoming directorial debut in Wind River. Hell or High Water is Sheridan’s most recent release, directed strangely enough by Scottish director David Mackenzie, and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham. The film follows Pine and Foster as Toby and Tanner Hamilton, two brothers who learn that their late mother took out a reverse mortgage on their family home, and need to get the money to get it back once oil is discovered on the property. What entails is an exhilarating cops-and-robbers story in which the Hamilton brothers engage in a series of bank robberies to take money from the same people they owe money to. Meanwhile they are hotly pursued by Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton, played by Bridges, and Albert Parker, played by Birmingham. The film allows Pine and Foster to explore roles of great depth and complexity as they have never done prior in their careers, while also giving Bridges the chance to shine as their lead pursuer. Not only does the film deliver as a great story, but also as a great examination of a lifestyle and an environment in the deep South and Southwest that is also vital to a year like 2016. Everyone here is on their A-game, and it shows in this top-shelf crime drama.
6) Sing Street
John Carney’s 2007 film Once found success on the big screen and on Broadway as an original film musical set in working-class Dublin, while his previous film Begin Again delivered similar magic with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in New York City. Carney returned to the big screen again in another underseen film in 2016, Sing Street. Like Once, Sing Street is set in working-class Dublin, this time in the 1980’s at a time of great economic and political upheaval, full of characters who just can’t wait for their chance to get out of Ireland, or whose chances for doing so have already passed. The film stars Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Cosmo, a boy whose family has fallen on hard times and that requires him to enroll in a state-funded school where he is beaten by both bullies and the headmaster. Cosmo befriends a boy named Darren, who wants to be a music producer, and when he becomes infatuated with Raphina, who lives across the street from his school, he makes up a band in order to impress her. From there the film evolves into three different, well-balanced styles: a classy musical paying homage to the boy bands of the 1980’s, a coming-of-age romance between Cosmo and Raphina, and a deep and thematic family melodrama showing Cosmo and his siblings’ attempts to deal with their crumbling family. Sing Street is full of charm, wit, and a warm heart, and is infinitely worth a watch or two thanks to its magic.
The most recent film I saw on this list, Martin Scorsese’s Silence was the director’s passion project for over 25 years. The film is based off of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, and follows two Portuguese priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who travel to Japan to find their lost teacher Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and to spread their faith across the world. While there, they encounter the deep intolerance of the Japanese government who is willing to use any means necessary to maintain a stranglehold on their people, and the deep resilience of the Japanese who are willing to fight for what they believe in. In addition to Garfield, Driver, and Neeson, the film also stars Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, their repentant guide, Tadanobu Asano as Rodrigues’ interpreter later in the film, and Issey Ogata as The Inquisitor, a deliciously-cruel villain on par with Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. The film is a moving examination of faith under fire, and transcends its setting and characters to make its impact on the audience. Although the film appears to be criminally underperfoming at the box office (it does come off as a hard sell), it is one of Scorsese’s best in recent years thanks to some of the best acting of all of its star players’ careers, as well as Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous and evocative cinematography. Silence is definitely worth seeking out and a worthy addition to Martin Scorsese’s body of work.
4) Manchester by the Sea
Although I’d never seen a Kenneth Lonergan film prior to seeing Manchester by the Sea, this movie premiered to great acclaim at Sundance in January 2016 and was quickly snatched up by Amazon Studios after its premiere. And for good reason. Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally-draining examination of guilt and inner torment that focuses on deeply-flawed and human characters who try to put their lives back together or keep them together in the face of tragedy. The film stars Casey Affleck in his best work to date as Lee Chandler, a janitor who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts when his brother Joe dies suddenly to comfort his nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, and to settle the matter of Joe’s funeral. When he becomes entrusted with looking after his nephew, Lee’s hope of finishing up the matter in short order are quashed and he is forced to reconcile his feelings of grief and guilt due to his past and his anxiety for the future. Lonergan’s film is devoid of pretensions or cliches, and what is left is a heart-wrenching and true work on how some things just can’t be gotten rid of in the human heart. Michelle Williams also stars as Chandler’s ex-wife Randi, blowing the audience away with limited screentime, and like all of the characters showing her deeply fractured soul. Although you shouldn’t go to Manchester by the Sea if you want to be uplifted, you should go to see an honest story about real human emotion.
3) La La Land
If I had this website prior to 2016, I am almost certain that Damien Chazelle’s third feature film, La La Land, would have topped a list of my most anticipated films of 2016. Well, not only did the film meet my expectations, but it has danced its way into my heart and the hearts of millions of people thanks to an expertly-crafted story about following your dreams and staying true to your convictions. La La Land centers on Mia and Sebastian, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, an actress and a jazz pianist who aspire to make their mark in the often heartbreaking and soul-crushing world of show business. At times a colorful love letter to the city of Los Angeles and at others a harrowing reminder of how draining the city’s constant upward drive can be for young artists, La La Land succeeds thanks to the charm of its two leads, as well as Chazelle’s solid direction and a wonderful score by Justin Hurwitz, with song lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The film is a worthy successor to the studio musicals of yesteryear, while also bringing a contemporary style and bite that makes it distinctly modern. At its lowest the film is carried by sheer charm and energy, and at its best La La Land will have you wanting to break out into song and dance in the aisles, bringing new meaning to “movie magic.” The film has two of the year’s best scenes in the Planetarium dance and the Epilogue sequence at the end. La La Land is deserving of the hype, as well as the considerable praise it has acquired from critics, audiences, and award presenters alike.
Denis Villeneuve has produced a streak of four great films the past few years: Prisoners in 2013, Enemy in 2014, the aforementioned Sicario in 2015, and now in 2016 he has delivered his best work to-date with Arrival. Based off of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” the film follows Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist whose considerable knowledge is called upon by the United States government when 12 extraterrestrial craft land in seemingly random places around the globe and she is tasked with understanding their mysterious language and finding out their purpose on Earth. Banks is set to work alongside Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, a theoretical physicist who is seeking to understand the aliens’ technology and also whether they mean the human race any harm. The film is not a war-of-the-worlds style alien invasion film like Independence Day, but rather a slow-burning story of connection between species and also between members of the human race. Constantly playing with our perception of time and memory, Arrival is perhaps one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory, and one of the most technically-perfect films of the year. The film has perfect cinematography by Bradford Young and editing by Joe Walker, but the biggest stars are Villeneuve as the director and Amy Adams who gives one of the best performances of her career. And that’s saying something. The film’s gradual build is worth the payoff, and Arrival will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
After premiering at Telluride in the Fall, Moonlight became one of the most talked-about films prior to its November 2016 release, and for good reason. Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film is one of the best films not only of 2016, but perhaps of the decade, thanks to an unrelenting focus on the influence of environment on a human being and the social construction and performative nature of human identity. Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young African-American man growing up in Miami, who struggles with finding his way in the world and discovering who he is as a Black man and a gay man. Chiron is played in three different time periods by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult. At no point in time do any of them seem like different people, allowing the arc of Chiron’s story to make a meaningful impact that left me breathless when I left the theater. Chiron grows up opposite Kevin, a boyhood friend and possible love interest, played by Jaden Piner as a kid, Jharrel Jerome as a teenager, and Andre Holland as an adult. The film also has three stellar performances by Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris as adults trying to guide or mislead Chiron at some point in his life. The reason that the film is so near perfection is not just thanks to the acting from each part of the ensemble, but also thanks to an incisive screenplay by Jenkins, excellent cinematography, editing, and music, and the fact that not a second of screentime is wasted in any way, shape, or form. Moonlight is a beautiful film, and one deserving of the title of “masterpiece.”