The Best Films of 2016

Movie-wise, 2016 was a year with a strong starting lineup and a weak bench. I now know better than to try to rank the previous year against others so soon – time/distance + repeat viewings = clarity – but I'd say I saw an above-average number of great films (the top three movies on my list fall into the “masterpiece” category) and a below-average number of good ones. As such, I've decided only to rank the top ten films of the year rather than my usual twenty. I'll also note, as usual, that there are quite a few interesting-looking things I haven't seen and that this list is likely to evolve over time. Before we get to the top ten, here are fifteen honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):

10 Cloverfield Lane: One of this year's out-of-left field surprises: a pressure-cooker sci-fi (or is it?) thriller that exceeds its (narratively unrelated) predecessor in every way. John Goodman's paranoid, menacing performance is terrific. How has this man not gotten an Oscar nomination yet?

Everybody Wants Some!!: A joyful, heartfelt, entertaining movie about people who would probably annoy me in real life.

Green Room: A savage thriller with some real thematic meat on its bones. A tough watch when it was first released, and an even tougher one now that Anton Yelchin has died and American neo-Nazism is back in style.

Jackie: Maybe the most negative portrait I've ever seen of the beloved former first lady, but also the one that made me care about her the most. Structurally unique, well-acted, genuinely insightful.

La La Land: It's not the best film of the year by any stretch, but it's an old-fashioned charmer with a handful of dazzling sequences. Elevated by an excellent (though borrowed) closing stretch.

The Light Between Oceans: Many people have said this movie is bad. I would counter that it is, in fact, very good. Recommended viewing for people who love tragic romance, appreciate actors who are good at looking distraught or like wearing sweaters.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World: Werner Herzog takes us on a guided tour of the wonders and horrors of the internet. There's little here you don't know, but Herzog has a way of making the familiar seem alien.

The Lobster: If the second hour of this dark satire was as sharp and innovative as the first, it would be much higher on the list. Even so, it's a wildly original work that has a lot to say about human relationships.

Love & Friendship: The funniest Jane Austen movie ever made, boasting Kate Beckinsale's best performance. Despite the setting and source material, Whit Stillman's unique voice is still strongly felt.

Loving: A courtroom drama with almost no courtroom scenes. Jeff Nichols takes a potentially conventional awards-bait history lesson and strips it down to a series of tender, carefully-observed human moments.

The Nice Guys: Pure, uncut Shane Black fun. If you dug Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, you'll dig this, too. Ryan Gosling's assorted yelps, whimpers and screams alone are worth the price of admission.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: If you like The Guns of Navarone and you like Star Wars, chances are high you'll enjoy Star Wars: The Guns of Navarone.

Star Trek Beyond: My favorite blockbuster of the past year, and the first Kelvin-verse film to demonstrate a real understanding of what Star Trek is all about. The best Trek film since First Contact.

The Witch: Which is more unsettling: the idea that all of this is really happening or the idea that it isn't? A strong, slow-burning slice of religious horror. (Also, I refuse to call this The VVitch.)

X-Men: Apocalypse: The most comic book-y comic book movie I've seen in a while. Messy, but sort of madly ambitious in a way that presses all my buttons. The “NO MORE WEAPONS! NO MORE SUPERPOWERS!” scene is a classic.

On to the main attraction: here are my picks for the ten best films of 2016.

10. Hail, Caesar!

Plenty of movies have paid affectionate tribute to the people who make movies (Hollywood is nothing if not self-flattering), but I'm pretty sure that Hail, Caesar! is the first to actually depict a studio head (a never-better Josh Brolin) as a Christ figure. The metaphor – which grows increasingly elaborate over the course of the film's running time and is somehow simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and entirely sincere – actually works (I keep thinking about that scene in which a studio set serves as this film's version of the Garden of Gethsemane). It's the New Testament B-side to (the very Old Testament) A Serious Man, buffered by some pitch-perfect recreations of '50s Hollywood entertainments and some of the year's funniest individual sequences (“Would that it were so simple...”).

9. Kubo and the Two Strings

The stop-motion wizards at Laika reached new heights with this visually dazzling, deeply affecting film. Telling the story of a young boy's Legend of Zelda-esque quest to uncover the secrets of the past and escape the grasp of evil spirits, the film offers a surprisingly rich examination of loss, memory, family, folklore and forgiveness. It's also a movie that understands that children – like Kubo – are capable of handling more than we often give them credit for, dealing frankly with death and challenging the simplistic, feel-good messages we expect from a film aimed at young viewers. I spent much of the running time awestruck by the imagery the film served up, but didn't expect the closing stretch to hit me quite as hard as it did. One of the best animated features of recent years.

8. The Wailing

I was certain The Witch would be the best horror film of 2016, but this South Korean horror epic (it's over two-and-a-half hours long, and it earns that running time) left me breathless. Beginning as a slow-burning horror-comedy, the film unveils new layers (and new thematic ambitions) with each passing reel and gradually becomes a work of ferocious intensity. The film gleefully defies easy categorization, eagerly blending mythical folktales with religious elements and mixing-and-matching assorted horror subgenres (ghost stories, zombie films, exorcism movies) without ever feeling overstuffed or unfocused. It opens with a Bible verse: “'Why are you troubled,' Jesus asked, 'and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet. Touch me and see – for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.'” By the time we understand the reason for that passage's inclusion, the film has revealed itself as a modern horror gem.

