It’s that time of year: those last few calendar days where our team risks complete dissolution to select and rank the best films from the past 365 days. We have fought, bartered, and bargained our way through a passionate cycle of disagreement and forgiveness, calculated quality with an equation so complex that it might be the subject of the Hidden Figures sequel, and, finally, we are ready to present to you our selections for the twenty best movies of 2016.
20. Hail, Caesar!
Hail Caesar! has a plot that makes you want to watch the movie even before you know its by the Coen brothers. A big time Old Hollywood star is kidnapped and a studio fixer must work out who took him and get him back with the help of some young starlets. This is one of the Coens’ ‘silly’ movies and no other filmmakers can make such silly movies that have so much substance and weight. Hail Caesar! is a great screwball comedy with Josh Brolin leading a huge cast of megastars (George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum), newcomers (Alden Ehrenreich, Veronica Osorio), thespians (Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes), and Immortals (Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert). The Coens are having tons of fun with Old Hollywood and the freedom it gives them to jump into different movie sets so we get a wonderful song and dance number from Tatum, a Merchant and Ivory style prestige picture with Fiennes, a cheesy comedy western with Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid. Everyone is having the time of their life making this movie, and it shows the Coens’ love for this period and the genre of fast talking screwball movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. – Sean Fallon
19. The Love Witch
One of the biggest takeaways from multi-talented writer/director/producer/editor/composer/costume and production designer Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is the stunning look of it all. Biller implements a throwback technicolor look from the genre films of classic Hollywood to create one of the most lavish films of 2016. Taking obvious influence from ‘60s camp-horror films, Biller has a deep love for and total understanding of not only the style of these films, but also their tone and performances. Biller’s period-appropriate staging, blocking, and editing all work in tandem with M. David Mullen’s perfectly old-fashioned cinematography to further sell the flawless illusion. The Love Witch puts all this to use towards a smart script that explores the fear of female sexuality trope in the genre through a feminist lens. Of course, much of this hinges on the unbelievable breakout performance of Samantha Robinson as the titular witch, Elaine. She balances being sexy, scary, stilted, crazy, and joyful all at once. Robinson and Biller are both artists worth keeping an eye on. – Ryan MacLean
18. American Honey
Bloated, overlong, pretentious? Yes, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is all that and more. It’s also sophomoric, meandering, and unfocused. It’s a road trip movie without a destination, a journey of self-discovery where nothing is really discovered. It follows Star (Sasha Lane), a sexually abused teenager who runs away to join a magazine sales crew that travels the countryside hawking magazines nobody reads to people who don’t want them. The crew becomes her new family, lorded over by the icy and cruel Krystal (Riley Keough) and her second-in-command, the dashing and reckless Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Though there are occasional narrative divergencies—Star learns the tricks of the trade from Jake, uses them on unsuspecting folk like a trio of retired, wannabe cowpokes and a horny oil driller—the film is mainly a linear collage of small moments between the characters as they fall in and out of love, in and out of money, in and out of hate. Arnold seems fascinated with the parts of the American countryside largely overlooked by American filmmakers: industrial wastelands, dying rural communities where First World citizens live in Third World poverty, and the immaculately manicured lawns of the well-to-do upper middle class. It’s America gazed through the diving bell of dissolute, disaffected youth. It’s a mess of a film, but that messiness gives it a power most films can only dream of. It’s frustrating, aggravating, inescapably brilliant. – Nathanael Hood
17. The Eyes of My Mother
2016 brought a feast of horror for genre fans and general audiences alike. Those whose ears are tuned to the pitch of the indie and festival scene were quick to notice The Eyes of My Mother, a bold and sincere film debut from writer/director Nicolas Pesce. A true return to timeless introspective horror, it explores the complex emotional consequences of loneliness on a young woman isolated by will and circumstance. Kika Magalhaes gives a graceful performance as Francisca, leaning on subtlety to convey her struggle to deal with the violent murder of her mother and loss of family. Such a quietly serious movie can be difficult to sell, but The Eyes of My Mother is just twisted enough to hit the spot for those looking for something a little more gruesome. Francisca’s coping mechanisms are bizarre and cruel despite coming off as strangely well-intentioned. To evoke true empathy for a character who commits hideous acts, instead of just pity that is wrenched through cheap narrative, is a triumph for any filmmaker. The Eyes of My Mother also boasts outstanding black and white cinematography that only adds to the overall beauty of the film and shows a keen eye for symmetry and style. Though its abrupt ending may leave you feeling like you’ve had something ripped out of your hands, what’s left will linger for some time. – Becky Belzile
After a series of critical hits, Denis Villenueve has built a strong reputation for his complex genre-peripheral storytelling and his dark-toned visuals, but what gets lost in the praise is the director’s now-proven talent for getting the best of his performers—Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners, Emily Blunt in Sicario, and now Amy Adams in Arrival, each standing with the most impressive of their tested careers. There’s a beautiful sense of melancholy to Adams’ early scenes in Arrival, as she’s asked to shoulder the dramatic weight until it feeds into the narrative twist, that is also hidden within her performance. Arrival is a conceptual poem structured as a philosophical text and wrapped around and within a perfectly measured alien invasion movie. In some ways, Arrival is one of the most immediately relevant films of 2016 and one certain to be one of the most discussed in the future. – David Shreve, Jr.
15. Swiss Army Man
There isn’t much left to say about Swiss Army Man at this point, except to reiterate the common reaction: It shouldn’t work this well. Bolstered by humanistic performances from Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s magical farting corpse movie skirts wildly through emotional waters and dips into empathetic depth. Ultimately, this is a simple tale of a man, (Hank, played by Paul Dano) overcoming depression and suicidal tendencies by restructuring the way he looks at life, building the new model of understanding backward from death. This journey ends up being both terrifying and life-affirming, but neither impact is served out-of-turn. – David Shreve, Jr.
14. Manchester by the Sea
The engine of Kenneth Lonergan’s newest film is Casey Affleck’s devastating performance as a grieving brother and father. Affleck personifies grief-as-identity through subtle acting that reaches all the way to his fingernails. Around that engine, Lonergan builds a fascinating landscape of collective grief, a realistically human story in which characters experience loss and adjust their lives accordingly. It’s hard to remember immediately after viewing the film, but there is humor in Manchester by the Sea, funny lines and interactions that earn real laughter. That’s how mourning works; you continue on, you make jokes, you eat food, you talk to friends and family. It’s all very bare, and thus, it’s all very sincere. Manchester by the Sea, the year’s most poignant movie about loss in a year full of movies about loss, will leave you feeling more appreciative for what you have and more sympathy for those who have also lost. – David Shreve, Jr.
13. Sing Street
This sweet coming-of-age story about a boy trying to get the girl in gritty, working-class Dublin in 1985 is near-perfect as a 105-minute antidote to the grimness of 2016. Steeped in nostalgia but never drowning in it, this tender look at what happens after 15-year-old Conor tells his crush, Raphina, that he’s in a band (he is not) immediately puts the viewer in his corner, where you’re likely to stay for the duration. And he’ll need all the help he can get; his parents are splitting up, his house is for sale, and he’s been taken out of private school and sent to a new one that could be charitably described as Dickensian. But there are a few bright spots: he has a great relationship with his older brother (his musical mentor), a newfound love of Duran Duran videos, and a beautiful and mysterious acquaintance in Raphina, who lives across the street from his school.
Standout performances abound, including the quietly brilliant Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conor’s mother, providing a nice bookend to her breakout role in a similar film, 1991’s The Commitments. But this is Conor and Raphina’s story. And these two young actors, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, inhabit them wholly. Watching the two support and embolden one another is affirming—and a lot more substantive than a story about a teenage crush. One of the few criticisms on the film’s release was that the music the kids played (a treat itself) was too good, too advanced for their age. It’s true. But that won’t keep you from enjoying it. Embrace the magical realist flourishes that pepper the film—we all earned a little diversion this year. – Samantha Sanders
Not only a gradual evolution of lyrics and sound, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, made in cooperation with a handful of directors, is one of the most expressive visual feasts of the year. To call Lemonade simply a visual album would be an understatement. It’s a full on feature film spread into 11 chapters that touch every spectrum of the personality of Beyoncé Knowles. While many would compare this work to other directors dealing directly in expressionism (I often found myself comparing it to Disney’s Fantasia), the film remains a singular work from an incomparable artist, born from the mind of the renowned Queen Bey and used to explore pain and identity on a personal, cultural, and universal level. It could be argued that no album or film came close to this level of widespread catharsis in 2016. – Diego Crespo
11. The Invitation
If nothing else, The Invitation proves that Director Karyn Kusama is a master of suspense. Here we have a surprisingly mature thriller that manages to keep you guessing until it reveals itself as a beautifully nasty, vicious piece of work. It’s a thriller that shocks but one with greater intentions that pure shock value. Kusama’s film has some pretty interesting things to say about the nature of depression, grief, and how people deal with trauma. It’s a slow burn filled with intrigue and an unnerving tension. By the time you reach the finale, you will have been happy for the measured pace of what came before. It makes it all the more satisfying when it’s revealed just what the hell is really is wrong with this bizarro dinner party. To say anything else would threaten to spoil a blowout third act with possibly the greatest final shot of 2016. Needless to say, The Invitation is one thriller that you are not going to want to miss this year. – Ryan MacLean
10. The Witch
