This wasn’t the best year for movies by any means, but when the movies shone, they did so brightly. Below is my humble list for my favorite movies of 2016 — the top 10 in order — provided I only have the access of an average midwesterner rather than a national film critic. Still to come in wide release is Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” as well as Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” just two of many films that could have cracked this list had I been able to see them.
“Moonlight” isn’t just the best movie of 2016, it’s the best movie in years. Barry Jenkins’ debut feels like the work of a veteran filmmaker, as every single component — from the writing to the soundtrack — combines into a piece of art that’s as close to perfect as a movie gets. It might end up not being flashy enough to garner the award attention it deserves, but make no mistake, “Moonlight” is an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen by everyone.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle has quickly cemented himself as the best young filmmaker working right now. It’s no easy task following up a film like 2014’s “Whiplash,” and somehow Chazelle topped it. “La La Land” is a musical with a fondness for the genre and classic Hollywood as a whole, packed with old-fashioned glitz, romance and fantastical set pieces. Topped with a star turn — and probably award-winning — performance from Emma Stone and one of the best scores in years, “La La Land” is the kind of movie that turns casual fans into lovers of the cinematic art form.
Hell or High Water
Was there a more unexpectedly great film this year than “Hell or High Water?” What originally looked like a straight-to-video release in the trailers turned out to be a startling, topical take on the classic bank heist genre. Director David Mackenzie’s follow-up to 2013’s fantastic “Starred Up” is as packed with brutal and unglamorous violence as it is thoughtful conversation on the state of America. It’s a must-see that probably flew under your radar.
Manchester by the Sea
Writer-Director Kenneth Lonergan got his start as a playwright, and it’s evident in “Manchester by the Sea,” a drama that’s light on the action and heavy on the character study. Casey Affleck’s headline performance should win him multiple best actor awards, as his portrayal of grief and depression are so accurate that it can be painful to watch. Despite its occasionally dry material, the film’s message on the healing process cuts to the core.
In one of his final performances before his death, Anton Yelchin heads this rollercoaster of a thriller surrounding a punk band stuck in a neo-nazi bar after they witness a murder. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has a knack for violence, infusing it with a certain weight and sloppiness that other films lack. “Green Room” is a grotesque tale of survival, anchored by a relentless pace and outstanding performances from Yelchin and Patrick Stewart as the terrifying neo-nazi leader.
An alien invasion that has more in common with “Slaughterhouse-Five” than “Independence Day,” Denis Villenueve’s “Arrival” is one of the most aesthetically brilliant films of the year. From the visuals to the score, the production design of the film carries it through the more complex narrative turns it takes. Though its grand reveal lacks subtlety, it’s worth watching to see how Villeneuve, a top-notch director, reveals his endgame.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Rebranding an already existing project with the “Cloverfield” franchise name well into production didn’t exactly breed confidence for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” but it surpassed every expectation. Led by a scary good performance from John Goodman, this single-setting thriller plays with the audience’s perception of what’s really happening. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg crafts a world where the truth is unknown up until the very end, creating a whirlwind of disorientation and terror.
“The Witch” is more unsettling than terrifying, but it’s stuck in the back of my head since I saw it in February. The debut film from Robert Eggers is slow-burning and dense, and the whole time it’s building toward… something. Even now, I’m not completely sure what to make of the ending. But the imagery and the performances, especially that of Anya Taylor-Joy, are undoubtedly haunting.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s ‘70s detective caper barely grossed more than its $50 million budget, but the movie is so much better than its profits indicate. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have chemistry in spades, complemented by an equal balance of witty dialogue — Hitler jokes included — and surprisingly good physical comedy. “The Nice Guys” packages all of this in an interesting story even if it never rises above its pulp inspiration.
“The Lobster” is a frustrating film because at points it feels like it isn’t living up to its full potential. The second half is a bit long and slow, but it doesn’t totally hinder this movie from being a horrifying and hilarious take on modern relationships. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film should be seen on the big screen if possible to appreciate its beautiful shots and the full glory of Colin Farrell’s mustache.