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My favorite time of year is upon us: where I challenge myself to name the best films of the year for no particular reason other than my own enjoyment. As I iterated in my top 10 2016 documentaries article, the year in film has been astoundingly great if you looked in the right places. Independent features took all the glory. If all you participated in was viewing blockbusters, then yes, 2016 didn’t work out for you and your hard-earned, theatergoing money. I made a concerted effort to catch as many movies released this year as possible, which I acknowledge is definitely a privilege, so check out what I feel are the top 10 2016 films and educate yourself on any gaps you might have! You certainly won’t regret it.
I have too many honorable mentions to thoroughly explain why each one earned its place. In the enormous blockbuster category, I really loved Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for what they individually brought to the table. In foreign films, the complex and erotic The Handmaiden and thought-out, eeriness of The Wailing exceeded any expectations. Although there were many great horror flicks to choose from this year, Green Room, The Eyes of My Mother, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Invitation stand out above the rest, thanks to their psychological elements, originality, and brilliant execution. The land of Britain gave us gems like Eye in the Sky and High-Rise; both very different but excellent pictures. In the world of non-stop comedy, The Nice Guys inspired continuous, gut-busting laughter to accompany its fresh story and spectacular characters.
In animation, Kubo & the Two Strings steals all of my attention with its practical stop-motion animation and moving, mature story. Nocturnal Animals enthralled and compelled, with the stellar performances and storytelling techniques as primary contributing factors. Smaller but unique films that stick out are the emotionally and philosophically deep Captain Fantastic, the one-of-a-kind quirky nature comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the very real, very funny Don’t Think Twice. As far as underrated (or rather overly hated) mentions go, Triple 9 earns a spot here for its intensely choreographed raid and foot chase scenes, along with its outstanding cast. With the pre-show out of the way, let’s segue to the main event: my top 10 2016 films!
10. Southside With You
On its surface, Southside With You seemed destined for failure. We’re already at the point in this generation where biographical pictures about the Obamas could become commonplace. However, this tiny flick totally and surprisingly works, justifying its top 10 2016 films position. Instead of focusing on accurate mannerisms and vocalizations of their real-life counterparts, Parker Sawyers as Barack and Tika Sumpter as Michelle concentrate on the material at hand, which is magnetically written. Southside occurs over the span of one day and night; more specifically, Barack and Michelle’s first date, which Michelle was adamant was not a date throughout the movie. Seeing their relationship blossom through conversations about their upbringing, the racial climate, their musical choices, and more was as riveting as any romance movie I’d seen in recent memory. It’s a picture I can imagine anyone enjoying regardless of where you land on the political spectrum.
Goodness, Jackie is a gorgeous movie. Director Pablo Lorrain stages practically every historical moment as if it were a painting come to life. Not only that, the grainy filter placed over the entirety of the picture makes it appear as if it were made in the ’60s. This makes the experience far more fluid and less jarring when they show you a moment plucked from the history books, like John F. Kennedy’s assassination or Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President on Air Force One. Natalie Portman as the titular, non-fictional character is a force in the film, justified by one specific scene where she uncontrollably weeps while wiping her husband’s fresh blood off of her face, which director Lorrain boldly doesn’t cut away from once in its duration. More than the acting and directing, Jackie is a unique study on how a wife and mother can grieve over the death of her husband when everyone around her cares more about the Presidency and the Kennedy legacy. It’s stunning to behold.
8. Midnight Special
My next selection in my top 10 2016 films list is the first of two very original, very intelligent sci-fi flicks. The first, Midnight Special, comes from writer/director Jeff Nichols, which was his first full-length feature of the year (his second, Loving, was a bit too slow-paced for my liking). Special tells the story of a young boy with unique, inexplicable abilities that many people are after for various reasons. Michael Shannon plays the boy’s father, and he and his friend Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, fixate on keeping the boy away from dangerous entities. In this picture, there are many pulse-pounding yet quiet moments like a car chase sequence that somehow occurs in deadlocked traffic (which makes sense when you see it). Then the movie ends on such an ambiguous, yet satisfying note that made me shout “yes!” when the end credits finally rolled. From end to end, Midnight Special is exceedingly…well…special.
7. Sing Street
Sing Street landing at #7 is definitely a deeply personal choice for me. There are scenes in this flick that feel directly plucked from my youth as an aspiring singer-songwriting musician. Director John Carney (who also helmed one of my all-time favorite, non-conventional musicals, Once) returns to form in a big way with some of the most catchy original tunes you’ll hear all year. Stylistically, I very much loved existing in this ’80s Irish world. These characters experience authentic adolescent moments that will resonate with everyone. Then when there’s a dream sequence musical number, none of it feels out of place since it’s such a relatable daydream I myself went through on a regular basis at that age. Plus, seeing Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) dance around in such a dorky fashion is always joy-inducing, as is the whole film. Even though it’s on the lower area of my top 10 2016 films list, I definitely encourage everyone to catch this gem on Netflix, as this is one that can be more universally appreciated.