The Witch was marketed as the scariest horror movie of the moment and many took that to mean that they were going into a Conjuring or Insidious-type situation with jump scares every few seconds. The Witch is not that. It’s better. It is an atmospheric examination of paranoia and fear. Focusing upon a family of puritans out in the wilds of untamed America, the film is about survival both from the elements and each other. There is a constant sense of dread throughout, the feeling that there’s someone standing behind you, and you know they’re there but you don’t want to look but they’re getting closer. The central performance by Anya Taylor-Joy is revelatory as she is cast into the centre of everyone’s accusations in this family witch hunt. The supporting cast are incredible, too, especially Harvey Scrimshaw who has a scene later in the movie that unsettled me so much I was tempted to leave the cinema. When my showing finished, the ladies behind me booed and said, “I don’t get it. That wasn’t scary; I didn’t jump once.” I also didn’t jump, but I didn’t sleep well for a week afterwards either. There are good scary movies that frighten you in the moment, and there are great scary movies that burrow under your skin and haunt you forever. The Witch is the latter. – Sean Fallon
Mustang is one of the saddest films that I immediately wanted to see again. I say this upfront because it is a movie that clashes differing tones, and yet someone is complete as a cinematic experience. The film follows five young orphaned sisters growing up in a world where adulthood is forced upon them just as they are punished for expressing that change. After some innocent games with boys their age are misconstrued as inflammatory behaviour, Lale and her sisters are imprisoned in their house and fast-tracked to arranged marriages. Much of the film is focused on how these future women clash with the outdated values of previous generations; and it becomes even more interesting when their seemingly tyrannical grandmother is humanised as another victim of a ruthless patriarchy, one too fearful for their safety to let them live the lives they deserve. The situation may be one specific to environments like these, but as an analogy it works to illustrate the struggle of all forward-thinking women, from the suffragettes to those still fighting for their rights today. It is a contradiction in a lot of ways – sometimes like a prison escape drama, sometimes a feminist coming-of-age narrative, but always compelling. Subject matter such as this is rarely approached without it being trivialised or made overly dour, but Mustang hits every note perfectly—utterly heartbreaking and still entirely watchable. – Jack Godwin
8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
“Shit just got real. Again.” It’s a testament to the entire film how a Bad Boys 2 reference isn’t the highlight of the exercise. Taika Waititi’s secret takeover of the modern comedy genre is in full swing with a film that is a coming-of-age story, a buddy action comedy, and a melancholy relationship between surrogate father and son. Waititi’s idiosyncratic maneuvers of the camera and cutaways impeccably incite a variety of tonal shifts, each one furthering the relationship between Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). The oddball narrative carries humanity, both comforting and tragic, to surprising lengths, all set around a chase film that is probably the closest mashup of Up and Mad Max: Fury Road we’re likely to ever see. – Diego Crespo
7. Hell or High Water
Probably the most surprising hit of the year was the emotive contemporary Western that is Hell or High Water. Directed by David MacKenzie, and featuring an original screenplay penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, the movie stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two down on their luck Texas bank robbers in search of a very personal justice. Pine and Foster deliver what are perhaps their two best respective performances to date, and the movie is a haunting ode to the white working class and the American cowboy that feels even more poignant at the end of 2016 than it did upon initial release late this past summer. – Sean K. Cureton
6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Great art has a habit of sticking with you long after you first lay ears and eyes on it. For a world filled with magical totems and whimsical folklore, Kubo and the Two Strings tells one of the most human stories of the year. Drenched in sorrow, Kubo and his companions trot through an unforgiving reality as the villains continuously mock the young boy for his admiration of humanity. It’s the interactions between Kubo and his world where he finds true beauty. Kubo uses his magical guitar to share stories in his village, giving them a unifying experience reminiscent of The Force in Star Wars, a universal religion surrounding every facet of love and life. However, pain and sorrow follow the young hero until he sets off on a journey that will decide the end of his own story. Director Travis Knight’s directorial debut showcases stunning stop-motion animation but it’s in his emotional gravity where Kubo truly shines. Grief is just as much a part of life as the joyous moments we share with one another. Kubo and the Two Strings reminds us these moments are worth fighting for. And that really is the least of it. – Diego Crespo
Paterson is a quiet and emotionally resonant story of New Jersey couple Paterson (Adam Driver) and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). It captures the monotony, futility, and repetition of life and love, with a refreshing value given to the type of minute personal tragedies and triumphs that make up the reality of everyday life. Driver as reserved bus driver and sometimes-poet Paterson and Farahani as his artistic, flighty girlfriend Laura are fantastic both as a couple and in the ways they each pursue their own creativity. There is no melodramatic falling-in-love story between Laura and Paterson and no falling out between them, only the bad days and good days that accompany a long-term relationship. Jim Jarmusch’s ability to create interesting, entertaining characters with very little screen time is seen here; background characters from the passengers on Paterson’s bus to bar patrons, often appearing in only one scene, are written with caring charm and fill the film with personalities that feel both out of a fairy tale and true to real life.
