Well, it’s the end of the year and that means it’s time to look back and take stock of 2016. And, of course, the movies play a big part of any annual retrospective. While many movies disappointed this past year (Batman v. Superman, we’re looking at you!) – and plenty of movies were just plain over hyped (*cough*Suicide Squad*cough*) – some films managed to surprise and even exceed expectations during 2016. A few movies even inspired hope for better films to come in the future. Here is the Goliath list of what we feel were the best movies over the past year. If you haven’t seen these yet, set aside some time over the holidays for a movie marathon!
14. Midnight Special
A cross between Starman and E.T., Midnight Special came out of nowhere in 2016 to become one of the best independent films of the past few years. Anchored by strong performances from Michael Shannon as the protective father of a boy with special powers and Adam Driver as a determined and curious FBI agent, Midnight Special succeeded by focusing on the human story in the film and using special effects sparingly to complement the narration, rather than assault audiences with a barrage of CGI effects. Good action sequences and attention to detail make Midnight Special a movie worth seeking out. The directors also reveal the plot of the film slowly, drawing the audience in as they go. This is the opposite of how most movies today just vomit the plot in the first five minutes and then proceed to hammer viewers with one big action sequence after another.
13. Finding Dory
We waited a long 13 years for Pixar to finally return to the ocean and show us how Nemo, Marlin, and Dory were doing after their first adventure. It was worth the wait. With excellent animation and story telling (which we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and almost take for granted at this point), Finding Dory was the perfect follow up. They made a bold decision to not simply have Nemo get lost for a second time, leading what would have simply been Finding Nemo 2, instead focusing on the supporting character of Dory, expertly voiced again by Ellen DeGeneres. As Dory suddenly remembers brief snippets of her past, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery in an effort to learn exactly where she came from, something most people (or fish) likely take for granted. Along the way she meets a grumpy octopus (Ed O’Neil), and a few other colorful aquatic friends, as she searches for her parents. Finding Dory is another instant classic from Pixar, great for children and adults alike.
12. Doctor Strange
Making a good movie out of a secondary Marvel superhero is not easy. For every successful film such like Ant-Man, there’s a failure such as the Daredevil and Elektra movies (we know, different studios, but still Marvel characters). And Doctor Strange was a tall order for Marvel to convert to the big screen. First of all, the character is not very well-known, never seemed able to support his own comic book for very long, and deals in sorcery and witchcraft, which can be hard to pull off convincingly. Yet once again, Marvel pulled a rabbit out the hat with Doctor Strange. Stunning special effects and a strong origin story help this movie succeed. But the real congratulations go to the casting of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange. The Oscar nominated actor was perfectly cast, and brought both gravitas and a sense of humor to the character. Just as Robert Downey Jr. did with Iron Man and Paul Rudd did with Ant-Man, Cumberbatch made Doctor Strange his own. The mind altering special effects were pretty damn cool too.
11. The Jungle Book
Of course, the big question surrounding this movie before it was released was simple: could they produce a live action movie based on a beloved Disney animated classic and make it work? The answer proved to be a resounding Yes! Director Jon Favreau, who hasn’t really had a hit movie since his days helming the Iron Man franchise, pulled this movie off perfectly and it became a critical darling and international hit at the box office, where it grossed just under $1 billion. The key was in the CGI effects, which are spectacular. The animals are perfectly created and work seamlessly with the real life jungle environment and young actor Neel Sethi, who plays man cub Mowgli in the film. Bill Murray as the voice of the bear Baloo and Idris Elba as ferocious tiger Shere Khan, round out a fantastic cast. This is the kind of movie that kids and their parents really love.
