Disclaimer: Unfortunately, there are a few movies that I was unable to see as of yet due to release schedules. Those films are Silence, 20th Century Women, Live By Night, and A Monster Calls. If you don’t see them on this list, that’s probably why. With that out of the way, let’s get into the films that made this miserable sack of shit year somewhat bearable.
10. John Carney’s Sing Street
This was a great year for films about music. Miles Ahead captured the madness that comes with iconography, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoping parodied the very same thing, and another movie on this list drenched itself in song and dance. However, none of them quite encapsulated the joy of making music like Sing Street. After all, what guy in high school doesn’t start a band to rope in some ‘gal? The camaraderie that these boys develop as their glitter soaked group of misfits becomes more and more confident is hysterical and authentic. It certainly helps that their music is actually pretty good in its own right. For all of this film’s somewhat exaggerated and romantic themes, these characters remain completely grounded. It’s a quirky and sweet film with just enough edge to keep it from feeling overly precious. For anybody who loves a good time and glam rock, unraveling the riddle of the model is a worthy endeavor indeed.
9. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight
No film this year was as subtly powerful as Moonlight. Here’s a story in which the turmoil relies mostly on what the main character doesn’t say, as he becomes increasingly trapped by his own identity in a world that doesn’t welcome it. Each of the three segments walks the line between devastating and tender, with hauntingly beautiful cinematography capturing it all. It’s also not every day that three actors of vastly different ages are able to capture the essence of the same character so perfectly. Having amazing support certainly doesn’t hurt, with Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris giving nomination worthy turns as Chiron’s major parental figures. As far as character studies go, Moonlight is as strong as they come. Hopefully, it encourages more stories about LGBTQ + members.
8. Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople
While I wasn’t a huge fan of Waititi’s previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, this one establishes him as one of the most unique comic voices in filmmaking. He has created a living cartoon here, with jokes of all sorts flying at a mile a minute. It’s not a movie that relies on indulging the actors’ improv skills to draw out the comedy. These jokes are fueled by sharp writing, camerawork, and editing. With that said, at the center of it all is the perfectly calculated relationship between Sam Neill’s rough and tumble survivalist, and Julian Dennison’s wannabe Biggie Smalls. Hopefully Waititi brings all of these qualities to Thor:Ragnarok, as the Marvel Universe currently only has one strong comedy director in James Gunn. I would say it’s the most charming indie comedy of the year, but it finds itself just short of – –
7. Daniels’ Swiss Army Man
It may be ‘The Farting Corpse Movie’ but that certainly isn’t all there is to it. This is a rich meditation on the human condition that just so happens to have all manner of bodily fluids involved. On the surface, it has the same wildly entertaining cartoonish tone as Hunt. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are masters at using each shot to either convey a theme or set up a joke. However, this film pulls ahead by ultimately having much more fascinating ideas. It’s a story about Paul Dano’s Hank re-teaching himself about life through this isolated journey, with Daniel Radcliffe’s decaying hunk of bones acting as a cypher for all of his ignorance and innocence. Radcliffe in particular is a knockout here, physically committing to this role in a way that few actors would. It’s as heartbreaking and humorous as it is gross, and it’s pretty damn gross.
6. Bryon Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush’s Zootopia
Who could’ve predicted that a Disney animated film about an animal city would prove to be the most socially relevant film of the year? I’m always really hard on animated movies that treat kids like little idiots, and the success of this film proves that they’re pretty smart after all. Beyond all of the themes, Zootopia is as visually creative as an animated world comes. Every corner of it is full of meticulous sight gags, with each distinct area leading to wonderful moments. The chase through the tiny rat town just may be the most inventive action sequence of the year. We also have Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman creating two insanely lovable characters in Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde. While I was underwhelmed with Moana, Disney proves here that they’re more than capable of pumping out further animated classics. You may be reluctant to introduce racism, classism, and sexism to your children, but through Zootopia, they just might figure it out on their own.
5. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival
Here’s a film for people who yearn for the days when science fiction was about more than special effects. For once, we have a film about aliens where the goal is to understand them, not shoot them. Watching Amy Adams’ Louise and Jeremy Renner’s Ian slowly dissect the foreign language of the mysterious space thumbs made for some of the year’s most fascinating moments. However, the movie never forgets to have an emotional core to offset some of the colder intellectual moments. As we slowly find out the inner workings of Louise’s mind, we become more and more devastated by the life she’s had to live. The direction here is also masterful, every shot feels meticulous, and every moment matters. Villeneuve has crafted a cerebral, challenging, and tragic story that demands multiple viewings.
4. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys
Here’s a screenplay so sharp that you just might start bleeding while watching it. Shane Black practically invented the modern buddy cop movie, but has never quite crafted as strong a caper as he does in The Nice Guys. It’s a film drenched in smog, porn, and bullets. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling create in iconic duo here, with Gosling in particular showing off virtuoso comedic chops. His performance as the absent minded if lovable Holland March is equal parts Inspector Gadget and Buster Keaton, with absurdly strong commitment to every single moment. Newcomer Angourie Rice is right behind them as March’s daughter, cementing the finest chemistry between cast members this year.
3. Tim Miller’s Deadpool
This one is a bit of a personal victory, I’ll admit. I’ve spent the better part of a decade telling people how great a Deadpool movie would be. Back in my Youtube days, a video of my pre-pubescent voice screeching about this film’s potential got very more views than my self-confidence cares to admit. As predicted, this is one of the most unique and energetic comic book movies ever made. Ryan Reynolds finally gets to perfect the character he was born to play, while first-time director Tim Miller shows major chops as he guides us through this absurd story. However, Deadpool doesn’t just succeed on account of blood and dirty words. Somehow, these filmmakers managed to find the genuine humanity in a character who is essentially the comic book equivalent of Daffy Duck. The love story between Reynolds and Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa isn’t a cheap afterthought, it’s the beating heart of the film, keeping the film grounded in some form of reality even when its main character knows that he’s in a movie.
2. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals
This movie came out of nowhere. What at the outset seemed like a cold and artisanal drama ended up being the most brutal, tense, and traumatic nior thriller in years. It’s remarkable that this is only Tom Ford’s second film, as he shows the craftsmanship of a seasoned master with his Hitchcockian direction here. Every moment in this film matters, further contributing to the sense of unease it gives the audience. It’s all sold by 2016’s strongest ensemble cast, with Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson turning in career-high work. Johnson, who up to this point has been a fairly weak actor, is particularly stunning in a turn that essentially turns him into a redneck Hannibal Lector. It’s a film that explores how the devastation of reality can lead to some of the strongest storytelling, and if that’s the case, somebody needs to give Tom Ford a hug as soon as possible.
1. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land
This movie makes me so happy. I didn’t think it was possible for Damien Chazelle to make a more satisfying film that Whiplash, but here he brings the movie musical roaring back to life by crafting one of the finest ones ever made. Despite being a love letter to a long bygone genre, this isn’t an indulgent film in the slightest. Chazelle does nothing but give to his audience. His musical numbers are lively, catchy and beautifully shot, but aren’t so pervasive to the point where they wear out their welcome. In fact, the majority of them are there to serve a story that centers mostly on musicians. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone create a movie romance that just may become iconic. It’s tender and filmic without delving into uncomfortable idealism. In fact, the bittersweet final five minutes of this movie is one of the most mature endings to a romantic story I’ve seen. La La Land is a pure delight, and in a year that sorely lacked happiness, that is more valuable than ever.
Honorable Mentions: Captain Fantastic, Don’t Breathe, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hell Or High Water, Hush, The Witch, Miles Ahead, Star Trek Beyond, The Edge of Seventeen, Manchester By The Sea, Dr Strange, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences