2017 is finally here, but fellow GeekDad film writer Rob Huddleston and I are looking back to 2016 one more time to compile our individual lists of the 10 best films of the year. Keep in mind that some of our picks are absolutely not kid friendly, so be sure to do your research before watching any of these films around little ones.
Here are our respective lists of the top 10 films of 2016…
10) The Fits
I’m normally not taken by minimalist cinema. In today’s indie landscape, these kinds of films far too often take the path of dull predictability. But not Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. I was surprisingly transported to one the most real, conflicting, and disheartening journeys of female adolescence ever put to film. Young actress Royalty Hightower shines as a young boxing hopeful entranced by the budding femininity of a local dance crew. With few words, The Fits somehow manages to say more than most other films I’ve seen in 2016.
9) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
In the tradition of mockumentary films like This is Spinal Tap, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a hilarious and timely take on the narcissism fueling many of the musicians in today’s millennial entertainment game. Andy Samberg’s Conner, a former boy band singer turned solo artist, is a brilliant caricature of performers like Justin Bieber and Kanye. I expected a few laughs, but the film’s incredible (and offensive) original songs alone made this the funniest film I’ve seen all year.
8) Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
Watching this documentary, about a group of friends who made a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the ’80s, was like traveling back to my own childhood. As a film nut, hopeful filmmaker, and geek who also grew up in the ’80s, the dream of this group of friends was insanely relatable. Even more relatable, and the crux of these friends’ journey, was seeing how those dreams manifested into adulthood. Rather than a bitter, sentimental journey, Raiders! presents a poignant, real vision of what it’s like to hold onto your dreams and find that rare balance in life between responsibility and wonder.
Disney had a stellar year in animation. Zootopia was fantastic, Finding Dory was fun and endearing, but Moana was my favorite. Beautiful, vibrant animation, new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a classic tune sung by The Rock were high points, but Moana herself was my favorite part of the entire film. Moana is the first Disney Princess to have a story grounded solely in adventure and without any semblance of a love story to weigh things down. For that alone, and the shift in standards and values that it represents, Moana is a truly special film.
As far as dystopian visions go, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, is a brilliant take on class and social hierarchies. As residents of a newly built high-rise begin to fight, floor-by-floor, the literal social climbing breaks down into a frenzy of violence, chaos, suspicion, and societal deconstruction. Sadly, this may be the perfect movie for 2016.
5) Rogue One
Rogue One was a great ride from start to finish, proving the potential of the Star Wars side stories in Lucasfilm and Disney’s grand vision. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, the action, practical effects, and new characters set Rogue One apart from the other films in a unique and exciting way. I’m always excited for new characters, and Jyn Erso and her merry band of rebels are as classic as the original trilogy’s ensemble. Even more to its advantage, Rogue One successfully adds emotional context to the Star Wars Universe and Jedi lore, propelling the film beyond being a mere popcorn flick.
4) Hell or High Water
Taylor Sheridan is one of the most exciting screenwriters working today. Following up his masterful Sicario, Hell or High Water weaves an intricate story that plays out as perhaps the best modern Western of this past decade. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham are each perfectly cast. The post-housing bubble Texas setting is the perfect backdrop. If John Ford were directing films today, this is the kind of film he’d likely create. Luckily, director David Mackenzie did the job just right.
3) Hail, Caesar!
With Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers are running on all of the cylinders of tone and strangeness that make me a Coen Brothers fan. I’m endlessly fascinated by the classic Hollywood studio system in which Hail, Caesar! is set. Films like Sunset Boulevard and Barton Fink (also a Coen Brothers film) are among my favorites. Here, the Coen Brothers take us on a glamorous, hilarious trip through studio back lots and Communist subplots in their most enjoyable comedy since O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The greatest moments in this filmic celebration of Hollywood obscurity are the intricately produced genre scenes interlaced throughout. Hail, Caesar! is the Coen’s at the top of their game.
2) Sing Street
John Carney’s Once is one of my all-time favorite films. With Sing Street, a film about a boy starting a band in order to impress a girl, he’s made another one of my favorites. Sing Street is so much more than a simple story of boy impressing girl. It’s a story of adolescence. It’s a story about dealing with divorce. It’s a story about growing up in the ’80s. Like Once, Sing Street is rich with original music that you’ll be singing for weeks after watching. This is one of the most endearing, fun and thoughtful films of 2016.
1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople was my biggest surprise of 2016. It really shouldn’t have been, since Waititi is a clear visionary. His mockumentary vampire film What We Do In the Shadows was brilliantly witty. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople , Sam Neill stars as “Uncle” Hector and Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker in a story about a young, unwanted orphan who is placed with foster parents who live deep in the wilderness of picturesque New Zealand. The film quickly turns into a funny, poignant, action adventure buddy-story that takes viewers on the year’s most enjoyable cinematic journey. I refuse to spoil anything else. Go and see this movie! You will quite literally cheer throughout.
