The year of 2016 is almost over. Thank Heavens. Hardly a 12-month span folks will be nostalgic for, it still was a year that left its mark on our culture. From politics to sports, and technology to theater, many milestones or historic importance were reached. And along the way, there have been some substantially memorable films too. So many, in fact, that it is easy to let the better gems slide through the cracks. Hence why we here at Den of Geek are gathering for your reading pleasure what we humbly submit to be the overall best 25 must see movies of 2016.
Our critics David Crow and Don Kaye have already written their Top 10 lists, but here is the broader view. Less about preference and ranking, below is a celebration for some of the best cinema had to offer. Listed alphabetically, they represent the better side of the year that was.
Following the searing Selma, Ava DuVernay had free rein to choose almost any narrative she wanted (she was even offered a superhero movie for her troubles). Yet, she elected to make in secret this Netflix documentary instead, and we are richer for it. 13th is a powerful documentary that convincingly draws a straight line from the end of legal segregation in the 1960s to the War on Drugs of the 1980s, and to the mass incarceration that we have today, which is fueled even further still by the private prison boom. (The film also suggests that this stems back to a “loophole” in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but despite that being the basis of the title, it’s not the film’s strongest argument).
13th is a gripping and rage-inducing documentary that taps into the lines and resentments of American life that so many prior to November 2016 chose to turn a blind eye toward, and it does so while allowing the likes of Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and others on the right to make their case (often against the film’s broader message). But the more Norquist or private prison lobbyists howl, the more potent the documentary becomes.
Continuing the trend of mercifully smart science fiction that has cropped up in recent years, Arrival is a celebration of intellectualism and the smart people whose contributions shouldn’t be a thing of scorn. It is also a knotty thinker that demands patience, attention, and time, all of which pay off in dividends with a mind-bending finale that forced millions of moviegoers to learn the term “linguistic relativity.”
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an exquisitely crafted puzzle box that treats the idea of first contact with the kind of weight and grandeur most Hollywood sci-fi efforts blunder past with maximum stupidity. As a result, Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, and Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a mathematician and physicist, are not here to pass the torch to the “average joe” hero in a wife-beater. They instead challenge our understandings of communication by trying to connect both intellectually and emotionally with unknowable aliens. One of the most handsome-looking and enigmatic films of the year, everything about Arrival, from its hypnotic score to its circuitous screenplay and editing, finds a way to slither into your mind, lingering like the first notes of a new universal language.
Captain America: Civil War
Marvel reached a new peak with the third standalone Cap movie, which arguably played more like The Avengers 3 but was one of the studio’s strongest movies to date. What made Civil War work—unlike Batman v Superman—was that you have been watching many of these characters support one another for several years now, and when they eventually clash, it genuinely hurts to see it happen. But at the same time, it’s such a gonzo comic book moment that the big battle scene leaves you giddy.
Kudos to the Russo Brothers, and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely, for directing and writing an elegantly structured film that successfully introduces Black Panther (an outstanding Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (a charming Tom Holland) into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As for the rest of the cast, Chris Evans is now almost inseparable from Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. gives his most committed performance in a while as Tony Stark. Marvel does it again.
A beautiful daydream for hippies at heart or a nightmare for those dreading extremist parents who’ve drunk too deeply from the far-left koolaide? It’s an open question as to what kind of family rests at the center of Captain Fantastic, yet either way this is a heartfelt and ultimately warm film about one of the strangest movie families in recent memory. Led by a performance that is equal parts commune charisma and survivalist pretension, Captain Fantastic follows a wonderful Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash.
Having chosen to raise his half-dozen children as “philosopher kings” in the woods—where they must learn multiple languages, master the concepts of the rights of man at an early age, and finally be able to hunt a deer with nothing but a bowie knife—Ben is a father of questionable parenting. He clearly loves his children, but his father-in-law’s disdain for the unorthodox methods that could lead to his grandchildren dying is not unfounded. Especially when he attempts to use his kids to disrupt their mother’s unwanted Christian funeral.