Characterization of Paterson, as he is less than talkative throughout the film, is relayed mostly through his poetry, read aloud by Driver and displayed on-screen. Stylized displays of Paterson writing and reading his own poetry add to a dream-like sensation present when he is engrossed in his art. Along with his poetry, other subtle details allow us into Paterson’s world. A photograph of Paterson in a military uniform, an affinity for William Carlos Williams, an apathy toward Laura’s dog—these are the ways we get to know Paterson outside of his poetry and his job. There is a magical aspect to this film that exists in its commitment to the beauty, sadness, and poetry that can exist in the everyday. Romantic, melancholy, somewhat strange, Paterson is a lovely and unique experience. – Christina Tucker
4. La La Land
In my 23 years on this planet, I can’t remember a time where I saw a film that swept me up so completely. La La Land‘s musical numbers, iconic cinematography, and achingly beautiful romance took my breath away as I sought to drink every part of this stunning film in. Set in Los Angeles, La La Land follows a young, aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a stubborn, passionate jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) both set on following their dream—to pursue what they love, wholeheartedly. That path in itself is what makes this film resonate so deeply. Upon meeting, the pair’s immediate connection is palpable, and from there the film begins to pose the question: What happens when you have a new dream? What love comes first?
The musical numbers range from magically surreal dance sequences to haunting, old Hollywood-style ballads, each one more and more captivating. Emma Stone’s gutwrenching solo, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” encapsulates the essence of La La Land; it celebrates “the ones who dream,” but doesn’t deny that those dreamers are the ones with “hearts that ache.” All in all, La La Land is a modern-day classic that is a celebration of cinema itself. – Staley Sharples
3. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s inspired retooling of Fingersmith into a period-Korean noir film was never not going to be great, but The Handmaiden was some next level genius. It’s simultaneously a gripping thriller, a twisting mystery, and an proudly erotic queer romance. The Handmaiden pulls off a flawless balancing act, perfecting each of these elements while seamlessly merging them into a beautiful whole. What begins with a con artist bringing his protege into an elaborate scheme to gaslight a wealthy family and steal their money evolves into a complex mystery box of intrigue, ulterior motives, and elaborate double crosses. It’s a story of love, of betrayal, of men who constantly misunderstand and wholly underestimate women. It’s also one of the very best queer films in a year filled with many great ones. Park Chan-wook directed the hell out of this this thing and it shows in the intricate sets, staging, and cinematography. – Ryan MacLean
2. Green Room
It might be incredibly easy to discredit Green Room as lowbrow art, especially in the wake of so many great drama films this year. But it is even more difficult to ignore the raw energy and excitement of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s neo-nazi siege flick. Following a tight-knit punk band under attack and forced to bolster themselves in the titular room after witnessing a brutal murder, the film carries itself like a midnight movie, featuring copious violence, great and economically-utilized special effects, and a through-line of tension. An opening punk-performance scene makes it clear: the film finds harmony with rage. This is unforgettable, white-knuckled fun, as Saulnier exhibits technical mastery in creating and sustaining a sense of dread with some of the best production design and environment-crafting of the year. Exuding passion from all those involved, gritty realism and painful verisimilitude is achieved—even in spite of its outlandish premise. Green Room also marks the incredible final performance of gone-too-soon star Anton Yelchin, who holds his own as the leader of the band against the ruthless Patrick Stewart Nazi head-honcho. Yet, in spite of its appeal on a simple, visceral level, the movie is also more mature than it may initially let out; it cleverly and unpretentiously charts the nature of violence in this modern age and draws a fascinating comparison between the desperate band members and their regression into savagery and the actual savages hunting them. – Jason Ooi
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins—and based on the original play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney—Moonlight offers a searing depiction of black American lives in a year that needed their stories to be told dearly. Across three different generations of actors, Chiron “Little/Black” and Kevin grow up in the most poverty stricken areas of Miami. Forced to confront conflicting emotions and feelings for one another, the two children grow up into the kinds of street thugs and blue collar workers that society has seemingly predetermined them to become. With each and every shot, sequence, and performance throughout Moonlight, Jenkins has crafted what is one of the most heartbreaking portraits of America from the point of view of the other, and for that it should be ranked among the very best movies of 2016. – Sean K. Cureton
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment