Best Films of 2016

2016 was a great year for film. I didn't get to the theater nearly as often as I had in the past, so much of my interaction came from home viewing. What I managed to see was a beautiful mix of unique voices presenting unfamiliar visions of the world we live in.

Let's get to it. Here are the 10 best narrative films of 2016. That's a big caveat: I wound up pulling documentaries from the list for the first time in years to celebrate cinematic fiction on its own. Just be aware that Audrie & Daisy and 13th were on this list for a very long time.

10) Midnight Special

As I said in my review, I would rather see a sci-fi film try something completely different and maybe not stick the landing than another by the numbers mediocre "this is sci-fi" film. Midnight Special is a fascinating character study within the context of a sci-fi thriller. The MVP? Michael Shannon. His performance never lets you forget the stakes of the film and constantly pulls you through a bizarre premise.

9) The Handmaiden

If you told me Chan-wook Park would finally be recognized in the United States in 2016, I wouldn't have believed you. His work, outside of cult classic Oldboy, has been so routinely ignored by critics in the past (Oldboy got its footing here on home video, and largely for its bizarre and shocking imagery) that I thought nothing would change that. Stoker was supposed to be his big break, and that was slept on. 

The Handmaiden is not my favorite Chan-wook Park film, but it is a great film on its own merits. It's a beautifully designed and paced old school grand dame mansion thriller reset in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. The MVP? Park's mastery of body horror and human sensuality.

8) 10 Cloverfield Lane

I straight up hated Cloverfield. The film actually made me mad with its blatant disregard for the needs of the audience--the camera shook too much to see what was happening, the narrative played fast and loose with geography, and the perspective of effects was atrocious.

The whole concept of the first film works so much better in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The sequel is a chamber play about a young woman saved from an unseen exterior threat by an unstable survivalist. She has to weigh out her options: try to survive under the oppressive rules of a dangerous captor inside a safe physical environment or face almost certain death in the apocalypse that let her be pulled into the man's bunker to begin with. The MVP? Production design. This kind of bottle episode scenario grows old way too quick if the environment becomes stale, and production designer Ramsey Avery and set decorator Michelle Marchand II layer enough surprises in the retro-futuristic underground bunker to keep your interest.

7) Other People

Writer/director Chris Kelly takes an indie film standby--a not so successful artist returns to his childhood home because of family crisis--and breathes new life into it. Other People is the semi-autobiographical story of an SNL writer who returns home after a failed pilot and a messy breakup to take care of his mother, who is dying of cancer. The difference is this film is a beautiful dark comedy finding laughs in the absurdity of relative success and the gossip culture of stereotypical small towns. The MVP? The one-two punch of Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons incredible performances as the mother and son duo laughing until the end.

6) Zootopia

Zootopia is a joyous animated story about tolerance, dreams, and just being a good person. It's the most fun I had with a film this year and the message is important. While I don't think Zootopia is the best animated film of the year (Kubo and the Two Strings, April and the Extraordinary World, My Life as a Zucchini, Miss Hokusai, and Your Name work better as animated films, for me), I do think it's the best film that happened to be fully animated this year. The MVP? The backstory. The layers of society created through various animal personalities that our lead, an adorable little bunny who wants to be a police officer, shakes up through intelligence and determination is better defined than any other narrative world of 2016.

5) Deadpool  

Deadpool is a great superhero film. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. The structure is by the numbers superhero origin story, but the execution is anything but predictable and tired. It looks great for something shot on such a comparative low budget and genuinely made me want more when the credits rolled. The MVP? Split decision: Ryan Reynolds was born to play Deadpool; Julian Clarke's editing is a masterclass in pace, comedy, and precision. 

4) The Witch

The Witch is one of the most period accurate horror films I've ever seen. It's stunning to look at. Everything feels so real that a narrative relying on the social, rather than religious, implications of the existence of witchcraft in colonial times is totally believable. That opening sequence of excommunication, journey west, staring into the promised land of an open field, and what happens to the youngest child will haunt me for years. The MVP? Casting directors John Buchan, Kharmel Cochrane, and Jason Knight found the perfect combination of young actors and older veterans to create a perfectly believable family torn apart by uncontrollable outside forces.

3) Moonlight

I can only hope that when Moonlight earns its much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture that the film gets another run at the theaters. This beautiful indie drama tells the story of Chiron as a child, a teenager, and a young adult growing up in Miami during the height of the war on drugs. Each section of the film is filled with wonderful actors taking on various recurring and new influences on Chiron, who himself is played wonderfully by three actors, the MVPs of the production:  Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert.

2) Krisha

Don't ask me how or why Krisha hit me as hard as it did. I sat there screaming at the screen like a midnight showing of Rocky Horror on a first viewing. Krisha is as indie as indie film making gets these days, but has such a warped voice and perspective on the family drama that you'll feel like even the most well-worn cliches are brand new. The MVP? Brian McComber and his original score; he had me at drumsticks dropping in a song, being picked up, and played again as part of the scoring of this beautifully bizarre little indie dramedy. 

1) The Lobster

From the creator of Dogtooth comes a deeply touching heartfelt dark dystopian comedy about a man who has 45 days to find true love in a government run hotel before he is transformed into an animal of his choice, a lobster. The Lobster is wild, bizarre, thrilling, depressing, uplifting, confusing, hilarious, disturbing, and everything in between in equal measure. There is not another film like it and I like that. The MVP? Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and writer Efthymis Fillipo are a creative team like no other and flex their well-trained muscles in their first English language feature.