Best Of 2016

Looking back at the films of 2016, there were precious few surprises and notably more disappointments. Walking out of “The Jungle Book,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” among many others, didn’t leave me with the sense of cinematic satisfaction we all crave, but rather the feeling that movies now more than ever are overpromising and under-delivering.

Worse, it’s storytelling that’s being sacrificed – each of the three titles above were visual spectacles that were inept in terms of narrative, and this seems to be a trend throughout the industry. It’s not a coincidence, then, that the best movies of 2016 listed below are in many cases examples of great stories that were strengthened by splendid visual palettes.

10) Hacksaw Ridge
Summit Entertainment tried to keep Mel Gibson’s name out of its promotional material for this film, and given what the media has relayed regarding his personal history, that’s understandable. There’s no denying, however, that Gibson is one of the finest directors working today, and “Hacksaw Ridge” was an excellent reminder of that. It’s not just the powerful WWII story of the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor that was so engaging, nor the slow-motion action or tremendous performances. Really, it was this: That main character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is driven by his religious beliefs, but it never feels like a religious movie. Instead, it’s about a man who sticks to his virtuous principles and ends up being 100 percent correct in doing so. In limited theaters now; home video availability TBD.

9) The Edge of Seventeen
Whip smart, clever and painfully funny (in a good way), it’s a movie that reminds us how agonizing teenage years can be (and for some of us, how agonizing they were). Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature sports wonderful performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, and never compromises with teen movie clichés. In limited theaters now; available on home video Feb. 14.

8) Nocturnal Animals
My first reaction to director Tom Ford’s (“A Single Man”) latest was one of confusion and intrigue. The more I thought about it, however, the more brilliant I found it to be. Art imitates life in a variety of ways, and in doing so it allows for multiple interpretations of its meaning. This is ironically an extraordinarily difficult message for art (such as movies) to convey, and “Nocturnal Animals” did it perfectly. In theaters now.

7) Hunt For The Wilderpeople
This New Zealand import was sadly under seen upon its release over the summer, and that is unfortunate. The story – about an orphan (a delightful Julian Dennison) living with his cranky “uncle” (Sam Neill) in the New Zealand wilderness – could’ve been trite in a number of ways, but writer/director Taika Waititi’s film is sharp, extremely witty, and surprisingly moving. Now available on home video.

6) Zootopia
The best animated film of the year was wildly creative, funny and touching, and you don’t have to love animals to appreciate all the treasures it offers. Now available on home video.

5) Fences
It’s a look at the African-American experience in 1950s Pittsburgh, highlighted by a strong ensemble and steady direction from Denzel Washington. Viola Davis and Washington won Tony Awards for playing these characters on Broadway in 2010; it’s certainly not out of the question for Oscars to be in their near future as well. In theaters now.

4) Hell or High Water
The “what don’t you want?” restaurant scene is the best single scene of the year, and a reminder that great movies are about compelling characters and the world they inhabit. This film will not make you want to go to West Texas, but it also couldn’t have been set anywhere else, and creating such a tremendous sense of location, and the values therein, is a rare accomplishment by director David MacKenzie. Throw in a sure supporting actor Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges and you have an absolute must-see. Now available on home video.

3) O.J.: Made In America
It screened at Sundance last January and opened theatrically in New York, so it is Oscar eligible, though you (hopefully) watched it on ABC/ESPN (don’t confuse it with the ten-part FX miniseries). Director Ezra Edelman’s five-part, nearly eight-hour documentary exposed not just O.J. Simpson’s story, but also his story’s place in modern American history, specifically Los Angeles. The results are insightful, infuriating and revelatory, with the cumulative result being a documentary masterpiece. Now available on home video.

2) Manchester By The Sea
It’s the most depressing movie of the year, but also the best acted and perhaps the best written. Casey Affleck seems a shoo-in for the best actor Oscar, and deservedly so. But don’t forget about Patrick Hedges and Michelle Williams as well, both of whom shine in supporting roles. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan moves the film along at a gradual and steady pace, effectively allowing us to be immersed in the characters’ lives. It’s profoundly poignant and expertly made. Now in theaters.

1) La La Land
Sometimes movies are pure magic that make you smile, and this is one of those times. No film this year made me feel better, more energized or alive. It’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, a beautiful love story, and an altogether unforgettable experience that’s an absolute pleasure to look at and listen to. When it’s over you may cry because there are sad moments, but really they’ll be tears of joy at the marvel you just embraced. Expect multiple Oscar nominations and wins for this new classic. Now in theaters.

Honorable mention: Of the major comic book releases this year, “Captain America: Civil War” told the best story, “Doctor Strange” had the best visual effects, and “Deadpool” was by far the most fun; “Weiner,” “Life, Animated” and “De Palma” were strong documentaries that are absolutely worth a look; “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the best animated film in years that was not made by Disney Animation or Pixar; “Captain Fantastic” delighted in its subversiveness, themes and performances; “Lights Out” was the best horror movie of 2016; “Moonlight” did many things right, and will likely receive many Oscar nominations, but has a weak third act and is not an overall great movie; and “How To Be Single” shared the important message that being single is a terrific opportunity to find oneself before entering a relationship.

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