We are finally looking at the best films of the year! This year is no exception when it comes to the bulk of the best films being left in the closing moments of the last month, yet it felt even more delayed than usual. 2016 was shaping up to be a highly disappointing year until November hit, which is saying a hell of a lot. No matter, as we have been graced by films that have challenged us, films that take on social issues, some softer films that pack great messages, and nostalgia-fests that thirsted for the days of old. We definitely were left with some great films at the end of the year, and we even have a handful that may go down as instant classics for the ways they broke their respective moods. 2016’s film catalogue has been saved, and here are the 25 best films that ended up making 2016 count.
We start off with a humble depiction of true events with Lion. Lion interestingly devotes half of the film to a mostly-silent performance by Sunny Pawar as he searches for his family that he was accidentally stripped away from. We see the young boy (Saroo) turn into a man played by Dev Patel. This older Saroo becomes fixated on discovering where he came from and where his original family is. He battles with himself, as he wants to inform his first family that he is safe and alive, yet he wants to not let down the family that adopted him. Lion may be a film that is based on Google Earth’s ability to look around the globe, but it is mostly a search within one’s self that results in a room full of tears no matter who you are with.
- Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson has returned with this war biopic, and many were worried about the gratuitous violence he has showcased in his previous films. Don’t get me wrong; Hacksaw Ridge definitely features a lot of excessive gore. However, it makes perfect sense to feel disgusted in this film, as you can identify with Desmond (a Christian medic who refuses to fight in the war). You get shocked by every explosion that surrounds you once the film reaches the well-choreographed battle portions, because you witnessed what Desmond had waiting for him at home for the first half of the picture. Hacksaw Ridge is by far Mel Gibson’s best film to date (don’t even get me started on that slugfest Braveheart) and is worth the curiosity.
- The Neon Demon
Okay, this undeniably will be the black sheep of this list. Even when I watched this glitzy surreal nightmare for the first time, I was completely conflicted with what I had just watched. Chunks of this film were pornographic, style-over-substance, and absolutely revolting with obscenities. However, there was something about The Neon Demon that simply would not leave my mind. Was it Elle Fanning’s performance, the cinematography that looked like a living Vogue photoshoot, or the haunting music? Was it the over-the-top moments that made me laugh? Either way, like the models in this bizarre flick, The Neon Demon would not leave me and I could do nothing to remove it from my mind.
Jeff Nichols strikes gold again with this biopic of Richard and Mildred Loving: an interracial couple that suffered hardships in the 50’s and 60’s due to racism. Their separations are heartbreaking, and when they decide to fight the system to remain married, you would expect their fight to be as loud as their cries for help. That was not so, as Richard and Mildred were calmly voiced with how they battled racism. Loving is a touching film that does not scream in your face or make you feel guilty. These are just two people who want to be married; what’s wrong with that? Loving is a softly spoken poem that will easily distill the density of hatred any day.
- Everybody Wants Some!!
This is Richard Linklater’s first project since the highly ambitious Boyhood, and it reverts back to an earlier film he made (it’s what Linklater does best): Dazed and Confused. Now we have Everybody Wants Some!!, a frat boy comedy that has very little plot to weigh it down (because, who needs plot, right?). Somehow, Linklater gets by with the experiences and the bonding that happens here as opposed to a clear set of goals, structure and guidelines (all that makes sense is that it happens over a few days). What can you learn from a group of drunk college baseball boys? With our youth fading away and our realities facing us at every moment, apparently a hell of a lot.
- 20th Century Women
20th Century Women is part memoir (it depicts moments from director Mike Mills’ upbringing) and part statement. It may take place in the 70’s, but its message is still crystal clear. The connection and distance between family in this narrative are relatable to all, and the focus on a recently divorced mother wishing to relive her youth rings true. The film is made all the more real by its wonderful performances that feature veterans Bening and Crudup, as well as two fine actresses (Gewrig and Fanning) from our own generation. 20th Century Women surpasses time constraints by keeping its content fresh.
- The Love Witch
I am a retro fanatic at heart, and this blast-to-the-past by Anna Biller is the kind of throwback I love. This feminist look at the campiness of 60’s b-films is as engaging as it is reflective. You are engulfed in a world of technocolor punch, celluloid grain and a novelty that only aged satirically well: a femme fatal that lures men. Like a combination of Under the Skin and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Love Witch is the latest film to genre bend, explore female sexuality in a patriarchal society with extreme accuracy.
- Knight of Cups
Not everyone will be on board with this Terrence Malick film, but I was thoroughly floored by Knight of Cups. This take on Fellini is a moving piece of visual art that is submerged in water, drowned in neon lights, and swimming in greed and lust. The film is a blur past your senses, much like life is when you are fixated on addictions. With a large cast and a fixation on Tarot card symbolism, Knight of Cups is a visual depiction of the many stages of life within yourself and those you choose to love and/or push away.