Captain Fantastic is a strange, amusing, and quizzically affirming film that makes you want to join in and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day. (Why settle for a holiday worshipping “a magical elf” when you can share bow and arrow gifts in recognition of a real-life humanitarian?) It’s impossible to resist.
The Edge of Seventeen
In a year that saw an influx of great stories about growing up in high school (or out of it in the charmingly eccentric Captain Fantastic’s case), the one that has stuck with me the most remains The Edge of Seventeen, writer Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut. This is a timeless and razor-tongued depiction of the most awkward moment in everyone’s life.
The real wit of Seventeen comes in the power of contrasts, particularly with Hailee Steinfeld’s hopelessly self-involved and introverted Nadine obliviously narrating her own struggle of being placed next to an older brother (Blake Jenner) who was born with Golden Boy genetics. And once that sibling starts dating Nadine’s only friend, the division and sweet-natured cynicism turns nuclear. It might look like a John Hughes movie on the outside, but this picture has the sharpest teen soul this side of Heathers, which is topped off by a perfect use of Woody Harrelson’s sardonic talents as a teacher who’s quizzically allowed to tell his students what he really thinks of them.
After spending decades in front of the camera, Denzel Washington finally steps behind it for Fences, his first feature-length directorial effort since 2007.* The picture is adapted from the August Rush play of the same name, which Washington and Viola Davis starred in on Broadway, and it packs a hell of a punch on the movie screen too. While definitely stage-bound in the way that the story never leaves the working class home of Troy and Rose Maxon, the intensity of their crumbling lives overcomes any major flaws with the format.
Washington offers a passionate, full-throated turn as a prideful man whose opportunities were robbed from him at birth due to the color of his skin. In spite of being born with an athlete’s ability, Troy Maxon is nothing more than a garbage man by the time Jackie Robinson makes it tolerable for African-American ballplayers. Still, Troy isn’t even trusted to drive the truck. Bitter and full of foolish anger, this poor excuse for a man is a tragic piece of work, but he is overshadowed by Davis’ Rose, whose bottled up repression and hidden despair is unleashed with all the force of a hurricane in the film’s potent second act. But even her windy fury can’t even change the décor of the home she shares with Troy, much less the world outside.
A movie of flawed characters and broken lives, Fences attempts to tear down the wall between itself and viewers, even if its protagonist is doomed to build his own fence ever higher.
Hacksaw Ridge is a curious film since, technically speaking, it has no third act. Or perhaps more precisely, it is missing a middle. Instead, director Mel Gibson makes a roaring comeback in what is likely the best serious film about World War II since Saving Private Ryan (and there have been many). With the first half of the movie feeling acutely old fashioned, the picture occasionally resembles the type of pastoral Americana that Jimmy Stewart would inhabit in pre-war melodramas. Yet, the second act is brutally modern, creating a contrast that shocks and disorients in the shrewdest possible way.
Much has been made both about the violence of the picture—which is extreme—and the religiosity of Desmond Doss. Yet, each element complements the journey for the cinematic Desmond, a Seventh-day Adventist who is played with complete earnestness by Andrew Garfield. The result is a movie of perfectly measured counterbalances and heartfelt sincerity, plus an experience that is as comfortable with itself as Desmond is even on the mouth of Hell in Okinawa.
Hell or High Water
The ninth feature film from Scottish director David Mackenzie, borne out of a near-perfect script by Taylor Sheridan, is a compelling and masterful hybrid of Western, crime thriller, and social drama, set against a dying American landscape where it often truly is every person for themselves. Once-trusted institutions are now seen as the enemy, and two brothers (a revelatory Chris Pine and intense Ben Foster) stage a series of bank robberies, all to raise enough money to pay back the same bank, which holds the note on their late mother’s ranch.
Jeff Bridges is the grizzled Texas Ranger out to stop them, but even he can’t necessarily argue with the logic of what the siblings are doing—and it’s the decidedly gray morality of the story that elevates it beyond the already excellent genre trappings, becoming a sharp commentary on the death of the American dream in the process.
