Just like 2016 in general, the year in movies was not a particularly strong one. But that makes the movies that were great stand out all the more. The following list has a good mix of typical Oscar-bait films, popular crowd-pleasers, and ones that may not have made your radar. Whether you've seen all or none of them, I encourage you to check them out.
10. Doctor Strange
It was another great year on the Marvel Studios front, as both this and Captain America: Civil War gained critical accolades and dominated the box office. But it's always more impressive when they're able to introduce a new character successfully, especially when they can bend your mind at the same time. Fourteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio is going as strong as ever.
The world of politics was supremely strange in 2016, and no film typified that strangeness more than this documentary about disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. Chronicling his attempted political comeback in 2013 from a sex scandal, the film inadvertently covers his second sex scandal in excruciating detail. The fact that Weiner's emails inadvertently played a role in the 2016 presidential election make the film all the more relevant and powerful.
8. Sing Street
When the process of creating music is captured well on screen, it's a blissful experience like none other. Sing Street does just that while also delivering a fantastic coming-of-age story at the same time. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will have a blast watching the lead character try on different musical personalities in an attempt to win a girl's heart and discover himself.
The animated film race at the Oscars will be tighter than usual, with Finding Dory, Trolls, Moana, and, yes, Sausage Party, all impressing in different ways. But Zootopia stands above them all because of the way it managed to combine kid-friendly elements with relatively complex storytelling not usually found in animated films. The cleverness in the details of the film is just the cherry on top of the sundae.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols is getting Oscar buzz for his second film of 2016, Loving, but it was his first film of the year that made a bigger impact on me. The slow-build sci-fi movie is unpredictable, thanks to the uncertain nature of the relationships in the film. The mysteries are teased out enough to keep them intriguing but never frustrating. With uniformly great performances, it overcomes its early-year release date to remain one to remember.
This doesn't top my list, but the margin between my top five is razor thin. Moonlight is a stunning and transporting experience. It tells a story about an African-American boy learning how to become a man under circumstances that are foreign to some, but too familiar to many. The performances of the three actors portraying Chiron cement the film as one of the best of the year.
One of the final releases of 2016 makes it into my top five because of the timeless appeal of its source material, August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play. Denzel Washington, who took on both directing and acting duties, lets Wilson's words shine, keeping the film's sets to a minimum. The performances of Washington and Viola Davis are Oscar-worthy, complemented by strong turns from each of the supporting actors.
There is nothing easy about watching Manchester by the Sea, as it contains multiple tragedies and some seriously morose characters. But it’s not a film that you have to endure, either, as writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has made a story so simply truthful that you'll be stunned by its depth. It’s a masterful film with amazing actors, moments that will make you laugh and cry, and told with nuanced precision by a phenomenal filmmaker.
You probably won't find Deepwater Horizon on many other critics' top 10 lists, much less this high, but director Peter Berg's latest collaboration with actor Mark Wahlberg impressed with its verisimilitude. The filmmakers don't dumb down the technical jargon about the ill-fated oil rig, helping to give the film a real sense of place for when things go to hell. And when they do, the film also doesn't turn overly heroic or schmaltzy. It honors the people depicted for being just who they were — nothing more, nothing less — and does so with supremely realistic action scenes. If only more films took such care in telling real-life stories.
1. La La Land
You never realize how much you're yearning for a certain type of movie until someone comes along and delivers another outstanding example of it. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a musical for the ages by honoring Hollywood's past with a thoroughly modern story. You'll swoon at the way he sets up the romance between characters played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling through music, color, and more. The constant push and pull of the old and the new in the story makes it a near-perfect movie, and greatly deserving of my pick as best film of the year.