Any good film enthusiast has their own list of the best films of the year. I didn’t get to see all the films I had hoped to see in 2016, but I managed to see quite a few. I figure ten is a good number to count down from because it adds a degree of caliber to my picks, plus it’s nice and square!
This year was a strange year and many are reveling in its departure, but there are still a few gems that deserve recognition. Now, I’m sure a lot of these lists are going to look pretty similar, with films like La La Land and Manchester by the Sea making just about every one. That being said, I’m only including films I’ve seen on this list. As much as I’d like to include Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, I just haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet and I feel like I would be doing an injustice including them on the list. Additionally, I’m looking only at 2016 releases, because I spent a heck of a lot of time going through Netflix this year and I can only include Just Friends on so many lists. I digress. Here is the gold standard for ‘best film’ lists everywhere.
10. Denial (Jackson, 2016)
Director Mick Jackson’s first feature film in almost twenty years challenged the idea of ‘truth’. In a year where fake news became an epidemic and expectations were challenged at every turn, Denial made a statement about the importance of understanding and morality. The film follows the true court battle between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving over Holocaust denial, which ultimately argues against conspiracy theorists and fringe evidence in favor of understanding the way things really are, even if it doesn’t support your particular bias.
9. Love and Friendship (Stillman, 2016)
I’ve written fondly about Whit Stillman in previous posts, but at 64 years of age, he seems like he’s really hitting his stride. He took lengthy and laborious source material and managed to make it sharp, apt and, dare I say, whitty? Stillman uses an early Jane Austen story to wax poetic on high society – as he does so well – all while exploring the greater intricacies of Victorian family structure. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a period piece.
8. Kubo and the Two Strings (Knight, 2016)
For being the longest stop-motion animation movie ever, Kubo and the Two Strings seemed to be over too soon. The film created its own fable and utilized its visual capabilities to create a one-of-a-kind journey into the mind of a boy on the precipice of manhood. It was engaging to all audiences and it didn’t have to pander to anyone, which “kid’s movies” tend to do. Instead, it offered an important reality check to everyone about the fickle nature of life. (Also it’s a pretty damn impressive directorial debut)
7. Indignation (Schamus, 2016)
A coming of age story with some serious consequences, Indignation offered a lot more thought than most movies about college. What does it mean to develop thought? What does it mean to become a man? The film about a jewish boy at a Christian college in the 1950’s provided its own morose answers to these questions. It also featured an important part of growing up: disagreeing with people. Independent thought has consequences, especially in a homogenous society and our protagonist allows us to taste that experience. Though it might be bitter, it sure was poignant.
6. Hell or High Water (Mackenzie, 2016)
The western seems to be long past it’s glory days. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get to see a gem every once in a while. Hell or High Water was one of these. It boiled down all of the excess gunk that people feel is so necessary in westerns today: the undead, aliens, etc. It’s one of those movies that keeps it successful by keeping it simple, which is under-appreciated these days. A simple cast, an old school cat-and-mouse chase and the dusty, mars-red landscape of Texas (which of course, is New Mexico) come together to revive a genre that has been nearing terminal illness.
5. The Witch (Eggers, 2016)
I watched this film once before this website existed and once afterwards, both in the 2016 calendar year. It might feel excessive, but you really can’t just watch The Witch once. In a genre plagued with gimmicks, jump shots and plot loopholes, this film decided to focus on making one element scarier than the rest: the story. You see, just as with Sci-Fi, horror tends to rely on it’s visual elements to carry the weight of a film. The Witch just doesn’t need that – it has a New England folktale using actual language from the era to bolster its intensity. It makes you feel like everything you’re seeing could actually have happened and that is the scariest part.
4. Zootopia (Howard & Moore, 2016)
Zootopia was one of those special movies that I really never expected much out of and was happily surprised. It could have ended up being as surface-level as its title seemed, but instead it managed to be a complex meditation on race relations, class-struggle and gender politics all wrapped into one very cute package. It didn’t spend an excessive amount of time meditating on these issues, but managed to highlight their relevance through a buddy-cop style mystery movie. It was one of those movies that goes to show you that Pixar can be outdone with the perfect mix of tact, wit, and charm.
3. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan, 2016)
Ah, there’s nothing quite like small east-coast towns. They’re quaint, quiet and full of querulous gossips who live and breathe on the tiny dramas that speckle their existence. In the case of Manchester by the Sea, the drama is heart-wrenching. Every TV spot you’ve heard isn’t exaggerating, this movie is moving and it doesn’t need to be loud to do so. It follows a working-class family trying to piece together their lives following a death in the family. It feels very real, which I think is why audiences have come to appreciate it so much. It doesn’t glamorize grief, instead subtly accentuates it. Manchester by the Sea is about healing and that’s something that 2016 needs.
2. Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson, 2016)
A war movie about a pacifist? Talk about a comeback for Mel Gibson. The Braveheart director may have been blacklisted for the last decade, but this film seems to really add credibility a man who’s basically been discredited by Hollywood for a few public blunders. This film is a great American film which tells a story about the best parts of America. It’s about subtle heroes who silently work hard to help each other all for the glory everyone but themselves. It’s about southern chivalry, it’s about classic American values and it’s about chugging along even when it seems like everyone is rooting for you to lose – a lesson Mel Gibson knows too well and it’s seems to have paid off.
1. La La Land (Chazelle, 2016)
Ryan Gosling has had his cereal and eaten it too. I know this film is going to be a number one hit for a lot of films fans out there, but it’s so damn charming. It manages to capture the best parts of LA and reinvigorate the best parts of ‘old Hollywood’. It feels like Busby Berkeley is alive and well again and as are the magical effects he had on moviegoers. John Legend’s character Keith asks his stubborn pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), “How are you going to be a revolutionary when you are such a traditionalist?”. An appropriate question for both his character as well as director Damien Chazelle. La La Land is the answer. It understands that there’s no way to capture the classical feeling of the old Hollywood with authenticity, but it also proves that there is an audience for this kind of cinema in the 21st century. We do adore all the elements that made classic cinema so special, even with the vibrancy of the 2016.