A trio of great musicals, a pair of harrowing dramas, a superhero spectacle— these were my cinematic highlights of 2016.
First of all, yes, I know: it’s almost the end of February 2017. We’re already two months into 2017, so it’s pretty damn late to do an “end-of-the-year wrap-up” list. And, to that, I say…you are completely right, reader. But look, I’ll be entirely honest: I don’t do these lists for you. I do them for myself, so that years from now, I have a “record” of sorts about what the year in pop culture really was. So yeah, maybe this isn’t exactly timely. But I feel obliged to do it anyway and, if you’re reading this, I hope you get some type of value out of this very untimely list. And, c’mon, cut me some slack here — I still beat the Oscars to the punch, so doesn’t that count for something?
And it wasn’t like I spent the last few months just twiddling my thumbs — the reason I didn’t write out my Top 10’s of the year sooner was because I had so much stuff I had to catch up on first. The way I do Top 10’s isn’t “the best things I saw in the last 365 days” — if it was, most of the best things in 2016 would make my 2017 list. Every year I spend my January going through the quality things I missed out on in the year, all in an effort to make as through a list as I can.
Which of course is still an impossibility: I’m sure I’ll end up seeing something months from now that I think was good enough to retroactively make my list. But hey, two months into the new year is already late enough: I couldn’t wait until June now, could I? In any case, here it finally is: my Top 10’s of 2016. Today I’ll be closing things out with my favorite movies of 2016. Kicking off the list at number 10 is…
10. Hardcore Henry
Yes sir, I am indeed starting this list out with class, aren’t I? But, look: as I said around the time the film was first released, you will know pretty much right off the bat if Hardcore Henry is the type of movie you will love. I certainly did, as the film’s unique action style and off-the-wall craziness is present within minutes of the film’s start. This is the kind of movie that has a telepathic Russian baddie for like no reason, and has an exciting action shootout in a seedy strip club for like no reason. But the reasons for why Hardcore Henry did pretty much everything it did was pretty simple in my mind: cause it’s REALLY freaking cool.
At the time of its release, Hardcore Henry was very much compared to a video game, and I do think the comparison is pretty apt. Like a video game, you kind of have to accept some puzzling plot progression, and a lot of things that don’t really add up. But once you do that in a video game, the sense of utter fun and joy that can be had with the thing knows no bounds.
Hardcore Henry operates much in the same way, with its crazy unique first person style creating some of the most striking, energetic action sequences released in years. And though the story might be silly, there are little strokes of cleverness to be had within the broad strokes. First and foremost is the character played by Sharlto Copley, who is not only the best use of the actor’s talents since District 9, but also an incredibly fun and rather interesting plot device. To say anything more is probably a spoiler, but just know this: as weird as it is to say on a list like this, I truly believe there’s a strong likelihood you will not love this movie. But you know what? I sure as hell did.
9. Hacksaw Ridge
Upon creating this list, I decided that I could only include one “Andrew Garfield suffers for his faith at the hands of the Japanese” movie, and boy was it a hard choice between Hacksaw Ridge and Silence. But at the end of the day, I have to give the edge to Hacksaw Ridge, for primarily one reason: I’m a war movie junkie, and I don’t think I’ve seen a war movie as brilliantly realized as this one since Saving Private Ryan. The latter film is one of my Top 10 movies of all time, so, you know…I was a prime audience for this one.
And though at lot has been said about its somewhat preachy opening act, I think it was necessary to spell out Desmond Doss’ beliefs, and just how much it has impacted his life and time in the army. I am personally always interested in well-told stories about belief, even as a pretty un-religious person. And once again, when the film gets to the nitty-gritty of the massacre that occurred on Hacksaw Ridge, having the first half to back it up really does make it land all the better.
And, honestly, I loved Hacksaw Ridge just because it was so god damn refreshing. Well much has been said about the innate brutality of the film, one thing that I feel hasn’t been mentioned enough about the movie is how it idolizes a legitimately good person, a hero with very little flaws to put aside. War movies are often about heroes to some extent, but never have I felt it so profoundly than with Hacksaw Ridge. Because this is a movie about the heroism that comes from saving others through healing, not through harm. And regardless of the politics of it all, I would argue we need more films like this right now.
8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Look, I already wrote about the joys of Popstar back in my “Best Movies of Summer 2016” list, so I’m just going to re-quote what I said about the film there right here, since it still all completely applies today.
