Movies & TV / Columns

The 411 Movies/TV 8-Ball: Top 16 Films of 2016 (#16 – 9)

January 24, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Top 16 Films of 2016 (#16 – 9)

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

With 2016 officially in the books, the 8 Ball Year in Review continues here in the Movie Zone. At the beginning of the month we looked at the worst that cinema had to offer us last year, and now it’s time to move on to the cream of the crop. While there were plenty of notable failures and disappointments that populated movie screens in 2016 and much has been said about them, it must also be noted that in many ways the year ranked among the best in recent memory for cinema. Many big-budget blockbusters hit all the right notes, even when they sometimes stuck with formula, and independent film continued to flourish while genre films saw some of the most interesting and vibrant stories told in a long time. This week we begin our look at 2016’s best movies with numbers sixteen through nine.

Caveat: If the film had its domestic theatrical release this year, it was eligible. The only caveat for this list is that while I do try to see every film that does come out, there’s always one or two that could have conceivably made the list based on reputation and such that I didn’t get a chance to catch in time. This year those films are The Edge of Seventeen, 20th Century Women, American Honey and Loving. For those curious, I saw a total of 167 films that were released in 2016 (down slightly from last year’s 176).

Just Missing The Cut

Manchester By the Sea
Don’t Breathe
For the Love of Spock

#16: Green Room

First up on our list is a lean, streamlined horror-thriller that takes no prisoners, which helps make it as effective of such a film as we’ve seen in the past few years. Widely buzzed about after its premiere at Cannes last year, Green Room started off with some very high expectations among horror fans that continued all the way through its April release. With a talented cast that includes Patrick Stewart, the late Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots, it more that delivers. Director Jeremy Saulnier keeps tension and emotions running high in this film about a punk band who find themselves under siege by skinheads after stumbling on a seemingly random act of violence. Saulnier is an indie darling among the horror crowd thanks to 2007’s Murder Party and 2013’s Blue Ruin. While those are fine entries in the genre, he hits new heights as a director here by keeping the twists few and the story straight-forward but effective. That allows him to focus on the effective execution of both plot and characters, both of which come off superbly. It’s violent without being gratuitous and features smart, generally sympathetic protagonists as they struggle to survive well out of their element. Saulnier put together one hell of a thrill ride that stands as the best horror or thriller film of the year.

#15: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

While no one should ever bet against the Star Wars franchise, it is fair to say that there was at least a modicum of risk in Rogue One. Not financially, of course; after The Force Awakens broke box office records left and right, it was clear that audiences were down for stories from a galaxy far, far away more than ever. But Force Awakens continued on the story of characters we’ve known and loved for decades. Rogue One was the first-ever Star Wars feature film not to focus on the Skywalkers and their struggles against (or alongside) evil. There was a lot riding on whether the tale of the Rebels who stole the Death Star plans would be able to resonate with fans who seemed more queued into stories of Jedi and scoundrels.

As it turns out, Gareth Edwards at the helm this film was in very good hands. Rogue One is very much a Star Wars film in feel and setting, but it takes a very different tone as a Dirty Dozen-style war film. The ensemble cast, led by Felicity Jones, brings a colorful cast of outcasts to life while Edwards takes Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay and gives it a grounded, gritty style that doesn’t betray its franchise roots. There’s plenty of fan service here in the way of New Hope callbacks but they don’t detract, and in fact several enhance the storyline. Slotting nicely in place between the stories of Star Wars Rebels and Episode IV, Rogue One proves that not only will audiences come out to see Lucasfilm’s spinoffs, but that they can expect great movies out of them.

#14: Hell or High Water

It’s not often that a low-key drama released during the blockbuster-heavy summer months turns out to be one of the best films of the year. That’s exactly what happened with Hell or High Water, though. David Mackenzie’s modern Western broke through the noise of traditional busy period of the summer to become one of the most well-regarded movies of 2016, and deservedly so. Taylor Sheridan’s script, which was on the 2012 Black List of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, is an expertly-acted heist drama which it uses to take a powerful look at a part of America that feels left behind in the increasingly digital age. The film sets up an expert contrast between the two brothers in West Texas who strike back at banks that screwed them over and the two Texas Rangers who are hunting them down.

