Top 10 Movies of 2016

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Circa early October, 2016 seemed like one of the worst years of cinema I could ever remember. There were some great efforts prior to October, several of which made this list, but the dry summer blockbuster season left a bad taste in my mouth. Then came October, and about every other week, a film I absolutely loved was released. 2016 would become a great year, blossoming with powerful works and a few masterpieces. Here are my ten favorite films of the year.


10. Jackie

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Pablo Larrain’s muted biopic of the iconic First Lady is one of the most original films of the year. With its dreamlike pacing and editing, as well as its mesmerizing score, Jackie captures its subject’s state of grief following the assassination of her husband. Taking place almost entirely in the days following John F. Kennedy’s death, the film sports a detached, almost alien quality, as mirrored by Natalie Portman’s emotionally sophisticated, difficult performance. Here, we see the First Lady dealing with her celebrity, the complications of her marriage to the president, and her sheer emptiness in having everything taken from her. Her advisors tell her to disappear from the limelight, a degree to which we know she does, but Jackie also reminds us why we never quite forgot about this elusive, stunning figure to begin with.


9. Captain America: Civil War

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Superheroes populated the silver screen in 2016 more than any other year before it. But even when the majority disappoint, we got one hell of a justification for their prevailing existence with Captain America: Civil War. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has carried on, the third “solo” Cap outing is an exercise in long-form storytelling. It feels like everything since 2008’s Iron Man has been building to this relationship testing moment where these lovable heroes are at odds. Through that, Joe and Anthony Russo have created a taut thriller doubling as a superhero epic. But for all its emotional character beats, and even some political meditations, the film doesn’t forget to be warm and fun. Case in point, the following exchange after the MCU’s brand-new, homemade Spider-Man is locked in battle with Captain America. “Where ya from, kid?” Cap asks in admiration. “Queens!” the young hero says. “Brooklyn,” Cap says back with a smile and a nod.


8. Nocturnal Animals

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Tom Ford’s gorgeous, solemn psychological thriller boasted inventive visuals and powerful, committed performances. Amy Adams went two-for-two, including another film next on this list, with a cold and detached figure suddenly faced with the potential danger of her aloof nature. This quiet revenge thriller digs deep into the fallacies of modern romance, all while using classic horror techniques to create a legitimate sense of uneasiness, regardless which timeline is being explored. Granted, every time Adams puts down the manuscript of the novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenahaal) wrote for her, it’s always set in a dark room where she sits alone. Ford plays with horror tropes better than most directors did in 2016, he just also ropes it into a story where horror isn’t the most expected genre to explore. The ambiguous ending is one that truly haunts, more so than that of The Witch or any horror film this year.


7. Arrival

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Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival is like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind mashed up together and given a fresh coat of paint. Visually dazzling with mountains of eery, alien imagery, yet pulled together by the humans who have to deal with the aliens’ appearance on Earth, as well as Amy Adams’ excellent performance, the film grabs you and doesn’t let go until every last shattering secret is revealed. Much like Kubrick’s masterpiece, Arrival is about both humanity’s place in the universe and our potential to be greater. Coming at a time of great turmoil in the country, hitting theaters just days after Hillary Clinton lost the presidency, the film’s themes of unification for our one world are more relevant now than they would have been in the past several decades. For every thrilling piece of sci-fi in Arrival, there’s an overarching message of peace, making it one of the most unique, important films in its genre this decade.


6. Everybody Wants Some!!

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Taking a page out of his 1993 indie classic, Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater puts the same microscope he did on the last day of school/first night of summer in that film on the first weekend of college in Everybody Wants Some!!. Following a Texas university baseball team in the ’80s, the wide cast of characters is mostly what we consider “bros” in 2016, but somehow that doesn’t make them any less lovable. Virtually plotless, the film is a study on masculinity, showing how disgusting pranks and long nights at the bar bring them closer than any practice ever could. Many of the characters acknowledge that they’re not going to make it to the Majors, something much more difficult to admit for the ones hellbent on it. But that also creates a search for purpose, which is how Everybody Wants Some!! captures the spirit of college better than any Neighbors or Old School flick before it. As these boys find themselves and become men, we’re left on a beautiful note of excitement for life and a will to learn everything, whether its learned in the classroom, a few beers deep, or both at once.


5. Manchester By the Sea

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Kenneth Lonergan’s long-gestating family drama is so meticulously crafted, with each line of dialogue ringing with purpose and emotion, that it feels genuine and real, almost as if the actors are doing improv throughout it. Manchester By the Sea doesn’t aim to break cinematic or political ground, it’s just a great story beautifully filmed, emotionally effective at the precise times Lonergan wants you to learn a devastating new piece of information, hilarious at the exact times we need to laugh, and overall just a majestic exploration of family and the complications that come with it. Casey Affleck is wonderful as the lead, with Lucas Hedges being another newcomer to watch in a year abundant with them. As a complete piece, Manchester By the Sea is a complex package that reaps powerful rewards the longer it lingers in your mind after you’ve seen it.


