2016 was a rough year all around, but we don’t need to reiterate all the terrible things that happened throughout the year here. I’m here to disprove a notion that 2016 was a bad year for movies. I was under the same impression before I started compiling this list, and I have to say, it was really tough to narrow these choices down to ten. Sure, there may or may not have been that true, year-defining classic that will be talked about 20 years down the line the same way we look at a Pulp Fiction, a Saving Private Ryan, or even a Mad Max: Fury Road, but what we did get was a great level of consistently great movies throughout the entire year. Well, except for the summer blockbuster season. Most of those were pretty terrible.
First, some honorable mentions in no particular order:
Captain America: Civil War – Great action and cast, but overlong and relies too heavily on prior Marvel movie knowledge.
Fences – A play within a movie, anchored by excellent performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Kind of left me wondering what the point of it all was by the end though.
Conjuring 2 – Scary and fun, but a slight cut below the best horror this year.
Finding Dory – Beautiful animation and very funny, but partially lacking the genuine heart of the original.
Sausage Party – Hilarious and thought provoking, but the intensely ribald humor wears a little thin by the end.
Doctor Strange – One of the best visual trips of the year, but the muddled storyline kept it from my personal top ten.
Blood Father – Mel Gibson returns in a raw and entertaining grindhouse homage that also partially works as an apology letter for his past mistakes.
Train to Busan – South Korea does zombie horror right in this intense gorefest about a zombie outbreak on a train. Zombie fatigue keeps it out of my top ten.
Hell or High Water – It killed me to leave this one off my top ten. A great and thoughtful thriller about bank robbers who pay off their mortgage with stolen bank funds. A must see.
Don’t Breathe – An intense and fun thriller that was just barely a level below my favorite thrillers this year due to some mean spirited plot turns.
Moonlight – An absolute must see with excellent performances and the successful breaking of stereotypes and genre conventions. I only left it off the top ten because the rewatchability is almost nil and the pacing stalls from time to time. A powerful film that I’m unlikely to revisit.
Deadpool – An absolutely hilarious skewering of superhero films with great fourth-wall busting writing. There’s not much of a story here though, which is a missed opportunity.
Silence – Much like Moonlight, a very powerful film with a slow pace that has a lot on its mind, anchored by great performances, but unlikely to reward repeat viewings. Mid-range Scorcese still packs a punch.
With out further ado, here are my ten favorite movies of 2016!
10) Zootopia – When you think Disney animated films making a top ten list, you usually can reliably go straight to the Pixar offering. However, Disney’s own in house studio has made great strides in recent years, and Zootopia may be the best of them all. Tackling heavy issues in a kid-friendly way and injected with a sly and clever sense of humor, Zootopia is truly great entertainment for the whole family. This is especially impressive when you consider that Zootopia is essentially a buddy-cop movie dealing with issues of discrimination and race, the kind of subject matter that has historically produced some of the hardest hitting R-rated films of years past. I particularly liked Idris Elba’s vocal performance as a hard-ass police chief, and the scene with the sloths running the DMV had me in stitches.
9) Star Wars: Rogue One – By now you’ve seen my honorable mentions, and I have to agree that I left “better” films off my top ten than this one, especially Hell or High Water and Moonlight. Despite that, Rogue One tells a pretty great story and it’s nice to see Star Wars put the emphasis on “Wars” in a way it hasn’t before. The first half can be a little muddled, but all is forgiven with an exciting and powerful second half that ties into the existing films without feeling reverse engineered or cheapening the films that came before it. Rogue One earns a place on this list because I will be revisiting it more often than most other films this year.
8) Hacksaw Ridge – I’m of the camp that Mel Gibson is a phenomenal director who deserves a second chance after his battles with mental illness and alcoholism, despite the awful things he’s said and done. His first crack at atonement is this compelling true story about a young pacifist who goes to war as a medic, but refuses to kill or carry a weapon. All he ended up doing was saving the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers in one of the bloodiest battles in World War II. The optimistic and slightly cheesy introduction may turn some off, but the jarring shift in tone once we hit basic training and the war helps reflect the emotional immaturity of the troops heading into battle. The result is one of the best war films since Saving Private Ryan, and the battle scenes rival that masterpiece for sheer intensity. Andrew Garfield is outstanding in the lead role.
7) Star Trek: Beyond – Easily the best of a lousy summer blockbuster season. Everyone in the cast is given something compelling to do, the action is great, and the film makes for an excellent course correction after the unwelcome cynicism of Into Darkness. This is an action packed and optimistic version of Star Trek, and may be the best of the new reboot series. I loved the new Jayla character and the film plays to the strength of the Star Trek brand while having a fun time doing it. Possibly the most fun I had at the movies this year.
