2016 was pretty much a dumpster fire of a year. This year saw the passing of way too many great artists and personalities (Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, and Carrie Fisher just to name a few) and was just a bummer year for myself personally (I kind of get into it in my Meeting Bruce Springsteen editorial). 2016 also saw the United States elect a candidate hellbent on going back to how things use to be. It’s a very strange and scary time that we live in, but there was one silver lining to this entire year.
Art. The art in 2016 was magnificent. The music, the television, and the movies excelled this year. I saw a wonderful assortment of weird and unique films at SXSW and throughout the entire year. The argument that film is a dying medium sure as hell couldn’t be found in many of the wonderful films I saw this year, and for this post, I plan on celebrating the very best of 2016 in film.
Per usual, this list will consist of 20 films ranked in that very order. Let’s quit beating around the bush and get to it, shall we?
Let’s start with 20-11
20. Captain America: Civil War
I had a lot of fun with Marvel’s latest Captain America flick, which was also a not-so-subtle Avengers sequel (minus Hulk and Thor). Joe and Anthony Russo do a terrific job of putting together the most entertaining and surprisingly emotional superhero film of the year. Downey, Jr. continues to own his role and will do so until the day he dies, as for everyone else in their respected roles. The film also featured the debut of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, which was a welcome breath of fresh-air after years of having so-so on-screen portrayals of the superhero (I look forward to his own film next summer). This film was an absolute blast, and I hope you check this one out on DVD if you haven’t already.
19. Sausage Party
Seth Rogen and Evan Golderg’s long-awaited R-rated animated comedy was one of the greatest SXSW premieres I’ve ever been too. I never knew that an animated food orgy would have me rolling on the floor of the Paramount Theater in pain from laughing. This movie was wildly offensive, a little racist, a little sexist, a little homophobic, and very, very crude, but I ended up having a great time watching nearly every minute of it. Sausage Party should be playing on Demand near you, so if you can stomach some of the cruder humor found in the film, I recommend you check it out.
18. Midnight Special
I really wanted to put this Jeff Nichols (soon-to-be) classic up higher on this list, but thanks to too many great films this year (and a not-so-great ending in Special), it was never meant to be. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check out Jeff Nichols’s brilliant and exciting science fiction studio film. The performances by Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton are great, as is the rest of the supporting cast (even Adam Driver, who gives a bit of a goofy performance in the film). Midnight Special is flawed, but it has everything to help make this film become a cult classic that will be loved for years and years to come. It’s out on Demand but also streaming on HBO Go.
17. A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story
Unfortunately, Keith Maitland’s documentary on the legendary Austin City Limits music program hasn’t yet been released in theaters. But I absolutely loved this wonderful send-up of ACL so much that I had to include it on this list. I’m still beating myself up for not having seen the other Maitland film at SXSW, Tower, which has been getting tons of acclaim from everyone this year. Oh well. A Song for You (a title taken from the late-great Leon Russell’s signature song, a frequent ACL guest) features interviews from artists who played on the show, as well as the people who’ve worked on the show ever since it’s inception back in the seventies. If you ever wanted to get a taste of what Austin, Texas was like before, A Song for You gives you that look back in time. It’s a wonderful little documentary, and I hope that it finally gets released in theaters for all of you to see real soon.
16. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
It makes me sad that the latest film from The Lonely Island group didn’t do better. Popstar was so damn funny, and yet nobody saw this wonderful parody of the music industry a la This is Spinal Tap. Andy Samberg was incredible as the pop sensation Conner4Real, as was the wonderful hodge-podge of celebrity cameos litered throughout this mockumentary. Similar to Midnight Special, this film just screams “cult-classic”, so I really hope that the film finally finds an audience that will appreciate it for what it is. This was probably one of the funniest movies of 2016, so please go see this one since you obviously didn’t over the summer. It’s currently on DVD.
15. Born to be Blue
If Born to be Blue was released later in the year, Ethan Hawke would no doubt be in contention for Best Actor for his performance as Chet Baker. This semi-ficticious biopic of the late-great jazz trumpeter was one of the best films I saw at SXSW this past year, and it was also one of the best biopics of 2016. It’s unusual narrative and heartbreaking performances made this one stand out from the rest. It’s a shame that nobody saw the film when it was released, and nobody seems to really acknowledge it all the way in December. Oh well. Maybe it’ll have a second-life on DVD/Blu-Ray, where you can currently find the movie.