Sheridan’s script is richly layered, nowhere more clearly than in its characters as brought to life by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Treating each of these characters as full-bodied individuals and not just props for the plot allows Mackenzie to tell a story about that most American of icons in the cowboy, and how it fares in the modern age. Mackenzie instills the film with a sense of restlessness; this is a film that seems out of its own element at times, but not in a negative way. It puts the audience in the eyes of its characters — outlaws and lawmen alike — in pondering where their place is. In many ways, it’s the most quintessential Western seen on the big screen in several years, notably its rebellious spirit and inherent opposition to the corruption of modern institutions. Thoughtful, occasionally provocative and often quite funny amidst the serious drama, Hell or High Water deserves every award it has been (and will be) nominated for during awards season.

#13: Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika’s most recent film, Kubo and the Two Strings, is the kind of film that they’ve pretty much mastered at this point: glorious visuals supplementing a bittersweet story about love, loss and destiny. The stop animation film studio has found success with the format, bringing stories like Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls to life in ways that appeal to kids but also have emotionally resonant themes for adults. With Kubo however, writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler take the story in a different direction, eschewing the more overstuffed style of Boxtrolls for a more subdued, understated tone. It was a bold move for a studio that relies on bringing in crowds of all ages, but it works wonderfully.

Kubo keeps its plot surprisingly minimal, sweeping away the clutter for a Japanese-inspired story of a young boy and his journey to uncover his destiny while his evil mystical uncle and sisters chase after him. Director Travis Knight maintains a tight hold on the events, which allows him to focus in on young Kubo (strongly voiced by Game of Thrones alum Art Parkinson) and his magical guardians in Monkey (Charlize Theron, lending gravitas) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, having fun with the bluster). This is a tale of loss and how to come to terms with it, a theme that is perhaps unsurprisingly common among the best films of the past year, and Knight makes exceptional use of Laika’s visual effects team to bring that narrative to life. The quest aspect is familiar but used well, the action scenes are gorgeous and the emotional moments hit hard in what is, in what was already a very good year for the genre, the best animated movie of the year.

#12: Hacksaw Ridge

Faith-based films have a less-than-stellar reputation these days, to say the least. Many films that tackle inspirational themes of religion have a difficult time finding traction with people because…well, they’re generally just not very good. But Hollywood is figuring out how to tell stories about faith in a nuanced and interesting way, with Hacksaw Ridge as an excellent example of what can happen when you get the right pieces assembled around such a story. Mel Gibson makes his comeback as a director helming this powerful true story about Desmond Doss, a patriot who felt the call to enlist during World War II as a combat medic but fought for his personal beliefs, which forbid him to use or carry a weapon.

Andrew Garfield gives one of his two fantastic performances of the year in the lead role here, launching him into a new phase as a mature actor who has proven his ability to deliver transformative work. Garfield embodies Desmond in a very real way, refusing to ever slip into maudlin overacting or undersold choices in a role that would have been very easy to go either way. Gibson proves that he still has quite an eye behind the camera, capturing the intense battle and training sequences dynamically and smoothly stepping back when needed to let the quiet moments breathe. Gibson knows just how to work his way through Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s script, pacing the story out well and drawing uplifting moments out of tragedy. Faith is a powerful thing and when depicted right on the big screen, it can reach everyone regardless of their beliefs. Hacksaw Ridge is a prime example of that.

#11: Fences

It can be a tricky thing to bring a stage play to the big screen. Theater is a very personal, often intimate experience, while cinema lends itself to bigger and more bombastic ways. Often the most successful adaptations of plays are either musicals — which can be as over the top as the Hollywood films require — or those that expand the production values and script to make for a bigger, bolder version of the original story. Fences doesn’t to that. The Denzel Washington-directed adaptation of August Wilson’s beloved stage production keeps things small in scope, thus allowing the power of the story to feel like it’s bursting out of its modest setting. It’s a smart decision that allows the cast to bring the most impact out of the script, which was written by Wilson himself before his passing in 2005.

