- We all know it: 2016 was not a good year. We lost icons like David Bowie and Carrie Fischer. We had a stressful, maddening, endurance-test of a presidential election that produced nightmarish results. 2016 was a rough ride. But hey, at least we had great movies.
No question - 2016 produced a metric ton of great films. It didn't seem that way at first - there were a couple of early-in-the-year standouts, like The Witch, Green Room, Hail Ceasar!, and Hello, My Name Is Doris - but the Summer movie season mostly fizzled. Blockbuster season got off to a shaky start with the uneven, ill-conceived Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and with only a few exceptions (Finding Dory, Star Trek: Beyond, Captain America: Civil War), most of the other most-hyped movies of 2016 fizzled. Ghostbusters? Well-intentioned but flawed. Suicide Squad? Margot Robbie and Will Smith tried their best to save it, but the movie was a mess. Warcraft? Amazing visuals, flat storytelling. X-Men: Apocalypse? Not quite apocalyptic, but not exactly a franchise-saver. The Jungle Book? A box-office success story, but a tonal nightmare that failed to live up to the potential of its visuals. Suffice it to say, the Summer of 2016 had nothing that could match the awesomeness of the previous year's Mad Max: Fury Road.
But in the Fall, a steady stream of good and great movies released regularly. The later-in-the-year blockbusters hit the mark where many of those in the Summer did not - I really enjoyed, among others: The Magnificent Seven, Dr. Strange, Fantastic Beasts, Rogue One, Moana, and Passengers. And then came the usual tidal wave of Oscar hopefuls, and this year brought some great ones: Nocturnal Animals, Jackie, The Handmaiden, and La La Land - to name a few.
This was a year in which we got notable new films from masters like Scorsese, Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Linklater, Black, and Chan-Wook Park. But this was also a year in which new efforts from up-and-comers like Chazelle, Eggers, Carney, Ford, Villeneuve, Saulnier, Nichols, and more shone a spotlight on names that now have to be in the conversation when it comes to best directors working today.
This was also a year where a variety of movies seemed to grapple with the big questions of our time - with the fears and anxieties of a country and world headed towards uncertain and, in many ways, scary times. Hell or High Water portrayed a new American South descending into desperation, decay, and lawlessness. The Witch looked to the earliest days of America to create a parable for modern times - about paranoia, divisiveness, and the seductive power of evil. The Handmaiden told a story of women fighting against an oppressive patriarchy, and Green Room pitted punk-rock against neo-Nazism in a literal battle to the death. Sing Street was a rousing reminder about the ways in which we can stand up for ourselves and resist bullies. Everybody Wants Some was a meditation on how to become a man without becoming an asshole. Arrival spoke of the need to understand and empathize rather than destroy. Even Captain America: Civil War was a red vs. blue superhero saga about staying true to one's moral compass rather than being a tool of someone else's agenda.
As I sat down to write this list, I realized that I had seen a huge amount of fantastic films this year. So many that ranking them really became a challenge. And of course, the usual disclaimer that I've seen a lot, but not everything. Some notable 2016 movies that I still haven't seen include: Fences, Moonlight, Elle, Lion, 20th Century Women, Hidden Figures, Patterson, and American Honey.
The one thing that kind of bummed me out was that I was only able to review a small handful of the movies I saw in 2016. Starting in the Spring, work got so busy and my hours got so crazy that I just wasn't able to churn out the volume of reviews I had in years past. Honestly, I wasn't sure if I'd continue with this blog. But I will also say that, sitting down to write these Best-Of posts - the first real posts I've done in months - well, it's felt good to be writing on here again. Hopefully in the year ahead I can figure out a compromise where I can still provide regular reviews and updates without straining myself too much. I've got a few ideas ...
But for now, let's get to it. Here are the best movies I saw in 2016.
DANNY'S BEST MOVIES OF 2016:
1.) Hell or High Water
- The biggest existential question of the year was likely this: how was it possible that America - the greatest country in the world - could become a place that would vote a man like Donald J. Trump into office? Hell or High Water, though not an overtly political movie, feels like the movie that most represented the central crisis of our time: America, decaying and desperate, crawling lost soul by lost soul towards apocalyptic end-times. Hell or High Water tells the story of desperate men in a decaying Texas, trading morality for money. But they come up against Jeff Bridges' last-real-lawman, who soon learns that this is no country for old men. Bridges is at his best here, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster do a hell of a job as the two outlaws he's up against. It's a classic Western for modern times, an apt parable for an uncertain, lawless age.
