Finding the best films of a given year is difficult, especially if you aspire to be a completist. There are simply too many movies to keep track of. The foreign market, VOD, documentaries, and independent films alone require a level of commitment reserved for the elite. Instead, trying to peg down a list of the best, here’s a look at 25 features that elevated 2016 into a year worth remembering for a wide variety of reasons. It was a difficult year in so many ways, but luckily the world of filmed entertainment stepped up to the plate.
In no particular order:
Manchester by the Sea
This is one of those films that will not only polarize audiences; it’s also one that will confuse some. Manchester by the Sea is the inverse of a Hallmark movie. The film looks at the same loss and grief that is inherent in so many tearjerkers but takes it from a realistic perspective. Instead of telling its audience how to feel, Kenneth Lonergan’s powerhouse digs deeper and lets Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams tear them up piece by piece. It’s a rich journey made up of odd angles pushed together and a film that is deeply rewarding and surprising.
Hell or High Water
This is such a special little movie. A great grumpy performance from the legendary Jeff Bridges is balanced perfectly with Chris Pine and Ben Foster's graceful work. It's a pint-sized No Country for Old Men with tons of charm and some really memorable moments. It's a small movie but one with big skills.
Green Room is a tight little number with a delightful mean streak. It's a little harder to watch in the wake of star Anton Yelchin's death. Director Jeremy Saulnier is a force to be reckoned with, and this aggressive effort brings out the best in his cast, including a delightfully dark Patrick Stewart.
A Monster Calls
A moving and imaginative story that hits a lot of telltale emotional beats, A Monster Calls is a minor classic. It features great character work from everyone involved, including Liam Neeson as the best woodland monster this side of Treebeard.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Considering that this film doesn't much care about structure or what studios want, it's a miracle it exists. Luckily Richard Linklater exists in a vacuum where he's able to make art despite the business and its crushing ways. Billed as a spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused, this film is funny, sexy, and enriching in a way all its own. The very best kind of empty calories and a who's who of the next wave of Hollywood talents.
The smartest science fiction film of the year is also a satisfying crowd-pleaser. Denis Villeneuve hasn't taken a bad step yet, which bodes well for his Blade Runner sequel. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are on point in this story about first contact, and Arrival's best skill is in veering towards the subtle and sublime whenever possible.
The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is a blast and as a silly crime romp, it's full of charm and magic. Shane Black's latest effort is so much more upon closer inspection. It not only showcases great comedic chemistry between Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling but also proves that genre doesn't have to be an anchor. This film just has fun and doesn't feel compelled to play within the expected bubbles.
Jessica Chastain is on fire in a role that should earn her an easy Oscar nomination. While Natalie Portman's role in Jackie was a surprising letdown, this is a role that would have been an instant favorite with Michael Douglas or George Clooney. As it stands, Miss Sloane is a great and brutal little movie that deserves a spot amongst Michael Clayton, Wall Street, and their ilk.
La La Land
This is a magical movie that makes musicals accessible while hailing so many of the telltales that made classical musicals great. The backlash against it is astonishing considering how approachable and light it is. It's a must see for fans and nonfans of the genre.
This is a difficult movie to recommend to everyone. It's long, weird, and has some rather wild tonal shifts. With that said, The Wailing is a gigantic achievement and a movie that earns its laughs and shocks legitimately and in interesting ways. Make the effort and go in as blind as possible – not because there are twists but because it's rare we get to see films that haven't been marketed to death to us.
Embrace of the Serpent
This film is a weird and haunting adventure filled with silence and strangeness. It's about the journey for a sacred plant told at two different moments in a shaman's life. But really, it's a lovely and odd journey into another world deep in the Amazon. It's haunting, funny, and beautiful to watch.
This is the kind of action junk food the world needs more of. Especially in a year with such disappointing Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne movies. The Accountant is not the smartest movie ever made, but it's really well-constructed and serves as the great origin story for a really interesting new character. It's a shame the film wasn't a bigger success.
Captain America: Civil War
This is how you do it, Marvel. As many feel the franchise is becoming too stale and formulaic, a film arrives in the series that expands the scope and ties it together in a tidy bow. Yes, there are no real good villain characters in the film. Yes, it's a Captain America movie that gives Iron Man just as much screen time. The bottom line is that it's a blast and brings the universe into focus. Plus, remember the old days where the villains were the most interesting characters in superhero movies?
It's just as flawed as any Godzilla film, and that's fine. Audiences who expect Godzilla movies to be traditional have already lost. Shin Godzilla makes up for the hour+ of military discussion with a title character who is weird and amazing and with new facets to its physicality that is a delight for fans. The same fans who understand that Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is a wonderful new direction for the character.
There are few weirder movies to get a substantial release than The Lobster, and it's a beautiful thing. Though the film is far from perfect, it delivers a world all its own. It totally commits to the idea. Colin Farrell showcases yet more facets to his skillset while Rachel Weisz delivers her normal great work in a movie so odd it just works.
The Jungle Book
No one asked for this. Like the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Jungle Book had no right being worth the effort put behind it. Luckily for audiences, it was that rare project that exceeded expectations in a huge way. Jon Favreau's movie was fun, thrilling, and beautiful to behold. Here's hoping it doesn't give Disney too many more crazy ideas.
Kubo and the Two Strings
While not a true classic in terms of story and structure, this is a delightful little movie. It's astonishing to look at and a true visual treat. In a year filled with phenomenal family entertainment, there are few as lovely as Kubo and the Two Strings.
10 Cloverfield Lane
High concept horror is all about tone. This film oozes tone and allows three very talented actors to really push themselves. While its origin and connection to the original Cloverfield is rather trite, it simply doesn't matter.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a must-see. It's hilarious, moving, and wholly charming. There's also nothing like it, a great movie for the whole family that isn't selling anything. It's just pure, unfiltered entertainment.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A pretty great Star Wars movie is something we should aspire to look for every year. Though flawed, this is a super time at the movies and, in many ways, a gift to fans of the franchise who have endured so much. There are some really sublime rewards here for the fans.
Scarier than any horror film in 2016, The 13th tells the true story of slavery's transformation into mass incarceration. It's scary for a wide array of reasons, not the least of which how primitive we still are when it comes to race. Loaded with sound bytes from voices that are still in the spotlight, the film showcases the double standards and decisions that kept many African-Americans from really having a chance. That a country as relatively small as the United States houses 25 percent of the world's "criminals" is lucidly explained in the film. This country is entering a new wave of divisive times, and The 13th should be required viewing for everyone of any color.
Ben Wheatley is a beast. He's going to direct a Star Wars movie someday. High Rise is a weird movie that marries a lot of ideas and employs a very distinct style that is a hard watch even for fans. It's an achievement that showcases the director cracking his knuckles for the next phase of his career. Tom Hiddleston is crazy good. Luke Evans is even better in a role that should catapult him higher on casting lists. A weird and difficult gem.
Imagine The Iron Giant with a fuzzy dragon instead of a robot and the mottled leathery face of Robert Redford instead of an animated Harry Connick, Jr. Actually, that doesn't sell the film very well. It's a warm, enriching movie that embodies the old school Disney ethos with a modern touch. See it.
Train to Busan
An efficient and intense movie that reminds us that while the zombie trend is half a decade past its expiration date, good ideas rule over all. Train to Busan is a crackling horror movie with swagger to spare.
Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man is weird, inventive, and fun. Knowing that a film like this can exist is the first step, but in seeing these actors give everything they've got to a concept this goofy is unmissable. The people that connect with this film will cherish it dearly, and those who find it offensive or random deserve the punishment for not being well-informed. The "Daniels" are directors to watch.