Posted January 23, 2017 |  Updated January 30, 2017 | Updated January 31, 2017

 

A funny thing happened on the way to the movies the other day. 

A friend of mine asked me how I knew what films would be making my best of the year compilation.  More specifically, she asked what qualifies a film to make the Top 10 cut...and what doesn't. 

Rather lazily, I refrained from directly answering her, mostly because - even after a decade of producing such lists and blogs - I'm still in a process of discovery in terms of how I arrive at these decisions. 

Worst of the year film lists write themselves.  I barely struggle with remembering what ten films squandered countless hours of my life.  Yet, doing the flip side is mentally arduous for me.  It's not just a simple matter of putting all of my four-star reviewed films here (because, yes, I gave that rating to more than ten films last year)...it's more complicated than that.  As a chronic procrastinator, creating these lists is a tedious process.  Yet, and as was the case with all of my previous best of blogs, my typical rationale for a film's inclusion here is fairly basic: These are films that spoke personally to me on varying intimate levels...and more than any others that were released in the year that was.  I generate these lists not to appease or impress anyone...except myself.  For those that demand objectivity from the writer in generating these lists...that's nonsensically silly.  Film criticism is the most subjective of discourses; objectivity need not apply. 

I also aim for variety, when at all possible, and my picks below reinforce that: There's a blood soaked invasion thriller, a stop motion animated film, a race relations drama, a coming of age drama, a supernatural horror film, a chilling documentary, a modern western, an alien invasion sci-fi thriller, and two musicals (granted, one of them more readily adheres to the requisite traits of the genre than the other).  As of the date of my initial posting of this, there are a small number of films that I've been unable to screen, such as JACKIE, HIDDEN FIGURES, and PATRIOT'S DAY.  Once I see them and believe that they deserve inclusion anywhere on the list below, I'll immediately amend this blog. 

Lastly, I've once again decided to expand my choices for the TOP 10 FILMS of 2016 to a broader TOP 25 collection in an attempt to honor those films that I greatly admired, but simply couldn't place ahead of the pack in my Top 10. 

 

Watch me talk about some of my picks on CTV:

 
 

1.   SING STREET

 
 

Deep down, my head is telling me that the number 2 film listed below is the crowning artistic achievement of 2016.  Yet, my heart seems forever and lovingly linked to SING STREET, a modest and unassuming period dramedy that filled me with euphoric joy while watching it.  

If this film were a person...I would hug it. 

SING STREET - as I alluded to earlier - spoke to me on more profoundly personal levels than any of film from the past year, ostensibly because it's set in the era of my childhood and enthusiastically tapped into its neon-hued pop culture.  That, and John Carney's coming-of-age musical comedy was one of boundless feel-good optimism, made all the more engagingly toe-tapping because it celebrates music, music creation, and one young man's artistic ingenuity.  It tells a tale of a young Irish lad in economically ravaged mid-1980's Dublin that decides to start a band and make music videos...all to impress a pretty girl.  That fairly bare bones premise could have been reduced down to petty genre troupes and conventional plotting, but there's an undeniably potent message at the core of SING STREET: no matter how impoverished and bleak life appears, there's salvation to be had in art and artistic creation.  Refreshingly lacking any semblance of annoying cynicism, this movie reminded me last year of the vitality of movies to serve as escapist engines to fill out hearts with feel good happiness.  

And as far as feel good cinema goes, SING STREET is pretty much damn perfect and a work to be embraced.  

 

2.  LA LA LAND

I'm not sure how I could possibly discuss the finest films of the year that was without mentioning the truly magnificent LA LA LAND, the superlative musical from the 31-year-old wonder kid director Damien Chazelle, whom previously made a rather large critical splash a few short years ago with his masterful WHIPLASH (another musically themed effort). 

