The Movie Sleuth's Top 20 of 2016

After a stunning year that gave us an unbelievably rounded selection of motion pictures, The Movie Sleuth team turns in what they think were the top 20 films of 2016. This is one of the most diverse lists we've ever had. From animation to arthouse cinema. From big budget science fiction to the return of the musical, we've got it all. So sit back and enjoy the ride. Because this is definitely a unique list that spans the gamut of genres, directors, and filming styles. 

Honorable Mention

Captain Fantastic- Chris Jordan
Captain Fantastic is what you might call a cross-generational coming-of-age story: the tale of a well-meaning hippie dad caught up in his own idealism and utopian dreams, and his kids who feel detached from society by the unusualness of their upbringing, all re-learning their places in the world after a tragedy shakes their wilderness existence. With wonderfully well-developed and complex characters of both generations, and a script that truly understands the perspectives of all of them, this is the best sort of thoughtful and observant character study. The script explores both the good intentions and damaging flaws of its family of characters with a mix of sympathy and brutal honesty, in a way that makes them feel, above all else, real. The whole cast lives up to the material with excellent performances, and none of them more so than Viggo Mortensen, who once again proves what a truly great actor he is. The film is also beautifully shot, with a carefully-crafted, brightly-colored art style which at times recalls the visuals of Wes Anderson, despite being much more grounded and less stylized. With a well-balanced mix of humor and insightfulness, Captain Fantastic is among the year's most unique and heartfelt indie slice-of-life dramas.

The Top 20 of 2016

20. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Chris George
As one of the final features of 2016, Rogue One introduces a small band of rebellion fighters into a story that plays like the Dirty Dozen in space. Giving Felicity Jones a chance to take on a different type of role, Rogue One is a solid effort on the part of Gareth Edwards that feels more original than The Force Awakens and brings back the huge action set pieces of the original Star Wars trilogy. This is probably the most popular film on this list considering its massive budget and a huge box office audience. Rogue One changed the playing field for this series by being the first anthology film in the Star Wars universe. As a first try, Disney did a phenomenal job maintaining the look and feel of the galaxy far, far away and also gave audiences a new, lovable droid, K-2S0. Rogue One may have come on the heels of The Force Awakens but it's by far a better Star Wars movie. 

19. La La Land-Andrew Kotwicki
The end of 2015 began with Quentin Tarantino resurrecting the long since dead 1960s Ultra Panavision 70mm format with his film The Hateful Eight.  Nearly a year later, writer-director Damian Chazelle turned around and did the same by bringing the long dormant CinemaScope 2.55:1 35mm format back to life with his loving ode to the 1950s and 60s escapist musical, La La Land.  The film Baz Luhrmann wishes he made despite having a wider filmography than Chazelle’s, La La Land is a big overblown old fashioned spectacle that is as much about yearning for the past as it is about conceding to compromises in the future.  Full of brilliantly choreographed and shot dance numbers where everyone provides their own singing and Ryan Gosling plays his own piano keys in more than one show stopping sequence, you won’t have a more fun time at the movies this year when you aren’t in sheer awe of the technically proficient execution and plain old sense of joy.  Both a companion piece of sorts to Chazelle’s Whiplash as well as a sharp contrast to that film’s abrasiveness, La La Land cements the writer-director’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with and among the most delightful pop entertainment filmmakers working today!

18. Everybody Wants Some - Liam O'Connor
One of 2016 best and under seen films, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some is a fun throwback to an interesting period in America. Similar to his cult classic Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some is a movie about a group of young people having the time of their lives. If ever there was a film that captured the shenanigans of the college experience, this film has come the closest. It often does not feel like a period piece or a film made up of stereotypes about the people in the 1980s, the people in this movie actually sound and feels like real people. It is refreshing in how honest and naturalistic it is, in the way that fans of Linklater’s other works will know very well. The film is not only frequently hilarious but offers great performances, an awesome soundtrack, and just a general good feeling afterwards. You will come out of Everybody Wants Some wanting to watch it again and again.

