Howdy, film fans! 2016 came and went and somewhere in there I watched 900 movies. More than 250 of them were first time viewings of new releases, and while the year got off to a slow start, it came through in the clutch with a bevy of cinematic gems to behold. Since Top 10 lists (while fun) can be slight and repetitive, I’ve continued my tradition of compiling a Top 50 and ranking them. Many of the year’s finest films were smaller or lesser-known, and hopefully, lists like this can help shine a light on them.
What does ‘Top’ mean, anyways? Are these the best movies or my favorites? Yes and yes, something in between. I viewed most of them multiple times accounting for artistic merit, entertainment value, and technical achievement. It’s silly to rank movies and in the end it’s all subjective, but it’s fun to look back on the year and give props to the films that inspired us to cheer and moved us to tears. These are all narrative features. It was a strong year for documentaries, but they’re their own beast and deserve their own list. Top 20 Docs of 2016 coming soon.
When compiling the Top 50 Films of 2016, I used the same qualifications as my nominations for the Houston Film Critics Society. To qualify, films had to be released theatrically in Houston in 2016, or I must have received a screener or screening invite from the studio. All 50 fit that criteria and there were several other quality movies that I liked that there just wasn’t room for on the list.
Notable films I haven’t seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Dr. Strange, The Wailing.
Let’s get to it! I loved a lot of movies this year and after much deliberation, these are the ones that made the cut. Disagree with my list? Make your own! Cheers.
50. Midnight Special
49. 10 Cloverfield Lane
48. Pete’s Dragon
47. Hidden Figures
46. Southside With You
42. The Invitation
40. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
39. April and the Extraordinary World
38. The Boy and the Beast
37. Morris From America
36. 20th Century Women
34. Things to Come
32. Swiss Army Man
31. The Edge of Seventeen
30. The Lobster – Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth) English-language debut is every bit as bizarre and unpredictable as I hoped it would be. It’s also funny, sad, and insightful to the human condition. Certainly divisive, but that’s to be expected from a film so original.
29. Men & Chicken – Another completely wacked-out film from a foreign director with a unique voice. Danish ace, Anders Thomas Jensen brings the right kind of weird to the story of a couple of brothers (Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik) who meet their rambunctious, fist-fighting family and discover some strange truths. Features the real ‘Fantastic Beasts’ of 2016.
28. Nocturnal Animals – Former Gucci mane, Tom Ford has a keen directorial eye and modernistic sense of style. His latest is cold as ice, featuring a chilly Amy Adams, a scene-stealing Michael Shannon (as a West Texas Deputy), and an unrecognizable and obnoxiously ruthless Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Notable for the disgustingly unforgettable, much-talked-about opening title sequence.
27. Sing Street – Another love letter to music from John Carney (Once, Begin Again). This one has a lighter tone, but just as much passion and as many catchy tunes. “Drive It Like You Stole It” is movie magic.
26. The Nice Guys – Shane Black is back with a glorious blast to the past. This old-school, character driven, private dick buddy flick is a kick in the crotch and I mean that in the best way possible. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe make a fine pair and appear to be having a blast.
25. Captain Fantastic – With the world going crazy, ditching civilization for a life in the woods and living ‘Swiss Family Robinson-style’ sounds more appealing by the day. Viggo Mortensen plays the father of a family who did just that. When circumstances bring them back into the fray (and the kiddos aren’t accustomed to social niceties) things get interesting. The entire ensemble is truly fantastic and Mortensen’s performance is one of the year’s best.
24. Eye in the Sky – This timely tale of drone warfare features a fierce Helen Mirren as a Colonel hellbent on killing her target despite the potential loss of civilian life. Aaron Paul is the low-level Lieutenant with his finger on the trigger, resigned to her command. The bureaucratic, impersonal nature of modern war is on full display and Alan Rickman is in fine form in one of his final roles. Riveting.
23. Krisha – Trey Edward Shults’ emotionally charged directorial debut is a powerful portrait of a person crippled by addiction. It was shot on a super low budget in his parents’ home using his family as much of the cast, including his aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who really brings it in the title role. Shults obviously learned a thing or two working in the camera department with director Terrence Malick. Krisha is exceptionally shot and it has a feel that hearkens back to movies like John Cassavetes’ Faces.
22. Elle – Paul Verhoevan’s French language debut, Elle is a conversation starter. It’s a twisted twisty tale that finds humor in unexpected places, with a juicy role for Isabelle Huppert. This is one of thirteen films on my Top 50 that I originally saw at Fantastic Fest before the official release.
21. Jackie – Pablo Larraín’s English-language debut is the haunting depiction of former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy in the moments and days following the assassination of her husband, JFK. Natalie Portman’s stirring performance is accompanied by Mica Levi’s grim score and a fine turn from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy.
20. Kubo and the Two Strings – In a year stacked with solid animated films, Laika served up one of the very best. Kubo features a fun, imaginative story, gorgeous stop-motion animation, and thrilling adventure. My wife and I were the only ones in the theater and it played great on the big screen. Memorable experience.
19. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A puzzle piece from a galaxy far, far away that directly connects to the original Star Wars. A gritty war film with a kick ass heroine (Felicity Jones), a delightful new robot (K-2SO), and an international cast of rogues who set out to steal the plans to the Death Star. The final sequence is full of moving parts and is one of the more thrilling battle scenes in the entire franchise.
18. The VVitch – Super ominous and off-putting, Robert Eggers’ chilling supernatural horror film takes place in 17th century New England. It’s an atmospheric slow burn with a nice payoff and it features the year’s finest performance by a goat (Charlie, a 210 pound billy goat portrays the sinister Black Phillip). “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
17. Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin is one of the most intense films of the year. The late, great Anton Yelchin plays the leader of a punk band who find themselves in the unfortunate position of having witnessed something horrendous and as a result, have to face-off against a gang of Neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart. Relentless. A Fantastic Fest classic.
16. Hail, Caesar! – The Coen Brothers tribute/sendup of old Hollywood has a witty script, a shiny talented cast, slick cinematography by Roger Deakins, and the most impressive dance choreography of any film this year (sorry La La Land). “Would that it were so simple.”
Turn the page for the Top 15 films of 2016