What an interesting year it was for movies. After a stronger than normal first quarter, we hit a slog of a summer and ended the year with movies that were both thought-provoking and deeply moving. One of my favorite aspects of this year in movies was how quietly some films snuck up on you. Movies that I thought I liked, I couldn’t get out of my head and actually, truly loved.
Certainly, there were plenty of lousy movies because, unfortunately, there are always more stinkers released in a year than not. That should not deflect from the great films and hidden gems that came out this year and will stay with you long after the end credits roll.
I could have easily filled up a list of 20 movies that were great this year. It pained me to not highlight the thrills of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Hell or High Water. How about the beautiful subtlety of Certain Women or the tale of friendship and economic struggle in Little Men? Disney remade Pete’s Dragon to charming and emotionally satisfying success, which ended up being one of the surprise highlights of the late summer season. I haven’t even mentioned Everybody Wants Some!!, Eye in the Sky, Deadpool, Hacksaw Ridge, Green Room or A Bigger Splash. They may have not made the Top 10 but are all movies worth seeing.
The fun and challenging part is keeping the list to 10, so without further ado, here are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2016…
- American Honey: When I left Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I wasn’t entirely sure how much I liked it; it’s a shaggy, rambling, 163-minute ode to millennial ennui that lacks a distinct focus. A few days after seeing the movie, I hadn’t stopped thinking about it. There’s an unshakable energy and vibe to Arnold’s road trip oddessy, which follows a young ragtag magazine sales crew. Featuring a debut performance by Sasha Lane and a career-best by Shia LaBeouf, American Honey‘s spirit is worth witnessing.
- The Edge of Seventeen: Oh, how I love this movie. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig – in a directorial debut – The Edge of Seventeen is a high school movie that is worried about so much more than who is going to prom with who. Hailee Steinfeld has been in a handful a movies – garnering an Oscar nomination at 14 for True Grit – but delivers a star-making performance in this hilarious and deeply felt film. This was one of 2016’s biggest surprises.
- Tickled: David Farrier has made a career as a journalist writing about weird stories. He stumbled upon a strange competition online that involved boys tickling each other and knew there was a story to be told. As he continued to dig, he saw there was more than just a new story here and created the documentary Tickled, which is one of the most bizarre experiences of this year. I can’t say much more but I urge you to see this one to believe it.
- Patriots Day: On the surface, Patriots Day is another Peter Berg-Mark Wahlberg movie about Wahlberg saving the day. Their latest outing is a basic procedural, which is infused with so much tension, even though we know the entire story, which is a sign of something great. Patriots Day follows the events of the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt, which is likely to resurrect the range of feelings you felt in April 2013. The movie is thrilling but respectful to everyone who was affected by this tragedy.
- Moonlight: Barry Jenkins has created a movie of quiet power. It’s the movie topping most lists and rightfully so because films of delicate beauty are so rare these days. Jenkins’ triptych tale of Chiron is seamlessly told from the point of view of the protagonist as a child, teenager and adult, struggling with his sexuality and identity. Featuring one of the best casts of 2016, including Mahershala Ali in a likely Oscar-winning supporting turn, Moonlight is powerful even when it doesn’t try to be.
- La La Land: Director Damien Chazelle is someone to watch. The 31-year-old director gave us the magnificent Whiplash two years ago and now La La Land, a gorgeous wink to the a bygone era of Hollywood musicals. While this movie put a smile on my face and had me tapping my toes, Chazelle infuses a sense of melancholy amongst the L.A. sun, pulling off a delicate balancing act. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling turn in their best performances to date as two creative types searching for success in tough businesses. La La Land is a joy across the board.
- Elle: Paul Verhoeven’s latest as struck up some debate and controversy about how the film handles the sexual assault that opens the film. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Elle is a perplexing but magnetic piece of cinema, which will have you questioning each characters’ motivation throughout. Huppert is magnetic in this unshakable film.
- Sing Street: Not unlike La La Land, Sing Street is pure joy. John Carney’s latest doesn’t stray from the mold we are used to seeing from him but why fix something that isn’t broken? Sing Street is unabashedly romantic, telling the story of a young boy in Dublin, who wants to impress a girl and starts a band to do so. The songs, romance and energy are infectious and it’s a movie that can put anyone in a good mood.
- Midnight Special: Jeff Nichols has been a director to be excited about for some time. In Midnight Special, he reteams with Michael Shannon for a story about a father who is trying to get his son away from a cult, while evading the government, who both want access to the son for different reasons. Midnight Special is a marvel – an eerie and mysterious work, which will keep you guessing until the final frame – if not long after.
And the best film of 2016…
- Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece is both brutally devastating and darkly funny. Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, who is forced to care for his teenage nephew, played by a wonderful Lucas Hedges, after his father passes away. Everything about Manchester by the Sea aligns so perfectly: the writing, the direction, the performances, the gorgeous cinematography and the operatic score. When I first saw Manchester by the Sea at the New York Film Festival, I knew I saw something special. When I saw it again upon its release, I realized I had seen a pitch-perfect exploration of grief told through a supremely honest lens. The material is heavy but this is a true masterwork and the crowning achievement of 2016.
If you read any of my film writing in 2016, I thank you very much. If you made it to the bottom of this list, I thank you again. I’m so excited about these movies I saw in 2016 and look forward to what 2017 will bring.