The Top 10 Films of 2016

PM film critic Sean Collier counts down the ten best films of 2016.

above: Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in LA LA LAND. Photo by Dale Robinette. © 2016 Lionsgate. All Rights Reserved.
thumbnail: Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) in FENCES. Photo © MMXVI Paramount Pictures Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.

A few weeks ago, I had to declare one film — among the 130-plus I’ve watched — the best of 2016. For the purposes of my Critics’ Choice Awards vote, I set about the always-difficult task of evaluating hundreds of hours and cinema and picking one work which distinguished itself above all others.

In the end, it came down to two movies. In my mind, these were of equal merit, each indelible and essential — albeit in completely divergent ways. Two movies which could not have had less in common other than their superior quality were battling it out in my mind. Four others were nearly as good but not quite there; another dozen or so were a step or two behind.

I knew it was one of those two. But how to choose?

In the end, it’s a combination of gut and mind. I watched the pair of films again, letting my brain and my heart issue equally compelling arguments. I went with my brain, but as little as a shifting mood could’ve tipped the scales in favor of my heart. It was that close.

Suffice it to say, then, that all of the movies mentioned below are more than worthy of your time and attention as the best work in a fascinating, odd calendar year for the medium. But the films I’ve ranked first and second are absolutely essential cultural touchstones that deserve not only to be watched, but to be studied and truly felt.

#10 — Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Admittedly, this is one that you won’t see on too many best-of lists. But I found this mockumentary from SNL alums The Lonely Island to be one of the most effective, well-written and riotously funny comedies in recent memory. No 2016 release made me laugh out loud harder than “Popstar,” and its dismal performance at the box office is truly a shame.
How to See It: Out on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital on-demand services, now.

#9 — Loving
A number of this year’s films sought to bring key moments in American race relations to light. None did so as effectively as “Loving,” which simply and beautifully tells the story of the interracial couple whose marriage brought anti-miscegenation laws before the Supreme Court. Ruth Negga’s restrained, careful performance carries Jeff Nichols’ deliberate script to greatness.
How to See It: “Loving” has left local theaters, but it should hit digital on-demand services fairly soon. It may return to theaters if it pulls in a good number of Oscar nominations.

#8 — The Witch
Freshman director Richard Eggers’ Puritan horror tale used period language, gorgeous cinematography and a brilliant leading performance by young Anya Taylor-Joy — who also shone in the underrated sci-fi thriller “Morgan” — to create a memorable, and fundamentally different, big-screen scare experience. In a year with a number of good horror flicks, this one was the best.
How to See It: Out on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital on-demand services, now.

#7 — Hell or High Water
Most films dubbed modern westerns are simply thrillers set in a dusty part of the country. That’s not the case with the excellent “Hell or High Water,” which pits a desperate pair of sibling bank robbers against some determined lawmen in a pure and shining example of the genre that just happens to be set in 2016 — but could’ve occurred in 1866. Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster shine among an excellent cast.
How to See It: Out on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital on-demand services, now.

#6 — Manchester by the Sea
This impossibly intimate, heart-wrenching family drama will defy even the steeliest viewers to make it to the end credits with dry eyes. That’s not to suggest it’s in any way overwrought, however; writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s unflinching portrait of family tragedy is bold in its honesty and cautious in its emotion. With Casey Affleck looking like the presumptive Best Actor winner for his leading performance, Oscar watchers shouldn’t miss “Manchester by the Sea” — and will be deeply rewarded for buying a ticket.
How to See It: In theaters now.

Click here for Sean's Final Top Five


#5 — Jackie
Director Pablo Larraín breathes life into the increasingly stale biopic genre with this fresh, impressionistic look at Jacqueline Kennedy. Jumping from moment to moment in the minutes, days and weeks following JFK’s assassination, the film eschews the normal path of biography, instead attempting to define a signature moment rather than a full figure. Natalie Portman is at her very best.
How to See It: In select theaters now.

#4 — Fences
The path August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning drama took to the big screen was long and uncertain. Now that a cinematic adaptation has finally arrived, the only shame is that the playwright isn’t alive to see his work brought to such faithful and evocative life by director/star Denzel Washington. A game cast and subtle direction make “Fences” good. Washington makes it great. Wilson, of course, made it vital.
How to See It: In theaters now.

#3 — Arrival
It’s refreshing to see a science-fiction drama where the characters try to avoid violence. But “Arrival” is much more than simply refreshing; it’s a thoughtful, smart and evocative contemplation of language and communication, thought and reason. Amy Adams is perfect, and director Denis Villeneuve comes close to Kubrick with his enveloping shots and powerful atmosphere.
How to See It: In select theaters now.

#2 — La La Land
Writer/director Damien Chazelle followed his effective drama “Whiplash” with a Hollywood landmark. “La La Land” takes cues from its predecessors from bygone eras of filmmaking to tell a simple story with incredible beauty and old-fashioned, silver-screen magic. There was no other film like “La La Land” in theaters this year — or, indeed, in my lifetime. And while it owes much to the big-screen musicals of the mid-20th century, it is a completely original creation with an utterly unforgettable climactic sequence. I didn’t know that films could still hit some of the notes that “La La Land” nails. It’s just about perfect.
How to See It: In theaters now.

#1 — Moonlight
The elegance of writer/director Barry Jenkins’ script, along with the urgency of its subject matter, makes “Moonlight” the best film of 2016, edging out “La La Land” by a razor-thin margin. A coming-of-age/coming-out tale told in the slums of Miami is a story most films would not dare to tell; Jenkins does so audaciously, deliberately and artfully. It’s beautiful, effective and stirring, yes, but also a very necessary piece of contemporary art, giving eloquent voice to a tale that desperately needed to be represented in theaters from coast to coast. “Moonlight” is almost uncannily effective; I don’t know how they did it, but the result is truly remarkable.
How to See It: “Moonlight” has left local theaters, but it should hit digital on-demand services fairly soon. It may return to theaters if it pulls in a good number of Oscar nominations.

Honorable Mentions
Many, many more films were worthy of mention and praise in 2016. Among the best of those that didn’t quite rank among my ten favorites, in alphabetical order: “A Bigger Splash,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Christine,” “Denial,” “Elle,” “Eye in the Sky,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “The Handmaiden,” “Lion,” “Moana,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Swiss Army Man,” “Toni Erdmann” and “Zootopia.”

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner