-A list of the Top 25 films (with a few honorable mentions) of this calendar year.
The time is finally here, the 25 (plus a few) best films of this calendar year! Proceed with caution…
It’s worth noting that I make this list without seeing EVERY movie. I tried to hold out for as long as possible to get to see Paterson before making this list, but it never expanded to me. Because of similar geographical problems, I also don’t have many foreign films on here, because they just don’t open near me. Either way, out of the many, many movies that I went to see this year, here are the group that I think are the best.
If there are any ones you think are missing, feel free to comment, and please check out my list of films that I liked but didn’t make the cut here:
Although a movie that I found pretty inconsistent, some of the themes behind 20th Century Women, both about how the relationship between men and women has changed since the more chivalrous era preceding it, and also about a mother struggling to raise her child without a father in the picture. It’s all set in a sitcom-esque rental home with different characters that live there, but the one theme of good performances and deep characters carry over. It’s a smart movie.
Along with Love and Friendship, these are two movies that are inherently indie and under-the-radar, but also are predictably on here if you read my Top Films at the Midway Point (check it out here) article. This movie is exactly the reason that critics make these lists at the end of the year. Everyone knows the 10 movies that will be on EVERYONE’S list, but what about the other grouping that’s entirely on taste? I though A Bigger Splash was wonderfully and aesthetically pleasing, and it had four solid central performances.
–Goat (No Review Posted):
Take a movie about frat hazing and make it into a thriller with a good performance by a Jonas brother? It sounds insane, but Goat manages to really capture the drive to join a fraternity and then go through the awful motions of what that can take at a larger school. It makes the struggle become adjacent with some trauma that the main character has, and manages to be one of the better movies of the year that was really overlooked.
I didn’t expect this, but Hail Caesar has become a divisive pick. Although it’s helmed by the great Coen Brothers, many audience members didn’t like the ‘inner-Hollywood’ style plotline, and its reception among movie-goers was not great. I personally sided with the critics on this one, it’s silly, has good performances, and is entertaining enough to recommend.
Hell or High Water got some serious attention, probably because it managed to blend a few different genres together with ease in a style that one could deem a ‘neo-Western.’ The movie shows a part of the country that often gets forgotten about, the impoverished country people who have no capital or business in the area to provide for their families. It’s a nice film about that desperation when two brothers start robbing banks.
Put How to be Single in the running for most underrated movie of the year. I saw this back in February, on Valentine’s Day weekend, and what was advertised as a ‘girls night out’ movie ended up being a movie about how we develop and take care of relationships: how they change us, how they break us, and the whole story is about how a character is learning to be okay with herself without a partner present. It really does not have much to do with the party lifestyle that’s advertised in the trailers. It’s worth noting also that the ensemble cast is good here.
Just saying the name “Natalie Portman” should be enough to have this movie considered for multiple Oscar nominations. She’s just extraordinary as Jackie Kennedy, and although the movie around her sinks under its own weight, Portman does (arguably) the best work of the year in the lead. It has a special kind of eerieness and care with the tone as well, that makes the movie feel unique.
Love & Friendship is a movie I saw very early on in 2016, and it stuck with me throughout the year. One of the reasons for it is just how perfect the costumes and scenery are, transporting you right to 1700s England, and grounding it with one of the year’s best performances by Kate Beckinsale. It’s occasionally pretentious, but it’s also witty and charming.
The two central performances that ground Loving are two of the best of the entire year with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the Lovings. The film chronicles the backstory of Loving v. Virginia, and is played with an eye for understatement from director Jeff Nichols. The two characters don’t understand the legal system, and often feel alienated by it, but they show their commitment to their cause in other ways, put against a Southern coast backdrop that is as rustic as it is old-fashioned.
Admittedly, this isn’t one of the best films of the year, but it is the funniest. I often abide by the rule that if a comedy makes me laugh, or a horror movie scares me, it’s enough to overlook the flaws because it succeeded within its specific genre. This movie did exactly that, and I laughed, sometimes uncontrollably, for the entire run-time of this thing. Adam DeVine makes the movie, but a really good Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick help. Aubrey Plaza is the other lead, and she feels a little miscast, but she’s funny enough.
THE TOP 25:
It’s always easy to just scoff at another performance that gives Meryl Streep an even longer catalog of noteworthy work, but Florence Foster Jenkins is another great performance by the all-time great (not overrated) actress. The movie details a special kind of vulnerability, and how the perseverance of the human spirit can override any perceived faults. She insists on singing despite not being good because she believes in herself, and it’s therapeutic for her. This is enough to get Florence a cult following just on her spirit alone. Streep’s great performance is bolstered by a terrific Hugh Grant, who was clearly an Oscar snub.
#24. The Founder (Review Forthcoming)
Michael Keaton could make a damn good case that he deserved more awards attention over someone like Viggo Mortensen for his role in The Founder, a despicable look at the big-business tycoon who ousted the true founders of McDonalds and peddled their product to the masses. It hums along at a nice pace and never gets particularly dramatic, settling for a more upbeat style of biopic that is more about the pacing and plotlines than being immensely accurate. It’s tough to watch such corporate corruption in action, but with Keaton’s electric performance, I couldn’t knock the movie.
A Monster Calls is one of the most imaginative children’s stories of recent memory, the kind of movie that uses allegory and fictional substance to bolster a plot centered around loss. When a young boy, played by the surprisingly adept Lewis MacDougall, learns that his mother’s (Felicity Jones) cancer has worsened, he is visited by a tree monster (Liam Neeson) who tells him three stories to help him cope. The stories are a surprise cut away from our live action style, going into an extremely colorful stop motion that is wonderfully stylish. Although the movie struggles in the second to third acts with some of the more serious substance, it manages to land a nice emotional ending to cap off what felt like a very unique and special movie.
Although criticized because of director/star Nate Parker’s personal life, the actual film of The Birth of a Nation was excellent, and arguably the best traditional biopic of the year. It was restrained, relying heavily on seeing the brutal world of slavery through our main character’s eyes rather than an affront on the entire institution, but by learning more about Nat Turner, we braced for the rebellion, which occurs in a wonderfully directed series of scenes at the end. This may not be the best anti-slavery historical movie that we’ve seen, but it is excellently presented, shot, and edited, and was the first glimmer of hope in a very slow Oscar season. If you’re a viewer who does enjoy historical pictures like this, The Birth of a Nation does it as well as can be.
Hint: this is only the first collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg on this list… Patriot’s Day was just a really powerful film about the community of Boston and about the bravery of the police forces involved in catching the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing. It unravels like a traditional procedural, randomly introducing and developing light characters because they play a role in how the thing unfolds at the end. It’s suspenseful, and it’s pretty horrifying at parts. I said in my review that it wasn’t up to me to decide whether something is ‘too soon’ to make a movie based on, so I was perfectly happy with how well this was executed.
Two of the best performances of the year landed in Fences, a film directed by the great Denzel Washington. It shows the struggle of the lower middle class, living check to check and week to week, while trying to set an example for their children. The husband and wife team of Denzel and an amazing Viola Davis gives us a great dynamic, and some special acting scenes land really emotionally heavy in this film. Outside of a third act that gets a little too bogged down in unnecessary symbolism, it’s hard to find flaws in Fences, a traditional story about fatherhood and the still-prevalent problem of race-based discrimination.
Director Damien Chazelle is one of our brightest talents, and it comes out with his dream project in La La Land, a musical that understands both the wonder and silliness of the Los Angeles lifestyle, and also the urgent intensity of wanting to bring back jazz in a way that people will enjoy. The love that Chazelle has for the genre is played out entirely through Gosling’s Sebastian, after Gosling learned to play some jazz piano for the role. Mix him with a classic partner in Emma Stone, and their chemistry helps carry the movie. It occasionally may drag from its length or lose focus slightly in its sprawling story that spans years, but the end scene where the two characters “reunite” is among the most emotionally impactful of the entire year. This movie is a true expression of great film-making.
If you read my article about the movies that missed the cut of this list, I mentioned a few times that movies like Moana or The Secret Life of Pets were my second and third favorite animated movies. Here is my first. Zootopia is great because of its ability to be tongue-in-cheek about its social message while still being animated beautifully and having some good action and excitement to keep the children involved. It’s a movie about acceptance and reaching your dreams despite your stature, or appearance (or species for that matter), and it fits us right into this world of anthropomorphic animals living in the animal hub of “Zootopia” where everyone can be themselves and pursue their dreams. It seems cheesy, and sometimes it is, but it’s restrained enough and also self-aware enough with some truly successful comedy that it elevates beyond the typical kid-friendly fare. This would be my pick to win the Best Animated Feature if I had a vote.
Not everyone loved The Witch, mostly because it probably is the only wide release horror film this year that had this kind of restraint and style over the traditional Hollywood jump-scare method. There is another horror film on this list, but it’s not horror in the same fashion as The Witch is, clearly a supernatural film that has an intense slow-burn from its outset. Anya Taylor-Joy is amazing as the young girl accused of her family of submitting to witchcraft, and this movie is so intimate, set entirely on an abandoned farm where our characters struggle to live and feed themselves in 1600s North America. A few scenes, one involving a son from the family heading out to a cabin in the woods is terrifying, and The Witch marks the return of A24 distributing these cold, slow-burning movies that are all about tension and atmosphere.
If Fences was the darker story about race and it’s effect on the possibilities of ones life, Hidden Figures is the more uplifting and spiritual one. It’s a movie about three women who helped aid the space program during our technological battle with Russia. It clearly shows the disadvantages of having a system that refused to recognize true civil rights, but rather than dwell on the more hardened aspects, the film moves forward with an inspiring perseverance and quick pace. By the end, when our characters really have begun to accomplish their dreams, we, as the audience, feel like they’ve truly accomplished something special with this movie, and it’s one of the best dramas of the year.
This is a movie that surprisingly made several people’s year-end list, mainly because it mixed political intrigue with thrilling action sets seamlessly. The way the power struggle between the worker’s union and the executives plays out in one of the most horrific man-made disasters we’ve seen is completely frustrating, and director Peter Berg does great work again with Mark Wahlberg. This is totally one of the most underrated movies of the year, probably because it is, at its heart, more of an action thriller than an Oscar-piece drama, but fans of more sophisticated movies will totally enjoy this, as will action fans. It’s a nice blend of blockbuster entertainment with a strong backbone.
If John Hughes had made a modern film, this would’ve been it, a clear tribute to the chaotic kinds of teen dramas and romances that gave Hughes such a popular name. This time, it’s Kelly Fremon Craig, a virtual unknown, at the helm, with star Hailee Steinfeld delivering some of the best work of the whole career as an awkward, anti-social teen who loses her way when her only friend begins sleeping with her brother. It’s a likable movie throughout, funny, touching, sensitive, but it occasionally overstays its welcome with some cliches. Overall though, it’s nice to get a movie that understands what it’s like to have bad days as a teenager, without being overly sympathetic or promoting irresponsibility.
I’ll often mention films on this list that I say are “underrated,” just good movies that people didn’t give the same kind of love for as it deserved. This would be my pick for the most “overlooked” movie of the year. It got buried in Sundance with mixed reviews and apparently was outclassed by a very similar movie in Other People, but this movie checked all of the emotional boxes for me. It’s one of the most re-watchable films of the year, and contains wonderful performances by a slew of great actors including Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Sharlto Copley, and more, and offers a strong directorial look from John Kransinki, who also gives a good performance. It’s a bit melodramatic at many points, but I was emotionally wrapped up in the story and I let the movie manipulate me a little bit. It’s just a classic dramedy that deserved more love than it got upon a very unsuccessful limited release. Rent it!
Although not very well-reviewed, The Neon Demon may be the most exquisitely shot movie of the year. It’s directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a known experimenter with films such as Drive and Only God Forgives. He gets the most out of a very stern Elle Fanning, and the movie itself is among the most unique of the year. Some of the more glamorous or violent shots may leave viewers scratching their heads, but it’s a huge indictment of an industry that thrives on superficial beauty and youth. This movie isn’t for everyone, but I was blown away by the cinematography and commitment to strange visuals, it’s arguably the best horror film of the year.
The concept of drone strikes has become a pretty salient political issue in recent years, but this movie views it extremely objectively, working through the question of whether getting a suspect is worth the possible collateral damage that a strike entails. It works through several different government agencies getting approval from each other, from Helen Mirren to Alan Rickman to Aaron Paul. Although the performances are all good, the movie is more about building tension, a two hour look at how impossible making this type of decision would be.
Number Ten is a sexy, stylish thriller that, outside of very unneeded opening credits sequence. It uses three different timelines of story to convey the tortured nature of an insomniac art gallery owner (Amy Adams). She remembers her relationship with her past husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) by reading his masterfully violent and sadistic novel he has just published. So much has occurred in her life that she regrets, and much of it comes out during these scenes of reading the novel. The two leads are great, but add in Michael Shannon and a career-best Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Nocturnal Animals is one of the most exquisitely shot and acted films of the year.
The most complete drama of the year is Moonlight, a film whose three acts span decades, but not in the kind of gimmick style that would push the movie for multiple Oscars. It uses different actors, but the transitions between time periods are very natural. While Chiron, our main character, is portrayed by three young actors, it’s the supporting players in his life that make this movie, like Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, or Janelle Monae. It shows the awful nature of living in a crime-infested city, and the effect it has on the youth.
Richard Linklater is back, and he made one of the most enjoyable movies of this calendar year. He does it with an 80s baseball team, thriving in glam rock and beer cans (and a wonderful love interest played by Zoey Deutch). It manages to be among the funniest and most poignant movies of recent memory despite not really having a delineated plot. Essentially, the movie is just a week-in-the-life-of.. kind of experience, but it ends up being so much more than that.
Want a stinging indictment of marriage culture? Look no further than The Lobster, the craziest romantic comedy ever made. Imagine a dystopian universe where you either have a life partner or your life ends and you get transformed into an animal of your choosing, the icing on the cake being a match-making hotel run like an internment camp with some of the weirdest demonstrations to speak of. It’s not so much about the very dry performances here, including Colin Farrell’s, but rather about the very absurdist sense of humor that makes this movie really stand out.
This might qualify as the biggest surprise of the year, a really stunning narrative that is wrought with emotion and finding oneself. Although the best part of the film is the first act where our main character gets lost, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara in the cast helping to pick up the pieces all deserve credit for awards-worthy work. The music is fantastic, as are the performances. Don’t let the trailers dissuade you, it’s excellent.
Martin Scorsese returns with one of the year’s best films, a three hour trip through religious persecution and the affirmation of one’s principles. This is a special movie, using a terrific Andrew Garfield to guide the story forward. Our characters help an underbelly of persecuted Christians in Japan while trying to find out what happened to their leader, who went missing there years ago. It’s not always an easy movie to watch, but it’s amazingly acted and directed, especially incorporating some excellent sets and some excellent cinematography, blending impoverished ocean landscapes with wealthy Japanese towns. It’s a gorgeous movie.
Andrew Garfield appears in two straight on this list, the slightly higher one being Hacksaw Ridge, which also marked the triumphant return of one of Hollywood’s greatest talents in Mel Gibson. Say what you want about Mel, but he manages to make possibly the most brutal war scenes in movie history with the battles here, and it’s a special effort from a director who could use some recognition. A backstory romance involving Garfield and Teresa Palmer works okay, but the biggest success is the staging of the battle sequences. Where you’d expect the movie to feel like a cliche, such as the ‘let me get one more’ scene, it instead is an earned emotional weight because of how much we’ve grown to care for their cause and who Garfield is.
Man, I LOVED The Nice Guys. My affair for this movie didn’t actually start the first time I saw it, but rather it has increased during every viewing. It gets funnier every time. It gets more charming every time. Perhaps it’s the dim-witted Gosling, and maybe it’s the completely gruff Russell Crowe, but this is the ultimate example of what a good buddy comedy could be. Sure, not all of the plotting is excellent, which is why it didn’t get the 5-star designation from me, but there’s more of a ‘love this movie, and I’ll watch it over and over’ factor with this than any movie that came out this year. It’s a complete joke that it didn’t get more awards attention.
So, Arrival was my #1 up until about two days before writing this where I switched it with the next one. If you’d like, consider this as #1(B). Amy Adams is again terrific, this time roping us into a non-linear story that addresses the way that our language makes us see the world. The score is the best of the year, and the concepts are so intriguing that when the end comes around and it all falls into place, it’s so powerful that it completely floored me. It’s almost as if the brilliant part of extraterrestrial plot is a subtext to everything else that happens. This is an amazing achievement in science fiction.
This movie is one of the saddest films of all time. It’s just the most intensely sad film I’ve ever seen, riddled with loss, riddled with past wrongs and guilt. Casey Affleck may not win the Oscar because of a past lawsuit that involves him, but there wasn’t a performance better this year, to the point where I pretty much sat in the theater, eyes wet, for its two-hour run time. Other performances like Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams are also special, and it’s a story about how a hometown, and how family, affect us through the years. As our lead suffers in the present, we unpack what makes him such a difficult personality from the past, and the discoveries are just horrifying. This is an amazing movie, and it’s what dramatic filmmaking is all about.