2016 will likely go down as one of the most depressing years in recent history, but that has more to do with a certain reality TV host being elected President of the United States, not to mention some particularly hard-hitting celebrity deaths, than the movies we watched along the way. In fact, despite the usual collection of flops, disappointments and general mediocrity, there were a number of great films throughout the year spanning a wide range of genres, which is evident in my own Top 10. Though I stand behind every choice on this list, it should in no way be considered definitive due to some elements out of my control (for instance, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” not being screened in time) and an extraordinarily busy holiday season.
1. “HELL OR HIGH WATER“
For as old-fashioned as “Hell or High Water” feels at times, it’s a movie that deals with some incredibly timely themes, especially in a post-election America still reeling from the last economic depression. Following his little-seen 2013 gem “Starred Up,” director David Mackenzie delivers yet another engaging family-centric story (based on a script by “Sicario” writer Taylor Sheridan) that excels in its simplicity. It’s gorgeously shot, displaying both the beauty and sadness of its picturesque landscape, and features a trio of excellent performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges. Nobody does unhinged quite like Foster, and this is easily Pine’s best work in years, but the movie ultimately belongs to Bridges as the devilishly funny, veteran Texas Ranger who would rather go down in a hail of bullets than be forced into retirement. Though the film follows a pretty standard cops-and-robbers formula, it does so with such razor-sharp proficiency and well-drawn characters that it succeeds not only as a terrific genre flick but a modern American classic in the same vein as “No Country for Old Men.”
An incredibly moving, intimate and authentic story about a broken man who’s forced to confront his demons, “Manchester by the Sea” is the most devastating, heart-wrenching drama of the year. Casey Affleck is phenomenal in the lead role, delivering a subtle but powerful performance that showcases an actor at the top of his game, while Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges all deliver outstanding work in supporting roles. Though the movie is sprinkled with quite a bit of humor (much more than you’d expect for the subject matter), “Manchester by the Sea” is primarily a portrait of grief and how it affects everyone differently. There’s no guidebook or one-size-fits-all remedy to mending a broken heart, and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan conveys that point beautifully amid the wintry, gloomy backdrop of his New England setting. “Manchester by the Sea” is heavy stuff, but for a film that deals mainly in misery, it never feels exploitative, and that goes a long way in earning your attention and respect.
3. “LA LA LAND“
Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” wasn’t just my favorite film of 2014 – in my estimation, it’s one of the best movies of the past decade. So it goes without saying that the bar was set pretty high for his latest project, a loving homage to the big, bold and colorful musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring two of today’s brightest stars. Thankfully, “La La Land” is every bit as enchanting as you’ve heard. Though it doesn’t have the most original story, the movie gets by on the strength of its delightful musical numbers (including one where its characters literally dance among the stars that toes the line between fantasy and reality) and the irresistible charm of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who radiate the kind of old-school glamour that feeds into the film’s nostalgic spirit. For a movie about chasing your dreams in a town known for crushing them, “La La Land” is surprisingly optimistic up until its bittersweet end, providing some of that Technicolor escapism that the world needs more of these days.
4. “NOCTURNAL ANIMALS“
Seven years after bursting onto the scene with the ultra-stylish “A Single Man,” fashion designer Tom Ford confirms that his directorial debut was no fluke with this dark and disturbing adult thriller that gets under your skin. Every single performance is great – from stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal to Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a transformative supporting role – but Michael Shannon is the film’s MVP, delivering some of his finest work yet as the darkly funny, no-nonsense cop. Though the movie looks as beautiful as you’d expect with Ford behind the camera, “Nocturnal Animals” also signifies a giant leap forward for him as a storyteller; he won’t get the credit that he deserves for adapting such a complex novel, but Ford handles the interweaving narratives effortlessly. That doesn’t make the film any easier to watch (it’s violent, intense, unbelievably sad and even infuriating at times), but like the crime novel at the center of the story, “Nocturnal Animals” demonstrates the power that a great piece of fiction can have on you, even one as polarizing and challenging as this.
Denis Villeneuve has been quietly assembling one hell of a filmography over the last few years with movies like “Enemy,” “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” and while the latter remains his finest work to date, “Arrival” isn’t far behind. A deeply cerebral and emotional sci-fi film that’s unlike anything the genre has produced before, “Arrival” takes a simple, well-worn premise – making first contact with aliens – and creates a captivating moviegoing experience that uses its slow-boil pacing to its advantage. Focusing more on the science of language and how it can be used to bring people together, Villeneuve has produced one of the most essential movies of the year with a message that takes on even greater meaning in the wake of a presidential election that has divided the country through hate and ignorance. Though it’s perhaps a little too sluggish at times, “Arrival” is a really good film that becomes a great one in the final minutes, leading to some pretty heavy, soul-searching questions that will stick with you long after it’s over.
