2016 has been over for a while, but I’m only getting to my top ten list now. I didn’t catch up to as many 2016 films in January as I had hoped to, but I still got to a couple more and now feel as ready as I’ll ever be to make my list. In 2016, I don’t think I paid as much attention to what was being hyped, and I think it made for a much more relaxing time at the cinema in 2016. I didn’t necessarily worry about checking everything off. I was also in Hartford for most of fall and winter movie season, so the selection was a little bit more limited than what I was used to in Boston. I did miss out on some movies I wanted to see, and ended up seeing a bunch of summer releases I probably wouldn’t have if left to my own devices.
As such, I’m not really sure how to sum up 2016. The commentary surrounding it seems to be pretty focused on diversity and social commentary with the election, which I definitely felt in some of my trips to the cinema this year. Overall, I’m pretty happy with my list. Looking back on my previous years of blogging, I’m not sure anything will top my enthusiasm for the year 2014, but 2016 was pretty good for me I think. Writing out my list, what was most outstanding to me was the different and innovative ways these movies found to release information to the audience across their respective running times. This doesn’t go for all of them, but a lot of them really seemed to avoid talky exposition and force the audiences to pay attention to the specifics of the filmmaker’s visions. Sounds like a pretty good through line for some of my favorite films of the year to have. As always, who know how many of these will stand the test of time. But for 2016, these films were some of the most rewarding watches for this movie lover.
Here are all the films I caught this year:
Arrival, Certain Women, Fences, Finding Dory, The Finest Hours, Ghostbusters, The Girl on the Train, Hail, Caesar!, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Independence Day: Resurgence, Indignation, Jackie, La La Land, The Light Between Oceans, The Legend of Tarzan, Manchester by the Sea, Midnight Special, Moonlight, Star Trek Beyond, Nocturnal Animals, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Silence, and Sully
Honorable Mentions: Manchester by the Sea, Silence, and Indignation
Coming in at number ten is…
Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures, to me, is the feel good movie of the year, and I sincerely mean that. I love movies that deal with NASA, and this one goes in with a racial and gender-specific viewpoint that nobody else (shockingly, in hindsight) had thought to before. I’m not sure it’ll be one of my favorites forever, it’s a bit too oscar-baity to stand the test of time I’m thinking, but as a coda to the miserable year that was 2016, it was pretty amazing. (3/4 stars)
Coming in at number nine is…
Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special
I originally didn’t think there would be room for Midnight Special on this list, but I caught the back half of it on TV semi-recently and it sort of brought the film to the front of my consciousness again. I really thought it was an effective throwback to Spielberg films like ET and Close Encounters, but it also had an eerie emotional resonance entirely its own. Maybe my mistake was not to see other Jeff Nichols’ films in a theater, but I got wrapped up in the experience of this one more than others of his I’ve seen. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number eight is…
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land
I’m really hoping this one climbs in my estimation as time goes on. For now, I’m appreciating it more as a success in bringing back the original movie musical, long absent from our silver screens. I don’t know what was holding this one back for me, maybe just all of the hype surrounding it, or maybe because I was dealing with a whole new animal instead of a familiar and comforting Fred and Ginger picture. Whatever my mixed reaction may be, you can’t deny the film is a technical marvel. Despite all of the throwbacks, Chazelle creates another incredibly original film. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number seven is…
Denzel Washington’s Fences
If, by any chance, you’re of the opinion that there’s a dearth of great performances this year, look no farther than Fences for immediate refutation of that claim. Directed by Denzel Washington from a play by August Wilson, the film doesn’t totally eschew its theatrical roots but does put forth an incredible film nonetheless. Washington and Davis are quite amazing here, as the aging and beleaguered couple. By turns humorous and heartbreaking, Fences contains some of the most powerful acting you’ll see in 2016. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number six is…
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden
Where to even begin with this movie? (You can see why I never got around to reviewing it…) Well, first of all, I don’t believe you’ll see anything as twisty and turney this year as the plot and multiple perspective shifts of The Handmaiden. I don’t think I was as invested in the outcome of any other movie this year. The movie may have a few flaws, but its extravagant style and thrilling plot are just a couple of things that make it stand out. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number five is…
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie
I’m sad Jackie isn’t getting more end-of-the-year attention, because it’s definitely one of my favorites. One could easily analyze all of these films through the lens of last year’s election, but in December it was easily this one that hit me the hardest. Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy is one of my favorites of this past year; she embodies a complex and traumatized woman trying to reaffirm her recently deceased husband’s dignity and importance as the president. Working with Portman seamlessly is Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography, revealing the depths of Jackie’s character in Portman’s face and also the environment around her. Like The Handmaiden, I know this film isn’t perfect and can also be repetitive, but it had a startling effect on me in the theater. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number four is…
David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water
I loved Mackenzie’s modern take on a Texas bank robber story reminiscent of one of my favorite movies of all time, Bonnie and Clyde. Economic considerations aside, the most brilliant thing about this movie is how it doles out information. You never see characters explaining their plans, you see them robbing banks and then figure out for yourself how they are doing it. And it’s only in the end that you find out what their motivations are. If only more movies dealt with exposition like this! (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number three is…
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival
With Arrival, Villeneuve’s American output continues to get better and better (I should really get around to his Canadian films sometime…). It’s not often that a big budget sci-fi movie has you thinking this intently about the nature of time and how humans experience it, and what our choices really mean. It does what sci-fi is supposed to do, use a scientific concept (in this case aliens landing and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) to get us to think about our humanity and how these concepts affect it. That would be enough to land it on my top ten alone, but it’s also up so high because it’s also beautifully shot by Bradford Young (using shallow focus to a point, yay!) and powerfully anchored by Amy Adams. I just hope the new Bladerunner is this good. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number two is…
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!
I stated above that Hidden Figures was the feel-good movie of the year, but Hail, Caesar! was definitely the movie I had the most fun with. As with most Coen brothers movies, the movie itself seems to overcome whatever larger point it might be trying to make, but when I’m watching it I’m so delighted by the film I don’t even care. I loved all the glimpses into different types of lovingly recreated classic Hollywood films, the showcase of actors on display here, and most of all the Coens’ signature absurdist humor. It’s the only movie I rewatched on this list (which is kind of an unfair comparison since it came out in February), and I expect to rewatch it many more times in the years to come. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number one is…
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight
One can go on and on about the social importance of this movie (and not to diminish that), but it’s also a rigorously formal exercise. Split into three parts to show the three different identities that one man creates from himself is not only a genius move, but turns in some pretty heartbreaking and emotionally complex results. You get to see a person grow up, but not in a way where you just watch him in a period of his life, but rather in different periods across his whole life and you see what specific instances led to him becoming the person he is. Not in a simplistic way, but there is a cause and effect to the development Chiron’s personality that Jenkins illustrates perfectly. There are many reasons why Moonlight is my favorite of the year, but this is chief among them. (4/4 stars)
There you have it, folks! My top ten of 2016. As you can see from the list I posted of the films I did see, there were a lot I missed too, chief among them 20th Century Women, Loving, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, The Neon Demon, Love and Friendship… and probably many more. Hopefully I’ll get to these in the years to come (Lion and Hacksaw Ridge before the Oscars in light of their nominations).
Usually this is the part where I talk about which movies I’m excited for in 2017. I did a little bit of preliminary scrolling through imdb, and also looked back over these top ten posts from previous years. I realized it’s so hard to tell what’s going to be good in the next year at this point of time. I’m just gonna wait and let it all happen (though I will say the next movie that gets me into theaters will probably be Beauty and the Beast in March). There’s so much that could happen in the next year, so I’m just going to look forward to being surprised by whatever great films it has in store.
In February, I’ll be doing my traditional look back at previous best picture winners. This will end with Oscar predictions for this year, then coverage of the actual ceremony (I’m always up in the air over whether or not to live blog, but I’m thinking I will this year). Then in March, it’s back to weekly TV reviews of The X-Files, and a lot of classic films in light of the theaters’ slim offerings in the first part of the year. Thanks for reading, and thanks for another great year of blogging!