The general consensus on the year 2016 was that, well…it sucked. And that is mostly true. But one area of exception was the cinema. I thought this past year was a rather glorious one for film lovers. Which makes picking my 10 favorite films so much more difficult. Surely, another 10 could have easily taken the spots of what I chose here. And yet, these are the choices. They’re the films that left me profoundly moved, or in tears, or rejoicing. Film is an emotional medium, and every movie featured here earned that emotion in ways both big and small. Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2016.
10. Sing Street
This feels like the proper follow-up to John Carney’s sensational indie Once, rather than the underwhelming Begin Again. Thankfully, the director proves he’s more than a one-trick pony, with a much more upbeat and joyous tale about a Catholic schoolboy in the 1980s who starts a rock band to (of course) impress a girl. The film is a marvel of clever humor and pure, simple emotion, something Carney excels at. There is a cornucopia of references to the music scene of the 80s, but more impressive are the original songs. They’re catchy, creative, and feel like they could have come straight out of the time period. Carney’s passion for music shines through in every frame, and that’s not something you can fake.
9. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water may at first seem like your typical cops-and-robbers tale, but David MacKenzie’s richly textured, deeply human drama is so much more. In the era of Trump, this is the film that got white, blue-collar dissatisfaction and ennui better than any other. That’s mostly due to Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue, which is poetic but still feels very lived-in (it’s also, blessedly, quite funny). But it’s also due to the soulful performances. Chris Pine and Ben Foster have never been better as brothers pushed to the edge of their circumstances by people with more power and wealth than they, and Jeff Bridges is, again, a marvel as the ranger tasked with hunting them down. His Marcus Hamilton’s friendship with fellow sheriff Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is more affecting than the vast majority of on-screen romances we saw this year. It’s characters like this that prove to us this film is operating on an entirely different and completely successful level.
Much ado has been made about Natalie Portman’s astonishing transformation into Jackie Kennedy for this film. And the praise is well-deserved. But the film around her, which follows Jackie in the hours and days after her husband’s assassination, is equally worthy of recognition. Pablo Larrain’s drama is emotionally gripping and gorgeously shot by Stephane Fontaine, who fills scenes with delirious close-ups as we begin to feel the claustrophobic anxiety Jackie surely felt in the aftermath of one of the most devastating days in American history. Mica Levi’s Oscar-worthy score also contributes to that mood. But the main reason Jackie stays in my mind is its message that trials shape the people we become, that hardship refines us and, perhaps, even gives us a glimpse of God’s grace. For a culture that tries to actively avoid pain, that is an essential reminder.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
Pixar often gets the highest praise for creating quality animated films both kids and adults can enjoy, but stop-motion auteurs Laika have been given them a run for their money for years with unforgettable stories like Coraline and ParaNorman. Kubo and the Two Strings is their masterpiece, and the best animated film of the year. The impossibly gorgeous papercraft-like visuals bolster an epic and emotional journey through ancient Japanese myth, as Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) enlists the help of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to take down his menacing sorcerer aunts (Rooney Mara) and grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Finnes). This is a wondrous tale about the power of storytelling itself, with a strong voice cast and richly defined and memorable characters. It’s an adventure that will hopefully be treasured by kids and adults for years to come.
Martin Scorsese’s long-in-gestation passion project is an incredibly faithful and reverent adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel about Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan. It’s also one of the most powerful films about faith in crisis ever made. As part of the legendary director’s unofficial “spiritual” trilogy (which also includes The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun), Silence is the best. Scorsese and Jay Cocks wisely took much of their dialogue straight from the novel, and refusing to mess with perfection turned out to be a smart move. This grueling but deeply moving journey is an important one for our time, where a Christian is martyred for their faith every five minutes. Andrew Garfield has had a pretty great year, but I think his performance as the tortured priest Sebastian Rodriguez surpasses his work in Hacksaw Ridge. And Adam Driver and Liam Neeson’s supporting performances command attention every minute they’re on screen.
Silence is a very personal and spiritual film, but, like all good art, its questions run deeper than their specific context. What does it mean to love? What does it mean to suffer? And, can a God of justice allow both of those things to exist, perhaps simultaneously? The film is probably too long, and Scorsese’s touch is a tad less subtle than Endo’s (particularly in the ending). But movies don’t get much more passionate, personal and powerful than this.
5. The Lobster
The Lobster is the funniest, and also one of the saddest, movies of the year. Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd, pitch black satire is one of this generation’s most brilliant commentaries on modern romance (and, naturally, the loneliness that lies therein). The ever-brilliant Colin Ferrell leads a marvelous cast as we spend some surreal time at a hotel where single people are sent to find mates. The catch? They have 45 days to succeed, or they will be transformed into the animal of their choice. “Guests” can extend their time by hunting down and tranquilizing escaped single people in the nearby forest.