17. Evolution- Andrew Kotwicki
It has been eleven years since the cinema scene last saw French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic whose 2004 debut feature Innocence felt something like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock if it were made by Gaspar Noe.  The wife and frequent collaborator of Noe made her quiet yet assured return with one of the year’s most deeply unsettling and disturbing science fiction horror fables of the year, Evolution.  Functioning as a loose companion piece to Innocence while taking the elements of discomfort and fantasy horror to heights not reached since Gyorgy Palfi’s Taxidermia.  Borne purely out of Hadzihalilovic’s imagination, Evolution centers around a volcanic island where young boys are reared by androgynous women in a bizarre, isolated cult.  Seemingly completely abstract yet moving towards a conclusion as the tone grows steadily more frightening, Evolution more than anything is a truly dense sensory experience.  Filled with a myriad of glorious and grotesque images including body horrors, fantastical physical anomalies, male pregnancy and a baby set to rival the fear spawned by the deformed infant in David Lynch’s Eraserhead.  Most stunningly of all is that in the end Evolution announces itself as a worthy successor to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, opening doors for dialogue while in and of itself remaining almost completely silent on the matter of life and death.

16. Zootopia - Dana Culling
There is much to love about this modern fable, from its fully-realized world populated by quasi-anthropomorphized animals to its treatment of themes of prejudice and social politics. In a surprisingly mature story layered with symbolism, it avoids many of the typically darker tropes associated with such themes and instead opts for a character-driven narrative that focuses on the personal impacts of broad social changes. In Zootopia’s world of non-human mammals, nature versus nurture gets shaken up in parallels between different species of animals and races of people. It’s a powerful allegory, peppered with some genuinely brilliant vocal performances, particularly by Jason Bateman (as Nick Wilde, a devil-may-care vulpine shyster) and Ginnifer Goodwin (as Judy Hopp, the relentlessly optimistic but na├»ve lapine rookie cop). Zootopia leaps beyond being just a cutesy story about following dreams and learning about oneself, and takes the Idris Elba-voiced African buffalo by the horns to reveal some powerful, and chilling, truths as to how easy it is to judge others, how seemingly innocent small prejudices can be exacerbated by sensationalistic media to turn a society into manic panic, and how difficult it can be to gain mutual trust when surrounding tensions begin to permeate the personal sphere due to political manipulation. An important film, and one of the year’s best.

15. The Handmaiden- Andrew Kotwicki
Yet another knockout for South Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden on the surface is a period drama concerning 1930s Japanese colonial rule over South Korea but is a sly spiritual successor of sorts to Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.  Genuinely erotic while testing the gulf of the waters between art and pornography, The Handmaiden is a crystal clear expression that is almost impossible to make in the current censorial state of American movies.  Extraordinarily beautiful to see and hear while not shying away from the expectations we’ve come to know from a Park Chan-Wook film.  All of the sharp edged auteur’s fixations are in full bloom seemingly free of constraint with an exultant passion felt in, yes, the best original score by longtime composer Cho Young-Wuk since his unforgettable soundtrack to Oldboy.  Full of raw emotions and a fearless perspective on female sexuality playing against a repressive social setting of the time, The Handmaiden is Park Chan-Wook arguably out on a limb with his most daringly provocative masterwork to date.

14. Cemetery of Splendour - Kyle Jonathan
Cemetery of Splendour is my favorite film of the year.  Weerasethakul’s hypnotic masterpiece breaks every storytelling convention to deliver a marvel of visual storytelling and a thoughtful, deeply humanitarian daydream.  Reclusive and mysterious, this is a film that demands patience from the viewer while it slowly explores the virtues of humanity that defies cultural and national boundaries, using a living, breathing act of artistic wonder to unite us not only as lovers of enriched cinema, but as human beings sharing the experiences of life.

13. Kubo- Mike Stec
Laika Studios, one of only animation houses still doing stop-motion, goes 4-for-4 with this year’s gorgeous Kubo and the Two Strings.  Kubo tells the story of a young boy--our titular hero--and his quest for a magical suit of armor.  Joined by his guardians, the wise Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the brave Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo finds adventure and danger, but also a new understanding of love and family.  It is also a brilliant showcase for stop-motion animation, and a powerful statement for keeping the art form alive.  In one of the best years for animated films, and films in general, in recent memory, Kubo is a powerful, magical experience that deserves its spot among the best this year had to offer.  
As our hero says, “If you must blink, do it now”, as you won’t want to miss a single beautiful frame of Kubo.

12. The Accountant - Raul Vantassle
The Accountant is hands down one of the best action films and one of the best overall films this year. This collection of cast and crew expertly crafted an interesting character drama that is wrapped within an intense action crime thriller. Ben Affleck is in rare form here, providing one of his most unique and nuanced character portrayals yet. The story from Bill Dubuque is superbly done, skillfully interweaving a back story throughout the present day narrative in order to further flesh out the main character played by Affleck. Director Gavin Hood (Warrior) and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) make what could be considered simple and mundane actions fascinating and engaging. The action scenes are crisp and look great, easily containing some of the best action sequences of the year. It expertly blends between being silent and psychological like in No Country for Old Men and then moves into the gritty combat style that is reminiscent of The Raid. Adding in an excellent ensemble cast, crisp editing, and a fine score, this was easily one of the best pictures of the year.

11.The Wailing- Andrew Kotwicki
Second to The Witch and Evolution, the South Korean horror thriller The Wailing is among the scariest films of the year as well as one of the most critically revered.  Truly terrifying to the core, here is a movie which shines a bright sunlamp on fear of the unknown made flesh.  The story of a small South Korean village stricken with a bizarre viral outbreak amid increasing ritualistic serial murders, The Wailing treats everything from zombification, demonic possession, Shamanism and cannibalism as unexpectedly real as documentary footage of a traffic accident.  Everything happens right in front of the camera without warning and the less sense the laws defining order and chaos make, the deeper the characters and we dive into madness.  With such an oversaturated market of devil horror movies dominating the American multiplexes, The Wailing sets the bar very high by managing to be among the most realistic demonic possession films released since The Exorcist.  Sound is key to both films and many of The Wailing’s greatest scenes play without music against an extremely loud soundtrack of drums, chants and screams.  Without a safety net, the terror stems from our inability in knowing how to deal with our reactions to the inexplicable terrors happening onscreen.  Having a horror film be years ahead of the audience and the characters starring in it is a rare and beautiful thing these days.

10. Anomalisa - Dana Culling
Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant stop-motion sojourn into the mind of an isolated public speaker as he attempts to reach out beyond his solipsism and aloneness is a study in both the Fregoli delusion and a lamentation on the separateness and sameness of modern relations between people. Intelligent and philosophical, the film uses its medium to illustrate the schism slowly encroaching upon the protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis); in a world of artifice and in which every character is a literal puppet, it tries to find genuineness and a foothold for hope, and finds itself diving deeply into the numb terror of terminal loneliness. With great tenderness and the awkward appeal of a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Michael’s world opens tentatively, only to snap shut in the jaws of his paranoia and self-loathing. It’s left ambiguous as to whether the film is intended to be symbolic, but the emotional incisiveness of its key scenes provide the gut-punch that even few live-action films are able to achieve. A landmark film, as much for its treatment of its subject matter and themes as for its incredible stop-motion verisimilitude and attention to detail. Quite simply a starkly beautiful, and terrifying, work of art.

9. Jackie - Kyle Jonathan
Pablo Larrain’s awe inducing, borderline terrifying examination of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination is a fairy tale biopic that abandons tradition in favor of examining the concept of bereavement as an inconvenience to the political machine and the defiance of a woman forced to reinvent her existence in the face of unthinkable tragedy.  Using an unforgettable score and featuring one of the year’s finest performances, Jackie uses horror and hope to deliver a one of kind deconstruction of an American icon.

8. Sing Street- Mike Stec
The basic plot of Sing Street can be summed up in a single sentence: “A teenage boy starts a band to impress a girl.”  But the movie itself is so much more.  Set in 1980s England, it is a nostalgia trip through a decade of amazing and diverse music, shifting styles as the band—and our hero—seek their unique voices.  It is about what it means to be young: the awkwardness of young love, the rush of rebellion, the seemingly impossible dream of leaving your hometown, making it big and getting the girl.  Sing Street is an infectious, feel-great triumph that surprises us, moves us, rocks us, and makes us feel young again.

