My favorite films of 2016

A friend recently asked me whether my annual lists were meant to be what I thought were the best films of the year or the most entertaining films of the year. This is a tough question – those certainly aren’t the same thing, for those of us who believe that films can do more than entertain us for a few hours. There are certainly movies that I had fun seeing this year but didn’t really think very highly of (like Rogue One) and other movies that I admired deeply on a filmmaking level but at the same time left me feeling cold or a little bored (like Jackie). Ultimately I think that to make my list, a film has to connect with me on an emotional level. Some of the movies on my list aren’t movies that I’m anxious to rewatch (like Manchester by the Sea) but they provoked a strong emotional reaction when I saw them or made me rethink some of the ways in which I view the world. Others are on there because they’re just an amazing way to spend a couple hours at the theater.

On to the list! Usual disclaimer: I’m not a real film critic or even that knowledgeable so no one should take my opinions too seriously. This is just for fun.

  1. La La Land. Hate to jump on the bandwagon here (I assume it will win a bunch of Oscars – the Oscars love movies about Hollywood) and I do agree with many of the criticisms against it. This isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but I swear it was cooked up in a lab by someone with a list of Tim Crockett’s favorite things in movies. I love musicals, I love bright colorful visuals, I love romances where the two leads bicker and trade insults before falling in love. The writing was a tad thin but I can’t think of another movie this year that made me want to turn right around and watch it again. I especially want to call out that perfect ending – I know some people didn’t like it, but I thought it was the just-right bittersweet coda to a movie about dreams and wish fulfillment.
  2. Moonlight. The most critically acclaimed movie of the year was a master class in creating empathy via flawless camerawork and moving performances. Like La La Land, it’s another movie that really won me over in the last ten minutes.
  3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This film about an orphan boy that goes to live with new foster parents in rural New Zealand and ends up being the target of a national manhunt was one of the warmest, funniest, things I’ve seen all year. This is my answer when anyone asked me to recommend a movie this year – I can’t imagine anyone I know not enjoying it.
  4. Hell or High Water. The rare crime film that creates sympathy for characters on both sides of the law, this modern Western features one of the best Jeff Bridges performances of all time (and that’s a high bar). Between this and Nocturnal Animals, this was quite the year for the “Western noir”.
  5. The Nice GuysShane Black is a competent action director and a superlative action-comedy writer (I’m actually going to go on record to say I prefer his script for The Last Boy Scout over his script for Lethal Weapon). We need more funny, entertaining action movies like this. In my dream fantasy, this movie made Deadpool money and spawned dozens of imitators.
  6. The Lobster. I’ve been accused of having a dry sense of humor, but this bizarre, perceptive film is the ultimate in deadpan humor. I want more people I know to see this so we can talk about what it’s saying about modern romance.
  7. Love and Friendship. Pairing Whit Stillman with source material from Jane Austen seems like a match made in heaven. This film is funny, and brilliant. It’s Pride and Prejudice but with Austen’s latent cynicism cranked up to eleven.
  8. Manchester by the Sea. Unlike a lot of the big prestige dramas, this film manages to depict great character emotion  without big speeches or actors making Oscar-ready emotional outbursts. The actors show their grief in their posture and their faces and the timbre of their voices when they’re arguing about things like where they parked the car.
  9. Kubo and the Two Strings. This was a great year for animated family films. This narrowly edges out Moana and Zootopia as my favorite, although either of those other two could have been on this list (I haven’t seen Finding Dory). Kubo wins maybe because it feels less like corporate product and more like a labor of love. Also, with apologies to La La Land, Sing Street, and Moana – this movie has my favorite song of the year – Regina Spektor’s cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
  10. Green Room. Great suspense but tough to watch if you have a phobia of dogs. Actually the year’s other great thriller, Don’t Breathe, also had a couple dog scenes that had me nearly pissing myself. Now I know what shark-phobics felt like when Jaws came out.

The next five: Moana, Arrival, The Witch, Silence, Hail Caesar

What a great year for superhero movies! Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Doctor Strange

What a terrible year for superhero movies! Batman vs. Superman: Something of Something, X:Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad

Who needs a decent script when you look this good? Jackie, High Rise, Nocturnal Animals, The Neon Demon

Sleeper pick: My favorite movie that didn’t make any professional critic’s end-of-year list was the British supernatural romance Nina Forever. See it if you like your relationship dramas extra-bloody.

More stuff I’d recommend: Loving, The Fits, Sing Street, Zootopia, Midnight Special, The Invitation, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Cemetery of Splendor, Don’t Think Twice, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Jungle Book, The Mermaid, Don’t Breathe, Hidden Figuresthe first half of Passengers, Sully

Worst of the year: Suicide Squad

Potential top-ten films I still need to catch up with: Paterson, Elle, The Handmaiden, American Honey, 20th Century Women, Lion, A Monster Calls, The Edge of Seventeen, The Red Turtle, Aquarius, Finding Dory