The Top 20 Best Movies of 2016

If the Oscars can wait so long to unveil their best-of-the-year picks, why not us? After all, ours are demonstrably superior to the Academy’s: More eclectic, less predictable, sometimes more weird (often, also, more musical). 2016 wasn’t good for a lot, but it was, as it turned out, a good year for movies. So our core film group — Marisa, Jesse, Nathaniel, and Sara — went ahead and picked not 10, not 15, but 20. There was room; there could have been room for even more. We’ll be back with a podcast where we discuss our choices. For now, enjoy our tributes to the movies that moved us most in 2016.

The Top 20 Best Movies of 2016

20. The Neon Demon

I may be stealing this idea from a comment Nathaniel made in one of our previous podcasts, but most of Nicolas Winding Refn’s other movies are about toxic masculinity: men who drive fast cars, lust after a specifically male kind of power, and tear each other to pieces in the process. The Neon Demon inverts his formula and explores what toxic femininity—and, for a dude, he pretty much nails it. If men rip themselves apart, women pick each other to pieces, chew those pieces up, and choke on them. This all goes down in a typically Refn-style world of saturated colors, click-clacking heels, chilly compositions, glowing triangle monsters, a drawling and predatory Keanu Reeves, and seriousness that borders on silliness (or possibly silliness that borders on seriousness). So why was I the only one that voted for this, huh??? – Marisa

19. Sing Street

It’s impossible to read about the movies of 2016 without some attention being paid to the resurgence of the movie musical, and this is almost 100 percent driven by La La Land. And while we’ll get to La La Land later, it’s a shame that Sing Street is left out of the conversation. The two movies have a lot in common. Yes, they’re both about how two straight white people fall in love. They both hit the nostalgia button pretty hard. They both feature original music that has at least one song that stands up on its own without the movie. And they’re both musicals that are uniquely suited to the movie format, with Sing Street feeling wholly like a product of the early-MTV music-video era. Yet La La Land, which I also love, is set to sweep the table at the Oscars, Sing Street couldn’t even rustle up a nomination for “Drive It Like You Stole It.” In Twitter parlance, things are bad.

But not everything is bad. As someone who was 1) gawky in high school, 2) into music, 2) has a strong sibling relationship, and 4) doesn’t have a heart made of stone, I found Sing Street to be very, very good. John Carney has his romantic laser beam, and it can misfire (see: his ideas about the music industry in Begin Again, his love-can-cure-all treatment of mental health in On the Edge, Adam Levine), but with Sing Street he totally has it pointed in the right direction. Your first love, your first musical obsession, your first creative project, and bad Duran Duran eyeliner totally deserve that kind of schmoopy attention. – Marisa

Seriously, though: One benefit of assembling this list in January after Oscar nominations come out is that we have a better view towards what movies have been properly (or improperly) feted in the year-end sweepstakes, and what has been left out. Which is to say: Can you fucking believe that Sing Street didn’t get a nomination for Best Original Song? This fucking thing is filled with original songs, many of them skillful pastiches of various ’80s rock and roll style, often integral to the actual story of the movie, which is about fucking teenagers in fucking Dublin forming a fucking band. Writer-director John Carney spent some of his Once goodwill on Begin Again, a second indie that feels more like a major-label remake of its predecessor, but the magic’s back for his most recent pop musical: Sing Street is funny, rueful, and fleet in ways that few musicals, comedies, romances, or even other John Carney films manage to pull off. It’s the kind of feel-good movie that makes feeling good at the movies feel fucking good. And the songs! The fucking songs! Ignored for Justin Timberlake? What the fuck? – Jesse

18. Moana

I won’t praise Moana for being an anti-princess Disney movie (compared to Frozen where one, two princesses kneeled before you), because princess movies have their place (and aren’t all about finding a prince). Instead, I’ll say it’s worthy of this list because it’s a cool retelling of the hero’s quest formula, goosed by the musical stylings of Lin-Manuel Miranda. That was honestly the most fun part of it for me—hearing people like the Rock do a sort of Miranda karaoke in songs like “You’re Welcome.” It’s enough to make you try and re-cast Hamilton with other Disney characters. Belle for Angelica, Ariel for Eliza, and Lilo for Peggy, amirite? – Marisa

