Movies aren’t dying. They’re not. They’re not dying because of more and more first-run filmmaking moving to streaming platforms. They’re not dying in the name of a globalized box office market, even if that’s going to dramatically change what they’re going to look like by the time the transition is over. They’re not dying because of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice being a bad movie. They’re not dying because of artistic bankruptcy, no matter how many times people who live in Internet bubbles decide that’s the case because [insert critical darling] didn’t find a massive mainstream audience. They’re not dying. Just keep saying it to yourself over and over again until you have it right. Movies aren’t dying.
You’re already probably aware that 2016 was a pretty rough year for any person with a still-functioning moral compass. In that spirit, we’ll spare you any further reminders of how and why it was, because we’re not here to talk about all the movies that left us deflated, made us question the industry’s motives and vision, or reminded us that the franchise era is only going to claim more casualties before it abates. We’ve done enough of that for one year, and with fare like Emojimovie: Express Yourself on its way in 2017, we’ll likely find ourselves doing it again in due time.
Right now, though, we’re here to celebrate the great movies of 2016, the ones which moved us to laughter, tears, or overwhelmingly awkward discomfort. If major studios are trying to negotiate the tricky balance of artistic quality and economic imperatives, every so often they’ve found a way to succeed beyond all expectation. And it’s worth mentioning here that smaller studios like A24, Oscilloscope, and other notable independent bodies are still finding great lower-budget work and getting it in front of the people who appreciate it most, and they’re doing so with remarkable rates of success. Again, movies aren’t dying. They’re just migrating and changing, as they always will from time to time.
This year’s list, assembled after many hours of spirited debate among our staff, is proof that the stories being told are as innovative as they’ve ever been. And we’d like to think that there’s something for everybody here. Interested in a three-hour German seriocomedy about estranged families? We have you covered. An equally lengthy treatise on the indifference of God by one of cinema’s foremost artists? That too. We have an animated parable about the beauty and inevitability of loss, a screwball Shane Black comedy, a violent battle between a band of DIY punks and neo-Nazis, and an eight-hour documentary about one of America’s greatest and most telling modern tragedies.
There’s a lot of loss in many of our films this year, in one form or another, and maybe that’s our best commentary on the year that was. In one part of our list, a pair of bank robbers and an exhausted sheriff reckon with the 2008 banking crisis’ ground-level fallout in their own violent ways. In another, the disappearance of a small child sends a family into horrifying turmoil. Lonely women are driven to extremes, whether by the pressures of a family Thanksgiving or the sadistic thrills of taking another human life knowing that nobody will catch you. A young boy disappears into the woods and ends up pursued by half of New Zealand. The wife of a slain US president reckons with what life will be after the initial uproar dies down.
And yet, there’s hope too. There’s hope in a young boy becoming a young man in phases, learning how to live for himself even in the worst circumstances. There’s hope in star-crossed lovers dancing their way through a never-lovelier Los Angeles and in a woman finding the heart of all humanity when faced with extraterrestrial life. Hope in a broken man finding the possibility of salvation through family and in a pair of unlikely lovers running away from horrific circumstances in Japanese-occupied Korea. There’s hope in maturity, in the untamed corners of America still left to find, and in the simplicity of love, no matter who it’s with or where it’s found.
The movies are doing just fine, and if you’re still in doubt, read ahead as we break down our top 25 films of 2016. Check out the ones you haven’t yet, even if you have to dig around a little bit for them. And the next time you feel like everything is rehashed or forced into endless sequels: yeah, a lot of that is happening these days, but there’s still a wealth of exciting, innovative, essential filmmaking to be seen, talked about, argued about on Twitter, and loved for the many different reasons that people love movies. It’s out there waiting to be found, as it’s been since the early 1900s and always will be. Hopefully.
25. The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon is a vain movie. Like its cast of razor-thin, airbrushed models, the film’s infinitely more concerned with how it looks than it is constructing any semblance of depth. With a filmmaker as beguiling as Nicolas Winding Refn, the iconoclast behind divisive gut-punches like Drive and Bronson, it’s natural to want to dig deeper, to find the cutting satire beneath the film’s shallow, clunky script. That’s a fool’s errand, though, because The Neon Demon wants only for you to look at it, admire it, and succumb to it.
