*I would eventually expand it to other mediums as well, so maybe I’ll have another article or two up my sleeve.
However, it feels weird to call it a “best of” list, since there were so many movies from this past year that I didn’t get around to seeing. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the movies I saw this year were just me catching up on things from the past few years that I hadn’t seen. Not to mention that I don’t think that I’m enough of a film scholar to be able to definitely, objectively say one film is “better” than another. So, this list will more so be the films that I liked the most from 2016/the tail-end of 2015 (with a few other movies I saw for the first time this year thrown in), and with at least a couple thoughts on each one. If nothing else, some of these were the germs for full articles that I just couldn’t build off of; maybe finally writing them down will lead to more on them in the future?
Captain America: Civil War-There were a lot of big blockbusters in 2016 that were overall good, but felt a little overstuffed and maybe held together with string in spots. In the end, though, Civil War was a little better than Fantastic Beasts or Rogue One, though. Maybe the extra movies to set it up helped. There were still some issues here (I’m still not sure this “heroes versus heroes” set up fully works, although it’s probably the best implementation that I’ve seen), but in the end, in crammed a lot of excitement and things in to two and a half hours.
Finding Dory-Finding Nemo really, really didn’t need a sequel, but…Finding Dory still kinda worked, in spite of that. It actually expanded the story, which is the biggest rule of sequels that somehow constantly gets overlooked. Also, like Monsters University (also surprisingly decent), I liked how they decided to switch to more of a comedic tone; it helps it feel less like it’s competing directly with the predecessor. Bottom half Pixar probably, but that’s still better than a vast majority of movies.
Ghostbusters-Funny, and I liked the characters well enough that I’d like to see more of them (although it seems like a sequel might not happen now, unfortunately, even though it feels like there’s room to grow). Like many other recent reboots, it’s at its best when it sets the old stuff aside and lets the new stuff shine. There were one or two obvious changes I think I would have made if I were in charge of it, but overall, can’t complain too much.
Zoom-A super small release (it’s not even the first movie that pops up on Wikipedia with this title), and one I wished was just a little bit tighter so that I could recommend it more strongly. It’s heavily stylized and distinctive, with a fun meta narrative. Without giving away too much, it’s about an artist sick of her day job and personal life taking her frustrations out on her comic book about a director, who is in turn directing a movie with a troubled production about a model trying to become a writer, who’s writing about…well, it gets interesting from there. I just wish it stuck the landing a little better, because that might have made it a masterpiece; as is, it still may be worth checking out if it sounds like your thing.
Steve Jobs-Biopics can get kind of dull at times, which is why I liked what Danny Boyle was doing here. Compressing the movie to just three moments gives it a focus and a nervous, excited energy while providing some interesting thematic context. Trading some accuracy for emotional truth is a strong call, I think, and I wish more directors would try this, if they’re going to rely so heavily on biopics. Plus, some strong performances here, especially from Michael Fassbender.
Slightly older movies that I saw for the first time and liked a lot
Skeleton Twins-A great little drama/comedy about siblinghood. Strong performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig and solid writing make for screwed-up characters that you can’t help but root for as they try and work through their issues and slowly self-destruct. I got super-invested in it.
The One I Love-A tight…sci-fi? fantasy? thriller about a couple who goes on a retreat to heal their marriage and finds a guest house with copies of each other. It’s hard to explain, but worth checking out if you want a tense, low-key movie about relationships.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil-A good bit of dark and silly fun. I’m not much of a horror movie fan, but I could still appreciate this parody/shout out to the genre.
Obvious Child-Another smaller comedy-drama about a comedian trying to navigate her relationship and career, with Jenny Slate putting in a wonderful performance.
The late entry that I actually saw in 2017 but wanted to mention since I liked it a lot and it’s an Oscar Nominee, but at the same time I didn’t want to bend my rules further than they already were or totally re-make my list so it gets its own temporary section until next year’s list when I’ll rank it properly
Moonlight-So many strong performances in this one. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (who’s so into her role that I was shocked when I saw her name in the credits) give strong supporting performances that have been rightly praised, but the three actors each playing Chiron and Kevin deserve a lot of praise for feeling like they’re all performing the same characters years apart, even the youngest actors. Barry Jenkins had a great eye for casting and directing talent. Overall, a great coming-of-age story with characters that you desperately want everything to work out for.
(Also, I just realized that Moonlight would be the only thing in my top ten, let alone my top five, that isn’t a “genre” movie of some sort, being a pretty normal drama compared to my list’s excess of musicals and science-fiction/fantasy. That…sounds about right for me, actually.)
My Top Ten, set in roughly 10-to-1 order, although to be honest, the exact rankings might shuffle around a little bit depending on which day you ask me
Star Trek Beyond-The summer blockbuster season was overall pretty weak, and Beyond wound up being the strongest release. Overall, it’s a great picture that uses its large cast well, and does a good job juggling the action, comedy, visuals, and story that the big summer blockbusters are expected to have. And it probably does the best job of the Star Trek reboot movies of making the Enterprise feel like a team rather than a one- or two-person show.
Doctor Strange-Oh look, I already wrote about this one. No sense in trying to summarize all that into a sentence or two, just go skim it if you want more info, but the logline is “Marvel’s best movie in a few years”.
