The year 2016 was one of the best years for movies in the past few years. So good was it that I decided to do a top 25 instead of a top 10, and even then it was difficult to leave certain films off the list. It’s worth noting that this was a particularly strong year for films showcasing diverse casts and dealing with topics such as racism and xenophobia. But we also had our fair share of fun popcorn entertainment as well.
Keep in mind that this list is subjective, but I do encourage people to weigh in on their favorite films of the year in the comments section.My list, like every year, will go by official United States release dates; this means the films had to have had a limited or wide release in theaters in the U.S. in the year 2016 to qualify.
I did miss a few well-received movies this year for one reason or another. That’s not to say the films would have made my list, but many other people have praised them highly so they are worth mentioning. Some of the films I missed this year were: Christine, Florence Foster Jenkins, Julieta, Miss Sloane, The Red Turtle, The Salesman
25. Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
IMDB Plot: An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.
I can’t forgive some of the sloppy editing and music choices in Manchester by the Sea, but the film is still an impactful examination of grief for the most part. Casey Affleck is incredible in the lead and is the anchor of the film. I think Kenneth Lonergan’s reach is bigger than his grasp here, but even so Manchester by the Sea is still a heartbreaking and rewarding experience for viewers.
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
IMDB Plot: A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
Lion is an uplifting true story given great care from a game cast and director Garth Davis – making his feature debut. The piano soundtrack by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran is a gift to the ears, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography is equally as beautiful. It’s Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel as young and old Saroo, though, that truly provide the heart of this remarkable film.
23. Green Room
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat
IMDB Plot: A punk rock band is forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar.
Jeremy Saulnier’s adrenaline rush of a survival horror film, Green Room, is a perfect example of a small genre film given high-level treatment. Before his sudden passing, Anton Yelchin gave us one of his better performances in Saulnier’s film; Patrick Stewart and Imogen Poots are equally as good. What makes Green Room so effective is how realistically its violence is handled, showing characters fumbling situations out of fear and flashing moments of numbing brutality. Props to the film for also providing unique spins on Oregon locations and punk rock and neo-Nazi characters.
22. The Conjuring 2
Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe
IMDB Plot: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by a malicious spirit.
While the freshness of the original is gone for The Conjuring 2, that doesn’t really matter when the craftsmanship of the sequel is superior to the original in nearly every other way. James Wan has given us one of the finest horror sequels ever, with plenty of creepy moments, exceptional cinematography and production design, and a deeper relationship exploration of the Warrens. The year 2016 was a great one for the horror genre, and to me The Conjuring 2 was the cream of the crop.
21. Nocturnal Animals
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
IMDB Plot: A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale.
Tom Ford’s dreamlike Nocturnal Animals is a blend of sad drama, western thriller, and Lynch-like images. There is a masterpiece somewhere within this film, but unfortunately the end result has some moments that are either too messy or too on-the-nose. Even with its flaws, though, Nocturnal Animals is hypnotic and has stellar acting all around. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives possibly my favorite supporting performance of the year, giving audiences a nightmare of a man in the form of character Ray Marcus.
Director: Tim Miller
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Ed Skrein
IMDB Plot: A fast-talking mercenary with a morbid sense of humor is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers and a quest for revenge.
Deadpool is a huge breath of fresh air in the superhero subgenre, knowing exactly what it is but also poking fun at all of the tropes. For me it might just be the most re-watchable film of 2016, providing stylish action and rapid-fire dialogue from beginning to end. Ryan Reynolds has found the role of his career.
19. Captain Fantastic
Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
IMDB Plot: In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.
Viggo Mortensen is a treasure of an actor, so versatile and watchable from film to film. Captain Fantastic gives him one of his juiciest roles to date and he plays the hell out of it. Matt Ross’ film is a quirky and affecting road trip film in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), filled with interesting characters and insightful moments. It also features arguably the best use ever of a certain Guns N’ Roses song.
18. The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice
IMDB Plot: In 1970s Los Angeles, a mismatched pair of private eyes investigate a missing girl and the mysterious death of a porn star.
