10 Movies Not to Be Missed + 1 to Skip (+ Top Soundtracks)
Any discussion of “the best” is fraught with complication. Nominating the best art of an arbitrary time frame? Good luck.
Are the best films of 2016 the ones most artistically consistent? The most enjoyable? The most innovative? The most authentic to the human experience? The stories with the most poignant cultural commentary? Since the title begs for clarification, here’s my definition of “the best” films of 2016: These are the films I would recommend if you could only watch 10 films from the year. They represent surges of artistry, enjoyability, innovation, authenticity, and/or cultural observation that stood above the rest. For example, Manchester by the Sea had its merits, but its weak storytelling didn’t live up to the hype of its most enthusiastic supporters for me. And as much as I enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it didn’t push the Star Wars franchise into a bold, new territory that separated it from past episodes. So without further ado, the 10 best films of 2016…
I left this movie thinking, “I wish I felt this way after every movie.” My brain just had to sit and process before getting out of my seat because it surprised me in so many ways. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are predictably excellent, but it’s the script that really wows here. With a creative story structure that pays off 10 times over, its exploration of loss, relationships, and communication is coherent and original. And for a movie that is talking start to finish, it’s tense as can be. Films like Arrival, with a fresh story and something to say, are the best Hollywood has to offer.
In maybe the most underrated film of the year, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a bunker after a car accident with her leg handcuffed to a pipe. Her self-proclaimed savior (John Goodman) says everyone outside is dead. Thus kicks off the mysteries of the quasi-sequel to 2008’s monster movie Cloverfield. I won’t tell you too much since part of the fun is watching the secrets unravel. Well, most of them. You’ll still be thinking about this movie days later because just the right details are left open to interpretation. The most basic needs of a film are storytelling and character development, and this movie knocks both out of the park. At the risk of overstating it, Winstead and Goodman are giving performances of a lifetime. (Alas, I’m still the only one who has used the hashtag #JohnGoodmanForBestSupportingActor on Twitter.)
Zootopia is sharp, both creatively and in its commentary. For starters, the visionary world-building incorporates so many creative nods to the animal kingdom, I lost count. These nods start with puns and grow all the way to the idiosyncratic technology a city like this would need. And though Zootopia is set in a cutesy society of animals, it’s also a deep well of political and social commentary. How many animated family features dare to include lines like these?
- “Sir, I’m not just some token bunny.”
- “I think Mayor Lionheart just wanted the sheep vote.”
- “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little…”
One of the most socially relevant films this year, its rare balance of fun and storytelling is near-flawless.
“I believe the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.”
Jackie is far better than it needed to be. A movie about the most glamorous First Lady in recent history could have been salacious gossip about Kennedy scandals, affairs, and political maneuvering. Instead, this film is an intimate take on a public figure. It’s a meditation on truth, grief, and the challenges that come with death and publicity and when they tragically meet. Natalie Portman’s portrayal makes Jackie complicated and allows for the additional complications that come with a grieving spouse whose whole life has changed in a moment. Bonus: Mica Levi’s stark, discordant score can capture these emotions in a single note.
5. La La Land
I’m not sure I have anything new to contribute to the discussion of La La Land, but I’m not sure the movie had anything new to contribute to the musings on fame and following your dreams, either. But this classic-meets-modern musical speaks on those subjects so creatively and with such polish, it’s already one of The Great Musicals. As the opening number was wrapping, I thought, “Even if the rest of this is terrible, this scene will make the whole movie worth it.” That’s how impressive the music and technical achievement were in just the first few minutes. Better yet, the rest of the movie kept up the momentum to create a story both magical and tragical. That made-up rhyme is appropriate for a musical, no?
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the living definitions of powerhouses, and Fences gives them chances to show their ranges of joy, heartbreak, aching, and vulnerability. Based off of August Wilson’s classic play, the two command their too-many-to-count monologues to transform theatrics into real human drama. They bring faces to issues of race, class, gender, marriage, and intelligence that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1950s setting of this story.
