Awards do not mean anything in the big picture of life. I love watching the Academy Awards every year but must confess, with every passing year, I do not always remember who won, but I always remember the films that penetrate my soul. Art lives on and transforms over time, as we evolve. With every life experience, triumph and tragedy, our view of the world morphs and along with it, the way we interpret art. Albums, books and movies I adored a decade back, I sometimes can barely remember and don't recognize the person who could have loved them so deeply. The flipside is I find other films grow on me. I don't ever recall placing the Bill Paxton directed FRAILTY film from 2001 on any list, but when I heard he died, I immediately was taken back to the horror and mystery of a story I saw on a rainy Chicago night sixteen years ago.
2016 was a great year for film, possibly the best this decade. I was entertained, enthralled, moved and terrified by what I saw; comedies, documentaries, horror films, dramas, animation and musicals all have unbelievable high-points. Every week I saw a handful of films and at least two never failed to take me to another world. For the first time ever, I am publishing a list of 100-must see films. I realize publishing a list that's 100 films is self-indulgent, but each and every one of these films is worth your time. There is a lot of variety here and I hope you find something that speaks to your tastes. One of the reasons I have listed so many films is because movies like SWISS ARMY MAN and GREEN ROOM did not move me as much as the films near the top of my list, but it does not mean they do not astonish. Both told stories that were novel. The 100-hundred films on this list cover dozens of different genres and styles and every single one reminded me about the power of film. They made me walk in someone else's shoes, captured my imagination, horrified me, terrified me and shook me to my core.
We are living in a jaded and cynical world now, but I hope you can look upon these films with an unprejudiced heart and an open mind. I still believe that the film is the greatest artistic medium in the world. It reaches the furthest across the globe and even when there are language barriers, the emotion of the performances captured by the camera have the ability to tear down walls. When the lights go out, we may shut off the real world for a few hours, but we also have the potential for an emotional metamorphosis. My worldview has become wider because of what I see in film. It allows us to empathize and that is something lacking in the world today. I watch the world through their eyes.
When Mahershala Ali, from the movie MOONLIGHT, accepted his SAG award last month, he spoke of understanding; "I think what I've learned from working on Moonlight is we see what happens when you persecute people, they fold into themselves. What I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him, and tell him that he mattered and that he was okay and accept him. I hope that we do a better job of that.".
I succeed and fail in life, but films remind me of the power I hold in my hands to make my life richer, but also those I encounter as well. I hope there is one film you find that will enlighten and charm you. Bookmark this list and over the next year, I urge you to go to your local library, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Redbox, VOD and wherever else you can find and unlock the good in these films.
Read my Best Films of 2015 List HERE
#1 Sing Street
John Carney's musical-comedy-drama about melodically inquisitive teens in 1980s Dublin made me smile from the first scene to the last. I love this movie, the music, the performances, the spirit and the elation that fuels every scene. Carney is three-for-three with musicals, striking gold first with ONCE in 2007 and then doing it again with BEGIN AGAIN in 2013. The original music is more than a tribute to the era, with a half dozen songs being amongst the best music released in all of 2016. Making a film about teen adolescence can be hard enough but making it a period piece and infusing the film with original songs is an impossible feat and yet, it looks so easy. This is one of the few films from 2016 currently streaming on Netflix, I urge you to discover this gem and BEGIN AGAIN as well. If it does not permeate your being with glee, I am likely to argue that you have no soul.
No other film in 2016 destroyed me emotionally as much as this one. We live in a day and age where we hurdle towards conclusions and regularly look upon different cultures with suspicion. In ARRIVAL, a linguist and mother, played with gentle grace by Amy Adams shows us many of our problem disappears when we break down borders and communicate. She had the impossible task of translating with aliens, in a language foreign to everyone on the planet. Director Denis Villeneuve dials up the urgency of the situations mesmerizing the audience the same way he did last year with SICARIO. ARRIVAL was marketed as a sci-fi film, but it is really a film about the human race and needs to be seen twice to be fully appreciated. It is a puzzle of a film and once you piece it together, you are going to want to see it again to see how and why the pieces fall into place. I have seen this film three times and cannot wait to see it a fourth. The bump-and-grind of life may wear us down, but ARRIVAL reminds us that with considerate communication we can refute fear.
What happens when two Christian missionaries, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan, a country where Christianity has been outlawed? They go in search of their mentor, played by the scene-stealing Liam Neeson, but find resistance, persecution, horrific sacrifices and questions instead of answers. Faith has played a significant part of Scorsese's films going back fifty years to WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR in 1967, but it's never been as vicious or ghastly as it is here The scenes are striking and seismic while maintaining a deep and personal touch. Regardless of whoever you pray to (or not), the film forces you to wrestle with your faith and question it continually. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, KUNDUN and now SILENCE form a powerful religious and faith trilogy for Scorsese where he lays bare his questioning soul for all of us proving he is still our greatest living director. It is criminal this film did not find a wider audience.
