From biopics and documentaries to superheroes, 2016 was a great year for going to the movies.
Every time you go to the movies and the lights dim, you’re putting all of your trust in the hands of filmmakers. If they get the balance right, a single falling tear and a tanker truck explosion can, in theory, bring out the same level of emotions in an audience. The brilliant men and women behind these 10 films not only left us wanting more, they left us with a new appreciation of the medium.
Here are our top 10 picks for the best films in 2016.
10. “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years”
What can you possibly say about The Beatles that hasn’t been said before? Really nothing because we’ve been screaming for the mop tops from Liverpool for over 50 years, but that doesn’t stop us from consuming every little thing about John, Paul, George and Ringo that’s released. Everything about them is infectious. And that’s exactly the light and celebratory tone that Ron Howard’s latest documentary about the group takes. It’s not full of new revelations (unless you count the myriad of celebrities that were lucky enough to see The Beatles in concert) but that’s not the point of “Eight Days a Week.” The documentary is a welcomed escape and the perfect time to appreciate the band’s enduring discography and appeal.
9. “Captain America: Civil War”
Every time Marvel announces that they’ll be adding another film featuring the Avengers to their self-described “cinematic universe,” the first question everyone asks is how many A-list actors will be crammed into two hours? The answer is always “a ton,” but the onscreen results are not always stellar ( “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” anyone?). Thankfully, this past spring, Marvel put two of their most reliable hit machines (Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr.) front and center again in “Captain America: Civil War.”
“Civil War” smartly focuses on the emotional struggles between Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) as well as Rogers and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey, Jr.). It’s hard to watch these friend groups fight each other — both with insanely choreographed fight sequences and harsh words — but “Civil War” reminded us of the intrapersonal heart that seemed to be at the center of all Marvel films. It was a nice return to form for the behemoth company.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has always eluded definition. Everyone knows her tangled history and her iconic looks, but Kennedy Onassis always kept the world at an arm’s length. Within a distinctly uncommon biopic directed by Pablo Larraín, the dichotomy of Jackie’s public and private life is revealed in gorgeous and heartbreaking fashion. Centered on Kennedy’s infamous 1963 Life magazine interview — just a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — “Jackie” triumphs in its focused scope. It’s the story of a woman in mourning and a woman in transition — fragile, strong and beautiful — portrayed brilliantly by Natalie Portman. Her nuanced turn as the graceful First Lady is supported by Mica Levi’s haunting score; the combination leaves viewers anxious and upset, just not in the way one would expect after opening up the wound of JFK’s assassination again. “Jackie” avoids all the clichés and pitfalls that biopics, especially ones drenched in national tragedy, succumb to by shining a light on Kennedy’s humanity.
7. “Hail, Caesar!”
It seems like every few years, Hollywood likes to look in the mirror and poke a little fun at itself. No one is able to take up that poking stick and jab back at the film industry with such authority, wit and respect as the Coen Brothers. While there is a basic plot — Capitol Pictures’s professional “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to find its missing megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) — “Hail, Caesar!” is best taken as an hour-and-a-half love letter to the uncontrollably dramatic and fantastically childlike industry that the Coens have called home for over 30 years.
6. “Manchester by the Sea”
“Manchester by the Sea” is a very quiet movie. It blooms in the small moments and even then it barely lets you in, which seems strange for a story ripe with potential for high melodrama. Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) life as a simple apartment handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts, is shattered when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies of a heart attack. Suddenly he’s forced to go home — to the titular Manchester-by-the-sea — to plan Joe’s funeral and become Joe’s teenage son Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) official guardian. Unlike past award contenders, “Manchester by the Sea” takes these incredibly dramatic moments and boils them down to the very real, small emotional instances that happen to a family in crisis. Affleck continues to prove that he’s one of today’s most underrated actors with his heartbreaking and nuanced performance as a man who processes his grief through inconsolable numbness.
