Featured: Top 10 Movies of 2016 (JD’s List)
Despite it being a difficult task, this is one of my favorite things we do each year. There is something about reflecting back on the last year that I enjoy. On Episode 204 (Part 2), we went pretty in-depth breaking down our Top 10 Movies of 2016, which was a ton of fun. This last year was full of incredible films, starting in February with Hail, Caesar and The Witch. You then bookend that with films like La La Land and Moonlight to finish the year, and it made for a full year if you ask me. It was tough narrowing down this list to just ten films, but these specific movies will stick with me for a long time, especially since many of them deal with grief and deep human emotion. Not that my life is sad or full of suffering (because it’s far from that), but those are notions we all have to grapple with at some point, and I think 2016 is a year that gave us plenty of tools to help us in that journey.
We do encourage you to listen to Episode 204 to hear more about our picks, but as we do every year, listed here is my Top 20 of 2016. I feel like this is always the case, but to reiterate, the separation between some of my films in my Top 10 and my 11-20 is very small. It pains me that some of these aren’t in my Top 10, but math is math, so what are you going to do? That being said (after the jump), let’s get into it and go over my Top 10 Movies of 2016.
RELATED: JD’s Top 10 Movies of 2015
JD Duran’s Top 10 Movies of 2016:
10) A Monster Calls
J.A. Bayona is a director I quite enjoy. The Orphanage is one of my favorite horror films of this century so far, so I was excited to see him back in a realm that seemed to fit him well. On top of that, as I mentioned in our Awards show, the trailer for A Monster Calls is one of the best I’ve ever seen. To say I was excited for this is putting it very mildly. And Bayona did not disappoint for me. The way Bayona manages such hefty material without ever meandering into schmaltz is impressive. The script by Patrick Hess is key, on top of Bayona’s direction, in how it builds its pathos by methodically taking its time and letting it organically become cathartic. Additionally, Felicity Jones and Louis MacDougall hit it out of the park with their performances. The two hospital scenes in the third act are a gut punch. Liam Neeson is inspired casting as The Monster character, and he delivers nightly here as well. The CGI work and animation throughout is wonderful and immerses you into this story, both narratively and thematically. Subjectively speaking, the spiritual undertones here are quite captivating as well. I loved A Monster Calls, and the moment I have to deal with tragedy, this is a film I will come back to. Click here to listen to our full review.
9) The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t a director for everyone, but I love his style of filmmaking. The Lobster especially is one of the most unique films I’ve seen in a decade. The premise is not only bizarre, but it features some wonderful irony about the absurdity of relationships in our modern culture and what we consider to be normal. And the way Lanthimos highlights this in terms of his direction, is hysterical and so much fun to watch. The use of slow-motion, the symbolic imagery, the framing of his characters, it all plays so well into the films satire. Yet, while I found the film to be humorous, it also has some genuine drama that I found compelling in the third act. The desire for human connection and intimacy, among the satire especially, is quite stirring. Colin Farrell is great and makes all of that work wonderfully. He was a Best Actor nominee (for me) for a reason. Rachel Weisz is also terrific in her limited role. Again, The Lobster isn’t for everyone, but I love its nuanced and brilliant premise. I love how Lanthimos takes advantage of it to comment on something we can all relate with on some level. Click here to listen to our full review.
8) The Handmaiden
For my money, The Handmaiden is easily the best foreign language film of 2016. It’s sad that Park Chan-wook’s latest film has no chance at winning the Oscar it so richly deserves. The Handmaiden is one of the most riveting cinematic experiences of 2016. It’s equal parts a period romance film, it’s a revenge thriller, it’s a mystery drama and also an exercise in using history and culture as thematic device. And somehow Chan-wook makes all of this feel seamless and part of the same experience. The cinematography is lush, the costuming is exquisite and the color palette overall is mesmerizing at times. It’s narratively a very “Hitchcock-ian” kind of film, which Chan-wook masterfully interweaves, making each turn feel natural. The central romance of this film is beautiful, and I love how we see different viewpoints, offering more depth than what we typically see in movie romances. Thematically, there’s some great notions here about feeling vulnerable and imprisoned inside of relationships. It’s about the conflict between authenticity and the facade we create to attain our desires. There’s nothing to dislike about this film. The performances, the score, the craftsmanship, it’s all impeccable. Click here to listen to our full review.
