2016 was full of all sorts of losses for me. My life went through a few unwelcome changes, we’ve got a crazy President now, and the general air was full of strife. But at least there were some good movies last year. The year may not have been as stacked with greatness as years past, but there were some definite gems.
Highlighting the year were major surprises, a fantastic animated slate, and one film I found myself (mostly) unfairly comparing every other release to.
Here are fifteen of my favorite films from 2016.
30-16: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sausage Party, Bad Moms, Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, Deadpool, Storks, Magnificent Seven, The Boy and the Beast, Everybody Wants Some, The 13th, Ouija: Origins of Evil, La La Land, Hidden Figures, Kicks
15. Shin Godzilla
I’ve got to admit my major Godzilla bias helped it make the list, but I argue it’s a great enough movie to belong here. Along with a fresh take on an old monster, Toei gave it a more pro-active Japan in the narrative. In films past when Godzilla attacked, the Japanese citizens were always just reacting to Godzilla or running from this nuclear fear. But in Shin Godzilla, it’s the humans who are finally able to put him down. Through intelligent strategy (as it unfolds like a political thriller that also sneaks in some digs at the Western version of Godzilla) and science, the humans prove that there is hope in a hopeless situation. It’s a far cry from where Toei started with this series. Couple the strong message with a fantastic monster suit, and Godzilla has never been better.
14. Morris From America
What seemed to be a major theme in 2016 was youths growing up in an ever changing world. Quite a bit of films followed kids as they formed their own perspectives and found their voices. One of the more unique takes was Morris From America, which followed the young Morris (Markees Christmas, who is going to have a huge career ahead of him) and his father (Craig Robinson, who definitely should pursue more dramatic work) as they both tried to accept their new lives in Germany. Morris finding his way through rap lyrics, and then discovering that he shouldn’t merely mirror the voices of others, was a journey we don’t really see much in film. It’s a nice slice of life about a kid just trying to be himself. That’s always nice.
13. Hell or High Water
In might be because I’m from Texas, so I’m willing to forgive a lot of its character faults because I know people like this, but Hell or High Water really struck a chord with me. It just seemed so unique. It’s a film following two sets of characters as a string of robberies occur in bumblefuck Texas, but there’s just so much said. It’s all in the smaller moments such as when a jerk gets his face bashed in, or when Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham throw subtle, racist jabs at one another. Or when Ben Foster and Chris Pine’s characters rob a bank and you have hilariously awkward dialogue between the two of them. Then it’s all the more devastating when the film reminds you of the reality of these characters’ situation. There’s beauty in the film’s gradual progression.
Since Denzel Washington directed Fences, and helped get it to the big screen in the first place, it was touted as some kind of major performance from him, but he’s honestly my least favorite part. It’s everything around him that’s fantastic. In fact, his overacted performance actually works in his favor since his overbearing father character is inherently flawed and unlikable. But you feel for his family, these characters, trapped in this continuously awful situation until Viola Davis just breaks down and brings in the most commanding performance of the year. It’s a bit of a dense piece, but worth the watch completely.
11. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This Cloverfield sequel was the first major surprise of 2016. Hitting theaters only two months after its sudden announcement, it was already in my good graces since I didn’t really have any expectations for it. What we got was one of the more tense productions of the year with standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. In fact this film was so damn good, the thought of an entire Cloverfield extended universe doesn’t seem too bad at all. It cemented Cloverfield‘s franchise status and gave us the kind of sci-fi horror we haven’t seen in years.
10. Sing Street
It might be unfair to compare two musicals, but after such a drought it seems apt. La La Land is going to get all of the attention (which is mostly deserves), but Sing Street was the musical that hit home for me. Kids forming a new wave band in 1980s Dublin might not seem like the most inclusive premise, but it’s positivity makes it familiar. It’s a nice musical about chasing your dreams, and it’s got a killer soundtrack to boot. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was one of my favorite songs in film last year, and the final performance was one of my favorite moments of the year entirely. Sing Street is charming, quietly strong, and it’s just a musical of pure fun.
Disney always seems to find a way onto my end of year lists, and 2016 was no different. But while there were two strong offerings, Moana is leagues above Zootopia in its awesomeness. A princess film where a young girl learns not to just aim to help a man, but accomplish things her own damn self? It says more than Frozen ever did. While the soundtrack admittedly doesn’t have the staying power of its more Broadway predecessor, the film makes up for it with a deep color palette, astounding animation, and awesome performances from its two leads. Auli’i Cravalho has a major career ahead of her, and I can’t wait to see how far she’ll go.
