The annual ritual of narrowing down hundreds of titles to a definitive “Top 10” Movies of 2016 is a cruel but necessary discipline as a film critic. Over the past 12 months, I’ve seen more than 100 new releases. That’s over eight days spent watching new movies, and I’m happy to report that 2016 has been a great year for cinema, despite reports that “film is dead.”
This year, we saw new work by visionary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Denis Villeneuve, Park Chan-wook, J.A. Bayona, and Joel and Ethan Coen. We witnessed noteworthy performances by Casey Affleck, Viola Davis, Natalie Portman, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone. And we were entertained by emotionally engaging, visually impressive blockbusters like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Captain America: Civil War, and Doctor Strange.
Below are my 10 favorite films of 2016, accompanied by a list of 20 honorable mentions, making for a list of 30 must-see movies that kept my cynicism and negativity buried beneath hope and joy. I hope these films will move, inspire, and reinvigorate you in the same way!
1. La La Land
Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash was one of my favorite movies of 2014. His latest film, the contemporary musical La La Land, exceeds any expectations I may have had after his impressive debut. Set in Los Angeles, La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an aspiring actress and struggling musician, respectively, who fall in and out of love.
A genuinely romantic comedy filled with eye-popping musical numbers and moments of pure movie magic, La La Land is an effervescent, bittersweet, and joyous movie-going experience. Gosling and Stone have undeniable chemistry and the virtuosic Chazelle is in total command of his craft, delivering an all-timer that revives the movie musical and makes it feel vital again. From the opening number set on a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway, to its unforgettable finale, La La Land is a triumph of the heart. It’s why we go to the movies.
2. Sing Street
Written and directed by John Carney (Once, Begin Again), Sing Street is about the power of music, transporting us from the troubles of everyday life and transforming us into something greater. Set in ’80s Dublin, Ireland, the film follows 14-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he tries to find his place in the world. After meeting the mysterious and über-cool Raphina (Lucy Boynton), Conor sets out to win her heart by forming a band and inviting the aspiring model to star in a music video.
A big-hearted love letter to ’80s music, Sing Street is a touching coming-of-age story with great performances and fantastic original songs inspired by bands like The Cure, Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, and The Jam. Carney’s film is like Brooklyn meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a poignant but poppy tune that is equal parts blissful and cathartic. A celebration of youth, music, and love, Sing Street is an infectious and endearing film – my heart swells just thinking about the “Drive It Like You Stole It” sequence.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), Arrival begins with the appearance of extraterrestrial spacecraft that touch down across the planet. Amy Adams stars as a linguist recruited by the military to make contact with the aliens and determine their intent. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer has a lot of layers, dealing with our relationship with death and nature, our understanding of time, and an appreciation for the mystery that is life. It’s a soul-stirring film that balances dread and optimism, providing a cathartic experience that is both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Arrival is one of the smartest, most affecting films of the year, and we desperately need more movies like it – films that trade in hope and humility, empathy and understanding, instead of fear, narcissism, xenophobia, and the promise of total annihilation. Villeneuve is a visionary filmmaker with a bright future ahead of him, and I’m excited to see what he does with Blade Runner 2049 and – god willing – the Dune reboot. [Review]
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is shot like a docu-war film, a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and The Empire Strikes Back, darker and grittier than what we’ve seen from George Lucas’s sprawling space opera. A powerful addition to the Star Wars mythos, Rogue One has a lot to say about heroism, sacrifice, and the necessity of rebellion in the face of fascism.
Watching the thrilling action sequences crafted by Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), I felt like a kid again, coordinating epic battles with my Kenner Star Wars action figures. You get the impression that Edwards spent most of his childhood doing the same thing. Rogue One has one of the most exhilarating finales of the entire saga, with a space battle to rival Return of the Jedi, a fierce ground battle to challenge The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader as a terrifying force of nature. The final moments are especially poignant, with the promise of a new hope for the future.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars Rebels, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the upcoming untitled Episode VIII and Han Solo films, it’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.
5. The Handmaiden
From Park Chan-wook, the director of Old Boy, Lady Vengeance, and Stoker, comes an erotic psychological thriller. Inspired by the novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is the gripping and sensual tale of two women – the young Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress living on a secluded estate, and Sookee, a Korean woman (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired to serve as her new handmaiden, but is secretly plotting with a conman (Ha Jung-woo) to rob the Lady of her large inheritance.
The Handmaiden is an exquisitely crafted film with sumptuous imagery and great performances. Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon deliver an absorbing (and darkly comedic) thriller that is both lavish and lurid, combining beautiful sets and costumes with the director’s penchant for blood and betrayal.
6. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier‘s Green Room is a blunt-force narrative – a brutal, visceral affair that is felt in your guts. Hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights land a gig at a rural Oregon club. There’s just one catch – their audience is a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads. After spitting in the face of their hate-filled audience, the band witnesses something backstage they weren’t meant to see. Now trapped in the green room, they must contend with the club’s owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), a sinister man who will stop at nothing to protect his business.
In the same way his 2013 film Blue Ruin reinvented the revenge thriller, Green Room offers a new spin on the siege film. There are bits and pieces of films like Night of the Living Dead, Die Hard, The Raid, and Straw Dogs here, with resilient protagonists who are outnumbered and out of their depth. This movie hit me like a sledgehammer to the skull, and I still find myself occasionally wincing at the residual images of violence left rattling around inside my head.
Given the rise of the “Alt-Right” (aka White Nationalists, also known as Neo-Nazis) in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, I can’t think of a more relevant film this year. In the words of the Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” [Review]
7. The Witch
The Witch is an atmospheric slow burn punctuated by intense moments of horror, with mesmerizing cinematography, a spine-tingling score, and star-making performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Writer-director Robert Eggers explores the illusion of sin and how, when challenged, deep-seated religious convictions can give way to mass hysteria. In the way Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is an allegory of McCarthyism, Eggers’ film is using witchcraft to talk politics – specifically conservative extremists and their reactionary views.
What makes this film so special is that it actually delivers on its premise. In a landscape of PG-13 horror movies glutted with jump scares and computer-generated blood, Eggers’ film is fucking scary. It shows how a simple suggestion can test the fragility of an entire faith, and to what lengths a disciple would go to prove themselves to a god – or a devil. [Review]
8. O.J.: Made in America
Produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films, O.J.: Made in America is the story of America, told through the lens of Orenthal James Simpson, from his emerging football career at the University of Southern California and why America fell in love with him, to being accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, and his subsequent acquittal. It’s an important piece of journalism that explores our country’s fixation with race and celebrity, and is one of the most remarkable things you’ll see this year.
There’s been a lot of debate over whether the five-part, 7½-hour documentary is a movie or a miniseries, but after premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, O.J.: Made in America was released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, making it eligible for the Best Documentary Oscar. Regardless of format, Edelman’s impressive work must be seen, and should be viewed alongside two of the year’s other phenomenal documentaries about race: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and Ava DuVernay’s The 13th.
9. Captain America: Civil War
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Captain America: Civil War, is influenced by movies like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, sprawling sagas that tell intricate stories where every character has an arc. And like those enduring classics, Civil War is a gripping, emotionally resonant film that enriches and deepens a mythology and our connection to it. Its greatness lies in the groundwork laid by its predecessors; twelve films that comprise an unprecedented experiment in long-form storytelling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Civil War is a smart, satisfying masterwork, with fantastic performances and tight screenwriting. It isn’t just a great comic book movie. It’s a great film, period; brilliantly executed and lovingly rendered. It’s the culmination of eight years of storytelling and an unbelievable accomplishment for the superhero movie subgenre. [Review]
10. The Nice Guys
Set in ’70s Los Angeles, The Nice Guys stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a down-on-his-luck private eye struggling to raise his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), after the death of his wife. Holland reluctantly partners with hired enforcer Jack Healy (Russell Crowe) to solve the case of a missing girl and the seemingly unrelated death of renowned porn star. During their investigation, the mismatched duo uncovers a high-level conspiracy that could get them both killed.
With memorable performances, crackling dialogue, and outrageous comedic action, Shane Black‘s The Nice Guys is the funniest movie of the year. Chemistry is a huge part of what makes Black’s scripts hum, whether it’s Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon or Kilmer and Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a buddy movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe in the characters at the center of that relationship. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe have that kind of explosive chemistry, and they play off each other perfectly here. [Review]
The Rest of the Best
11-30: Moonlight; A Monster Calls; Lion; The Edge of Seventeen; I Am Not Your Negro; Zootopia; Train to Busan; De Palma; Moana; Kubo and the Two Strings; 20th Century Women; Jackie; Hidden Figures; Hail, Caesar!; I Am Not a Serial Killer; The Love Witch; The Autopsy of Jane Doe; The Wailing; Hell or High Water; The Greasy Strangler.
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