The 10 Most Outstanding Movies of 2016
Below is our list of the Best Films of 2016, which we intentionally limit to 10, even though it easily could’ve been 15 or 20 films this year. We do this because we know that it bugs the ever-living hell out of our readers when we leave off their favorite film. That said, we do have other lists, which your favorite film may have been included on. For instance, here’s our best comfort/rewatchable films of the year, our favorite indie and foreign films of 2016, and the best 2016 movies already on Netflix. If it didn’t make any of those lists, we’re sorry. We just didn’t like the film as much as you might have (sorry La La Land and Rogue One. We like you a lot! But not enough to make the top 10).
I will say this: Numbers 2-10 were close, but our number one was a clear-cut number one. It wasn’t even close.
Penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, the film focuses on the bank-robbing Howard brothers of West Texas. The elder, Tanner (Ben Foster) is brash ex-con, who is loyal, reckless and violent. The younger, Toby (Chris Pine) is soft-spoken, smart, and determined that their string of morning heists won’t hurt anyone but the bank, the film’s true baddie. See, this a contemporary Western. While there is an eccentric lawman (Jeff Bridges) dedicated to bringing these marauding bandits to justice, both he and the Howards are on the same losing side.
Methodically paced, Hell or High Water envelops audiences in the desperation of its setting, and the attitude of its people, who have authentic grit thanks to the casting of supporting players with character to their faces, and curves (some sensual, some sagged) to their bodies. Mackenzie masterfully embeds us into the lives of his anti-heroes, while weaving a story of moral complexity and chilling compromise. It’s so rich in detail and atmosphere, you’ll marvel that an English auteur spun such a stirring story about good ol’ boys in the new Old West. — Kristy Puchko
Arrival is more Eternal Sunshine than District 9. It’s an art film with a mid-sized movie budget and a large ad campaign. It’s a simple, profoundly beautiful poem of a movie about nonlinear time, the power of language and the importance of not giving into our fears of the unknown. It’s also a spectacular movie. Ultimately, Arrival is about how we discover ourselves in trying to understand others, and about choosing humanity over fear. It’s a hopeful, lovely, and uplifting film, a welcome departure from the real world but also a reminder that, regardless of what the worst of us represents, collectively we are a good people. It’s up to us to ensure that our better angels prevail. — Dustin Rowles
8. Manchester by the Sea
Director Kenneth Lonergan delivers a remarkably sad meditation on grief, a film about how loss defies easy answers. (Sexual harasser) Casey Affleck delivers a terrific performance as a janitor who is forced to take care of his nephew after the nephew’s father dies, but there are other profoundly sad moments here about how difficult it is to return to a place immersed in reminders of that loss and how important it is to confront those losses. Michelle Williams, in a supporting role, delivers one of the most powerful scenes of 2016, and for that alone, Manchester is worth seeing. It’s an achingly tragic movie, but it deserves to be recognized for its powerful, muted and nuanced performances and for its honest approach to grief. It’s a movie everyone should see once, but that no one could bear to watch again. — Dustin Rowles
In Hunt For the Wilderpeople Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) pitches us into the brush, fish out of water much like Ricky (Julian Dennison), a 13-year-old Maori foster kid who’s been written off as a “bad egg,” With this misunderstood “bad egg,” we get to experience the discoveries of this incredible landscape as he learns to hunt, forage and survive without modern luxuries like sausages and toilet paper. Fueled by a surreal soundtrack that blends reggae, blues, pop and gospel, Hunt For the Wilderpeople delivers a wacky and heartwarming adventure that will have you roaring with laughter and aching to revisit. Full of character and comedy, it’s easily one of the best films of the year. — Kristy Puchko
6. Nice Guys
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys has achieved an incredible feat. It may very well be the perfect *insert any number of qualifiers here* movie. It’s the perfect summer movie, the perfect Netflix movie, or hangover movie or date movie or … well, you get the idea. Is it the perfect movie? No, it’s not. But it hits that elusive sweet spot of ease, and fun, and intelligent engagement, and more fun. Aren’t we always looking for that movie that can get us to turn our brain off and just have a good time, without asking us to dumb ourselves down first? This is that movie. This is a movie for people with an interest in a number of genres, to varying degrees. The Venn diagram here is widely-encompassing, but generous. This is a movie for people who love noir, or neo-noir; if you like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (also from Shane Black), this will not disappoint; if you like capers, or heists, or Ryan Gosling falling down and doing other forms of physical comedy to a degree you didn’t know he had in him; if you just like fun — this is your movie. — Vivian Kane