2.) The Witch
- The Witch stunned me. If it hadn't been a horror movie, it still would have been a gripping look at the power of fear and paranoia to divide and conquer us. It it hadn't been a horror movie, it still would have been a fascinating look at an age long past - a painstaking recreation of early America, a look at what life was like for those first settlers. But The Witch is all that - and one of the scariest, most evil horror movies ever made. A true look into the heart of darkness, The Witch feels like something that you maybe shouldn't be watching. And therein lies its power. Anya Taylor-Joy is a breakout as a girl who feels the pull of the dark side, and writer/director Robert Eggers is undoubtedly one to watch.
3.) The Handmaiden
- We should be talking about Chan-Wook Park - director of Oldboy, Stoker, and now of The Handmaiden - in the same breath as other modern greats like Tarantino and The Coen Brothers. He's that damn good - a master of pure cinema - and his latest is another masterpiece. The Handmaiden casts a spell from moment one, and thought it is a 2 1/2 hour film, it leaves you wanting more. It's got twists and turns a-plenty - turning its entire story on its head halfway through the movie, making you question everything you thought you knew about its characters. What seems like a simple story of a lowly handmaiden sent to serve a wealthy noblewoman in 1930's Korea is anything but. What this movie really is is an epic story of lust, love, perversion, awakening, enslavement, female empowerment, and (since this is a Chan Wook-Park film ...) revenge. Anchored by two phenomenal lead performances from Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, The Handmaiden is yet another unforgettable classic from Wook-Park.
4.) La La Land
- Director Damien Chazelle quickly became one to watch after the seminal Whiplash. Now, he's done it again with La La Land - another music-driven tour de force that radiates energy and emotion, and dazzles with visual brilliance and imagination. On paper, La La Land might not seem that exciting - another musical about Hollywood? Really? But La La Land both pays homage to and cleverly subverts the classics, using nostalgia as a tool but never as a crutch, and blending Old Hollywood glamor with modern-day sophistication and emotional nuance. In this movie, Hollywood dreams still exist - but they come with a price. Emma Stone turns in a career-best performance here, and Ryan Gosling is great as well. The musical numbers are clever and infectious. I can't wait to see what Chazelle does next.
5.) Hello, My Name Is Doris
- If you've read my reviews over the years, then you probably know I'm a huge fan of the comedy troupe The State and all the various projects its members have worked on. Wet Hot American Summer is my gold-standard for absurdist comedy, and I always look forward to any new stuff from any of the primary members of the group. But even with that said, Michael Showalter's movie Hello, My Name Is Doris was a surprise. Blending absurdist comedy with genuine pathos and poignancy, Doris is an absolute knockout. Sally Field crushes in this one - turning in one of the year's best performances (which will, surely, get totally overlooked come awards time).
6.) Everybody Wants Some!!
- Here's one that, for some reason, got largely overlooked by both critics and moviegoers. Maybe people were expecting Richard Linklater to follow up Boyhood with an even more ambitious project? But don't dismiss this one - because it's another amazing film from Linklater. A spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused, this one is a brilliant and hilarious look at a college baseball team enjoying the last moments of total freedom before the official start of the school year. A celebration of being young, carefree, and totally malleable, Linklater looks at how we form our identities and how men can balance traditional ideas of manhood with a working moral compass. It's a potent idea, ripe for exploration in the age of (cough, vomit) Trump.
7.) Green Room
- And here is the most purely badass movie of the year - brought to you by Jeremy Saulnier, who is quickly becoming a rising star for fans of pulp-action. Green Room is one of those great movies with a premise that sounds so awesome that you've got to see how it plays out: a down-on-their-luck punk rock band reluctantly takes a gig in a venue known for its Neo-Nazi clientele. Things go south, and the band soon finds itself trapped and on the run from Nazis with a bloodlust. And, oh yeah, the head Nazi cult-leader guy is Patrick Stewart. Green Room is pure adrenaline-pumping, bone-crunching, rock n' roll insanity. The one horrible terrible depressing tragedy here is that this film has what would have been a star-making turn from Anton Yelchin in the lead role. Yelchin is fantastic, and that makes his tragic death this year hurt all the more.