A Disney animated film being released early in the year? Zootopia didn’t seem like a success waiting to happen; if anything, it felt like a lead in for Moana (that would appear later in the year). Instead, Zootopia was not just great, it was better than Moana. This anthropomorphic film is secretly a neo-noir, proudly a social commentary, and cleverly for all ages. Zootopia took a basic concept (animals that behave like humans) and went far beyond the lines to make a poignant statement. Zootopia, above any Disney film that isn’t Pixar related, has been my biggest restoration of faith in Disney in years.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi has made a name for himself after last year’s What We Do in the Shadows (so much so that he is now in charge of the new Thor film). His latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a return to his New Zealand roots that cannot be ignored. It features New Zealand royalty (Sam Neill) and a wonderful newcomer (Julian Dennison) as an unlikely duo that disappear into the woods to escape the world that wants to separate them. With many laughs and an authentic bonding between two grumps, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a hidden treasure that should not be missed.
- Sing Street
John Carney’s latest is an innocent winner that doesn’t need genre-pushing moments or any show stopping scenes to remain with you. A bullied boy wants to win over a girl with his band in the 80’s; it’s basically already written in the stars. With one of the best soundtracks of the year (certainly the best soundtrack to come out in the earlier months), Sing Street is an homage to everything right and wrong about the 80’s, relationships, friendships, school, and being a kid. It’s a film that—on paper— shouldn’t be this great and yet it just simply is.
- Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water wins the annual award for best breakthrough indie picture. This Western heist thriller focuses heavily on the drives the characters have for their misdoings more than being flashy, and in return the scenes that feature intensity boast a lot of aspects at stake. You truly get a sense of all of the motives present, even those from the most unpredictable (especially from Tanner). Hell or Highwater is one of the finer films released during the great Western revival of our times due to its brains and heart winning over its guts.
- Embrace of the Serpent
This Columbian picture was a dark horse that just squeezed its way into the 2016 Academy Awards, but its staying power still makes sense at the end of the year. The visitation of a tribe at two different points in time results in some jarring imagery of religious cleansing, the desire for colonialism and the downfalls of being power hungry. Being influenced by Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, Embrace of the Serpent is a nerve wracking trip that results in a mind blowing hallucinogenic trip out that cannot be properly described.
About once a year, there is a play that is adapted into a film that truly works due to the focus on minimalism production wise and the maximalism of the performances and script involved. August Wilson’s Fences was as relevant back in the 80’s as it is now, and just over ten years after his death, his Pulitzer winning project has been given new life by Denzel Washington. Washington carefully recreated this story to remind everyone that the barricades created can not just block others out, but it can suffocate those within the perimeters.
- Kubo and the Two Strings
2016 has been a strong year for animated films, and yet it’s saying something that Kubo and the Two Strings is by far and beyond the best of them all. With graceful animation (a combination of stop motion and CGI), deeply moralistic themes and some of the best voice acting in years (especially by Charlize Theron), Kubo and the Two Strings is a mystifying and empathetic viewing. The combination of mythology and childhood is outstanding; I dare you to not be affected by this one.
Martin Scorsese has been waiting to make this epic for decades. Now that Silence is here, we can see why Scorsese had been so adamant on getting this intense project released. Silence is less like signature Scorsese (save for films like Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ) and more like the art films Scorsese would usually triumph. It is a savage test of strength to watch, with faiths being questioned and sanity being tempted. The imagery is gorgeous yet painful. The characters are strung together by an underlying notion to see who cracks first. Silence is Scorsese’s biggest triumph this decade, and is a sign that he is still one of the best directors out there even to this day.
Elle is both triumphant and sadistic. When Michèle is sexually abused in her own home at the very start of this film, you witness both the recovery processes and the series of additional episodes of pain unfold. Michèle is a complex character in a sense that you can acknowledge her strengths for moving on but you are still unsure of her decisions made. Each and every choice made turns Elle down a different corridor, to the point that nothing quite makes sense when you reach the conclusion. Rape is not a simple subject to discuss or display, and Paul Verhoeven’s controversial take on the topic treats the topic with complete severity and with different lenses.
- The Handmaiden
You can never expect anything normal from Park Chan-wook, and his sexual thriller The Handmaiden is no exception. You’d think an activity as humanistic as intimacy would be replicated as organic, but here, the love is as visceral as the violence. Every turning moment of this film is uneasy due to the volumes of emotional stakes being piled up within each and every shot. The themes of sex and violence are plotted at every turn, with the consumption of food sounding gruesomely ambiguous. The Handmaiden is not a simple viewing, but it is most certainly rewarding.
