The Top 10 Films of 2016

While I’ve ranked my Top 10 Films for any given year for quite some time, 2016 marks the fifth year that I’ve done it while actively reviewing films for professional outlets. That realization dawned on me as I began to prepare this list, which may be the hardest one I’ve put together. As far as films go, 2016 was a strange year. There were plenty of disappointments, but there were also plenty of out-and-out great films to hit screens. I was able to narrow the many, many films I saw this year down to 20, then it became much more difficult. In the end, though, I managed to narrow those 20 down to 10.

So what qualified? As I’ve done every year, films must first be released in the United States in this calendar year in either limited or wide theatrical release, or they must screen at a film festival. This year, I managed to get 179 films in before the end of the year, which is down from last year’s 208 but higher than any other year.

Looking over this year’s list, along with those from the last four years, I’m struck by how each year’s lists will share characteristics with others, but also do things that don’t happen in other years. This year’s list is no different, though I won’t get into how it’s unique just yet.

Before I start, I want to be clear: like any Top 10 list, these are my selections. While someone could argue that a lower-ranked film is a better film than a higher-ranked film (and I could make a few of those arguments myself), I’m going with an order that feels right to me. First, the 10 films that narrowly missed out on the Top 10:

  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Deadpool
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • La La Land
  • Moana
  • A Monster Calls
  • Sing Street
  • Weiner
  • The Witch

And now – complete with Twitter-length summaries – here are my Top 10 Films of 2016:

10. Nocturnal Animals

It’s stylish and sleek. It’s sexy and grotesque. I left the theater feeling numb, my mind blown. Even now, Nocturnal Animals makes me think.

9. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

It’s not just silly, stupid fun. It’s a delightful skewering of modern pop, from the music itself to the culture surrounding it.

8. Green Room

2016 was a great year for horror, but this film gets extra points for both its surprises and its uncanny familiarity with the real world.

7. Zootopia

Disney’s current streak of brilliance hit a high point with a film that managed to sneak into theaters with a brilliant look at prejudice.

6. Hell or High Water

The Western gets a modern update, with all of the socioeconomic calamity that it entails.

5. The Nice Guys

The creator of the modern-day buddy-cop film proves he still knows how to make these stories work better than anyone else.

4. Elle

Paul Verhoeven’s latest applies an arthouse aesthetic to shocking content for some of his – and star Isabelle Huppert’s – best work ever.

3. The Handmaiden

Double- and triple-crosses, along with an increasingly complex story, make this erotic psychological thriller a can’t-miss masterpiece.

2. Arrival

One of the smartest pieces of science fiction in recent memory examines language and communication, with mind-bending results.

1. Moonlight

The complexities of sexuality, race, gender, and class come crushing down on one young man, as shown through three distinct periods of time.

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