Actually, simplistically labeling LA LA LAND as a "musical" is kind of a disservice and misnomer.  Yes, this is a vibrantly alive and splendid musical, to be sure, but LA LA LAND is so much more than that.  It's a loving homage to the classic and iconic Technicolor movie musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age.  It's a loving homage to the movies themselves and to movie appreciation.  It's a loving homage to jazz music, history, and the process that's employed to create it.  It's a loving homage to young love and romance pictures.  Lastly, it's a loving homage to the enterprising determination of young and eager artistic minds to see their occupational goals through to successful fruition...no matter what obstacles are thrown their way.  Beyond that, LA LA LAND is a bravura technical masterpiece (the city of Los Angeles has never been shot so sumptuously) and perhaps one of the most awe-inspiringly creative musicals since MOULIN ROGUE.  It triumphantly reminded audiences last year that decaying genres can be resuscitated and made relevant again. 

3.  ARRIVAL

 

Denis Villeneuve can easily take claim to being one of the pre-eminent film directors working today, with films like SICARIO, ENEMY, and PRISONERS under his belt.  He simply may not have an equal...that's how good he is right now. 

His sci-fi masterpiece ARRIVAL was just the icing on the cake as far as his career goes, which emerged in 2016 as a wonderful antidote to bloated blockbuster films that focused on eye candy first and ideas, character, and stories a distant second.  With a top notch cast, impeccable visuals, a captivating narrative about first contact with an alien species (all done through breaking down language barriers) and compellingly rich themes, ARRIVAL was in the grand tradition of thinking man's sci-fi and deserves high placement on this list.  And for anyone still worrying about BLADE RUNNER 2049 next year...that film is remarkably solid and assured hands with Villeneuve quarterbacking it all.   

Trust me.  

4.  HELL OR HIGH WATER

B

HELL OR HIGH WATER was a victim of a poor release date in 2016.  It hit cinemas at the tail end of the summer film season, during which time it was vying for attention against large scale studio blockbusters.  David McKenzie's crime drama flew in under many people's radars during that period...and triumphantly emerged as one of the year's most quietly powerful films. 

Its premise could not be any more simple or compelling (the film's screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, previously wrote the brilliant SICARIO).  Two Texas brothers (played in career high performances by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) go on a bank robbing spree to cover their financial debts after their bank foreclosed on their family land (dramatic irony is inescapable here).  Their actions catches the eyes of local law enforcement, in particular a Texas Ranger (a wonderfully grizzled Jeff Bridges) that seems hell bent on bringing them in.  What stood out for me the most about HELL OR HIGH WATER when I screened it was in how startling effective and authentically rendered it was as an evocation of desperate economic disparity.  It was also one of the very rare crime dramas that allowed for a level of empathy with its crooks.  Much like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, HELL OR HIGH WATER has the accouterments of a western with a contemporary setting and slant and a sobering thematic undercurrent of moral anguish and frustration. 

 

5.  TICKLED

TICKLED is one of the strangest films that I've ever seen during my twelve-plus years as a film critic.  It was also one of 2016's most hypnotically compelling documentaries; once it had me trapped within its hypnotic tractor beam it was impossible for me to break free.  Months later, I'm still processing and thinking about it. 

The subject matter of this documentary, initially at least, feels like some hard-to-swallow punch line to a joke.  TICKLED dives into the world of - ahem! - competitive endurance tickling, an underground activity that convinced New Zealand journalist David Farrier (also co-director here) to pursue it for a potential story.  The deeper he dug into this mysterious and highly secretive world the seedier, darker, and more criminal it became...so much that it was revealed to him that many young men who participated in it had their very lives completely ruined in vile and reprehensible ways.  As an investigative piece of movie journalism, TICKLED was endlessly enthralling.  As a documentary, it did what all great documentaries do: it introduced me to a subject matter I frankly didn't know existed and then easily subverted my very expectations of the handling of it.  The fact that TICKLED begins as something lightweight and humorous and then fully morphs into a cautionary tale about our most nightmarish fears about the Internet is a testament to its haunting power. 

