In film, we see what we want to see. Movies do not exist in a vacuum; we bring our own baggage, and the baggage of the world, into every theater we set foot into. Art without the world, without commentary, is finger-paint. While we enjoy finger-painting from our kids, we humans are hardwired to seek meaning, to find connection where perhaps there is none. A majority of the films released in 2016 were in development well before then, and yet the majority that appear on this list will so perfectly encapsulate the year as a whole.
Overall, 2016 was a crap year. It was a crap year for progress, for sanity – just look at the wave of hate sweeping the world. It was a crap year for our idols, a lot of whom were taken from us, their light never to shine again. And, most germane to this discussion, it was a crap year for movies. Despite astounding box office, the first half of the year was filled with a few surprises but little else that made a lasting impact. After multiple attempts, Ryan Reynolds finally struck gold and was rewarded with Deadpool – certainly a big win for FOX and R-rated superhero films. But beyond Civil War, was there anything that astounded you? That genuinely surprised you – and not just in a ‘oh god, they made a sequel to both Alice and The Huntsman’ kind of way? Few originals made a splash. Yet hope remains. Despite the interminable and absurd reality show that was the 2016 Presidential election, many of the films on this list found light in the darkness. When things get tough, we turn to our art and entertainment for escapism, happiness and guidance. May the hope these films inspire linger and may the bridges they made stand until we emerge from this tunnel.
And so we see what we want to see. We saw division, misunderstanding, hate and fear persist. So we sought out movies that prompted unison, love and understanding. It did not make the list, but Jyn Erso’s call for hope in Rogue One may be the rallying cry of the year. We have to start somewhere, so let us begin with hope.
NOTE: I didn’t make it to the movies that much this year. Life and plans and the podcast. So there are a lot of omissions: Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Silence, Elle, Loving, 13th, Hell or High Water, A Monster Calls and countless others. I hope to get around to these soon. In the meantime, these are the films that remain.
(Review) The Merc with the Mouth succeeds in this oversaturated superhero market precisely because it doesn’t play by the rules. There’s a gratuitous amount of violence, nudity, swearing and the breaking of the fourth wall. Movies, let alone ‘safe, family friendly’ superhero films don’t do this. Yet it also gets to play in the same sandbox as its more prestigious brethren and emerge as a damn fine action adventure. Parents, don’t bring your kids.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
(Review) In the era of shared universes and direct sequels, an anthology title feels downright antiquated. Boring pretty much only the name from the found-footage horror film, 10 Cloverfield Lane quickly establishes itself as something very different; and with a very different monster at its core. Not some vague threat that dogs our kidnapped heroine but rather John Goodman, who puts in one of the best and sure to be most forgotten performances of the year.
8. Kubo and the Two Strings
The stories we tell, tell us who we are. The year’s most underrated animated film (it didn’t have anything resembling an adorable mascot) is also one of a handful to provoke genuine emotion in this critic. The classic hero’s journey is on full display with great voice work from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, but the true wonder is the practical effects work seamlessly integrated into the animation. It’s scary, it’s beautiful and, like the best children’s movies before it, bittersweet. And therein lies its power.
7. Star Trek Beyond
(Review) The 50th anniversary of Star Trek was this year and director Justin Lin (with an assist from writer Simon ‘Scotty’ Pegg) does the brand justice by giving us a classic ‘lost in space-esque’ yarn with some fast (and furious!) action sequences. Like its predecessors, the film’s plot is window-dressing for our beloved characters, and for the first time in three movies, the audience really gets to know the crew.
Plus, it has the single greatest music cue of the entire year.
6. La La Land
(Review) The inevitable Best Picture winner is a grand little ditty in the stylish tradition of the classic musicals. Damien Chazelle appropriates the tropes of Hollywood’s Golden Age and puts his millennial spin onto it, weaving a basic tale of boy and girl with some spectacular visuals. If the characters are infuriating, some of the racial politics too ‘white savior’ and the singing/dancing ability of the actors not up to snuff, one cannot deny the ending and the way it makes you feel. Bold, bright and beautiful, La La Land is a lovely fantasy sure to make big waves here in reality.
5. Captain America: Civil War
(Review) This is the culmination of the Marvel Universe (so far) and it is among the best the genre has to offer. While there is plenty in terms of bravura action filmmaking, there is more to the film than just spectacle and fist punching. No movie event in 2016 is perhaps as relevant than the ideological battle between Captain America and Tony Stark, one clashed between control and oversight, and the freedom to do what’s best for the good. Most superhero films end with a giant CGI slugfest between armies; Civil War keeps the focus small and personal and is all the better for it.
4. Midnight Special
(Review) Jeff Nichols was quite busy this year, also making the critical darling Loving. Midnight Special, like 10 Cloverfield Lane, is a great example of genre filmmaking couched within a very different narrative. While the latter yanks the rug out from under you in a third act ‘reveal’, the former is a meticulously crafted mystery box that lets you peek inside for a moment every now and then. What you see inside is…well, something wonderful. But I’ll let you see it for yourselves.
(Review) Barry Jenkins declared himself unequivocally with his three act portrayal of the life of a gay black man. In a year of divisiveness, any bridge towards understanding with those who are different, is welcome. That it is a beautifully constructed and shot movie, featuring some of the most wonderful and intimate imagery of the year, is a thing to cherish.
(Review) The lessons learned in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are more than just learning a new and completely alien language; it is about opening new lines of communication. It is about knowing the destination of a thing and however bad the outcome, still enjoying the journey. And, aliens! Much like the film itself – though, it may be one of the best and most emotionally powerful endings of a film this year. Listen, and you can learn wonders.
And the number one film of this painful 2016…
1, Sing Street
The film we in 2016 deserve is one by Christopher Nolan: dense, dark, long, filled with unsympathetic men, powerless women and a lot of death and tragedy. Fitting, yes?
The film we need is Sing Street. John Carney’s exquisite, wonderful and joyous coming of age tale is a rebuke of all the darkness of this past year. The world is awful and if Sing Street teaches us nothing else it is that you can look at the way things are and despair, or you can take all of it and create something. Positively.
And it has THE best soundtrack for a musical this year.
Now, let us put 2016 to rest. See you all in the New (and Improved!) Year.