Top 50 Films of 2016

Prev2 of 2Next

15. The Age of Shadows – Kim Jee-woon’s South Korean spy thriller contains some of the most beautifully filmed action sequences of the year. Song Kang-ho plays a Korean police captain tasked with rooting out members of the Korean resistance. He’s controlled by the Japanese and must work with Um Tae-goo, an untrustworthy Japanese associate. When he’s approached by leaders of the Korean resistance, pride of self and country make their potentially lethal offer tempting. Complex, well-crafted, and gorgeously lit/shot.

14. Don’t Think Twice – Writer/director/comedian Mike Birbiglia’s film about an improv comedy troupe in NYC who aspires to make it on ‘Weekend Live’ (the film’s equivalent to SNL) is one of the more human experiences of the year. It feels honest, and aside from bringing constant laughs, it’s alternately bitter and sweet — like life. Strong ensemble.

13. Zootopia – My favorite animated film of the year has a clever script, a quick pace with plenty of inventive sequences, interesting characters, and a timely message. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an endearingly boisterous bunny, and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) joins the ranks of Disney’s Robin Hood and the Fantastic Mr. Fox as an all-time animated fox. “It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.”

12. American Honey – Probably the most divisive film/ranking on this list. American Honey is an experience and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen. Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold’s latest tells the story of a teenage girl (Sasha Lane) who meets a boy (Shia LaBeouf) in a store, and upon his invitation joins a crew of traveling magazine salesmen (and women) and hits the road. They’re a wild bunch and the movie really captures the spirit, freedom, and recklessness of youth. Forget the story/narrative and let the feeling (and the soundtrack) wash over you.

11. Manchester by the Sea – Another down-to-earth movie that deals with difficult circumstances in an honest and caring way while never losing its sense of humor. Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Williams are all terrific and Manchester itself feels like a character thanks to Kenneth Lonergan’s direction.

10. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch fans were treated to a new documentary (Gimme Danger) and a new narrative feature this year. The latter stars Adam Driver as Paterson, a bus driver/poet from Paterson, New Jersey. The film is quirky, poetic, and existential, with another fine SQÜRL score, and the coolest pooch in any movie this year (who has since passed away, RIP Nellie).

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Writer/director Taika Waititi’s diamond-in-the-New Zealand-rough has a lot of heart and features my favorite odd couple of the year in Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and ‘Uncle’ Hector (Sam Neill). They’re hilarious together. Rima Te Wiata has a warm screen presence and her ‘Ricky Baker Birthday Song’ is the stuff dreams are made of.

8. Everybody Wants Some – Richard Linklater’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to Dazed and Confused is one that I keep coming back to. It really captures the ‘hanging with the guys’ aesthetic that comes with playing on a team and the feeling of being young and away at school. Linklater’s direction is superb. The ensemble is made up of unknown actors and the guys have a fun, relaxed vibe. “Here for a good time, not a long time.”

7. La La Land – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone light up the screen in the most charming film of 2016. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash puts a modern spin on classic musicals. The snazzy score has a range of catchy tunes and the brightly colored production design is easy on the eyes. John Legend and J.K. Simmons shine in small roles. Don’t like musicals? “Pichi caca.”

6. Moonlight – Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ moving story of Chiron, a boy coming of age and coming to grips with his own sexuality. It’s told in three parts with three actors portraying him at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). They embody him well. The ensemble is one of the year’s best, with great turns from Mahershala Ali (my vote for supporting actor), Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe. Jenkins and cinematographer, James Laxton, crafted a different look for each of the three segments and Nicholas Britell’s piano and violin score binds them together.

5. Too Late – Filmed on 35mm in five 20+ minute takes and presented theatrically exclusively on 35, Too Late is filled with the kind of camerawork and technical wizardry that film geeks/purists live for. Dennis Hauck’s rough and sweet directorial debut features a cast of crooked characters and a side of L.A. you won’t find in La La Land. John Hawkes plays a private detective working the case of a missing girl and his performance is tender and true.

4. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie (Starred Up) directed this West Texas firecracker about a couple of brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a deadly bank robbing spree. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the Texas Rangers out to stop them. It’s cops and robbers steeped in southern flavor and everything works just right. “So, what don’t you want?”

3. Arrival – What a movie! Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent, spectacle-free Sci-fi film is an instant classic. When alien spacecrafts invade District 9-style, it’s up to cunning linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to learn their language, communicate, and clearly interpret their intent before the suspicious, trigger-happy ‘powers that be’ attack an unknown entity/possible ally. Adams’ powerhouse performance drives the film and Jeremy Renner is the best he’s been since American Hustle or The Town. Villeneuve’s direction, Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s score, Bradford Young’s cinematography, and the visual effects are all on point, and the movie plays great on subsequent viewings. Bring on Blade Runner 2049.

2. The Handmaiden – Park Chan-wook’s exquisitely-crafted masterpiece tells the story of a con artist and a lady pickpocket who conspire to separate a beautiful heiress from her fortune. It’s a strange, twisty mystery with passion and betrayal. The costumes and production design are immaculate and the film got my votes for best director, cinematography (Chung Chung-hoon), and score (Jo Yeong-wook). The music is reserved for much of the film, but it kicks in during moments of action with moving effect.

1. Embrace of the Serpent – Out of everything I saw in 2016, nothing stuck with me like writer/director Ciro Guerra’s tale of a shaman in the Colombian Amazon and his experiences with colonial visitors searching for a sacred transformative plant. The movie is attributed to three countries (Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina) and it contains several languages (Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna, Wanano, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, and English). It was filmed in luscious black and white on the rivers of the Colombian Amazon and it was a sight to see on the big screen. Embrace of the Serpent has a memorable score by Nascuy Linares which is used sparingly to punctuate the natural sounds of the jungle. Fine turns from Jan Bijvoet as German ethnographer, Theo von Martius, and Nilbio Torres as the young shaman, Karamakate, the last of his tribe. Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards, but it didn’t screen for audiences or Houston critics until February.

That’s a wrap! I hope you enjoyed the list and it inspires you to watch something you may have passed up (even if you end up hating it and curse me for a fool). Happy movie watching in 2017!!

Follow me on twitter: @saltywinters

Check out the Critics Circle on Radio Brave, the Houston Film Critics Society’s weekly program.

For more info on comics, video games, movies and anything else nerd, check out, a place for your inner nerd.

Also check us out on:
Nerdlocker Shop:
Email us at:

Prev2 of 2Next
Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.