6) In a Valley of Violence – Westerns have made something of a resurgence in recent years and it’s all thanks to movies that balance the fun and vibe of classic westerns much like this one. Ethan Hawke stars as a drifter who encounters violence and resistance in a small frontier town, before he decides to start fighting back in a thrilling and funny story. John Travolta gives his best performance since Pulp Fiction as the town sheriff. Without spoiling too much, if the idea of John Wick set in the old west appeals to you, make sure to check this one out.
5) Green Room – A compelling and arresting thriller that equally stuns the audience with its sudden and brutal violence, but also with the ideas running around in its head. A cocky punk band takes a gig at a neo-nazi club, blares a cover of “Fuck Off Nazi Punks” to an unreceptive audience, and then end up trapped in the club’s green room after accidentally witnessing a murder. What follows is an intense cat and mouse game between the club’s owner played deliciously by Patrick Stewart, and the band led by a never-better Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace. This excellent thriller will stay with you a long time after it’s over, punctuated by my favorite closing line of any film this year.
4) The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – You’ve never seen a comedy like this, one that juggles absurdist humor, genuine dramatic emotion, and brazen social commentary, anchored by characters you come to love and care for. Given that the film comes from Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows alumni, this should come as little surprise. Sam Neill in particular shines as a nature-savvy and curmudgeonly man who is forced to track down a goofy inner-city youth in the New Zealand bush who becomes his responsibility after some tragic circumstances. What follows will have many crying tears of both laughter and sadness. A truly excellent film, and there’s nothing else quite like it out there.
3) 10 Cloverfield Lane – Probably my most pleasant surprise of the year, a claustrophobic thriller that will keep you guessing right up to the shocking ending. John Goodman sheds his nice guy image as a frightening bomb shelter owner with unknown motives who won’t allow his two bomb shelter tenants to leave his bunker. Did he kidnap poor Mary-Elizabeth Winstead and is keeping her and another man hostage? Or was there truly a devastating attack above ground that is going to force these three very different people to co-exist in an underground bunker while they ride out lethal fallout? Make sure you know as little as possible going into the movie, as this is a film that rewards few expectations. Winstead gives a great performance as a strong female protagonist that is always looking for solutions to her current situation, which makes the casting of the wide-eyed actress all the more brilliant. She acts more with her eyes than most actors do with a hundred lines of dialogue. In a just world, Goodman would be nominated for an Oscar for his work here.
2) The Nice Guys – I’ve been a Shane Black fan since I was old enough to see Predator and Lethal Weapon as a kid. Here is his most polished, most funny, most mysterious, and most outright fun film he’s ever made. The subtle and witty humor sprinkled throughout the movie only makes the mystery that the hilariously inept private eye played by Ryan Gosling and muscle for hire played by a resurgent Russell Crowe are attempting to solve all the more compelling. Packed with great characters, hilarious one-liners, and grounded but hysterical situations, The Nice Guys is the best team-up comedy action film to come around in years. Add in a spectacular 70s soundtrack and you’ve got a great night at the movies all lined up. Definitely check it out.
1) Arrival – The best film of 2016 is also its most challenging. Those who were expecting an action packed alien invasion film can go see Independence Day Resurgence. This is a brainy, mind bending Sci-Fi flick that will keep you guessing and maintains a fever pitch of suspense with only dialogue, big ideas, and fantastic film-making technique. Amy Adams give a thrilling and heart-breaking performance as a communications expert who is tasked to lead a team of scientists in an attempt to communicate with aliens who have come to earth with unknown motives. Juggling the micro level interactions between Adams and her team, as well as the macro interactions between nations and the varying approaches to our new visitors, Arrival is a thrilling race against the clock that challenges us to question how we communicate and interact with one another. This is an optimistic film that asks us to take a look at our worst tendencies when confronted with the unknown. Add in a truly mind-blowing ending and you’ve got the best and most rewarding film experience in 2016. This is a true masterpiece.
My personal worst film of 2016 is Suicide Squad. A lousy film made all the more disappointing by the incredible potential behind it. Jared Leto’s performance was embarrassing and completely misguided. Once the bubbling shit zombies showed up, all hope was lost.
Need to see: Popstar, The Shallows, Moana, Edge of Seventeen, La La Land, Kubo and the two strings, Nocturnal Animals