With The Nice Guys, Shane Black proves once again that he can provide offbeat buddy relationships like no other writer. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a perfect combo in this amusing and action-packed ride. The Nice Guys is one of the more flat-out entertaining films from 2016 — and features some of the wittiest dialogue and more memorable character situations.
17. The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden,
IMDB Plot: In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
Featuring one of the most bizarre and original screenplays of the past few years, The Lobster is a Kubrick-esque, dystopian love story of sorts. The film is definitely not for all tastes, but for those who admire daring and strange character studies, look no further. The Lobster doesn’t always hit the mark, but it features many darkly hilarious moments and a masterful performance from Colin Farrell. This one might actually get better with age and more viewings.
Director: Keith Maitland
IMDB Plot: Animation, testimony, and archival footage combine to relate the events of August 1, 1966 when a gunman opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people.
One of the more overlooked documentaries of the year, Tower is a creative blend of animation and archival footage that recreates the events of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin shootings. Director Keith Maitland covers a lot of ground in just about 90 minutes, but he also keeps the doc moving like a thriller. Tower is informative and breathtaking.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton, Michael Shannon
IMDB Plot: The story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, whose challenge of their anti-miscegenation arrest for their marriage in Virginia led to a legal battle that would end at the US Supreme Court.
Jeff Nichols’ low-key biopic Loving proves once again that the director is a master of subtlety. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are completely believable in the leads, never resorting to melodramatic moments. This is a small, beautiful film with big, echoing messages.
14. Patriots Day
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon
IMDB Plot: The story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, which includes the city-wide manhunt to find the terrorists responsible.
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have delivered fine work together with Lone Survivor (2013) and Deepwater Horizon (2016), but Patriots Day is their most effective collaboration yet. The film’s gritty you-are-there approach makes for a tense viewing, especially in one particular scene involving a masterfully-staged shootout. I was a bit bothered that Wahlberg’s fictional character (made up of three real people) happened to be at nearly all of the major events in the film, but that’s my only major issue. For the most part Patriots Day is an exceptionally-made tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing.
13. Hacksaw Ridge
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn
IMDB Plot: WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
Welcome back, Mel Gibson. Hacksaw Ridge sees the return of Gibson in the director’s chair for the first time in ten years. And while not quite as great as Braveheart (1995) or Apocalypto (2006), Hacksaw Ridge is an emotional and brutal experience filled with impressive filmmaking. It features one of Andrew Garfield’s finest performances and some of the most intensely realistic battle scenes since Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Director: Ava DuVernay
IMDB Plot: An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.
Ava DuVerney’s documentary 13th is a fascinating and eye-opening – if occasionally manipulative – piece showing hidden truths about racial inequality and the U.S. prison systems. It’s just one of those important films you have to see to actually believe.
11. Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Cast: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryô Narita
IMDB Plot: Two strangers find themselves linked in a bizarre way. When a connection forms, will distance be the only thing to keep them apart?
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name is a stunning anime full of rich visuals, wonderful music, and complex emotion. What starts as a cute and funny body swap film becomes something more as it moves along, sneaking up on you with its unexpected and lovely turns. Even as someone who hasn’t explored the anime genre a lot, I was still held spellbound by Your Name. The film was only given a very limited release in the U.S. in 2016 for awards season, but I implore people to seek it out as it expands this year.
10. 20th Century Women
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann
IMDB Plot: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.
Mike Mills paints a fabulous portrait of growing up in the 70s with 20th Century Women. The acting is aces across the board, with Annette Bening leading the way with another outstanding performance in her resume. Mills’ film is a bit all over the place in its storytelling, but that actually works to the film’s advantage in portraying the messiness of the characters’ everyday lives. 20th Century Women features relatable characters and situations and shows how different types of women can truly affect a young man’s life when growing up.
9. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend
IMDB Plot: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
La La Land is a charming revival of original musicals for mass audiences. I mostly love the film, but it isn’t quite the masterpiece that some people make it out to be; a lot of the storytelling is predictable and none of the supporting characters are interesting at all as they mostly just show up as plot devices. Still, the technical aspects of the film are dazzling and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are amazing in the leads. I think Damien Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash is a superior work, but La La Land is a very impressive piece in his filmography.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert
IMDB Plot: A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an understated work of beauty, subtlety taking on subjects of identity, sexuality, drug abuse, and more as it paints a portrait of a man discovering himself over years. The entire cast is superb, but Mahershala Ali is especially good in the first act, as are Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in the third act. Some of the second act of the film felt a little messy to me, but overall Moonlight is a graceful and memorable film.