Elle Fanning is striking and subdued as Jesse, a 16-year-old weaving her way into LA’s self-obsessed modeling scene. Early on, she functions as an audience surrogate of sort, a stranger in a strange land seduced by uncanny sights and sounds. On the latter front, Cliff Martinez’s eerie, star-dusted score sets a glass-like tone that’s cracking by the minute, while Refn’s Kubrickian visuals are as sumptuous as they are cold and distancing, most notably during a circus-like performance in a cavernous club that serves as the most inspired pairing of the two.
It’s easy to feel distanced by Jesse’s journey as well, which transforms from a standard coming-of-age tale to something much more sinister, a bundle of visual metaphors that couldn’t possibly be more on the nose. But that’s the point: No matter how lovely and complex things may present themselves in this world, they are entirely hollow inside — like glass figures ready to shatter.
24. The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is one of those movies that drives so many writers to wax nostalgic on how “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” and its paltry box office haul this past summer suggests one strong possibility as to why they don’t. Yet it’s impossible not to hope that Shane Black’s funny, violent, pratfall-heavy buddy action-comedy will find new life in the homes of eager viewers. Black’s one of the few filmmakers still carrying the torch for oddball stories of pseudo-criminal ne’er-do-wells, in an era that likes its heroes anti- and its world-building as sequel-friendly as possible. And God bless him for it.
As an impossibly small-time PI and a heavy-for-hire, respectively, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe dive headfirst into Black’s wordy, referential screenplay with vigor, sinking their collective teeth into every rapid one-liner while tangled in a web of sex, murder, and constantly pissy one-upsmanship in 1970s Los Angeles. Where other filmmakers might bend over backwards to immerse audiences in a time and place, Black seems to mostly just enjoy the over-the-top aesthetics and attitudes of the time and stages his best modern approximation of a Lethal Weapon while keeping the focus where it belongs: Crowe’s imposing physicality and Gosling’s remarkable knack for turning acts as simple as smoking a cigarette on the toilet or punching through a window into comic gold.
What is love? Many have tried to answer this befuddling question: poets, young paramours, and ’90s dance club sensation Haddaway. In his deceptively simple film Loving, director Jeff Nichols does not attempt to answer this ancient quandary. Instead, he presents an example of pure, honest affection. In Loving, love is not the sentiment found on Hallmark cards but rather something elemental.
The film recounts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively), an interracial couple fighting for their right to live and love in their home state of Virginia. While the film sets out the milestones in their lives together, their engagement and various losses and victories in the American legal system, Nichols finds the real narrative in the eyes of his two lead performers.
After a small misstep with this year’s Midnight Special, Loving finds Nichols back in fine form. In the hands of another director, the film could have easily been a preachy, true-life drama. Nichols lingers on the faces of Edgerton and Negga, and what passes between the two actors is something powerful. As he previously did with his constant collaborator, Michael Shannon, the director lets the topography of the human visage tell his story. Edgerton’s intense gaze and Negga’s wide, hopeful eyes tell the audience all they need to know.
As in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, Nichols’ minimalist storytelling presents an America where home and family are the highest currency. Loving may not give us answers, but it shows us a love for which we should all strive.
22. Hell or High Water
If last year’s Sicario made Taylor Sheridan a name to watch, then Hell or High Water makes him a name to know. The former Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy star has found a second life in screenwriting, and he’s about to nab another Academy Award nomination come January. Rest assured, it’s all deserved: Sheridan has a tight grip on old-school storytelling, ably carving out singular characters that have that larger-than-life effect without ever leaving our hemisphere. For his latest venture behind the typewriter, he teamed up with Starred Up director David Mackenzie to tell a raw, bare-bones story about two troubled brothers desperately trying to find a future for their family amid tough economical times.
Jeff Bridges steals the show with his crusty performance as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, chasing down Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s brotherly bank robbers with the type of laid-back wisdom that could only come from a veteran of his stature. The chase comes natural to him, though. It’s the whole retirement and mortality that’s weighing down on his shoulders, and watching him subtly and not-so-subtly wrestle with those issues is what makes him such an intriguing character. That’s not to say Pine and Foster don’t have their own share of quirks. The former plays to his benevolent charms in ways we’ve never seen before, while the latter offers up another wicked bastard for us to love and hate.
With equal strokes of Eastwood and Coen brothers, Hell or High Water paints a very lonely picture. Much like Pine and Foster’s steely-eyed leads, Sheridan and Mackenzie stroll through the many abandoned, forgotten towns of West Texas with a purpose. They want to capture a lost part of America that was stripped away a long, long time ago and show how it’s still hanging on by tooth and nail. These are people who have lost all faith in their once-sacred institutions, blurring the lines between good and bad or right and wrong without much pause. Because, as they’ve learned, nothing comes easy for anyone in this winded frontier, and eventually it all boils down to agency and what little you have left to lose.
