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The jury's out on 2016, as a movie year. Many jumped on an early bandwagon proclaiming this to be a disappointing year, and while the tide is starting to turn in the opposite direction as more and more critics release their end-of-year Top 10 lists, I tend to agree with the people who admit there was greatness released in 2016, but you had to dig to really find it.
With that in mind, my Top 10 took longer to finalize than is usual. Titles I contemplated that didn't make the cut include Nocturnal Animals, Star Trek Beyond, Hail, Caesar!, Everybody Wants Some!!, Green Room and Weiner. But when pressed to pick 10 movies from 2016 that I truly loved -- and planned to revisit often -- I could only cook up the following list. So dive in, and then tell me in the comments what your favorite movies of 2016 were:
10. Captain America: Civil War
It'd be easy to take Marvel Studios for granted. Fourteen movies into this grand, cinematic construction, the studio routinely releases exciting, emotional, humorous and lucrative blockbusters that please millions and show rival studios how this type of large-scale world building should be done. Except, when you look at the efforts of those rivals -- from Fox and the Fantastic Four to Warner Bros. and the DCEU -- you realize that weaving these blockbusters together is no easy task, which is why I appreciate Captain America: Civil War so much.
In addition to be a rousing trilogy capper for Chris Evans' expertly cast Star-Spangled Avenger, Civil War boasts the most moving parts of any Marvel movie before it, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo seamlessly tell multiple stories that affect the Marvel characters we've grown to love in so many ways. Civil War drove a deeper wedge between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, and the collateral damage of that broken relationship affected all of the Avengers. It introduced Black Panther and Spider-Man, and the worlds they occupy. It featured the MCU's most elaborate set piece in the Berlin airport battle, but made this Top 10 list because of its small character moments, the ones that remind me that we'd be wrong to ever take the MCU for granted.
A master class in filmmaking, and essential viewing for anyone who calls themselves a fan of cinema. And yet, DePalma couldn't be more simple of a conceit. Co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow sit down with legendary director Brian DePalma, and ask him to tell stories, into the camera, about the various films from his storied career.
But WHAT A CAREER! Of course, Brian DePalma comes off as a colorful, vivid, egotistical but extremely knowledgeable storyteller. But when he namedrops his inner circle of 1970s colleagues -- a couple of guys named Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola -- you have to pause the film and wrap your brain around the contributions of this group to the history of cinema. But DePalma makes my personal list because I thoroughly enjoyed listening to each and every behind-the-scenes story the director shared regarding the filming of such classics as Carrie, Carlito's Way, Scarface, The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill and the first Mission: Impossible. Now I pray that Baumbach and Paltrow do the same thing with a string of filmmakers, because I'd kill to see Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and more in a similar documentary, year after year.
8. Manchester By The Sea
Grief porn. That's what Kenneth Lonergan's peddling here. Every scene of Manchester By The Sea bears the heavy weight of loss, of sad but relatable characters dealing with a harsh new reality caused by an unexpected loss. "Relatable" is important, for it's those of us who have been struck by an important death that will recognize the painful truth imprinted on the performances and dialogue of Manchester.
So, it's bleak and tough and a strange movie to recommend. Because who wants to spend two hours ensconced in a tomb of mourning? However, Lonergan so beautifully surrounds the current story in Manchester By The Sea with wispy traces of happier memories for the anguished Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), leaving you compelled to keep watching: to find out what happened to his immediate family; to find out why he left Manchester; and to find out why he's emotionally unable to return. The entire cast is phenomenal in the way they underplay the material, and Manchester By The Sea slowly, methodically wraps its icy fingers around your heart and soul, knowing exactly when to squeeze out that last glimpse of light and hope. Prepare for the worst, and appreciate the ride.
7. The Nice Guys
As our own Eric Eisenberg pointed out in his own personal Top 10 list, we loved when Ryan Gosling did stuff in Los Angeles this year. Gosling showed off two very different, yet equally recognizable, sides of the City of Angels in 2016, and both made my Top 10. Let's start with the seedy crime-noir of The Nice Guys, a movie that I pray kicks off an anthology of stories told by Shane Black and centered around mismatched private dicks Gosling and Russell Crowe.
Essentially, The Nice Guys is an extension of the types of movies Black specializes in: an odd-couple crime caper along the lines of Lethal Weapon of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that is drenched in unique period detail and fuelled by a rat-tat-tat screenplay that fires off memorable zingers. The story's an admirable rehash of a '40s or '50s noir thriller, with a simple case growing exponentially more complicated the more our bumbling heroes peel back new layers. And while Crowe and Gosling are a delightfully gruff pair, it's the latter's gift for physical comedy that routinely elevates The Nice Guys to insane heights. Gosling's toilet bit -- with the hand cast, the loaded gun, the stall door, and the lit cigarette in his pants -- earns this movie Top 10 placement alone. Thankfully, the rest of the movie makes it worthy for end-of-the-year inclusion, as well.
What an incredible year for Walt Disney Animation. And a year that continues the studio's amazing hot streak that includes Big Hero 6, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled. We are in the midst of a new Renaissance of storytelling and animation over at Disney, with Zootopia being near the top of the bunch for intelligent, hilarious, inspiration and socially conscious movie making.
