2017 is almost here. With a whole 365 days of new films ahead of us, and as Film Enthusiast prepares for a New Year’s Day relaunch, I wanted to look back on this year in cinema.
Contrary to popular belief, 2016 has been a rather grandiose year for movies. You just had to know where to look. Sure, Hollywood studios have released some monumental disappointments, but the inspirational, genre bending, and memorable works that we as film fans search the ends of the earth for could have been found through the independent film circuit, browsing Netflix, and searching for those small studio releases that weren’t marketed as heavily as they should have been.
Please note this list is strictly representative of my opinion among the films that I saw. I’ve included some honourable mentions as well (since there were far more than ten must see films this year). The only criteria I had was that the films had to be released in Canada (including online streaming services and film festivals) in 2016. So without further ado, my top ten films of the year are as follows:
Braveheart was one of the movies that made me fall in love with cinema. And while I enjoyed both Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ, I knew Mel Gibson as a director could do better. With Hacksaw Ridge, he has made a movie as good as Braveheart. Yes, I said that. For all the personal conflicts Gibson has dealt with over the past ten years, Hacksaw Ridge is a reminder of his ability as a filmmaker to tell emotionally heartfelt, brutally violent, and spiritually uplifting stories about larger than life heroes transcending history into the stuff of legend. Even if you aren’t a person of faith, you will be moved by this incredible picture. This is the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.
Whenever a filmmaker attempts to tell a story that jumps through three different time periods, they run the risk of their story feeling disjointed and meandering. But in the hands of writer/director Barry Jenkins, this storytelling structure allows Moonlight to be one of the most thought provoking and politically charged films of 2016. Telling the story of Chiron – a poverty-stricken, black, and gay man – through his child, adolescent, and adult life, creates a portrait of a person who has had all the personal, social, and political odds stacked against him. But identity can be discovered through adversity, and by the end of this film, you will be able to personally relate to Chiron, no matter what background you come from.
2016 was a golden year for the horror genre. While big budget features lost studios huge amounts of money, horror films showed that they are not only hugely profitable ventures for studios, but they can tackle complex subject matter as well as any other genre. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow played at the Lost Episode Fest and at Toronto After Dark to huge acclaim. Set in Tehran in the 1980s, the film tells the story of Shideh, a mother who has to struggle with the horrors of post-revolution, a husband who has been drafted to war, and raising her young daughter. And this is all before a ghost starts haunting their apartment. Not only is Under the Shadow the scariest film of 2016, it offers a window into a different world, a world that is disturbingly real even today.
Forget about the overrated La La Land. Sing Street is the defining musical of 2016. A film from Ireland directed by John Carney (Once), Sing Street is about a group of inner city kids who start a band for one purpose: to impress a girl. Filled with humour, life, and memorable songs, Sing Street captures the innocence, joy, and true realities of adolescence in such a wonderfully constructed and fast paced film that will have you wanting to watch it again as soon as it’s over.
Deadpool not only made studios rethink their idiotic assumption that R-rated films can’t make huge amounts of money, but it was also a big “fuck you” to studio executives that just because you don’t understand a comic book character, that doesn’t mean audiences will feel the same. Ryan Reynolds’ passion project is one of the most faithful to its source material and hilariously entertaining superhero films of all time. Not much more needs to be said about this movie since you saw it and I know you loved it as much as I did.
The funny thing about that tarmac sequence is that it is the only scene that isn’t necessary to move the story forward. It was strictly a fan service sequence so we could see our favourite heroes face off against each other. And despite it being the most entertaining scene of the year, the film that the Russo Brothers constructed around it brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a much more grounded reality. We see cities being blown up all the time in these movies. What we forget about is the death and destruction that would most likely happen if these events were to actually occur. Civil War isn’t afraid to confront that reality, and it deals with it in a way that no comic book movie has as of yet. No matter whether you were on Team Captain or Team Stark, you understood both sides and how valid their justifications for acting were. This is nothing more than masterful storytelling, further cementing Marvel Studios as the cinematic benchmark to which every other studio mandated cinematic universe has struggled and failed to achieve (yeah, I’m looking at you DCEU).
I’m rather shocked at the mixed reception this film has been getting from fans and critics. I like the fact that people are talking and debating its merits, but the Rogue One that I saw is far and away the best Star Wars film we’ve had since The Empire Strikes Back. From depicting the truly evil rule of the Empire over the Galaxy to constructing the greatest third act of any Star Wars film, I was moved to tears by Rogue One. The fan service was great, but the characters, narrative stakes, and themes collectively made the film a welcome breath of fresh air in a saga that has been known for disappointing its fans for the past 32 years.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make for a pitch perfect comic duo. Put them in in a Shane Black film and you have one of the very best movie-going experiences of the year. The Nice Guys takes original filmmaking to a whole new level, with complex characters that we love despite their many flaws, some of the best action scenes of the past two decades, and a truly unpredictable film noir mystery plot. Simply put, I loved every minute of this film.
Speaking of original filmmaking, Laika revolutionizes stop-motion animation with their interpretation of what The Legend of Zelda could be like on the big screen. Kubo and the Two Strings is a very special film. It is easily one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever seen. It is cleverly told, pulling from Japanese mythology and classical fairy tales, and casts wonderfully recognizable voice talents Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, George Takei, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes. To not see this movie would be a crime to animated cinema, if not cinema in general.
I see myself enjoying the top five films on my list over and over and over for many years to come. But I doubt I will enjoy any of the previously mentioned films more than the one topping this list: Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece, Arrival. You can describe it in any way you’d like – Close Encounters for the millennial generation, a thinking man’s Independence Day, the alien invasion film Michael Bay would never make – but Arrival is more than just a movie. It is a cry for the world we live in to become better. It is a study of how language can be studied, interpreted, and misinterpreted. Above all, it is a testament to the choices we make, for the future we have yet to see, and for the life we have left to live. Amy Adams gives the performance of her career. Eric Heisserer’s script is flawlessly written. And Villeneuve’s sensibilities permeate every frame. This is the best film of 2016.
Honourable Mentions: Hell or High Water, Manchester by the Sea, Before the Flood, Zootopia, The Handmaiden
Special Mention To: THE HORROR GENRE – With Under the Shadow, Train to Busan, The Neon Demon, Green Room, Sun Choke, Hush, The Witch, The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, Let Her Out, and The Wailing among many others, horror filmmakers stepped up their game in 2016, proving once and for all that not only do audiences want more quality horror films, but they are a more profitable venture for any size studio than any other type of movie.
2016 Crossover Honourable Mention (2015 Film Released in Early 2016): The Revenant – If Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s monumental tour de force had been released in Canada in 2015, it would have been one of my top picks for film of the year (behind only Creed). A gorgeously filmed and expertly paced story of survival, The Revenant is also Leonardo DiCaprio’s most physically grueling and emotionally draining performance that won him a most well deserved Best Actor Oscar.
What are your favourite films of 2016? Which ones did I miss? Let me know in the Comments below!