6. “THE NICE GUYS“
Shane Black is to buddy cop films what Raymond Chandler is to hard-boiled crime novels, and his latest movie, the retro detective noir “The Nice Guys,” is arguably his best entry in the genre since redefining the buddy cop formula three decades earlier with “Lethal Weapon.” Although it hits all of the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency – brimming with humorous banter, exciting action and even a little heart – that it feels totally fresh. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s dialogue crackles with wit and humor, while the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is simply outstanding. The two actors form one of the best double acts in recent memory, and although Crowe is quite good as the sardonic straight man, Gosling is the real standout, delivering a side-splittingly funny physical performance that makes great use of his comedic abilities. “The Nice Guys” doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, but it’s a consistently enjoyable flick that reconfirms why Black is the best at what he does.
“If you must blink, do it now,” warns the narrator of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a wildly inventive adventure movie that’s so confident in its eye-popping visuals and brilliant storytelling that it knows you won’t want to miss a single moment. It’s advice you’ll definitely want to follow as well, because while Laika has never failed to impress with its use of stop-motion animation, the studio has really outdone itself this time. Every single frame is extremely detailed, overflowing with personality and so tactile that it feels like you could reach out and touch it. Though the film isn’t as kid-friendly as most animated movies due to Laika’s typical gothic leanings, director Travis Knight does such a good job of balancing the darker elements with humor that they’re not as scary as they could be. And that’s important, because despite being a fairly serious film about love, loss and family, “Kubo and the Two Strings” goes about telling its simple but layered story with such child-like optimism that it resonates even stronger as a result.
8. “SING STREET“
Writer/director John Carney specializes in making musical fairy tales for the soul, with each film functioning like its own album. If “Once” is his critically acclaimed debut, and “Begin Again” is the more mainstream (but less successful) follow-up, then “Sing Street” is the personal album that gets back to his roots. A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale that’s sure to put a huge grin on your face, “Sing Street” features Carney at his very best. Although there’s not a lot of meat to the story, the film does a good job of tracking the artistic awakening of Irish schoolboy Conor as he discovers his own identity through experimentation with different musical styles and the awful fashion trends that accompany them. The mostly unknown cast is great, especially Jack Reynor as Conor’s older brother/musical guru, while the original songs (each one better than the last) are catchy enough to believe that the titular band could actually succeed. Though their progress happens a little too easily to be realistic, Carney makes the whole fantasy go down so smoothly that you won’t mind.
Despite all the rumors of reshoots and rewrites aimed at making it more commercially appealing, “Rogue One” feels every bit like the film that director Gareth Edwards promised, a slightly darker and grittier Star Wars movie that explores new territory for the franchise. Though it’s not without its flaws, “Rogue One” effortlessly fits into the Star Wars universe with an enjoyable one-off story that works both as a standalone film and a complement to the original trilogy. The action sequences are among the best in the series – especially the final showdown on Scarif, which skillfully juggles three different battles (on the ground, in space and inside an Imperial base) – while the ensemble cast is packed with instantly classic characters like Donnie Yen’s blind, Force-sensitive warrior monk and Alan Tudyk’s reprogrammed Imperial droid. Perhaps most impressive, however, is that despite already knowing how the story ends, “Rogue One” still manages to be suspenseful and even has a few surprises along the way. Finally, a Star Wars prequel that actually lives up to its potential.
10. “GREEN ROOM“
If Jeremy Saulnier’s slow-burning sophomore effort “Blue Ruin” announced him as a filmmaker to watch, then “Green Room” confirms that he’s the real deal. A brilliantly taut and grisly horror-thriller that defies genre conventions at every turn, “Green Room” is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences of the past decade. There’s hardly a single wasted frame in this tightly-paced siege film, turning the screw on its characters (and the audience itself) with some nail-biting tension that doesn’t let up. The violence is gory but never gratuitous, while the lived-in performances – particularly Anton Yelchin’s frightened musician and Patrick Stewart’s shockingly calm and rational white supremacist – lend an unsettling authenticity to the proceedings. The movie is at its best when the hapless punk band is trapped inside the titular room, and although the suspense is slightly deflated once the action spills out into the open, becoming a more visceral affair where duct tape and a box cutter are the primary tools for survival, “Green Room” maintains its vice-like grip on the audience.