What is there to say about movies in 2016? In some ways, the year in film was defined by failed blockbusters, at least in the critical sense. “Marvel ran the game last year, but DC is taking its shot this year with two enormous releases,” we wrote at the beginning of this year. DC certainly did take their shot with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, but they missed badly with both. Joining those two blockbusters in the dumpster were the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Star Trek Beyond. Marvel meanwhile, ever the exception, chugged along with Civil War and Doctor Strange. Really, the most successful blockbuster of the year wasn’t even a blockbuster—it was Deadpool, Marvel’s irreverent, made-for-cheap sensation. But on the whole, as time goes on, it seems clear that the bigger a movie is (and usually, the more money it makes), the more devoid of feeling it will be. Stories are lacking, a sense of life missing: a disconcerting trend if there ever was one.
But 2016’s film slate wasn’t all bad; there were still plenty of movies and performances that charmed us in the theaters. The year included some great cinema, with movies featuring unimaginable creativity and bold, captivating statements—including, most surprisingly, documentaries so evocative and well-executed that they transcended their genre. And in another positive turn, 2016’s palette was far more diverse than years previous; genres that made the list run the gamut from bigger-budget comedy to indie thriller, and the stories being told reflected a wide spectrum of different walks of life. This array of narratives were reflected in the Oscar nominations of the year: though there is always room for improvement, it certainly was not mired in quite the underrepresentation debacle as it had in prior years.
There’s plenty from that year to celebrate. Just keep reading for our favorites; these are the best movies of 2016.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
When it works, Doctor Strange, the fourteenth film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, is a joy to take in. Considering it had to do two things—establish Strange’s origin story while also making him a force to be reckoned with—in one film, Marvel succeeded, turning an asshole-in-residence into the Sorcerer Supreme. Benedict Cumberbatch shined as Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon bent on reclaiming the gift of his broken hands. Instead he ended up receiving the gift of all of the magical powers. While Mads Mikkelsen wasn’t the big bad many would imagine (and while the real big bad, Dormammu, ended up being an even weaker final boss), the real crime was having Rachel McAdams on payroll and giving her next to nothing to do. That said, the special effects in this film are the real king, and if you haven't seen this one in IMAX 3D yet, you're truly missing out. —khal
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
That boy Denis finally found a script and story worthy of his reliably gorgeous filmmaking, which, he hasn't truly had in full since Enemy imo. (I realize I'm in the minority but, Sicario was...not for me.) Amy Adams goes Peak Jodie in this thoughtful and engrossing first contact story that refreshingly unfolds more or less how an actual alien arrival would in real life. U.N. politics and paranoia drive the story but the real draw is watching Adams expertly navigate the language barrier. Arrival is what I like to call, Fire/Boring. Nothing's going to get your blood pumping—it's tailor made for a turnt down winter watch, but it plays to those strengths. And it all builds to the most emotionally affecting reveal/twist/ending/whatever you want to call it. Just have a fucking hanky on deck. —Frazier Tharpe
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton
Sure, the Coen brothers’ latest film is a bit of a Hollywood jerk-off machine, playing into the old studio nostalgia that’s getting La La Land the “favorite child” spot. But it’s also such a stellar example of what the Coen brothers are great at, it almost feels like a best of compilation of the duo that brought us Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and many more. Joel and Ethan Coen have proven their strength in both drama and comedy throughout their robust careers, and here they slide the scale all the way to the comedic side. Hail, Caesar! may not live up to the classics in their filmography, but it’s honestly their funniest film yet, taking us from one set to another on a 1950s Hollywood studio lot, where there’s more drama and ridiculousness behind the scenes than in front of the camera. Coen regulars George Clooney, Josh Brolin, and Frances McDormand come out to play while Scarlett Johansson gives us perfect mermaid diva vibes and Channing Tatum makes us howl with a song and dance number beyond anything we’ve ever seen in all the Step Up movies combined. Also featuring twin Tilda Swintons, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, and breakout star Alden Ehrenreich, this star-studded misadventure boasts what is probably the highest concentration of the finest actors working today. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
I’m a sucker for emotional movies set in New England—there’s something about seeing those dudes with steely exteriors crack while mispronouncing their Rs. So I was prepared to lose it watching Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s indie about a down-and-out Massachusetts man whose life is thrown off course when his older brother dies and leaves his son to him. But while Manchester does strike a chord, its strength lies in how understated and careful it is. Lonergan doesn’t revel in the pain that surrounds his movie’s characters; he studies it, displays it in a surprisingly varied number of ways, and captures some sort of truth when it comes to the human capacity for coping. Buoyed by near-perfect performances from Casey Affleck (whose sexual assault allegations should be talked about as much as his acting) and newcomer Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful melodrama that says so much by not really saying much at all. I don’t know if it deserves all the praise and awards it’s currently getting, but it is something you should see. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Director: Anna Biller