7. The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
IMDB Plot: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.
The latest twisty mystery from craftsman Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden is a breathtakingly handsome film that manages to pull the rug out from audiences at least three different times with its superior writing. The film is weird, sexually charged, and though-provoking as it explores characters that live in early-1900s Japanese-occupied Korea. If you’re looking for a cinematic experience with truly unexpected turns, look no further. This is the best of the foreign language films I saw in 2016.
6. Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
IMDB Plot: A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.
Sharply written by Taylor Sheridan and expertly directed by David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water is a highly thrilling crime drama with colorful characters and dialogue, Western aesthetics, tense action, finely-tuned performances (especially Ben Foster), and meticulous camerawork. It also has quite a bit to say about how the economic turns of the past few years have affected certain Americans.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
IMDB Plot: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.
Denis Villeneuve has been doing excellent work the past few years, delivering such films as Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), and Sicario (2015). Now he gives us arguably his finest film yet with Arrival, which ranks among the best sci-fi features of the decade so far. The film has meticulous visual and sound work, but it’s the deep and mature exploration of language and grief that makes Arrival special. Amy Adams’ heartfelt performance at the center of the film is incredible, and the movie has certain story turns that will make repeated viewings even more rewarding.
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba
IMDB Plot: In a city of anthropomorphic animals, a rookie bunny cop and a cynical con artist fox must work together to uncover a conspiracy.
Disney’s best non-Pixar-related animation project in years, Zootopia is a colorful and funny film that can be enjoyed by adults and children. What pushes it into greatness is how surprisingly thoughtful and emotional it is, managing to take on topics like xenophobia and stereotypes while also giving audiences an engaging story and layered characters. It’s that rare breed of timeless animation that will be enjoyed for years to come.
3. American Honey
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
IMDB Plot: A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a road trip movie in the Easy Rider (1969) mode, capturing certain lost souls in America who try to find their way on the open road. Coming in at nearly three hours long, some found the project to be a bit rambling and frustrating; I even admit that about 15 to 20 minutes could have easily been trimmed off. But to me the work here is mesmerizing, with Arnold’s vision capturing certain sadness, danger, and freedom with a part of the underbelly of American youth. Newcomer Sasha Lane gives a star-is-born performance as Star and Shia LaBeouf turns in the best performance of his career thus far as Jake. American Honey is an artistic, authentic, and intoxicating indie film experience, though admittedly polarizing in ways.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata
IMDB Plot: Two priests travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor and propagate Catholicism.
Martin Scorsese’s long-delayed passion project, Silence, is among the director’s finest and most personal works. Patient in its pacing, beautiful in its look, and challenging in its ideas, the film will make both religious and non-religious people question their beliefs, but it never aims to do so in an offensive way. Instead Scorsese just shows us certain harsh truths in the lives of the characters and lets us decide what we think of the matters. Only gripe: sudden and unnecessary narration in the third act by a character that feels out of place in the story.
1. O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
IMDB Plot: It is the defining cultural tale of modern America – a saga of race, celebrity, media, violence, and the criminal justice system. And two decades after its unforgettable climax, it continues to fascinate, polarize, and develop new chapters.
Riding on a blurred line between film and television, Ezra Edelman’s monumental documentary O.J.: Made in America was first released as a film in theaters and later as a five-part miniseries. That might be a little unfair to other films, but it doesn’t really matter because the project is so damn good no matter how you view it. Clocking in at 7 hours and 47 minutes, the film manages to remain suspenseful and intriguing throughout. The doc covers many aspects of O.J. Simpson’s life while also placing his notorious actions into a broader context that deals with matters of celebrity, racism, police brutality, debatable court procedures, and much more in American culture. It’s the best film of the year and one of the finest documentaries ever made.