Come one. Come all. Okay, more likely one. It’s time for my semi-vain, self-indulgent Top 25 films list release. Year 11 of my new release film tracking proved to possibly be the best one yet on average. As I have over the past few years, the volume of flicks has held in that 75 to 95 range. This year clocked in at 80 total new releases viewed.
As always, this list represents my favorite movies of the previous year. It is not an intricate review of the filmmaking craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies.
Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2016. From the Top 50 at the Box Office I missed Sing, Jason Bourne, Trolls, The Legend of Tarzan, The Angry Birds Movie, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Conjuring 2, The Magnificent Seven, Ride Along 2, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Accountant, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Purge: The Election Year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Boo! A Madea Halloween, Storks, Lights Out, Allegiant, Now You See Me 2, and Ice Age: Collision Course. Any of those make the top of your list? Doubt it.
Of the critical and award darlings… Loving, Elle, Nocturnal Animals, My Life as a Zucchini, Silence, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Deepwater Horizon, I Daniel Blake, Julieta, Fire at Sea, Certain Women, A Monster Calls, Love & Friendship, Birth of a Nation, Midnight Special, and Cameraperson all eluded me this year. Some of those I really wish I had seen. Others… eh.
Here are a few special awards before I dive into my list.
Award for Somehow Exceeding My Expectations of Awfulness
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
Jesse Eisenberg’s baffling (and grating) take on Lex Luthor. The homicidal Batman with zero context. The cartoony video game showdown with Doomsday. The hokey computer insert scene mid-action to tease Flash/Aquadrunk/Cybore. The DCU hallmark dark, brooding, and humorless slog. The murderous-enemy-to-best-buds turn mid-film over the name Martha. I thought it would be “eh” and it turned out to be offensively bad.
Award for Most Memorable Moments in CGI
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Central Intelligence (tie)
The first is obvious. Although we still aren’t quite to the point of completely fooling the eye, the incredible realism used to breathe life into Moff Tarkin and Leia was pretty amazing.
Almost as amazing… turning the brick house that is The Rock into a dancing, singing, and very plump Robbie Weirdicht.
Award for Being Pretty Darn Rad Until the Last Fifteen Minutes
10 Cloverfield Lane
I’ll avoid spoiler territory here, but John Goodman was creepily great for the majority of this film. Then we get… well… the last fifteen minutes.
Award for Excellence in Featuring Awkward Sexuality
Sausage Party / Deadpool / Bad Moms / Weiner / The Meddler (tie)
Food orgies. Check. Ryan Reynolds getting pegged. Check. Kathryn Hahn turning Kristen Bell into an uncircumcised penis. Check. Anything and everything having to do with Anthony Weiner. Check. But maybe the best and most awkward of all… Susan Sarandon nearly achieving orgasm from eating a fresh chicken egg.
Award for Missteps in Makeup and Practical Effects
Suicide Squad / X-Men Apocalypse / Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (tie)
Leto Joker is not only silly and far less interesting than Ledger Joker, but he looks ridiculous. I get it. You thought it was edgy. You were very wrong.
Apocalypse cannot be frightening or be taken seriously when he looks like a Power Rangers villain. What was the budget of this film?
Whether you liked the way Johnny Depp was used in Fantastic Beasts or not, you can just imagine him standing in the makeup room saying, “I need some weird contacts.” “No you don’t, Johnny.” “Yes I do! Yes I do! Yes I do! Give em to me! Now! It’ll be grrrreat!”
Award for Most Inspirational Flicks to Watch with Your Whole Family
Hidden Figures / Eddie the Eagle (tie)
Rarely are there films you feel good about screening for the whole family. From Little Timmy to Grandma Tammy. But both of these films fit the bill. Inspiring stories of hard work, determination, and spirit.
Award for Most Bizarre B-Roll in a Documentary
There were many terrific documentaries this year and several included disturbing, hysterical or moving B-roll. But nothing touched that weird nerve that makes you uncomfortable more than the competitive tickling footage in Tickled.
