Mike’s Top Ten Films of 2016

Last year, I was really excited to get to the Top Ten list. This year, not so much.

I’m still not sure how I feel about 2016. By and large, there were more movies that I liked as compared to other years, but fewer movies that I loved. I liked a lot of stuff, but overall, you can’t help but feel like this year was a weak year for film, especially given the giant amount of major films that were either disappointments or straight up bad. But I think that’s a mask for what’s actually a pretty quietly solid year for smaller films. Though that still didn’t make it easy to figure out this list.

Last year, there was a workable top ten list ready to go by Thanksgiving, had I needed to. This year by Thanksgiving, I had about three movies. And I realized I had to reevaluate my expectations. This ended up being the most difficult top ten list I’ve had since 2013.

But on the bright side, I hit a personal best for movies watched, getting close to 400 for the year. I haven’t as of yet deliberately skipped anything and I watched a bunch of documentaries. I’m continuing to branch out and watch anything and everything (because you never know) and allowing myself not to judge things as much. Which makes the whole experience of watching things so much more pleasant.

The top ten list is always presented as follows: a countdown from 10-1, followed by an 11-20, then tiers two, three and four. As well as a list of my favorite documentaries I saw this year.

The way I try to put my list together is by not thinking about what I feel right now, but by trying to guess how I’m going to feel in ten years. Which of the films are the ones that are gonna hold up for me. The ones will truly be my favorite ten films, rather than the films du jour, that everyone is high on now but will be forgotten about when it matters.

The idea is to make a list that will be as close to the list I will make in five, ten years, when given the same batch of films to pick from. I’m not trying to make my list fit with everyone else’s list. I’m trying to get to the purest version of my list.

With that in mind, here are my top ten films of 2016:


10. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

There was a lot of thought and hand-wringing that went into what #10 was going to be. You’ll see later on when we get into 11-20 just how close some other movies were to making this list. This is the one I worked the hardest one because it’s the one most in danger of potentially swapping out the next time I look at this list. Which is fine, that stuff happens, but I did want to at least try to get as close to my true feelings as possible.

This choice may end up being a cop out in the end. We won’t know for sure for another year. But I felt confident enough in my feelings for this movie to put this here over the other choices. I was utterly delighted by this in the theater, and my enjoyment didn’t wane when I watched it again. I have more issues with smaller parts of this movie (and the predictability of some elements), but on the whole, it’s my enjoyment of the universe that transcends everything.

The first fifteen minutes of this movie is structured as a screwball comedy, and I loved it. That’s the quintessential American genre for the era this movie is set in, and I love that J.K. Rowling embraced the American aspect of the story and did something that felt wholly appropriate for the story she was telling. The characters are fun, and some of the new elements are really fascinating (wizard executions, for example). It set me up for a new chapter in this universe that I’m excited to find out more about.

More than anything, this comes down to me having grown up with this universe and really enjoying it. I’d rather spend two hours thinking about this universe again than with most other movies, even if they were objectively better films on the whole.


9. Everybody Wants Some!!

This is the film of 2016 that I didn’t think would hold up. It made the top ten for the first 2/3 of the year, because all the good stuff doesn’t start coming out until after Labor Day. So you figure — this’ll drop off. It’ll end up 11-20 and I’ll always remember it very fondly.

But you know what? This movie holds up. I watched it again. It’s just a great, great time. It’s Dazed and Confused all over again. Perfectly written, acted and directed. Another classic hangout movie. No plot, just characters and environment. Absolutely incredible stuff. The semblance of a plot does not arrive in this movie for at least an hour. And I love it.

The movie is billed as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, but also in a weird way, it’s a sequel to Boyhood as well. Boyhood ends right as a kid gets into college, and this begins at that same moment. And it’s about the college experience without giving you all the unnecessary stuff. Linklater is the best at finding these in-between moments that make up life, and also making them feel utterly organic and improvised the entire time.

