10 best films of 2016
Harry Westergaard gives his thoughts on what are, in his opinion, the ten best films released last year.
January 25, 2017
Although 2016 wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it was an interesting year for film to be sure. As usual, it wasn’t until the summer season started to creep in that the market became saturated — mostly with sequels and remakes of questionable quality (see Batman vs. Superman). There were a couple indie hits, of course, such as The Lobster, but many got swept under the radar and forgotten, such as The Nice Guys and Hell or High Water. Later in the year, after the sequel action was downplayed significantly, we were given some real gems. It was a patchy year; however, what was good definitely resonated.
Before I list the best films of 2016, I need to give a little disclaimer. I have not seen every film released this past year. Not even close. But I have probably seen more than your average sane human being. Keep that in mind when reading.
John Lasseter reinvented the genre of animated children’s films with his work at Pixar by creating the first computer animated feature length film Toy Story. Now, as the head of Disney, he has saved the legendary animation brand with a line of hits that have even been surpassing Pixar’s recent work in some cases. This year’s Zootopia is another classic. Cleverly blending humor with social commentary on race relations, it’s an example of a perfect childrens’ film. Yes, there are potty humor and slapstick that will appeal to kids, but adults will be just as invested through the commentary and subtle jokes that fly over kids’ radar. It also boasts great cast including Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons. Zootopia succeeds at being top-rate children’s fare, but it’s also a delightful film with a relevant message.
- The Nice Guys
There is an art to making good action movies. While a majority are garbage, there are a scant few that are well-constructed, exhilarating rides with fun characters and clever writing. A veteran writer of the genre, Shane Black, brings all of this to The Nice Guys, his third film serving as a writer and director. Black provided the screenplay for many groundbreaking action films in the eighties and nineties, including the original Lethal Weapon series. His latest film takes place in the seventies and follows the exploits of two detectives-for-hire who team up to find a missing girl. The plot is very simple, but what really works is the chemistry between its main stars, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Both are great actors, who aren’t usually in comedies, but it somehow works. This is helped by the fact that Black really knows how to write buddy movies, and he has surpassed himself with this. The Nice Guys is one of the strongest action movies in recent years and one that will definitely fare well on repeated viewings.
- Captain America: Civil War
There were many giant superhero blockbuster messes in late spring and early summer. However, Captain America: Civil War, the latest film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, was pleasing both critically and financially. The film, an adaptation of the best-selling comic series, depicts the conflict between factions of superheroes divided over the role of heroes in a modern society. The film manages to improve over the comic by giving both sides of the conflict believable and realistic motives. Captain America and Iron Man both have compelling reasons for choosing their sides, and neither feels like a villain, as in the comic. There is a grand mosaic of characters present in the film that rivals even the Avengers films. Yet it never feels overcrowded as some of the failed super hero epics of the year. They all have a place, a reason to be here, and are well written. There are actual stakes here, and the characters are at the core of the story. It’s not about a huge CGI fight. While there is a fight (which is amazing), it builds up between the characters. With witty characters, writing, and just the right amount of action, Captain America: Civil War breaks new ground for Marvel’s cinematic universe. It shines as one of their finest films yet, and in the genre as a whole.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One is a very important film to the Star Wars franchise in many ways. It’s the first anthology film. It’s also a prequel to the original trilogy that isn’t an insult to the franchise. Rather than nearly ruining the series, Rogue One adds more to the mythos of the original series and makes them better for it. We learn more about the conflict, as the stakes are raised and we fear the Empire more than we ever did. Through the different ground fights and space battles, the battle between the rebellion and the empire feels like a real war. Yes, the characters are not as memorable, but that’s not the point of the picture. It’s a plot-driven war film set in space. It does perfectly what a prequel should do — it tells more of the story and, in doing so, adds to the original films, making them even better.
The second Disney film on the list, and further proof that the company is back on a roll with hit after hit, is Moana. In the past five years or so they have given us a diverse range of hits that include offbeat kids films that have raised the bar for the genre such as Wreck It Ralph and more traditional successes such as Frozen. With Moana, we get the perfect mix of both. The film is something revolutionary for Disney and yet at the same time it fits within the confines of their classic princess films. It’s the story of a young princess who defies her parents’ wishes to set out and find Maui, a demi god who unleashed a darkness on their world thousands of years ago. Moana and Maui work great together, and have some hilarious exchanges. They are also not in a forced relationship, another thing Disney has been vastly improving recently. The original songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda are beautiful, sweeping, and very catchy. Most musicals have about two good songs with a lot of filler. However, with Moana, not only does every song have a purpose for the plot, but they are all well-written pieces of music. Moana is the perfect mix of something new and something wholly original from Disney.
