The Best Films Of 2016

It wasn’t so long ago that Suicide Squad was inspiring movies-are-dead thinkpieces. But, as sometimes happens, what at times felt like an historically awful year for movies produced no shortage of great films. (That so many arrived at the end of the year and are still making their way out to the world distorts the picture a bit.) So maybe there’s hope for movies yet, and for movie experiences that unite us instead of dividing us. It’s a quality found in abundance in our list-topping pick, but also throughout our list of the best films of the year, which include everything from an unsparing (but frequently funny) drama about grief to a buddy-cop comedy starring cartoon animals.

1. La La Land

Writer/director Damien Chazelle didn’t reinvent the musical with his third film. Instead, he took the elements of classic musicals out of mothballs to show how joyful and relevant they could still be when done right. It plays like the sort of film from a director who’s dreamed of trying to make a splashy, heartfelt musical his entire life and didn’t want to let the opportunity pass him by without trying every trick he’d dreamed of trying. It’s easy to play spot-the-reference with La La Land. Chazelle practically invites it. (The final sequence alone draws on, among other sources An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) But this isn’t just an act of homage. Stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance their way through a bittersweet love story that’s full of big, overstated emotions but also grounded in the present, and a world in which dreams don’t always come true and lovers can’t always sing their way to a happy ending. It’s a lovely movie, but in its own way, it’s a tough one, and one with more sheer filmmaking pizazz than most directors manage in five films. — Keith Phipps

2. Moonlight
I watched Barry Jenkins’ first featureMedicine for Melancholy, which is very film schooly and to be honest not all that good — to catch up before I saw Moonlight, which only made it that much more of a revelation. Moonlight paints a coming-of-age portrait in three parts, managing to evoke both the terror of growing up poor and gay and the moments of bliss, made even more meaningful by how brief they are. Jenkins’ depiction of Miami summers — where shimmering locals languidly go about their business, never moving too fast or talking too loud in deference to the shared swelter — is so romantic, alluring, and uncomfortable-looking that it reminds me of the Brooklyn Spike Lee shot in Do The Right Thing. Mahershala Ali is deservedly a Best Supporting Actor frontrunner, but virtually every actor in Moonlight deserves to be in the conversation. — Vince Mancini

3. Manchester by the Sea

It’s easy to watch Manchester by the Sea — Kenneth Lonergan’s film about a Boston janitor (Casey Affleck) who’s unexpectedly appointed guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) — and see the film it could have been if made by others. Specifically, it could have been a movie of forced drama, phony uplift, and a neat ending in which everyone comes to terms with a tremendous loss and moves on. It’s defiantly not that sort of film. Beautifully played by the entire cast, Lonergan’s film isn’t wanting for warmth, hope, or humor, but they’re all hard won, and all informed by the knowledge that some hurts don’t go away and some absences will never be filled. —KP

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

I know this is sacrilege, but I’ve now seen this movie three times and I’m fairly sure I like it better than Dazed and Confused. “Oh, how dare you!,” you say. “Oh, so you think Richard Linklater hasn’t improved as a director over the last 23 years?,” I retort back. It’s a lean and mean Dazed and Confused. A film made by an obviously more experienced filmmaker wanting to have a little bit of fun after the epics that were Before Midnight and Boyhood. And Everybody Wants Some is pure fun. It should just be titled “Pure Fun.” — Mike Ryan

5. Toni Erdmann

Reduced to a raw description, German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann sounds potentially unbearable. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour comedy about a father trying to reconnect with his grown daughter via a series of disruptive pranks and disguises. But maybe the oddest thing about this relentlessly odd movie is that it works, and it works beautifully, from start to finish. Veteran Austrain actor Peter Simonischek plays the father, a nice guy who seems puzzled to discover that he barely has any connection to his daughter (Sandra Hüller). The extremes he goes to correct this give the film its big, uncomfortable laughs, but it’s the way it deals with the underlying issues that makes it so compelling, and ultimately so moving. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind movie that has to be seen to be understood, and one that features one the most deftly employed karaoke scene since Lost in Translation as well as one of the funniest nude scenes ever put to film. —KP

6. 20th Century Women

When I first wrote about this movie I compared it to Almost Famous. Part of me regrets that. (I interviewed Mike Mills recently, an interview that will publish later this week, he makes it clear Almost Famous was not an influence, which doesn’t surprise me. But Animal House as an influence.) But, whatever, it’s just that vibe. (Well, and Billy Crudup has his full Russell Hammond haircut.) And 20th Century Women has that special vibe of a movie you know you’re going to watch anytime it’s on. —MR