Top 15 Films of 2016

Despite the abundance of superhero movies and stories set in a galaxy far, far away, 2016 has also presented audiences with a refreshingly diverse and original slate of films. After the #OscarsSoWhite controversy last year, it’s only fitting that several high profile movies of 2016 spotlight an astounding array of African-American performances, and several of those films ended up on our Top 15 list. This year also presented us with films that twist genres, challenge our thoughts about identity and time, and celebrate the art of storytelling itself. Without further ado, here are our top picks.

1. La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance in Damien Chazelle’s enchanting jaunt around Los Angeles. “La La Land” pays tribute to the struggle of making it in Hollywood, without losing sight of the creativity that drives artists.  The film also brings a much-needed dose of musical magic to the big screen.

2. Moonlight
Through three noteworthy performances – by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Saunders and Trevante Rhodes – “Moonlight” charts the growth of black man, Chiron, growing up in a poor area of Miami. With aching honesty, Chiron struggles with his sexuality and with the absence of attention from his crack addict mother (Naomie Harris). Directed by Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight” is a film of lyrical, transcendent grace.

3. Manchester by the Sea
Emotionally crippled by a devastating loss earlier in his life, Lee Chandler – Casey Affleck, in a justifiably lauded interpretation – numbly moves through the motions of life until another death forces him to take care of his nephew, played with heartfelt clarity by Lucas Hedges. Michelle Williams also stars as Lee’s estranged ex-wife, delivering a powerful performance.  In “Manchester by the Sea,” the family drama that unfolds feels both wretchedly real and, sometimes, unexpectedly funny.

4. Hell or High Water
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as brothers who go on a crime spree in West Texas in order to save the family farm. Although it may look like a traditional crime caper, it also has some pertinent things to say about contemporary society and morality. Pine and Foster both put forth understated but unforgettable performances.

5. Love & Friendship 
Based on a little-known Jane Austen novella, Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” tells the story of Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, a widow pursuing a wealthy man for marriage. Beckinsale’s charismatic appeal brightens the screen at every turn, and Stillman’s directorial style perfectly captures the charm and wit of Austen’s writing. Eighteenth-century England has never felt so alive.

6. The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park’s erotic psychological thriller has captivated audiences all over the globe. Set in 1930s Japan and starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim and Jung-woo Ha, “The Handmaiden” is a voluptuous, visual spectacle full of thrilling twists and turns.  Even for non-horror fans, this jaw-dropping film is a must-see.

7. Arrival
Amy Adams lays her emotions bare in Denis Villeneuve’s first-contact sci-fi drama. When alien spaceships arrive on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to determine the nature of the visit. “Arrival” offers an exhilarating mix of intellect and heart that examines the nature of experience, inviting us to question all that we believe. Adams’ powerful performance lends the film additional gravitas and invites us to experience wonder right along with her.

8. Sing Street
Growing up in 1980s Dublin, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band in order to impress the girl he likes. Featuring original songs and a charismatic cast, “Sing Street” offers a heartfelt escape from the vicissitudes of strict Catholic school teachers and tense family drama. It is the rare film that delights the soul and showcases an unabashed love for life in all of its difficulties.

9. 20th Century Woman
An ensemble cast including Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening and Elle Fanning explore life and love in 1979 in this dramedy by “Beginners” director Mike Mills. Annette Bening never fails to delight, and “20th Century Women” certainly checks off another high point of her career. Told through a series of anecdotes, the film is as freewheeling and honest as its engaging characters.

10. Fences
Veterans Denzel Washington and Viola Davis headline August Wilson’s film based on his play of the same. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who quietly struggles to come to terms with his life as a garbage man. Meanwhile, Davis is as fierce as ever in her role as Maxson’s stalwart wife Rose.

11. Elle
Paul Verhoeven’s latest film is a psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert, who has already garnered a plethora of awards for her role as businesswoman Michele LeBlanc. “Elle” tells the story of Michele after she is raped in her home by a masked assailant and then attempts to regain control of her life. LeBlanc’s fortitude is a stunning testament to the power of the human spirit.

12. The Lobster
This absurdist film by Yorgos Lanthimos depicts a dystopian future in which unmarried people are sent to a hotel, where they have 45 days to find a mate or be turned into an animal of their choice. Colin Farrell’s bemused performance perfectly captures Lanthimos’s highly disturbing yet disarmingly funny counter-realism. The film itself, too, offers a refreshingly original take on a frequently cliched genre.

13. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Animation’s gorgeous, stop-motion ode to the power of storytelling dips into meta-commentary while also inspiring a steady stream of wit and comedy. Kubo, a one-eyed, lute-wielding son of a legendary samurai warrior, is on a quest to acquire magical objects for protection. Along his way, “Kubo and the Two Strings” explores the nature of memory and identity, and culminates with startling poignancy. Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron add additional excitement to the film as Kubo’s energetic, yin-and-yang sidekicks.

14. Loving
This tender historical drama by filmmaker Jeff Nichols features poignant performances from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, as their characters fight for the right to an interracial marriage. Set in 1958, they were arrested for illegal cohabitation back in Virginia, then pushed along the path that will culminate in a historic Supreme Court decision. “Loving” shows us that we in America still have a long way to go in the realm of racial equality, but it also is a film that gives us all hope.

15. Jackie
Natalie Portman has received raves for her complex portrayal of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Focusing of her time in the White House and the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, “Jackie” probes the depths of both personal and national grief. What’s more, Portman adroitly plumbs the heart and soul of one of the most enigmatic figures in U.S. history.

Honorable Mention: The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker’s much-heralded debut spotlights slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, charting his path from mild-mannered preacher to cutthroat revolutionary in the antebellum South. Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars in “The Birth of a Nation,” delivering a bombshell of a film that asks important questions about race and violence.  The film is unflinching in its portrayal of slave life before the Civil War, and because of its historical resonance, it is all the more important.