The best movies of 2016
Yeah, I know, it’s February. But I don’t get to watch advanced screenings of every movie, and I have stuff to do, so it’s taken me awhile to watch everything I wanted to watch. I figured I should write up this list before the Oscars, which is pretty much the last time anyone keeps talking about movies from the previous year.
Nonetheless, there are still a handful of movies I didn’t get a chance to see, but which might make this list if I had a chance to watch them. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. Maybe also Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, depending on whether you consider that a 2016 film. Oh well. Maybe I’ll update this list when I see those movies, but if I’m being honest with myself, I probably just won’t.
Another apology: I didn’t do this list for 2015’s movies. If you want to see my favorite movies from that year, or any other year, check out my handy dandy spreadsheet. Here’s my post for 2014’s movies.
I watched 73 movies that came out in 2016. Here are eight exceptional ones, loosely in reverse order of how much I liked them.
8. The Edge of Seventeen
This movie scratched more itches than I thought I had. Finally, a great, thoughtful, high school dramedy. When was the last time we has one of those? And Hailee Steinfeld did her first great movie since her breakout role in True Grit. Plus, Blake Jenner, that guy from Everybody Wants Some!!, is in it and he’s really good! And Hayden Szeto totally fooled me and made me think he was a teenager, and not 31, which is actually is. The actress Hayley Lu Richardson and director Kelly Fremon Craig are ones to watch. I can’t wait to see their next films.
One of my favorite critiques of movies adapted from plays is that they’re “stage-y.” That’s great! I’m not planning to shell out $100 to watch Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to act out August Wilson’s play on Broadway, and neither will most people in the history of the Earth. Washington’s direction and acting swept me away. What a powerful movie.
Even taking aside the movie’s nuanced messaging about discrimination, Zootopia is the first animated major studio movie I can remember since Wall-E that took me by surprise on a narrative level. The twist made the movie so much more fun.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan is back and I love it.
I think this movie has been unfairly overlooked, probably because it’s so low-key. Jeff Nichols, though, is doing some of the best work of any director out there right now. He came out with Midnight Special, another one of the best movies of the year, in 2016 as well. Loving, like Midnight Special, is a movie that has its own internal rhythm. It moves slowly and deeply, pulling you into its current until you’re submerged into the emotional patterns of its actors. Richard and Mildred Loving are not movie-ready heroes, they’re real people, and the actors make you feel that.
In general, I love movies that track a person’s life over a long period of time (see also: Citizen Kane, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Synecdoche, New York). Moonlight, like the best movies of that genre, don’t overexplain, it just shows what happens to a person. It makes the viewer do some work, making the pull of empathy even stronger.
2. The Handmaiden
Oldboy was one of those movies I loved as a teenager, and which r/movies obsesses over, which is usually a good indicator that it doesn’t hold up very well. I rewatched it in anticipation for The Handmaiden, and I was pleased to see that it was still great. The Handmaiden, if anything, improves on Park Chan-wook’s oeuvre. It’s even more of a heady, twisted thriller, it’s loads of fun, and it’s goddamn beautiful to look at and listen to.
1. Toni Erdmann
This movie shouldn’t work. It’s too dumb— a dad pretends to be a jetsetting life coach with a bad wig and false teeth in order to reconnect with his workaholic daughter? It’s like a bad Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughan movie. But somehow, it not only works, but it’s absolutely weird and transcendent. It’s funnier than it has any right to be, has incredible musical scenes, and also says something about global capitalism. Sandra Hüller gives the best performance of the year.
Other films I liked a lot that came out in 2016: Midnight Special, Finding Dory, Swiss Army Man, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hail, Caesar!, Donald Trump’s the Art of the Deal: The Movie, Deadpool, Dean, Weiner, Kung Fu Panda 3, The Jungle Book, Indignation, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Light Between Oceans, Things to Come, La La Land, Silence, Moana, Arrival.
Best movies I watched in 2016 that didn’t come out in 2016:
The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson), Phoenix (2015, Christian Petzold), No (2012, Pablo Larraín), Fat City (1972, John Huston), The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang), My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn), Dave (1993, Ivan Reitman), Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock), Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding), Purple Rain (1984, Albert Magnoli), Victoria (2015, Sebastian Schipper), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone), The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell), Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, Bud Yorkin), The Jungle Book (1967, Wolfgang Reitherman), One, Two, Three (1962, Billy Wilder), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour), Margaret (Extended Cut) (2011, Kenneth Lonergan).