In many ways, Fences is the epitome of an actor’s film. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the movie doesn’t often leave the house of Washington and Viola Davis’ Troy and Rose Maxson. The setting stays the same even as the film moves from year to year, following this family as they try to deal with their struggles against poverty, racism, and Troy’s own personal demons. That lets us focus on the performers and their exquisite work in front of the camera. Washington gives his most inspired performance in years as the emotionally-complex Troy, and Davis blows just about every performance this year out of the water. The supporting cast is stellar as well, while Washington — in his first directorial job since 2007 — adeptly navigates Wilson’s themes. It’s a film that stays with you for a while after it ends thanks to its often-low key, charming nature that gets punctuated with moments of intensity or high drama. Among 2016’s pure dramas, Fences stands very tall indeed.

#10: Deadpool

Even if you’re among those who don’t love Deadpool, you have to give it credit for one thing: it’s a film that is exactly what it wanted to be. Fox’s foul-mouth, violent and deliriously funny X-Men spinoff is Ryan Reynolds’ big comeback, showing off the actor’s comedic and action talents in the first package that has ever truly utilized both to the level that they can be. The story of how the studio messed up one of Marvel’s most popular mutants in X-Men Origins: Wolverine is well-known, but the studio also deserves to get credit for having faith in Reynolds and director Tim Miller to make the kind of film they needed it to be.

Unapologetically over the top and adult-oriented, Deadpool plays out the origin of the fan-favorite Merc with a Mouth in a satirical style that skewers the many big-budget superhero franchises out there — including (and indeed most overtly) Fox’s own X-Men films. The film packs in several great one-liners along with good action and just enough dramatic heft via the romantic subplot between Reynolds’ Wade Wilson and Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa. Reynolds is obviously the big star but the rest of the cast is great as well with Baccarin, T.J. Miller and Brianna Hildebrand as particular standouts. While the story may be a bit more conventional in terms of the superhero formula than some may have hoped, it doesn’t undercut the subversiveness and really, it’s all done in great fun. In a year where many blockbuster action films came up short, Deadpool stands out as one of the absolute best blockbusters of 2016.

#9: Weiner

Another genre that excelled in 2016 was that of the documentary film. From social activist movies like 13th and ones tackling cultural topics such as For the Love of Spock to…well, whatever you would call the fascinating strangeness of Tickled, there were a number of truly great non-narrative films that looked real-life events last year. The best among them, it is perhaps not surprising, was a political documentary. Weiner was a move that wasn’t really on my radar until the middle of the year. I had heard vaguely of the documentary on disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner earlier in the year, but it sounded like something that would be interesting at best and certainly not something I should be particularly excited about.

How wrong I was. Coming from his former campaign chief of staff Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, Weiner is a film that starts off intending to document his return to politics after his first sexting scandal by running for mayor of New York but ends up documenting the second scandal, as in the middle of the campaign a woman named Sydney Leathers reveals that he has been sexting with her under the hilarious pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” What follows is an often-uncomfortable but constantly riveting documentation of Weiner’s systematic meltdown and how quickly the press turns on him — gleefully so, at times. Amidst all this is the heartache of watching Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin (one of Hilary Clinton’s close aides whose name came up several times during the presidential election) go through all of this and get more and more emotionally detached. The level of access to this kind of a political scandal is unprecedented (only twice did Weiner ever ask them to leave the room for conversations) and by documenting it, Kriegman and Steinberg have filmed one of the most overtly relevant documentaries of the year considering the election, but it’s also incredibly relevant now that the voting is over and Weiner (and his laptop) are out of the news. Weiner is a film about politics, ambition, the media and the brutality of the election cycle, and stands as one of the absolute best and most enthralling movies of the year.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for as we count down numbers eight through one! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.