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

7. Jackie
The early word on Pablo Larraín’s film — about Jackie Kennedy reflecting on the assassination of her husband with a reporter not long after the event — was that it featured a revelatory Natalie Portman performance in the lead role. And it does. Portman leaves nothing behind in her attempt to channel the First Lady who presided over an era that came to be known as America’s Camelot. The film wouldn’t work without her, but Jackie’s achievements extend beyond what Portman brings to it, including Larrain’s unfailingly intense direction and a Noah Oppenheim screenplay that floats through the events as if following a chain of memory. It’s an extraordinary achievement, both the performance at its heart and the film built around it. —KP

8. O.J.: Made In America

I love this debate about if O.J.: Made in America is supposed to be a movie or a television show. Honestly, if it somehow won a Grammy for Record of the Year, I wouldn’t complain. Just give it every award. It’s the story of our country over the last 50 years, told through the lens of O.J. Simpson. It’s one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. This should be required viewing for students. It should be required viewing for everyone. It is a masterpiece. —MR

9. Zootopia
Zootopia feels like Disney took everything I thought has been lacking in the more recent Pixar releases and packed it into this movie. Zootopia would deserve a spot on this list for world-building and the character design alone — the scene where the sloths run the DMV was magical — but it’s more than just “cute” (and it’s intensely cute). Not only was it fully realized and as joke-dense as a Naked Gun movie, it told a smarter, harder-to-reduce down story than just about anything else this year. It played with racial assumptions (“predators,” “minorities,” the fox trying to touch the sheep mayor’s afro, etc.) but every time you started to see the characters as stand-ins or symbols of something else, it would flip the script. Its symbology was never that simple. That kept it from being preachy and celebrated critical thinking. Zootopia wasn’t just good for an animated movie, it was good period. —VM

10. Paterson
Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a quietly profound look at the week in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who attempts, in fleeting moments, to turn his observations on the world into poetry. It is, as expected of Jarmusch, wry, dry, and spare. But it’s the generous spirit of the film, and the way it squeezes so much of life into Paterson’s small orbit, that make it one of the director’s best. —KP

11. Don’t Think Twice
The write-what-you-know dictum doesn’t always work out. There are plenty of awful movies about break-ups, after all, and plenty of good ones about aliens. But Mike Birbiglia’s second film as a writer and director benefits from the years of experience both Birbiglia and his cast bring to the project. Birbiglia plays the head of a long-lived, if never especially successful, New York improv troupe whose delicate balance is shaken when one of its members gets a spot on a Saturday Night Live-like program. The film is filled with details of the improv world, both the craft behind it and the delicate chemistry that makes it work both on stage and off. — KP

12. Arrival
The last few years have seen no shortage of movies in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but few have made the apocalypse feel as close at hand as Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Ted Chiang novella The Story of Your Life — or have so effectively placed the fate of the world on one character’s shoulders — or nested within it a smaller, just as gripping story of loss and fate. —KP

13. Sing Street
I thought about writing, yet again, a sort of angry paragraph about how no one saw this movie and it didn’t get a proper release and all that kind of jazz. Instead, here’s the video for “Riddle of the Model,” which is glorious in all its ‘early ‘80s kitsch. Let’s all watch this and smile. —MR

14. American Honey
American Honey is one of the few movies with “American” in the title where it isn’t just a half-assed titling trope, it truly is about Americana. Rarely do we see a depiction of the underclass — foster kids, runaways, the homeless, victims of sexual abuse — that’s neither pitying nor poverty porn. Andrea Arnold found both the romance and the heartbreak in the lives of the truly rootless, depicted with an unwavering commitment to authenticity. It’s so tacky and so timeless, I can only describe it as Juggalo Kerouac. —VM

15. Hunt For Wilderpeople
The Hunt For The Wilderpeople is another one of those movies that I’ll cringe a little when it’s inevitably described as “cute.” I mean, I get it. It is cute, but only in the least condescending sense of it. A funny, family comedy is one of the hardest movies to make, especially when “family comedy” doesn’t mean a movie where you smile a lot but never laugh. Wilderpeople is legit laugh-out-loud funny, and the comedy is multi-faceted — funny in the writing, funny in the acting, funny in the framing, and funny in the editing — in a way that few comedies are anymore. I hate a good 95% of child actors, but Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker is a true find and Rima Te Wiata, in my opinion, deserves honest consideration for Best Supporting Actress. There’s a dog scene that brought me to tears, and not because anything bad happened. This is a movie you can watch with your mom without compromising. —VM

16. Weiner
You can’t underestimate the value of kismet in making a good documentary, and perhaps never has that been more true than in Weiner, which began as a portrait of a unique politician and slowly became a Shakespearian tragedy. Most people of course understood it as depicting the downfall of one man, but my vain hope is that people will also interpret it just as much as the tragic story of a fickle electorate getting the candidates we deserve — thanks to both our own immaturity and a broken campaign finance system. Either way, Weiner is one of kind, and one of the greatest political documentaries of all time. —VM

17. Silence
Martin Scorsese has talked for years about making a film of Shūsaku Endō’s novel following priests who find their lives threatened and faiths challenged while ministering to the Hidden Christians of 17th century Japan. The resulting film plays like a passion project in the best sense, a religious movie that asks tough questions and provides no easy answers. —KP

18. Hidden Figures

I really hope Hidden Figures gets more attention this awards season. Sure, it’s not the brooding drama that some of the other film in contention are (or whimsical quasi-musical), but it is a feel-good, crowd-pleasing film about three women who helped change the world by sending a human being in orbit around Earth. I promise that if you see this movie you will leave in a good mood. (And, hey, that’s a pretty good deal right now.) —MR

19. Little Men
Ira Sachs has quietly turned into one of the most reliably excellent directors around and this look at gentrification in Brooklyn, and how it plays out via the friendship of two teenage boys, reveals why. No one’s totally right, no one’s totally wrong, and everyone’s caught up in the unstoppable passage of time. —KP

20. Rogue One

I debated including this longer than you could possibly imagine. What a dumb thing to debate! It’s a debate against myself about Star Wars. As pure enjoyment goes, it’s hard for me to deny that I was thoroughly delighted while watching Rogue One. (Well, mostly.) But, anyway, it was a delight to live in the world of Star Wars again, filled with imagery almost too spookily reminiscent of the original film. I wanted to keep this off my list because I thought it was “too obvious.” But, whatever, I was lying to myself: of course Rogue One is one of my favorite movies of the year. —MR

Honorable Mentions: Captain America: Civil War, Certain Women, I Am Not Your Negro, Green Room, Midnight Special, The Nice Guys, Hail, Caesar!, Tickled, Edge Of Seventeen, Blood Father, The Handmaiden, Krisha, Hell or High Water

Check back later for individual lists and more year-end features.