7) Sing Street
John Carney is a director that knows me. The way he uses music to speak about emotion and relationships is so striking to me. Additionally, he has this evocative ability to use music as a thematic tool that really resonates with me. This is especially on display in Sing Street, and it’s a big reason why it makes this list for me. The main character of Cosmo is vulnerable as he’s searching for his identity, which comes alive in the 1980’s aesthetic of this film. As a result, the emotion and music of Sing Street amplify its themes of inspiration. On top of that, the way Carney uses brother relationships as a catalyst for inspiration, speaks heavily to my heart. Every moment between Cosmo and his brother Brendan is terrific. That said, we can’t talk about this film and not mention the music. It’s sooooooo good. All of them. “Drive It Like You Stole It” should win the Oscar for Best Original song. It’s such a catchy tune that also plays well into the film thematically. Not to mention, the scene it is used in is arguably the best individual scene of 2016. Everything about this film is vibrant and alive. There is no doubt this is one of the best films of 2016. Click here to listen to our full review.
6) The Witch
Everyone is talking about Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins for Best Director (as they should be), but Robert Eggers should be in that conversation too. He is not only my favorite “discovery” of 2016, but he legitimately is one of the best director’s of last year. The authenticity in The Witch‘s time period aesthetics and dialogue is astounding, especially for a first-time director. Everything about the costuming and production design is convincing. Eggers’ focus on realism and mythology, alongside his precise timing and patience, is viscerally felt. The characters are fully realized, amplifying the film’s drama among the horror we see in this film. On top of all that, what The Witch has to say about religious fanaticism is quite powerful. The twists and turns in the final act are terrifying, but all of that is elevated symbolically with Eggers’ commentary on how fanatical faith is impossible to live up to, and how that churns out something evil, despite its good intentions. All of that is delicately crystallized in the final moments of The Witch. I’m not usually a big horror guy, but I loved this film. Click here to listen to our full review.
5) Manchester By the Sea
There were a lot of films in 2016 that tackled the idea of grief, but none did it more viscerally than Manchester By the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s direction and writing is so attainable, that this film could feel too real for some audiences. A big reason all of that resonates as well, is Casey Affleck’s performance. He will win the Oscar for Best Actor, and for good reason. The subtlety he brings to Lee Chandler only makes the grief behind that character that much more potent and palpable. The conviction Lee places on himself as he carries this guilt and blame, is beautifully heartbreaking in how Affleck emulate’s those traits. Michelle Williams also delivers a heartbreaking performance. There is one scene alone that will most likely garner her an Oscar nomination. Either way, she’s terrific here. But don’t let my comments fool you. While Manchester By the Sea is sad at times, it’s also very funny. Lonergan brings great levity to this film that balances very well with it’s drama. You will both laugh and cry with this film. And for a film that is fundamentally about grief, what’s more human than how we bring laughter to our heartbreak? The more I sit on this film, the more its sting resonates with me. Click here to listen to our full review.
Moonlight is another film that deals with grief, but it’s very different than any other film on this list. The sad reality we live in, is that some demographics don’t have much of a voice in our culture. And I love how Barry Jenkins gives a voice to the voiceless in Moonlight. The three act structure of this film is not only compelling, but it’s remarkable in how Jenkins is able to conjure the same character in each act, while also making him distinct at the same time. And for me, at the heart of each section is the idea of how the world around us shapes us into who we eventually become. We see Chiron in each act become influenced in some way, whether it be his environment, the people he randomly meets or his mother. This notion makes for an emotional experience by the end, when we see Chiron choosing to define himself on his own terms by putting on this facade of strength, while underneath he’s still wrestling with his own identity. It’s heartbreaking how outside forces prohibit us from being who we truly are. Yet, Jenkins doesn’t rely on pity to make Moonlight dramatically engaging. Instead, he pours out an aura of compassion that naturally renders this film poignant. On top of that, the cinematography and lighting is exhilarating in this film. Click here to listen to our full review.