Honarable Mention: Doctor Strange, Weiner, Green Room, Deadpool, Elle, and Zootopia
* I must admit that I have yet to see Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Villeneuve is one of my favorite directors working today. This matters only because I anticipate that once I do see the film, it could shake up my list.
A touching, if emotionally heavy, war movie about a British spy in World War II who falls in love with a French spy who may or may not be on the same side. The cast is top-notch, including Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, and, of course, Brad Pitt. It’s beautifully shot and tense when it needs to be, yet quiet and moving when necessary as well. Plus, it’s a WWII spy movie set (partially) in Casablanca, so it gets bonus points there as well.
9) Green Room
A movie that a whole lot of people missed this year, to their detriment. Anton Yelchin is a member of a punk rock band trying to survive in a tough business, so when they get an offer to play at a small club in the Pacific Northwest, they jump at the chance… only to discover that the club is actually the hang out of a violent Neo-Nazi group, led by none other than Patrick Stewart. Things quickly go wrong when the band witnesses a murder, and what follows is one of the most intense thrillers in years. As of this writing, the movie isn’t available on any streaming services, but when it comes to Netflix be sure to check it out.
8) Kubo and the Two Strings
Sure to make a lot of people’s Top Ten lists, and a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, Kubo is one of the most beautiful animated films in years. It plays like a traditional Korean fable (which it isn’t), about a young boy who must team up with a talking monkey, a talking beetle, and an origami Samurai with an attitude in order to save the world from evil. I was slightly disappointed by the rather predictable ending but not disappointed enough to ruin the film overall.
7) The Magnificent Seven
Remakes are tough. Remakes of remakes are even tougher. And yet by pulling together Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vicent D’Onofrio, and Byung-hun Lee, director Antoine Fuqua manages to take the story of seven vigilantes defending a small town and somehow make it new. Some aspects of the story have been updated, most notably the role of the villain, who is now a greedy miner/developer. But the core of the story remains intact, and the battle that consumes most of the movie is just as thrilling as always.
6) Miss Sloane
I spent seven years as a lobbyist, and no movie has captured that world as well as Miss Sloane. Jessica Chastain plays the titular role of a lobbyist who takes on the toughest of all clients–the anti-gun lobby. She’s a driven woman for whom nothing is off limits in pursuit of her goals. It’s a riveting political thriller with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up until the credits roll.
It’s always a challenge to tell a story when everyone in the audience knows what’s going to happen. Trying to tell the story of a plane crash in which we know no one dies is even tougher. But in focusing on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the investigation that followed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” director Clint Eastwood tells a compelling story. Whereas others might have made the movie in a two-and-a-half hour slog by getting distracted by endless subplots and side stories, Eastwood shows unusual restraint and keeps his focus on telling the story of how one man dealt with his feelings of being suddenly thrust into the role of hero. That he chose to cast Tom Hanks in the title role certainly helped.
4) Hell or High Water
The modern western is becoming an ever-more popular genre these days, but in Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie raises the bar for those that wish to follow. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who go on a bank robbing spree, while Jeff Bridges chews scenery as the aging, racist deputy trying to catch them. While the crime caper drives the story forward, the movie is much more about the relationships between the two brothers and between Bridges’ character and his incredibly patient partner, played by Gil Birmingham.
3) Rogue One
I get why the movie didn’t click with everyone, but, for me, Rogue One is the Star Wars movie I’ve waited 30 years to see. While last year’s The Force Awakens was a very good movie, I didn’t leave the theater feeling the need to go back and see it again right away the way I did with Rogue One. (For the record, I was good and ended up waiting until the next morning.) The movie is in many ways a classic war movie, but it’s set in this wonderful universe that has had such a cultural impact. It hits all of the right notes, provides some great answers to questions that have always been there about the first Star Wars movie, and is, in the end, just a lot of fun to watch.
2) Nocturnal Animals
Really two movies in one, Nocturnal Animals looks at a single night for rich artist Amy Adams, who is miserably unhappy in her life. Things begin to unravel, though, when she receives a draft of a novel written by her ex-husband, Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie-within-the-movie is her imagining the action in the dark, extremely violent novel. And as she reads, the novel brings back tough memories of her relationship with Gyllenhaal as she begins to realize the true meaning behind the novel. The way the movie jumps from the loud violence of the novel to the near-silence of Adams along at home reading is never as jarring as it might have been in a lesser movie.
I went in pretty much expecting to like Arrival, but even still I was surprised at just how much I loved this movie. It’s among the more gorgeous movies I’ve seen in some time, but it also has an emotional heart that’s pretty rare in science fiction films about first contact with aliens. That it features a linguist as its lead character makes it even more extraordinary. This movie is still playing in a few theaters, and if you haven’t seen it yet you should.