It’s been a tough year.
Just saying the word “2016” induces cringes from a vast majority of people, offering up painful thoughts of a highly divisive political campaign that may or may not have gone your way to general malaise about the state of the world to the seemingly endless rash of celebrity deaths that robbed us of talent far too soon.
In the world of cinema, things got off to a rocky and slow start, as is often the case with the way in which studios schedule their releases over the course of a calendar year. But the close of 2016 brought some of the decade’s most interesting and compelling movies to the forefront, ones we’ll be talking about for months to come.
As of the end of 2016, I’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) to enjoy 102 different new release feature films from big-budget studios to smaller independent works that have me starting to believe in the magic of cinema once again. I hope you’ll feel the same way, especially if you see this year’s 10 best films.
It should be noted that several of the year’s award-contending releases have not been made widely public yet and as such are not in this list, including “Hidden Figures,” “Live By Night,” “Patriots Day” and “Silence.”
Blockbuster of the year – “Deadpool”
There may have been more financially successful big-budget popcorn movies to hit the big screen in 2016, but none are as effortlessly enjoyable and re-watchable as Ryan Reynolds’ comic book passion project “Deadpool.”
“Deadpool” is the perfect star vehicle for Reynolds, who maximizes his wry wit and charm (applied in the film as snark) within the comic book world’s most wisecracking anti-hero. The passion Reynolds exudes for the character radiates every minute he’s on screen, elevating even the more generic superhero scenes crafted out of a cookie-cutter superhero script.
The film enters a much more fan-friendly environment for cruder, darker subject matter thanks to the cult hit status of British indie dark comedy “Kick-Ass” and Marvel’s Netflix miniseries – “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” – which are considerably more violent than the Avengers’ solo and team-up movies.
The sheer amount of Easter eggs and random pop culture references – akin to the tone of Marvel’s surprise smash hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” – lends itself to multiple viewings, though the monotone plot line does become tiresome midway through multiple screenings. There’s signs of greatness within “Deadpool,” especially when Reynolds isn’t tied down by CGI metal men or hacky, second rate villains.
Though not a perfect film, “Deadpool” is the hilarious next evolution in the comic book film genre and immensely worthy of blockbuster of the year status.
Also considered were “Captain America: Civil War” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Most disappointing film – “Hail, Caesar!”
The Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” is a huge swing and an even bigger miss.
In the big-budget Hollywood movie about big-budget Hollywood making big-budget Hollywood movies, viewers find Josh Brolin star as Eddie Mannix, a Michael Clayton-esque fixer who keeps the scandals of his top actors out of the press in a vague 1950s Los Angeles. Audiences are propelled alongside Brolin as he ping-pongs from one studio lot to the next, fixing issues with major stars and directors to try and keep a theatrical adaptation of a smash Broadway play, a cowboy western, an aquatic musical, and an Roman epic on par with Spartacus on track.
Clocking in at well under two hours, “Caesar!” attempts to cram far too much into far too little time, leaving major stars like Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill with nothing more than extended cameos as a Esther Williams-type actress trying to hide her illegitimate pregnancy and a studio stooge, respectively.
This doesn’t even begin to question the decision to limit the screen time of Ralph Fiennes – perhaps the film’s best actor – who perfectly fits the comedic bill of what the Coens were trying to achieve with the film, their take on Wes Anderson’s fantastic “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Visually, “Caesar!” works in the respect that everything feels vintage Hollywood, from the costuming to the sets and performances within each film. The 50’s vibe is definitely there, but the Coens don’t really seem to have a firm grasp on where they want to go with this movie, dragging viewers all over the place in order to come to a middling conclusion at the end.
While there’s all the pieces for a fantastic film, nothing really seems to come together in “Hail, Caesar!” From top to bottom, the entire production feels out of sync and in need of major structural repair to a confusing, all over the map script that holds “Caesar!” back from being something better.
Also considered were “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Inferno,” “Suicide Squad” and “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
Best documentary – “O.J.: Made In America”
Some may question the validity of this ESPN-produced documentary that checks in at just shy of eight hours long in total. Ezra Edelman’s five-part feature about the life and times of mercurial running back turned accused murderer O.J. Simpson. But as the Academy has ruled this doc eligible for consideration after the entire film was released theatrically in major metropolitan areas, it also is eligible here.
