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The Best Movies of 2016

January 28, 2017

By John Corrado

moonlight-posterI don’t think anyone would deny that 2016 was a year of ups and downs, both at the movies and especially in real life.  But the greatness of some of the films that came out of last year in spite of all the craziness and political uncertainty can’t be denied, and those are the ones I want to shine a light on here.

When taken as a whole, these films also present an interesting tapestry of where the world was at in 2016.  Some of them tackle vital themes of racism and prejudice in interesting and unique ways, like Hidden Figures, Moonlight and Zootopia.  Others like American Honey and Hell or High Water are about poverty and dashed dreams in modern America.  And these are just some of the ones that made my top ten list.

This list has been a long time coming.  I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to catch up on as many films as I could to make sure I didn’t miss any, and I’m happy with the films I’ve finally settled on here.  So without further ado, below are my picks for the top ten films of 2016, followed by a bunch of honourable mentions.  Please come back after the weekend for my list of the best documentaries of 2016.

#10: Hidden Figures: The story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three brilliant mathematicians who were instrumental in helping NASA during the space race but had to battle to prove themselves as black women in a white man’s world, feels as relevant now as it ever did.  With a rock solid ensemble cast, and a feel good tone that also allows for a multitude of powerfully symbolic moments, Hidden Figures is an empowering and inspiring film that understands the importance of small victories in terms of breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of true equality.  It’s a message that continues to resonate.

#9: Hell or High Water: Telling the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing a series of banks in West Texas to pay back a debt, and the two rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) tracking them down, Hell or High Water is a bank robbery thriller that doubles as compelling human drama.  Staged like a classic “cops and robbers” western, the film works as a tragic study of economic desperation in the fading small towns of post-recession America, where rural areas have been left dirt poor and struggling folks are forced to rely on crime or selling their land for oil drilling to make any sort of decent living.  Bolstered by Taylor Sheridan’s tautly written screenplay, which does an excellent job of humanizing its characters, and four brilliant performances at the centre of it all, this is a film that feels at once timeless and entirely of its time.

#8: The Nice Guys: After redefining the buddy cop formula with Lethal Weapon way back when, writer-director Shane Black has now revived the genre with The Nice Guys.  Taking place in the seedy underworld of Los Angeles in the 1970s, the film follows private eyes Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who team up to investigate the mysterious death of a porn star.  Joined by Holland’s precocious tween daughter (Angourie Rice), they end up embroiled in an environmental conspiracy.  Both wildly entertaining and fiendishly clever, and brilliantly acted by its cast, The Nice Guys is an absolute blast.  Although the film didn’t get quite the attention it deserved, after failing to light up the box office and being shut out of the awards conversation, this one feels like its going to enjoy a long life as a cult favourite as more people continue to discover it.  This is also a better Ryan Gosling movie than La La Land, just saying…

#7: A Monster Calls: Struggling to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) impending death, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is visited by a tree monster (Liam Neeson), who agrees to tell him three stories that all hold deeper allegorical meaning.  Enthralling in terms of storytelling, and darkly beautiful in its construction, A Monster Calls is a haunting and deeply moving film, that uses its fantastical elements to bravely address the realities of grief head on.  This is a family film with painful but important messages to impart, and a tale about childhood that is just as valuable and emotional for adults as it is for kids, if not even more so.  It’s an intensely moving experience, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the last act made me weep.  Although it came and went in theatres, and got unfairly overlooked for awards, A Monster Calls is a film that will live on and is worth seeking out as soon as you can.

#6: Sing Street: The latest and greatest music film from writer-director John Carney, Sing Street follows Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager in 1980s, Dublin who starts a band both to escape the problems in his own life and to impress his crush Raphina (Lucy Boynton).  I first saw this film nearly a year ago, and immediately knew that it would be finding a spot on this list.  Playing to a wonderful soundtrack of both original songs and 1980s classics from bands like The Cure and Duran Duran, Sing Street is a near-perfect coming of age film that manages to be both joyous and deeply poignant, uplifting and bittersweet.  This is also by far the best music-themed film in a year when La La Land has unfairly sucked up all the attention and awards.