21. The Witch
Robert Eggers’ folkloric horror film The Witch considers 17th century New England as a place defined, first and foremost, by its boundaries. Early Puritan settlements were often harsh and oppressive places to live, but at least they offered some small measure of safety to their inhabitants. To be banished from one of these settlements was nearly tantamount to a death sentence, as it meant crossing over the boundary that separated civilized society from the untamed wilderness, where savages, beasts, and supernatural horrors awaited.
Eggers’ film centers on a stubborn zealot named William, who abandons his Puritan settlement over a religious quibble and attempts to build a farm out in the wild along with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas. William chooses to locate his farm on the edge of a large, dark forest, which serves as a visual metaphor for the conflicts that shape what unfolds in The Witch – freedom vs. oppression, safety vs. danger, and, above all, good vs. evil.
Showing uncommon depth and nuance in his directorial debut, Eggers refuses to take a firm side in any of these debates, leaving the viewer (and the family, as well) guessing as to where the true darkness actually resides. Is it in the heart of Thomasin, who is constantly blamed and gaslighted into thinking that maybe, just maybe, Satan has been using her in nefarious ways? Is it in William, whose unwavering faith has led his family to the brink of destruction? Is it in the witch who resides in the wilderness, or in the little goat called Black Phillip? Great horror films don’t provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, and The Witch is undoubtedly a great horror film, a slow-burning epic that blurs the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural until they become one and the same.
20. Toni Erdmann
Near the end of Toni Erdmann’s 162 minutes of uncomfortable comedy and even less comfortable human truth, Sandra Hüller’s straitlaced, professionally ambitious corporate type, Ines, breaks into a show-stopping rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in front of a party mostly filled with strangers. It’s just one of a long line of instances in the film in which Ines is aggressively forced out of her comfort zone, but it’s one of the most poignant among them. As Ines tears through Houston’s reminder that “If I fail, if I succeed/ At least I’ll live as I believe/ No matter what they take from me/ They can’t take away my dignity,” it’s a transcendent moment, one that’s at once excessively ridiculous and heartbreaking in context of every moment leading to it.
On paper, Toni Erdmann is the story of Ines reconnecting with her semi-estranged father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an oddball type given to donning a bad wig and fake teeth and posing as Toni Erdmann, a business consultant who shows up unannounced to challenge the opportunistic fakery of Ines’ life. In practice, Maren Ade’s singular film finds comedy and tragedy alike in scene after scene, whether it’s watching Ines work herself into a rage attempting to zip her own dress or Winifried gazing sadly across a nightclub as his daughter drags herself through another long night of being somebody she isn’t for people who’ll never really care. It’s profoundly humane, a laurel not typically reserved for a film that involves a frenzied progression of unexpected full-frontal nudity for its climax. In its constant clash of the light and dark in life, often simultaneously, it defies easy categorization. But Ade’s film is the rare wonder in any year of filmmaking that leaves you telling everyone you know that you’ve never seen anything like it.
19. The Eyes of My Mother
Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother is an exhausting, chilling, and even frustrating 77 minutes. It’s simple horror, a tale that could happen at any time in any rural setting, which is partly why it’s so hard to discern exactly what era it even takes place in. Pesce uses that curious trait to his advantage, turning his debut feature film into an exercise of terror as he slowly digs deeper and deeper into a downward spiral of hopelessness. Like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or William Lustig’s Maniac, this is a film that’s less concerned with its tragic victims and more in tune with its silent killer, and Pesce blurs the lines by offering a jarring point of view that’s both intimately personal and distantly sterile.
We follow the solitary, sordid life of Francisca (Diana Agostini), who witnesses her mother’s death at a very young age at the hands of a roaming, sadistic conman. We think she’s a victim, too — of trauma, of loss, of burden, perhaps — but the tables turn when her father traps the assailant in their farmhouse and passively allows Francisca to perform, well, some very inhuman procedures to his body. Needless to say, she’s been a little too influenced by the biblical story of Saint Francis of Assisi, aka the first recorded person in Christian history to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion, and it shows in her handiwork that she only learns to excel at as time marches forward and other victims present themselves.
