The Best Films of 2016

By Brett Halverson and Adam Hlava

In the summer, we published a list of our favorite films that we had seen up until that point in time. Now, with 2016 fully behind us, and having seen most of the 2016 releases that interested us, we present our first annual Top Ten Lists.

These are our favorite movies of the year, not our predictions for Oscar nominees. See our Oscar nominee list for full predictions prior to the announcement on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

For more discussion on our favorite movies of the year, check out Podcast Episode 33, with very special guests the Lady Seat Fillers!

Adam's Top Ten
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Set in a deranged man's underground bunker during what may or may not be a cataclysmic event, the surprise follow up to 2008's Cloverfield is unsettling and claustrophobic.  John Goodman has never been more terrifying as Howard, the bunker's creator and constant lurker. And as Brett and I spoiled in our second episode of the podcast, the finale turns the entire film on its head and essentially switches genres.

9. Silence
The latest from Martin Scorsese is a a religious meditation set in a feudalistic Japan where Christianity is outlawed. The beautiful Japanese landscape mixed with squalor of the peasantry makes for one of the most visually impressive movies of the year. Clocking in at 2 hours 41 minutes, it’s one of the longest movies I’ve watched this year but some thoughtful editing and a great physical performance from Andrew Garfield as a tormented Jesuit priest on a dangerous quest to find his mentor, it never felt like it dragged.

8. Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck’s understated performance throughout Manchester by the Sea made his big Oscar-reel scene at the police station even more profound. But it was the solid uncle-nephew chemistry between Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges that made the movie for me, offering some lighthearted energy to the film, which otherwise could have drowned in its own sorrow.

7. OJ: Made in America
Twenty years after the Trial of the Century, OJ Simpson is back and more popular than ever in pop culture. Although the TV landscape in 2016 had been dominated by accolades for FX's dramatization of the event in "The People Vs OJ Simpson," it's Ezra Edelman's fascinating 10 hour ESPN documentary that offers more in terms of the scale of the trial and societal background than the more narrowly-tailored FX drama. The front-runner for Best Documentary is one of the year's best overall films period.

6. Arrival
Arrival is essentially a movie about time and communication, shrouded in an alien encounter film. It's an emotional, low key, and smart science fiction fantasy with another great Amy Adams performance. Bradford Young's excellent cinematography takes advantage of dusk and twilight to give the film a unique look during the exterior scenes, and should be recognized at the Academy this year. The focus on uncertainty around the intentions of the aliens draws some parallels around American especially as we enter a Donald Trump presidency.

5. The Witch
Way back in our first episode, (when I was just a wee little Seat Filler) I described The Witch Incredibly unsettling and like being wrapped in a blanket of dread for 2 hours. The slow burn pays off at the end and stuck with me for days after first seeing it. The characters speaking in Old English lent to the realism and sense of isolation from the rest of the world. It's refreshing to see a horror film rely less on jump scares and more on a foreboding doom.

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes back, the film is a little chaotic in its first act that includes about a half dozen planets in a 30 minute span. Eventually though Rogue One finds its footing and becomesa thrill ride until the end. Incorporating the look and even archive footage of A New Hope was a brilliant maneuver that helps to bridge the two films, set days and minutes apart even though they were made forty years apart. Donnie Yen steals the show, whoever was responsible for putting him in a Star Wars movie is the greatest person to ever live.

3. Lion
Lion is an incredibly sobering look at extreme poverty, but also the unbinding love of family. The story of a young boy from an impoverished part of India who, through a set of incredible set of circumstances, becomes separated from his mother and brother and ends up becoming adopted by a New Zealand couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult, the boy now played by Dev Patel, goes on a quest to find his birth family. Dev's Oscar-worthy performance is the highlight of one of the year's best films.

2. The Conjuring 2
Laugh all you want, but one of the most exciting and visceral movie-going experiences this year was James Wan's horror masterpiece. Set in 1970s England, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) battle a malicious demon terrorizing a small family. The brilliant cinematography and excruciating tension add to one of the best horror films in recent memory.

1. Moonlight
The best film of 2016 tells of three time periods in the life of an African American man looking for guidance and love while grappling with his own sexuality. Three actors played the main character Chiron as a young boy, a teenager and an adult, all with their own nuances yet show a commonality that makes it believable that they're the same person. Director and Writer Barry Jenkins’ work is beautiful, mesmerizing and heartbreaking all at once.