- A Man Called Ove
The adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel is not something I expected to make this list, or be one of the best Swedish films of the year. But, on a whim I ended up seeing it one wet fall afternoon. Not even familiar with the source material, I was expecting a goofy old man comedy, in the vein of Grumpy Old Men (a favorite of mine for years). I was blown away by what I ended up seeing. I was not expecting the beautiful, yet elegantly told look at life that the film is. Rolf Lassgard drives the film as the titular Ove, and gives a stellar performance. He delivers the lines with the right amount of grit, but the key to the performance is his hilarious expressions. When watching a film in another language (or any really) being able to emote things perfectly really helps get the meaning across. The film is the very definition of ‘happy-sad’ ( a reference to the next film on this list). It’s a very sincere and heartfelt picture that puts a smile on your face, and more than a couple tears.
- Sing Street
Sing Street is a classic love story with a breath of new life, courtesy of its 1980s Ireland setting. There are so many things that are great about this film, but what really makes it work is the top notch acting from the child actors who make up the cast. John Carney has really cast the film perfectly. The music is also very authentic to the period. I also enjoyed seeing the musical process, and the comedy that comes from it, from the perspective of teenagers. Carney has told similar stories of aspiring musicians in his previous films, but here he serves up a new high with this touching, witty, and toe-tapping modern classic. An ultimate feel-good experience that makes you want to “drive it like you stole it!”
- La La Land
Big Hollywood musicals are a dead genre. You at least get a decent western every few years, but a big musical is something that only happens once in a blue moon. La La Land comes in as a perfect musical in a time when we need one more than ever. It whisks you away to a magical postmodern Hollywood — away from the troubles and hardships of the 2017. One of its great qualities is how it pays tribute to the style of old musicals, while at the same time being very rooted in the present. This mixture of periods is brought to life by director Damien Chazelle’s breathtaking visual style. In his previous films such as Whiplash, Chazelle has triumphed with smaller scale stories. Here, he does the exact opposite. The film is a spectacle — the bright colors really pop on screen and he lets takes run on as long as they have to. He really cements his status as a director who works well in multiple genres. La La Land recycles enough of the old, but tosses in the right enough of new flair and style to make it a perfect cinematic experience that must be seen on the big screen.
Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is a film that really must be seen to be believed. Our protagonist is a timid black child, Chiron, who we follow through three distinct stages of life as he struggles to find his racial and sexual identity. The three actors who play him do exponential jobs, and it’s never in doubt that they aren’t the same person. There is such connection in the way that they act, and yet enough to set them apart as three different ages. The movie relies on its visuals and performances to convey the Chiron’s alienation from the world. The visuals are very powerful, yet they are not as flashy as some films on this list. Moonlight is a film of great power, and is done on the smallest scale possible, focusing on the life of one boy and his plight in the world.
- Swiss Army Man
This is a film that you will either love or hate. I obviously fell into the former. Swiss Army Man is a quirky dark comedy that depends on the acting of its two leads, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Both do a great job to convey this unnatural relationship formed between a man with social anxiety and a mysteriously reanimated dead body. This is the style of offbeat comedy that really appeals to me. There is plenty of corpse farting at play here, but as odd as this will sound, it rises above this. Swiss Army Man manages to make a movie about two outcasts stranded on an island a touching, profound, and often hilarious look at life. It is my pick for the best picture of the year.
There you have it: one of the more diverse best-of-the-year lists. We’ve got talking animals, superheroes, a seafaring princess, musicals, old men, and farting corpses. You may look at this and laugh. However, I think that this conveys that, while at times lumpy, this past year was a very diverse year for film. And 2017 is already looking to follow in its footsteps, by having a film about three smart,and independent african american women take charge at the box office. While the film industry is definitely not perfect, it’s times like this that fill me with hope for the world, especially in a time when we’re all in desperate need for escape to a world of celluloid dreams.