Best of 2016: Mesmerizing Musicals, Weird Indies and All Hail Black Phillip

"La La Land" (2016) - Best of 2016 List

2016: A Memorable Year at the Movies

We’ve made it through another year. And while the world has changed perhaps not for the better, we can always look to the cinema to brighten our days. 2016 has had its fair share of disappointments, but there are 10 films above all that are worth recognizing.

I believe the best way to describe this list as unique. I appreciate all forms of cinema, whether come from independent studios or the mainstream. So yes, big Marvel blockbusters are going to be right alongside some of the most emotionally resonant films of the year. Films people may have missed throughout the year also have their place as well.

Being from Upstate New York, I haven’t had the chance to see every film in 2016. We have yet to screen Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Hidden Figures here. And I’m not sure where they’d factor in this list. I’ve also haven’t seen critically-acclaimed films such as Hacksaw Ridge or Jackie or Lion yet either. Still, for what I have experienced, I present my best of 2016 list. 

Honorable Mentions

10 Cloverfield Lane, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Finding Dory, Green Room, Miss Sloane, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, Zootopia

10. Captain America: Civil War

It’s been nearly a decade since a Marvel film cracked my Best-of list. The last of course being the one that started the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008 – Iron Man. If you’ve been following the MCU from the very beginning, Captain America: Civil War packs even greater punches. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are divided and so we’re we this past summer. Remember Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man? No matter which side you chose or how many times you flipped sides, you knew Civil War was a pivotal moment in the Cinematic Universe. The Avengers set the high standard for superhero crossovers back in 2012. Civil War obliterated it and set the course for the rest of Phase Three. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok all have big shoes to fill in 2017. Full review.    

09. Kubo and the Two Strings

I’ve always admired Laika. While not a headliner such as Disney, Pixar or now Illumination Entertainment, the studio has been consistent with its stop-motion animated features. Both Coraline and ParaNorman both pushed the envelope of how the technology has advanced. Like Civil War for Marvel, Kubo and the Two Strings is by far their greatest achievement to date. The film is a beautiful love letter to the talented Hayao Miyazaki and Japanese culture. Outside of GKIDS and Studio Ghilbi, Kubo has fully embraced the strength and beauty of a culture with its emotionally resonant storytelling. Full review.

08. Manchester by the Sea

Ever since hearing about Manchester by the Sea at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, I knew I was in for a treat. Manchester is a difficult film about grief albeit a rewarding one. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges deliver Oscar-worthy performances. Affleck just has to win this year. He’s just that amazing portraying the grief-stricken guardian. Director Kenneth Lonergan is no stranger to films concerning family turmoil. Manchester may be his most realistic portrait yet. It’s rare to find a film that offers such an authentic window into the lives of struggling fictional characters. It’s a slow burn, but the end result is an unforgettable cinematic experience. Full review.

07. Arrival

Science fiction has always been one of my personal favorite genres. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing some of best films of the past decade. Some of which emerged from this particular genre. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Moon all redefined the benchmark of the modern sci-fi film. Add Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to that list. The director of Prisoners and Sicario have delivered the most cerebral alien invasion in years. In a year when Independence Day: Resurgence was working with scraps, Arrival blew me away. Like many of Villeneuve’s films, Arrival is methodical with its pacing. Smart and slick, there is more to be said here about Arrival than a more mainstream invasion blockbuster. Amy Adams also gives one of here best performances in years. And if Arrival wasn’t enough, just see where she goes in Nocturnal Animals. Denis Villeneuve has been a favorite on many of my best-of lists. Can his Blade Runner 2049 come out yet? Full review.

06. Moana

When you put together a beautiful Disney Princess, some songs well on their way to Broadway and a compelling story, you can’t go wrong. Once again, Disney knocks it out of the park with Moana. 2016 was the year of animation. And while Zootopia is a much deeper film, Moana is superior by sticking to its age-old formula. Disney’s second Renaissance has been utter brillance. Tangled, Frozen and now Moana have all earned their place beside the classics. If the chemistry between Auli’i Cravlaho and Dwayne Johnson doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, the majestic soundtrack from Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda certainly will. This year’s girl power anthem, “How Far I’ll Go” might even rival the now overplayed “Let It Go.” Full review.

05. Swiss Army Man

This is where my list turns from traditional to downright weird. Who would have imagined that a film about a farting corpse would make my best-of list? Directed by Daniels, Swiss Army Man is a beautiful odyssey that challenges the acceptable norms of society. Farting corpses and erection compasses are the most bizarre metaphors put to film. But once you get past the weirdness of Swiss Army Man, you’ll witness a film much more involving and layered than some of the contenders for Best Picture. Daniel Radcliffe gives the performance of his career as the corpse, Hank and his chemistry with an unstable Paul Dano is pitch-perfect. Don’t let its weirdness keep you from seeing this gem. Full review.

04. Sing Street

Director John Carney has such a rich passion for song. His previous works Once and Begin Again are a testament to that. And personally, I loved both those films. Sing Street, however, is his best work to date. While so many films are dark and cynical, Sing Street is a feel-good time at the movies. For anyone who grew up on 80s music, Sing Street will resonate so much more. It’s always brings a smile to hear A-ha or Duran Duran or The Cure. Its original soundtrack is catchy from start to finish. Ever since watching the film, this a soundtrack that needed to be listened to again and again. Though, there may be some competition later in this best-of list. Full review.

03. The Witch

Robert Eggers’ The Witch is another example of genre films taking it to the next level in 2016. Deemed “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch was not another contemporary horror film that relied on jump scares and laughable deaths. It’s nerve-racking to the bone. Like many other on this best-of list, we have yet another slow burn film that keep you on the edge of your seat. To be perfect honest, the film was marketed as the film was intended. It’s not scary in the modern sense. Rather this family tears itself apart thanks to lies, deception and pact with a certain four-legged goat named Black Phillip. The Witch is 90 minutes of pure psychological terror set in Puritan times. I regret this being the only film in the list to not be reviewed. But I’ll leave you with one final blurb – all hail Black Phillip.

02. The Neon Demon

These last two films are contrasting viewpoints to success in Los Angeles. And for how different they are, it was difficult picking one over the other. Nicolas Winding Refn is undoubtedly one of my favorite modern directors. A visionary behind the camera, Refn gave us the 2011 neo-noir crime drama, Drive. 2013’s Only God Forgives was admittedly pretentious as is his latest film, The Neon Demon. Either you love The Neon Demon or you hate it. Critics and audience alike have labeled it pretentious and without purpose. I disagree completely. Once again, I have immersed myself in a film of deeper metaphors and internal turmoil. Cliff Martinez’s score is a haunting complement to the film’s bizarre nature. As The Neon Demon continues to be examined, it’ll be yet another Kubrick or Argento film praised many years later. Full review.

01. La La Land

A late entry to the list, La La Land danced its way to the very top. Director Damien Chazelle has done it again, pulling off back-to-back triumphs. After 2014’s Whiplash, I found it near impossible for lightning to strike twice. Then came La La Land. As someone who has an appreciation of the musicals of yesteryear, La La Land hit places no other film could this year. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are electric as the aspiring duo Sebastian and Mia. The music never feels overwhelming like a Les Miserables, utilizing song more naturally. La La Land is an achievement like no other in 2016. And yes, it’s my favorite film on the big screen since Mad Max: Fury Road. Full review.

So 2016 is in the books. And what a year it was from both the art house and the mainstream. Stay tuned in 2017 for another year at the movies.

Written by
Matt Marshall is a film reviewer that specializes in Blu-Rays. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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