7. Arrival

One of two 2016 movies that draws a great deal of inspiration from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the other is right below this one on the list). It's a film that captures the communication struggles of the world we live in, the ever-present tension between the desire to be first and the desire to be right, and the way that pain is inextricable from progress. Cleverly, it expresses these ideas through a narrative that finds a philosophical, artful, cerebral sci-fi film trying to escape the omnipresent shadow of a much louder, dumber one. The film is absorbing throughout, but reaches transcendence during its closing moments (a sequence that has such a ripple effect on everything else that it will either make or break the movie for most viewers). Arrival has minor weaknesses here and there (some of the dialogue is pretty clunky), but it turned me into a puddle.

6. Midnight Special

This year's other Jeff Nichols movie is the director's first foray into science-fiction, and his influences are readily apparent: lots of Close Encounters, a good bit of Starman, elements of E.T. Even so, this isn't merely a patchwork of classics, but a uniquely soulful, thematically rich tale that makes exceptional use of Nichols' talent for creating perfect little snapshots of humanity. It's also one of several excellent 2016 films dealing with religious themes, using its tale to thoughtfully explore the idea of how the modern world might actually respond if a seemingly supernatural miracle-worker were to appear (the answers are as diverse as... well, as the world we live in). And have the movies ever given us a better encapsulation of parent/child relationships than the following exchange?

Alton: “You don't have to worry about me."
Roy: “I like worrying about you.”
Alton: “You don't have to anymore.”
Roy: “I'll always worry about you, Alton. That's the deal.”

5. Moonlight

My friend Gavin put it best: this may not be the year's very best film, but it's the one that everyone should see. Director Barry Jenkins arranges the film like a visual symphony of sorts, presenting the life of his protagonist (a quiet, gay, black man named Chiron) in three unforgettable movements (we see him as a boy, a teen and an adult). It's a deeply affecting, expertly-arranged portrait of humanity that incorporates examinations of race, sexuality and poverty in a manner that never feels remotely patronizing, formulaic or PSA-ish. The closing segment in particular is a thing of breathtaking beauty, bringing the film's assorted threads together in subtle, surprising, moving ways. In some ways, it functions as an excellent companion piece to Todd Haynes' superb Carol (collectively, their closing scenes seem to represent a specific step forward for LGBT cinema). Jenkins is a great conductor: quite possibly America's answer to Wong Kar-wai.

4. Hell or High Water

A tight, entertaining thriller that has a lot to say (and does so without letting its messages disrupt the pace or become too heavy-handed). Come for David Mackenzie's expert direction, the compelling cops-and-robbers story and the excellent performances (Chris Pine has never been better, and Jeff Bridges is at the absolute top of his game), stay for the film's nuanced understanding of history, Texan culture and “economic anxiety.” Both a great present-day western (with trucks filling in for horses in the third-act climax) and a genuinely insightful examination of the problems plaguing middle America.

3. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan's latest is simultaneously the most unbearably sad and unexpectedly funny movie of the year. It's a masterful examination of grief that hits harder and digs deeper than pretty much anything else I've seen on the subject, and much of that is thanks to the stunning performances from Casey Affleck (who turns his reticent, tightly-wound screen presence into something devastating), Michelle Williams (who makes an enormous impact with only a handful of scenes) and Lucas Hedges (the newcomer of the year – let's hope we don't lose him to blockbusters). It deals with incredibly heavy, emotionally raw material, but never gives into the temptation to descend into forced miserabilism or phony inspirational material. It's also a movie that understands how to help someone grieve: not to force “solutions” onto them, but to simply see them, hear them, love them and acknowledge their pain.

2. Silence

During my childhood, I heard many sermons which asked me to consider the question of whether I was willing to die for Christ. These sermons were often accompanied by stories of famous martyrs, refusing to deny their Lord and Savior as they were burned at the stake, beheaded or tortured to death. The two Jesuit missionaries of Silence are prepared to face this test in real life, as they head to 17th-century Japan knowing full well that many Christians have been executed there. However, the actual test they're given is a considerably more challenging one: are they willing to let others die for their faith? Martin Scorsese approaches this story from an unmistakably Catholic point-of-view, but never permits the film to turn into an intense Sunday School lesson: he's attentive to the self-righteous hypocrisies of his protagonists (who beg Japanese Christians facing execution to apostatize while never dreaming of doing so themselves) and to the specific cultural nuances of his setting (the much-feared Inquisitor and his underlings – despite their horrific actions - are depicted as pragmatists, not sadists). This isn't a movie for everyone: in addition to being deliberately slow and repetitive (it's the film equivalent of an anguished repeated prayer), both believers and atheists/agnostics may struggle to warm up to the material for different reasons. Even so, it shook me. It exists at the intersection of Ingmar Bergman's spiritual despair and Terrence Malick's spiritual reverence, and stands alongside their best works as one of the great cinematic meditations on faith.

1. Embrace of the Serpent

The fact that Ciro Guerra's film is black-and-white, subtitled, moves at a meditative pace and doesn't have any recognizable stars all but ensures that it will remain underseen and underappreciated, but it's hands-down the year's richest, most profound piece of cinema. It's a film about lost cultures (it's dedicated to “peoples whose songs we will never know”), materialism, nature, religion and more... a spare-yet-complex story about what has been stolen from and what has been denied to so much of humanity. Somehow, in addition to being the most thematically meaty film of 2016, it's also the most visually stunning film of the year (taking both thematic and visual inspiration from Herzog and Kubrick and easily matching both of them) and a thoroughly gripping piece of storytelling (alternately heartbreaking, harrowing, darkly funny and awe-inspiring). It's the film I've thought about the most over the course of the past year, and it continues to challenge me in a variety of unexpected ways. It's on the very small list of movies I would consider life-changing.