Superhero movies are usually saved for Memorial Day because that’s when everyone’s ready to spend their money on mindless entertainment — it kicks off summer, kids are getting out of school, long weekends mean more chances to make that blockbuster effect — but “Deadpool” isn’t your typical superhero movie. And it definitely made for some atypical Valentine’s Day plans for Marvel fans. Over a decade in the making, Ryan Reynolds’s passion project did not disappoint, proving to be as vulgar and hilarious as the comic books that birthed its hideously disfigured antihero. Even just the title credit sequence is worth a standing ovation.
4. “Captain Fantastic”
Out of all the superheroes featured on our top 10, Viggo Mortensen’s ” Captain Fantastic” blows the rest out of the water. He’s got no superpowers or a farfetched origin story, but Mortensen’s considerate and careful performance of a father who takes his children out of their wilderness utopia to honor his dead wife’s final wishes displays the actor’s inherent supernatural abilities. “Captain Fantastic” is thought-provoking, hilarious and touching all at the same time.
3. “La La Land”
Damien Chazelle’s feature film follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Whiplash” starts on the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange — an ugly, crowded stack freeway interchange in South Los Angeles. And while this might seem like the perfect spot for the beginning of a gritty cop movie, in reality, this is the jumping off point for a charming love story — and a musical to boot.
“La La Land” is the type of fantasy film where gridlocked drivers leave their cars to sing a sweet ode to LA’s always-glorious weather, a romantic dance sequence happens on the ceiling of the Griffith Observatory Planetarium and John Legend can actually act. It’s the actual definition of delightful, but beneath its musical façade “La La Land” is the very simple story of two people falling in love while trying to “make it” in Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s onscreen chemistry continues to prove golden through adorable banter and musical numbers, but the pair really shines at the end of the film as they fragilely smile through the pain of growing apart. And that’s the real genius of “La La Land,” it’s an inherently personal story about one small relationship hiding behind the shiny front of a big budget Hollywood musical.
This year we’ve seen the arts community stand up and use their influence to shine a light on inequality and the fundamentally black experience of living in America. And while new voices have stood up this year to add their power to instigate direct change, one of the most powerful expressions of blackness today is from a 33-year-old play … that’s actually set in the 1950s. August Wilson’s “Fences” is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning story of a former Negro League baseball player turned garbage collector in Pittsburgh, his family and the backyard fence that he’s supposed to build.
Directed by Denzel Washington and starring Viola Davis along with Washington, this film adaptation aptly pushes the frustrations and inequality that Black families continue to face year after year, decade after decade, front and center. “Fences” touches upon segregation, incarceration, employment discrimination and military service all through the lens of Troy (Washington) and those around him.
Davis’s turn as Troy’s wife, Rose, almost guarantees her spot as this year’s acting frontrunner — she breathes new life into a role that she’s played on stage before — but the interplay between both stars as the fragile and flawed Maxons brings forward the inherent strength that forces the audience to reflect on how every community is just trying to get a fair shake in this world and how sometimes you need to stick together to survive.
“Moonlight” is a film that’s made in its pauses, in its silence and its omissions. Boiled down to its most basic plot, Barry Jenkins’s latest film follows a young black gay man growing up in Miami, Florida, but “Moonlight” transcends definition. It depicts complex and real issues like rampant drug use in the projects, the unabashed bullying that exists within school systems around the country and discrimination and fear of being gay in America, but it makes no grand statement about any of these subjects. The film is, at its heart, a window into Chiron’s life.
From the movie’s opening when Chiron’s chased by bullies into an abandoned building to when he returns to Miami as a hardened Atlanta drug dealer, you aren’t given very many details about Chiron. “Moonlight” drops viewers right into three distinct stages of Chiron’s upbringing without any context, which dares you to care about this person without needing a lengthy backstory to pull at your heartstrings.
Accompanying the wonderful performances by the ensemble cast (including Mahershala Ali, Jaden Piner and Janelle Monáe) is James Laxton’s raw and familiar cinematography. The “Moonlight” action scenes are relatively benign events on the surface (a school yard fight, a few meals, a couple car rides), but because they are the only true moments we have with Chiron and his makeshift family, they are essential to understanding this conflicted boy and the fragile man that he becomes — and they’re visually treated with the utmost respect.
The film’s silences and pauses aren’t awkward moments; they just allow the audience to take in the beauty around Chiron and continue to try and process his reality long after the film ends.