Creating a list of the best movies of 2016 (so far) is a crazy proposition. Yet, here we are. For all the bemoaning and bellyaching about weak summer blockbusters and a down year for movies, there have been films, as there always are, that have risen up above the rest, the films that reached out and touched film fans, showing them that 2016, too, has exceptional films.
Once again, we’ve had a strong year for animated films, sure to be one of the award season’s most hotly contested categories. We’ve seen unbelievable performances from the old and the new, and we’ve been treated to wholly unique storylines as well as beautifully approached retreads. Each year, we hear some of the same arguments; Hollywood has lost touch with originality, or big budget films are ruining artistic expression. Perhaps that’s true. Or perhaps it’s always been that way and will always be that way. It’s up to us to wade through the rubbish and find the gems.
It’s September. Fall is here. We’re three quarters of the way through the year and then the awards season will be upon us. Are the films in this list all going to be recognized? Meh. Everyone knows that there is a difference in the way that the various genres are critiqued. The worst horror movie will never be rated in the same stratosphere as the worst animated film. Likewise, a decent drama will usually be reviewed just as highly as the very best actions films. There is no accounting for taste. However, here, we will try to include something for everyone. We will list the best of the best. You won’t have to search hard to find most of these films. They’re not the quirky titles that you’ll only find on some hipster’s shelf next to James Franco’s book of poetry. These are big films and these are the best films. Here are the top 15 candidates for best film of 2016 so far.
15. Everybody Wants Some
If you liked Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, then you’ll love Everybody Wants Some. Even though the film had a limited release in theaters, it gained (and is still gaining) traction. The film just has a quality to it that has quite a few people talking. Following the life of a college freshman and his college baseball team, Everybody Wants Some is like most of Linklater’s films, ripe with nostalgia and built on dialogue. Each of the characters are fleshed out in their various discussions and, like the hugely successful Boyhood, each seemingly miniscule moment signifies much more deeply. It’s sweet and funny and the soundtrack is excellent. In a way, Everybody Wants Some picks up where Boyhood left off. So, keep your eye out for some thematic continuation when you watch.
It might be blasphemy for some to suggest that Deadpool is the year’s second best comic book movie because of the hype leading into the film, but let’s not get into that. Let’s focus on the positives. Deadpool is easily one of the funniest and best action films of the year. Ryan Reynolds is a star in the film and sets himself up as one of the most likable characters in the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU). The film itself is a little heavy on the origin story, which might be the only drawback in a very strong film. There’s a good chance, however, that since the origin story is now complete, the next Deadpool film could be even better. No matter what, the character Deadpool is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the MCU.
13. Hail Caesar!
It seems that the Coen Brothers have done it again with Hail Caesar! Packed with an insanely talented cast aided by some of the best screenwriters in the business. The film itself spoofs Hollywood of the 50s and appears to have a lot of fun with the period-specific set and costume design. Though the audience hasn’t warmed up to the film as much as it has with other Coen brother films, it shouldn’t take away from what the film is. There is almost always a disparity between how the critics receive Coen brothers’ films and how the general audience receives them, on display as recently as Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s one of the year’s best comedies and its smart and subtle commentary on the industry in the 50s is as clever as it is educational.
12. Finding Dory
Finding Dory will be one of the frontrunners for best animated film this year, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in the conversation for best overall film as well. Standing on the shoulders of its predecessor, Finding Dory revisits many of the themes of the original without rehashing them, using its great blend of humor and visual beauty to keep the audience (children and adults alike) engaged while bringing home modern lessons of family and embracing one’s own identity. Like Finding Nemo, Dory is a movie that kids and adults will likely see play out differently. There are multiple levels of meaning within the film and it really offers something for everyone.
11. Captain America: Civil War
Loaded with action and basically every Marvel superhero we’ve been introduced to up to this point, Captain America: Civil War offers fans exactly what The Avengers gave them in 2012, a comic book fan’s dream come true. The film’s strength is in its ability to hold up a storyline while balancing so many different personalities. It certainly helps that many of the included characters are already well-established by this point in the MCU. While it seemed like the film would merely be a preview for the upcoming Avengers films, Civil War used its darker and grittier storyline to separate itself from the pack. At this stage, it’s tough to compare the different movies in the MCU, but you would likely get a lot of support if you suggested this wasn’t just the best superhero movie of 2016, but the best superhero movie ever made.
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
It’s often talked about that the name 10 Cloverfield Lane and its presumed deep connection with Cloverfield is the film’s major weakness. Fans going in and expecting a sequel or a prequel will probably be disappointed. But maybe they won’t. Half of the charm of 10 Cloverfield Lane is that the movie surprises you. It uses its claustrophobic setting to perfection, hammering home its themes of domestic abuse and suffocation. With the title including the name Cloverfield, the audience believes in the external threat of the outside world, we’ve seen it. This creates a fear in the audience. We fear the outside world just as much, if not more, than the inside world. This helps to bring home the metaphor of domestic abuse and the fears faced by those trying to escape. The world you’re escaping to can be even scarier than the one you’re leaving behind. Without the title of Cloverfield, we might not take the outside threat seriously. So there’s some good and some bad in the connecting titles. It risks losing some fans who were expecting a monster movie or a sci-fi thriller, while it also makes the film into one of the smartest and the most cerebral films of the year.