Hunt for Wilderpeople
On the outside, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for Wilderpeople could be mistaken for another coming of age tale, but it’s far more beguiling than that. Nothing less than a libertarian folk tale about the virtues of never saying die, this bone-dry comedy remains one of 2016’s nicest surprises. Starring Sam Neill as the ultimate curmudgeon and Julian Dennison as the husky problem child that Neill never wanted to be responsible for, this is a classic odd couple pairing… except they’re in the New Zealand bush with the law hot on their trail.
Wilderpeople is based on a popular Kiwi story by Barry Crump, but its appeal is universal as it embraces a kind of transcendentalist freedom and bitingly satirical side-eye toward authority that can be inspiring to most any viewer. And perhaps most importantly, Waititi gives Neill his best role in years, allowing the actor to disappear into a character whose prickly reserve makes the laughs he elicits all the more well-earned.
I, Daniel Blake
This quietly brilliant character study is the one film I saw this year that made me want to scream at the screen in rage and frustration. Dave Johns is flawless in the title role. Blake’s a Newcastle carpenter who is recouperating from a heart attack but cannot get the disability payments he needs to recover until he is fit to work again. This horrifying paradox is because of bureaucratic indifference and laziness. Daniel becomes friends with Katie, a single mother of two who also cannot make ends meet and must resort to heartbreaking methods to feed her children.
I, Daniel Blake is set in the UK, but the story of working people slowly being ground to death by a system that they cannot understand and that doesn’t much care for them is universal. Little gestures of humanity—like the widower Daniel’s sweet, heartfelt adoption of Katie and her kids as a surrogate family—are just about all we have left, the film says, but even those are harder to find in an increasingly callous and hostile society. A devastating movie.
The antithesis of a typical biographic film, Jackie is a stunning achievement in storytelling and performance. Here is a picture that revisits one of the most profound (and habitually dramatized) events in U.S. history, yet somehow turns the record into a backdrop for an intimate and practically experimental character study. Filmed with a total lack of convention by director Pablo Larraín, Jackie breathes immediacy and and sorrow into a tragedy that occurred more than 50 years ago, and provides Natalie Portman with the best showcase of her considerable talent to date.
By embracing a textured understanding of both the trauma and contradictions of the real Jacqueline Kennedy, Portman unearths an often forgotten steely ferocity that undergirded the most sainted First Lady’s grace. It’s a tour de force that haunts for days and casts a vivid pallor on a film that deals with a universal emotion—grief for the loss of a loved one—while also exploring one that’s almost entirely exclusive to world leaders and the women who have to often stand in their shadow.
Where does genuine mourning begin and when does the compulsion for legacy-building end? In those bleak days between a fateful arrival in Dallas and a president’s funeral in Arlington, the two became a blur for the mental fabric of a grieving widow and mother, plus the country as a whole. Afterward, the dream of a vanished Camelot was cemented a half-century onward, and even while deconstructing that mythmaking, Jackie makes the paradise lost ever so much more devastating and revelatory… especially for the woman who most endured it.
La La Land
Many in the coming months will point to La La Land as the best film of 2016. And for good reason. This is unmistakably a masterwork for writer-director Damien Chazelle who, two years after wallowing in the rage and resentment inherent with creativity, now finds its euphoric counterpoint. This is most definitely a musical with its eye on the past, shooting wide CinemaScope single-takes that might’ve appealed to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in another life. However, the overall effect of the picture is singularly modern.
More than simply displaying an enthusiastic nostalgia, Chazelle recaptures the beauty and truthfulness of pure melodic fantasy, tapping into the escapism that became a national catharsis during the Great Depression and Second World War. Additionally, and with immensely charming performances by an effervescent Emma Stone and a hungry Ryan Gosling, the filmmaker uses that classicalism to paint in grays and pale blues that MGM’s technicolor daydreams would’ve never seen. Through its wistful jazz undertones, La La Land is a bruising struggle between the personal and professional, and romance and reality, which by its very nature would seek to stop people from bursting into song.