Director Barry Jenkins tells the story of one boy at three pivotal times in his life, played vividly by three different actors. We trace the young man's struggle, his dread and resentment against a society where he does not fit in. We watch him take a sharp turn in life wanting to reach through the screen to shelter and comfort him telling him there is a better way. If I could only watch this one performance from 2016 for the rest of my life, I would choose Mahershala Ali's from MOONLIGHT. Why? It forced me to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. On the surface, I shouldn't have empathy for a drug dealer, but the humanity and compassion he shows a confused and frightened young boy reminds us here is greatness in all of us
#5 Manchester By The Sea
Kenneth Lonergan is a master writer of stage and screen, possibly best known for ANALYZE THIS and for assisting on the GANGS OF NEW YORK screenplays. However, it is when he gets behind the camera that he finds a way into our lives. In the hands of a lesser director/writer, MANCHESTER could have been overwrought, but Lonergan takes his audience on a journey that has more questions than answers to begin with and he slowly unveils each character's backstory in tragic fashion. Casey Affleck delivers an understated performance, but there is one scene with Michelle Williams that will never leave me. It will haunt me, leave me in awe and crush me every time I think about it.
Most of us know where we came from, but the story of a young Indian boy separated from his brother and trapped on a train hits home. It very easily could have been a movie of the week, but director Garth Davis takes us on a journey of love where the boy is adopted by a loving and caring Australian family and he grows up with every benefit in the world, but something is missing. There is a mother out there who lost her son and does not know he is alive. Dev Patel displays this confusion and pain delicately where the audience can empathize with him and Nicole Kidman, as his loyal and sometimes suffering adopted mother, carefully teaches us important life lessons. This film will warm you and inspire you to be the best person you can be.
#7 Hell Or High Water
Whenever they tell you that they do not make movies like they used to, have them see HELL OR HIGH WATER, a modern day western with bank robbers and law enforcement that carefully builds its way to a climactic showdown. Ben Foster, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges face off in a masterful film of storytelling that channels the Coen Brothers at their best.
#8 La La Land
I love this movie with all the madness in my soul. I know there is backlash against it, but it is made with great heart and is impossible to watch and not smile throughout. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are magnetic together and they exude off-the-charts chemistry. Modern musicals are rare and to create one from scratch and not adapt it, is a rare feat that director Damien Chazelle has pulled off.
#9 The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park is the type of filmmaker who will mess with classic storytelling and shock his audience. I will never forget the way his brilliant OLDBOY unfolded but the HANDMAIDEN, set in 1930s Japan, is a tale that you will never know where it is going. This was the most sensual film of 2016 and takes the audience down perverse corridors that will shock and shame. This is a masterclass of direction.
#10 A Bigger Splash
Mad jealousy, rage, temptation are at the forefront of A BIGGER SPLASH with an A-grade cast who faces off against one another where relationships, old flames, untapped lust and rage boil over. Ralph Fiennes is unhinged in this drama and if you are a fan of the Rolling Stones, you need to see this film for two pivotal scenes.
#11 Midnight Special
I took a chance on this film walking into a theater knowing little to nothing about it and you should as well. Currently airing on HBO, Michael Shannon is on the run with his son, who has a purpose as Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard give strong supporting performances in this tense and terse drama.
#12 A Man Called Ove
Rolf Lassgεrd shines in this import from Sweden, which will charm you to no end. It's a standard angry old man lives next door, but the way the story unfolds, with incredibly effective flashback sequences, elevates it to something deeper and more profound.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis take August Wilson's dialogue and they dance. They bring their performances to a boiling point in a film that prides itself on minimalism with the majority of the scenes taking place on the back porch of their home.
#14 Rogue One
A great STAR WARS movie occurring in the days before EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE; It's the first "war" film in the STAR WARS universe with characters seeking the original Death Star plans. A lot could have gone wrong, but we have to give Disney credit for putting a diverse cast who endeared themselves to legions of fans around the globe. From the first shot to the final, it is a jolting ride.
#15 Hidden Figures
I wish I had been taught about the courageous African-American women who helped NASA put a man on the moon. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monαe make us dream big in what may be the sure-fire audience pleaser.
#16 Kubo & The Two Strings / #17 Zootopia
Animated films had another strong year with KUBO pushing boundaries in its storytelling and animation and ZOOTOPIA tackling fear in a way that can speak to both children and adults. It is a brave and important film I hope people not only watch but learn from years from now.
#18 Hunt For The Wilderpeople
A foster child is adopted by a couple in New Zealand. Tragedy ensues, but the way it was dealt with made me stand up and wonder how I did not see this in theaters. Sam Neill gives the greatest performance of his career in this charismatic on-the-run buddy film.