Coming into the year, Arrival was my most anticipated film of the year and Denis Villeneuve continues to impress and showcases his strength as a filmmaker. This film easily lived up to my expectations, and in some ways, surpassed them. I think Arrival is easily one of the best sci-fi films we’ve seen out of the last 20 years. Just in terms of the genre, the alien communication is wildly creative. The first time our characters walk into the space craft is breathtaking to watch. The narrative at large refreshingly changes the stakes of an alien invasion and does something completely new with it. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both great. Adams in particular gives one of the best lead actress performances of the year. It’s amazing how she emulates grief, but it’s provocative in hindsight when you realize that she’s actually giving two performances here. And it all works amazingly well. All that said, what makes Arrival my #3 film of the year, is how the film works as a powerful allegory for how we try to decode and interpret the tragedies of our lives. The way Louise works to decipher this alien language, something that she doesn’t understand, works as a perfect metaphor for how we try to interpret the tragedies of our lives, something we don’t understand either. All of this works beautifully as we see Louise cope with a certain tragedy inside the context of the film, and it broke me to see those parallels. Arrival isn’t just the work of great sci-fi, it’s the work of a director who understand human emotion. Click here to listen to our full review.
2) La La Land
I would argue that La La Land is the best movie I saw in 2016. Damien Chazelle’s latest embodies the pure magic of the cinema and it’s quintessential in why we go to the movies. I was smiling ear to ear the entire time and loved every second of this film. The opening musical number is wonderfully choreographed and immediately supplants you into this film. Chazelle’s direction, as much as I love Jenkins, is the best work of 2016 for my money. The showmanship, the full body choreography, the cinematography and lighting, the editing, the original songs, the performances, the risks he takes in the final act, is stunning craftsmanship. The vision of Chazelle in La La Land is full of life and energy, and it percolates throughout the entire film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have a palpable chemistry that is simply captivating at every turn. The both are important to this film’s success, and in my opinion, it’s because of what each of them bring individually in why this film works so well. The score and music by Justin Hurwitz is radiant in this film as well. “City of Stars” is one of the best original songs of the year. Although, all of the song and dance numbers are terrific. The observatory sequence is one of my favorite scenes from the last couple years and is one I will sit on for a long time. Everything about this film hooked me. It’s a perfect blend of homage to classic Hollywood musicals, while injecting modern filmmaking and emotion. It’s a beautiful story that evokes ideas that we can all relate with, especially when it comes to dreams and how those dreams sometimes conflict with reality. Click here to listen to our full review.
1) Midnight Special
As an allegory for parental sacrifice, words cannot begin to describe my experience with this film. Midnight Special moved me in ways that very few films ever have. Jeff Nichols is a director that I already loved, but now has catapulted to being one of my favorites working today. The sci-fi aesthetics of this film are terrific. He uses them sparingly, but when they are embedded, it’s viscerally felt. The gas station scene is riveting and one of the best moments I had in a cinema last year. The ending of this film is also fascinating to me. In terms of sci-fi, I’m not sure what it all actually means literally, but that is part of the fun I think. In some ways it also doesn’t matter because what it says metaphorically ripped my heart out. The thematic undercurrent of this film, as it relates to parental love, destroyed me. “I’ll always worry about you Alton, that’s the deal,” is a line that will stick with me forever. Michael Shannon’s performance of Roy, and how he emulates love, is exactly who I want to be as a father myself. Roy is a man on a mission. He simply wants to love his boy and he chooses to make a sacrifice so his son can go on to do the great things he was meant for. And I responded heavily to that, especially when it crystallizes near the end of the film in one specific look Roy gives to Alton. It’s an image that I will never forget. On top of that, Midnight Special is simply a great film from a technical standpoint. The way Nichols gives nuances to this film in terms of his direction and camera work, the supporting performances, the score, it’s all great work. I love everything about this film and it will sit with me for a long time. Click here to listen to our full review.
To round out my Top 20, here is the rest of my list:
11) Hail, Caesar
12) Kubo and the Two Strings
13) Everbody Wants Some!!
16) Certain Women
17) Captain America: Civil War
19) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or disagree? We’d like to know why. Leave a comment in the comment section below or tweet us @InSessionFilm.
To hear us discuss our InSession Film Awards and our Top 10 Best Movies of 2016, subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud or you can listen below.
InSession Film Podcast – Episode 204 (Part 1)
InSession Film Podcast – Episode 204 (Part 2)
InSession Film founder and owner. I love film. Love art. Love how it intersects with our real lives. My favorite movies include Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows, Modern Times, The Godfather and The Tree of Life. Follow me on Twitter @RealJDDuran. Follow us @InSessionFilm.