8.) Sing Street
- If you needed a little bit of life-affirming uplift this year, well, John Carney's latest, Sing Street was your movie. This feel-good, fight-the-power rock musical is the story of a group of misfit kids in 1980's Dublin - who band together to form a rock band and go from zeroes to rock n' roll heroes - finding friendship, brotherhood, and even love as they ride the rock new-wave to glory. The music that inspires the kids - everything from Duran Duran to The Cure - is great, but the original songs here are even better. I dare you to watch Sing Street and not have "Riddle of the Model" on heavy rotation for days.
9.) Nocturnal Animals
-Tom Ford's dark, disturbing, moody, and ultra-intense neo-noir sort of floored me. It's a multi-layered story that weaves a very tangled web, but the various threads come together to form a totally engrossing tapestry about love, loss, and lurid crime. Amy Adams is at the top of her game here, and Jake Gyllenhaal is even better - delivering a shattering performance. But it's Michael Shannon - having a banner year between this, Midnight Special, etc - who absolutely destroys as a badass sheriff with nothing left to lose. Tom Ford may only be a part time director, but if this is the kind of movie he's capable of, I hope he's got a lot more films in him.
10.) Hail, Caesar!
- All hail the Coen Brothers. As per usual, their more comedic movies tend to get overlooked upon initial release, and Caesar is no exception. But that's a crying shame, because this is another piece of heady, ambitious brilliance from the Coens - with several great performances (Brolin, Clooney, Swindon, Tatum, and Scar-Jo all kill) - including a breakout turn from Alden Ehereneich, now poised to play young Han Solo. The thing is that Caesar is, sure, a tribute to Hollywood's golden age. But this is the Coens, so it has a lot more on its mind. In this world, the Hollywood actors are the people's golden gods, and its on Josh Brolin's no-nonsense fixer to keep them that way in the eyes of the people. This is a movie about faith and religion, about building and deconstructing myth. It's another Coen Brothers classic.
JUST MISSED THE CUT:
- In a career-defining performance, Natalie Portman portrays Jackie Kennedy in the harrowing days following her husband's assassination. One of the most horror-movie-like bio-pics you'll ever see, this is a haunting tale of a woman trying to manufacture myth in the wake of tragedy.
12.) Edge of Seventeen
- Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as an angst-ridden teen trying to navigate the perils of high school. Yeah, we've seen this kind of thing before - but rarely done this well, and rarely with such a deft combination of humor and heart. Not your typical teen movie.
13.) Captain Fantastic
- Not to sound cliche, but Captain Fantastic really is fantastic. A smart, funny, at times heart-wrenching film, this one tells the story of a family that lives totally off the grid forced to re-enter civilization and come face to face with what they've been missing. If you've been wondering what the great Viggo Mortensen has been up to, here's your answer - Viggo delivers an award-worthy performance as the family's stubbornly non-conformist patriarch.
- To me, Moana felt like the classic Disney formula perfected. From the eye-melting visuals to the epic and mythic storyline, this one mixes kid-pleasing charm with thematic depth that will leave adults misty-eyed. Add in a fantastic set of songs (got to love the Bowie-esque "Shiny" sung by Jermaine Clement), and you've got Disney's best animated musical in years.
15.) The Nice Guys
- If Shane Black just made movies like The Nice Guys for the rest of his career, I'd be a happy camper. This one is classic Black - a grimy, smoky, action-packed noir with dialogue so sharp you could cut it with a knife. Gosling and Crowe make a two-fisted team for the ages, and newcomer Angourie Rice is a show-stealer as Gosling's too-smart-for-her-own good daughter. Basically, this movie is a movie-lover's dream. More please.
THE NEXT BEST:
16.) Swiss Army Man
- An insane, darkly-hilarious oddity from rising stars Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man was a true original in a Summer of me-too's. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are one of this year's best on-screen duos - impressive, considering Radcliffe plays a corpse.