10. Everybody Wants Some!!
No director seems better at capturing a moment in time, or creating a sense of nostalgia, quite like Richard Linklater. The native of Austin, Texas nailed the 1970s high school experience in the classic film Dazed and Confused, and now he’s done the same for college in the 1980s with Everybody Wants Some!! Partly autobiographical, Everybody Wants Some!! follows a college freshman baseball player (Blake Jenner) who arrives on campus for the first time and moves into a fraternity house full of other baseball players. The movie follows the ball players during the first weekend at school, before classes start, as they get drunk, chase girls, and try to one up each other at just about everything they do. Funny, insightful, and nostalgic in the best way possible, Everybody Wants Some!! will make you pine for your college days and also, possibly, the 1980s. The movie is also a love letter to baseball, which is a passion of Linklater.
9. Don’t Breathe
Good horror movies are hard to make. These days, most scary flicks seem to rely too much on jump scares or over-the-top gory moments (aka torture porn). Don’t Breathe gave us something fresh and suspenseful, and quite frankly was scary as hell. The story begins with three young hoodlums deciding to rob the house of an old blind man, who is rumored to have recently scored a big lawsuit settlement. After all, how hard can it be to steal from a senior citizen who can’t even see?
What follows is a tense series of violent events, including a disturbing twist, when the three discover that the Blind Man, an Army veteran, still has plenty of fight left in him. Forget the supernatural monsters or alien invaders, this is the kind of gritty real-life horror film that more studios should strive to make. Directed by Fede Alvarez and produced in part by Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame, Don’t Breathe is the one of the best movies of 2016 and probably the best horror flick in the past few years.
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Arguably the best thriller of the year, 10 Cloverfield Lane focuses on a young woman who is held in an underground bunker by two men who insist that a catastrophic event has left the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. Billed as the spiritual successor to the 2008 found footage film Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane offers a slow build as audiences and the heroine of the movie both try to figure out what is real and what isn’t, and who is to be trusted in the bunker. John Goodman has never been better as the seemingly unstable Howard Stambler, who finds actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead after her car crashes and proceeds to confine her to an underground bunker – telling the woman that there’s been an attack by Russians or Martians, and now everyone in the outside world is dead (or are they?). Gritty and involving, 10 Cloverfield Lane plays on the viewer’s mind and is totally engrossing. An example of a really smart and engaging modern thriller.
There were quite a few good animated movies in 2016 (The Secret Life of Pets gets an honorable mention from us), but the best of the bunch was Zootopia. A critical favourite and box office smash, Zootopia tells the story of a rabbit cop and fox con artist who team up to uncover a conspiracy that involves the disappearance of predator inhabitants of a metropolis populated entirely by animals. Smart, funny, and inventive, Zootopia managed to breathe new life into the animated critter film genre with a smart script that doesn’t pander to audiences (adults or children), and deals with mature themes such as discrimination and social stereotypes. The animation and voice actor work by stars such as Jason Bateman and Idris Elba is great. But it is the smart and mature script that really elevated Zootopia above other animated movies this past year.
6. Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond was a needed shot in the arm for this film franchise after the mixed results of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which didn’t quite do The Wrath of Khan justice. What helped Star Trek Beyond was an original story that hearkened back to the original 1960s TV series penchant for setting standalone episodes on brave new worlds, featuring new life and new civilizations. By going back to Star Trek’s roots, the latest movie succeeded in creating an interesting and involving story that moved away from both the confusing alternate timeline arch (it ain’t working in the X-Men movies either) and away from recycling previous Star Trek films. There were also some great action sequences in Star Trek Beyond – notably when the U.S.S. Enterprise meets its fate, and some interesting plot twists along the way. All in all, a refreshing entry into the Star Trek cannon.
5. Captain America: Civil War
While some people complain that Captain America: Civil War was really an Avengers movie, and others feel that it was too overstuffed with superheroes, the fact is that this movie, based on the popular comic story arc of the same name, was one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Featuring the Avengers and other Marvel characters such as Spider-Man and Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War contains the solid characterization and fast pacing that audiences have come to expect with these films. However, the story about government oversight of the Avengers and how it fractures the team into opposing factions—one led by Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (who is against the oversight), and the other led by Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (who is for it) is decidedly more mature. Bigger and more expansive than probably any other Marvel movie to date, Civil War gave a glimpse of where superhero movies are headed, and it looks pretty exciting.
If there was a movie released in 2016 that was more fun to watch than Deadpool, we can’t think of it. This film was a huge gamble. The character was a foulmouthed mercenary that was not widely known among the general public. The movie’s star, Ryan Reynolds, had not had a lot of success with his past attempts at a superhero franchise (Remember the Green Lantern movie?) Fans of the Deadpool comics worried that the film would be watered down and stray from the character’s dark origins. Studio executives wondered if there would be a market for an R-rated superhero movie? Yet everyone’s concerns turned out to be overblown, as Deadpool proved to work on every level. It is a fun and exciting movie that is 100% deserving of its R-rating. Obscene, profane, and dark as hell, Deadpool did right by the character and audiences. Reynolds had his first bonafide hit movie in ages, and was perfectly cast as Wade Wilson/Deadpool. This movie also showed that it’s possible to make a comic book movie aimed at adults, leading directly to the upcoming Logan film to also push for an R-rating. We look forward to the Deadpool sequel, even as it seemingly enters production hell.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Although it’s hard to think of any Star Wars movie being a truly risky venture, Disney took a surprising gamble this year with Rogue One, the first of many planned spin-off movies in the franchise. Rogue One not only features very few familiar characters, it’s also the first entry in the series to not focus on Jedi and had to overcome the stigma of being labelled a “prequel,” which is practically cinematic kryptonite in film geek circles. Fortunately, director Gareth Edwards was up to the task, delivering a surprisingly dark film that weaves an interesting yarn that, rather than tarnish the original trilogy (it is set just prior to the events of the very first Star Wars), actually enhances it by filling in gaps in the franchise timeline. Led by Felicity Jones’ reluctant Rebel fighter Jyn Erso, the film’s ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and much like last year’s The Force Awakens, help widen the scope of the franchise’s heroes in terms of gender and racial diversity. While Rogue One takes a bit to get going, once the third act rolls around, there’s no looking back, as Edwards delivers arguably the most exciting large-scale action sequence in franchise history. It’s quite possible the day will come when we grow tired of Disney’s yearly Star Wars releases, but so far, the studio is two-for-two and we can’t wait to see what they deliver in 2017.
2. Hell or High Water
Featuring career-best performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two bank-robbing brothers, Scottish director David Mackenzie’s breakthrough film Hell or High Water was quietly one of the best of 2016. A modern day western that feels indebted to No Country For Old Men and yet, is a wholly different beast altogether that hits you like a ton of bricks when it really gets going. It’s rare to see a film that is so laser-focused on making its setting — in this case, West Texas — feel like a character of its own, as Mackenzie’s direction emphasizes the foreclosed houses, wildfires, and dusty roads that dot the landscape, and these elements end up being integral to the Howard brothers’ desperate scheme. The film also co-stars Jeff Bridges as the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger on their tail and although one could easily write off Bridges’ performance as being too similar to his Rooster Cogburn character from True Grit, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. His relationship with his American Indian deputy partner, played by Gil Birmingham, also represents the film’s biggest laughs and oddly enough, its emotional core. Hell or High Water is certainly a slow burn, but one that pays off beautifully in a final act that ranks as one of the year’s most evocatively thrilling.
The most cerebral and best executed alien invasion movie since Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Arrival made believers out of us again. After some genre disappointments in recent years (Interstellar and the Solaris remake), Arrival delivered a thinking man’s sci-fi movie that was exciting, involving, and intelligent all at once. And, like Close Encounters, the movie succeeds by answering the question: How would we react if alien spacecraft showed up on Earth? Arrival rightly focuses on the fact that our first priority would be to try to communicate with the aliens and understand one another. Actors Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are great in the movie, but the director Denis Villeneuve deserves a lot of credit for his handling of the sci-fi source material. The next movie Villeneuve is directing is the Blade Runner sequel. We can’t wait!