4. Silence

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As Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious, personal film of the past two, or even three decades, Silence‘s flaws in pacing and its few minor missed story beats are easy to forget about. The masterful filmmaker has created a quiet, yet harrowing meditation on faith and duty. Pulling a career-best performance out of Andrew Garfield, and reminding us Liam Neeson is a whole lot more than just an action star, Scorsese is more passionate about and devoted to his characters here than he’s been in years. Garfield’s Rodrigues is particularly put through the wringer, undergoing a physical and mental state of questioning his faith and his morals in the face of ruthless oppression and violence. Perhaps the film’s greatest wonder is how, in 2016’s sociopolitical climate, Scorsese manages to so fully put his audience in the shoes of these Catholic priests and make us do battle with our own moral standards. Silence is complicated and difficult, but the rewards, appropriately subdued, are massive, making for a fresh Scorsese film that, in time and with careful studying, could rank as one of his many masterpieces.


3. 20th Century Women

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As with most years, there were plenty of quirky coming of age dramedies in 2016. But none succeeding in having a winning blend of warm family moments and fresh comedy as 20th Century Women. The story of the residents in a boarding house in California in 1979 rang true in 2016 because, as it turns out, times haven’t really changed that much. We have iPhones now, but humans are still the same. Annette Bening is magnificent as the mother of all the residents, biological or not. She brings a confidence and vulnerability to the role that pushes this utterly believable, relatable woman into a war with herself. As her teenage son, his best friend, and a struggling artist also fight similar internal battles, the film shows that complacency is a facade, but that there are still beautiful moments between these battles to make everything worth it.


2. La La Land

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In a sense, La La Land can be easily split into two halves. The first half is a warm, musical merely playing with the tropes of classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ In the Rain. The second half is a meditation on dreams, what happens when we face failure, and the sacrifices that come with success. The first half, spry with catchy numbers, is wholly necessary for the second half to start breaking the tropes of the classic musicals of yesteryear. But La La Land is all masterpiece, marking two in a row for writer-director Damien Chazelle after 2014’s Whiplash. That’s because this modern musical truly has it all. Assured and darling art direction, catchy songs you’ll be singing into next year, powerful ballads that hammer home the film’s themes, the electric chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the showstopper of a performance Stone in general delivers. La La Land is an intricate work of cinema with every second meticulously thought out, but still with a feeling of refreshing spontaneity. Introducing itself as a simple crowd-pleaser and evolving into a serious film with serious ideas, yet never sacrificing the fun of this genre, La La Land already feels like the classic its destined to become.


1. Moonlight

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Cinema was blessed with a substantial, vital, beautiful work of art in 2016. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is one for the ages. At the height of its powers, the film is about learning to love yourself no matter what you look like, how you dress, or who you wish to lay next to in bed. Only once you’ve accomplished that can others begin to truly love you for who you are. Never has this statement been so artistically made or written for the screen. Take the early scene where Mahershala Ali’s surrogate father figure takes the youngest iteration of Chiron into the ocean. The camera rests intimately close to them as the waves gently rock it when Ali delivers “You’re in the middle of the world,” while baptizing Chiron into a new world of understanding. The scene, like many others in Moonlight, is a striking marriage of dreamlike visuals and pivotal character growth, all perfectly edited and scored to extract every drop from the film’s ocean of emotions. Through the first two acts, we see Chiron age as a gay black male in a battleground of masculinity and heteronormativity. It’s jarring, yet completely justified when we cut to act three to see that Chiron closed himself off emotionally to win that battle, now a muscled-up drug handler, much like his surrogate father. His arc in the third act to finally open up himself to human possibilities, playing opposite the joyful, endlessly charismatic Andre Holland, brings the whole film together so beautifully, leading to the dual-closing shots of a small, simple moment of intimacy followed by the young Chiron, basked in moonlight, looking us in the eye, as a young human yearning to be just that. Moonlight puts up the face of a gay black male, but it doesn’t aim to do so for the awards or the press. Jenkins’ film is a pure human expression intimately drawn for its audience alone. As welcome to play on repeat in any art museum as it is in the DVD collection of a young person trying to find themself, Moonlight is perfect, destined to be studied for decades.


Some Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions:

So The Birth of a NationTanna, Zootopia, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping were dangerously close to making the list. As far as some more serious fare that I quite liked but missed the mark in some way, Midnight SpecialThe Invitation, The Salesman, and Hell or High Water made for some great small-time genre films, while Certain Women and Fences brought about fresh, real-world stories.

On the comedy side, excellent big studio hits like Deadpool and The Nice Guys balanced out the little-seen indie comedy gems, including Hail, Caesar!Hello, My Name is DorisSing Street, and Swiss Army Man. Blockbusters, meanwhile, were mostly forgettable this year, particularly in the summer, but major franchise continuations like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at least partially made up for them. That said, well-made horror and thrillers made a comeback in 2016, in particular with 10 Cloverfield LaneThe Shallows, and Don’t Breathe. Some other random gems: The Jungle BookKing JackThe Little PrinceKubo and the Two StringsElle, and Moana.

Now for some of the worst movies of 2016: Zoolander No. 2Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeThe Lobster (more overrated than terrible, but still), GhostbustersJason BourneSausage Party, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk all stick out. For a long while, 2016 looked like a historically terrible year for cinema. But then October rolled around and it ended up delivering a few must-see future classics.


By Matt Dougherty


One Response to Top 10 Movies of 2016

  1. Courtney says:

    Excellent list! Moonlight was fantastic. Have you Lion? I saw it last night, and it was tremendous!

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