The fact that they still do, and fully sweep any audience off its perch and into a starry waltz along the Milky Way in the process, makes La La Land a transcendent experience, and the most rewarding one of the season. So yes, this is easily the best movie of 2016.
Love & Friendship
When it comes to most Jane Austen adaptations, there is a certain etiquette or level of decorum expected: they’re often very sensible, perhaps even with a sprinkling of pride, but most of all they appreciate the drama within their melodrama. Thankfully, Whit Stillman has absolutely none of that. In what is likely the very best Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship is pure breezy acerbic wit from beginning to end, and with so many verbal punchlines that you’ll need to be carried out on a stretcher if you attempt to catch them all during your first viewing.
In the best performance of her career, Kate Beckinsale is the impeccably elegant Lady Susan Vernon, a period piece heroine absolutely undisturbed by the petty trivialities of morality or ethics. Whereas most maternal characters in Austen stories seek to find their daughters a husband, Lady Susan at best will use her adult child Frederica (Morfydd Clark) as bait for her own designs. Indeed, Susan seeks two types of potential husbands: those young enough to be governable or those old enough to die. And die many will on the end of her ruthlessly smiling pleasantries.
Manchester by the Sea
As a follow-up to his often great but messy Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s new drama is much more focused and devastating. Casey Affleck delivers a career best performance as Lee, a reclusive janitor whose brother’s sudden death leaves Lee as the guardian of his teenage nephew. But to take care of him, Lee must return to the town he used to live in and confront unbearable memories from his own shattered life.
With its lived-in, wintry New England backdrop and honest working class supporting players, Manchester by the Sea paints a deceptively simple and earnest portrait of everyday people just trying to get through life, and the unexpected circumstances it throws at you. The entire cast is uniformly excellent, and the climactic scene between Affleck and Michelle Williams as his ex-wife is so searing that it’s hard to look directly at the screen.
Walt Disney Animation Studios continues to display a risk-taking sensibility that is increasingly missing from the other major hit factories in Hollywood. Unlike the often lifeless live-action remakes of their distant classics, WDAS is seeing one quality film after another during what is amounting to a second renaissance. Thus enter Moana, a princess movie without an actual princess or love interest.
Indeed, Moana follows the journey of self-discovery for a chieftain’s daughter, who will one day rule her island without even a hint of complaint from her male peers. And she is voiced with winning charm by the 15-year-old Auli’I Cravalho. Moana is the most proactive Disney heroine to date, and she achieves her goals while butting heads with Dwayne Johnson’s Maui, a demigod that has more charisma than any Disney character this side of Robin Williams’ Genie. Together, they’ll squabble, team with a sentient sea, and best of all sing songs either partially or wholly written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Trust us, after one viewing, you’ll have “You’re Welcome” stuck in your head for days. More miraculous still is the fact that you won’t mind either.
A life told in three acts, Moonlight approaches the poetic with the mood it creates and the profound emotional peaks it reaches. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the movie follows an African-American male named Chiron through boyhood, his teenage years, and manhood with a different actor playing him at each phase. Chiron deals with many of the problems we’ve seen in inner cities—a rampant drug culture, random violence, a fatherless home, and a crack-addicted mother—but with the extra dimension that he is gay and will never be entirely comfortable no matter where he is or what he’s doing.
Touching on themes of wrenching loneliness, fear, and unreciprocated love, Moonlight features terrific performances from all three Chirons (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), as well as an outstanding turn from Mahershala Ali as Juan, the drug dealer who takes little Chiron under his wing and acts briefly as a father figure to him. Moonlight does what great movies should do; it shows us how people live and helps us understand them better.
The Nice Guys
Sometimes, all we want for Christmas is a swift punch to the face and a round of shots at the bar. Luckily, director Shane Black has stayed resolute in his mission to be exactly that kind of Santa Claus storyteller, writing us Yuletide gems like Lethal Weapon, and directing a few such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The Nice Guys follows in that tradition by offering a throwback to Black’s own brand of buddy comedy, albeit with a glitzier ‘70s twinkle.
