It has not been a very good year, except for movies. And really, what else matters?
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2016
I’m not particularly a science-fiction guy, but I know what I love, and I love “Arrival.” In a year marked by tragedy and pessimism, this sublime, intelligent film about mankind working together was a soothing balm of hope. It also happened to be an exciting story about first contact with aliens, full of the awe and wonder that often makes sci-fi so appealing.
Roger Ebert used to say that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” “Moonlight” is a remarkable example of this. I can personally relate to plenty of it, but there’s much that I have no frame of reference for — yet these unfamiliar experiences ring true, written and acted with such sensitivity as to make them seem universal.
3. “La La Land”
You will agree that the world needs more vibrant, sunny movie musicals. (You will agree or we will not be able to continue this conversation.) Damien Chazelle filled that need with “La La Land,” a toe-tapping, bittersweet, primary-colored fantasia about a struggling actress and musician falling in love in Tinseltown. By embracing its traditionalism without irony, the film feels almost revolutionary.
4. “Green Room”
When I first saw “Green Room,” more than a year ago, its story of punk-rockers fighting white supremacists was merely a brutal, thrilling nightmare, not a timely omen. Current events aside, Jeremy Saulnier’s intense siege — set backstage at a roadhouse where a punk band has witnessed something that the neo-Nazi proprietors wish they hadn’t — benefits from smart writing (the characters aren’t morons) and the sense that no one is safe.
5. “Sing Street”
What’s that? Two original musicals in one year, both worthy of spots in the top 10? That’s practically a miracle. And so is this exuberant, nostalgic story, set in Dublin in 1985, about a 15-year-old boy who starts a band to impress a girl. The movie implies that music makes life better — or at least makes it seem better — and you’ll have a hard time disagreeing after watching it.
6. “The Witch”
“The Witch” is the only film on this list that fits the tone of 2016, insofar as it’s dark and unsettling and doesn’t reassure us that good will conquer evil. (Quite the contrary, in fact.) Set in 1600s New England with era-appropriate dialogue, it’s a folktale about an exiled Puritan family grappling with a sinister force in the nearby woods. Prepare to be unnerved and shaken (if that’s your thing; otherwise, steer clear).
7. “Pete’s Dragon”
Of the three movies this year about children befriending giant monsters — “Pete’s Dragon,” “The BFG,” and “A Monster Calls” — I never would have guessed that the best one would be the one based on a cheesy Disney film. Unlike its predecessor, this remake-in-name-only is gentle, dreamy, and wistful, an enchanting boy-and-his-dragon story that seems unaware of its quiet power. Beautiful inside and out.
8. “Manchester by the Sea”
Casey Affleck is in his wheelhouse here, playing with understated emotion a man who’s been broken by past events and is forced now to finally fix himself. Despite its sad story (Affleck must care for his 16-year-old nephew after the lad’s father dies), it’s a surprisingly funny and warm film, not wallowing in grief but demonstrating that it’s possible to get through it.
9. “The Nice Guys”
Shane Black wrote and directed this loopy, well-assembled lark, a sort of spiritual sequel to his brilliant “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (which, if you haven’t seen it, you must). A disheveled Russell Crowe and a silly Ryan Gosling are Los Angeles investigators in 1977 who track a missing girl and stumble into a twisty film noir plot. It’s dark, funny, violent, and filled with more manic energy than just about any other movie this year.
10. “10 Cloverfield Lane”
This is a masterfully suspenseful mystery thriller set in a doomsday bunker, where a car-accident victim (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens to find herself kept by a gruff, bear-like man (John Goodman) who says there’s been an attack that has rendered the outside world uninhabitable. There’s a third stranger, too (John Gallagher Jr.), creating a dynamic where no one knows whether anyone else can be trusted. Strong acting and excellent craftsmanship by director Dan Trachtenberg make it one to remember.
Some More Really Good Movies That You Should Watch:
Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet That I Am Led to Understand Are Quite Exceptional:
“I Am Not Your Negro”
“Love & Friendship”
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2016
(I listed these in alphabetical order, but don’t let that throw you. “Mother’s Day” was the worst.)