This is the kind of movie I’d put on during a lazy Saturday afternoon and just watch. You sit there and chill with this movie. It’s like hanging out with your pals. What I love about Richard Linklater is his ability to make his movies small, seemingly about so little yet able to be about a lot if you want to dig deeper. And they’re all so utterly watchable. The only other person who can accomplish something like that is Jim Jarmusch.

I could watch four hours about these characters. To not put this movie in my top ten would have been dishonest, saying that just because it came out in the first quarter of the year, it somehow carries less currency than a movie that came out in the past six weeks. But honestly, when all things become equal, this will be a movie I remember, and love, and put on to watch more than most of the other movies from this year.


8. Arrival

Didn’t quite see this one coming either. On paper, this makes a whole lot of sense, based on the fact that two of Denis Villeneuve’s past three movies made my original top ten lists for their respective years. But after seeing it, I still had reservations about it.

The film is incredibly well made and very captivating, but even while watching it I kept having that nagging feeling of, “Is this great or is this very good and just unable to hit the incredibly lofty goals it’s reaching for?” And I’m still not quite sure I can answer that question, but I find myself coming back to what I usually say in these situations — since when is ambition a problem? I don’t care if this doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve, because the simple fact that it’s trying to achieve something great and something different is admirable in and of itself.

What I like about this movie is that I’m able to watch it and really enjoy it and be really engaged throughout, and then think about it afterward and try to piece together what happened and what went on. The fact that this continues to stay with me and have me consider all the possible meanings and outcomes to what actually went on, from both a story standpoint, a logic standpoint, and moral and ethical standpoints as well, given some of the choices that were made in this.

I like that they took such a grand idea and boiled it down to a very specific story without giving in to the urge to have action scenes and scary moments and all the bad routes something like this could take. Look at this next to the movie Passengers. They both have the exact same moral dilemma as a part of their story. One of them devolves into a ticking clock, action conclusion, while the other makes you think that’s what is going to happen and instead gives you a much more intellectually complex and difficult conclusion. And in the end, one of those movies stays with you, while the other does not.

The fact that this movie is as memorable as it is, is a testament to Denis Villeneuve’s directorial style — aiming for something more than what’s on the page, even if it’s something you might not be able to achieve. It’s certainly worked out for him thus far, and I’m excited to see how his career moves forward from here.


7. A Monster Calls

This was one of the no-brainers for me coming into this year. I’d have guaranteed top three last year for sure. #7 isn’t a disappointment by any means, I just wanted to point out how much of a slam dunk this movie was for me from the start.

This is very much in that vein of Pan’s Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story. A shy boy without many friends creates a fictional monster in order to help him deal with his mother’s impending death. It’s incredibly well made, and features great performances by the lead by, Lewis MacDougall, and Felicity Jones. Liam Neeson is wonderfully cast as the voice of the Tree Monster, and it’s a very touching story about grief and coming to terms with very difficult aspects of life.

The animation they use in the “story” scenes is gorgeous, and while I could have used a bit more of certain elements (the relationship between the boy and his mother, a bit more ambiguity as to whether or not the mother could get better, and more room to breathe within the world, rather than the sense that we were being shuttled along to an inevitable conclusion), I really loved the emotional journey of the boy, and I really thought it was a beautiful film.

J.A. Bayona made this list for his previous film, The Impossible, which is another brilliant movie that I feel no one ever really got around to seeing. And I’m concerned this one will end up the same way. From the looks of it, it doesn’t seem as though this will get a lot of notice anywhere and will slip through the cracks. I also hear the novel this is based on and the screenplay are much better than the film itself, which must be saying something, since the film is quite good on its own.

I’m very pleased with how this turned out. I get worried when I have such high expectations for movies going into a year. It’s bad enough to get your heartbroken, but to get your heartbroken by something that seemed like such a sure thing in a year where there is a distinct lack of movies I loved, would have been devastating. So I’m glad the only devastating thing about this movie is its ending.


6. The Nice Guys

This is the 2016 example of the film that I really liked when I first saw it, that I kept watching throughout the year, that made its way onto the top ten list because it’s just so goddamn watchable.