Essentially returning to the heady glory days of his youth, Black teamed Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two low-rent private dicks who both would qualify as the bad cop since one is a violent malcontent and the other is a chatterbox with a drinking problem. After the pair connect 10 minutes into the film—Crowe was hired to break Gosling’s arm, which he does, but you know, courteously—the laughs keep on coming in a picture that’s so confident, it borders on arrogant. The greatest trick of all, however, is that this duo is really a triumvirate after newcomer Angourie Rice joins the team. She might be playing Gosling’s precocious daughter, but she’s a better sleuth than either old man, and can keep up with the best of them in terms of that screwball ratatat.
Something of a filmic matryoshka doll, Nocturnal Animals layers its story-within-a-story to sublime results. On one level, it is an excuse for writer-director Tom Ford to ravish Amy Adams with decadent couture—splendored collars for her vapid Beverly Hills cage—and on another it is as hardboiled a noir as you’re likely to find, with an effete Jake Gyllenhaal seeing his masculinity decimated after his family is run off the road in the dead of night by some West Texas good ol’ boys.
The two narratives are, of course, connected by third, as Gyllenhaal’s Edward is actually an author who’s finally penned his first novel, a triumph of despair which he has dedicated to his ex-wife, Amy Adams’ Susan. Despite having never spoken in the two decades since their divorce, Susan kills time in her privileged but empty second marriage by reading Edward’s chilling thriller, which increasingly reflects a life that she and Edward might have shared in another reality. The film is a brittle reflection of the hard choices we make, and the art borne from them (as well as the maddening regrets). It is also a showcase for some gnarly supporting character work by Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
I’ll be honest: I went into Peter Berg’s Patriots Day thinking I’d be watching some overly nationalistic, smugly manipulative crap. Instead I got a tense, gripping, and harrowing thriller about law enforcement professionals grappling as best as they can with a horror that’s both all too familiar and yet utterly unprecedented at the same time. As we watch cops, FBI agents, and city officials deal with a town (and nation) in panic mode, a rapidly developing investigation, and a creeping sense of dread, the film still enables us to quietly relate to them as human being thanks to sterling actors like John Goodman and Kevin Bacon.
Star Mark Wahlberg is good too, but his fictionalized police officer becomes increasingly superfluous toward the finish. That and the real-life mini-doc at the end are relatively small flaws on an otherwise excellent film, aided by Berg’s on-point direction and editing, an eerie score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and two white-knuckle setpieces that are just jaw-dropping.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Last year, Disney brought Star Wars dutifully back to life with a moviegoing event that combined likable fresh faces with monuments to generational nostalgia. But now in 2016, they finally made an actual film in the Star Wars universe. More than being just a standalone side-story, Rogue One stands on its own, providing a completely new adventure that feels part of the George Lucas Star Wars universe… but unlike any movie George Lucas (or his force-awakening admirers) would ever attempt.
While not flawless, Rogue One powers through its first act to an impressive middle and downright stunning finale. Introducing moral ambiguity and clandestine espionage to what was previously good vs. evil storytelling, the picture adds some welcome gray shadows to this universe of light and dark sides, and it also features a white-knuckle sequence at its end that is as much The Wild Bunch as A New Hope. It also finally redeems Darth Vader after the infamous prequel films. For that alone, it earns a spot on this list.
Martin Scorsese has spent 30 years trying to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s Silence to the screen. Now that the movie is finally here, it is obviously one of the most personal and intimate pictures of the director’s career (albeit not necessarily his best). There is something fascinating about the long, patiently meditative quality to Silence. As opposed to the kinetic filmmaking he is best known for, such as the frantic skullduggery of criminals (Goodfellas, Casino) or their even more dastardly counterparts (The Wolf of Wall Street), Silence is an exceedingly calm and gingerly-paced film that lives up to its title while asking big questions about the eternal.