6. Hell or High Water
The top 10 2016 films list continues with Hell or High Water, which is simply the best written film of 2016. Writer Taylor Sheridan (who also scribed 2015’s phenomenal Sicario) is back with a more modern western story that shines with its dialogue and well-defined, logical characters. This is also the most airtight plot to exist this year, as by the time the credits roll, I struggle to think of any plot holes the film left for us. Ben Foster‘s eccentricity lights the screen on fire, and Jeff Bridges is the most vulnerable and hilarious he’s ever been for me. If there’s a particular genre that ends up enthralling me the most, it’s the heist genre. Like Triple 9, this picture succeeds in that space on every level and then some.
After letting Moonlight marinate on the brain for a month or so, I still believe this is an immaculately crafted picture from director Barry Jenkins. Any other year, this would be #1 on my top 10 list, and for many professional critics, it is their #1 for 2016 regardless. Mahershala Ali gives such a nuanced, raw performance in the first third of this film, completely penetrating any potential rough exterior you have going into the movie in the process. The story of Chiron through three crucial ages in his life is also relatable on any level, even if you’re not the same gender, sexual orientation, or race. Moonlight is what you look for out of a film: a work of art that transcends its subject matter and succeeds at identifying with any audience. This film receiving so much award attention should shock nobody.
As I stated earlier, I’m a sucker for cerebral sci-fi flicks, and director Denis Villeneuve hands over one of the decade’s best in Arrival, starring Amy Adams. Adams’ year couldn’t get any better with such riveting performances from this film and Nocturnal Animals. She’s on an unstoppable roll. Similar to Moonlight, Arrival thrives as an emotionally connective piece. My review for this feature sums up its importance in relation to how, when, and why open communication is a necessity. Message aside, the movie is a pleasure to witness cinematically and elicits many feelings through Johann Johannsson‘s gorgeous, unnerving score. Not only is Arrival a top 10 2016 films selection you should see once, but several times. Fortunately, it’s not the only picture on this list to demand such attention.
3. Manchester by the Sea
An acting showcase can be difficult to pull off without a succinct vision. Fences is an example of a movie that revolved around its phenomenal performances, but there wasn’t much noteworthiness in its directing (sorry, Denzel; I’m still a giant fan so please don’t hurt me). Manchester by the Sea, however, combines both exquisite, compelling visuals and stellar acting along with its seamless, non-linear storytelling to make one of the most affecting dramas of the 2000s. Sure, there’s a gut-punch of a character moment that might define the film’s existence entirely for some moviegoers, but to me, the movie is far more than one critical reveal. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams deliver such heart-breaking, sensitive, and occasionally romantic or humorous performances. The hype is completely real for this movie and Affleck’s award chances. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan might go home from the Oscars empty-handed this year, but the impression has been sufficiently made.
2. The Revenant
You can count The Revenant as a 2015 movie all you want. It didn’t come to theaters as a wide release until early January 2016 for me, so this placement is fully justified. You can gather a lot about why it’s one of the top 10 2016 films from its trailers. The visceral, stunning visuals and the brutal performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy drive the end results. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu continues a hot streak of challenging the limits of cinematic storytelling. By putting us in the thick of it all, we experience Hugh Glass’s struggle as first-hand as possible, and it’s both unpleasant and beautiful. The Revenant is a cinematic achievement in every sense that will occupy a spot as a personal all-time favorite for many years to come. Will I revisit this film often? That’s not likely considering its realistic violence. There’s no denying its long-lasting impact though, especially after having seen this over 11 months ago.
1. La La Land
My #1 selection in my top 10 2016 films should surprise zero people that have read my writings before. Writer/director Damien Chazelle is fast becoming a favorite creator after seeing his third contribution to cinema, La La Land, twice. From its Easter egg tributes to classic films to its very, very infectious original soundtrack from Justin Hurwitz, La La Land is an absolute treasure to watch from start to finish. I wish anyone luck getting these jazzy tunes out of their head for weeks after seeing it. What makes the movie an instant classic, besides its uniqueness and personality, is how further disarming and inspiring repeat viewings become. The first time I saw it, I noticed the movie’s two-hour-plus run time, but the second time, the movie came across more flawlessly paced. You feel Chazelle’s passion for this picture behind every single frame. I’ve talked at length about this movie in my review already, so please just do yourself a favor, even if you’re not a “musical person”, and catch this movie before it sweeps at all the upcoming award shows. I can’t say I’m a musical fan myself, but I fell in love with La La Land.
As you can tell from all of my honorable mentions, there was no way to cut down my choices. I feel very close to each movie I mentioned, and I think these films themselves deserve their respective spots. Anyone disappointed by what Hollywood brought us this year was living and dying by the blockbusters alone. I know it’s a bummer that Independence Day Resurgence or Zoolander 2 was irredeemably stupid, but look beyond those types of flicks and you’ll hit the gold mine that was 2016. And it only gets exponentially better in 2017!