And what a film event “O.J.: Made In America” is. This is by far the most thorough and complete documentary I’ve ever seen regardless of running time. The depth of information found in this highly compelling, immensely immersive documentary is unparalleled and came at the exact right time in the pop culture scene in 2016, mirroring the terrific television miniseries “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson.”
Also considered were “Amanda Knox,” “Audrie and Daisy” and “Weiner.”
Breakout performer – Kate McKinnon, “Ghostbusters” and “Office Christmas Party”
“Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon’s 2016 will probably be remembered most for her hilarious (and spot-on) portrayal of failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over the course of the fall. While comedy gold, I’m throwing all of this out of consideration when looking at feature film breakout performer and McKinnon still takes the cake.
More so than any other star this year, McKinnon proved with sidesplitting supporting turns in “Office Christmas Party” and especially “Ghostbusters” that she has the comedic chops to carry a 95-minute feature film in a leading role.
By far the best part of “Ghostbusters,” McKinnon hammers home every punchline she’s given in the film with ruthless efficiency and proves herself to be a future comedy film star with her performance in much the same way Melissa McCarthy became a breakout following “Bridesmaids.” McKinnon is the single best part about “Ghostbusters” and outshines her more famous co-stars McCarthy and Kristen Wiig at every turn.
Also considered were Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!” and “Rules Don’t Apply”) and Lily Collins (“Rules Don’t Apply”).
Best supporting actor – Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”
By far the easiest choice I’ve had to make this year is in the best supporting actor category, where Jeff Bridges stands dominant over a fine slew of potential nominees for this award.
In “Hell or High Water,” Bridges is damn near perfect as an aging Texas Ranger looking to put away one last bank robber before riding off into the sunset.
Inevitably, Bridges’ performance in “High Water” will be compared to Tommy Lee Jones’ effort in the similar, yet much darker Coen Brothers film “No Country for Old Men.” The parts are different sides of the same coin. Bridges does display a very effective “I’m too old for this” mentality, but it’s couple with an uniquely crude and albeit racist sense of humor that’s unexpectedly brilliant.
There’s a great deal of levity in Bridges’ partnership with a younger Native American colleague that tracks quite nicely throughout the film. When looking back on Bridges’ career, “High Water” will ultimately represent one of his best performances in a long, storied filmography.
Also considered were Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”) and Mykelti Williamson (“Fences”).
Best supporting actress – Viola Davis, “Fences”
I’m not 100 percent certain that I would consider Davis’ role as Denzel Washington’s proud, yet largely subdued wife Rose in the dynamic character drama “Fences” to be a true supporting performance. Davis is in far too much of “Fences” for that. But as she is campaigning in the supporting category and will likely be the Oscar frontrunner for the year, it works for me as well.
Her dynamic performance in a subtle, understated manner until a critical turn late in the feature is a testament to her ability to create a complex character in limited screen time. Davis’ work is devastatingly arresting and worth the price of admission alone.
When it comes to awards season, this is the absolute most confident I am in the accuracy of my pick matching the acclaim from Golden Globe and Academy Award voters. She should win and will do so,
Also considered were Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), Helen Mirren (“Eye In The Sky”), Rachel Weisz (“The Light Between Oceans”) and Michelle Williams (“Manchester By The Sea”).
Best actor – Casey Affleck, “Manchester By The Sea”
Typically, Best Actor accolades go to showy, in-your-face performances where the actor proves their chops by emotionally yelling at someone in a climatic scene that ends up as the highlight reel for their Oscar nomination video.
Ironically, this year’s best actor doesn’t yell and scream in anger, frustration or passion despite suffering through the tragic loss of his brother and dealing with the aftermath in a town he doesn’t want to be in.
Casey Affleck’s performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea” is quietly arresting and frames the entire film in such a somber, morose way that allows the film to be the most honest, genuine, realistic feature to come out in 2016. Every single scene Affleck is in is carefully thoughtout and composed, giving the performance such depth of character as the uncle turned foster parent who just wants his life back.
This category is probably the closest call out of all the major acting awards as Denzel Washington’s powerhouse performance in “Fences” is right there with Affleck. It’s only by the thinnest of margins that Affleck’s quiet desperation edges out Washington’s flashy performance.
Also considered were Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nocturnal Animals”) and Denzel Washington (“Fences”).
