2016 was a mixed bag of a year for quality entertainment. There were a number of outstanding films released this year, but virtually all of them failed to connect with audiences in one way or another. In so many ways, this was a rather terrible year—not just for film—but the common factor tying these ten films together is that they kept me from throwing my hands up and calling the whole year a wash. Good cinema looks even better at times like this, when it seems like good art isn't being made, and every last one of these films is great art in its own way. Here are my ten best films of 2016...
10. Hell or High Water
The spirit of the western is alive and well in UK born directors. Following last year's surprise Slow West (from first time Scottish director John Maclean), now we have this contemporary western (from Scottish born director David Mackezie) that thrives on a similar slow burning intensity. In the high water mark for both of their careers, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play working class brothers who decide to take justice against the American banking system into their own hands. Add in an intriguing twist on Jeff Bridges' "I've seen it all in my day" lawman hot their heels, and you've got yourself one hell of a potboiler.
In the twenty one years that I've been doing a ten best list, I've never put a Star Wars movie on my list. It's appropriate that Rogue One bucks this trend as it's probably my favorite Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. This so-called Anthology film nailed the tonal darkness of the original trilogy while also giving us a new set of characters to embrace and care about. There is a spirit at work in this film that makes me feel that Star Wars is alive and well in the hands of a new generation of filmmakers. Not all Star Wars movies need to be for children, and I think this is the best example of that since The Empire Strikes Back.
Since Pixar's John Lasseter took over Disney's main animation house, the quality of work being churned out has grown exponentially in both quality and cross-generational appeal. Zootopia is the best recent example of what Disney has always done well: making a morality tale with timely social issues accessible to anyone via cute, anthropomorphic talking animals. It's not surprising to learn that the film was co-directed by Rich Moore, who cut his teeth as one of the original three directors of The Simpsons, as this film benefits from that series' slightly askew view of the world. A generation raised on this film and its message will be a better generation.
7. The BFG
Steven Spielberg's note perfect adaptation of this Roald Dahl classic was a beautiful little salve in the middle of one of the more bombastic and noisy summers in recent memory. Anchored by a wonderful pair of performances from Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance, as the titular big, friendly giant, this a wonderful all ages fantasy about finding your place in the world. With a note perfect script by the late, great Melissa Matheson, this is one of the finest fantasy films of the last decade with a heart as big and generous as the title character's.
6. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford's immaculately crafted sophomore feature is an intense meditation on masculinity and the perils of taking your loved ones for granted. One of the most impressive things about the film is that it knows precisely how tight it can crank the suspense before throwing the audience a lifeline and cutting away. It's a difficult film to watch, but a supremely rewarding one with one of the best endings of the year by a country mile, and top notch performances from its cast, especially Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Amy Adams.
One of the riskiest and most unconventional biopics I've seen in quite some time, Chilean director Pablo Larrain's Jackie is a meticulously and gorgeously crafted look at the tumultuous period surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Natalie Portman gives perhaps the best performance of her career, showing us just how much turmoil and angst went into Jackie Kennedy's graceful demeanor during that impossibly difficult time in her life. Featuring a haunting score by Under the Skin's Mica Levi, Jackie is every bit as remarkable as its subject and one of the year's most hypnotic films.
4. The Nice Guys
The latest film from writer/director Shane Black is everything die hard fans of his could have hoped for. It's hilariously funny, has an engaging mystery at its center, and features two spectacular performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a mismatched pair of detectives in way over their heads. Gosling has earned and deserves plenty of plaudits for his work in La La Land, but I was much more impressed with his work here. He and Crowe elevate the already great material and make this the film of the year with the most replay value.
Science fiction tends to be one of the most pessimistic of all genres, but Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's film about aliens landing unexpectedly all over the globe is one of the most unabashedly optimistic films I've ever seen. It's an absolute marvel of genre filmmaking, seamlessly blending live action footage and cgi creatures, while never sacrificing narrative coherence or smart decisions in a bid to make a more commercially acceptable film. At a time when our nation is headed into some dark and uncharted territories, this is the kind of film that allows a little light to shine through, and that just might be the best gift of all at the moment.
Stop motion animation house LAIKA has an incredible track record, having created four masterpieces over the course of their short existence. As much as I love Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, however, this lovingly crafted fable might be their best work to date. Utilizing some amazing action set pieces, the film never fails to be anything less than supremely entertaining, while also recognizing that all the spectacle in the world can't make up for good storytelling. That spectacle, however, can enhance a great story in ways you'd never suspect, and that's at least part of what makes Kubo such an engaging film. It's a film that not only looks beautiful, but has a beautiful story to tell, and one to which we can all relate.
1. A Monster Calls
The best cinema holds a mirror up to humanity and forces us to confront ugly truths we'd rather ignore. A Monster Calls does exactly that and in a brilliantly simple and beautiful way. In just his third feature, director JA Bayona has become an absolute master at using visual effects to enhance his story rather than hanging a bunch of special effects on a flimsy narrative. A Monster Calls deals with loss and letting go in a way that is simply breathtaking and which builds naturally toward a third act with almost non-stop waterworks for the audience. With brilliant performances from Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, and especially young Lewis MacDougall, A Monster Calls stands alongside the great works of fantasy filmmaking because it appeals to our humanity in ways only a great work of art can. There are moments of soul crushing sadness in this film, but also some of the most uplifting and beautifully written dialogue you're likely to hear in any film. A Monster Calls is one of those rare movies that has it all, and it is undoubtedly my best film of 2016.