8. O.J.: Made in America
You can argue the five hour O.J.: Made in America project isn’t technically a film, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better documentary last year. A documentary somehow always finds a way on to my list each year, so I definitely felt I should include this seeing as how I watched all five hours of it in one sitting. The O.J. Simpson trial happened before I was conscientious of things happening in the world around me, so seeing it all laid bare is fascinating. An enthralling portrait of the figurehead Simpson had become through his trial and then cataloging his public descent into mediocre madness was honestly something you couldn’t make up. “Stranger than fiction” has never been more appropriate.
7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi has quickly become one of my favorite directors. After a strong showing in the surprising What We Do in the Shadows, and before seeing what he can do with Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is yet another home run for him. The story of a kid in New Zealand who’s been bounced between foster homes and his adoptive father who couldn’t give less of a damn about him running through the forest is one of the funniest films of the year. Like Shadows before it, it’s a dialogue heavy comedy full of of awkwardness and charm from the young Julian Dennison.
6. The Jungle Book
I can’t believe Disney took a terrible sounding idea, remaking their animated films into live-action, and produced some of their best work from it. Maleficent, Cinderella, and now The Jungle Book. I’ve never been a fan of the original, but Favreau’s take was fantastic. Stunningly animated animals, a great voice cast (with Walken’s mob boss styled King Louie being an obvious stand out) , a tense story, and a great performance from the young Neel Sethi, who somehow was still believable while acting for a green screen. I watched this a number of times last year just to marvel at it, and I don’t expect to stop anytime soon.
The one major awards contender I’m rooting for is Moonlight. It’s simply incredible. Watching the young, quiet Chiron grow, deal with his terrible home situation, struggle with his sexual identity, and survive in a world that wants to destroy is a phenomenal experience. Barry Jenkins’ directorial strength comes through with his intimacy in heinous situations and finding the beauty in the mundane. A deep, bright color palette showing Miami in a light rarely seen in film, close face ups that linger on a character’s internal pains, and strong central performances anchor the film’s journey. It’s not a film I can recommend for everyone, as my own sister exclaimed how boring she felt it was, but it’s an experience you should have for yourself.
4. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
I’ve always taken The Lonely Island trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone for granted since I keep forgetting how much genius they share between them. Their last project, Hot Rod, is still a film I re-watch to this day, and Popstar dutifully continues that tradition. I’ve seen it four times since I first viewed it in theaters and, of course, I’ll never stop never stop it. A hilarious script, charming performance from the trio, and original songs that oddly sound great enough to fit in with the pop scene. The genius is in how slightly off each of those songs are, to remind you of the parody. I mean, “Equal Rights” and “Finest Girl” are some of the most hilarious things I’ve heard in years.
3. Kubo and the Two Strings
I was attached to Kubo from its very first trailer. Laika is one of the few studios keeping stop-motion animation alive, and luckily for all of us they’re phenomenal at it. Kubo is their strongest offering to date with the story of the titular Kubo journeying across the world to find the pieces of a mystical suit of armor to fight the ghosts of his unknown past. It’s got this mythical quality in its storytelling, so it’s kind of like a new, yet familiar take on a fairy tale. Coupled with the previously mentioned crisp animation (which Laika makes more and more seamless with each film), great voice cast (including the likes of Rooney Mara and Charlize Theron), and stunning score. I’ve yet to hear a better version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
2. The Nice Guys
So this came out of nowhere, huh? Shane Black’s unique perspective always yields a great film and The Nice Guys is no different. Ryan Gosling may get tons of attention for La La Land, but he had a much more nuanced performance in this film. He even seemed to have more fun bouncing off of Russell Crowe in Black’s vibrant, violent version of the 1970s. This dark comedy was unique, full of tons of memorable scenes, and has my favorite finale of the year. That final shootout was fantastic. Black really has a handle on his scene geography so you never lose sight of where everyone is, yet there’s still plenty of surprise. Too bad it’s bound to ignored by virtually everyone.
1. Green Room
For me, 2016 peaked early. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room premiered in April and ever since then, I found myself watching films and thinking “Well that was good, but not as good as Green Room.” It is just so f**king intense, man. The chilling, stoic viciousness of Patrick Stewart’s performance, the unbelievably charming band, The Ain’t Rights, at the center (with a fiery rendition of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” which is sadly needed now more than ever), and top tier performances from Imogen Poots and the late, too f**king great, Anton Yelchin. When the world came crumbling down around these characters, it was so tense my mouth was wide open the entire time. A brutal knuckle drag of a film with an unapologetic, highly intelligent narrative bound to make you hate Nazis even more (if that were even possible, to be honest).
Green Room is pure gold, and my favorite film of 2016.