7. The Neon Demon - Kyle Jonathan
Refn’s polarizing treatise on the vanity of fame has become one of the most hotly debated films of the year.  Delving into the ideas of the appearance and society’s obsession with virility, Elle Fanning’s subtle maliciousness comes to fruition while revealing that The Neon Demon is a concept, not a person and it possess everyone in Refn’s color drenched Los Angeles.  Featuring outstanding makeup work , vicious cinematography, and Cliff Martinez’s Blade Runner-like score, Refn’s middle finger to the industry uses a plethora of mirrored shots to remind the viewer that he is aiming his contempt at all of us, and it’s amazing to behold. 

6. Swiss Army Man - Chris Jordan
One of the year's biggest cinematic surprises was that a movie about a flatulent corpse was not only really good, but was packed with genuine emotion, thoughtfulness, and humanity. Swiss Army Man is a profoundly unlikely film; one that has no right to work even half as well as it does, but ends up being pretty brilliant in its own odd way. The film is a sort of existential buddy travel movie, in a sense, as Paul Dano's lonely, lovesick, shipwrecked protagonist finds his way across a deserted forest with the help of a fellow traveler, and figures out a lot about his own emotional and psychological baggage in the process. It just so happens that his fellow traveler (Daniel Radcliffe, in a marvelously gutsy performance) is a talking – yet otherwise immobile – corpse with a bad case of gas. The film makes this bizarre premise work using a sure-handed sense of magical realism which wraps it all in a Michel Gondry-esque dreamlike quality, and keeps us ever unsure how much is real and how much is Dano's fevered imagination. It also somehow uses its surreal scatological humor to get at some pretty deep themes about loneliness, anxiety, and crippling self-doubt, thanks to a deceptively thoughtful script. Both of the leads give fantastic performances, in very different ways. Paul Dano builds on last year's great Love and Mercy performance with another poignant look at the humanity of psychological struggles, further making the case that he is one of his generation's finest (if most unusual) dramatic actors. But it is Daniel Radcliffe who steals the show with a performance that is at once minimalist and seriously intense: as a corpse, he spends the movie motionless, slumped into awkward rag-doll positions, yet he gives a powerful performance all the same using only his voice and subtle facial movements. It's one of the most unusual performances you're likely to find anywhere this year; but then again, this is also one of the most unusual films you're likely to find. It's funny, it's poignant, it's surreal, and it's very gassy.

5. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate Edition  - JG Barnes
Zack Snyder dared to take mainstream super heroes to where they never have been. But how do you reintroduce these iconic characters without retelling their origins and regurgitating everything we've seen before? He broke down their biggest fears, splayed open their weaknesses, and drug them down to their lowest points. Batman must confront his darkest depths and realize that he has succumbed to one of his biggest fears of becoming what he hates. Superman must bow before a small man and realize it takes more than super strength and the adoration of humanity to truly grow into a hero. By the end of Batman v Superman: The Ultimate Cut's close, we realize exactly what the plan was all along. It's clear what demons had to be rid before this arc takes off to where we all want it to. This is an epic, brutal wringing of the past before the fresh beginning in the future sequels. Snyder dared to ask the questions that all comic book fans have been asking. What if Batman loses it? What if Superman can't always save the day? In doing so, Snyder not only provides a slow burn, shockingly complex conspiracy plot loaded with brilliant manipulation and incredible action sequences, but he simultaneously highlights the darkest qualities of humanity as we make judgments, worship, politicize, and slander blindly to destructive consequences.

