When historians look back on 2016 they're going to focus on earth-shattering political events like Donald Trump's election and Brexit. Movie buffs, however, might see it as an oddly great year for cinema. Not only did Hollywood produce more than a few great popcorn flicks like Deadpool, Arrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but the indie world produced gems like Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. There was even a stunning old-school musical with La La Land. As the year winds down, we had our readers select their favorite movies of the year.
Picture a 2016 movie called The Witch starring a sullen blonde teenage girl and visions of a slasher flick set in a suburban high school probably come to mind. This movie is basically the complete opposite of that. It takes place in 17th-century New England, a time when Americans were convinced witches were a threat to everything they held dear. When a young Puritan family is banished from the community, they go into exile and come to believe their young daughter is a witch after their young baby vanishes. The more she denies it, the more convinced they become she's secretly evil. It all builds to a chilling climax we won't reveal here.
Many people will probably be surprised to see Suicide Squad on this list. After all, this was the movie that got everyone excited with a great trailer and then couldn't come close to delivering on that buzz. Jared Leto's Joker was the center of the marketing campaign, but most of his scenes were cut and what remained was basically a glorified cameo. Critics tore it to shreds and it has a mere 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. But there were some people who loved it, especially Margo Robbie's portrayal of Harley Quinn. At the very least, most felt it was stronger than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That's really not saying much though. Let's put it another way: Compared to Will Smith's other 2016 movie, Collateral Beauty, this thing is Citizen Kane-meets-Casablanca.
Some movies cause your eyes to water a bit during sad moments. Others make you to cry a time or two when a pivotal character dies. Then there's the occasional movie like Manchester by the Sea that causes you to heave with sorrow nearly the entire time and then almost collapse with grief when it ends. We don't want to ruin the surprise tragedy at the center of the movie, but it's about a janitor that returns to his old New England town after the death of his brother. The past hangs thick in the air as he tries to help his nephew through the difficult time. Casey Affleck is brilliant in the lead role, but Michelle Williams is equally great as his ex-wife, despite her much smaller part. Expect this one to do real well come Oscar time.
Jeff Bridges has the ability to sink so hard into character you forget you're watching an actor at work. Whether he's playing a grizzled one-eyed marshall in the 19th Century or a perpetually-stoned bowler trying to get his stolen rug back in 1990s Los Angeles he finds a way to become the character, down to the way he walks and even scratches his face. He delivers that magic again in Hell or High Water where he plays a Texas Ranger just days away from retirement hot on the trail of two bank robbing brothers. He's always just one step behind them, but slowly he pieces the entire thing together. Bridges is up for a Golden Globe for this one, and it's easy to imagine him winning.
Despite it's title, Captain Fantastic is not an Elton John biopic. Rather, it's the story of a large family living in complete isolation in the Pacific Northwest that are forced to enter society after the death of the mother. Viggo Mortensen plays the father who struggles to keep his children after they enter a world completely foreign to them. It made a scant $5.8 million after hitting theaters this summer, but most critics were impressed and it should have a long afterlife once it hits television.
Two years after Boyhood showed a boy in suburbia growing up over a period of 12 years comes Moonlight, which has the same general concept but takes it to a very different place. Unlike Boyhood, which took a dozen years to film as the protagonist grew in real life, Moonlight saved time by using three different actors to show the character at three stages of his life. He lives in a Miami housing project and struggles with a drug-addicted mother and his own sexual identity. It's a deeply moving film that grabs you from the very beginning and holds you until the credits roll. Director Barry Jenkins is major new voice in Hollywood that will be able to make whatever kind of movie he wants next time out.
Casting Ryan Reynolds as a comic book hero in 2016 was somewhat of a bold move. Just six years ago he played the lead role in Green Lantern, and was absolutely savaged by critics and fans. It was a major blow to his career, but Marvel gave him another chance with Deadpool and it paid off in huge ways. This is definitely not a movie for young children; there's graphic violence and extremely disturbing moments throughout the movie, mixed with very dark humor. None of that stopped it from winning an huge audience, grossing an astounding $782 million. A sequel is expected in 2018, and there will probably be many more after that.
Hollywood has been churning out alien movies since the earliest days of silent film. The creatures usually have hostile motives and aren't afraid to destroy large parts of the Earth. It's rare that they don't utter a sound, pose any sort of threat or even bother to leave their ships. But that's the plot of Arrival where egg-shaped objects land all over the planet and just sit there. Amy Adams plays a linguist called in to communicate with the aliens onboard as the army looks for any excuse to declare them a threat. It goes in very unexpected directions, but we don't want to spoil anything. Just go see it.
As they proved in Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make a very good couple. In La La Land, he plays a struggling jazz musician and she plays a struggling actress. They meet, fall in love and have a hard time coping with unexpectedly huge success. Oh yeah, it's also a musical in the grand tradition of Old Hollywood. They dance and sing all over Los Angeles, occasionally even flying through the air. Nothing like it has been attempted in years, and it works brilliantly.
Did you ever watch Star Wars and think it was a little weird that the Empire built the Death Star with a flaw that allowed it to be destroyed with a single shot? George Lucas probably never bothered to think of a strong rationale for that, but now that Disney has to make a new Star Wars movie every single year until the end of time, it made sense to make a movie that explains the whole damn thing. They dare not market it as a prequel for fear of evoking memories of Jar Jar Binks, but that's exactly what it is – and that's not a bad thing. It sets up the plot of the original Star Wars film (now known as A New Hope) in rather brilliant fashion, while also serving as a strong film onto itself. Some might find the CGI humans in a few crucial scenes to be a little distracting, but their screen time is rather limited. If every Star Wars standalone movie is going to be this strong, Disney will pay back its Lucasfilm investment of $4 billion pretty quickly.