The film sounds absolutely bonkers, and it is. But Lanthimos is a mad genius, and he always leads us somewhere interesting and profound. Despite its absurdity, the film has some very deep things to say about modern humanity’s isolationist tendencies, and how such existential loneliness seeps into our relationships. Whether it’s brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant, it’s not a film anyone who sees it will soon forget.
Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece has been the darling of the indie and awards circuits, and it’s easy to see why. This is painfully intimate filmmaking of the caliber we rarely see in contemporary cinema. In terms of movies that ponder what it means to be a man in the modern world, it’s right up there with Boyhood in terms of its lingering and haunting impact. Jenkins’ camera focuses on three periods in the life of a gay black man in a rough neighborhood of Miami. But the story stays universal in its ruminations on modern masculinity. As someone who is neither black nor gay, I still found plenty I could relate to. Men are taught not to be fragile, and black men in particular feel the pressure to act tough, to be someone who can handle himself on the streets. This theme is built into the film’s very structure, where the main character is referred to as Little (as a child), Chiron (as a teenager, his real name) and, finally, simply Black.
Jenkins conveys the cycle that exists in many black communities, when Chiron, himself a victim of drug culture, ends up as a drug dealer. It’s devastating but realistic, as is his complicated relationship with his childhood best friend, Kevin. The script is brilliant, but the film is pushed even farther by the impeccable camerawork and the unforgettable performances. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at the three stages, but Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali provide equally praise-worthy supporting performances. This is what you might call “essential” cinema; not always easy to watch, but so very valuable and unforgettable.
Denis Villeneuve’s films have a sneaky habit of winding up on my top 10 lists, and Arrival does little to break the trend. In fact, it’s his most accomplished film to date, and, in my mind, and instant sci-fi classic. It takes a complex and fascinating look at the fact that, despite humanity’s access to technology, we are worse at communicating than ever. Amy Adams gives one of her best performances as Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is asked to board one of twelve mysterious floating pods that have appeared around the globe. The question: what are our mysterious tentacle visitors’ intentions, as they stay safely nestled in their pods? Why have they come, and how long before they get tired of waiting for us to figure them out?
Focusing the story on a linguist was a brilliant move, and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay deserves high praise for keeping the layered and sometimes jargon-heavy dialogue from becoming unintelligible. In fact, the film’s focus is clear, as is its message that fear does not motivate successful politics. In a fraught and divisive election year, this was a grave reminder. Like the best science fiction, Arrival speaks to our modern world with a clear and prophetic voice. The fact that it’s so deeply human, that it’s filled with haunting imagery, stellar performances and amazing music, is much welcome icing on an already delicious cake. You won’t be getting this one out of your head for a long time.
2. La La Land
What a miracle of a movie this is! Hot off the heels of his stellar Whiplash, Damien Chazelle has crafted a musical both modern and old-fashioned in its sensibilities. This is the kind of film where the passion of its creation radiates from every frame, bolstered by amazing performances (who knew Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could sing and dance?), unforgettable music and the magic of pure Hollywood craftsmanship.
La La Land is a love letter to so many things that make this world wonderful: jazz music, movies, Los Angeles and impossible dreams. It’s joyful, but refuses to settle for the happy Hollywood ending. It’s simple, but manages complexity from its richly layered characters and astonishingly good cinematography and production design. This is a film that truly fires on all cylinders; every aspect is given the utmost care and attention to detail. I remember watching it and thinking, “they didn’t have to make it this good.” Indeed, they could have gotten away with much less. But here’s to those foolish dreamers who had a vision and put 110% into it all the way. The result? A little more joy in the world. That’s something we should all be grateful for.
1. Manchester by the Sea
Movies don’t get any closer to perfection than this. Every aspect of Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic, funny, relatable drama has been polished to a fine sheen. The performances? Casey Affleck has never been better, Michelle Williams left tears in my eyes, and Lucas Hedges brought the feels with his layered role as a teenager coping with the loss of his father. The writing? Heartfelt and lived-in. Every line has an impact, every scene filled with the meaning needed for that particular moment. The direction? We are clearly in the hands of a master. The musical score? Incredible.
Manchester is the best manifestation of the themes present throughout the films featured on this list. Coping with grief. Persevering in the midst of suffering. Holding onto hope, to dreams, to goodness, to identity; even when the world around you threatens to strip those things away. It’s a film with many brutally sad moments, but, amazingly, it’s not a sad movie. It reminds us that life is very much worth living, even when things are hard. Even when things don’t make sense. We may not always see the grand plan, but persevering through everyday ordinary living is its own form of sacrifice. And such sacrifice does not go unrewarded.
Honorable Mentions: As I said previously, this was a great year. It pains me to leave off stellar films like 13th, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Sully, Midnight Special, Green Room, Zootopia, Birth of a Nation, Last Days in the Desert, Rogue One and Captain Fantastic, to name just a few. But too many great movies is a pretty good problem to have!
Blind spots: Fences, Toni Erdmann, Loving, The Handmaiden, Love and Friendship, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Moana and Lion, among others.