The Best Movies of 2016 (According to Matt Singer)
What a difference six months makes. Back in the summer, the world of film was all gloom and doom. Television was great; the movies were terrible. One respected film critic even speculated that someday the world would look back at 2016 as “the year that movies died.”
The complaints about Hollywood’s output, particularly during the summer, are entirely valid. Studios have some serious issues they need to address, and fast. But as 2016 draws to a close, it’s hard to feel too cynical about the state of cinema. Even with an unusually crappy crop of blockbusters, dozens of great films appeared in theaters (and on home video and an ever-expanding roster of streaming services) in the last 12 months.
Winnowing down the contenders to a personal list of 2016’s best, I arrived at a nice mix of genres, tones, and budgets. I’ve got some big new releases and some tiny ones, and genres like horror, comedy, thriller, and musical are all represented — along with a couple truly original films that defy obvious categories. Some of these movies might help you escape from hard times; some reflect hard times with piercing honesty. All of them are worth seeing.
If you think movies have hit a new low, my advice would be to spend less time at the multiplex and more time at the arthouse. There are interesting things playing there almost every week of the year. I was almost tempted to ditch the standard “The Best Movies of the Year” headline for this top 10 list to simply call it “The Top 10 Reasons Movies Aren’t Dead Yet.” And I could have easily gone on for another 20 or 30 entries.
10. Hail, Caesar!
Directed by the Coen brothers
On first viewing, I rated a couple of 2016 movies that didn’t make this list higher than Hail, Caesar! But something really stuck with me about the Coen brothers’ latest comedy, a hysterical and perceptive look at Hollywood filmmaking in 1951 and, by extension, in 2016. A terrific Josh Brolin stars as a fixer for Capitol Pictures, who serves as our tour guide to 1950s Hollywood and a series of episodes about its peculiar residents, including a pregnant bathing beauty (a feisty Scarlett Johansson) and a lovably dopey cowboy (future Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich). Brolin’s work at Capitol lets the Coens simultaneously poke fun at the film industry’s foibles while hailing the transcendent movies the system occasionally produces — like this one, for example.
Hail, Caesar! is currently available on home video.
Directed by Marcin Wrona
This horror movie with dark comedic flourishes follows a British man named Piotr (Itay Tiran) as he arrives in Poland to marry his Polish girlfriend at her family’s home. While clearing some land, Piotr inadvertently uncovers an unmarked grave filled with human bones, a discovery that sets off a curious series of events at the wedding, including a possible ghostly possession. Demon’s director, Marcin Wrona, killed himself shortly after his film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, denying the world more audacious films like this one, and imbuing this movie with even more haunting power than it already had. In that context, the final scenes of Demon are amongst the saddest of any movie in years.
Demon is currently available on home video.
8. The Handmaiden
Directed by Park Chan-wook
The best pure thriller of 2016 (not to mention the best Paul Verhoeven movie of 2016, in spite of the movie Paul Verhoeven actually directed this year) belonged to Park Chan-wook. His The Handmaiden is a twisty tale of lust, loyalties, and vengeance. (It wouldn’t be a Park Chan-wook movie without at least a little vengeance.) Park transposed the English novel Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea for a story about a thief (Kim Tae-ri) who disguises herself as a handmaiden to a beautiful heiress (Kim Min-hee) to help a conman (Ha Jung-woo) win her heart and steal her fortune. But the thief begins to fall for her mark, setting off a delicious series of reversals and betrayals. Though The Handmaiden indulges in the occasional graphic sex scene, it slowly reveals itself to be a sly critique of macho desires, with Park alternating titillating images and sequences that force the viewer to confront and rethink their voyeuristic pleasures.
The Handmaiden is now playing in theaters.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Krisha is a classic American indie, shot in nine days on a budget its distributor describes as “less than a studio film’s catering bill.” First-time feature filmmaker Trey Edward Shults made it in his parents’ home, with a cast recruited almost entirely from his friends and family; his star, the devastating Krisha Fairchild, is Shults’ aunt. She plays a woman who returns home for Thanksgiving after a long estrangement; as the initial pleasantries and forced smiles fade, so does her sobriety. Where so many microbudget indies look like they were shot with almost no concern for their images, Krisha, with bold cinematography by Drew Daniels, is a visual experience as well as a heart-rending one, and it builds to a ferocious emotional crescendo. If you thought your Thanksgiving was bad, just wait until you see this one. (And, yes, that makes two movies in my top 10 about disastrous family gatherings; I swear I’m not trying to send a message to my relatives.)