How do we communicate with alien beings? Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film asks another question before we get down to what we would say: how will we find a way to talk to aliens? A linguistics professor is brought to decipher a visual language from large tentacled beings, and this slow burning process cleverly shows us the methods Villeneuve took to communicate with us. Arrival takes its time, but once you get to the climax that twists everything on its head—and not in the good ol’ typical Hollywood way either—, you will not have expected the ride you originally signed up for. Arrival could have been an action epic, but instead it became a beautiful sentiment.
- The Lobster
By far the strangest comedy of the year, The Lobster is so insane that it is comedic genius. The concept alone is out there: People stay at a lodge to find partners, and if they are not successful, they are turned into animals and have to mate with animals of their species as a second chance. This loony premise is precisely built upon in a myriad of ways, from the obvious (who decided to become a flamingo in a forested area?) to the not so blatant (the deadpan dialogue delivery and awkward expressions represent that these people are already acting like animals). This certainly isn’t a movie to bring a date to, but this disturbing flick is definitely refreshing (even in the sickest sense).
- Toni Erdmann
A near-three hour German-Austrian comedy has been sweeping the globe and receiving accolade after accolade. It sounds so off putting to withstand, until you actually watch the film yourself. It barely feels like two hours, it speaks to everyone at heart and it will move you as much as it will make you laugh. The bonkers portions where a father dresses up as an alter ego to appeal to his daughter— of whom is distant from her family—certainly is important to the film’s build up. it is the daughter’s release and the father’s grips on reality that start to get to you. By the time the daughter hugs a massive furry behemoth, you aren’t laughing but crying instead. Toni Erdmann is an unreal film experience, and it is a wacky film that can be understood by all.
- Manchester By the Sea
How do you find comedy through misery? Lee Chandler sure can’t, but director Kenneth Lonergan does the job for him. Manchester by the Sea is the ultimate dramedy, where the funny parts are side splitting and the tragic moments are tear-jerk worthy. The ability to create this roller coaster with such fluid movement is unimaginable, and yet it all takes place in the unassuming Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lee’s past haunts him and the present either disregards him or wants him for the wrong reasons; this excludes his nephew who needs a father figure. Manchester by the Sea will make you laugh, cry, and laugh until you cry.
The rules this anti-biopic breaks only help to make Jackie O’s harrowing recollection of her husband’s assassination only all the more uneasy. You cut through different stages of her grievances, even to parts that came before the shocking turn in America’s history. The film even deceives you at times by leading you to believe something else is happening. Pablo Larrain’s first American film is an earth shattering triumph that never ceases to let go of the sickness that creeps underneath the scenes. You see Jackie stomp through a cemetery aimlessly. You see her march down the corridors of the White House in fashion combinations she never got a chance to wear as the First Lady. You see her pace cautiously during the funeral precession out of fear and out of wanting to be a target at the same time. Jackie took every right step to become the definitive JFK film.
- La La Land
I’m going to get a bit personal with this one. I bawled my eyes out during the final moments of this one at TIFF, and it was an embarrassment I cannot help but keep bringing up. Damien Chazelle’s musical cannot be ignored. It is a great tribute to the musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (especially the climax) featured in a modern America where the world doesn’t care about your dreams. Everything is surreal, because all of the beauty comes from within the minds of the protagonists. Music keeps us alive and our ambitions keep us imaginative, but the truth of the matter is that the world sucks. Go visit La La Land and forget about it all for a little while, as it is damn well worth it. Everything about this flick will stick with you, no matter what your job is or what you want your job to be.
This film barely covers Chiron’s life, yet it features little snippets within three stages of his youth that tell his whole story. These are the moments that affect one’s entire life, and Moonlight captured them all. When you get to the final line in the film (by far one of the best final lines in a film I have ever witnessed, never mind of recent years), you will walk away impacted but unable to rectify the situations. Like the bystanders in this film who could have done something, you simply cannot save Chiron. Moonlight is a challenging feat that is so complex despite being so basic. So much can be said about the homophobia present within a struggling suburb, where tensions are flying already with the crime on the streets and those that are crippled with drug addictions. So many other films this year blew me away (all that are featured on this list), but it’s rare for a film like Moonlight to come out. It’s uncommon to know that a classic piece of cinema has been released and you were there to witness it. Director Barry Jenkins is truly gifted with this precise film, as he represents the humanistic requirement of longing for all in one man’s tale. Moonlight is poetic beauty found within the darkest pits of Chiron’s youth, and it is the reigning achievement of cinema in 2016.