Honorable Mentions:

 

The Handmaiden 
Directed by Park Chan-wook [10/21/2016]

I did not see this movie until after I put together my “Best of” list. It was one of my most anticipated films of the year. I am a big fan of Park Chan-wook. His style of storytelling is a breath of fresh air compared to what Hollywood churns out year after year. The Handmaiden is dark and twisting, beautiful and intricate. There are moments that make you question what is happening. Ones that make you wonder what you are seeing. Thanks to the deft storytelling, all these moments pay off in the end. The subject matter is intriguing and off putting at the same time. Plus, it has one of the best, most sensual sex scenes I have seen in a long time, both intimate and evocative. The Handmaiden is a great film that was able to meet my high expectations. Another feather in the cap of a great director.

 

 

Moonlight
Directed by Barry Jenkins [10/21/2016]

Like The Handmaiden, I was unable to see Moonlight until I had put together my list. I had heard great things, and after watching the film, I can see why. It tells a compelling story filled with great actors and worthwhile characters. Split into three separate times of a single life, each vignette gives the audience the information needed to understand what is being told and how the events will go on to shape the next chapter. It works great and makes sense. It is heartbreaking and powerful, speaking into how culture and people can shape us. How both can teach us to never understand ourselves and our place in life. It is a hard lesson that ends with a delicate touch. I am glad movies like Moonlight are being made. I wish it was possible to get it in front of more eyes.

 

 

The List:

 

15. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Directed by Jorma Taccone / Akiva Schaffer [5/24/2016]

I am surprised to have this movie on my list. I did not expect much of it apart from mindless laughs. But Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is more than that. There is style and sophistication mixed into its over the top premise and goofy jokes. From the addition of real life musicians adding backstory to the way the mockumentary touches on truths about the entertainment business, this movie offers the audience layers of humor and heart. Plus, the music in it is funny and good. It is a well rounded film with more to offer than its surface shows.

 

 

 

14. Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi [12/25/2016]

Hidden Figures is not a perfect movie. It might be too simplistic and Disney-esque for some. To me, it hit too many right notes to ignore. The audience is never brought deep into the mathematics or science behind the movie, but it does enough to tell us what we need to know and make us care about the characters. It gives us a story about science and a story about people. Most of all, these individuals and their accomplishments are not lost to history, because this movie tells their tale. The film is a story about how this world does not only run off the sweat of white men. Based on the reaction of the audience at my viewing, it also helps us remember that racism is not a thing from the distant past. It is recent, it is deplorable, and it is still hurting lives and progress in this world.

 

 

13. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos [5/13/2016]

When it comes to smaller, indie films, I often have to wait for digital release before seeing them. The theater near my house does not take a risk on lesser known films. It is a shame. Movies like The Lobster deserve a bigger audience and more recognition. It is a unique film, both in its story and in its presentation. The writers present a world that is preposterous but understandable. It is human in its motivation, and compelling in the way it unfolds. There are not a lot of movies like this, especially ones that are able to pull off their premise without a hitch. People complain about the lack of originality in movies, but hand out their money to troves of mediocre sequels and reboots. It would be wonderful to see more cinematic magic like The Lobster instead.

 

 

 

12. Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie [8/12/2016]

Westerns are one of those genres that I rarely seek out, but often enjoy. Hell or High Water is a prime example. Wrapped in the skin of modern day, the movie sets out to explore relationships through the story of two bank robbing brothers and the ranger out to stop them. Along with great acting and tense moments, the movie manages to hit on a plethora of relevant themes to our current world. The importance of family. The feeling of banks, corporations and power hungry politicians robbing us with no consequence. The idea that even the good have flaws. These are all important ideas to explore, and good cinema can help us to process our own feelings through the story it lays out. In this regard, Hell or High Water is a smashing success.

 

 

 

11. Zootopia
Directed by Byron Howard / Rich Moore [3/4/2016]

With John Lasseter residing over all Disney owned animation studios, they have increased their quality output in droves. After losing its way, Disney is back with a vengeance. Zootopia is one of two favorite films for me released this year from the studio. It is action packed, full of laughs, and contains gorgeous visuals. The characters are memorable, and the world building is top notch. If that was not enough, the movie also has a great message. It is a treat for all ages.

 

 

 

 

10. Captain Fantastic
Directed by Matt Ross [7/8/2016]

Captain Fantastic gives audiences a glimpse into a worldview that is both foreign and understandable. After the passing of his wife, a father (played by the excellent Viggo Mortensen) takes a look at his life decisions and how they have impacted his family for good and bad. Having raised six kids off the grid, the father must wrestle with what is most important in life. The cast is quirky, but lovable. They draw you into their world and make you face your own outlook on life. It is a powerful film, crafted with love and acted with expertise.

 

 

 

9. Moana
Directed by Ron Clements / Don Hall / John Musker / Chris Williams [11/23/2016]

If you miss the classic Disney animated films of years gone by, then Moana is the movie for you. It is not afraid to be a full on musical, realizing that the genre can charm and captivate audiences. Based on an amalgam of Polynesian folk tales, vibrant, catchy songs and wonderful characters fill the movie. The action scenes are brilliant. A prime example being the ship of coconuts mimicking a Mad Max: Fury Road style battle on the open seas. It is phenomenal. If that does not convince you, the movie features a strong female lead, and gives voice to a culture and people that are rarely seen on the big screen. It is easy to see the amount of love that went into making this film. Disney is back to form, and it is a true treat for audiences.