9. Midnight Special
If you were a fan of director Jeff Nichols’ latest work, you’ll love Midnight Special. Like Take Shelter, Midnight Special uses a grand concept to occupy the audience while he subtly and brilliantly tells a small, personal story. This approach will undoubtedly distract some viewers and disappoint them. There are going to be unanswered questions with the overarching contextual story, but that’s not the primary concern here, it never was. This is a story about family, loyalty and love, and all of the science fiction elements only serve to allow Nichols to tell his beautiful tale in an original way. Led by another remarkable performance of the always-impressive Michael Shannon, Midnight Special has the power to sneak up on you. By the end of the film, you’re captivated but cut short, like you’ve just realized that you’re in love but never got a chance to say it.
Animated films have the pleasure of standing on sacred ground. They are perhaps the only films that are judged by critics from the position of their target audience. What this means is that critics watch animated films and say things like, “this is a great movie if you’re a kid, five stars!” No other genre benefits from this relativism. This is why we get such positive reviews for movies with zero substance like The Secret Life of Pets. Zootopia, however, needs none of this. The movie is funny and high-paced. Its heavy-handed message is so valuable and honest that it never becomes overbearing. In what is essentially a remastered Animal Farm, Zootopia creates a beautifully imagined world to show us a different lens for viewing our own. Oh, and it’s a great movie for kids as well.
7. The Witch
In one of the most interesting horror films of the millennium up to this point, The Witch explores a side of the witch hysteria not often looked at. Rather than using exaggerated fantastical elements of traditional witch stories, director Robert Eggers creates a fear based on realism and paranoia. Set in the 1600s, a shunned family must rebuild their life on the edge of a haunted forest. The movie looks at the fear of witches and how questions of their existence might actually have played out. The slow burn of the film might push away some viewers, but the fear generated within is some of the most visceral you’ll feel watching any movie. It transports the viewer back in time and asks you to question if the witch really does exist, a concept that is as scary as it is refreshing.
6. The Nice Guys
Fans of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang have to watch The Nice Guys. They will absolutely love it. Essentially a spiritual sequel to Black’s 2005 buddy comedy, The Nice Guys leverages the charisma and chemistry of its two leads, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, to give audiences something that feels like it’s from a bygone era of film, not the 70s when the film is set but the 90s when these types of movies were so prevalent. Filled with all colors of humor, the film uses a film noir-style plot to entertain audiences while its bickering and bantering stars shine. Not to be outdone by the adults on screen, 15-year old Angourie Rice is a major force and steals the show every chance she gets.
5. Kubo and the Two Strings
There are times when watching Kubo and the Two Strings that the audience can feel totally lost in the outstanding beauty of the visuals. They are magical and threaten to swallow you up but for the strength of the story and script. More than most animated films, Kubo and the Two Strings offers a bold and risky tale wrought with dark and melancholic themes, but it works, and it works really, really well. At times sweet, sad, funny and everything in between, Kubo is not only one of the most beautiful films of the year, which will be the one thing that people always talk about, but it’s also one of the bravest animated films that has been made to date. Set within an Eastern myth with universal themes, Kubo is not only a kid’s movie and should be high on anyone’s list of the best films of the year.
4. The Green Room
A movie like The Green Room can scare off potential audiences with its grit and grime, but those who can see through the ugly exterior of the film are in for a treat. A film that presses the boundaries of the horror-thriller genre, The Green Room is bloody loud and bloody bloody. It puts the audience on the edge of their seats and shows them something they haven’t seen before. In what would be one of Anton Yelchin‘s final roles, the film’s entire cast is outstanding, including the wonderful Yelchin. They are engaged and energetic and really carry the action well. The film is raw and doesn’t use cheap scare tactics, but it sends shockwaves through the audience with its clever use of tension. Don’t sleep on The Green Room even if you’re not a fan of horror films.
3. Sing Street
It’s not often that a movie so centered around music gets the buzz that Sing Street is getting, but it’s for good reason. John Carney, who gave us Once back in 2007, now brings the world Sing Street, a movie set in Dublin in the 80s, ripe with hairspray, alternative music and teenage angst. The movie is both gritty and sweet, sure to bring a smile to your face early on and keep it there for the entire runtime. Through music, Carney delivers a heartfelt story that speaks to everyone who was once young or still is, even if it’s just at heart. While many music-driven films struggle to speak common messages, Sing Street shows just how useful music can be as a universal language, never needing to translate or repeat anything.
2. The Lobster
The Lobster might be the strangest film you see all year. Well, it will almost certainly be the strangest concept for a film, but there is a very common and universal message at its core. The odd and ambitious ideas that hang around and serve as the film’s setting are as entertaining as they are strange. More than just the premise is original though, there are messages here that are not often looked at in film. In fact, The Lobster flips the mainstream messages of love, romance and partnership on its head—embracing the dysfunctional and lonely. The film refuses to play to expectations and that can frustrate some viewers, but if you are looking for something different this year, look no further. You’ve found it in The Lobster.
1. Hell or High Water
There isn’t necessarily anything about Hell or High Water that will challenge your critical thinking or your expectations. It’s not particularly original or creative. But it’s easily one of the year’s best films. So how and why is that? Essentially, Hell or High Water is a modern day Western that blends drama with a traditional heist movie. The power of this film, however, comes from its spectacular performances. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are remarkable and help carry the pace of the film seamlessly without any lulls or soft spots. Jeff Bridges, after a few years of less-than-stellar, out-of-the-spotlight roles, emerges with one of his best performances and, once again, demands that people acknowledge him as one of the industry’s finest actors. The film may not be necessarily high-paced but you would be hard-pressed to find a single flaw in the movie. Even an underwhelming marketing campaign won’t be able to hold this one down for long.