6.  THE WITCH

Any horror film can throw violence, gore, and jump scares up on the screen in hopes of terrifying audience members.  Now, legitimately frightening viewers, though...that's a whole other ball game.

Iíve always been more frightened of the intangible unknown of whatís to come next in a film from scene to scene.  Recent magnificent horror films like last yearís IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH understand this notion rather perfectly.  Making his directorial debut, New Hampshire-born/Brooklyn based Robert Eggers wisely understands that the key to truly unnerving tension and real horror in films such as these is in establishing and maintaining a chronic sensation of dread throughout, and this 17th Century New England set horror film is a masterpiece in fostering a lingering sensation of endless dread in viewers.  I frequently watched it through my sweaty and agitated fingers...which was the intended effect.
 

 7.  MOONLIGHT

There have been many films well before Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT that have dealt with what it means to be black man living in America, but very few have dealt with it as compellingly as his film does. 

Adapted from the play of the same name by Tarell McCraney, MOONLIGHT eloquently and powerfully explores the multiple stages of one man's life - from childhood to adolescence and then finally to adulthood - and his attempts to define himself and understand his place in the world around him.  And it was a rare film that invited viewers in to observe its flawed characters with a compassionate eye, something that many other films out there could learn from.  That's what great films do: they offer us a portal into lives not fully seen before and allow us to inquisitively observe them.  The universality of the themes explored in MOONLIGHT crosses all race barriers and into something commonly shared: the struggles of personal identity.  As a result, Jenkins' film felt so much more intimate and personal than so many others that dominate the multiplexes these days.  

  8.  LOVING

There were two films from writer/director Jeff Nichols that I could have easily included on my Top 10, but I decided to go with his more low key and effective film from last year in LOVING. 

It's a fact based historical drama that's done with an abundant amount of masterful tact, restraint, and filmmaking economy in telling the tumultuous account of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracially married couple in the 50's that nearly went to prison...for being married.  The film is a stirring chronicle of their uphill battle to challenge societal laws, the racial prejudices and chronic bigotry of the era, and even the Supreme Court.  With finely modulated performances, pitch perfect less-is-more direction, and a historically compelling narrative, LOVING may not be flashy Oscar bait...but that's precisely why I loved it.    

9.   KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

 

Everyone usually talks about Disney and Pixar when debating the great animated films of our time, but Laika usually gets lost in the mix.  That's the Oregan based stop motion animation company responsible for films like CORALINE and PARANORMAN, but their crowning achievement is easily KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, an endlessly beautiful fantasy with echoes of the WIZARD OF OZ and set in the wondrous visual delights of ancient Japan.  This lush and gorgeous film not only had superlative animation, but heartfelt storytelling and a core message that had relative meaning for young and old viewers alike.  This film got lost under the mightily omnipotent industry shadow of Disney and Pixar, but it was far and away the year's best animated film.

  
 

10.  GREEN ROOM

 

 

GREEN ROOM was a mercilessly effective invasion thriller that starred the late Anton Yelchin as the leader of a metal band that ends up being brutally victimized by a bar of neo-nazi scumbags - all led by Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart.  Unflinchingly raw, stomach churningly violent, and nightmarishly intense, this thriller had a feral ferocity unlike any other film I saw in 2016.  Director Jeremy Saulnier can certainly be credited with crafting a film here that I most likely will not watch anytime soon again, but the Hitchcockian manner that he precisely manipulated and played audience members in GREEN ROOM is a ringing endorsement of his monumental talent behind the camera.  It's a blunt forced, teeth clenched, white knuckled, and anxiety inducing nightmare of a film ostensibly designed to make us squirm and feel queasily uncomfortableGREEN ROOM was an fiendish engine that traumatized viewers...and it had few equals last year.

 

Watch me discuss my picks from above... 

  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2016 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  MIDNIGHT SPECIAL:  Another solid entry from the reliably stalwart Jeff Nichols, this time taping into the alien sci-fi genre.  