4. The VVitch - H
The subtle trailer The VVitch displays a deceptively straight-forward horror movie and yet the title invites your brain to race to many questions and assumptions. The VVitch is an unapologetic period piece. You don’t understand the English language used in the 1630s in New England – too bad. No electricity? Deal with daylight and dim candle light used to naturally illuminate the dreary scenes. People actually lived like this. As the film burns slowly forward, I found it easier to comprehend and sink in. You watch as a family is shunned from their home settlement and make their own sanctuary – or so they think. Without hesitation, the witch throws a wrench in their plans when the youngest, Samuel goes missing. From there, you watch them unravel. At this time in “New England” people were fleeing from Europe/England to escape the church because it became judge and executioner. So, for many people in the “new world,” believing in god was a given and to not do so was wrong and you must be working for the devil himself – which is where the term “witch” originated. By the end of the madness you question everything – was this real? The VVitch, I believe, might not even be about a witch at all, but about how barbaric and ignorant the world was at this time. Everything not understood was “Oh, it’s the devil” — even sickness. This was before the time of modern medicine and a brand new cusp of our history. The events that occur in this movie were taken from actual historical logs, journaling real accounts from the past. The best part about The VVitch is imagination, namely yours. You are left to wonder if witches are real or if these people were just losing their minds due to exposure of so many unique ailments. The VVitch is absolutely stunning to look at and probably the most dedicated production of the year.

3. Arrival - Andrew Kotwicki
When news broke of plans to make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner with Sicario director Denis Villeneuve at the helm, fan reactions were understandably divisive.  Can you make a sequel worthy of a masterpiece and for that matter should you?  Furthermore why not have the man himself direct?  Ordinarily a director of uncompromising crime dramas with a surreal edge, the idea of Villeneuve being the right fit for the potential next chapter in a beloved sci-fi franchise.  But then like the unidentified flying objects themselves in Villeneuve’s next secret film, Arrival mysteriously appeared.  In an era where extraterrestrials are the punch line of disaster porn movies ala Roland Emmerich, it’s a shock to behold a movie that singlehandedly is the greatest contemporary UFO film since Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.  That rare sensory experience where the sound is as vital as the sterile interior of the spacecraft, it demands to be seen on the big screen with one astonishing vista after another.  What of course gives Arrival timelessness is the tender and vulnerable performance by Amy Adams who for both the film and the humans inhabiting it the bridge to an impenetrable form of organic calligraphy.  Ultimately, Arrival is as much about the aliens as it is about how mankind would realistically respond to such an incomprehensible event.

2. Green Room - Vanyel Harkema
Director Jeremy Saulnier has a firm grasp on making mean spirited indie films that cut his audience to the core. Much like his Blue Ruin, he pushes all the right buttons, driving us to the edge of insanity. Green Room ended up being a very important film for me this year. Aside from it being a stand out thriller with an amazing white-knuckled, slow burn pace. I connected quite a bit with the main characters, each scrappy punk as like-able, charming, and competent as they ever could be, particularly Anton Yelchin’s character. As always, he brought his quirky A-game to the production, and seeing his name on the movie poster turned the film into an instant must see for myself. I found that he played incredibly well off of Imogen Poots and Sir Patrick Stewart. I just wish it wasn’t the last leading role of my favorite up and coming actor. At the end of the year, this film still stands out from the many other thrillers and horror films produced. The action and gore is visceral, the situation is more than plausible, overall it’s a wonderfully grounded piece of tense cinema.

1. Moonlight - Michelle Kisner
Every once in a while there comes a film that completely envelops me and allows me to enter the mindset of a radically different individual. I forget about camera work, lighting, editing, and cinematography and just live in another world for ninety minutes. Moonlight is not just a cinematic experience, it's a revelation and an affirmation of love and life. One of the hallmarks of great writing and directing is the ability for a film to make an audience member empathize with a character that they do not have anything in common with. While their lifestyle may be alien to them, things like suffering, fear, regret, compassion, and love are all things that the human race experiences in solidarity regardless of where they come from. Moonlight is important because it highlights an often unspoken facet of the black community, one that is openly negative towards gay individuals—especially males. The look of this film is sumptuous and somewhat mellow. I loved the camera work as it feels like its own entity, swirling around in circles or cropping up in unusual angles. The lighting and the color use is masterful with stark contrast between the bright white concrete ghetto and the soft pastel lights of the more intimate moments. Director Barry Jenkins was able to coax amazing performances out of all three actors that portrayed the main protagonist Chiron. This is one of the must see movies of 2016.