"Without love, what reason is there for anything?" What a year. Admittedly, it’s always a challenge for me to put together a Top 10 list, just because there’s never enough time to watch (and rewatch) everything. That said, I fell head-over-heels in love with a number of movies in 2016 and it was easy to put them on this list. I learned so much from my Favorite Films of 2016. Paterson taught me to love poetry (and write some of my own). La La Land reminded me that dancing is the key to life, and jazz is awesome. Captain Fantastic taught me to always seek the truth. Pete’s Dragon reminded me that sometimes we must believe in magic. I’m invigorated by how much movies often affect me, and the more emotional I get, the more I love them.
For my Top 12 of 2015 list, topped by George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and László Nemes’ Son of Saul, click here. You can also read Jeremy’s list of the Top 10 Best Films of 2016 here. My list of 2016 faves below.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I’ll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see everything else that played in 2016, but that’s impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also – my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Telluride, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This list is not based on only film’s released in 2016, but the ones I saw in 2016, and is a good representation of the best of the best, in my opinion. I’m admittedly a bit anxious to share this, but these really are all the films I love.
Best Documentary: 13th directed by Ava DuVernay
This documentary should be mandatory viewing for all American citizens. Seriously. It’s a helluva doc, so brave and so powerful. The moment you see it, you won’t forget it, and you’ll be left in awe. 13th is such an important, infuriating, remarkable documentary examining not only how the prison systems are a modern form of slavery, but how racism has continued to remain prevalent in America today. It’s an eye-opening, emotional experience to watch and that’s thanks to Ava DuVerny’s incredible storytelling/filmmaking skills. Not only can she make a great feature film (Selma), but she can craft an incredible documentary as well. I love the way she uses music from each time period during the transitional scenes, and I was impressed with how gripping and poignant the entire film is. Hands down my favorite documentary of the year – a must see.
Other Favorite Documentaries: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (what a film – another must see), Roger Ross Williams’s Life Animated, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno, Penny Lane’s Nuts!, Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, Steven Okazaki’s Mifune: The Last Samurai, plus Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers (love this doc about roving cinemas in India).
#10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople directed by Taika Waititi
This is such a fun movie, and it has so much heart, too. I’ve been a fan of Taika Waititi (read my interview) ever since Eagle vs Shark in 2007, and I fell hard for Hunt for the Wilderpeople when I saw it at Sundance last year. My feelings haven’t changed since I first saw it, and it’s just as enjoyable to revisit. I wrote in my review at Sundance: "In a world with so many cynical, depressing, heartbreaking stories being told, it’s so great to see something that reminds us there is hope in this world. There is hope for those who think that no one will ever love them because they don’t fit in. There is so much beauty out there, even if we don’t always recognize it. Hunt for the Wilderpeople shows us this, in big ways and in small, subtle ways. I’m just so glad that Taika made another film that makes me feel good, that made me laugh my ass off, and made my smile."
#9. Everybody Wants Some!! directed by Richard Linklater
Only Richard Linklater could make a movie about college baseball players and pack it with philosophical discussions, conversations about life and love, as well as laugh out loud comedy. I saw this months after its initial release, and I was blown away by how much fun it is, yet also how clever it is. Of course there’s an honest side to it, but there’s also some totally hilarious comedy, plenty of great performances, and a sweet ending that isn’t saccharine. Linklater continues to impress me, and this is no exception. I knew from the moment I saw it this would be on my Top 10, just because it’s so much more insightful than it seems to be on the surface. And yet it feels so light and enjoyable and easy to watch, a brilliant blend of humor and wit and, of course, baseball. It’s been cool to see all the talented actors in this show up in other movies as well.
#8. Kubo and the Two Strings directed by Travis Knight
Laika finally hit a grand slam with this movie. Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings is an exciting Japanese-inspired adventure, and a beautiful coming-of-age story about a samurai kid who comes to understand his parents and their love for him. Director Travis Knight really went all out and created a sensational story that is as rousing to watch as it is inspiring. Of course, it’s awesome that this is a hand-made stop-motion animated film. I’m always happy to see Laika’s latest movie, but this might be their best yet, the pinnacle of their dedication and their passion for storytelling. The wonderful score by Dario Marianelli compliments the stunning visuals. And the way it ends, teaching us a lesson about remembrance, is utterly heartwarming.
#7. Jackie directed by Pablo Larraín
"Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief shining moment, there was a Camelot." I believe Pablo Larraín is one of the most talented filmmakers working today. What he achieves with this film is truly amazing. Jackie helps reestablish and cement the legacy of JFK while also telling a deeply personal story about the grief that his wife, Jackie Kennedy, felt after his assassination. This is one of Natalie Portman’s best performances of her entire career, she is totally astonishing in this film. Along with Mica Levi’s chilling score, Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, and Noah Oppenheim’s engrossing fractured-narrative script, this easily earns a spot on here. I love the way Larraín shot this to make it feel like it was made in the 60s, complete with archival footage sprinkled in, making it a timeless feature that will still be talked about years from now.
#6. Pete’s Dragon directed by David Lowery
This movie made me cry. Multiple times. Yes, technically, Pete’s Dragon is a kids movie, but it’s one of the best kids movies in years. David Lowery made such a delightful and charming and moving movie about believing in magic. It has been mentioned before, but Pete’s Dragon is basically a movie about a boy and his dog. The way Elliott acts is very much like a dog, likely on purpose, and that makes it even more endearing (especially to me since I’m a big time dog lover). Beyond that, Lowery uses music so perfectly to enhance the story and tops it off with some genuinely touching moments between Pete and Elliott. Robert Redford brings some gravitas, and Oakes Fegley is outstanding as Pete. No matter how many times I rewatch this movie, I still thoroughly enjoy it and I still get emotional in some scenes. It truly deserves to be on this list.