Krisha is currently available on home video and Amazon Prime.
6. La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
La La Land is unadulterated cinematic bliss, even if the story it tells isn’t always a happy one. A man and a woman’s paths cross in the middle of a massive Los Angeles traffic jam, and then again and again, until they set off on a relationship filled with lovely jazz-inflected musical numbers. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is lighter and more romantic than his previous film, but it approaches a similar idea from a different angle; namely, what should an artist be willing to sacrifice to achieve their dreams? Is happiness incompatible with great works of art? Given the amount of joy La La Land brings viewers, maybe not.
La La Land opens in theaters on December 9.
5. Sing Street
Directed by John Carney
How good is Sing Street? This movie made me cry — big, ugly, pathetic tears — both times I saw it. And the second time I saw it, I watched it on an airplane. Even at 35,000 feet on a tiny seat-back screen, the power of this inspiring film about a couple of Irish teenagers who dream of musical stardom shined through. Filled with sharp dialogue, great acting, and even better music than La La Land, Sing Street is a feel-good movie for an era when feeling good is sometimes in short supply. Even if the ending might make you cry a little. (Or a lot; don’t judge me.)
Sing Street is currently available on home video and Netflix.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Moonlight is already looking like an awards-season heavyweight, but I’m a little worried its most important ingredient — the three young men who collectively portray its lead character at different stages of his life — will go overlooked, simply because their work doesn’t qualify as “lead” or “supporting” performances. Their names are Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, and though their Little, Chiron, and Black often look and act very different from one another, the trio’s nuanced performances tie them all together. Their achievement is Moonlight’s achievement in microcosm; here is a movie in which every facet — acting, writing, directing, cinematography, music, editing, production design — works in perfect harmony.
Moonlight is now playing in theaters.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
How can one movie be so funny and so sad at the same time? Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is some kind of miracle of tone modulation; in one scene you’re crying at the plight of Lee (an incredibly restrained Casey Affleck), who’s racked with guilt and hounded by a tragedy from his past he can’t escape. In the next, you’re laughing out loud at Patrick (Lucas Hedges, one of the breakout performers of 2016), Lee’s teenage nephew, as he romances two different classmates and plays terrible music with his garage band. As he did in his last film, 2011’s Margaret, Lonergan chronicles the psychic toll a sudden death takes on a community of survivors. As he did in Margaret, Lonergan proves no one in American independent cinema does this kind of film any better than him.
Manchester by the Sea is now playing in theaters.
2. Toni Erdmann
Directed by Maren Ade
From its very first scene, Toni Erdmann surprises you, and it keeps surprising you again and again and again for almost three hours with unexpected laughter, plot twists, sudden shifts in perspective, full-frontal nudity, and remarkably open-hearted characterization. It’s primarily concerned with the strained relationship between a jovial, prank-loving father (Peter Simonischek) and his ambitious, straight-laced daughter (Sandra Hüller), and I can think of very few movies that portray two incredibly different characters with equal amounts of affection, empathy, and insight. Director Maren Ade’s last film, Everyone Else, was good. Toni Erdmann is amazing.
Toni Erdmann opens in theaters on December 25.
1. O.J.: Made in America
Directed by Ezra Edelman
According to some of my colleagues, this is a television show and not a film. It’s true that the 7.5-hour O.J.: Made in America was produced by ESPN and aired on the sports network in multiple parts. But it played first at the Sundance Film Festival and then in limited release in several movie theaters. As I wrote back in June, in a world of shortening attention spans and methods of communication, O.J.: Made in America shows the importance of patient, comprehensive analysis. While it’s true that Ezra Edelman’s epic tale of race, crime, and sports in 20th century America does break some of the rules for what typically qualifies as a movie, breaking the rules is often a hallmark of a great work of cinema. Edelman believes he “made a long film designed to be watched by a group inside a theater,” and I’m inclined to agree with him — and to call it the best film of any length I saw in 2016.
O.J.: Made in America is available on home video and Hulu.