The Top 10 Films of 2016

Although I’ve still missed out on some big films this year (“Hidden Figures,” “Lion,” freaking “Moana” somehow …) it’s almost the Academy Awards, and that’s my cutoff for completing my top 10 list of any given year (except last year, which if you didn’t notice, I just posted days ago)

Although the year’s very best films were definitively dramas, in my opinion, most of my top 10 list is pretty – magical. Only a few are completely based in reality. Maybe that just says what kind of year 2016 was. In general, I really loved so many science-fiction, animation-filled, musical-heavy films this year, but the ones that really resonated most were the more difficult movies, because there was a fearless truth to them.

Without further ado, my top 10 films of 2016:

10. Kubo and the Two Strings

No film stimulated my imagination in the way “Kubo and the Two Strings” did this year. This is stop-motion animation at its finest, a blend of practical and special effects so seamless you can scarcely believe how director Travis Knight and crew did it. With elements of mythology, video games and various Far East influences, “Kubo” springs to life, and the courage and emotional depth of our hero match the movie’s technical skill to a degree that “Kubo” simply had to be my favorite animated film of the year.

9. Hell or High Water

One of my top 10 films of 2015 was “Sicario,” and from it came two more films on this year’s top 10, this one from the writer, Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan elevates a traditional cops-and-robbers tale with countless shades of gray, very much like we saw in “Sicario” only this film has a bit more of an entertainment factor to accompany the strength of its dialogue and themes. Jeff Bridges is in top form and Ben Foster and Chris Pine are not too shabby either as brothers who rob several branches of a specific bank for noble purposes yet questionable motives. (Read my review)

8. Sing Street

“Sing Street” is the easiest movie for me to recommend of 2016. John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) makes excellent music-centered movies and strikes again in this story set in 1980s Dublin. Easily Carney’s most personal film, “Sing Street” is a classic ‘80s story of young love and the power that music can have in helping people find themselves. Tack on a soundtrack of original songs with clear inspiration from Duran, Duran, Hall & Oates and more and you have a movie that will charm you to pieces. (Read my review)

7. Arrival

The second remnant of “Sicario” is director Denis Villeneuve’s foray into science fiction with this film that’s as socially relevant as it is a riveting contrarian take on an alien invasion film. Even though I saw its twist coming (rare accomplishment), there’s something about this film that screams importance and political relevance, the likes of which haven’t been seen in this genre since the original “Day the Earth Stood Still.” Villeneuve’s patient approach to the camera and storytelling and Amy Adams’ ability to make exposition sound like gold are added benefits to this compelling story about communication, time and human purpose. (Read my review)

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane

A beautiful exercise in out-of-the-box filmmaking, “10 Cloverfield Lane” does a great job making the word “Cloverfield” synonymous with mystery and excitement. Dan Trachtenberg’s Hitchcockian/”Twilight Zone” bunker drama does more to keep us on our toes than any film in 2016, waging total psychological warfare with its audience in this beautiful mélange of genres. The tension is thick, the drama fitting of the stage, the action pulse-pounding and the finale doesn’t disappoint at all. (Read my review)

5. A Monster Calls

The most underrated film of 2016 in my humble opinion, “A Monster Calls” combines childhood hardship with magical realism in a way reminiscent of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Adapting his own novel for the big screen, Patrick Ness creates a fairy tale set amidst a family trauma that’s as real and difficult as it gets – a boy losing his mother. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) processes his feelings through a tree monster who visits him and tells him stories (stories animated with outstanding water color graphics). If nothing else, “A Monster Calls” approaches grief and emotions in a way that models really positive adult-child communication, and that kind of social value made this film resonate with me in a way that deserved a top 10 spot. (Read my review)

4. La La Land

“La La Land” might not be the obvious Best Picture winner it’s been hailed as all awards season, but neither is it deserving of some of the scathing opposition it has received. For me, this is a sometime-slow film with outstanding production quality that hits on some powerfully true notes about what it means to be a dreamer in the 21st century, as explored through classical 20th century motifs. There’s something raw yet magical, honest yet hopeful about Damien Chazelle’s film, the way it wrestles with the motion picture as escapism with the need for realism. Ultimately, however, it’s the technical achievement that lifts this movie from a low-end top 10 entry into top 5 for the year. It’s a beautiful watch. (Read my review)

3. The Lobster

I don’t have a bias toward any specific genre of film usually, but movies about futuristic societies constructed on non-traditional values always pique my interest, and “The Lobster” not only hooked me, but also delivered powerful social commentary accompanied by delightfully dry humor. The premise of single men and women going to a hotel where they must find a life partner or be turned into animals and released into the woods provide Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou ample time to expose the monogamous fabric of our social structures by way of exaggeration. The cleverness of “The Lobster” and its unique perspective on something as universal as love make it a total highlight of the year. (Read my review)

2. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins burst onto the scene with this stunning coming-of-age story told in three parts, which has drawn a lot of comparison to “Boyhood” in the way it charts the growth of its main character through childhood, teenage years and early adulthood. So poetic, tender and full of bubbling emotions that rise to the surface, “Moonlight” transcends its economic and racial context. It’s not just about the experience of a poor, young, gay, black man; it’s about all our experiences of self-discovery. Anchoring the film are some incredible supporting performances, plus Jenkins’ work unifying the three different actors playing Chiron into one character. (Read my review)

1. Manchester by the Sea

I’m not sure why I chose the most difficult movie of 2016 as my best of the year; maybe because at the same time, it’s the funniest movie on this list, and that says a lot. There is a certain power in the heaviness of Kenneth Lonergan’s film. The way he wields subtext is outstanding and keeps us engaged and invested in the story of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, whose current dilemma is exacerbated by his even more difficult past. Lonergan speaks a powerful truth that doesn’t speak ill of optimism, but suggests some things really stay with us and paralyze us, and it’s okay if we’re not ready to confront them, or to move on. It’s the adult/mature equivalent of the anti-“cinema as fairytale” message that “La La Land” also imparts. I found “Manchester’s” sobering anthem not to be defeating, however, but rather giving voice to a new form of acceptance that’s both radical and movingly serene. (Read my review)


Check out my expanded list of top 25 films of 2016 over on letterboxd.

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