Award for Most Terrible and Mentally Scarring Use of a Prop
Turkey baster. Jesus lord almighty.
Award for Musical Moment in Cinema
The Jungle Book
Yes, La La Land is an incredible achievement. “City of Stars” follows you for days or weeks after viewing. Sing Street is a rocking good time. Moana has a bright and original soundtrack that will make you smile. Even Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping material is pretty funny. But it was the moment, no matter how out of tune, when Bill Murray starts belting out the “Bear Necessities” that takes the cake.
Award for Entertainers of the Year 2016
Mahershala Ali and Kate McKinnon
This is cheating a little bit. Both of their resumes include some incredible TV work in 2016. Mahershala not only gave an incredible performance in Moonlight and a memorable turn in Hidden Figures, but he dominated our small screens as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Remy Danton in House of Cards. Add to that his incredibly authentic and powerful acceptance speech at the SAG Awards as a cherry on top. Kate McKinnon found herself climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Her SNL work (Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Olya Povlatsky, Angela Merkel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mrs. Rafferty, Debette Goldry, Shelia Sovage) continues to get better and better. On top of that she was the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian Ghostbusters effort, a scene stealer in the otherwise disappointing Masterminds, and the understated gem in the underrated (thought admittedly sophomoric) Office Christmas Party.
Award for Breakout Newbees
Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)
Sunny Pawar (Lion)
Sasha Lane (American Honey)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)
Whether it was Ricky giving Hec that perfect stare or young Saroo running for his life or Star making every decision seem truly spontaneous or Patrick verbally battling his uncle, all of these newcomers gave stellar and memorable performances this year.
Award for Most Exciting 60 Seconds of the Year
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
If you haven’t seen this yet, stop reading now. When you-know-who starts storming through that ship and he’s swinging around his you-know-what and using his powers like the badass villain supreme that he is… that was everything. It was… pure joy.
And now we arrive at the meat and potatoes. Before I dive into the Top 25, here is a quick look at what nearly made the cut.
45.) Bad Moms 44.) Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them 43.) Allied 42.) Café Society 41.) The Lobster 40.) Star Trek: Beyond 39.) Weiner 38.) Sausage Party 37.) Patriots Day 36.) Eddie the Eagle 35.) Everybody Wants Some 34.) Jackie 33.) The Founder 32.) Swiss Army Man 31.) Little Men 30.) American Honey 29.) Tickled 28.) Captain Fantastic 27.) The Meddler 26.) The Edge of Seventeen
- Green Room
Brutal, unsettling and creatively thrilling. Anton Yelchin is pitch perfect in one of his final films. Patrick Stewart as a ruthless neo-Nazi leader is alone worth the price of admission. The cold, calculated movement through Saulnier’s tight and trippy script is punctuated by gasps throughout. Also, Alia Shawkat needs to be in more movies. She rocks. Literally and figuratively in this flick.
- Hacksaw Ridge
Setting aside commentary on the filmmaker, the film itself is an incredible achievement. A war story that is not about taking life but saving it. Andrew Garfield draws you in with a dose of the “aw shucks,” but gradually pulls you deeper into the mind and spirit of this incredibly principled character. The supporting cast is aces across the board including a rare dramatic role for Vince Vaughn.
- The Jungle Book
Disney’s quest to create live action adaptations from their deep animated library has been relatively successful in both quality and reception. However, this updated retelling of Mowgli’s adventures is a marvel. The visual effects are stunning. Young Neel Sethi bears the mantle of the boy cub with ease. Jon Favreau proves yet again that he’s a master at crafting a fun and frenetic adventure while hitting all the right comedic notes.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’m a huge fan of What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords. Taika Waititi has an unmatched eye for the awkward and a truly unique sensibility. Sam Neil’s nuanced performance as Hec and the tumultuous but heartfelt relationship with Julian Dennison’s Ricky provides all kinds of laughs and “feels.” I can’t wait to see what Taika does with Thor.