Not a day went by this summer when my heart didn’t hurt just a little bit for how hard Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping bombed at the box office. I was lucky enough to see Popstar at an early screening a month or so before it came out, and fell in love with the comedy almost instantly. It has humor, it has heart, it has like a dozen catchy songs — what more could I possibly want from it?
The best thing I could say about Popstar is that it reminds me of the very best Will Ferrell comedies, from Anchorman to Step Brothers, and that Andy Samburg does an exquisite job of playing the Ferrell-esque fool at the center of the film. But when the film isn’t being outrageously funny, it also does a stellar job of telling its central story in a surprisingly sweet way. Popstar is the type of film that SHOULD have been an early summer break-out, and the fact it didn’t catch on has me supremely bummed. At the very least, I hope Popstar is set to become a buzzed about cult comedy classic like a decade down the line. Considering the quality of the final project, it at least deserves that much.
Popstar was the funniest comedy of 2016, without a doubt.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
Oh hey, I also wrote about Kubo on that list too so, y’know, might as well re-quote it! Even in a competitive year for the form, Kubo is the best animated motion picture of 2016. I just wish it saw nearly as much success as all the others…
I have been a fan of Laika since the very beginning, and have championed the studio as doing things with animation that very few others (including Pixar!) would dare to do. Laika truly takes chances with their storytelling and animation, and is not afraid to delve into the uncomfortable, gross, spooky, or what have you. Those have been aspects of all three of their previous efforts (Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls) to various degrees, and they are quickly getting to the point as a studio that I completely believe whatever films they make will be worthy of my time. Not only did this summer’s Kubo and the Two Strings cement that trust, but it also raised my expectations for the company to even grander heights.
To say that Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s grandest accomplishment is no small thing: like I said, this is a studio that has up until this point ONLY made great movies. But Kubo somehow manages to top all of them, combining jaw dropping effects, a delightful sense of adventure, and a fascinating story into probably the best animated film of the year. Unfortunately this is another one that isn’t getting its proper due (even with Laika’s low standards, the film is a bit of a disappointment at the box office with a gross so far of just $40 million), but in time I desperately hope that a big fandom will surround Kubo — if any film from this summer deserves such a thing, it would be this one.
Ah, Moonlight. What more can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said before? It truly is a gem of a movie, one that does an astounding job at making you empathize with its main character. It’s also excruciating beautiful, brilliantly acted by a lot of great talent, and put together with such fine procession by writer/director Barry Jenkins.
I really wish I had more to say about Moonlight, but really the lack of things I have to say about it speaks volumes on its own — the film is just undeniably great, with the type of craft that only the best films can speak to. I don’t know what the film’s Oscar chances are come Sunday night, but even with the competition that “ranks” better in my list, I couldn’t possibly begrudge any praise that this film gets. Because it more than earns it.
5. Manchester by the Sea
From one heart-breaking drama to another, I guess it’s time to talk about the most notoriously depressing film of 2016: Kennether Lonnergan’s Manchester by the Sea. At this point, it’s almost become a gag: the film is pure misery, and everyone who tries to describe it comes away echoing the same basic thought.
And look, I’m not going to argue that Manchester by the Sea isn’t emotionally draining: it definitely is, and at no point does the film seem intent on “apologizing” to the audience for making them feel the way they are. But that in and of itself is why I loved Manchester — it’s incredibly true to life, and almost procedural in its portrayal of depression and crippling grief. Despite Lonnergan’s background, there’s never a point in Manchester by the Sea that feels overly theatrical, or emotionally manipulating. It’s just so matter-of-fact, and Lonnergan is such a brilliant writer that he can still devastate the audience with such relative simplicity. Add in some astounding performances from everybody involved (Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams especially), and you have the recipe for perhaps the best pure drama film of the entire year.
4. Sing Street
And now for something completely different! While Manchester by the Sea might be the most depressing film of 2016, John Carney’s Sing Street might just be the happiest.
I’m not sure there was a single moment where I wasn’t beaming in this glorious little musical comedy, and it truly was a perfect antidote for a year that was, well, not very fun to behold. And Carney’s talent for music really shines through here, with a litany of 80’s-inspired songs that are still getting a lot of play on my Spotify playlist (try not to get “Riddle of the Model” stuck in your head. Come on, I dare you.)
