The Emerald Recommends the best movies released in 2016. From low-brow comedies to hard hitting dramas, 2016 provided a wide-array of films. We have selected our favorites of the year — one list of solely superhero films included.
A&C film critic Dana Alston’s top movies:
5. Hell Or High Water
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers embarking on a crime spree through the dying lands of West Texas, with a Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges hot on their trail in this neo-western from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie. Beautifully shot and written with engaging depth and pace, Hell or High Water is at its best when it showcases the themes of older Westerns within a 21st century context
Denis Villenueve’s cerebral sci-fi epic combines high-concept action with a grounded visual style to create one of the year’s best films. Amy Adams’ electrifying performance is an obvious highlight. But the film truly shines when the narrative (in which the governments of the world struggle to communicate with alien visitors — and each other) resonates with today’s political climate.
3. The Witch
Has there ever been a debut feature as striking as Richard Egger’s The Witch? Not this year. Egger’s story, which follows a 17th century Puritan family haunted by an evil presence in the woods, is terrifying. But it’s the way the family breaks down and begins to accuse one another that truly makes the film special. After a certain point, it’s hard to tell whether the titular witch or their paranoia is more dangerous. Either way, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
2. The Edge of Seventeen
Every movie about teenagers is inevitably compared to John Hughes’ films, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that simultaneously embraces and evolves past that comparison. Kelly Freemon Craig’s portrait of Nadine, a 17-year-old struggling to contend with her young life’s challenges, sits comfortably between clichés and unique moments of emotional clarity. Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely dynamite as Nadine, and the rest of the cast (including Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s history teacher and verbal sparring partner) all work together masterfully. The result is a portrait of youth that feels fresh and genuinely itself.
1. La La Land
There are very few films that feel genuinely perfect. Not “perfect” in the sense that they have absolutely no flaws, rather, they communicate what they intend so well that their “mistakes” seem more a part of what makes these movies great. La La Land is one of those films. It is a musical made with imagination, grace and an infectiously joyous energy at its core. Watching it is like listening to a truly passionate person tell you about what they love. The story, which focuses on a pair of young artists (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) struggling to make it big in Hollywood acts as a tribute to the cinematic musicals of eras long past including Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris. What writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) pulls off is nothing short of miraculous.
A&C editor Craig Wright’s top movies
5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The Lonely Island is best known for its Digital Shorts on Saturday Night Live, but the group proved it is capable of a full-length comedy with Pop Star. Andy Samberg’s portrayal is of the self-centered Conner 4 Real, a world-famous pop star loosely based on Justin Bieber, as his relevance plummets. It is equal parts eye-rolling spoof of the idiocy of fame and an A-list roll-call exercise of who’s who in the music world. The results are startlingly funny and it’s the funniest music film since Tenacious D: The Pick Of Destiny.
4. The Witch
Modern horror films tend to rely on jump scares and special effects to scare viewers, but The Witch uses a 17th Century New England Folktale about an exiled Puritan family surviving in the woods. It is not a fast paced film, but it slowly chips away at the family’s mental well-being as it is stalked by a witch in the forest. The horror comes from the family’s desperation as each member questions their religious devotion. Plus, the twins are every bit as creepy as the girls from The Shining.
3. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Ricky Baker, played by Julian Dennison, is a hell-raising orphaned child sent to the last foster home that will take him. He and his Hec, played by Sam Neill, are forced to survive in the wilderness as a national manhunt is called to track down the bickering pair who realize that to live as outlaws, they need each other. The plot has been committed to film thousands of times before, but The Hunt For The Wilderpeople’s offbeat New Zealand comedic style perfectly captures the dynamics between characters, creating relationships as strong as the one-liners the actors rattle off at lightning speed.
2. Certain Women
Director Kelly Reichardt works with quiet and subtlety in film the way most directors use special effects in an action movie: It’s overly abundant, but when it’s done well, it leaves a lasting impact. Certain Women stars Kristen Stewart in her most convincing role to date, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone in three short stories from Maile Meloy. The selling point is the acting, but Reichardt’s directing is striking; each shot of rural Montana comes to life along with the characters. Reichardt captures the isolation of the area and uses it to emphasize the emotions of each actor struggling to find her way in life.
1. Don’t Think Twice
Director and lead actor Mike Birbiglia assembled a comedic dream team for Don’t Think Twice, a film about what happens to a New York improv comedy troupe when one member is chosen for the Weekend Live TV show. It’s a startling examination of childhood dreams withering before a character’s eyes and of losing hope that you might be special. Gilian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Birbiglia and Kate Micucci have undeniable chemistry in a film that is as heartbreaking as it is endearing. Much like his standup specials, Birbiglia quickly carves his way into your heart before gently crushing it. Even though the film is about a dream being deferred, it’s impossible to not leave with a smile.