I love Shane Black movies, and I will watch anything that man puts out. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a top ten movie for me in 2005. I love his writing. This was a movie I knew I’d really like. When that first red band trailer came out in December/January, I was all in. Even when I saw it in May, I loved it, but I still didn’t think this was headed here.

Then I watched it again in August. And again in September. And again in November. And again just last week. I love this movie. It’s so much fun to watch. The watchability factor is really high on this. If I didn’t put this here now, I’d undoubtedly have put it here next year, or the next time I went over this list.

Gosling and Crowe are perfectly paired. Crowe’s got that tough guy demeanor with the sweet undertone, and Gosling’s got that lovable scumbag persona and a willingness to look stupid if the moment calls for it. And Shane Black knows how to write an action comedy. He is great at taking stock situations and doing unexpected things with them.

There’s no moment here that doesn’t work for me. It’s just a joy from start to finish. Sure, some movies seem intellectually better than this, but you can’t discredit a movie that you’re gonna watch a hundred times because it’s so easy to put on. Think back to 1997 — which is appropriate, since L.A. Confidential came out that year and this is a reunion of two of its leads — The Sweet Hereafter is a great film that’s incredibly well made. Intellectually, that is one of the best films of that year. But The Fifth Element is the one I’ve watched a thousand times.

This is a movie I’m going to rewatch a lot. It’s great, and I love it. And that’s what this list is all about.


5. Moonlight

I tried to think of every reason why I shouldn’t put this movie here on this list. And I couldn’t think of a single reason. I wanted to leave it off the top ten because this will be top two for just about every critic in the country. Every pretentious film person will have both this and Manchester by the Sea right at the top of their lists, and people will go on about how this deserves to win every award there is. That kind of reaction to a movie immediately makes my rebellious streak kick in. It’s not that I don’t want to like it, I just can’t stand when everyone throws out all these superlatives and makes a movie out to seem like more than it is.

But even in the theater, I wanted to find something not to like about this movie, and I couldn’t. I’ve watched it again, and there’s still nothing I dislike about this movie. It’s gripping. Every shot of this movie draws you in and keeps you there. There’s no reason why I should have been as invested in this movie as I was, but I could not take my eyes off of it.

This movie is the same as Boyhood. It’s the same movie, essentially. Just without the gimmick that could turn people of of it. This is a movie about a boy during very defined periods of his life, evocatively told. The three actors who play the boy are terrific (even the one who looks like a weird mix between Kanye and 50 Cent), Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris are absolutely perfect, and this is truly an astounding piece of filmmaking.

I wouldn’t be upset if this won every award there is to win. It’s definitely not my favorite movie of the year, but there’s no denying how powerful this movie is and the lasting impression it leaves on its viewers.


4. The Girl with All the Gifts

This will be the first time in the history of my top ten list that one of the films won’t have come out in the US as of its posting. This movie only came out in the UK in September. It has been picked up for U.S. distribution, but so far no date has been set, and in all likelihood, it won’t get a proper theatrical release. Which gave me even more incentive to put it here.

This is based on a novel, which I’ve never read, but I remember seeing the cover and picking it up, because the cover looked interesting to me. I read the blurb and thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” And this was probably three years ago. Then I thought nothing of it. Cut to this summer, and I see a trailer for this movie. I don’t even know this movie exists before this point. But I remember the title vaguely and decide to check it out. And I’m blown away. The trailer looks really good. But of course… no U.S. release date. I’m figuring I’ll have to wait until 2017. Then I get a chance to see this at a festival, and I jump. I went from not knowing this existed to being really excited for it. Even being excited for it, I couldn’t have predicted top ten. But there really weren’t a whole lot of movies I liked better than this.

The little girl in the above photo is an infected. The zombie apocalypse has happened. Those infected are zombies the way we know them. However, some of the infected were pregnant at the time, and the children were actually born genetically fused with the infection. Life finds a way. So these are, by and large, average children. Though when they need to feed… watch out. The kids are in a military facility, being taught like regular kids and treated like maximum security prisoners. The remaining humans (a number that is dwindling by the day) believe they can use these children to make a cure. And the three main humans all see the kids in a different way, which gives you a nice amount of perspectives on how to view the situation.