#5. 20th Century Women directed by Mike Mills
What a breath of fresh air, this film. I had to watch 20th Century Women twice in two days because I loved it so much and wanted to revisit it right away. Mike Mills has made a completely brilliant and heartening film about real people, from the real world, feeling real emotions. Annette Bening is jaw-dropping great in this, but the other performances from Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning are also remarkable. There’s a superb soundtrack, the inclusion of Jimmy Carter’s "Crisis of Confidence" speech is inspired, and the film is optimistic in a subtle way. It’s refreshingly original and still totally familiar, the kind of film I want to show to everyone and get everyone to watch, so they can learn lessons about life, too.
#4. Captain Fantastic directed by Matt Ross
My goodness do I love this film. It’s everything I genuinely stand for, everything I believe in deep down, ever so perfectly portrayed in a compelling story of a family learning how to bond while venturing out into a sick society. Viggo Mortensen really carries the film, giving one of his best performances ever as the father of a handful of kids, teaching them the truth instead of sheltering them from it. I’ve watched this multiple times and each time I find something new to appreciate, and more to learn Viggo’s character, and that’s the mark of a truly great film. The performances from all of the kids are fantastic, but I really love the earnest script more than anything. The score by Alex Somers (of Sigur Ros) is also wonderful. I watch this film anytime I need a reminder that there are intelligent people out there (making movies), who seek truth over comfort.
#3. Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve
Arrival is the best science fiction film of 2016, hands down. It’s profound (and may have a lasting effect on the sci-fi genre), it’s immensely intelligent, it’s gorgeous, it’s deeply emotional, and it’s an eye-opening and life-affirming experience to watch. I was completely floored when I saw it for my first time at the Telluride Film Festival (read my review) and was still amazed the second time I watched it, even though I knew where it was going. Amy Adams’ is exceptional, she really takes this to a whole other level, her authenticity is vital to making the film work so well. I totally dig Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, I love Bradford Young’s cinematography, and I admire Eric Heisserer’s script. "I’ve had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you."
#2. Paterson directed by Jim Jarmusch
Paterson is a perfect film. There’s nothing I would change about it. Not a single thing. It is simply sublime. Jim Jarmusch gets deeply philosophical while telling a simple story where not much happens, which is a refreshing change from the typical "everything bad that can happen, happens" kind of film. Adam Driver was the perfect choice to play the brilliant poet/bus driver, and Golshifteh Farahani was the perfect pick to play his wife (I wrote an entire essay about her). I saw this film twice at the Cannes Film Festival last year where it premiered (read my glowing review) and was so inspired by it, that I started writing some poetry myself (don’t worry, they’re not that good, but it’s fun to try and write them anyway). This is the kind of film that I go watch when I need to clear my head and feel inspired. Plus, the adorable dog has a key role. A-ha.
#1. La La Land directed by Damien Chazelle
I love love love La La Land so much. SO MUCH. I adore this movie. It’s pure joy. Pure magic. I listen to the songs from the soundtrack daily (not even kidding) and I’ve seen it three times, and I still love it as much as the first time I saw it. I can’t stand the backlash, because this movie honestly means more to me than I can even describe. It is easily my #1 of 2016, nothing else even comes close to matching it. It’s so beautiful, so well made, so exciting, so vibrant, so joyful. It’s a love letter to movies, to dancing, to jazz, to dreamers, to romantics, to "old Hollywood", to musicals, to Los Angeles. Damien Chazelle does such an extraordinary job instilling it with so much passion, a passion for dreaming the impossible and believe in those dreams. Emma Stone is phenomenal in the film, her final audition is one for the ages. I love everything about this.
My connection to this movie is summed up by the lyrics to "Audition", when she sings: "Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make." I would admit that the second act drags a tiny bit, but every time I see it I don’t even care because the rest of it is such a glorious achievement and exhilarating experience. Few films make me as happy as La La Land does.
Special Mention: My Life as a Zucchini directed by Claude Barras
Last year I went out of my way to feature a wonderful animated film called Boy & the World, and this year I want to feature another animated film I saw late in the year that totally won me over. My Life as a Zucchini is a charming, uplifting, inspiring little stop-motion animated film from Switzerland about an orphan boy. It’s short but oh so sweet, and it’s the kind of film that will leave you in a such good mood, feeling better about life, more hopeful about the future, and inspired by the goodness that can be found in our hearts. It’s rare that a film can pull that off and still be so enjoyable and not cheesy in any way, and that’s definitely the case with Zucchini. I highly recommend seeking this film out and watching it with all your family + friends.
Runner Up Favorite Features: Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, Garth Davis’ Lion, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, and Andrew Stanton’s Finding Dory.
That’s it for now! Alas, I don’t have time to get into my favorite performances or anything else. My favorite cinematography is probably Arrival, but I also loved the shots in Moonlight and The Neon Demon. There were a number of films that I did not like as much as many of my colleagues did, including Silence, Fences, and Sully. In addition, there were a few films that I did not get the chance to see, including: The Shallows, Krisha, Sunset Song, and Certain Women. If you have any additional questions/thoughts about my Top 10 of 2016, please get in touch: @firstshowing. I’m always happy to discuss or argue about all my favorite films.