Belated though it may be (due to conflicting professional and personal demands), here’s my list for the Best Movies of 2016.
It begins with the Top 10, in ascending order, then continues with my 11 through 20 choices, and concludes with a brief listing of the other movies I really enjoyed throughout the year.
Here are the 40+ films from 2016 that I Can’t Unsee.
(Where applicable, film titles are linked to my full reviews.)
JEFF HUSTON’S TOP 10 LIST FOR 2016
10. Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Based on the true story of an interracial couple’s fight for the legalization of their marriage in the late 1950s, this low-key dramatization is masterful for everything it’s not. Avoiding Oscar-bait grandstanding common to courtroom and civil rights melodramas, this is a lamenting cousin to the likes of John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, with Richard and Mildred Loving as the Joads of the Jim Crow era.
9. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
No film from 2016 better captured the disenfranchisement of rural white working class people than this modern day neo-Western did, of an anger aimed at a rigged system that fueled the populist phenomenons of Trump and Bernie. It’s no surprise that Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster give stellar turns, but Chris Pine is the revelation.
8. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Writer/Director Barry Jenkins’ poetic triptych of a young African-American man coming to terms with his sexuality and drug-ravaged environment. Each chapter plays like cinematic diary entries in a film that never preaches from a soapbox, told by a filmmaker seeking catharsis for his young subject – and for himself. With an arc that employs subtle symbols of baptism and communion, Moonlight peaks on the gentle conviction of granting forgiveness. A gay film not about pride, but humility.
7. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
A small American movie by a renowned American playwright that feels like a Great American novel. When Hollywood manufactures tear-jerkers about tragedy, grief, and loss, it gives us fraudulent insults like Collateral Beauty. But real artists like writer/director Kenneth Lonergan – along with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams doing career-best work – give us the truth in small masterpieces like this.
6. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Now we get to the year’s biggest risk-takers, starting with director Denis Villeneuve’s philosophic sci-fi that takes at least two viewings to fully grasp and appreciate. It’s sort of a feature-length Rorschach test, with thematic undercurrents involving existence, linear perception, and the infinite, all rooted in the emotionally wrought journey of a mother (Amy Adams) and the choices she makes.
5. Swiss Army Man (dir. Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)
There’s nothing remotely conventional about this bizarre dark comedy that was infamously dubbed “The Farting Corpse Movie” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse is the cipher for Paul Dano’s id that’s in existential crisis. Adolescent humor exists not for scatological reasons but psychological ones. Right up to its gutsy ending, this is magical realism that wrestles with loneliness and loss, but then hopes for resurrection.
4. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
This modern-day musical is everything you’ve heard it was, an artful old-fashioned song-and-dance eye-popper of two people falling in love while pursuing their dreams in cynical L.A., imbued with a melancholy spirit that feels more off-Broadway than on. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, the inspired (and controversial) final sequence asks us to consider which dreams are most important, but does so in its own bittersweet way.
3. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)
Few works have so comprehensively captured the racial division that tears at the heart of our nation’s moral fabric. Director Ezra Edelman uses the ultimate anecdote of the O.J. Simpson murder trial to hold a mirror up to how we got here, and then punches us right in the gut. This 7 hour and 47 minute sprawling saga, broken up into 5 parts, is a monolith of documentary filmmaking. Want to know how we get a #BlackLivesMatter movement? This is how.
2. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)
A mesmerizing masterpiece of biopic risk-taking, director Pablo Larraín paints a psychological portrait of Jackie Kennedy (not a biographical one) in the days following JFK’s assassination. It’s a dramatization more pensive than narrative, with an eye for expressionism, not literalism. Natalie Portman is the Method-level avatar through which Larraín’s aesthetic comes alive, grieves, and resonates. And the pair refuses to peddle in sentimentality. Jackie is a singular immersion into the fragile yet resilient psyche of an iconic figure in the immediate aftermath of an American tragedy.
1. Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Director Martin Scorsese’s Christian persecution passion project epic becomes the year’s best film (and one of his). Equal parts contemplative and visceral, it challenges Christian fidelity by ennobling those who hold to it even unto death, but while also holding back judgment towards those who don’t. A poor marketing/release rollout by Paramount has kept people from being aware that it’s even out there, but I suspect Christians will come to this in droves over time, and be talking about it for years. Cinephiles will too.
Here’s that list again, this time in simple descending order:
- O.J.: Made In America
- La La Land
- Swiss Army Man
- Manchester by the Sea
- Hell or High Water
Before listing my second tier 11 through 20, a couple of notes:
– A special recognition to a trio documentaries that examined Race in America from three unique perspectives: Ezra Edelman‘s O.J.: Made In America (cultural), Ava DuVernay‘s 13th (historic), and Raoul Peck‘s I Am Not Your Negro (iconic).
– A shout-out to the banner year for first-time filmmakers. Along with The Daniels duo behind Swiss Army Man, Trey Edward Shults defied micro-budget constraints with the haunting Krisha, Robert Eggers made Salem Witch horrors all-too-real in The Witch, Kelly Fremon Craig channeled John Hughes and Cameron Crowe in the R-rated coming-of-ager The Edge of Seventeen, Anna Rose Holmer depicts the experience of an African-American girl tomboy finding her place through a dance troupe in the poetic and eerie The Fits (free to view for Amazon Prime members), and Richard Tanne’s Southside With You imagines Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date with less hagiography and more cultural context than most fawning Hollywood veterans would’ve been capable of.
And now for the rest of the best: my 11 through 20 picks. Reviews are linked in each title, except for the first which has a brief description.
11. Weiner (dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)
Documenting disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s self-destructive attempt at a political comeback, this is an absolutely fascinating study of a narcissistic train wreck of a man. Ranks with the all-time great cinematic portraits of the Political Beast.
12. Krisha (dir. Trey Edward Shults)
13. Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi)
14. Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross)
15. Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson)
16. Sing Street (dir. John Carney)
17. Don’t Think Twice (dir. Mike Birbiglia)
18. The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
19. The BFG (dir. Steven Spielberg)
20. Moana (dir. Ron Clements & John Musker)
And finally, the rest of the movies I really enjoyed and/or respected, in alphabetical order:
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Deepwater Horizon, Café Society, Certain Women, Doctor Strange, Hail, Caesar!, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I Am Not Your Negro, The Innocents, The Jungle Book, Knight of Cups, Love & Friendship, Maggie’s Plan, Midnight Special, Miracles From Heaven, The Nice Guys, The Red Turtle, Southside With You, Trolls, The Witch, Zootopia