Best actress – Emma Stone, “La La Land”
I saw “La La Land” for the first time the day after Christmas shortly after viewing the holiday classic “Love Actually.” One of that film’s most iconic lines was on my mind when I penned the following tweet after seeing “La La Land.”
It’s Christmas – and at Christmas you tell the truth – to me, Emma Stone is perfect in @LaLaLand. Damien Chazelle is a master.
A week later, this sentiment remains truer than ever. “La La Land” is the career-defining performance for a talented, Oscar-nominated actress in need of a star-making role. Stone’s turn as struggling actress/barista Mia in Chazelle’s love letter to classic Hollywood musicals is a breath of fresh air amid the dark, harrowing performances we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Hollywood’s top actresses.
The entire film, Stone glides through scene after scene as if on a cloud of air. Her performance is so effortless and light, dancing on a road of eggshells in the most charming of ways. Mia is the quintessential persona of what we imagine falling in love to be like when we’re dreaming about it in our heads and Stone takes every care to make the entire experience feel natural.
“La La Land” is Stone’s movie through and through. There is no better performance by any actor or actress in 2016. Period.
Also considered were Amy Adams (“Arrival”), Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Alicia Vikander (“The Light Between Oceans”).
Best director – Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Damien Chazelle proved with 2014’s “Whiplash” that he has a master’s grasp on matching every note of a film’s score with individual frames of film to create uniquely compelling cinema.
In the terrific movie musical “La La Land,” Chazelle ups the ante with a picturesque love letter to Los Angeles and an ode to classic Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style musicals. Elegant and classy in every way, “La La Land” evokes old school Hollywood with new school technology thanks to Chazelle’s keen eye.
“La La Land” is the perfect vehicle for Chazelle to show just how talented of a young director he is. The vibrancy he is able to create on screen with dynamic color hues that radiate into the audience frame by frame is perfectly balanced against the terrific score from Justin Hurwitz. Los Angeles comes alive in such a forward, present way that few filmmakers have been able to achieve.
Also considered were Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester By The Sea”), David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”).
Top 10 films of 2016
Finishing just shy of the top 10 were (in alphabetical order): “Allied,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Demolition,” “Eye In The Sky,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Jackie,” “Miss Sloane,” “Moana,” “Moonlight” and “O.J.: Made In America.”
10. “Swiss Army Man” (directed by Daniels, starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe)
By far the most inventive and unique film of 2016, the Sundance alumni film known to some as “That Farting Movie” makes my list of the 10 best for the year simply due to the level of complexity and ingenuity that the directing team Daniels were able to bring to life.
Think about it: A man on the verge of suicide saves his own life by discovering and later befriending a rotting corpse that reanimates in unusual, magnificent ways. This should be the logline of a much worse film than “Swiss Army Man” ends up being.
Paul Dano runs the emotional gambit in the film as the living Hank, bouncing effortlessly from suicidal to gleeful to lonely and inquisitive and back again like only the most manic of actors could pull off. Daniel Radcliffe is a surprising revelation as the undead Manny. The former Harry Potter brings life to a monotone, flat character that allows viewers to discover Manny in different ways as Radcliffe himself finds them through self-exploration of the character.
No 2016 film will energize you quite like the experience of watching “Swiss Army Man.”
9. “The Light Between Oceans” (directed by Derek Cianfrance, starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender)
Odds are you probably didn’t see this incredibly underappreciated film from “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond The Pines” director Derek Cianfrance, but viewers who took the time to catch this two-hour romantic drama know just how deeply moving the film is.
It starts with the casting, which leaves two of the best performers working today – Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender – alone on a remote Australian island and gives their magnificent performances time to breathe amid picturesque ocean expanses. Fassbender plays romantic stoicism better than anyone in the game, but somehow Vikander topples his work with a soul-crushing, otherworldly turn as his lover.
“The Light Between Oceans” maintains constantly entrancing cinema despite a slow pace thanks to the cinematography and acting work, including an award-worthy supporting performance from Rachel Weisz in the film’s second half.
You probably won’t find this film on another Best of 2016 list and that’s a real shame. Go see this hidden gem of a movie as soon as possible.
8. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Riz Ahmed)
The only blockbuster film to make this year’s top 10 list, “Rogue One” doesn’t even qualify as the year’s best blockbuster, a title that went to the gleefully distasteful “Deadpool” earlier.
