Another year is in the books, and you know what that means? That’s right folks! It’s time for the almighty (and completely subjective) “best films of 2016” list. Before I jump in and unveil my favorites, let it be known that there were plenty of films that, for whatever reason, I didn’t have an opportunity to see in 2016. Noteworthy titles like “American Honey,” “Elle,” “The Handmaiden,” “The Lobster,” “Manchester By the Sea,” “OJ: Made in America,” “Paterson,” “The Red Turtle,” “Toni Erdmann,” and “20th Century Women,” just as easily could have made this list alongside countless others.
As it stands, here’s an alphabetical list of the 10 films that spoke to me most in 2016. I’ve also included a list of honorable mentions. I can only hope these movies affect you as much as they affected me.
Little time with a loved one is more important than no time at all. That’s one of the biggest takeaways from Denis Villeneuve’s quietly haunting sci-fi film about a linguist who sets out to break the communication barrier between mankind and a visiting alien race. Once again, Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Sicario”) proves to be a master of tone, and he’s aided here by a very capable cast including Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and lead Amy Adams. Provocative and heartfelt, “Arrival” is more “Interstellar” than “Independence Day,” and it’s likely to stick with you long after you watch it.
After a decade-long hiatus, Mel Gibson the director is back with the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would save the lives of several men on a World War II battlefield without firing a single shot. Andrew Garfield is outstanding in the lead, but Gibson proves to be the real star here. The battle sequences in this picture are visceral and harrowing to be sure, but for the most part, “Hacksaw Ridge” has an old-fashioned sensibility that we very seldom see in movies these days. And props to Gibson for casting Vince Vaughn and Hugo Weaving against type. The end result is some of the best work of their respective careers.
“Hell or High Water”
“Hell Or High Water” might very well be the best-written movie of 2016. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is superb. Granted, it helps that cast members Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham all bring their A-games. At the heart of this movie are a pair of desperate brothers who engage in a bank-robbing spree across the state of Texas in an attempt to save the family ranch from foreclosure. “Hell or High Water” is a sometimes brutal, always amusing modern Western that is as colorful as it is authentic.
Not simply content on rousingly delving into NASA’s race with Russia to put an American into space in 1961, the warm, heartfelt, and immensely entertaining “Hidden Figures” also touches on civil rights and women’s rights without completely beating you over the head. With only his second feature, “St. Vincent” director Theodore Melfi has fashioned a lively feel-good tale of unification bolstered by outstanding performances by Taraji B. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Kevin Costner. Inspired by a true story, “Hidden Figures” emerged as one of the most delightful surprises of 2016.
“Hunt For the Wilderpeople”
Taiki Watiti (“Eagle Vs. Shark,” “Boy,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and the soon-to-be-released “Thor: Ragnarok”) directed one of the funniest films of the year in the form of this coming-of-age survivalist comedy. Featuring winning performances by young Julian Dennison as a lovable, trouble-making orphan and Sam Neill as the grizzled old codger who must look after him, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” is all at once righteously hilarious and undeniably touching. The chemistry between Dennison and Neill is spot on, and further props to an outstanding Rima Te Wiata who, in a very limited amount of screen time, adds weight to every scene in the movie, even when she’s not on camera.
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is not only beautifully animated by the amazing storytellers at Laika (“Coraline, “ParaNorman”), but it also offers up an undeniably creative and fittingly eccentric story to match the breathtaking visuals. At the heart of this tale of a young boy and a magical adventure is a wonderful message about the importance of storytelling itself. Be it through film, music, or any other form of artistic expression, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a glorious piece of art about the power of art. Furthermore, this film doesn’t shy away from jumping head first into some pretty heady themes. Great stuff! In fact, I was every bit as enchanted by this outstanding film as my kids were.
“La La Land”
“La La Land” is a magical movie experience. It’s pure smile-inducing joy. At the center of this stunning musical from “Whiplash” writer/director Damien Chazelle are two Los Angeles-based dreamers (beautifully played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) who set out to make it big in the city of angels. Of course, romance plays a part in the proceedings, too, as these aspiring artists encourage and inspire one another in a handful of immeasurable ways. “La La Land” is certainly an ode to the musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, and like those pictures, it offers up a timeless, dreamlike feel. Gosling and Stone generate undeniable chemistry, and Chazelle brings a propulsive energy to a movie that doesn’t shy away for going in some pretty bittersweet directions. Yes, this is a magical cinematic experience, but it also speaks volumes about what it means to be an artist. One hundred percent commitment by all involved makes this ambitious, heartfelt movie one of 2016’s best films.
Martin Scorsese’s latest masterwork, “Silence,” finds the famed director marrying two things he knows quite a bit about: film and religion. Simply put, “Silence” is a stunning cinematic experience. It’s quiet, patient, meditatively restrained, provocative, and brutal, all in equal measure. Fueled by stellar Andrew Garfield’s and Adam Driver’s performances as Jesuit priests spreading their gospel throughout Japan, this gorgeous, hard-hitting film emerges as a epic tale of faith and persecution from arguably our greatest living filmmaker.
If you had told me at the beginning of the year that two of my favorite films of 2016 would be musicals (three, if you count “Moana”), I probably would have called you crazy. Yet here we are. While the dreamy, magical “La La Land” is certainly ambitious and punctuated by a hard-hitting, reality-based look at what it means to be an artist, “Sing Street” serves as that film’s charming, coming-of-age, ’80s-set counterpart. John Carney’s infectiously likable tale of a teen using the power of music to get through his parents’ breakup and win over the girl of his dreams is about as irresistible as movies come. Of course, I should have expected no less from the maker of the equally irresistible “Once.”
“The Wailing” is the kind of creative work of horror that truly defies description. This exquisite, expertly crafted Korean import finds a police officer trying to get to the bottom of a string of bizarre murders in a small town. When his own daughter becomes an unsuspecting piece in this compelling puzzle, this flawed man of the law will stop at nothing to protect his family. “The Wailing” is epic! It’s sort of a throwback to the larger scale horror films of the ’70s and early ’80s (think “The Exorcist,” “The Omen,” and “The Shining”), but it still manages to carve out a path all its own. Hong-jin Na has crafted a gorgeous, patiently paced, truly unsettling movie experience that more than earns it’s final terrifying 15 minutes.
“A Monster Calls,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “Don’t Breathe,” “Gleason,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “I Am Not a Serial Killer,” “The Jungle Book,” “Lion,” “Loving,” “Midnight Special,” “Moana,” “Moonlight,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” “Sausage Party,” “Swiss Army Man,” “Wiener-Dog,” “The Witch,” and “Zootopia”