While the film sometimes feels like it has one foot on the stage and one on the screen, the sheer power of the performances in this August Wilson adaptation washes away any imperfections. Denzel and Viola are unstoppable. You come to viscerally know this family. The hopes. The dreams. The broken dreams. This acting master class is framed by a minimal, yet lived-in set design and vividly present but not overbearing camera work.
- Eye in the Sky
The moral and ethical questions raised by this film are all the more stirring in our current political climate. The deftly woven strands of tension will have you gripping your seat or drink or whatever is closest to you. Gavin Hood bounces back from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to tackle the challenging geo-political elephants in the room as he did in 2007 with Rendition. Aiding the effort this time around is a formidable cast that includes Helen Mirren at her best and the incomparable Alan Rickman in his last on screen role.
- OJ: Made in America
I faced a mental barrier before watching this film. As a kid I had lived through the hysteria. I can still remember watching the Bronco chase on TV and the seemingly endless coverage of the courtroom madness. But after hearing such positive reviews I figured it was worth a go. What’s a couple of hours? Little did I realize that it would end up being a nearly eight hour journey down the rabbit hole. And what a journey it is. This documentary is not just a re-telling of the OJ trial (see The People vs OJ Simpson). It’s not just a look at the birth of modern sensationalism in cable news. It’s a cultural dissection. A series of mirrors held up in all directions. A striking look under the hood at the history of Los Angeles, race relations, police policy, the judicial system, celebrity and scandal. It weaves the narrative from each chillingly relevant topic to the next while using OJ Simpson’s rise as a sports star, pitch man, actor, accused murderer, and “innocent” pariah as the through line. Gripping from beginning to end.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes of this movie were excellent. The freedom to carve out a completely original corner of the Star Wars universe allowed for an incredible level of creativity. The darker tone and more serious approach to the subject matter was a refreshing detour from the Saga. The visual effects are stunning. Watching setups from 1977 being paid off in 2016 were grin-inducing. The commitment to a bold, uncompromising ending is worth praise. And that last ten minutes… holy heck. So. Damn. Good. All that said, the middle sagged a good bit and lost its footing. The performances were all solid, though most of the characters portrayed were at best briefly entertaining. None had the lasting impression you walked out of the theater with in 2015 after meeting Rey, Finn, Poe and the others for the first time. All-in-all though a fun ride and a promising start to the “Star Wars Story” brand.
- 20th Century Women
“Slice of life” films are only elevated when you match unique characters with unforgettable performances. This glance back at a non-conventional family of outcasts and dreamers in 1970s Santa Barbara features just such a recipe. Top to bottom the cast is perfect. Billy Crudup’s helpful but hopeless handyman. Greta Gerwig’s scarred but passionate photographer. Elle Fanning’s blunt but vulnerable teen. Annette Bening’s brilliantly complex matriarch, Dorothea. She simultaneously projects confidence, progressiveness, and intellectualism while struggling just under the surface with heaps of regret, doubt, and isolation. Standing in the middle of that twister of heart and hysteria is Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie. Just an adolescent trying to become a good man. His own man. Whatever that means. Some clever editing and voice over techniques add additional color. Production design is spot on and pulls you effortlessly into another time in America. Way to go, Waleed.
I know many friends who were blown away upon watching this modern science fiction tale. Some even gushed on social media that it was life-changing. Or was it life-affirming? I can’t quite remember. I did not have such an extreme reaction. That said, it was one of the stronger, more original outings in the genre in the last decade or so. The often bizarre tropes of the extraterrestrial story are softened and smoothed out by an incredibly authentic drama about family and loss. The film is simultaneously stark and stylish. Thrilling and uplifting. Amy Adams does some of her best, most subtle work as Louise Banks the linguist and mother. If it wasn’t for the inevitable logical traps and snags that come along with time travel, this film would be even higher on my list.
Vibrant, inventive and exciting. Turning the traditional princess tale on its head, Disney Animation notches yet another victory on their belt. Moana’s call to adventure and determined struggle to protect her island and her people is built from the word go on strength, smarts and faith. Looking for a role model for your daughter or niece or goddaughter? Look no further. Auli’I Cravalho is excellent. Meanwhile, The Rock continues his domination of every genre by bringing Maui to life and showing off his surprisingly strong vocal skills. The animation is rich and textured. The music is addictive. I have a feeling kids will be joyfully going along on this journey for years to come.
- The Nice Guys
While Ryan Gosling may be getting heaped in praise for his work in that little musical picture, I personally think he was at his best in this absurd, action-packed, hysterical buddy cop picture. His wily and unpredictable PI is the perfect counterpunch to Crowe’s gruff and matter-of-fact enforcer. Shane Black’s evolution from iconic writer of 80s/90s comedic action to damn good writer AND director of the genre is in full bloom here. Building on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, Black has all the parts humming. It’s cleverly plotted. The action feels fresh. The comedy is biting and unexpected. Two thumbs up.
Following in the footsteps of Wreck-it-Ralph and Big Hero 6, Disney Animation delivers yet another colorful and imaginative world to sit back, breathe in, and enjoy. Hopps and Wilde are that classic scoundrel / straight-and-narrow team-up that provides not only big laughs and heart-warming character arcs, but the perfect dual lens through which to explore this rich and detailed universe. The bootleg dvds of Wrangled and Floatzen 2. The hamster tubing transportation system. The detailed map that includes lands like Outback Island and The Meadowlands that we don’t even have time to see in the movie. There’s even someone playing a “CAT-SIO” keyboard (Casio… get it?). The layers of detail that Disney’s animators weave throughout is astounding. And who doesn’t love a good underdog story? And sloths. Who doesn’t love DMV sloths?
- Doctor Strange
It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the talk of a Disney/Marvel formula, I’ve been more than encouraged by the unique spin they’ve managed to give many of their recent films. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Winter Soldier all felt like they were staking claim to a different corner of the vast superhero landscape. Doctor Strange may have accomplished this better than any of the others. The indulgence in the visually weird and psychedelic made this a wild ride from start to finish. The trademark MCU humor was on display, holding at bay a darkness that could have snuffed out the fun. Benedict Cumberbatch quickly made me forget about all those years of alternative casting rumors. He is Doctor Strange. The unconventional ending avoided the big blowout battles that some feel are repetitious in these save-the-world flicks. Connections to the wider MCU were present enough to satisfy but not forced to the point of distraction.
- Hidden Figures
Unfortunately it is rare these days to find a clean, heartfelt, inspiring movie that doesn’t rely on melodrama or heavy-handed faith tones to connect to a wide audience. That’s why this film is all the more welcome. A smart and sincere script is brought to life by stellar performances from Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae (a revelation). The supporting cast pulls their weight in understated, yet powerful ways. It always amazes me when a story like this is finally told in such a wide-reaching forum. How on earth did I not know about the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary? It’s a reminder to all writers, directors, actors, novelists, and artists of every variety that we should be elevating these stories to the public consciousness through our work. Buy a copy when it’s available so your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews can watch for years to come.
Lion is essentially two films reflecting back on one another. The first half is a beautifully composed portrait of a five-year-old boy lost in a great city. If I didn’t know any better I would have believed they just dropped Sunny Pawar off alone in Calcutta and secretly followed him around. That’s how incredibly authentic I found his portrayal despite his young age. You can’t help but to become instantly invested in the harrowing and heart-breaking journey. You cringe. You chew on your lip. You want to yell out to him. And then suddenly you find yourself in the second chapter. Thankfully safe from the many dangers he faced, Saroo’s life becomes not dissimilar to yours or mine. Dev Patel continues to demonstrate his growing chops. His one-on-one scenes with Nicole Kidman are quite brilliant. You won’t find a better story about hope, determination and the many forms love can take.
- Kubo and the Two Strings
The latest offering from Laika is the most beautiful and wondrous yet. The meticulous attention to visual detail is stunning. Whether to differentiate from the standard 3D flicks or simply an organic byproduct of the stop-motion medium, the creative flare brought to each sequence is pure candy for the eyes. It’s quite frankly intoxicating. But rest assured, it isn’t superfluous. Kubo invites you on an epic journey of self-discovery and identity. In the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, this tale avoids most common fantasy tropes in favor of something more original. A giant samurai beetle. A wooden monkey. An origami warrior. All of them brought to life in a dream-like visual feast. The addictive score accentuates everything that unfolds on screen so that your ears can get in on the action. Ultimately, the honest, and quite frankly brave, way in which the film addresses loss is refreshing in a genre where 3rd acts are almost categorically saccharine.
The world that Little is born into is not one you would ever wish upon a child. It’s the sort of place where the trials and tribulations of coming-of-age are compounded by dangers big and small. It’s a community and a time where stigmas ran deeper than perhaps we remember. Whether it’s the struggle of a mother incapable of providing the care a young boy needs because of her addiction or the internal struggles over the meaning of friendship and one’s sexuality. Watching Little become Chiron and then Black is heart-breaking. We watch as he’s forced to live life in a corner; either cowering or lashing out in order to find room to breathe. Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris have all been praised for their incredible performances. Deservedly so. But it is the earnest (Alex Hibbert), transformative (Ashton Sanders), and nuanced (Trevante Rhodes) performances that truly bring this boy’s story to life.
- Finding Dory
It may be sacrilegious to say it, but there’s a chance Finding Dory is better than Finding Nemo. It’s another near perfect offering from Pixar that makes you wonder why it took so long to be made. That means stunning imagery, clever comedy, and an oceanful of heart. The touch pool “Hands!” sequence illustrates their knack for bringing all three together. The explosions as the pudgy little hands plow into the water. The scrambling of the various creatures to take cover. Dory’s insistence to leave no man behind as she drags Hank to safety. It’s a brilliant action set piece that is so much more than just an action set piece. And the folks at Pixar know how to find nuggets of comedy in every supporting character. Whether it’s Marlin and Nemo or newcomers like Destiny, Fluke or Rudder, they all have a meaningful part to play in making you grin. But more than the comedic chops, it’s the heartstrings where they get you. I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t seen the movie, but I’m quite certain there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater.
- Captain America: Civil War
Back to Marvel we go. I’ve explained several times in the past why I find these movies to be such fun rides so I won’t revisit here. What I will say is why specifically I had such a damn good time watching the third installment of Captain America. First – New characters shined. The introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was excellent. Tom Holland’s Spider-man surpasses Toby and Andrew in less than 15 minutes of screen time. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo was a refreshing change of pace as a villain. His personal vendetta, and not world domination/destruction, felt more grounded and interesting. Sure there were a few logical leaps in the plotting, but sometimes you just need to spackle over that sort of thing. Second – the airport sequence. Outside of the greatest 60 seconds of cinema this year that I mentioned earlier in this post, the airport sequence in Civil War was the highlight of my year. It wasn’t non-descript buildings exploding. It wasn’t nameless city blocks being leveled. It wasn’t nameless aliens or robots invading. It was our favorite heroes in an elaborate and most excellent battle dance. If you didn’t find joy in that, you must’ve snuffed out your inner child long ago.
- Sing Street
Another home run from director John Carney (Once and Begin Again). Let’s cut to the chase and start with the heartbeat of this film. The music. The original music composed for the film fits seamlessly with the actual 80s rock tracks throughout. It’s that unflappable passion for music… for meaningful music… that saves Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) from the unpleasantness of his daily life. The wicked headmaster at his new school. The unrelenting bullies that populate the schoolyard. A mother and father whose dysfunctional marriage is seeping out and causing chaos. All of this is drowned out by the music. But let’s not fool ourselves… the music arrives because of the girl. It’s always a girl. The film doesn’t shy away from challenging material, but there is a joy to the whole endeavor. The young love. The formation of the band. The visual flare of their music videos. All is wrapped together with heart and a lot of Irish wit.