Brett's Top Ten
10. Southside With You
Even if Southside With You wasn't about two people whom I admire very much, I'd still like this movie a lot. Taking place on a single night in the summer of 1989, this date movie reminiscent of Linklater's "Before" movies, is a fun and sweet getting-to-know-you walk-and-talk romance that just makes you feel good. I acknowledge that it's difficult to separate my personal adoration for the Obama's from their fictionalized counterparts, but the actors and characters are more than likable enough and there's no doubt I'll be watching this movie as comfort food for the next four years.

9. Jackie
Jackie is a biopic that feels more like an historic documentary than a character study of its titular figure. That is a sentiment that struck me early and often throughout my viewing of the film, and I could imagine that being an impediment or strength depending on the viewer.  In the end, the technical perfection of the movie, from the recreation of the White House and fashion of the era, to Natalie Portman's spot-on performance and the beauty of the cinematography, made it a film I thought a lot about in the days after seeing it. I can't say I'll return to it often, but it's an expertly-made movie in a year full of them.

8. Captain Fantastic
Captain Fantastic is an excellent meditation on the choices we make as humans, as parents, and society's place in our lives. I don't want to say too much about the movie's plot, because more than most movies, I think the average viewer will benefit from having no expectations coming into the film. I will say I was surprised by the compromise and pragmatism of the movie's final act. Viggo Mortensen is the absolute star of this film, and he should be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. See this if you like family-centered independent movies with a weird streak.

7. Eye in the Sky
Almost every year when the Oscar nominations are announced, a war movie makes the cut as one of the Best Picture nominees. This year, all signs point to Hacksaw Ridge, an ultra-violent Mel Gibson epic, as the soon-to-be-forgotten war movie of the moment. Eye in the Sky is a much better movie about modern warfare and its moral and psychological implications. Taking place in real time over 100 minutes, the movie and its all star cast kept me on the edge of my seat the entire viewing and I can't wait to watch it again. Unfortunately, it came out too early in the year and is directed by a relative unknown, both hindrances to a serious Oscar campaign. I wish the distributor had put more weight behind some awards recognition because, more than any other war movie this year, it deserves it.

6. Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures is formulaic in a comfortable way, the kind of movie you think you've seen before, but clearly haven't because it's a mainstream, studio movie that is fully about three women of color. While it's far from revolutionary from a pure story-telling perspective, the events it depicts actually were groundbreaking and more than worthy of the movie treatment. It's the kind of movie Hollywood needs to make more of, and hopefully finally will now that it's had success at the box office. It is fun and inspiring, and all three of its leads were born to make movies. I love them and I loved this movie.

5. Rogue One
In short, this movie is exactly what I wanted from the first non-saga Star Wars movie. It makes the overall canon better and gives clarity to the movie its story precedes, not something any of the other films can claim. On top of that, the one-off nature of the movie allows the story to end in a logical but daring way, and it's all the better for it. Finally, the diversity of the cast is the exact kind of choice a franchise with this much lucrative power should be making. Kudos to Disney and Lucasfilm, they haven't screwed the franchise up yet!

4. Arrival
The first fifteen minutes of Arrival are told from the perspective of the everyman, watching in awe as we seem to have been contacted by extraterrestrial life for the first time. The sense of wonder and terror everyone would feel at that moment of unknowing are about as accurate and real as one can imagine. Our inability to fully trust the unknown, even while wanting to learn more about it, is what propels the movie forward and eventually what leads to the climactic scenes to end the film. This movie is extremely plot heavy, and I don't want to spoil it, but I will say it's realistic and very pretty to look at and I can't recommend it enough.

(tie) 2. La La Land
A lot has been written about La La Land, the backlash to the love and recognition, and even some backlash to the backlash. I'm not going to try to convince people they should go see it, because it's apparently the kind of movie people either love or don't. What I'll say is I fell in love with it. From beginning to end, and especially the last fifteen melancholy minutes that elevated it from good to great, I loved it. 

(tie) 2. Moonlight
This is an expertly-told, beautiful movie about identity and race and socioeconomics and growing up and sexuality and reminiscing about what could have been and America. I think the movie should speak for itself and it should be required viewing for everybody in this country, especially in January 2017. 

1. Hell or High Water
I don't think Hell or High Water is the best movie of 2016. It won't win Best Picture at the Oscars (that honor will almost certainly go to La La Land or Moonlight), nor should it. But what makes this my favorite movie of the year was its unique combination of escapist heist fare and contemporary economic message in a package that I can see myself rewatching more than any other movie on this list. It captures a very specific place and moment better than most movies, and its cast, writing and direction are as good as one could hope. In another year, maybe even last year, I could see this as the Oscar front-runner, and that's a testament to how good of a year 2016 was for film.