But more than anything, Sing Street is a movie about the joy of creativity, and the wonder and fun that comes with creating something artistic. It’s upbeat and happy, and truly fits that whole cliche of “you’ll want to start dancing in the aisle with it!” Not literally of course (I was at home on my recliner, so there was no aisle to speak of anyways, but you get my point.) As I put on Twitter the night I saw it, Sing Street is just delightful, and no other film this year earns that adjective nearly as much.
Plus, it made Mr. Statutory Rape from Transformers: Age of Extinction one of the coolest and most likable screen presence’s of the entire year. That’s practically a miracle!
3. Captain America: Civil War
Though I technically also wrote about Captain America: Civil War in my Best of Summer 2015 list, I’ll go ahead and write something different here, since I just recently re-watched the movie, and all the great things I felt watching it the first time very much came back.
Captain America: Civil War is going down as my favorite movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in the Top 3 of my favorite superhero movies of all time. The fact I can still say that about the MCU a dozen films in speaks to how spectacularly Marvel is at what they do, and how their trust in strong filmmakers continues to benefit them. Civil War has all of the whizzbang action excellence that has made superhero films so fun in the past, but also doesn’t back away from exploring a more dramatic, thought provoking side of the universe. It’s huge in scale but deliciously intimate, to the point that you really do feel intense pain when you see the heroes of the brand go at it.
Civil War is the kind of film you can only get after 10 odd films of build-up, and is a fantastic culmination of what Marvel has been doing with their universe building so far. But even just in terms of big blockbuster entertainment, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so much fun watching a film like this, with Civil War besting everything else in the past half decade at least. Civil War is indeed the new benchmark for how great comic book movies can be, and the fact that the same people behind it (and the also great Captain America: Winter Soldier) are currently in production on Avengers: Infinity War couldn’t have me happier. They pulled off one hell of a hat trick here, and I’m beyond curious to see if they can pull it off again.
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Above I called Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping the funniest comedy of 2016, but you might notice that I didn’t call it the best. No, that honor confidently goes to Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the comedic gem that premiered at Sundance back in January 2016, and opened in limited release during the summer.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the most charming movies I’ve seen in years, enlivened by two great performances by its two main stars (breakout Julian Dennison and Alan Grant himself, Sam Neill) and one heck of a funny script. But what put Hunt for the Wilderpeople over the edge is truly its direction from Waititi, who helms the film with the kind of self-assuredness you would never expect from a man on his sophomore feature. The film is energetic and stylish, with a sort of Wes Anderson vibe that bounces well off of the beautiful New Zealand vistas.
Though a comedy first and foremost, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a really enjoyable adventure romp, with its fair share of exciting moments and small scale action scenes. It’s also incredibly sweet, with an ending that makes you feel the kind of euphoria that only a great film with wonderful characters can truly manage. Watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople was one of the most delightful moments for me in 2016, and its one of the few films on this list I would recommend whole-heartedly to pretty much every person I know.
1. La La Land
Yes, yes, I know — you don’t “get” La Land Land. You don’t see why the film is getting all the acclaim it is getting, and you just see it as another “overrated” piece of Oscar bait. And as I’m going to elaborate on in a latter article, that’s totally okay. But here’s the thing: I loved La La Land. With every fiber of my being, I love this goddamn movie.
I listen to the soundtrack everyday, with it being the rare musical in which EVERY song is great. I loved the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and honestly could give two shits about whether the two can actually sing or dance or whatever. I loved Damien Chazelle’s direction, who after this and Whiplash, has proven himself to be perhaps the most talented young filmmaker in Hollywood. And I love the ending, which is a breathtaking experience to behold, and a fascinating place to end its characters on.
But, more than anything, I love what La La Land IS, by the pure nature of what it’s exploring. It’s a film about two artists growing off of each other, a subgenre that I am admittedly a sucker for. It’s a beautiful theme that I always love to see shown in art, even if it can get a little bit self-important sometimes. But once again, I don’t care — as a fellow dreamer, it’s uplifting and beautiful to see such a perfectly realized take on how two people can so profoundly impact each other. As an artist, as a romantic, and as just a lover of damn good cinema, I’m going to paraphrase the words of famed poet Sir Mix-A-Lot here when I say that I LOVED La La Land — and I cannot lie about that fact. So, umm, deal with it, I guess? Yeah, that sounds right.
And there you have it — my extremely late choices for the 10 Best Films of 2016. Check out my similar list of the best TV shows of 2016 below: