The 10 Best Movies of 2016

Every year, critics and pundits argue whether it was a “strong year for movies.” And every year, there is never consensus. I usually rate movies on three primary criteria:

  1. Is the movie entertaining?
  2. Is the movie one I’d watch again?
  3. Is the movie one I’d recommend to my friends?

Through this lens, 2016 was an extremely strong year, despite the summer blockbuster season being shockingly dismal. Though there were many big films that failed, both critically and financially, 2016 was packed with interesting fare that ranged from genre thrillers to emotional dramas. The year was especially notable for its horror entries–several well-made horror films narrowly missed this top ten movie list–while a few dramas that are certainly Best Picture contenders that I found underwhelming but will no doubt show up on other people’s ranking (La La Land, Fences) didn’t even come close.

Yes, it was a strong year for movies. And here are the ten best movies of 2016:

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane

The plot: A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a bomb shelter and is unsure whether the man who “saved” her (John Goodman) is telling the truth–that some kind of global incident has happened that has made the world unlivable–or is simply a psychopath..

Why we liked it: Highly entertaining and superbly assembled, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an unpredictable thrill ride that boasts an incredibly underrated performance by Goodman (and Winstead), even if the absolutely bonkers ending may be too much for some viewers.

9. Jackie

The plot: In the days following the assassination of her husband, Jackie Kennedy Onassis grieves for her loss while figuring out a way to put on a face of determination to the nation.

Why we liked it: Natalie Portman is at the top of her game as she immerses herself in the role. Meanwhile, Pablo Lorrain’s calculated direction makes the drama look and feel like a thriller, elevating the film above what could have been a simple, intimate portrayal of grief.

8. Miss Sloane

The plot: A government lobbyist switches sides and sets out to defeat her previous employers to overturn pro-gun laws, despite knowing it’s an uphill battle and that she will face fierce, merciless opposition.

Why we liked it: Jessica Chastain delivers another riveting performance in this surprisingly entertaining and immensely satisfying drama-thriller.

7. The Nice Guys

The plot: A private investigator (Ryan Gosling) and a thug-for-hire (Russell Crowe) team up to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who may be connected to the death of a porn star in 1970’s Los Angeles.

Why we liked it: A finely tuned comedy that gets better with each viewing, The Nice Guys features sharp, surprisingly dark humor and a great pair of performances by its stars.

6. Hell or High Water

The plot: Two brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) go on a bank robbery spree across dust-stained West Texas while an aging Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) attempts to anticipate their next move.

Why we liked it: Patient, absorbing and entertaining through and through, this modern day western is simple in many ways, but director David Mackenzie’s attention to detail and Taylor Sheridan’s spot-on script–coupled with a terrific score–make Hell or High Water a delicious ride into the sunset.

5. Manchester by the Sea

The plot: A man returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew after his brother dies, forcing him to come to term with his tragic past.

Why we liked it: Casey Affleck gives one of the best performances of the year and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an intimate and moving exploration of emotion that deftly balances a depressing story with moments of humor and light.

4. Moonlight

The plot: An African-American boy in the ghetto grows to be a teenager and then a man, unsure of his place in the world thanks to societal expectations and personal pressures.

Why we liked it: Moonlight features several of the year’s best performances and its sharp, organic script leads to one of those most sincere, engaging dramas you’ll see all year.

3. Arrival

The plot: Amy Adams stars as a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. government to help communicate with an alien species that has suddenly appeared in various locations around the Earth, their intentions unknown.

Why we liked it: Featuring stellar performances, an intelligent script and an unpredictable story, Arrival is the very definition of smart sci-fi, an immensely entertaining and satisfyingly taut exploration of the unknown.

2. The Witch

The plot: A family, too devout for their Puritan village, move to the woods to start a new life. When the youngest disappears, the family begins to turn on one another as something lurks in the shadows.

Why we liked it: Moody and mesmerizing, The Witch is a horror movie for non-horror fans, a thriller designed to make you feel increasingly unsettled and disturbed–but one that avoids horror clichés at all costs.

1. Lion

The plot: A poor Indian boy falls asleep on a train and wakes up 1,600 kilometers away, unable to tell authorities where he’s from or even what his mother’s name is. Years later, having been adopted by an Australian couple, he vows to find his birth family.

Why we liked it: I literally never cry at movies, but Lion brought me to the edge of those pesky tear-duct obstructions. Entertaining, powerful and beautiful, Lion is the best movie of 2016.

See a full list of the best and worst movies of 2016.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists