There are plenty of reasons to complain about 2016, but movies aren’t one of them. This year offered a spectacular array of new films on both the domestic and international fronts. It was a great year for blockbusters with the first non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, released to rave reviews and the visually spectacular Doctor Strange offering a new frontier for Marvel Studios. There were a great deal of inventive genre fare as well, including the taut 10 Cloverfield Lane, terrifying The Witch, and hilarious Swiss Army Man.
Narrowing the year down to a top 10 list required nothing short of a herculean effort. However, one of our resident film critics shouldered the burden and picked out the movies that represented the absolute best cinema had to offer in 2016. So without any further ado, here are the 10 best movies of 2016.
10. Shin Godzilla
Directed by Hideaki Anno
Shin Godzilla is an example of a perfectly imperfect film. Criticize the acting, American accents, or effects and you’re left pointing at elements that were purposefully ignored. This is a film constructed in the finest traditions of a half-century old franchise. It embraces the past while moving into the future. Along with the fun and camp, it is packed with rich, layered commentary on international frustrations, the nature of bureaucracy, and global warming. It is the best Godzilla film since the first in 1954, and something to be admired for both its aesthetics and intelligence.
9. Green Room
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Green Room sticks to the maxim of “less is more” and succeeds in spectacular fashion because of it. The setup is as simple as any you’ll find with a group trapped in a single room surrounded by Neo-Nazis who want them dead for witnessing a murder. It’s a wonderfully suspenseful starting point and one that snaps with the speed and cutting edge of guitar strings pulled too taut. There’s not a weak link in the cast, as they all deliver very human performances and it makes all of the horrific violence that much more effective.
8. The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
The Nice Guys delivers on absolutely everything you might want from a film with Shane Black’s name attached. It’s a shaggy dog story packed with unlikable characters, inventive violence, and plenty of guilty laughs. Beneath its increasingly mean surface are a central trio of a terrible detective, his sharp-witted daughter, and a hangdog enforcer, who manage to surprise in the best and worst of ways. It’s a thrill to watch the first time and reveals a world and people who will make you want to come back for many, many screenings.
7. The Handmaiden
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Each element of The Handmaiden is absolute in its precision. It’s a clockwork construction in which each line of dialogue, choice of color, or piece of art informs the story. Yet while watching Park Chan-wook’s careful construction do its work, it will begin to tinker with your own internal machinery. Human motives and deep-seated emotions emerge from this carefully built world of societal and cultural confines. The tension and release of every plot thread offers insight into the parts of our own lives we tend to bury too deeply.
6. Midnight Special
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Midnight Special is a movie that takes the best elements of Steven Spielberg’s original science-fiction and uses them to spring ahead into brand new territory. Grand ideas drive the film and consistently rest just outside of the frame, allowing audiences to discover the heart of this story: family. Michael Shannon provides a stunning performance along with his two adult companions as adults doing everything in their power to provide a future for one child. It’s a gripping narrative, one that makes you wonder about the universe and appreciate what makes a home.
5. The Wailing
Directed by Na Hong-jin
Horror films like The Wailing only come around once in a decade. Na Hong-jin supplies some jump scares, but relies on elements of character and deep-seated societal fears in order to make his film stick in your consciousness and keep you up at night. An ordinary police officer is forced to confront threats to his family, faith, and community and make choices with no clear resolution. Utilizing possession and religious trappings, lines between reality and fiction are blurred in a series of increasingly tense incidents. The Wailing traps you in its world and doesn’t let go even after the credits roll.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
The three-act structure of Moonlight is impeccably composed and its sections chosen to provide audiences with a complete understanding of its lead character’s life. Many of the biggest shifts, the deaths, moves, and key choices, are made in between segments. This choice allows the camera to rest in the ordinary moments that compose so much of life and reveal who we are in a mundane setting. In this way a single late-night diner scene reveals more about humanity than most films accomplish in two hours. Moonlight is a testament to the ordinary beauty of a single human life.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Grief is the sort of complex emotion that is difficult to explain, but easy to recognize. It comes in waves, elicits unexpected reactions, and causes collisions between people like asteroids shooting through space. All of this impossible complexity is captured within Manchester By The Sea in seemingly effortless fashion. Characters are conceived and portrayed in truly seamless performances. Every line of dialogue and incident breathes with the reality of losing a loved one, in the tears, the laughs, and everything in between. It is a complete experience, one that offers catharsis and understanding in the most surprising ways.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Hollywood tends to only produce original science fiction films with a large budget once or twice per year. Arrival is a testament to why they ought to take this risk more often. It functions perfectly both as an exploration of highbrow, sci-fi concepts and a deeply human story of love in the face of impossible odds. Each aspect of the film is beautifully crafted, making a story of rhetoric both easily understood and visually compelling. What it says about the human condition through the eyes and minds of a mother though is truly inspiring, and it is a message that will resonate for decades to come.
1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
How do we change? A simple question with no easy answers. It’s the key to a difficult life, one in which only change is constant. Movies can reassure us with easy, but false answers or offer understanding without resolution. Only the rarest of feature films can address this question in a manner that does both, offering hope in the face of a terribly chaotic world.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is that rare film. It provides adventure, laughter, and action all of which create an incredibly enjoyable experience. At its heart though is a story of family and how the people we encounter, often accidentally, give us the chance to change in small, but meaningful ways. This is a film that does not deny the world, but embraces it, and gives its audience what they need, even if it isn’t necessarily what they want or expect. That’s why Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best film of 2016.
Those are our picks for the best films of 2016. Share yours in the comments below.