You’re going to be able to find great movies in every year. 2016 had a lot of them, but so do all of the others years, as long as you’re open to finding them. Not all of the best movies wind up in a lot of theaters, or receieve a large marketing campaign. We claim years are bad for movies when in reality it might have just been a bad year for blockbusters. We need to expand our horizons as movie-lovers and be more open to watching different movies. Cinema is in a good place; it just might not be in the most visible place.
Here are the best movies of 2016.
Documentaries don’t often get a lot of love in “Best of” lists, in large part because audiences primarily focus on narrative features, and therefore want to read about those. But if you haven’t checked out 13th, which is a Netflix movie, you really should do so.
It’s about the way that the Black prison population in America is higher than statistically it should be and mistreated to the extent that some are calling it a new form of slavery. It’s not a balanced documentary, so know that going in. It’s got an agenda. But it’s fascinating and makes its case very well, and the way it has been put together is great.
Hell or High Water
In terms of cinematography, pacing, plot, acting, atmosphere – Hell or High Water is a top-notch production and I can’t find much, if any, fault with it. It’s about a couple of brothers who rob banks in order to save the family ranch. The catch? It’s only branches of the bank that’s trying to take the ranch, which is only happening because of unfair play on the bank’s end.
Like I said, it’s a fantastic movie in pretty much all aspects – including a surprisingly great turn from Chris Pine as the lead. He’s been … less than good a lot of the time leading up to Hell or High Water, but here he really lives up to his potential.
The little-seen Indignation is one of my favorite films of 2016 – a spitfire of a tale following a Jewish student attending a Christian college, and the struggles that come with that – particularly in his fights with the Dean, who questions everything he does (for one reason or another). There’s one 15-minute confrontation between the two that’s so passionate and so sharply written that it gives you a feeling of elation after it ends. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
The film also contains a decent romance between its protagonist and another student, as well as the struggles that brings for him with his family, who decide early on that they don’t like his belle.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika is one of only a couple of companies that is still doing stop-motion animation, and in 2016 it released its best movie: Kubo and the Two Strings. The film is a hero’s journey story that’s thematically rich, visually stunning, emotionally compelling, and works just as well for adults as it does for kids – perhaps even more effectively for adults, whose life experience will amplify the emotional impact of its plot.
Love & Friendship
Love & Friendship is a .. smarter comedy than most. I think that’s a fair way to put it. It’s a period piece based on a Jane Austen novella, and it has dialogue that’s quick, sharp, and refuses to pander. You have to pay attention to it and be able to process it quickly in order to truly “get” it. And if you do that, you’ll find very funny movie that lampoons society and its expectations of its time period – as well as some observations that can be paralleled to the present day. I’m not saying you have to be a genius to watch it, but you do have to pay attention; which isn’t something that can be said of all the films on this list.
Manchester by the Sea
For a very lengthy period of time, Manchester By the Sea was my #1 film of 2016. It’s dropped slightly, but it’s still a top 3 film and one that I love. It follows a man and his nephew after the death of their brother/father, and works as a strong meditation on grief and of guilt – although don’t get me wrong, they didn’t cause that death. You’ll see when you see it. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are fantastic, and the whole film seems tailor-made to generate a strong emotional response from its audience.
While we’ll always remember Moonlight as the film that won the Oscar after something else was initially announced, those who saw it before that kerfuffle will remember it for the movie it is, which is a great one. It follows a black man through three periods of his life (child, teenager, twentysomething adult). And he’s gay – although he doesn’t initially know it.
The film details the challenges he suffers, not just because of his sexuality – although that’s definitely a part of it, especially in poorer black communities – but just the general problems he has to overcome in a poor black neighborhood. It’s a great film with wonderful acting and a touching plot.
The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon polarized audiences when it was released. People didn’t have middling reactions to it; they either loved it or hated it with very little middle ground. It’s a Nicolas Winding Refn film, which typically provide these types of reactions. It’s about a teenager in Los Angeles who wants to be a model, and whose youth and beauty create a lot of jealousy and fascination among both the other models and the people who hire her.
And then things get weird.
It might not be a perfect movie but it’s a fascinating one that’s all about the modeling industry and the vapidness associated with its culture … wrapped up in a horror movie that also features cannibalism and necrophilia.
At its core, Sing Street is about a teenager in 1980s Ireland who starts a band to impress a girl. It doesn’t do a whole lot more than that, but the story it tells is great, the music is fantastic, and it’s got enough humor to work as an effective comedy.
It’s a John Carney movie, who has two previous movies that are also musical comedies. Both of them are worthwhile. Once is the better of the two – it might even be a better overall movie than Sing Street – but Begin Again is also solid. If you like more “realistic” musicals, they’re worth a look.
The best animated movie of 2016. It’s a fun, funny, incredibly entertaining buddy cop movie about a bunny cop and a sly fox trying to solve a mystery. It’s also about prejudice within our society, which is a slick move for Disney to pull. “Oh, you wanted a talking animal movie? Well here’s that … and also a lesson about diversity and prejudice.” The central metaphor might not hold up under close scrutiny, but the message gets through. And even beyond that, you’ve got a gorgeous movie with a highly detailed world that’s hilarious and packed with action. It’s fantastic.