Last year is well and truly in the rear-view mirror, but as we head in to Awards Season, we decided that it would be a good time to take a look back at the best films that 2016 had to offer. With our last-year binge-watching now complete, our final assessment—which still only scratches the surface of everything worth watching—proves that, whether at the multiplex or the art house, filmgoers were blessed with a bounty of great offerings in 2016. Here is The Speakeasy’s list of the best films of 2016.
15. Midnight Special
Midnight Special announces the arrival of Writer-director Jeff Nichols as a filmmaker in total control of his technique as well as our emotions. A bravura science-fiction thriller that explores emotional areas like parenthood and the nature of belief, it’s a riveting genre exercise as well as something more. Nichols’ gets the most out of his lead actor, and frequent collaborator, Michael Shannon who shines in this strangely hypnotic sci-fi thriller that evokes classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Read our full review here.
Disney’s Moana is an absolute joy and a feast for the eyes. The film represents a pinnacle of CG animation. Its colors are incredibly vivid. The screen is bathed in bright cerulean hues of the limitless ocean sparkling in the sun and the lush greenery of tropical-island paradises. Moana is also a delight for the ears with songs that rival Disney’s best animated films. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker mined Polynesian lore for the story elements. Everything in the picture, from the characters’ clothes and hairstyles to the vessels they sail, bear the stamp of authenticity. But Moana’s greatest strength is the verve in which they move the action along and the sheer joyousness evident in every aspect of their storytelling.
13. The Founder
The Keatonnaissance continues. Following his leading roles in two Oscar winners, Birdman and Spotlight, Michael Keaton picks another ideal home for his jittery charisma. The Founder is a balanced, snappy docudrama about Ray Kroc, the travelling salesman who stopped at a roadside burger joint run by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and knew at once that he could turn it into a coast-to-coast franchise: McDonald’s. There’s plenty here to chew on. John Lee Hancock’s fascinating film may be set 60 years ago, but its competing visions of all-American industry – family businesses versus cost-cutting corporations could scarcely be more relevant today.
12. Green Room
“I haven’t seen a movie that so effectively creates an air of sleazy tension as Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room,” writes Nathan Luscombe. The premise is uncomplicated: down on their luck punk rockers ‘The Ain’t Rights’ are about to call it quits when they get an unexpected booking at an isolated, run-down club deep in the backwoods of Oregon. What seems merely to be a third-rate gig escalates into something much more sinister when they witness an act of violence backstage that they weren’t meant to see. Green Room is certainly not for the faint hearted film-goer. It’s brutal, tense, and down-right strange. It takes no prisoners and is more than happy to reach out of the screen and punch you in the face. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this film enter the halls of cult classic status. Read our full review here.
11. I, Daniel Blake
Dismantling the myths and demonisation surrounding benefit claimants, I, Daniel Blake isn’t based on a true story but it certainly feels like it could be. Inspired by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s encounters with various families across Britain who are dependent on food banks, this painfully moving film weaves a hefty political agenda into what is a decidedly human tale and succeeds in giving a voice to the voiceless. Defiantly old school film is hardly groundbreaking in its execution or subject matter, the film succeeds because of its moving performances, undeniable heart, and ability to tackle heady subjects without alienating audiences. This film is a timely example of protest film-making, and one that is bound to leave the audience teary-eyed. If I, Daniel Blake is Ken Loach’s final film, as it has been suggested, then he truly has gone out punching. You can read our full review here.
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One was released under a cloud of extensive re-shoots and crippling expectation, but Gareth Edwards’ worthy entry into the Star Wars universe not only delivered on the promise of a ‘grittier’ tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but ecliposed the mark set by 2015’s Force Awakens. Taking place just before the events of the first released Star Wars movie, the film follows a group of unlikely heroes (led by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna) on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. While the plot is a bit thin, and at times haphazardly cobbled together, it succeeds through elevated stakes, the difficulty in pulling off the Rebel’s mission, the sacrifice involved, and the thrill of meeting new characters in a story that fits into the “Star Wars” universe more neatly than you might imagine. As always, a Star Wars movie lives or dies depending on how much we give a damn or don’t about the characters. Fortunately, Jones and co. give us heroes that we care about, Ben Mendelsohn provides much needed menace, and a heart-pounding cameo from Darth Vader provides one of 2016 greatest action scenes.
9. Your Name
Makoto Shinkai’s Japanese smash hit is dazzling in more ways than one. This is a film that is so beautiful it’s almost laughable, the range of lighting effects and painterly panoramas makes it the most spectacular cartoon of the year. As the film progresses the plotting gets weirder and more apocalyptic: Your Name starts as a high-school comedy about a country girl and a city boy who switch identities every few days, and then it grows into a mystical, time-travelling disaster movie. The only way to truly understand it is to swim in it for yourself, feel your own heart braid around these two interwoven lives, and gaze up in awe at the silvery arc those falling stars trace across the sky. Read more about the film here.
8. Nocturnal Animals
For a film about a woman (Amy Adams) sitting quietly at home and reading a novel, Nocturnal Animals is ridiculously entertaining. Tom Ford’s second offering as a writer-director is a waspish satire of Los Angeles’s glitzy art scene, a poignant tale of youthful romance, and a nightmarish western that pits a mild-mannered family man (Jake Gyllenhaal) against the redneck from hell (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). All three sections are ferociously acted and dripping with style; together, they add up to a proudly nasty treatise on fiction and revenge. You can admire the film’s cleverly intertwining structure and still be absolutely terrified.
7. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Coming on like a low-budget, live-action Up directed by a Wes Anderson, this adaptation of Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork And Watercress is the ideal showcase for Kiwi director Taika Waititi’s exuberant sense of humour and flair for inventive absurdity. While Hunt For The Wilderpeople is very funny, what makes it stick is the way Waititi allows the relationship between twelve-year-old troublemaker Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his grizzled guardian Hec (a fantastic Sam Neill) to develop slowly and how nimbly he sets the emotional stakes for both of the characters as they make their way through the bush, on the lam from an increasingly unhinged Child Protective Services officer.
You know you’re in good hands when the credits of a superhero film list the actors as “Moody Teen, British Villain, Gratuitous Cameo, CGI Character” and end “Directed by An Overpaid Tool.” Based on the unconventional Marvel Comics character, Deadpool is something different in superhero flicks: a self-aware sendup that works overtime to be as rude and irreverent as possible. Naysayers may dismiss the whole enterprise as irredeemably juvenile, but that would be their loss. This is a film that gives the superhero genre a kick in its pearly white teeth – and it is a welcome one at that. This genre has needed deconstruction for so long that almost every joke uttered out of the sarcastic ‘Merc With The Mouth’ works. Reynolds is perfectly cast as the wisecracking Deadpool, and brings to his character a charmingly sarcastic verve that’s more tart than completely sour. His impressive comic timing, physicality, and undeniable enthusiasm for the project helps elevate this film far above the standard superhero fare.
Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction mind-bender Arrival follows an elite team which is put together to investigate the arrival of mysterious spacecraft which begin touching down across the globe. The film isn’t short of awe-inspiring spectacle or eerie atmosphere, but it’s essentially a small, intimate chamber piece that showcases Amy Adams’ unique balance of toughness and fragility. Then comes *That Twist*, which raises the film to another level. What’s so satisfying about the final revelation apart from how moving it is is that it’s nearly impossible to guess in advance, but all the clues are there. Arrival is a beautifully polished puzzle box of a story whose emotional and cerebral heft should enable it to withstand nit-picky scrutiny. And like all the best sci-fi, it has something pertinent to say about today’s world; particularly about the importance of communication, and how we need to transcend cultural divides and misconceptions if we’re to survive as a species.
Weiner is the sort of film that you need to see to believe. This fly-on-the-wall political documentary chronicles, disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s ill-fated 2013 campaign to become Mayor of New York. What follows is a fascinating, surreal, and often baffling documentary about failure — unremitting, unrelenting, personal, professional, and moral failure. Failure of the sort you rarely get to see in real time because people prone to fail this spectacularly don’t let people film it. Edited to perfection, the film has it all: the surreal spectacle of contemporary politics, hysterical media madness, and the mysteries of psychodrama. Watching Weiner is like watching the slow-motion footage of a building collapsing. Cleverly, Kreigman and Steinberg largely stay out of their subjects way, capturing him in the fullness of his vanity, ambition, passion, and self-destructive self-delusion. Weiner is, simply put, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. You can read our full review here.
Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is a modern masterpiece, it is both haunting and poetic, a bittersweet elegy for what could have been. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film follows the life of a gay African-American man, revealing the crushing loneliness and horrific violence of being gay in a culture where homosexuality is seen as a weakness. Jenkins burrows deep into his characters’ pain-seared memories, creating ferociously restrained performances and confrontational yet tender images that seem wrenched from his very core. The unflinching camera work, which tends to follow the film’s characters like a ghost, gives the film a starling immediacy and undeniable emotional resonance. It’s a stunning achievement.
2. Manchester by the Sea
Some films you watch, others you feel. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea sits in the latter camp and is an emotional tour de force which draws a career-best performance from Casey Affleck. This slow-burning drama stars Affleck as a laconic janitor who returns to the eponymous coastal town in Massachussets when his brother dies, but who has his own reasons for wanting to leave again as soon as he can. Lonergen doesn’t give his characters grandstanding speeches about the tragedies in their past; he just shows us their daily routines and quiet conversations in such credible and often very funny detail that we feel as if we’ve lived through everything they have. Masterfully told and beautifully acted, Manchester By The Sea is a shattering yet graceful elegy of loss and grief.
1. La La Land
Pure unadulterated joy is hard to come by these days but that’s what makes Damien Chazelle’s irresistible La La Land all the more cherishable. More than just a throwback to the musicals of yesteryear, it is a funny Valentine to the entire history of the genre, as light on its feet as Fred Astaire, as big in its heart as Judy Garland. Whats-more, the writer-director of Whiplash, makes it look easy. All you have to do, it seems, is cast two goofily charming actors (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), write them some well-honed songs and spiky romantic banter, embrace them in a riot pof colour and euphoria, and make the whole enterprise a sincere tribute to the glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood and jazz. Seemingly inspired by the musicals of late French director Jacques Demy, La La Land is one of the most delightful films in years and a complete joy to behold. A film about love made with love, it’s hard to imagine any film in 2016 left you on a higher high.