5. Sing Street
Set in 1985 Dublin, Sing Street plays like Once meets Billy Elliot (and The Commitments). Director John Carney’s film is rich in ’80s nostalgia and laughs over the foibles of teendom. But Carney is careful not to make his heroes too precious or objects of ridicule. We laugh from recognition. We laugh with them, not at them. Ultimately, Sing Street is a bittersweet celebration of youth and that sweet spot where life’s possibilities seems infinite and terrifying all at once. Carney builds his story from a familiar foundation, then uses the imagination of its heroes to grow into fantasy sequences, musical numbers, and a rousing finale that will make you want to stand up and cheer. — Kristy Puchko
As director and star Mike Birbiglia told a rapt audience after a screening of the film, the magic of improv is that everyone is equal on stage, despite where they are in real life — “art is socialism, and life is capitalism.” And so it is in Don’t Think Twice, where six friends and colleagues on the stage have to come to grips with their competitive failures and successes off the stage. Don’t Think Twice is a hard movie to watch at times, with these moments that feel so real and true that you squirm, feeling like you should not be watching something so intimately uncomfortable. But Birbiglia’s script smartly does not wallow in these moments of discomfort, balancing them out with uproariously funny scenes. Both poignant and hilarious, Don’t Think Twice is similar to a Judd Apatow film in that way, except that both the emotional and comedic beats feel more realistic than even the best Apatow moments. — Seth Freilich
If any part of you thought this movie was going to be standard biopic fare, covering the life and times of a former first lady in any way you’ve seen before, it’s so much more than that. This movie feels like work. It’s only 99 minutes long, but I swear they were the longest 99 minutes of my life. Not because the movie drags, not even for one of those, but because the entire movie is so full, so complex, and so painful, that each minute seems to be stretched and filled to an impossible degree. The movie is work, and it is hard. By the end, I felt like I had just spent 99 minutes on a treadmill at full speed, while vomiting the entire time.
This movie is about many things, but it never really tells you what is at its core. It doesn’t make it that easy. Is it about Jackie Kennedy’s journey as a woman? As a politician’s wife? Is it about her constructing a narrative to preserve a family legacy or an American legacy? Or is she constructing anything at all? Where is the line between truth and, if not fiction, a guided truth? A story? Jackie may make you ask all of these questions, but it doesn’t provide any answers. If that sounds frustrating, well, it is. But the entire movie flows so naturally and tragically that the frustration is intimate, and personal. Make no mistake, this movie is difficult, but it is beautiful. As difficult and beautiful and real as the human mind. — Vivian Kane
The Handmaiden is the newest movie from South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook, whose filmography includes such fucked-up masterpieces as Thirst, Stoker, and his most popular, Oldboy. The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith.
The Handmaiden is a lesbian psychological drama… sort of.
It’s a psychosexual revenge thriller… sort of.
It’s a lush, Gothic period romance… sort of.
It’s one of the best, most unexpected movies of the year, and it’s one where you should know absolutely nothing about it going in.
One gets the impression someone bet Park Chan-Wook he couldn’t make a crowd-pleaser, and he said “fuck you” and turned around and made this—decidedly NC-17, rife with sex and violence (a lot of the former, not so much of the latter, at least compared to some of his other stuff), without the rough edges we’ve come to expect from his films sanded off. But, at the same time, fun. Funny. It’s gorgeous, it’s surprising, and it’s hot as hell. — Rebecca Pahle
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight follows the life of a young black man in three phases. Barry Jenkins’ steady and subtle hand delivers a rare protagonist, strong performances from children and adults alike, and rejects pandering monologues that’d spell out the stakes, settings, or motivations. In each phase, Chiron is defined by his silence, leaving the moody cinematography and the locked lips and striking eyes of three actors to carry his character development. It’s a gamble that pays off beautifully, demanding audiences gobble up every slow moment of discovery or hurt, every unfair indignity, and each treasured stay of grace to understand this lonely figure who desperately wants love, but has been too wounded to speak to his need.
Rich with humanity, Jenkins’ exceptional drama is a major step forward from his charming debut, 2008’s black-hipster rom-com Medicine for Melancholy. Though the setup might seemed poised for the sort of tear-jerking theatricality film festival buzz is often born from, Moonlight continues to play by its own rules, delivering a subtle but stunning finale that will shake you hard, but leave you smiling.