Based on that very vague and very short synopsis, one might consider The Eyes of My Mother to be a garishly violent experience. Not so. Pesce wisely keeps the film’s more despicable proceedings in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, opting for unnerving atmosphere over pedantic gore. It’s a stylistic decision that so many filmmakers working in the genre clumsily ignore, namely because they don’t have the time or the patience. Considering the length of this film, or rather the lack of, it’s quite telling of Pesce’s capabilities as a director that you find yourself wishing he would be more forthcoming, if only because of the anxiety his subtle storytelling brings to the imagination. This shit stays with you.
18. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut became a mild cult sensation this year, and if you’re curious as to why the film found such a passionate mainstream audience for such a bleak movie, ask anybody who’s ever tried to go on a date in the modern world.
The Lobster immerses itself in the casual brutality of finding love (or even just meeting somebody) in the time of the Internet, distilling the typical push-and-pull of trying to figure out somebody’s likes, dislikes, interests, tics, and particular aggravations in a world that staunchly refuses to accept anything less than a timely pairing off. The film’s brilliantly surreal first half plunges viewers into the end of the road in Lanthimos’ deadpan future, as men and women like Colin Farrell’s sad-eyed David have 30 days to find a suitable mate under duress, while hunting and rounding up the single people like themselves who’ve escaped. If they fail, they’re forcibly turned into an animal of their choosing. At the hotel, people are forcibly restrained from sexual gratification, regularly humiliated for their singledom, and generally taught the world’s purest lesson: without a mate, you might as well be a rutting animal.
But it’s in the film’s oft-debated second half that The Lobster reveals itself as a sharper, more despairing kind of film. Once David gets a taste of The City, the affluent urban metropolis where the well-adjusted and paired-off live in peace, it’s clear that there’s no peace to be had in Lanthimos’ savage world. If you win the contest, you’re rewarded with a life of easy, banal privilege. If you don’t, you live in the forest and dig your own grave. There’s no true happiness anywhere, just the performance of various designated social functions until you die. If you’re lucky.
17. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
With Eagle vs Shark (2007) and Boy (2010), Taika Waititi established himself as a writer/director who could balance complex emotional drama and off-beat comedy with almost effortless humor and resonance. Even the more purely comical What We Do in the Shadows (2014) rooted itself in the vampires’ genuinely empathetic connection to the minimally verbal sweater-wearing human Stu.
Waititi continues to maintain that balance with both entertaining and powerful results in his adaptation of the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress. From its very first moments, in which Ricky (Julian Dennison), a teenage delinquent running out of chances, is hoisted upon his new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), by an invested but callous child welfare officer (Rachel House), Hunt for the Wilderpeople manages to be charming and amusing while never losing sight of the serious consequences its characters face. Even as the stakes get higher and Ricky and a very reluctant Hec find themselves on an unintentional journey through the wilderness in the wake of Bella’s death, confronting man, nature, and themselves along the way, that balance never falters.
Depending on your perspective and your cinematic preferences, Wilderpeople, which is heart-wrenching but never maudlin, heart-warming but never cloying, could either be the weirdest family drama of the year or 2016’s sweetest oddball comedy. Wherever you stand, though, there’s probably something that you’ll love about it.
16. The Fits
The worst part of girlhood is groupthink. It doesn’t matter who you talk to about what it’s like to grow up female, their answer will likely fall into that category and, with it, the stresses of never belonging. For a topic so inherent to 50% of the population, it’s overwhelmingly underrepresented in film, but Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits does that with surprising coolness, drawing parallels between boxing and dance, physical and mental strength, and preteen and teenage aging.
Ohio native Toni, an 11-year-old played by Royalty Hightower, ditches her brother’s boxing gym to join the local dance team and, in time, witnesses an inexplicable pandemic of violent fits that takes over the girls one by one. The Fits is as much a mystery as it is a narrative of a whole, of girls who struggle to fit in, of tomboys who reject stereotyped femininity, and of women of color who find themselves on the fringe. Visually, it’s stunning. The Fits pays homage to Gus Van Sant’s long, panning shots and dialogue-free scenes of stress. But Holmer carries her role as director with total poise, positioning symmetrical shots of girls cheerleading in an empty pool alongside those of flippant tension while applying nail polish in a gym hallway. It’s hard to fathom this is Holmer’s directorial debut given the multilayered visuals she threads throughout and her control of a relatively unheard-of cast. The film’s visuals grip viewers’ attention throughout, but it’s the narrative ambiguity that allows so much to be said without uttering a word.