17.) Captain America: Civil War
- While it packed in a ton of plot and an army's worth of characters, Civil War was in many ways the pinnacle of the Marvel cinematic universe so far - a comic book epic that paid off years' worth of build-up in a big way. Plus, it made Spider-Man cool again and had him fight Giant Man. Seriously though, Civil War had enough awesomeness to put it at or near the top of the comic book movie heap.
18.) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- Whereas The Force Awakens compensated for messy mystery-box plotting with stand-up-and-cheer character moments, Rogue One was just straight-up solid through and through. A tightly-told men-on-a-mission movie, the film delivered several flavors of badassery - from Felicity Jones' reluctant rebel to Donnie Yen's Force-worshipping ass-kicker. Plus: the greatest Darth Vader action scene ever put to film.
19.) Manchester By the Sea
- Part of me wants to rank this one higher - it's brilliantly acted and poetically scripted, not to mention gorgeously shot. It just left me feeling a bit empty, wondering what the ultimate point of the movie's endless barrage of heavy-duty sadness was. Even still, the little moments of Manchester are what really make the movie - and perhaps that is what makes this one special: the way it shows how the little moments still define us, even in the wake of shattering events that seem hopelessly big.
20.) Don't Think Twice
- For anyone (me included) who has doggedly pursued creative success, Don't Think Twice hits home and hits home hard. How does one balance the simple joy of creative expression with the driving need to be recognized (and paid!) for said expression? How does one be competitive without being an asshole? How do friends navigate the highs and lows together, rather than apart? Mike Birbiglia's funny, heartfelt film nails the dynamic and the challenges inherent in chasing the dream. And he's got a great cast along for the ride - Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key are two of the standouts.
21.) The Shallows
- The Shallows was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Summer - a perfectly-executed self-aware pulp thriller, this is the Blake Lively vs. Giant Shark movie you didn't know you wanted. Director Jaume Collet-Serra really nails this one - giving us a gorgeously-shot movie that isn't afraid to go awesomely over-the-top. A true crowd-pleaser, seeing The Shallows was one of my favorite theater-going experiences of 2016. Watch it with friends.
22.) Midnight Special
- Jeff Nichols' film Loving is the one getting awards hype, but truth be told his earlier 2016 film, Midnight Special, was the better of the two. Nichols' moody, intense filmmaking style is perfect for sci-fi, and this Close Encounters-esque head-trip is Nichols at his best. Michael Shannon is also, yet again, the perfect collaborator for Nichols - he meets Nichols' intensity levels with ease. Shannon's son has mysterious powers, but you get the sense that it's Shannon who could burn holes in you with his death-stare.
23.) Finding Dory
- I had few expectations for this Pixar sequel. I mean, the idea of a brilliant idea-factory like Pixar churning out sequels is not exactly that exciting. And yet ... Finding Dory is way better than it had any right to be, a fun, funny, at times incredibly affecting underwater journey - with amazing visuals - that is, incredibly, on par with (if not better than) Finding Nemo.
- One of 2016's tragically-overlooked gems, Kicks is a must-watch urban fairy-tale about a kid desperate to get back his prized stolen sneakers. Both funny and very, very dark, this film is uncompromising in its look at how violence can beget violence in the inner city - detailing the plight of young, urban, African-American boys in a way that leaves a big impression.
25.) In a Valley of Violence
- Ever since I saw his retro-horror movie House of the Devil, I've been a major fan of director Ti West and his uniquely-styled genre films. Valley of Violence is a departure for him - a pulpy, grindhouse-y Western - but West's talents prove well-suited to this type of movie. This over-the-top, darkly funny tale of bloody vengeance in the Old West features a great lead performance from Ethan Hawke, plus John Travolta in his best, most entertaining role in years. If you like Tarantino-style genre subversions, then make sure to give this one a watch.
MORE GREAT FILMS OF 2016:
- Martin Scorsese's latest - a longtime-in-the-making epic - is a flawed but often brilliant historical drama about Christian missionaries in Japan in the 1600's, and the violence and conflict that ensues when the Japanese powers-that-be reject the religion and outlaw its practice. Adam Garfield and Adam Driver anchor this long, ponderous, at times brutal film. They both turn in excellent performances, and Scorsese delivers some truly powerful and haunting imagery. This one is a trek, but it's a journey well worth taking.