This is a beautiful, beautiful movie that’s part coming-of-age story, part road trip, part 28 Days Later type zombie movie, part really interesting meditation on what it means to be alive. The ending is really bold and really well done, and I loved every direction they took this in (even when it went into a weird one near the end).

This is truly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, and I wanted to make sure I made as big a deal about this as possible so that when 2017 rolls around and this movie barely gets a U.S. release, people will (hopefully) actively seek this out and watch this movie. Because this is, without exaggeration, the best zombie movie I’ve seen since 28 Days Later. (Shaun of the Dead too, I guess. But you know what I mean.)


3. Moana

Disney does it again. People are gonna talk about Zootopia as the best Disney movie this year, but this is classic Disney. This is the stuff I want to see. This is everything I wanted it to be and more.

It’s the right amount of classic Disney mixed with modern humor and self-reference without going overboard on either. The songs are also really, really good. These are the best Disney songs in a while. And that may include Frozen too. I’ll just put them on the same level for now. But I really liked these songs. Even the villain song in this movie is good!

Even the not so great parts of this movie are fun. Unlike Frozen, where the trolls are kind of iffy, the dumb parts of this are kind of charming (the coconut things). I’ve been unable to watch this movie again since I started writing up this list, so I’m not as fresh on it as I’d like to be. But I loved this movie so, so much. I might have liked this better than Frozen. This is all I want out of a Disney movie.

And the best part? It’s not that racist! They handle the culture with respect and actually make it an important part of the movie. A real joy to watch, and definitely something I would recommend to people way more than Zootopia.


2. Kubo and the Two Strings

This movie blew me away. I’ve always respected Laika, but they’d never made anything that I truly loved. But from the minute I saw a trailer for this movie, I knew it was going to be something special.

The artistry that went into this movie is nothing short of breathtaking. Every frame, every piece of every frame, down to a character’s hair, is beautifully rendered. The story is a wonderful adventure, with some beautiful themes at its center.

It’s not like it reinvents the wheel (standard hero’s journey, “these three items you must find”), but it does it in such a unique way. I loved this story. The fact that he’s traveling with a monkey and a beetle, the design of the two sisters, the flying centipede in the end. This is not a movie that is entirely for children either, which I also really respected. Some really heavy shit happens during the course of this movie. People die, and it’s not precious about sparing likable characters.

The thing that makes this timeless for me is the animation. What they accomplish with the stop motion in this movie is nothing short of gorgeous. I am going to really love seeing this movie again from here on out. This is animation done right.


1. La La Land

There was very little doubt this was gonna end up as #1 for me. The minute you saw a trailer for this, it was going #1. This is everything I love in a single movie. This is a bold style exercise that’s being audacious in a very deliberate way. The entire movie is about reaching back into the past and doing what you want to do. It’s a perfect blend of style and substance.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are incredible, Damien Chazelle directs the hell out of it, and this is the kind of movie that leaves a smile on your face from beginning to end. From the incredible opening number on the freeway to the spectacular final sequence. I could think to knock the movie for referencing other movies, but that’s entirely the point. So sure, I do love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and the entire last fifteen minutes is meant to evoke that, but that’s fine. Because this movie does it in its own way. If I wanted to knock people for referencing the great movies in cinema history, we’d barely have any movies to talk about.

Cinema is built on the back of itself, and this is a movie about taking what you got and standing out from the crowd in whatever way suits you the best. And there’s no other movie from 2016 that stood out as well or as proudly as this one. It’s not gonna change cinema, but it is cinema. And boy, do I love me some of that.

– – – – – – – – – – –

11. Hell or High Water — This barely missed the top ten. I love this movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually makes it onto the list over time. This is just a wonderful movie. What takes this from good thriller to great movie is all the little things this movie includes that make it feel real. The waitress, of course, and all those little Texas things that make everything feel like it’s actually happening. Sometimes movies outside the top ten are legitimately outside the top ten, but this one feels like a top ten movie that just got squeezed because of a lack of room.

