Anyone putting together a Best of 2016 Films List is going to decide whether their list is for those reading or for themselves. If you are doing a list for others, you may define “best” to be those films with the greatest quality or those that come closest to a consistent level of excellence. If you are doing a list for yourself and expressing the films that mattered most to you, quality may take a backseat to nostalgia or a film may just resonate with you because you are you and sometimes that means experiencing things in a unique way. This is a list for me. That may mean some check out now, but I assure you that you don’t want me evaluating films on any other basis than me, because it’s one of the only things I know anything about. There were a few films that I think would have made the list if I’d seen them (La La Land, Lion, Arrival), so bear that in mind. Without further ado, here ya go:
#1. The Nice Guys
Shane Black is a genius. The Nice Guys is hilarious, and if you can see this and not leave happier then…well, I’m glad I’m not you. Russell Crowe is great as mostly good guy and bruiser Jackson Healy, but Ryan Gosling steals every scene he is in. Holland March, a down on his luck detective and terrible father, is a cinematic gift. This is the movie I have come back to and rewatched over and over again and only grown in appreciation for, and I fully expect it to continue.
The temptation is real to cop out and make this a tie with Moana. Both continue Disney’s animated revival, but Zootopia edges out Moana by a bit. The city of mammals (where are the other animals!? I demand a sequel to explain!) is amazing. I want to live there. Jason Bateman is playing the same character he has played, but he is perfect as Nick, and Ginnifer Goodwin is great as Judy Hopps. The movie would be worth seeing even if it didn’t have a story, but not only does it have a great story but it tackles subjects like discrimination, bias, and various -isms and succeeds in balancing them with humor and heart.
#3. Pete’s Dragon
2016 may go down as a terrible year for the world, but it was a great year for Disney, financially and in delivering great updates to their classic catalogue. I will not be surprised if Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book or David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon make a lot of folks best of lists. There’s a hope and joy and wonderment flowing through both, but Pete’s Dragon edges out The Jungle Book for me by a bit (maybe just loyalty to the 1967 animated classic) but I think also the boy/beast relationship in Pete is better. The initial meeting between Pete and Elliot is heartbreakingly good, and the film manages to develop it so beautifully.
#4. Hell or High Water
Westerns may not do as well these days as they used to, but modern westerns are having a heyday. On TV (Justified) and film (No Country for Old Men), modern westerns show there is something timeless about the setting that becomes a character itself, whether it be the hollers of Kentucky or, in the case of Hell or High Water, dying small towns in scenic Texas. Carrying over the ambiguity of its heroes from films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Unforgiven, the brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Cody (Chris Pine), are a mix of righteous anger, murderous revenge, and family devotion. Jeff Bridges as an almost out the door lawman, elevates things even more and makes it one of this year’s best.
#5. Captain Fantastic
Some may struggle to root for Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash who for all his critical thinking is still a jerk and failed to look at what his kids really need. Others will have not problem rooting for a man and wife rejecting capitalism and civilization, instead opting to raise their children to be self-reliant, expressive, and more learned in philosophy and critical thinking than knowing what the latest celebrity has done or technology. It is in their trip to deal with funeral arrangements for Ben’s bipolar wife that Ben grows, but also the audience gets a real chance to evaluate what matters to them.
The 80’s may be a common war cry in this list. Ron Howard’s Willow (1988) was a fantasy that explained little. How magic worked or why Queen Bavmorda was so evil or why Madmartigan was so charming and renowned came second or even fourth or fifth to the fantasy adventure at hand. It initially did poorly with audiences before becoming a cult classic. Warcraft takes a similar approach, and while your nerdy MMO playing nephew, son, or dad may be able to explain to you who each character is and how they play into the overall lore of Azeroth, Warcraft is not an explainer movie. It is actually a pretty simple one, albeit one with beautifully rendered magic, orcs, and necromancers. The depths of emotion capable with motion capture are on full display. Toby Kebbel and Daniel Wu are standouts bringing the torn Durotan and malicious Gul’dan to light, respectively.
#7. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel’s movie money machine gets a lot of flak from film aficionados for churning out different movies that really aren’t that different, and while there may be some truth to that, it misses the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered up a host of characters that matter to audiences and to one another. The evolution of Tony Stark by Robert Downey Jr. is on full display as his PTSD, priorities, and changing concerns lead him to one side of a international law, while Chris Evan’s Cap continues to be the stalwart defender of freedom forcing him to the other side. The story weaves and jukes, packs in great action, serves up great iterations of new/old characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther, and makes you feel the relationships of these heroes is real. The final scene matters, because of those friendships. Well Done, Russo brothers!
As a Christian in the United States, it wasn’t hard in 2016 to feel like something had gone horribly wrong with Christianity and what we should care about, our priorities, and whether our faith should change how we live. Risen was a breath of fresh air in a year that would get uglier before it ended. Boasting stout talent in directing and acting, it also elevated a genre of earnest Christian films that is still trying to figure out what it wants to be. Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) writes and directs a movie that plays out that like a murder/missing body mystery where faith and fact come into play. Clavius (Fiennes) is an up and coming Roman soldier tasked with finding out what happened to the body of a recently crucified Jesus. Keep an eye out for standout performance as Peter from Steward Scudamore. Risen manages to be faithful without becoming too preachy, but above all it shows that belief ought to change a person.
#9. The Shallows
B-movies are usually known as being low budget and the opposite of art house, but that says nothing to whether they are actually good or not. The Shallows may be a B-movie but it is an excellent one. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, delivering mounting tension and entertainment and a great woman vs shark tale, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nancy Adam (Blake Lively) is a woman searching for direction after experiencing a loss. Little does she realize that it will take outsmarting a dedicated but evil shark for her to figure out what that means.
#10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
The 80’s were a time when imagination and consumerism had a healthy relationship. At least it seems that way for a kid from the 80’s looking back at Nintendo, Ghostbusters, ninja turtles, gremlins and the like. 2014 brought the third relauching of the franchise in films, but it was this year’s sequel that embraced the ridiculousness of the 80’s the best. A perfect Bebop and Rocksteady. Skydiving turtles. Casey Jones. Krang! Krang, a slobbering tentacle brain with a Napoleon complex, people! Out of the Shadows may not have done financially what the studios hoped, but it did everything a 13-year could hope for in a movie about mutant turtles who are ninjas and also teenagers.
Hacksaw Ridge, Everybody Wants Some!!, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hail, Caesar!, Moana, The Jungle Book, Manchester by the Sea, 13th, The Edge of Seventeen, The Witch, The BFG
Worst of the Year
X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Sausage Party, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ghostbusters