#5: Jackie: Set in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, Pablo Larraín’s complex and provocative character study Jackie is no ordinary biopic.  The film uses the story of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) to offer a study of a woman grieving the death of her husband in the public spotlight, while also trying to craft a legacy that will ensure he is remembered as a great man.  At the film’s centre is Natalie Portman, who completely embodies her real life counterpart in a nuanced performance that is compelling to watch.  The last act provides some of the most masterful filmmaking of 2016, editing back and forth between all of the film’s story strands, and ending on a moment that suggests the immortality of the story that Jackie wanted to present to the world.  The performances, cinematography, music and editing are all top notch, making Jackie not only one of the best films ever made about the life of a historical figure, but also a thrilling experience in its own right.

#4: Manchester By The Sea: An engrossing and moving study of grief from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By The Sea follows working class Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who ends up having to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after his older brother’s (Kyle Chandler) death, returning him to the small Massachusetts town and ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he left behind.  The film is built around Casey Affleck’s haunted and brilliantly understated performance as a broken man still hurting from his past, backed up by equally praiseworthy supporting performances from Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams.  The result is an absorbing and richly textured drama that allows us to spend time getting to know its characters, and is made all the more impressive for the way it mixes scenes of devastating emotion with moments of tension-breaking humour.

#3: American Honey: America went through a lot of changes in 2016, and Andrea Arnold’s sprawling road trip American Honey offers a definitive portrait of these changing times, showing the poverty, desperation and dreams of youth drifting through Middle America.  The loose narrative follows Star (Sasha Lane) who is seduced by charismatic hustler Jake (Shia LaBeouf) into joining a travelling magazine sales crew.  The film illustrates the anxieties faced by many youth today about struggling to make money and not having the same opportunities their parents had, reaching its most unexpectedly moving moment with a scene in a truck set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream.”  But the film also indelibly captures the feeling of being young, wild and free in all its spontaneous glory.  It’s close to three hours long and framed in a square aspect ratio, but American Honey is as compelling as any film I saw last year, all set to a great soundtrack that functions as the de facto playlist of the film.

#2: Zootopia: Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an idealistic cop who discovers that the system she has beat the odds to join is deeply corrupt.  Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) is a con man who has turned to crime after facing discrimination, and now has to work with Judy in order to help her uncover a vast conspiracy.  These characters also happen to be a bunny and a fox, used as a metaphor of the divide between predator and prey that still very much exists in the seeming utopia of their city.  And herein lies the stroke of genius behind Disney’s Zootopia, an animated masterwork that is both wildly entertaining and genuinely thrilling, as it reveals itself to be a study of prejudice and systemic racism within society from the top down.  The best moment of any moviegoing experience last year was seeing Zootopia at a screening, and realizing partway through where the film was going and what it was trying to say, and being left floored by the relevance of its message.  This is not only one of the very best films of 2016, but also a work that only grew in its importance as the year went on.

#1: Moonlight: Following a young black man coming of age in Miami as he comes to terms with being gay, Moonlight shines light upon characters we usually don’t see onscreen, let alone portrayed in such such a sensitive and empathetic light.  The film shows its protagonist Chiron at three key moments in his life, as a child (Alex R. Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders) and adult (Trevante Rhodes), and how his experiences and the people he encounters help shape him for better and for worse.  A major achievement for director Barry Jenkins, delivering only his second film, Moonlight is carried by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes powerful work by Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother, and a brilliant turn by Mahershala Ali as a kind drug dealer in my favourite performance of the year.  This is a perfect film.  It’s a work that feels intimate, built up of blindingly powerful little moments that continue to linger, yet it also feels grand in scope, as its ingeniously pulled off triptych narrative charts the life of a young man from childhood to adulthood.  This is one of the best films I have ever seen, it will probably be remembered as one of the best ever made, and I can’t think of a better pick for the crowning achievement of 2016.

Honourable Mentions:
20th Century Women
The Accountant
Arrival
The BFG
Demolition
Don’t Breathe
Everybody Wants Some!!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fences
Finding Dory
Hacksaw Ridge
Hail, Caesar!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I, Daniel Blake
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Lion
The Little Prince
Mean Dreams
The Meddler
Moana
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Swiss Army Man
Silence

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