27.) The Conjuring 2
- I think at this point it's safe to call director James Wan a true "master of horror." He slays with his Conjuring films - and this is the rare sequel (let alone horror sequel) that's as good if not better than the original. Wan deftly weaves a moody, chilling film that earns its scares through craft rather than cheap tricks. But the real trick here is that these movies are character pieces, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga playing an easy-to-root-for pair of real-life ghostbusters who we'd gladly follow into the abyss.
28.) Star Trek: Beyond
- Arguably the most tightly-crafted of the new-era Star Trek movies, Beyond feels like a bit of a throwback to OG Trek - with a pulpy adventure story, lots of two-fisted action, and plenty of wink-y humor that takes full advantage of the franchise's fantastic cast and their spot-on chemistry. This movie soars - whether in the hilarious Spock/Bones scenes or when Kirk saves the galaxy via the immortal power of The Beastie Boys. This one goes boldly, and made me eager for more Trek.
29.) Hunt For The Wilderpeople
- A great, hilarious indie movie from New Zealand, Wilderpeople is brimming with heart and humor and imagination. The story of a hard-to-love orphan (a breakout performance from Julian Dennison) who falls under the care of a crotchety, reluctant foster dad (a terrific Sam Neil) - the movie takes the oddball pair on a journey through the New Zealand wilderness as they fend off all manner of dangers. A funny-as-hell film that will also make you grin from ear-to-er.
30.) 10 Cloverfield Lane
- This one has grown on me over time, and I wanted to give it a shout-out. I really dug the tension-filled direction on this one from up-and-comer Dan Trachtenberg. I really loved the lead performance from the perpetually-underrated Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who positively kicks ass here. And I really, really loved the great John Goodman in this movie, he seriously brings his A-game as a may-or-may-not-be-crazy doomsayer and bunker-dweller. This is just a really funny, creepy, tense thriller that is a terrific slice of Twilight Zone-style fun.
HONORABLE MENTIONS - OTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MOVIES FROM THIS YEAR:
Southside With You
The Magnificent Seven
The Legend of Tarzan
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Kung Fu Panda 3
A Monster Calls
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The Girl on the Train
Ms. Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
The Free State of Jones
Kubo & The Two Strings
INDIVIDUAL 2016 AWARDS:
BEST LEAD ACTOR:
1.) Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic
2.) Casey Affleck - Manchester By the Sea
3.) Jake Gyllenhaal - Nocturnal Animals
4.) Ryan Gosling - La La Land
5.) Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
BEST LEADING ACTRESS:
1.) Natalie Portman - Jackie
2.) Sally Field - Hello, My Name Is Doris
3.) TIE: Min-hee Kim and Tae-Ri Kim - The Handmaiden
4.) Emma Stone - La La Land
5.) Hailee Steinfeld - Edge of Seventeen
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
1.) Michael Shannon - Nocturnal Animals
2.) Josh Brolin - Hail, Caesar!
3.) Daniel Radcliffe - Swiss Army Man
4.) Patrick Stewart - Green Room
5.) John Goodman - 10 Cloverfield Lane
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
1.) Anna Taylor-Joy - The Witch
2.) Michelle Williams - Manchester By the Sea
3.) Felicity Jones - A Monster Calls
4.) Angourie Rice - The Nice Guys
5.) Kelly Thornton - Sing Street
1.) Tie: Chan-Wook Park - The Handmaiden, Robert Eggers - The Witch
2.) Damien Chazelle - La La Land
3.) Jeremy Saulnier - Green Room
4.) Tom Ford - Nocturnal Animals
5.) Richard Linklater - Everybody Wants Some!!
1.) Hell or High Water
2.) La La Land
3.) The Handmaiden
4.) Hail Caesar!
5.) Hello, My Name Is Doris
6.) The Nice Guys
7.) Green Room
8.) Manchester By the Sea
9.) Everybody Wants Some!!
And that's it for 2016 - it may have been a miserable year in many ways, but in terms of movies, it's going to be a hard one to top. Here's to a great 2017!