Representing the efforts of an artist closer to the end than the beginning, and wondering what’s on the other side, Silence is a deeply religious movie about faith, which is presented by a man who sincerely struggles with his own doubt. As a result, the picture is open to interpretation. Is it a horrific account of the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan, and the Catholic priests who local authorities forced to either die for their religion or renounce it to save their flock’s lives. But it could also be a kind of schadenfreude catharsis, allowing viewers to bear witness to sanctimonious Christians get theirs.
Either way, the movie will stick in the mind for days, conjuring unexpected flashbacks to a scene of Japanese converts hopelessly wailing behind steel cages, awaiting their torments, or in scenes of Andrew Garfield’s priest being asked to sacrifice his entire Christian and personal identity in order to actually uphold Christ-like virtues. It’s a challenging film, but quite rewarding for those who wish to meet it on Scorsese’s terms.
Some movies, for lack of a better term, simply have a soul. Sing Street is one such picture, a marvelous experience that beats with a goofy and sweetly earnest joy. Clearly a case of childhood nostalgia for the 1980s—and more than a hint of wish fulfillment for roads not taken during that era—John Carney revisits his youth with eyes full of daydreams. And the effect is infectious until the admittedly too-sappy by half denouement.
Everything up to that point, though, is a spirited coming-of-age yarn about a distinct time and place that is still knowingly universal. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is an Irish kid who is living in Dublin during one of the city’s many rough periods. Going to a grim high school, he still finds the spark of life when he decides to begin a band to impress the coolest girl in town, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Of course, he doesn’t know how to play an instrument or anything about music, but these are mere details.
The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it has the warmth Carney brings to most of his films and a feel-good sentimentality that can be refreshing in a year that has been anything but joyous.
One doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or simply shake their head as Rep. Anthony Weiner’s life and career crumble… only for him to pick it back up and then destroy it all over again. He is in one sense a classically tragic figure, but on the other hand, you want to smack him in the head for his rampant stupidity and arrogance in the face of his own failures. As the scandal about his sexting escapades grows, however, the real tragedy is written across the face of his wife Huma Abedin—whose features harden into a mask of pain over the course of the film.
Weiner is about more than this sad excuse for a man, however; it’s about media and politics, and how people can actually get second chances sometimes—unless they fuck those up in spectacular fashion as well. And with the subject’s recent indirect involvement in the non-scandal that arguably damaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, watching Weiner becomes painful for all of us.
When viewing The Witch in a darkened theater, one gets the inescapable feeling they’re staring at something forbidden and genuinely sinful. Hence why it’s a masterpiece of horror and pressure-cooker tension. Without a shred of irony, first-time writer-director Robert Eggers immerses his film in the superstitions and folklore of the Calvinists, conjuring the kind of fever dream that would torment the most repressed of Puritan children.
By being stitched together from actual 17th century accounts of supernatural activity, there is a gnawing sensation of authenticity to The Witch, a film that makes no excuses or levity for its covens of naked crones cavorting in the woods, or in the idea that the Devil might walk amongst us while guised in the flesh of beasts. Yet, the film is entirely open to a modern reading as a proud family’s lies, deceit, exaggerated piety, and misogyny destroy the life of their eldest daughter Thomasin (a breakout Anya Taylor-Joy). This is a wonderfully bizarre film where the actors speak in complete fluidity a language that seems derived from the King James Bible. Still, deep down, you know none of these characters are getting to Heaven.
As aforementioned, Walt Disney Animation Studios is on a roll, and their best film of the year was not the one with musical numbers and a princess-like character accompanied by animal sidekicks… it was the one about a metropolitan utopia for animals that turns out to be more of a dystopia. Indeed, Zootopia is a surprisingly crafty and intelligent story that uses cute and cuddly animals who talk with Disney charm, and then rolls them into a noirish mystery with uncomfortably prescient political undertones for the rest of 2016.
Here is a film where the shrouded villain uses political rhetoric and fear mongering to scapegoat a minority while all amassing more power for themselves. Sophisticated stuff for a children’s film—an absurdly entertaining one at that, too—it seems its humane message even went over most parents’ heads, as it was promptly ignored in the following months.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Fences was Denzel Washington’s first directorial effort.