Basically, though, I just adore Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the picture of perseverance who moves to the big city of Zootopia with a dream of being the top cop... only she's assigned to the lowest run of the law enforcement ladder. That doesn't stop Judy from messing with a slick grifter named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, perfectly cast), and doubling down to solve a missing persons case that -- similar to in The Nice Guys -- is just the tip of a corrupt iceberg. Zootopia has fantastic original characters and boasts breathtaking animation, but it transcends traditional animated movies when it digs into the conspiracy plot to label those we view as different to be "savages." Pair Zootopia with the equally excellent Moana (which could easily have filled this spot on my Top 10), and you'll see why Walt Disney Animation has been outpacing Pixar since John Lasseter turned his attentions from the latter to the former.
5. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water reminded me that movies don't have to be complicated to be brilliant. Sometimes, all you need is a stripped-down, bare bones story of bank-robbing brothers (and the colorful sheriff hot on their tails) to produce one of the most tense and terrific movie-going experiences of the year.
It helps that the sheriff is played by charismatic Jeff Bridges, playing that laconic and smooth-talking country law agent that he brought to the screen once before (though in a different time period) in True Grit. And he's tracking a pair of combustible, but well-intentioned, criminals in Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both operating at the top of their game. Hell or High Water essentially plays like a modern Western, utilizing the finest tropes of that genre. But airtight direction, stellar pacing and compassionate characterization make this movie a must-see story about Rust Belt Americans handed a shit sandwich by a corrupt bank, and deciding it's high time they did something about it.
4. Sing Street
Pure bliss, especially if you have ever played in a rock band at any point in your life. John Carney has a knack for pairing catchy pop gems with painful coming-of-age stories, from the hopeless romantics of Once to the struggling songwriters in Begin Again. Sing Street is his best film, with his most memorable soundtrack of original songs and his most charming characters, all occupying a loving tribute to '80s glam rock and power-pop alt-rock musical rebellions.
If there was any justice in Hollywood, actor Jack Reynor would have a healthy For Your Consideration campaign backing his brilliant turn as the older brother, Brendan, helping his younger sibling, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) navigate his first crush and the obstacles that come with assembling a rock band. Sing Street is run-of-the-mill teen angst drama, but it's peppered with spectacular musical cues by Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure and more, as well as original songs penned by Conor and his friends. It's one of the happiest times you can have at the movies in 2016.
The smartest film you'll see all year, and one of the few 2016 movies that rewards its audience with repeating screenings. Why? Because director Denis Villeneuve structures his thrilling First Contact drama like a puzzle that can't fully be understood until the final piece is revealed in the very last scene of the movie. And once that drops, everything you thought you understood about Arrival changes, and you'll immediately want to go back to the beginning and experience it all over again.
The story's concept is familiar. Aliens arrive in our atmosphere, and park spaceships over major global cities. But instead of waging war, our planet's nations send a top linguist (Amy Adams) and a mathematician (Jeremy Renner) on board the ships to try and establish a shared method of communication. Arrival is an urgent and suspenseful thriller, though -- like all of the best science-fiction -- it says as much about our society today as it does about the future predicted on the screen. And that ending! It makes everything about this already wonderful movie that much better.
2. A Monster Calls
No movie made me cry harder in 2016 than J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls. This one's personal, as I have a 12-year-old son who's going through some (though thankfully not ALL) of the emotional hardships and adolescent worries plaguing young Conor in this beautiful movie. But the sentiments shared in this gothic fairy tale are universal, which explains why audiences around the globe are responding with collective sobs into soggy handkerchiefs. This tear-jerker works on multiple levels.
Credit goes to Bayona, a masterful storyteller who resembles Steven Spielberg for the way he's able to marry raw emotion to large-screen spectacle. Much like in The Impossible, Bayona delivers eye-popping visual effects (here, a living tree monster with endless stories and Liam Neeson's gruff cadence) and heart-pounding emotional twists. And Bayona's assisted by a fantastic young actor named Lewis MacDougall, who humanizes Conor's suffering and carries A Monster Calls over the finish line. Few movies have devastated me -- in a good way -- the way A Monster Calls did. I can't recommend this one highly enough.
1. La La Land
The movie I've been screaming about from my own personal mountaintop since I managed to screen it in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. La La Land is Hollywood movie magic. An effervescent, melancholic, romantic, heartfelt and joyous movie-going experience, it revives the idea of the Movie Musical (a genre long since abandoned by our industry's creative types) and updates it for a contemporary generation by telling them a familiar story about making it in Los Angeles. There are no golden tickets handed out by American Idol judges, no overnight sensations cashing in on their 15 minutes of fame. These are beautiful grinders, fighting and scratching for their chance... and sometimes regretting when they finally earn it.
Damien Chazelle is a genius. His Whiplash also led my year-end Top 10 when it was released in 2014, and his follow up exceeds all expectations. From his opening number in the middle of a Southern California traffic jam, Chazelle commands the screen and maneuvers his viewpoint through an impossibly delightful journey through first loves, creative frustrations, the birth and death of experimental jazz, grueling auditions and lost loves... all to a soundtrack of glorious and original show tunes.La La Land is the year's best movie, in my opinion. Now, tell me. What is your choice?