17. Jackie

It’s easy to overstate how unconventional Jackie is as a biopic. Natalie Portman (really terrific here) works to look and sound like Jackie Kennedy, and the film focuses on a specific event and a relatively narrow span of time in the subject’s life. There’s a flashback structure that, while well-executed, isn’t terribly unusual for this kind of thing. It’s a genre we see a lot of each year, and one that can offer both a tremendous variety in tones and subjects (in 2016 alone there were, among many others, movies about Jesse Owens, Christine Chubbuck, Nat Turner, Ray Croc, Florence Foster Jenkins, and two different films about Barack Obama) and the wearying sameness one feels when confronted with too much of any one genre. For all the tremendous power of the specific story it focuses on, Jackie is pretty solidly doing the biopic thing (we’re not in Todd Haynes’s Superstar or I’m Not There territory here). No, the things that make this a special and unique movie come down to the details. To the texture of it. The film uses its flashbacks and framing interview sequences (and some devices that might seem distancing, like archival footage of the real Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House) to create a balance between the bigger historical and cultural context of its story and specific, intimate, experiential moments. The score is woozy and ominous, the photography beautifully composed (whether capturing images of beauty or horror), and the editing jagged. The effect is a sort of post-assassination fantasia, perfectly capturing both the feeling of the moment, as Jackie grapples with the dual millstones of her grief and her responsibility to her husband and the country, and with the broader issues raised by the decisions she has to make, which have echoes in every transition of power or swing of the pendulum to this day. – Nathaniel

16. Shin Godzilla

I wrote plenty about Shin Godzilla back in October, and it’s a movie the feels even more resonant now. The Japan of the movie grapples with ambivalent feelings about the same post-Cold War global order that many nations around our real world seem ready to upend, and they’re confronted with a Godzilla more frightening, changing, and unknowable than any before. A potent symbol in the Brexit/Trump era, this Godzilla’s destructive capabilities are exacerbated in unpredictable and frightening ways by the very attacks made to combat him, and while the film contains some hope in the cooperative multi-nation effort that manages to (temporarily?) stop the monster, it offers no easy answers as our heroes face a truly uncertain future. – Nathaniel

15. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Frame for frame, this is the funniest film on this list, and probably the funniest film of the year. The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone) were already firmly in the comedy pantheon, as their Digital Shorts for Saturday Night Live gave the venerable show entree into the world of viral video, and many of them (they made approximately a hundred) lodged themselves in the pop consciousness (“Dick in a Box” will be in SNL Christmas specials until they no longer air Christmas specials). Their first movie, Hot Rod, is hilarious and has gathered something of a cult audience after a disappointing theatrical run. And Popstar, a mock music documentary in the vein of Katy Perry’s Part of Me or Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, is really the culmination of their work to date. Featuring a murderers’ row of comedy and music icons, cameos from some beloved featured players from some of their most popular Digital Shorts, and a framework that provides ample opportunity for lots of the sort of catchy-as-it-is-funny music that made them favorites on SNL, Popstar is basically SNL Digital Short: The Movie. So it’s a shame that it didn’t draw a theatrical audience as big as their internet audience, because their fans missed a marvelous comedy with a laugh per minute ratio like This is Spinal Tap. And a film with the insight into celebrity, friendship, and masculine insecurity of…Spinal Tap. Basically, I’m ready to dub Popstar a classic on that level. This one goes to 11. – Nathaniel

14. Everybody Wants Some!!

Could this movie look more out of step? On a list where relatively few of the entries focus heavily or exclusively on white men, at least compared to same stats for the year’s biggest grossers, here’s a movie that’s so white, so male, and so heterosexual (in terms of the characters’ identifications, if not necessarily the movie’s audience) that it has to be set in 1980 – even in a culture where straight white men still dominate most mainstream releases. Yet Richard Linklater’s sorta-companion piece to Dazed and Confused isn’t quote-unquote problematic, in large part because it’s the rare movie about straight white men that looks at them as a demographic group, rather than a default setting for heroism. Linklater drew on his own experiences to write and direct a loose, extremely likable comedy about a bunch of jocks jocking it up on the last weekend before college starts for the fall, and a lot about the milieu will feel alien to a lot of viewers (even to some straight white dudes like me). But Everybody Wants Some!! also has an infectious energy, the kind of comedy that manages to get a bunch of big laughs without a lot real jokes. It’s a neat bookend and contrast to Dazed in more ways than one (first day of summer/last day of summer; high school/college; cross-section/subculture), but both movies are enhanced by Linklater’s eye for details, behavior, and letting his characters breathe. – Jesse

13. Paterson

On the surface the story is so Jarmuschian it’s almost a parody: a bus driver, played by Adam Driver, named Paterson lives in Paterson, NJ and spends snatches of his day writing poetry. But there’s a great pleasure to settling into this film that’s difficult to put a finger on, perhaps because its interest in the ordinary so genuinely reflects the attentiveness of its main character. Paterson, in its unforcefully cool way, boldly proclaims, through the steady accrual of detail, the patterns and coincidences that color Paterson’s week, that there is joy to be found in a life lived unremarkably. It also comes admirably close to replicating onscreen what it’s actually like to write something. The random inspiration, the borrowed bits of dialogue, the constant editing of lines and images. There’s a Zen-ness to Paterson’s creations which, to his girlfriend’s consternation, he never tries to publish. The reward is in the work itself. It’s a lesson all of us, whether artists or not, would do well to remember more often as we go about our days. – Sara

12. The Witch

Horror films are difficult for me, for somewhat contradictory reasons. Because of chronic ear infections as a child, I have hypersensitive hearing, which makes me very susceptible to jump scares. But I also have trouble suspending enough disbelief to be really bone-deep, nightmare-inducing scared by modern horror films. There’s always a remove, even with something as genuinely bizarre as The Shining, that allows me to laugh a little at myself after I’ve fallen victim to a shrieking string or pop-up ghoul. The Witch, however, does not offer such relief. Instead it’s an immersive experience from start to finish, as bewildering to the viewers as it is to the characters. Banished from the village in the film’s opening scene, the family at the center find themselves at the whims, both natural and otherwise, of the world surrounding them. The period detail is impeccable, from the dialogue to the unnerving sound design, and the bodies often writhing with religious agony have an immediacy and authenticity that even the found-footage genre can’t match. By the time we realize we’re watching an origin story, it’s too late for anyone to be saved, and the questions that linger after the film’s outlandish but utterly plausible final moments run much deeper than what happened and why. If witches are real, what leads a woman to become one? If one is told enough that they’re bad or evil, what happens when they start believing it? Who, in that case, has truly sinned, the accuser or the accused? God, I’ll readily admit, is never much in my personal thoughts. But The Witch made me actively fear the absence of His guiding hand; that might be the scariest feat of all. – Sara

11. Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers have, throughout their careers, followed a loose pattern alternating between dark drama and silly comedy (at times on an every-other-picture basis). So after Inside Llewyn Davis, it stands to reason that Hail, Caesar!, stocked with stars and packed with pastiches of classic movie genres, would be a straightforward dopey comedy. Would that it t’were so simple. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is really funny: The entire cast is fantastic, killing whether they’re given florid monologues or a single line, and the mimicry of classic movie styles in the movies-within-the-movie are uniformly delightful. But the movie is more complicated than that. Naming the studio Capital Pictures, the same one that Barton Fink was hired to write a wrestling picture, is both an in-jokey wink and a tip off that this story about Josh Brolin’s studio fixer defending (with invaluable assistance from a deceptively brilliant hayseed played by a terrific Alden Ehrenreich) the potential power and importance of the movies from a bunch of knuckleheads and screwballs may be more cynical than the glossy, delightful surface would suggest. And sure, on the Coen scale, if the songs in Llewyn Davis tugged that film toward sincerity, the film pastiches in Hail, Caesar! would seem to tug it toward archness or parody. But even if they’re snickering behind the camera as the narrator affirms Brolin’s Eddie Mannix’s decision to stay at his job in a studio system that will collapse in another decade, they can’t help from conveying sincerity here too. Mannix, like the Coens, loves this stuff too much for it to all be a joke. – Nathaniel

10. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-Wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance, hit American audiences (at least the ones that gave bloody Korean thrillers a chance) like a hammer in the face. But rather than peaking early, Park has continued to get better and better, coupling ever increasing technical chops with an idiosyncratic approach to tone and subject matter that made films like his vampire movie Thirst or his first English-language film Stoker even more interesting than the films that put him on the map in this country. And The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Water’s novel Fingersmith (and relocated from the Victorian era to Korea under Japanese colonial rule), is his most ravishing yet. Fully indulging both his considerable technical skill and his fondness for the grotesque and the perverse (and a facility with hairpin story twists and the aid of a stellar cast), Park makes The Handmaiden sexy and thrilling and never less than engrossing. – Nathaniel

9. Hell or High Water

As a rule, I don’t particularly like Westerns. There’s all the dust, the sunny expanses, the horses walking to the left, the men chomping on cigar ends and glowering at each other. So I was hesitant about Hell or High Water because it was described to me as a Western. (It has Rooster Cogburn in it, after all.) Well, it is and it isn’t. Sure, it’s got some sandy landscapes, some shootouts, and a conflict between outlaws and lawmen. But it’s also a heist movie. It’s also a reflection on the ways corporations prey on the little guy in the current economy. It’s a story about brothers. And it’s a comedy.

Well, maybe not that last thing, but Jesse and I saw Hell or High Water separately, alone, and we both laughed the hardest at the same part. I can’t vouch for Jesse, but I laughed with my head thrown back and my arms across the next two seats a la De Niro in Cape Fear. My guffaws came when (spoiler alert) when Chris Pine’s character sees Ben Foster’s character gets mouthed off to in a gas station, and he beats up the guy who did it, stops, and then runs around to the other side of the car to throw a few punches at the passenger, too. Then Ben Foster’s character complains about Mr. Pibb. (“Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.”) It’s hard for me to say exactly why we both found it so funny, but it has something to do with the futility of the act. Pine’s character gains nothing by going after the second dude. He’s just exerting some power in a world where he has so little control over anything else. It’s such a human moment. You can’t fix the world. You can’t save your family. Some days, you can’t even get a goddamned Dr. Pepper. —Marisa

8. American Honey

We heard a lot about “economic anxiety” this year, huh? Not just from people trying to wrap their heads around an embrace of racism and/or fascism, but from movies like the just-mentioned Hell or High Water, an outlaw saga injected with extra desperation (and rooting interest!) when it reveals how its heroes are trying to stick it to an unfeeling bank. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a movie that could be happening offscreen in any number of Hell or High Water‘s Texas locations, or, for that matter, a few towns over from Paterson‘s New Jersey or Moonlight‘s Atlanta or Manchester by the Sea‘s, uh, you get the idea. The kids in American Honey come from all over, gathered into an unruly super-sized van to roam the country selling print magazine subscriptions door-to-door, a potent metaphor for the economically forgotten and outmoded that would sound made-up if it weren’t an actual thing that happens. The movie is unruly, too – it sprawls unreasonably past the 150-minute mark, it doesn’t have a lot of plot, and a lot of its characters buzz around in the background as the movie sticks close to Star (Sasha Lane), a newcomer to the shady traveling-magazine-subscription-sales biz. Yet few movies I saw this year were as wonderfully, electrically alive as American Honey. It takes place in what might uncharitably be called the cracks of American life – as in “don’t slip through the” – yet despite the heartbreaking scenes of poor little kinds drinking Mountain Dew or dumpster-diving for chicken, it doesn’t always seem like such a terrible place, at least not when a good (or at least familiar) song comes on the radio and everyone sings along. Somehow this is a poverty travelogue that achieves both devastation and exhilaration. – Jesse