Zootopia-Disney Animation is on quite a hot streak lately, between these two, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, etc. As a fan of both, I feel like Disney is a lot like Nintendo, in a lot of ways. You can be cynical about the fact that both are large companies, or dismissive of the constraints that they place on themselves by staying in their “zone”, and while I can see those arguments, I feel like it’s also underselling the skill of both. Just like Nintendo has a solid grasp of the intricacies of both basic and advanced video game design and a willingness to push the bounds of their niche, Disney has a love of and knack for storytelling, animation, and really nails down the fundamentals of each of their movies. While each one is distinctly a “Disney movie”, there’s a high level of craft and attention that goes into even the least interesting of them.
Thankfully, both of this year’s offerings were among the more interesting. Moana reminded me a lot of another Ron Clements and John Musker mythology-based adventure, Hercules. Both have a winding sense of adventure with a hero trying to overcome their insecurities and prove their place among the leaders of the people portrayed in the standard beautiful artwork (and although I might give Hercules the edge on music, Moana’s soundtrack is still strong).
Meanwhile, Zootopia is an engrossing mystery that feels especially topical, to an extent that even surprised me. Plus, the setting’s design is wonderful (I’m a sucker for shiny “city of tomorrow” metropolises). It’s hard for me to pick which of these two is better, so they can share a space.
The Nice Guys-A stylish buddy noir mystery/comedy that’s just a lot of fun to watch. Shane Black does an excellent job of making his and Anthony Bagarozzi’s script look good. And the central trio of Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice is so much fun to watch. Any movie that can juxtapose someone falling off of rooftops or almost bleeding out from punching a window with comedy is a fascinating beast.
And, the top five:
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping-After the brilliance of Hot Rod, The Lonely Island follow up with my one of my favorite comedies in a while. So many moments of brilliant stupidity, and it manages to dodge the third-act lull that so many comedies suffer from. Instead of trading the laughs from drama, it instead goes for all-out dramatic ridiculousness in the climax to wild success. Even the smallest of roles are pulled off brilliantly to get laughs; not that it’s any surprise, as the guests are frequently some of the best parts on The Lonely Islands’ songs. It shows a talent for knowing how to best utilize every tool for laughs. And befitting its title, it had maybe the best (definitely my favorite) soundtrack of the year.
Swiss Army Man-This is…definitely not a movie for everyone, to say the least. But if you can get aboard with the premise “Daniel Radcliffe is a magical semi-living, super-farting corpse”, you should be good to go I think? Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert bring a great eye and a magnetic sense of strangeness that made their video for “Turn Down for What” so interesting (a part of me is still amazed that they directed that, for some reason). Here, they delve deep into (this is going to sound a little cheesy, but bear with me) what it means to be human, as we watch Paul Dano walk and talk with Daniel Radcliffe (both doing amazing work) on his way out of depression and towards self-actualization. There’s a lot going on here, for those interested. And the music is pretty great, including one of my favorite individual songs from the year.
Also, this is my third movie from studio A24 on this list (with Moonlight and Obvious Child), after several interesting films over the last few years (including Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Under the Skin, and quite a few more that are on my to-watch list). They’re definitely one to keep an eye on moving forward.
Sing Street-There’s a lot to like about this one, even if you’re not a fan of ‘80s music. If you are a fan of ‘80s music, though, it’s perfect. Some of the original songs are so spot-on that I found myself wondering if they weren’t covers. And for as many good songs as there were in Popstar or La La Land or Moana or Swiss Army Man, I think “Drive It Like You Stole It” ultimately takes the title for Movie Song of 2016 (jeez, was this category stacked this year).
But absent the fantastic soundtrack, you still wind up with a funny and moving story about youth, love, creativity, brotherhood (in the literal sense), self-expression, masculinity... On that last one, it’s kind of crazy that in a year like 2016, we got so many nuanced and reflective movies about masculinity between Sing Street, Moonlight, and Swiss Army Man (plus Everybody Wants Some!!, from what I’ve heard, although I still haven’t caught that one).
La La Land-Okay, so I really like movies exploring creativity and artistic expression via music. It is what it is.
I loved Damien Chazelle’s last movie Whiplash, and was super excited as soon as I heard he would be doing a musical next (and for a movie much less stress-inducing than that one). La La Land lived up to my hopes. It looks beautiful, the soundtrack wonderful, and its excitement and passion is contagious. And at its center are two strong, chemistry-laden performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, working with a strong script of two people with different creative visions inspiring each other to grow and better themselves by pushing and pushing back on each other. It all works wonderfully.
Also, I know you shouldn’t take Oscar Nominations too seriously, but…this movie got two Best Song nominations, and they were for “City of Stars” and “Audition”? Really? “Audition” was okay in the context of the movie, but overall, those were the two most boring songs. I’d take “Another Day of Sun”, “Someone in the Crowd”, or “Start a Fire” any day of the week. But at least it got a nomination I guess, which is more than Sing Street or Popstar can say.
Arrival-It’s a lot of competition at the top, but right now, I’m going to put Arrival at the top of my favorite films for 2016. Maybe some of that is how much I love “Story of Your Life” bleeding through (which I even wrote about), but the movie is definitely stellar in its own right. Amy Adams turns in such an incredible performance in the lead role, working with director Denis Villeneuve to convey all the emotion and heartbreak present in the original story in a visual format. The film’s two storylines are both moving and work in concert well and made me tear up several times, and the visuals of the film are so majestic. Even the CGI for the aliens and spaceships looks natural. All in all, even in a year with as many good movies as 2016, I feel comfortable putting this one as my favorite.