With the twilight of 2016 upon us, the Nerdist editorial team convenes for its annual ritual of blood sacrifice, eating our body weight in burritos, and furiously debating over the best pop culture of the year. While there were many, many disappointing blockbusters stinking up cineplexes this summer, there were just as many more incredible reasons to head out to the theaters. After spending countless hours arguing, laughing, crying, and eating a medically inadvisable amount of popcorn, we have winnowed down our list to the best of the best. So, without further ado, here are the best movies of 2016 as chosen by the Nerdist editorial team.
La La Land
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s jazz drumming thriller Whiplash was my favorite film of 2014, so it makes sense that his follow-up, La La Land, would be one of my favorites 0f 2016. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are breathtaking as a pair of struggling artists trying to hack out a living in the City of Angels. Their story is one that will feel intimately relatable to anyone who has tried, perhaps fruitlessly, to pursue their dreams. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but Chazelle celebrates that struggle in his exquisitely crafted film. The movie is a love letter to Old Hollywood movie musicals, and it manages the unique feat of never feeling like an imitation. Rather, La La Land is a uniquely bittersweet treat that dances to the beat of its own dreamy drum. And even J.K. Simmons would agree to that.
Attending the premiere of this movie at the Toronto International Film Festival is one of my favorite memories from the past year, and one of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time. Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a hauntingly beautiful story of Chiron, a gay black boy whose life is shown to us in three parts: we see him as a neglected child, a troubled teenager, and a wayward adult. Trying to figure out who you are is hard enough, but add in a deeply dysfunctional home life, questions of sexual orientation in a culture where those questions are considered taboo, and a city wracked by a drug epidemic, and the task seems damn near Sisyphean. The story has a gauzy, elegiac quality to it thanks in no small part to the way that Jenkins and his team shot it, but also to its phenomenal cast. While they are excellent across the board, Naomie Harris shines as Chiron’s increasingly addled mother—a feat made all the more impressive considering she worked a mere three days on the film—and the incomparable Mahershala Ali, who is having a banner year between House of Cards and Luke Cage. Here as Juan, an older drug dealer who takes young Chiron under his wing, Ali proves that he deserves more than the crown of gold as hinted in Luke Cage. Namely, a golden Oscar statue for his work in this movie.
Manchester by the Sea
‘Tis the season to be jolly, but the best movies of the year are all wracked with this intangible, inescapable grief. Such is the case of Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant Manchester by the Sea, the gripping story of a Boston-area custodian played by Casey Affleck who, in the wake of his brother’s sudden death, is forced to return to his hometown and take care of his nephew, played by Lucas Hedges. The film is imbued with a lugubriousness that has the potential to feel inescapable, but Lonergan manages to pepper the screenplay with enough humor to keep things from feeling overly bleak. As a result, we get a starkly honest and viscerally real portrayal of what its like to pick up the pieces in the wake of a sudden tragedy. While Affleck’s alleged past of sexual harrassment and verbal abuse makes me feel icky about his awards prospects, the film itself is well worth your time and stands on its own merits. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cry some more, your lachrymal gland will dry up, then your body will produce more moisture and you’ll cry again. You may spend a fortune on tissues, but this film makes it all worthwhile.
Tom Ford’s second film is a sexy, stylish fever dream of a thriller about two people desperately trying to escape their past. It’s like an autopsy of a dead relationship, with both parties exhuming its body and analyzing it in excruciating detail. Amy Adams plays a disaffected art dealer who gets engrossed in a novel manuscript sent to her, suddenly and mysteriously, by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As she reads, we see more and more scenes from this violent horror show of a story play out. The more she reads, the more disturbing the story gets until the tension threatens to give you heart palpitations. It feels like Hitchcock wearing a bespoke suit. What really elevates this film to greatness, though, is its cast, including standout supporting performances by the likes of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a maniacal bandit and Michael Shannon as a steely lawman with the greatest mustache this side of Tom Selleck.
Whether or not you’re experiencing superhero fatigue, you must admit that there was something special about Deadpool. After a decade in development hell, Marvel’s Merc with a Mouth finally got his day in the sun, and the results were a raunchy, blood-soaked, constantly wise-cracking delight. By sticking to their guns and taking a reduced budget, director Tim Miller and producer/star Ryan Reynolds showed that an R-rated Marvel movie that breaks the fourth wall and skewers everything from other superhero movies to unsuspecting goons was exactly what we needed to keep things from getting stale. After all, if we’re getting six superhero movies a year, the very least they can do is show us Colossus vomiting, and creepy baby hands.
Just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about the JFK assassination, director Pablo Larraín comes along with a mesmerizing portrait of the former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, that grabs hold of you and refuses to let go. Set in the immediate aftermath of that fateful day in November 1963, Jackie puts us in the titular icon’s constantly shifting headspace, oscillating between unknowable grief, plaintive sorrow, and fulminating rage in the blink of an eye. Natalie Portman proves why she is one of our greatest living actors with her performance here. You may wonder, at first, what the hell she’s doing with her voice. Then you’ll look up YouTube videos of Jacqueline Kennedy speaking, and you’ll understand just how thoroughly Portman nailed her portrayal.
On paper, the idea of a film about a former Congressman who can’t stop ruining his life by sexting seems like a nightmare, but Weiner plays out like a Greek tragedy. A Greek tragedy full of unfortunate dick pics, but a Greek tragedy nonetheless. The filmmakers, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, were granted unprecedented access and gave us a spellbinding look inside the life of former Congressman Anthony Weiner as he recovered from his first major sexting scandal and made an ultimately ill-fated bid to become the mayor of New York City. Can he get out of his own way or will Carlos Danger come out to play? Even if you know the answers, you need to see this film to find out the how and why of it all. It’s like watching a car crash where the driver is sending nudes even as he’s flying through the windshield.
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? With those six words, a new cinematic icon was forged and the legend of Black Phillip was born. Fear of the unknown and paranoia about devils in our midst permeate the colonial fabric of Robert Eggers’ story of 17th-century New England frontier life. The film constantly keeps you off-balance, wondering whether witches are real or if they’re just specters conjured by overly active and overly religious imaginations. The tension keeps mounting and mounting until you feel like your heart might explode…and then we finally get our answers and your skin begins to crawl all over again. Never have I enjoyed a sustained feeling of dread as much as I did in this tremendous film.
The Edge of Seventeen
The art of the teen comedy is something that almost feels lost to the sands of time. The glory days of John Hughes have long since passed and the genre has been extremely hit or miss since then. Until director Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature, that is. The Edge of Seventeen is savagely funny while managing to evoke the extreme discomfort and self-doubt that comes with navigating the swirling eddies and roiling maelstroms of raging teen hormones that is high school life. Chances are you’ll see something of yourself in Hailee Steinfeld’s fiery Nadine. And if you don’t, I don’t know, maybe you’re just a cool-ass jock.
Finally, a sci-fi movie that doesn’t treat its audience like absolute morons. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is an alien invasion story more interested in communication than the wanton and unnecessary destruction porn of seeing our national monuments reduced to smoldering rubble. In fact, calling it an “alien invasion” story seems incorrect; it’s more of a first contact story, if we’re being pedantic. (Which we are because we’re nerds.) Amy Adams delivers another towering performance as a linguist desperately trying to prevent first contact from turning into mutually assured destruction. With a haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, breathtaking visuals, and possibly one of the best twists of the year, Arrival is a quintessential example of what modern sci-fi should strive to be. And if you didn’t like it, hey, at least we got Independence Day: Resurgence too.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Be honest: did you expect to see a spiritual successor to Cloverfield in 2016? Did you expect it to star John Goodman in one of his most memorable and unnerving performances? If you said yes, then I’m calling bullshit. Unless you happen to be J.J. Abrams, in which case, hi J.J.! Cool glasses. But in all seriousness, 10 Cloverfield Lane was of the year’s best surprises. Sure, it was a claustrophobic, stressful, and deeply unsettling surprise, but aren’t those the best kind? When they also feature Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the answer is a resounding yes.
And those, dear readers, are our favorite films of the year. This is but a small smattering of the excellent movies we watched this year, and I would like to extend a special honorable mention to the following films: Swiss Army Man, The Lobster, Captain America: Civil War, Kubo and the Two Strings, Green Room, 13th, Elle, Hell or High Water, A Monster Calls, Lion, Sing Street, The Nice Guys, Tower, Train to Busan, and many more.
What were your favorite films of 2016? Let us know in the comments below!
Image: 20th Century Fox
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Additional reporting by Alicia Lutes, Rachel Heine, Kyle Anderson, Michelle Buchman, Matthew Grosinger, Luke Y. Thompson, and Michael Arbeiter.