7. The Lobster

As a perpetual singleton who has struggled to make long-term relationships work, the concept of unpartnered people being turned into animals has some personal resonance for me. But regardless of your romantic status any adventurous fan of cinema will find something rewarding in The Lobster. Starring a near unrecognizable, charmingly deadpan Colin Farrell in the lead, it’s deliberately inexplicable, delightfully surreal, with flashes of horrifying violence (animal lovers beware; as with Dogtooth, director Yorgos Lanthimos has no problem dispatching of cuddly things in ugly ways onscreen). It’s also, once Rachel Weisz shows up, undeniably romantic; never has sharing ear buds looked more transgressivly appealing. What makes it genius, though, is how the bifurcated structure skewers the militancy inherent in both a society that insists on coupling up and those who prize self-reliance above all. It’s the sort of world you would never want to live in and yet as soon as it ended I wanted to see it again. Also if given the choice I would totally become a cat. – Sara

6. Moonlight

In some ways Moonlight is remarkable for all the things it could be but isn’t. The plot has all the ingredients for a miserablist tragedy: gay black man comes of age in the ghetto, being raised by a mother who’s either absent or high, often the target of torment at the hands of classmates. Put all that on Lifetime and watch it come to a hysterical boil. Put that in the hands of, say, a Tom Hooper-type and you get a well-meaning bore. But this is the rare “important” film that never feels like a chore to watch because director Barry Jenkins and his collaborators prize the moviemaking over the message. The camerawork, cinematography, and performances, particularly the seamless transition between the three actors playing the lead over time, are all superlative, with the story neatly sidestepping the potential cliches to show us something deeply, beautifully human. Critics are, rightly, mentioning Wong Kar Wai as an influence (especially in the third section) but I was also reminded of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank in its unvarnished but compassionate portrayal of a rough upbringing. Chiron is fighting against a lot, no doubt, but his is not a hopeless life. As an antidote to Trump’s America, there may be no better film to watch this year. – Sara

5. Green Room

Here are the details that don’t often make it into professional movie reviews: I sweat during my screening of Green Room. A lot. Sure, in the first 20 or 30 minutes I was able to enjoy the punk-rock idyll economically portrayed by writer-director Jeremy Saulnier and his wonderfully likable cast (including the extremely talented Anton Yelchin, who tragically left us this year shortly after giving one of his very best performances in this movie). But once the punk band mistakenly booked at a white-supremacist rock club witnesses an act of horrific violence and gets detained out in the middle of nowhere by jacksneakered thugs, Green Room sustains a remarkable amount of tension. My fists were clenched, my stomach did some flips, and the sweating began. If this all sounds like an exercise in unbearable suspense, it is often that – but this is also a strangely thrilling, even sometimes sickly funny movie, without ever sacrificing its characters’ plight. Beyond its impeccable craft as a thriller and a character study of DIY survival, it also has some accidental currency: Following the actual goddamned inauguration of a president beloved by and employing several actual white supremacists, Green Room‘s violent fight against neo-Nazis has some extra kick, I admit. – Jesse

4. The Fits

Is “magical” too cute a word to describe this movie? Anna Rose Holmer announces herself as a major talent with her feature debut, wherein a dance troupe succumbs, one young member by one, to a mysterious epidemic of bodily fits. The story is told through the eyes of Toni (Royalty Hightower, in a remarkable performance), who is helping her older brother in a boxing gym when she catches sight of the dancers and becomes entranced. I did, too. At 72 minutes, Holmer’s film is brisk, but never hurried, and the fits (presumably based on some real-life incidents of unexplained seizures) loom over the movie, an eerie mystery that also feels, somehow, completely natural. What’s that? Tell it to you in Step Up? This is the story of a girl training to box who decides she wants to train to dance. It’s the lyrical, magical-realist Step Up sequel of your fever dreams. – Jesse

3. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan gets me. Or at least gets what gets to me. Manchester by the Sea is an immensely sad film in many ways, often consciously operatic even, but it’s also tempered by its ordinariness. Lonergan understands very well how tragedy lives beside the everyday, how the world’s petty annoyances won’t cease just because you’re living your worst moment, and how even when still living with that worst moment every day you can find flashes of levity. He also understands that not everything can be conquered, which means this film isn’t hopeful in the traditional sense. He never goes for the cheap catharsis; when the emotion does boil over it often feels like it’s happening at unexpected or inopportune times. Instead Lonergan’s ingeniously braided structure gives us a perfect visual encapsulation of that famous Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” Our misdeeds live on along with the better times, and there’s something beautifully human in that. – Sara

2. Arrival

Arrival checks off so many boxes it’s as though it were engineered to appeal to us here at It’s a thoughtful, brainy science fiction movie with a satisfying puzzle-box structure, a fantastic and moving performance by Amy Adams, striking photography, and a weird Forest Whitaker accent. Sign us up! Adams’s character, Louise Banks, is a linguist brought in to learn to communicate with mysterious alien visitors that have landed around the planet. But instead of just another alien invasion narrative, the film, adapted from Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” is a fascinating exploration of the power and peril of communication. And once she discovers the secret of the aliens’ language, the film introduces another mind-bending science fiction concept that has just enough time to make a compelling impression intellectually before it twists into an emotional gut punch. I won’t go into further details in case you haven’t yet seen the film (and if that’s the case, go see it now!), but suffice it to say that the film reveals a decision that Banks makes that she is absolutely certain will end in tragedy. This decision and its consequences (and the way it re-contextualizes the rest of the film) have a moral and emotional complexity I’m still puzzling over. It may not be easy to understand why she makes the choice she makes, but the fact that she makes it has haunted (and perhaps even inspired me) the rest of the year. – Nathaniel

1. La La Land

World, I have heard your complaints against La La Land—I may even agree with some of them—and yet I continue to sail over them like two dancers floating in a planetarium. I fell in love at first sight and therefore am unable to succumb to its flaws.

That opening sequence is everything. Who knew a musical number about L.A. traffic could be so delightful? I know we’ve all got opinions on movie musicals, and what they do well, what they don’t do well, and why directors often fail them. Directors often can’t strike a balance between pointing the camera at the scene like they’re trying to capture a stage production or over-correcting for that and over-cutting them like frenetic music videos. La La Land gets it perfect. The traffic extends out endlessly in both directions, and there’s stuff happening on top of all the cars all the way to the sides, but it doesn’t force you to look at them. Instead, you move through the stopped vehicles, taking in snippets of different moments while everything else unfolds in the periphery without you. There’s color, there’s noise, there’s a dance breakdown – and this is all even before our lovers show up.

That sequence at the Griffith Observatory is everything. It’s the ladder scene from Singing in the Rain. It’s “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat. (Those dresses Emma Stone gets to wear—ahhhh!) It’s the dance at the gym from West Side Story meets the lift from Dirty Dancing, with a little bit of the multiverse from Dr. Strange thrown in. And it ends with a kiss.

That ending sequence is everything. Is it one of their fantasies, or the other’s? A shared hallucination? It is both objective truth and what is never to be. What kills me about it every time is that – apart from the funny way Gosling shrugs off John Legend – it gets fake-ier and fake-ier, with real life turning into movie sets turning into puppet shows and so on, until they get to the part about becoming a family, which is presented as a realistic-looking home movie. I can’t explain why there’s so much bittersweet emotion in that one format switch, but thinking about it now can make me cry.

So, yeah, in between there may be blemishes, but the course of true love never did run smooth. And how can I tell this love is for real? Because La La Land is the first time I’ve ever dropped my New York snobbery and defended something so enamored of L.A. – Marisa