Hell or High Water is an anomaly of a late August release. Often the dumping ground for studios’ so-so features, that month doesn’t suit director David Mackenzie’s modern twist on the Cain and Abel story. Sometimes violent and sometimes admittedly slow, it asks if we owe more loyalty to our family or to the law without ever becoming predictable. Jeff Bridges is doing what Jeff Bridges does best, but Chris Pine proves he’s got more in him than just Captain Kirk, while Ben Foster is near-unrecognizable in the best way.
Jane Austen’s world is not an easy one to jump into, and Love & Friendship, based on her novella Lady Susan, is hardly inviting to the casual viewer. Austen is precise in her language, but her writing rarely overlaps with the most straightforward way to say something. That said, she rewards those who sync with her rhythms, and director Whit Stillman does, too. Love & Friendship captures her sardonic tone effortlessly, as well as her eye for the silliness in social etiquette. All the performances are top-notch, and Kate Beckinsale (as Lady Susan) is the peak. Every bit sharp, manipulative, and charming as she needs to be, we’re wrapped around her finger like the poor Reginald (Xavier Samuel). I’d like to give an additional shout-out to Tom Bennett, who makes rambling idiocy a hysterical delight.
Yes, the character work is weak throughout this whole film, and I recommend watching the extended cut to clarify some of the plot points that felt rushed in the theatrical version. (Trust me—those extra 15 minutes make a difference.) But this film did exceptionally well what it set out to do. It was funny—not just haha funny, but legit LOL funny. (Sorry, is my Millennial showing?) Bona fide stars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are as reliable as ever, but Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth are the real show-stoppers here. Their comedy chops deserve infinite screen time, and the whole cast has a chemistry most movies covet. Though the conclusion Hollywood execs will draw from this movie is still TBD, the conversation about sexism in the cinema and online that this movie explored (both on screen and in the news) makes it one of the most important of the year.
“The island gives us what we need and no one leaves, so here I’ll stay. My home, my people beside me. And when I think of tomorrow, there we are.”
And when I think of tomorrow, I hope we see more Disney Princesses like Moana (even though she insists she’s not a princess). These details seem small, but consider:
- She’s only the third Disney Princess with both parents alive and present in her life (Brave and Mulan are the others)
- She’s the second Disney Princess with a present grandparent (Mulan is the other)
- She’s the first Disney Princess without a romantic storyline in her film
Disney has been testing the future of its princess line for a while now, and Moana is the most promising entry since Tangled, partly because it seems Disney is willing to branch outside of the tried-and-true tropes like dead parents and love-at-first-sight for a change. It also helps the music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina is top-notch. With its focused plot, the natural flow between the physical and spiritual worlds, and a less cliché resolution, this film feels more like The Lion King than Frozen ever did.
Rounding Out the Top 21:
11. Sing Street
13. Finding Dory
15. The Lobster
16. The Jungle Book
Bottom of the Barrel: Me Before You
Let me tell you something the marketing for Me Before You won’t: This movie is about doctor-assisted suicide. Hiding behind a romance and an Ed Sheeran-heavy soundtrack is a much darker story about fighting depression, disability, and constant pain. Your opinion of this movie depends on your views of and experience with depression, disability, and suicide—and actually knowing beforehand that the movie talks about these topics. As for me, I can speak to what it’s like living with depression, and I wouldn’t recommend Me Before You for anyone with the same battles.
Bonus: Top Soundtracks
1. La La Land, Score by Justin Hurwitz, Songs performed by Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, and additional cast
2. Jackie, Score by Mica Levi
3. The Light Between Oceans, Score by Alexandre Desplat
4. Arrival, Score by Jóhann Jóhannsson
5. Moana, Music by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda
6. Sing Street, Music by artists including John Carney, Duran Duran, The Cure, and Hall & Oates
7. Passengers, Score by Thomas Newman
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane, Score by Bear McCreary
9. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Score by Christopher Lennertz, Songs by artists including Rita Wilson and Parisian
10. X-Men: Apocalypse, Score by John Ottman, Songs by artists including Metallica and Eurythmics