Admittedly, there are some script issues and a little bit of recycling from other films in the genre that normally would disqualify “Rogue One” from consideration, but the movie’s soon to be iconic final action sequence is so incredibly well-made that Edwards’ film makes the list on that sequence alone.
Trying not to be too spoiler-filled in this recap, the sequence ends up being the closest thing to a space heist movie filmed in a World War II epic genre style thanks to Edwards’ visual choices in close combat that put viewers right in the heat of battle and amplify the audience’s ability to understand just how perilous the final mission in “Rogue One” truly is.
Edwards perfectly captures the terror of the Empire’s massive firepower advantage, especially when cranking the camera angle skyward from the beachhead to reveal enormous AT-ST tanks barreling down on the small Rebel infantry force.
The final 25 minutes of “Rogue One,” including that nostalgic epilogue at the conclusion of battle, are worth the price of admission alone.
7. “Sing Street” (directed by John Carney, starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor and Lucy Boynton)
There’s another film in this genre higher on the Best of 2016 list, but without question the best musical of the year is John Carney’s ode to 80s rock music, “Sing Street.”
“Sing Street” is a more than competent coming of age love story about a young Irish boy forced to attend a new Catholic school for boys in Dublin, who falls in love with the teenage model across the street. What makes Carney’s film remarkable, however, is the pitch perfect use of music to transform the narrative into something much more beautiful.
In the film, Conor woos Raphina by promising to cast her in a music video for his rock band, except Conor doesn’t have a band. The film is as much about Sing Street finding its sound musically and visually through some incredibly inspired music videos the band makes along the way. It’s a comedy, a drama, a coming of age tale and one of the smartest independent, foreign features to come along in several years.
One of three movies in 2016 that made me instantly purchase the soundtrack, “Sing Street” is a can’t miss film.
6. “Nocturnal Animals” (directed by Tom Ford, starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson)
Few films insist on audiences being present from the opening frame quite like Tom Ford’s dazzling and captivating second feature “Nocturnal Animals,” which begins with the controversial title credits sequence featuring obese, older women dancing naked on screen for three minutes. It’s a defining opening statement to a film that features one of the year’s best ensemble casts and engagingly puzzling screenplays.
“Nocturnal Animals” leans on the strong performances from its core actors, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon doing equally outstanding work in the film’s Texas noir-thriller segments. A full feature simply about this story-within-a-story could have made the top 10 on its own, but the layering of multiple story universes and timelines within “Nocturnal Animals” makes the film one of the most complex, thought-provoking cinematic experiences in several years.
Ford’s fashion eye carries over well when it comes to the picturesque cinematography, which often feels ripped straight out of a Dior perfume commercial or Vogue magazine advertisement.
“Nocturnal Animals” is without doubt a film that could have easily been slotted two or three slots higher given additional consideration as the quality really jumps to the next level for the six best movies of 2016.
5. “Arrival” (directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner)
Science fiction as a genre hasn’t been strikingly beautiful in more than a decade, but Denis Villeneuve’s arresting, slow-burning think piece about communication and interpersonal relationships set to the tune of an alien invasion movie is the perfect remedy.
“Arrival” confirms Villeneuve as one of the top three to five directors working in Hollywood today His film is the perfect thinking man’s sci-fi drama as Villeneuve and crew engage audiences in spirited debate about the meaning of language, reacting out of fear and using communication as a tool to bring people together rather than one to tear people apart. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s gorgeous work shooting the film elevates the entire piece to another level entirely.
For all its visual wizardry and narrative complexity, “Arrival” lives and dies by the success or failure of Adams’ lead performance as Louise Banks, who drives the entirety of the action from start to finish. Fortunately for moviegoers, Adams hits it out of the park. While other actresses might have played Banks on a more one-dimensional level to let the technical aspects shine, Adams elevates her performance to the same level with a thoroughly layered, nuanced turn.
What viewers will likely remember first when looking back on “Arrival” are the beautifully grotesque aliens that Banks and Donnelly encounter, known in the film simply as heptapods. While describing the heptapods at great length would ruin the surprise of their initial appearance, Villeneuve and his creative team do a masterful job of making such a strange, unappealing creature look stunning nevertheless. The visual artistry displayed in “Arrival” when it comes to these alien lifeforms is worth the price of admission alone.
4. “Fences” (directed by Denzel Washington, starring Washington and Viola Davis)
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play about an aging former Negro League baseball player does not seem at first glance like it would be prime cinema fodder. Not until you get Denzel Washington’s hands on the material.
First on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival and later in the 2016 film he directs, Washington and co-star Viola Davis put on an acting clinic for nearly two-and-a-half hours few films this decade could match. “Fences” feels like the audience is sitting on stage with the performers and it’s nearly flawless as a slice-of-life film reflecting on middle class African-American life in the 1950s.
Scenes are extended in small, tight locales in Troy’s backyard, kitchen or porch for 15-20 minutes at a time without much room for audiences to breathe. The confining nature of the filmmaking along with Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s subdued cinematography make for a unique experience unlike anything you’ll see in theaters this year.
Davis will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Washington could easily overtake the star of the third best film of 2016 for the Best Actor prize as well. Dramatic acting doesn’t get much better than “Fences.”
3. “Manchester By The Sea” (directed by Kenneth Lonergan, starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams)
As character driven family dramas go, you’ll be hard pressed to find one more gut-wrenching and emotional as Kenneth Lonergan’s heartfelt “Manchester By The Sea,” a film so powerful that it’s difficult to put down in words the impact this film has on a scene to scene basis.
Casey Affleck’s masterful turn as a Boston janitor looking to live a simple life when his brother’s sudden death puts him in charge of his teenage nephew is the best work of Affleck’s career. Supporting performances from Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler and Gretchen Mol combined with an Oscar-worthy supporting effort from Michelle Williams makes “Manchester By The Sea” the best ensemble film of 2016.
There’s just enough humor throughout the relationship drama to offset the immense pain felt by the characters throughout the film and it brings much needed levity to keep viewers engaged throughout.
A simple, yet effective film, “Manchester By The Sea” features some of the year’s best filmmaking from top to bottom and could easily be the top film of the year on many a critic’s list.
2. “La La Land” (directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone)
There’s not really a more delightful cinematic experience in 2016 than “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s vibrant, romantic love letter to classic Hollywood musicals and the dreams a city like Los Angeles can make come true.
Visually perfect with the best musical score of the year, “La La Land” features a terrific performance from the elegantly understated Ryan Gosling and the career-best work of Emma Stone in an engaging, mesmerizing cinematic wanderlust through the beautiful Los Angeles skyline and iconic landmarks.
This modern take on vintage Hollywood storytelling leaps off the screen and pulls viewers in for a classy, adventurous ride about struggling artists falling in love in Los Angeles. It’s exactly the kind of film that might have starred Gene Kelly or Bing Crosby decades ago and yet feels so incredibly fresh and authentic in a modern, 21st century way.
While the primary hook for “La La Land” is inevitably its musical genre, the film shines brightest as a straight character-driven drama with outstanding performances from leads Gosling and Stone. Now in their third film together, Gosling and Stone’s pitch perfect chemistry drive the entirety of the action and make viewers want to dream and fall in love all over again.
1. “Hell Or High Water” (directed by David Mackenzie, starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges)
I called this back in August. The opening of my initial review of this film still stands as true today as it did four months ago:
“Hell or High Water” is the best film you’ll see this year.
This isn’t hyperbole or a statement made lightly, especially given the fact that there’s still four months and an entire season of Academy Award candidates yet to be released.
Beautifully crafted and acted, the first major release film from director David Mackenzie stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who resort to robbing banks in sleepy West Texas towns while being pursued by a grizzled veteran Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges.
“Hell or High Water” is a funky combination of thriller and neo-Western ripped straight out of a different era. Were they alive today, “High Water” is a movie that Steve McQueen and/or James Dean might star in – a quintessential tale of antiheros running from the law for morally just reasons. “Hell or High Water” is “The Getaway” with a conscience; a western “Rebel Without A Cause.”
There aren’t any flaws that I can find with “Hell or High Water.” It’s the closest thing to the perfect cinematic experience I’ve found in quite some time.
The acting is tremendous. Chris Pine does the best work of his career, Ben Foster is peaking at the right time with this movie and Jeff Bridges should unquestionably win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film. Bridges in “Hell or High Water” may be one of the two or three best performances in his entire career. It’s that good.
“Hell or High Water” isn’t a western in the same John Wayne, Clint Eastwood way of thinking about westerns, but it is without a doubt an evolution of the genre to something more complex and layered.
It’s the best movie of the year.