Top 10 Movies of 2016

Our top critics give their differing picks for the 10 best movies of 2016, from dramas to musicals, and superheroes to science fiction.

It is fair to say that 2016 has been a turbulent year. We endured a 12-month run that was marred by the ugliest election in modern U.S. history, the Brexit fiasco, international tragedies, crises, and whatever exactly Batman v Superman was supposed to be. It’s enough to make one wish they could just flip on their Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and let the cellular gods do what they will.

But first, please just take a breath. Better? Already, you’re realizing that it’s not as grim as all that. Indeed, there is plenty to look back on and smile, not least of which includes some excellent films from startlingly unique perspectives. The genres and narrative styles run the gamut from Rosetta Stone construction for aliens to old school musical toe-tappers, and motormouth superheroes to real-life Bostonian ones. Consequently, the year of 2016 has provided a diverse and eclectic contribution to cinema.

So please join us as our two main film critics, associate editor David Crow and staff writer Don Kaye, each pick their Top 10 Movies of 2016.

Honorable Mention: 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.

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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.

10. Hacksaw Ridge

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.

9. 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.

8. 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.

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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.

7. 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.

6. Moonlight

A cinematic ballad to identity, and how we can hide those things even from ourselves, director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play is devastatingly stark in its authenticity… and bitter humanity. Interweaving through the life of a young man named Chiron from childhood, adolescence, and until finally a harsh adulthood, Moonlight engages its audience via vignette and all that is left unsaid in the quiet oceans of time that separate the sparse dialogue.

Following Chiron’s journey of a denied self-discovery due to being a gay child growing up without a father or (really) a mother in the abject poverty of outskirts Miami, Moonlight traces with warmth and compassion the coldness of an ignored existence. Chiron will eventually leave his meek shell for a fiercely hardened one in adulthood, but the scars appear everlasting and inform his identity as much as his sexuality in this snapshot of the shadows that cling to American life. The film also includes a haunting performance by Mahershala Ali as the neighborhood crack dealer and most kind-hearted presence in a world ignored due to the cruelties of race, sexuality, and even the drugs that Ali’s Juan sells to Chiron’s mother. That irony is bitter too.

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5. Arrival

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.

4. Nocturnal Animals

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.

3. The Witch

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.

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2. Jackie

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.

1. 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.

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Click over here to see critic Don Kaye’s very different picks for 2016’s best films. 

This article first ran on Dec. 19, 2016.

Honorable Mention

I’m going to split this three ways between the unbearably tense and frightening genre exercise, Green Room, the moving and surreal study of grief, identity, and celebrity culture that was Jackie, and the painfully suspenseful, riveting and brutal thriller about how modern warfare is conducted, Eye in the Sky.

10. Patriots Day

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.

9. Weiner

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.

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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.

8. The Witch

The very best horror doesn’t just reach for the easy scare; it leaves the viewer deeply unsettled, as if the underpinnings of their entire world have been loosened or kicked out from beneath them. This stunning feature debut from writer/director Robert Eggers accomplishes that, first by immersing us in an incredibly detailed and realistic version of 17th century New England, and then by introducing us to an utterly terrifying and coldly inhuman force that exists in that world.

None of that would work, however, without the equally outstanding effort by his cast of unknowns, who keep you convinced all the way through that you’re watching people out of time. The Witch is about a lot of things—religious persecution and bigotry, female empowerment and the unknown essence of nature—but it’s also the pure horror of ordinary human beings facing extraordinary circumstances.

7. 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.

6. 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.

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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.

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director and writer Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) fashions a beautifully written and deeply humane adventure-comedy here about two unlikely adopted family members—a juvenile delinquent (Julian Dennison) and his unwitting foster father (Sam Neill)—who learn how to care for each other while on the run in the New Zealand bush. Charming, offbeat, inventive and poignant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is yet another showcase for Waititi’s original takes on well-worn genres; he also gives Neill his best and most complicated role in years.

4. Arrival

If we are living in a new Golden Age of science fiction cinema, then surely Arrival will be seen in years to come as one of its truly visionary masterpieces. Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, Denis Villeneuve’s crisp, melancholic, yet ultimately hopeful epic is one of the best alien contact stories ever produced for the screen. It does not stay away from its hard sci-fi roots, but it remains a deeply emotional and richly intelligent picture. The questions it poses feel both relevant and profound, especially when couched in the troubled times we’re trapped in right now.

Amy Adams does magnificent work here as the linguistics professor whose attempts to communicate with the aliens who have appeared in the sky open her mind to a whole new view of reality. But the real star may be Villeneuve, whose string of recent films, while not all perfect by any means (they include Prisoners, Sicario, and Enemy), have given us a picture of a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from painful truths while crafting immaculately atmospheric scenarios in which to probe them. Sci-fi needs more filmmakers like him, and more movies like Arrival.

3. Moonlight

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.

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2. 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.

1. 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.

This article first ran on Dec. 19, 2016.