For much of 2016 I was feeling critical that it had not given us much in the way of sure-fire classics (perhaps I’m feeling spoiled from Mad Max and Inside Out last year), but by the end I was awe-struck at the sheer quantity of great filmmaking. With so many different ways to see movies now, it adds a great deal of diversity across lists like this which is quite exciting. I can’t remember there being this many good movie year after year. No complaints whatsoever. In that spirit, I included an additional 10 “honorable mentions” rather than 5 with a couple other special commendations.
The Rest of the Best: Moonlight / The Handmaiden / 10 Cloverfield Lane / The Nice Guys / Pete’s Dragon / The Witch / Weiner / Loving / Silence / Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Best Performance: Natalie Portman, Jackie
Biggest Surprise: Pete’s Dragon
Visual Knockout Award: Jon Favreau, Bill Pope, Weta Digital, The Jungle Book
Best Scene: Opening Freeway Number, La La Land
Biggest OMG Moment: TIE: Final Scene of The Witch / Darth Vader Unleashed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
10. Swiss Army Man
Directed By Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
You probably better know it as the Daniel Radcliffe-Farting Corpse-Movie and it is a film that should absolutely not, in any way whatsoever, work. On paper it is the most ridiculous sounding movie imaginable. Paul Dano (forever unrated) plays a man shipwrecked with only Daniel Radcliffe’s dead body to keep him company. All is lost until Dano’s character realizes the corpse has special abilities and learns to renanimate itself into a special new corpse-person. What unfolds is one of the most wondrous, imaginative, and strangely moving films to come out in quite some time. Radcliffe does really impressive work and if you can let go, and allow the movie to take you along for the ride, you’ll be in for a one-of-a-kind cinematic treat.
9. Manchester by the Sea
Directed By Kenneth Lonergan
Casey Affleck plays a Boston-based apartment workman who gets called home following the death of his brother and must now care for his nephew while trying to reckon with his own tragic past. Affleck gives a brilliantly understated performance and the film possesses such a strong authenticity in its portrayal of every-day life that it’d be almost tempting to overlook its many accomplishments. Much funnier than one might expect considering the heavy drama, Kenneth Lonergan’s humane tale is one of the most nuanced, rich, and fully realized stories to come out this year or any year. Filled with outstanding performances — especially from Michelle Williams, who does powerful work with limited screen time — it already feels much like an American classic.
8. La La Land
Directed By Damian Chazelle
From its opening moments, where you’re breathlessly thrown into an incredibly complex opening song-and-dance number, you know you’re in for something special. While the story itself is rather paint-by-numbers of two young dreamers trying to make it big, the magic lies within the execution and performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Wunderkind Damian Chazelle, most notable for his magnificent debut film Whiplash, acquits himself like a seasoned vet with some of the boldest direction you’ll see all year. While the film could have used a few more songs in it, it’s a minor gripe for what is a gorgeously shot and brilliantly inspiring piece of cinema. Gosling and Stone feel like the premiere screen coupling of their generation.
7. Sing Street
Directed By John Carney
John Carney’s debut film Once is a treasure of a film in how heart and determination can overcome pesky things like budget and production restraints. It’s with that same spirit that infuses this coming-of-age tale of teenager Conor, who tries to impress a girl by telling her he’s in a band, but then has to start said band and learn to play music to back-up his lie. What unfolds is a sweet and soulful story of friendship, creativity, and what it takes to follow your dreams. The sequences where young Conor and his newfound friends progress in their musical skills, come up with songs, and produce shoe-string music videos are some of the most authentic representations of adolescent creativity that I’ve seen. The musical sequences and songs themselves are dynamic, uplifting, and, at times, soaring thanks to Carney and his talented young cast.
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed By Travis Knight
Made by the same studio as Coraline and ParaNorman, Kubo is a gorgeous epic that features standout voice performances from Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark from “Game of Thrones”). While the most obvious success for this film is the beautiful animation work which Laika has become renowned for, it’s the quality of the storytelling that really draws you in. Young Kubo, a half-god prince in hiding, uses his unique gifts to make stories come alive to enchant local villagers, but is soon on the run from his evil grandfather The Moon King in what is a thrilling adventure filled with a poignant message on family, self-identity, mortality, and the power of storytelling to transcend life’s darkest moments. You usually don’t find this level of sophistication outside of Pixar’s greatest hits, but Kubo is a triumph of the form through and through.