14. The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s wickedly smart and funny buddy-cop flick was one of the best films of the summer. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe were perfectly matched as two private detectives who solve the murder of a porn star in 1970s Los Angeles. If you were a fan of Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, you’ll feel right at home watching The Nice Guys. Once again, this was another film that very few people ended up seeing this year (I’m sensing a pattern?), and this one is really shameful. Along with Popstar, I don’t remember seeing a funnier movie this summer than The Nice Guys (one might appear later on this list), but I think the film will find life past its theatrical released on DVD, where it can be found now.
13. All the Way
Jay Roach adapted Robert Schenkkan’s masterful play into one of the very best films of 2016. The HBO film saw Bryan Cranston reprising his role as President Lyndon Johnson as Johnson took over for JFK after his assassination in Dallas, and chronicled his passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his successful reelection bid that very year. Cranston won a Tony for his role as Johnson in the Broadway play, and his performance in the HBO film is equally impressive. Cranston doesn’t just play Johnson, he is Johnson, and he captures everything about him from his mannerisms to his crude wit. The film also features some terrific performances by Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, and so on. All the Way is streaming on HBO GO, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t see this film.
Jeff Nichols had two films released in 2016, and Loving was definitely the better of those two films (even though both appeared on this list). The true life story of Richard and Mildred Loving’s journey to have the State of Virginia recognize their marriage instead of having to hide it is one of the best of the year. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are wonderful in the film, and the love that these two people had for one another is felt beautifully in this film. This could’ve easily been the most Oscar-bait movie of the year, but Jeff Nichols’s direction and screenplay make this film feel more than just that. Loving is still playing in theaters.
I don’t remember crying this much watching any film recently. Kim Snyder’s documentary on the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is difficult but essential viewing. The film is told from the accounts of teachers, parents, loved ones, community members on that day and how they’ve been able to cope with this unspeakable tragedy. The film has an agenda, but it’s a necessary one. Our lawmakers must come up with a solution to make sure that another Newtown never happens again. Newtown was never officially released in theaters, by Snyder continues to tour the film across the country. There will be a screening of the film in Austin on January 11th. If you’re interested in attending, click here for more information.
Now, onto the ten best films of 2016.
I knew going into Jackie that Natalie Portman’s performance was going to be great, but I didn’t think that I would enjoy the film as much as I did. Pablo Larrain’s artfully made biopic on the former First Lady’s life after the events of her husband’s assassination in Dallas, Texas is one of the most uniquely made biopics made this year (similar to Born to be Blue). Portman will no doubt get some awards attention for her performance, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if she ends up taking home a few trophy’s for her performance as the soft-spoken Jackie Kennedy. Jackie is currently playing in theaters.
Fresh off last year’s brilliant Sicario, Denis Villeneuve brings us one of our generation’s best and most unique science fiction films. Amy Adams gives one of the very best performances in her career (expect to see her get a lot of awards love like Portman this year), and the score by Johan Johansson along with some gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young help make Arrival feel like more than just a big dumb sci-fi flick. It’s a movie that asks some pretty heavy-handed questions on foreigners and our attitudes toward them, and how they might not be as hostile as we can be. There’s a reason this film was released just days after Election Day. Arrival is still playing in theaters, and I highly recommend you check this one out.
8. O.J.: Made in America
Erza Edelman’s 7-hour documentary on O.J. Simpson is a masterpiece. Distributed via ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ series, this film chronicles not only the life of USC’s pride and joy, but also the history of race in the United States. This all begins to parallel as O.J. Simpson, a black man living in a white world, transcended race when “being black” was considered to be very dangerous in America. 7 hours sounds like a bit of a strain, but Edelman’s attention to detail in every aspect of Simpson’s life makes this documentary to be one of the finest of our time. This is much more than a story about football, or a court case, or even O.J. Simpson. O.J.: Made in America will surely be in contention for the Best Documentary Oscar, and it is available on DVD/Blu-Ray.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused was the funniest film of 2016. The story of Jake (Blake Jenner) in his first weekend of college in 1980 Texas was an absolute blast to see at this year’s SXSW. The cast was absolutely wonderful on-screen (and they were great guys when I got to interview them earlier this year), and the chemistry was so great that I never wanted to leave the theater. I wanted to continue seeing these characters past that wonderfully fun weekend that we got to see them in. It might be a bit of a stretch, but hopefully Linklater might get a Best Screenplay nomination for his outrageously funny film. Everybody Wants Some!! is currently available on DVD/Blu-Ray.