Starring: Samantha Robinson, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Laura Waddell
It’s time to add another great witch film to that IMDB list of “great witch movies” that I know you’re sitting on. In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) has moved to a small town in Northern California to run away from her demons—particularly one in the form of her deceased ex-husband. She’s gorgeous, sexy, and a witch—however, where Elaine’s magic and personal interests dovetail is on the topic of love. She’s desperate to find a man who will just love and provide for her, and will do anything with her incredible set of powers to get one. In doing so, Elaine upends the town with her love magic and obviously, chaos arises. It’s a campy, sexy, weird play on 1960s horror—more funny than scary—but don’t let any of that make you think The Love Witch is without substance. Director Anna Biller’s watchful writing and direction make Elaine’s seemingly idiotic quest for true love one that dives deep into the feminist implications of such, and the gender politics between men and women, all with a winking, blue eyeshadow-covered eye. —Kerensa Cadenas
Directors: Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
Starring: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Chris Redd
Popstar might be the dumbest movie of the year so far, and that’s not an insult. Created by the Lonely Island guys, it's a pitch perfect parody of a Justin Bieber-esque pop star Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), who is going through a rough patch after his album tanks. The fauxmentary (which definitely pulls from Bieber's Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) captures Conner's every move, and documents his downward spiral as he adds a Tyler, the Creator-type rapper (Chris Redd) to his tour to boost sales, encounters a multitude of PR nightmares (including getting Seal killed), and pushes everyone away with his own stubborn behavior.
Chock full of insane celebrity cameos, the best dick joke in recent memory on film, and ridiculously catchy songs, Popstar distils everything you love about the Lonely Island into a perfectly timed package where you might not ever stop laughing. —Kerensa Cadenas
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots
Does a Terrence Malick movie need to make any sense? Not really.
In typical Malick fashion, Knight of Cups isn’t about much on the surface—it's philosophical or whatever. Cups follows Rick (Christian Bale), a depressed but decidedly #blessed L.A. screenwriter, who while flourishing professionally is missing something deeper that he can’t quite figure out. That self-exploration, in the case of so many L.A. men, comes in the form of women. Rick’s story is told in dreamy, gorgeous vignettes about the women in his life, from a former marriage (with Cate Blanchett no less!) to an affair with a married woman (Natalie Portman). There’s more to it than just women though, as it explores Rick’s clearly complex relationship with his addict brother (Wes Bentley) and his thoughts about Hollywood. More than anything, Knight of Cups is more about the experience. If you’ve ever lived or been in L.A., it captures the languid sprawl of the city, drenched in sunshine, capped by palm trees. It’s a specific corner of L.A., one exclusive to few, as shown in the outstandingly surreal mansion party scene, but you’ll more than want to go on this journey with Malick. —Kerensa Cadenas
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice
Before he went and wrote and directed the third Iron Man, Shane Black had an underrated movie called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was a weird, twistedly funny neo-noir depiction of Los Angeles. The Nice Guys is more of the same, teaming up a shabby private investigator (Gosling) with a gruff enforcer-type (Crowe) who unreel a conspiracy theory involving both the porn and auto industries in the '70s. The movie is impeccably styled, and the plot is amusingly winding, but not so much that it'd break your brain. But most of all, The Nice Guys hangs its hat on the chemistry and performances of Crowe and Gosling, an unlikely bro-pair who are a pleasure to watch. Crowe is great as a laconic, emotionally damaged tough guy, and as Holland March, Gosling proves that maybe he's at his best when he's talking A LOT, rather than when he's barely muttering a word. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Don’t get it twisted: Love & Friendship might be the meanest movie of the year. It’s not your typical Keira Knightley/Jane Austen period romantic drama shit—it’s truly wicked and even a tad evil. Whit Stillman, who excels at comedy of any era, reunites two of his favorite conspirators, indie darling Chloe Sevigny and action heroine Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale has been easy to write off for years as she continues to star in action film after action film, but in Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, she proves that she’s so much more than the Matrix-like moves we know her for. She plays the titular character Lady Susan, a cunning woman who is trying to marry her daughter off to a rich older man and looking for one herself as well to restore her family’s fortune and standing. She’s utterly shameless in her pursuits, from flirting with younger, rich men to sleeping with married men to blatantly lying to get her way. Even as Susan’s web gets more tangled, her charm, in spite of her serpentine bite, proves that sometimes being mean might work in the long run. —Kerensa Cadenas