 

12.  SNOWDENA triumphant return to form for writer/director Oliver Stone, showing him at the full command of his powers of persuasion.  

 

13.  THE LAST MAN ON THE MOONAn absorbing documentary that chronicled the life and times of the final man to step foot on the lunar surface 40-plus years ago.  

 

14.  PETE'S DRAGONA criminally overlooked Disney live action remake of their own 1970's live action/animated/musical fantasy that was surprisingly moving and poignantly rendered.    

 

15.  SILENCEMartin Scorsese's two decades in the making spiritual/historical epic once again highlighted his directorial might.      

 

16.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hodges, and Michelle Williams more than deserved their Oscar nominations for this raw and powerful family drama. (added January 31, 2017) 

 

17.  HACKSAW RIDGEMel Gibson's return to the director's chair after a ten year absence netted superlative results in this gripping and gut wrenchingly visceral fact-based WWII drama.  

 

18.  THE LOBSTER: A strange and surreal social satire that felt like an off-kilter hybrid of Wes Anderson and George Orwell.  

 

19.  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE: This fiendishly inventive sort-of-sequel to 2008's CLOVERFIELD stood proudly on its own two feet.  

 

20THE NICE GUYS: Writer/director Shane Black's 70's era crime comedy contained one of the most effective comedic team-ups of the year with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. 

 

21.  POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING: This was the best least seen comedy of 2016, a music industry satire that deserved very worthy comparisons to THIS IS SPINAL TAP!.

 

22.  ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY:  The first in what will be a long lineup of STAR WARS standalone films displayed ample imagination while working in George Lucas's vast fantasy/space opera sandbox.

 

23.   A MONSTER CALLS: A terribly overlooked dark fantasy with sobering themes that viewers young and old could learn from.  

 

24.  THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENOne of the finest high school dramedies of recent memory was an unqualified performance showcase for the rock solid Haliee Stenfield.  

 

25.  DEEPWATER HORIZON: This reality based disaster picture was one of the most technically impressive films of director Peter Berg's career.  

 

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
THE FINEST HOURS:  A harrowing and technically powerful reality based disaster film that most people forgot about from earlier last year.  

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: This was more of an AVENGERS sequel than a CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel, but it nevertheless continued to demonstrate Marvel Studios at the top of their game. 

DEADPOOL:  One of the more sly and subversive super hero outings in many a moon.

RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE:  A tremendously enthralling documentary about a shot-for-shot fan-made remake of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  

HAIL CAESAR!: The Coen Brothers returned to fine form in 2016 with this droll movie industry satire.

PEE-WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY:  A frequently hysterical Netflix Original Film that featured a splendid starring vehicle for Pee-Wee Herman.  

EYE IN THE SKY:  This impeccably acted and shrewdly written thriller tapped into the thorny issue of modern day drone warfare.

THE JUNGLE BOOK:  Bravura visual effects immersion helped solidify this Disney live action adaptation of their classic animated original as one of the best of its kind.  

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!:  This spiritual sequel to writer/director Richard Linklater's DAZED AND CONFUSED was yet another funny and authentically rendered throwback drama.

BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS:  One of the better Batman films of the past year was this DC animated feature that tapped into the campy tone of the 1960's TV series.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE - ULTIMATE EDITION:  The long-awaited and much hyped sequel to MAN OF STEEL was a more cohesive and complete experience thanks to this extended cut of the film.

SUICIDE SQUAD:  This third film in the DC Extended Universe dared to be different from other offerings in the overstuffed super hero film genre...and did so with modesty decent results.  

WAR DOGS:  Enthralling reality based drama about two of the most intrepidly ambitious and profitable gun runners in recent American history.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS:  Writer/director Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES was an exquisitely acted period drama with heart-wrenching themes.  

FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK:  A tender, moving, and fascinating documentary about the career and life and times of Leonard Nimoy, directed with great compassion by his son.

RACE: One of the more compellingly rendered sports biopics of last year, this one concerning the inspirational story of the athletic life of Olympian Jesse Owens.  

TRIPLE 9: John Hillcoat's crime drama crackled with audacious edge and deeply committed performances.  

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT:  Underrated reality based Afghanistan war comedy that shed a much needed light on the contributions of female journalists during times of violent conflict.    

PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES:  Jane Austen plus zombies...and it miraculously held together.  

KUNG FU PANDA 3: The third film in the sublime Dreamworks animated trilogy was replete with rousing action and ample merriment. 

THE WAVE:   A convincingly engineered and frequently scary Norwegian disaster film.  

DEMOLITION:  Jake Gyllenhaal once again displayed his thespian dominance in this melancholic drama about one man's self-implosion.  

ONE MORE TIME:  Christopher Walken was a rascally delight in this dysfunctional family dramedy.  

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING:  Tom Hanks once again revealed himself to be on the the great everyman actors of his generation in this quirky and idiosyncratic romance drama.  

KEANU:  The kitten stole the show in this buddy action comedy from small screen funnymen Key and Peele.  

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS:  A visually dynamic and more thoroughly plotted follow-up to 2010's ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  

RISEN:  This faith based Christian film was surprisingly involving and creatively scripted.  

JANE GOT A GUN:  This Gavin O'Connor helmed western featured a troubling production history that thankfully and surprisingly was no where to be seen in the final product.  

WARCRAFT:  One of the very few video game to movie adaptations that felt legitimately awe inspiring on a level of technical craft and ingenuity.  

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE:  The unlikely odd-couple pairing of the diminutive Kevin Hart and the Hulk-like Dwayne Johnson made for an infectiously humorous action comedy.  

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR:  My ultimate guilty pleasure title of 2016 was the third film in the deliciously trashy dystopian futuristic horror thriller.  

THE NEON DEMON:  Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't make easily digestible films, to be sure, but they're always breathlessly beautiful to look at and engage in.

SAUSAGE PARTY:  This perpetually potty mouthed and very hard R-rated animated film was refreshingly everything that modern Disney/Dreamworks animated films aren't.  

DON'T BREATHE:  A rock solid, darkly atmospheric, and continually eerie home invasion thriller.  

SULLY:  This Clint Eastwood drama that chronicled the "Miracle on the Hudson" was quarterbacked by the reliably dependable Tom Hanks leading the charge.  

THE INFILTRATOR:  Bryan Crantson showed why he's arguably the most under-utilized dramatic actor in Hollywood in this true story drug trafficking thriller.  

THE ACCOUNTANT:  Ben Affleck was as stalwart as ever in this action thriller.   

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES:  A genuinely amusing and well cast spy espionage comedy.  

DOCTOR STRANGE:  Marvel's 14th offering was one of the most head spiningly trippy films in their longstanding cinematic universe. 

 

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE:  A deliriously quirky and offbeat New Zealand action comedy that was spearheaded by two delectably funny lead performances.  

 

BLOOD FATHER:  A very rare Mel Gibson starring vehicle, this time effectively returning the actor to his no-nonsense action roots.  

 

FANTASTIC BEASTSThis long awaited HARRY POTTER series prequel offered up the unique brand of magical fantasy that easily appeased fans of J.K. Rowling's literary work.  

 

ALLIED: Robert Zemeckis' WWII era spy thriller featured stellar production values and a tense script.

 

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY:  A surprisingly sly yuletide comedy that was most definitely as advertised.  

 

FENCES: Denzel Washington's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play was a performance powerhouse through and through.

LIVE BY NIGHTBen Affleck's fourth film as a director was a handsomely mounted and intriguing scripted Prohibition era gangster film.  

THE FOUNDERA captivating historical drama about the creation of a mass marketed and franchised McDonald's restaurant that was quarterbacked by a virtuoso lead performance by Michael Keaton. (added January 30, 2017) 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 
 
 

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