5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed By Taika Waititi
One of the most delightful and endearing films of the year was this quirky, funny, and heartfelt adventure story from New Zealand. Rebellious juvenile Ricky Baker finds himself adopted by an eccentric but loving couple, but when tragedy strikes he sets out with his foster father (Sam Neill, his best role in years) in the New Zealand wilderness where they make a life for themselves. Unbeknownst to them, their disappearance creates a nationwide manhunt, and they must outwit their pursuers at every turn to protect their new way of life. This film is full of charm and is entertaining from its first moment to its last, weaving in plenty of great pop culture references and one of the year’s best soundtracks. This is the type of movie that you want to watch again the moment after you finish it.
4. Hell or High Water
Directed By David Mackenzie
On the surface, one could easily mistake this as a simple, yet effective cops-and-robbers tale but they’d be missing so much of what lurks underneath the surface. In order to save the family farm, two brothers orchestrate a string of bank robberies of which they are completely unsuited for and must stay one-step ahead of the law in order to complete their master plan. Anchored by three great performances from Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster — along with a REALLY smart script — the film succeeds not only as a tense crime thriller but a disarmingly funny and striking portrait of post-recession America that touches on issues of family, race, and the myth of the American hero. It effortlessly weaves in dynamic action, poignant character study, and profound social observations. After the past year’s Presidential election, this film only seems more resonant, timely, and thoughtful. A really fine surprise this one turned out to be.
3. Hacksaw Ridge
Directed By Mel Gibson
On paper this looks like an overtly old-fashioned, earnest, and sentimental war film that shouldn’t work, but it does rather quite well in fact. While at times it is all of those things, director Mel Gibson does such an effective job of bringing it all together that it is one of the most profoundly affecting, moving, and intense films ever made about war. Whatever you think of Gibson as a person, it cannot be denied that the man knows what he’s doing behind the camera and how to tell a strong story. Andrew Garfield is exceptional in the role, bringing a fierce compassion that in lesser hands could come off as schmaltzy, but Garfield nails it. With some of the most intense battle sequences since Saving Private Ryan, Gibson’s film is a remarkable piece of cinema that echoes a bygone golden era of Hollywood. It’s Gibson’s best film since Braveheart and one of the best modern war movies ever made.
2. Everybody Wants Some!!
Directed By Richard Linklater
Not long ago, writer-director Richard Linklater crafted one of the most astounding portraits of American life in Boyhood. It instantly became a classic and whatever Linklater decided to do next would be hotly anticipated. Fast-forward to seeing the trailer for this raunchy, 1980’s-set college comedy and my first thought was “Huh? This?”. After reaching such a peak, why essentially remake Dazed and Confused? Well I couldn’t have been more wrong and should have trusted in a director I revere as much as Linklater. While packed with wild and rowdy hilarity, it is also a poignant nostalgia trip that finds Linklater in vintage form. What’s so surprising is how it never feels like retreading old territory, but finding fresh ways to explore classic archetypes — many of which Linklater himself established. Populated by a great cast that you never heard of, but quickly come to love, Everybody Wants Some!! is wildly entertaining from start to finish while also achieving the same kind of probing look at life that its creator is so well-known for.
1. A Monster Calls
Directed By J.A. Bayona
Filled with dark and difficult subject matter, A Monster Calls tells the poetic and moving story of young Connor O’Malley. Struggling to deal with his mother’s terminal illness, Connor receives emotional assistance in the form of a giant Yule tree (voiced magnificently by Liam Neeson). What unfolds is a visually wondrous, technically marvelous, and emotionally shattering piece of art. This is a film that is both heartbreaking yet beautiful in its rendition of grief, growing up, and the power of imagination that is filled with stunning performances from Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and especially newcomer Lewis MacDougall. Director J.A. Bayona has delicately crafted a tale where each moment is more breathtaking and moving than the last. It has an emotional complexity that is profound and deeply nuanced while also being scary, adventurous, and awe-inspiring. It is by far, my favorite film of the year and could become a classic for years to come.