- La La Land
To say that creating an original movie musical about folks in Hollywood is a gamble would be an understatement. Rarely do films about this town resonate outside its borders. Musicals in general? Lukewarm track record. Musicals not based on a Broadway hit or a series of very familiar pop songs? Ha. So the commitment of the studio (Lionsgate) and director (Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame) is impressive. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rekindle that seemingly effortless chemistry they previously showcased in Crazy Stupid Love. Try if you want, but the music sticks to you like maple syrup. Sweet and dreamy. While the Mia and Sebastian may live in Hollywood and be in search of success in acting and jazz, their story is universal. The dreams. The loves. The what if’s. We can all relate. We just don’t have the soundtrack or the dancing.
Within a few years we will have been bombarded with a slew of knock offs and rated-R wannabes. Most of them will be pretty awful. That’s because they will have missed the point. Deadpool wasn’t a smash hit because it was rated-R or was crude. It was a hit because it was fresh, fun and loose with the rules. Ryan Reynolds clawed and scratched and chewed his way into making this picture and I’m sure glad he did. I saw Deadpool on three continents; among very different crowds. The reactions were universal. The action isn’t just violent or brutal – it’s creative. The language isn’t just foul – it’s funny. Your favorite superhero clichés are here both to be made fun of AND to be relished in. I have no idea if the meta comments and breaking the fourth wall will feel as fun and fresh in the sequel, but I’m sure glad they’re keeping it a tight budget and avoiding Part 2 bloat. Here’s to Captain Dead Pool!
- Manchester by the Sea
Think back to most of the non-genre dramas you’ve seen over the last ten or fifteen years. Cross off the period films. Now cross off those that indulge in melodrama. Finally, scribble over top of the ones that are “quirky.” From where I’m sitting there aren’t many left. A contemporary drama that embraces the real, raw emotions of the story and refuses to sensationalize or lean on eccentricities. That’s Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan crafted a painful, affecting, and redemptive story. Jody Lee Lipes’ eye made the ordinary cinematic. Editor Jennifer Lame guided movement through time and space when the story called for it and without a phony device shoehorned in. And the performances were rich and authentic. Kyle Chandler, CJ Wilson, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges were outstanding. Casey Affleck, setting aside any evaluations of the man, put together the performance of his career without the need to be bombastic or showy. It’s not an easy watch. The pain is contagious. But it’s well worth the journey.
- Hell or High Water
As I reflected on cinema in 2016, I had a few films at the top of my list that I knew would be there, but I wasn’t entirely sure of the order. Upon careful thought, my mind rested on one scene in one film. A conversation between a hunter and the hunted. It’s thick with subtext and tension. It’s carefully framed. The performances are steady, with heat simmering just under the surface. Reflecting on that scene solidified the film as my top choice for the year. The scene’s ending is ambiguous. Not in the frustrating way. It’s a satisfying ambiguity. That’s what you’d expect from a story of outlaws and lawmen. A story where you find yourself rooting for both. That credit goes to director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario – #14 film on my 2015 list). A film like this only works if you create a balance between the light and the dark. These folks managed to pull forward the gritty, morally ambiguous energy of the Old West and breathe 21st century life into it. The story is tightly and cleverly plotted; keeping both characters and audience members guessing. Kudos to Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges. They all gave stellar performances and made it seem like their cowboy boots were mighty worn in.
And with that the books are closed on 2016. As always, if you don’t see your favorite on here feel free to call me out. If you think my choices are nuts, you know where to find me. Here’s hoping 2017 holds a whole crop of amazing new films. Until next January…