 

 

 

8. The Edge of Seventeen
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig [11/18/2016]

The trailer to The Edge of Seventeen was an easy sell for me. Hearing Woody Harrelson reading off an explicit text that one of his female students sends to a crush on accident was priceless. I hoped the rest of the movie could stand up to the expectations set by this small snippet. I was not disappointed. Heart and humor fills every corner of this film. It brings back memories of growing up; starting to come to grips with one’s identity outside of family and friends. It is a tale of discovery, coming of age, realizing the world is bigger than what we know. The Edge of Seventeen is not all sunshine and sparkles, but it was a joy to watch throughout its entire running time. In a world where many teen based properties can feel empty and shallow, this movie stands out from the pack. Do not miss it.

 

 

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi [6/24/2016]

From the shores of New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an always charming, often emotional, and sometimes goofy look at relationships and the way they can help shape and inform us. Julian Dennison plays the role of a troubled kid who winds up lost in the wilderness with his foster uncle. Dennison is impressive in the role. The cast interacts in honest and authentic ways. This adds impact to both the humor and the emotions presented throughout the film. There are few movies with as much heart and beauty as Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It is a treat for the eyes and the funny bone.

 

 

 

6. Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan [11/18/2016]

Many films give the audience a nice feeling inside when the movie is over. They are a way of escape from the problems of the world and our own issues in life. A movie like Manchester by the Sea does the opposite. It leaves you with a pit in your stomach; feeding you emotions that are difficult to process. Casey Affleck helps sell the story with his subtle and nuanced role as an uncle tasked with the care of his nephew after the passing of his brother. This is not a happy or clean movie. Things are not cut and dry, and the world does not play nice with the characters. At the same time, the film never feels disingenuous. The characters act like you would expect based on their situations and personalities. Manchester by the Sea is heavy; layered with hardships; sprinkled with truth. It might sound like one to avoid, but if you are up for the challenge, it is worth it.

 

 

5. Sing Street
Directed by John Carney [4/15/2016]

There are not enough positive adjectives to describe Sing Street. The movie is a love letter to great music from the 80s and teenage dreamers everywhere. Being a young child in the 80s and having my own rock bands through high school, this film connected with me in a powerful way. The movie follows a teenage boy as he attempts to impress a girl by forming a band. With the influence of his older brother, the kid changes styles as he searches for his own identity within the emerging culture around him. The visuals are on point for the era, and the songs are lots of fun. The moments of writing songs in bedrooms, awkward shows, and hoping to impress girls with music all match my own experiences. The writer understands these characters. Sing Street is an exuberant experience; one I am looking forward to revisiting often.

 

 

4. Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight [8/19/2016]

The fact that Kubo did so poor in its theatrical run is a travesty. This movie deserves to have everyone see it. The stop motion animation is stunning. No one else is creating visuals on the level that Laika has mastered. It is mind blowing. But the movie does not stop at gorgeous eye candy, it contains terrific music, a fun story, and cool elements from Asian culture. Would it have been better to have Asian actors doing the voice cast? Without a doubt. But that aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical movie going experience. It wowed me from beginning to end. During the credits, it also shows some of the making of the film. It makes the whole endeavor even more impressive. People of all ages should sing the praises of this movie. Instead, audiences skipped it. Do not make that mistake. Track this movie down immediately.

 

 

3. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg [3/10/2016]

Before I get to anything else about this movie, I have to acknowledge how amazing John Goodman is in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It is breathtaking. His performance will leave you speechless, second guessing your second guesses, helping you to understand that mutual exclusivity is rarely a concept found in real life. It is Oscar worthy. If that was not enough, 10 Cloverfield Lane also contains some of the most suspenseful moments of the year. It is a limited set and cast, but it works great. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fantastic next to Goodman. The audience is always able to understand what is happening and how the areas connect. You live inside the space with the cast. That kind of perspective and framing adds to the intensity that develops over the course of the movie. As the tension rises, the characters make smart, realistic decisions. You never wonder why someone chose to do something or question why they did not try something else. It all makes sense. It draws you in and never breaks its gaze with the audience. It is a rare quality. I loved this movie from the start, and hope to see more wonderful things from everyone involved.

 

2. Green Room
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier [4/15/2016]

Speaking of movies that take place in confined places, Green Room spends much of its run time in the limited setting of a skinhead bar. Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, the direction and framing is crucial to its success. The cast is incredible, and the people all make smart decisions. There are three things that rocket this movie towards the top of the pack for me. First, it is a movie that has to do with music. There is a familiarity to the setting for me. If you have ever heard Saulnier talk about his inspiration for the film then you know how authentic he tried to make it. I love following this band. I love the way they interact and talk. I love the choices that they have to make as struggling artists. And I love how that all leads to this terrible situation that they find themselves in. Second, this movie is violent. It is a raw, practical violence that drips with style and pain. It is in your face and uncomfortable, especially considering the antagonists in the film. Third, the movie does not tell the audience everything. It expects you to infer some things. It gives you all the info that you need, but it does not spell out every little detail. I love when art is not afraid to make its audience use their brain. This movie is intelligent. I cannot speak enough of the way I felt after seeing it. Filled with adrenalin and a mix of emotions. A perfect recipe.

 

1. La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle [12/9/2016]

Surprise! Another movie that revolves around music is at the top of my list. I do not know where to start when talking about a movie like La La Land. There is not a thing about it that did not exceed my every expectation. As a musical, it uses songs to progress the story and unfold the characters in an excellent way. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a great match on the screen, and it helps sell the entire experience. The actors sing in a way that leaves room for  imperfections and rawness. It is endearing. There is nothing worse than music having the life sucked out of it with overproduction. Music aside, the rest of the movie is also magical. The set pieces are colorful, exuding the perfect emotion for each moment. The dances are excellent. From a massive crowd scene at the opening to quiet moments between the leads, the choreography is awesome. Take all that, mix in a great story that does not travel down a predictable path, and you have my favorite movie of the year. It is a film that will be a joy to revisit both through rewatches and listening to the soundtrack.