A&C writer Zach Price’s top [superhero] movies
5. Suicide Squad
This film is quite possibly the most disappointing release of 2016. With far too many characters and not enough time to build backgrounds for all of them, the plot moves far too quickly. Going from, “Hi my name’s Harley Quinn and I’m evil” to, “Alright we’re heroes now so let’s save the day” in a matter of minutes. A transformation like that requires either more time or a significant event that alters the perceptions of the characters, and the movie provides neither. Margot Robbie and Jared Leto are the silver lining in this movie. Their terrific acting makes the audience view characters they thought they knew in a much different light. Their relationship dynamic is the most interesting storyline in the film, and their interactions give the audience an indication of just how insane they really are.
4. Batman vs Superman
Viewing Man of Steel is a required prerequisite for this film because it makes Superman’s transformation from worldwide hero to homeland threat more drastic. Ben Affleck’s underwhelming performance as Batman isn’t all his fault. Although it’s unfair to compare his performance to Christian Bale’s in The Dark Knight trilogy, Affleck just can’t pull off the genius billionaire playboy like Bale did so seamlessly. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor is excellent. The mad genius’ plan to pin Batman against Superman is a great way to avoid the stereotypical plot that many superhero movies carry. It also adds an ignorance to Batman and a fault in his character that we never got from Bale. While Bale’s portrayal made Batman seem as if he had an impenetrable moral code, Affleck gives Batman a previously unseen humanity by being more strongly motivated by hate and anger.
3. Dr. Strange
If you can get over the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch abandons his British swagger for an American accent, then this film is quite enjoyable. His portrayal of Dr. Stephen Strange, a cocky world-class, know-it-all surgeon is right up Cumberbatch’s acting alley. Once Strange is humbled by a mysterious dimension-traveler who is only referred to as “the ancient one,” he dedicates himself to learning her secret powers. The two biggest flaws of this movie are the premature character development and an uninteresting villain, Kaecilius, who follows the archetypal “teacher’s prodigy gone evil” story that is seen in almost every superhero movie. Along with Cumberbatch, this film’s poor storytelling is covered up by it’s amazing visuals. The spectacle of CGI technology that director Scott Derrickson was able to accomplish will set the standard for action movies for years to come.
2. Captain America: Civil War
The most interesting aspect of this movie is it’s plot. It’s refreshingly different that the usual hero’s journey that is featured in most Marvel movies. Relying more heavily on lesser known characters — War Machine, Winter Soldier, Black Panther — adds more depth to the Marvel Universe. These new characters lead the audience to have a more holistic perspective of this universe by understanding there are many mutants with special abilities, not just the Avengers. Unlike most Marvel films, the audience is challenged to think about the moral dilemma that Captain America and Iron Man disagree upon. Typically, it’s easy for the hero to make the right choice, but in this situation, right and wrong isn’t so obvious. Both heroes want to protect the earth, but they disagree on how it should be done.
Director Tim Miller finally gave comic book fans what they have been asking for with an R-rated superhero movie. Instead of following the paths of previous Marvel movies, which play it safe by not showing any graphic violence, obscene language or sexual content, Deadpool had all three and then some. Ryan Reynolds played the role of the immortal assassin with a smug arrogance that perfectly captured the character’s attitude exhibited in the comics. This movie didn’t only break the rules of superhero movies with it’s gory violence and explicit sexual references, but it broke the rules of all movies by breaking the third wall in which Reynolds gives light to his character’s somewhat depressing story. Throughout the film, his narration engages the audience with humor and sarcasm. In a world filled with superhero movies as Hollywood blockbusters, Deadpool pushes the limits of what should be a considered “hero” and reaches a niche audience that had been completely ignored up to this point.
Patience Greene’s top movies of 2016
- Hail Caesar
The latest Coen Brothers film is an absurdist look at a vintage movie industry, with several plot lines loosely interwoven. Random movie takes throughout feel like the Coen Brothers’ excuse to create an eclectic ensemble of scenes without the need for context. The film relies heavily on its star-studded cast, to balance the slightly hollow plot, but the characters are all very likable and fun. It’s not a Coen Brothers masterpiece, but it’s still worth a watch.
- Hell or High Water
In this gritty look at a dying small town in Texas, poverty stricken brothers battle the bank taking their land. Jeff Bridges gives a spectacular performance as a bitter Texas Ranger fighting retirement with one last stand, and audiences are left in the grey on what is right; the ending echoes this sentiment and leaves just enough to the imagination. Estranged love between brothers, partners and sons is balanced by a willingness to do anything for family. Representation of racial tension feels uniquely honest. The dialogue is well written and thought-provoking.
In most sci-fi films, aliens are evil invaders stealing resources and planning to enslave the human race, or they hide in the shadows only to be victimized. Arrival takes an entirely different path with blatant UFOs and mysterious intentions. Amy Adams stars as a linguist working on communicating with the aliens. Contrasts are drawn between civilizations when tool is translated to weapon, and China prepares for war while the aliens try to coerce the nations into cooperation. Fans of Billy Pilgrim’s journey with the tralfamadorians will appreciate the film’s direction. The ending comes with an inevitable pressing darkness, but there is an unexplainable light in the dark, breathing hope into the movie. Arrival’s twist inspires a second viewing, but feels natural and completes the film. This is the best sci-fi film released in years, and a must see movie for any fan of philosophy, aliens or cinema.