12. Jackie — LOVED this movie. It’s less a biopic than a character study of this woman, and as such they focus the movie purely on her and her point of view. And it works. Natalie Portman is sublime here. The direction and cinematography are top notch, and it’s just so utterly spellbinding. Another one that could have easily made the top ten but got left out because apparently that’s how numbers work.

13. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — I really loved this, but I was smart enough this year to realize that this wasn’t a top ten movie for me. It definitely takes a while to get into, but once you get to that third act, you are just on the edge of your seat, smiling from ear to ear. It’s really well made and feels like a Star Wars movie, and it’ll make fans of the original film happy. There are issues, but there were always gonna be issues. On the whole, I don’t think this is a disappointment. Which is what we all could have hoped for with this movie.

14. Sing Street — Few movies made me happier this year than this one. How does this not make you smile? How good are the songs in this movie? How likable are these kids? Give me more of these. John Carney is the musical version of Jim Sheridan. And he should keep making movies like this rather than get studio jobs, and keep the purity that exists in these types of movies.

15. Midnight Special — Jeff Nichols had a double header this year. They were both great. This is the one I’m gonna watch more, so it gets ranked higher. This is Starman meets Close Encounters for the current age. In the year when everyone went nuts for Stranger Things, this is that but without the obvious nostalgia aspect. Jeff Nichols is the reason this movie works, and I feel like I’m gonna say that with every one of his movies. His tendencies as a filmmaker prevent him from all the horrible things that could happen to a movie like this. So instead of a big sci fi action movie, you have a wonderful movie about a father who will do anything to help his son. And I loved it.

16. Hacksaw Ridge — Mel Gibson is a great director. He makes great movies. This one, I get, will piss some people off, with its classical narrative for the first half and possible on-the-nose religious overtones, but once you get into the battle scenes, you can’t stop watching. And you’re talking to someone who hates religious overtones in movies, and I had no problem with this one (except maybe the final shot).

17. The Red Turtle — This is a beautiful movie. Gorgeously animated (hand-drawn, the way it’s supposed to be), and a beautiful meditation on the cycle of life, which can be taken as a metaphor or enjoyed on its own. It’s such a beautiful movie, without any dialogue, that just captures your attention and holds it for the entirety of the run time. One of the great animated movies of the year, which is saying something, since there were quite a few.

18. Loving — Again, Jeff Nichols was the only one who could do this story justice. It’s such a simple movie that doesn’t resort to big speeches and “movie” moments. It’s just a story about two people trying to live in peace. The scene where they get the news that they won the case is such a thing of understated beauty. I am so happy that this movie exists.

19. Manchester by the Sea — It’s heavy, but it’s also really funny. This movie is quite wonderful. It was never going to be a top ten movie for me, but I loved it. It’s wonderful, wonderfully acted and wonderfully written. It’s one of the best films of the year, and deserves all the acclaim it’s getting. I just personally didn’t like it enough to put it in the top ten, but top twenty is nothing to be ashamed about. This movie is wonderful.

20. Hidden Figures — I’ve seen this three times now, and I love it. This is so immensely watchable and likable. It doesn’t get deep into history, but it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes you feel good, that’s about an important part of history that’s gone unnoticed for far too long. I love this movie, and I’m glad this is getting out there and seemingly going to be seen by a lot of people.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier Two:

  1. Allied
  2. American Honey
  3. Army of One
  4. Bleed for This
  5. Christine
  6. Deadpool
  7. The Edge of Seventeen
  8. Finding Dory
  9. The Founder
  10. Green Room
  11. Hail Caesar!
  12. Hardcore Henry
  13. Hunt for the Wilderpeeple
  14. The Light Between Oceans
  15. Lion
  16. A Man Called Ove
  17. Morris from America
  18. Nocturnal Animals
  19. Remember
  20. Silence

Loved all of these movies. The highlights here are Remember, which is the closest thing to Hitchcock I’ve seen in 20 years, The Light Between Oceans, which is such a throwback romantic movie, Christine, which is a fantastic performance out of Rebecca Hall, Morris from America, which just barely missed the top 20, Lion, which really surprised me how good it was, and The Edge of Seventeen, which is the best teen comedy I’ve seen in a while.