#19 Nocturnal Animals
When fashion designer Tom Ford directed his first film, A SINGLE MAN, every scene leapt off the screen at you with its finite details as his camera meticulously captures everyday life with heightened concentration. He does it once again with NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Amy Adams in a 180-performance from ARRIVAL is cold, distant and confounding while Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual performance
#20 Deadpool / #21 Doctor Strange / #22 Captain America: Civil War
It was an astounding year for comic book movies and these three were the best. Marvel understands their characters, the importance of getting it right and making us care about not just these characters but the overall universe.
#23 OJ: Made In America
An astounding 8-hour documentary covering the life of OJ Simpson, celebrity and race in America with depth not seen since 1985's SHOAH coming close. It is unfair to compare any other documentary due to the size and scope of this one.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga define what love is as they help us grasp how racism and hatred could not extinguish their need to be with and better each other. Director Jeff Nichols could have made a movie out of the Supreme Court fight, but instead he took us inside the walls of the Loving household. He also directed MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and a case could be made for him being the director of the year.
#25 The Nice Guys
Shane Black has a gif for wry dialogue and impeccably paced films. KISS KISS, BANG BANG leapt off the screen and for this buddy cop film taking place in 1970s Los Angeles, he takes us into the seedy underbelly of crime and comedy. His screenplay is brought to life perfectly by Russel Crowe and Ryann Gosling.
#26 Moana / #27 Fantastic Beasts And Other Creatures / #28 Southside With You
#29 Author: The Jt Leroy Story
Currently on Amazon Prime, this is a tale of a young woman who broke through barriers and worked under a pseudonym, only to be exposed.
Timothy Spall exudes hatred in his performance as a holocaust denier. It cuts to the core of fact and fiction. It is a terrifying commentary on the world in 2016. Tom Wilkinson gives a career defining performance as one of the key lawyers fighting for the truth.
#31 The Man Who Knew Infinity
Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons shine in this World War I period piece about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a Indian mathematician who went to Cambridge University and re-write the book on mathematics. The performances are captivating and effective.
#32 The Jungle Book / #33 The Lobster / #34 Hacksaw Ridge / #35 Finding Dory / #36 Snowden / #37 Jackie / #38 Love And Friendship
#39 THE BFG
A wonderful fantasy for the family brought to life by Steven Spielberg. Overlooked upon release, thus is one you should not miss.
#40 De Palma / #41 Cafι Society / #42 Eye In The Sky / #43 Demolition / #44 Star Trek Beyond / #45 The Dressmaker / #46 The Beatles: Eight Days A Week- The Touring Years / #47 In Order Of Disappearance / #48 The Little Prince / #49 Neon Demon / #50 Pete's Dragon
#51 Me Before You / #52 Green Room / #53 The Infiltrator / #54 Bridget Jones' Baby / #55 The Founder / #56 Sully / #57 Hitchcock, Truffaut / #58 Don't Breathe / #59 The Wailing (Gokseong) / #60 Don't Breathe / #61 American Honey / #62 Captain Fantastic / #63 Only Yesterday / #64 Blue Jay / #65 Anthropoid
#66 Swiss Army Man
You have never seen anything quite like this film with Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano where one life is saved by the reanimation of another. This is brave storytelling pushing boundaries of convention.
#67 Under The Shadow
An unconventional horror film, taking place in the shadows of war in Iran in the late 1980s, it startles you in unconventional ways. Persian actress Narges Rashidi is exceptional as a former medical student, wife and mother who brings us into her world of horror.
#68 Everybody Wants Some!! / #69 Miles Ahead / #70 Don't Think Twice / #71 The Witch / #72 Light's Out / #73 The Meddler / #74 War Dogs / #75 April And The Extraordinary World / #76 Hello, My Name Is Doris / #76 The Light Between Oceans / #78 The Birth Of A Nation / #79 The Brothers Grimsby / #80 A Hologram For The King / #81 Popstar / #82 Knight Of Cups / #83 Bad Moms / #84 Last Days In The Desert / #85 High Rise
#86 The Accountant / #87 Sausage Party / #88 The Shallows / #89 Bad Neighbors 2 / #90 I Saw The Light / #91 Born To Be Blue / #92 Eddie The Eagle / #93 Gleason / #94 Keanu / #95 Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children / #96 10 Cloverfield Lane / #97 Maggie's Plan #98 Florence Foster Jenkins / #99 Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates / #100 The Fits
2015 Honorable Mentions (Films I Saw In 2016):
The Innocents, Macbeth, Youth, Trumbo, 99 Homes, The Assassin, Miss You Already, Suffragette, I Smile Back, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, The Lady In The Van
2016 Films I Have Yet To See:
The Edge Of Seventeen, Elle, Paterson, Frank And Lola, Toni Erdmann, American Pastoral, 20th Century Women, 13th, Other People, Little Men, Miss Sharon Jones
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Tony K's Best Films Of 2016 List