6. Hell or High Water
Somebody on my Facebook feed phrased it perfectly when called Hell or High Water “The most Texas movie this year was shot in New Mexico.” While it’s a shame that our lawmakers in Texas continue to pass bills discriminating against gay people and women instead of using the tax incentive program for more films to be brought to the state like this one, I won’t hold that against Dave Mackenzie’s exciting and expertly made neo-Western. Believe it or not, but Hell or High Water is a very political film, as the characters Chris Pine and Ben Foster played could be seen as the kind of Americans that were forgotten during the financial crisis, thus their life of bank-robbing being thrusted. Jeff Bridges also gives one of his best performances in years as the Texas Ranger assigned with arresting the two brothers, and Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) screenplay is wickedly smart and funny. Hell or High Water is available on DVD/Blu-Ray.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s incredibly sad but beautifully made story is the first film in my top five this year. It’s a tough movie to sit through, but Casey Affleck’s performance is one for the ages. I wouldn’t be shocked if Affleck ends up winning every single Best Actor prize he’s up for this year, as his performance is sad, heartbreaking, funny, and an absolute treasure. Michelle Williams is also brilliant in her small role as Affleck’s ex-wife, and Lucas Hedges as Affleck’s nephew is a terrific turn for the young actor. This is one of many front-runners for the Best Picture Oscar, and I can understand why after seeing this wonderful little movie. Manchester by the Sea is currently playing in theaters.
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Watiti is a brilliant artist, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is arguably the writer-director’s finest work yet. The story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) is one that I want to continue to come back to for years and years and years after viewing it the first time. The film is hilarious and incredibly heartfelt without getting overly sentimental. Of all the films that underperformed this year, the fact that very few people saw Hunt for the Wilderpeople genuinely bothers me. This was easily the best film to be released this summer, and the best film at SXSW (I originally said that belonged to Everybody Wants Some!! but I changed my mind). Hunt for the Wilderpeople is currently available on DVD/Blu-Ray, and I’ll be really mad if you don’t see this movie.
I absolutely loved this film. Just with this one film, writer-director Barry Jenkins is automatically one of our generation’s best and most important filmmakers working today. The story of Chiron told through three different years of his life is like a darker but equally beautiful version of Boyhood. Mahershala Ali as Chiron’s father figure character Juan is an absolutely fantastic performance, and Naomi Harris as Chiron’s drug addicted mother is about as heartbreaking of a performance as they get. Moonlight is equal parts sad and beautiful, not just because of Jenkins’s direction and the gorgeous cinematography by James Laxton, but mainly for the beautiful story of Chiron coming to terms with his sexuality and himself. Moonlight will most definitely be apart of the Oscar conversation, and it’s currently playing in theaters.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th is the most important film of not only 2016, but maybe of this entire generation. The Selma filmmaker’s latest documentary chronicles how the United States continued to oppress black people after the abolishment of the 13th amendment in the 1860’s. We did this (and continue to do so) through the penal system, the War on Drugs, the militarization of police, and so on. DuVernay interviews a wide variety of figures ranging from Van Jones to Newt Gingrich on this subject, and the result is a troubling but very, very important movie. Unfortunately, the film continues to be even more relevant in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Which is why as an American citizen, no matter your race, gender, political affiliation, etc., you must see 13th. No matter your opinion, this will open your eyes to a greater problem in our country, and if more people see this film, we might be able to stop this once and for all. 13th is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
1. La La Land
In a year where legends died and racist/sexist/xenophobic leaders rose to power, it feels right to have a nostalgic tribute to the movie musicals of yesteryear as the best film of 2016. I typically hate movie musicals, but I feel head over heels for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. A love letter to classic Hollywood and the city of Angels itself, La La Land is basically a perfect movie. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone shine on the screen together, and the two-hour runtime often feels like a breeze. La La Land was the only film I saw in theaters twice this year, and I can’t really think of any film that I would’ve thought of doing so (maybe Hunt for the Wilderpeople). This movie is an absolute delight, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re skipping out on this one. La La Land is now playing in theaters.
That’s all folks. Have a happy new year and I’ll see you in 2017.