Silence is an incredible looking movie that will take some time to warm up on me, Hunt for the Wilderpeeple is one of the cult comedies of the year, Hardcore Henry is so much fun, Hail Caesar is a worthy Coen brothers movie, Green Room is one of the best contained thrillers of the past couple years, Nocturnal Animals is beautiful and brutal, and Finding Dory is a lot of fun.

The Founder is very watchable, if not all that great a movie, Deadpool is a lot of fun, Allied is a really terrific throwback war movie romance that tries to be a lot of things and succeeds more than it fails, American Honey is great but complete hipster bait, Bleed for This is a solid boxing movie with great performances, and Army of One is Nicolas Cage returning to form. Thank Russell Brand.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier Three:

  1. The Bad Batch
  2. A Bigger Splash
  3. Blood Father
  4. The Confirmation
  5. The Dark Horse
  6. Eye in the Sky
  7. The Fits
  8. I Daniel Blake
  9. Jason Bourne
  10. The Jungle Book
  11. Live by Night
  12. Look Who’s Back
  13. The Monster
  14. Passengers
  15. Rules Don’t Apply
  16. Sausage Party
  17. Snowden
  18. Sully
  19. White Girl
  20. Zootopia

Good stuff here too. A lot of interesting misses, like Rules Don’t Apply and Passengers. Blood Father is a great B action movie with Mel Gibson showing that he’s one of the great untapped acting resources in Hollywood. Zootopia is a good, but not great animated movie that holds up well on further viewings. White Girl and The Fits are great calling cards for directors.

Look Who’s Back is the Hitler comedy we deserved. Snowden is a solid, but unspectacular effort to deal with some very heavy source material. I Daniel Blake is a wonderful movie about how badly fucked the system is. The Jungle Book looks gorgeous and doesn’t suck. Eye in the Sky is a great thriller that evokes the good movies of the 70s like Fail-Safe. The Monster is one of the few interesting horror movies I’ve seen the past couple years (including The Witch, which technically counted for last year for me). The Confirmation is a great little movie that contains great rewards in a simple story, A Bigger Splash is a great piece of acting and directing featuring a great Ralph Fiennes performance, The Bad Batch is coming out next year but is a pretty awesome cannibal love story.

And Sausage Party.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier Four:

  1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
  2. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
  3. 20th Century Women
  4. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. Captain Fantastic
  7. Elvis & Nixon
  8. Fences
  9. Florence Foster Jenkins
  10. Kicks
  11. Little Sister
  12. Miles Ahead
  13. Other People
  14. Paterson
  15. Standoff
  16. Tale of Tales
  17. Toni Erdmann
  18. Too Late
  19. War Dogs
  20. Weiner-Dog

Solid stuff here. Too Late is a movie that does something different with its structure. Little Sister is a goth nun movie that is just amazing. The only movie you’ll see this year with a musical number about dead babies. Just like Weiner-Dog is the only movie with a tracking shot of diarrhea in it. Most of the movies in this tier are interesting in idea that contain a lot of stuff that works really well. Or they’re just insanely weird in the best way, like Elvis & Nixon.

Trust me on that goth nun movie.

– – – – – – – – – –

Top Documentaries:

  • 808
  • The Beatles: Eight Days a Week
  • Breaking a Monster
  • Can We Take a Joke?
  • De Palma
  • The Eagle Huntress
  • Fire at Sea
  • Gleason
  • Hooligan Sparrow
  • Into the Inferno
  • Life Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America
  • Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
  • Tickled
  • Weiner

– – – – –

And that’ll conclude our 2016.

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One response

  1. Love this list like always!

    Yeah, the Fantastic Beasts one on your #10 surprised me; I haven’t seen the film, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else put it on their top 10 yet. But, cool!

    I’m also happy to see Moana so high up! I too love Moana more than Zootopia and I was the only guy in the world who was more anticipating to see Zootopia than Moana. Funny how these things turn out!

    December 31, 2016 at 4:02 pm

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