Hightower pushes her character’s role to unexpected heights, almost always wordlessly. Her grace in front of the screen — and, by extension, her hesitance and reservations — voices a generation of women who felt conflicted by parental expectations, social norms, and the desire to be accepted, both among peers and by the world at large. The Fits isn’t just a dance troupe drama. It’s a film about the emotional and mental weight of acceptance and how far someone will go to fit in — even if that finish line is made up — to a mold that rarely represents reality at large.
Jackie is the kind of movie critics often like to call “brave.” But Pablo Larrain’s first American feature, which examines Jackie Kennedy’s grief following the assassination of her husband, the 35th president, is vivid, singular, and just plain gutsy.
JFK is a non-entity in Jackie, seen only in fleeting glimpses. True to its title, Jackie is instead a vehicle for a top-drawer performance from Natalie Portman, who powerfully illustrates the cataclysmic horror of some of the darkest days in American history. Mrs. Kennedy, experiencing PTSD, greets the public in a blood-spattered dress. She wants those responsible for her husband’s murder to see what they’ve done.
The First Lady’s grief and otherworldly perseverance is viewed through interviews with a Life magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) who helps her create the myth of Camelot, a romantic notion of lost royalty that will cement JFK’s legacy in the history books.
The cumulative effect of Jackie, which is bracing and breathtakingly direct in its depiction of violence and its aftermath, is both haunting and stirring. Larrain’s film is a tender and profound portrait of a woman both as grieving widow and symbol, someone whose public resolve helped unite a nation. As a profile in courage — and the woman charged with making a man into an empire — Jackie is unmissable.
14. Kubo and the Two Strings
Travis Knight, CEO of Laika Entertainment, worked as a lead animator on Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, all of which received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. His latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, will be another notch in his Oscar belt. For his directorial debut, Knight creates a spectacle worthy enough to convey the surprisingly adult themes in this tale.
The story follows the young titular hero who’s dealing with the loss of his loved ones and a tortured, extended family that will do anything to reclaim him as their own. With the aid of his magical guitar, Kubo whisks us away with stories that soar far and wide to the transcendent sounds of Dario Marianelli. Parents need not worry, either: Knight delicately balances the film’s dark, adult themes of death and loss.
Unlike so many animated films today, Knight gets the best out of his voice talent: Charlize Theron shines for her portrayal as both Kubo’s haunted mother and mystical monkey, Sherpa; Rooney Mara delivers a chilling performance as the Sisters hot on Kubo’s trail; and Matthew McConaughey brings the laughs as a giant beetle who believes he’s the apprentice of a legendary samurai.
To say too much about the plot would be a disservice; instead, trust that the magic of storytelling is strong with this one, and know that Kubo just may be the best Laika has put out to date. And with that, we’ll leave you with Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Play it again, Kubo.
Jim Jarmusch’s deceptively simple Paterson finds its momentum not in plot or circumstance, but in the dry laughs and incidental symmetries of everyday life. It’s such an understated film that it hews closer to its protagonist’s unfussy poetry than a traditional narrative feature, but identifying Paterson as merely a tone piece does a disservice to its unique, warmhearted universe.
Largely following the adventures of Paterson (an exceptional Adam Driver) on his daily rounds as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson finds its humor and pathos alike in his fixed daily rituals. In the morning, Paterson wakes up to his loving partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), pursuing one of her numerous hobbies and interests. He goes to work and listens to his boss speak woefully about his life’s troubles. He listens in on various bus conversations. At lunch, he writes his poetry, beautiful work that he does more for his own comfort than for any kind of attention. Later, when work is done, Paterson takes his dog for a walk and posts up at a nearby corner bar, a chaotic ecosystem of troubled personalities. And then he wakes up the next day and starts anew.
Jarmusch simply observes Paterson on his appointed rounds as the wandering soul of his town, a creature of staunch routine who often exists as a canvas onto which other people paint their struggles and losses. Yet what lingers after the film ends isn’t any one incident, though several in the film are lovely. It’s the warmth and love Jarmusch finds in even the most banal and tedious instances or the humor of a couple from a different filmmaker’s movie offering one possible epilogue to their own story in the midst of his own. It’s the way that Paterson’s mailbox never stands upright when he comes home or how Laura always finds a different way to bring something new to his day. Paterson is a grateful film, one simply fixated on the joys of being alive at all, no matter what life brings. In its simplicity, it’s endlessly beautiful.