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The Movies/TV 8 Ball: The Top 8 Films of 2016

January 31, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Top 8 Films of 2016

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!

Last week we began our look at the best films of 2016 with numbers sixteen through nine. This week the 8 Ball Year in Review concludes with the absolute cream of the crop, from faith-based dramas and science fiction to musicals and action spectacles. 2016 saw several great movies come to pass; let’s just get right into it.

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

The First Eight

16: Green Room
15: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14: Hell or High Water
13: Kubo and the Two Strings
12: Hacksaw Ridge
11: Fences
10: Deadpool
9: Weiner

#8: Jackie

First up in the top eight is one of the more emotionally-arresting dramas of the year, at least for me personally. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a touchstone moment of American history, and one I found myself examining with great interest when I was a teenager. There have been many films and documentaries looking at that tragic moment in November of 1963 from historical perspectives, but few examining it from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ perspective. Pablo Larraín’s film follows Jackie, portrayed brilliantly by Natalie Portman, through that fateful day and the aftermath as she struggles to keep herself together not only for the country, but for her young children.

The film, framed as recollections amidst an interview conducted a week after the assassination, is an impressively-made piece of cinema no matter how you judge it from the beautiful cinematography and the well-paced back-and-forth plot structure through the performances, which include great turns in the supporting cast by Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and the late John Hurt. This is Portman’s show though, and she dominates the screen to the point that the camera very rarely takes its lens off of her. Portman captures the careful image that Kennedy Onassis presented to the world but also allows the much more complex creature underneath to carry through what had to be one of the most impossible times in a public figure’s life. There’s something deeper in this film about the intense scrutiny and pressure of public life and how politics threatens a person’s self-image, but it’s conducted in a fairly subtle manner and allows the film to be what it should: a deeply-affecting drama about one woman’s pain and strength amidst a horrifying moment in her life.

#7: A Monster Calls

Genre films tend to get a bad rap when it comes to being considered “serious cinema,” but the truth is that they are often among the most effective at tackling serious themes about the human condition. Science fiction has always been at the forefront of taking on social and political issues on the big screen, for example; genre allows fantastical elements to speak out as metaphor for very real, important concepts. A Monster Calls is a wonderful, heartbreaking example of that. Patrick Ness adapted his own novel to the big screen for a dark fantasy that touches on the ways people deal with loss in a very real, authentic and emotionally honest way. J.A. Bayona already had a high mark among fans of genre movies for his work on 2007’s The Orphanage but this one drives him to new heights thanks to his ability to get at the fear, pain and anger at the core of this film’s sorrow.

A Monster Calls unfolds deliberately and allows young Lewis MacDougall to stretch into the role of young Conor O’Malley. It’s a tall order for an actor of MacDougall’s age to take on a role like this; Conor must deal the emotions surrounding with his seriously ill mother, his strict and cold grandmother and the wayward father who isn’t a part of his life anymore. Taking on that kind of trauma can be difficult for any actor but MacDougall plays it all convincingly and is surrounded by a talented cast including Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell, as well as Liam Neeson as the voice of the titular monster who appears to tell him fantastic stories that somehow relate to his own life. Bayona captures the fantasy and frightening moments well, but is also able to bring it back to earth when it needs to be real and the visual effects work is spectacular. A Monster Calls is one of those films that won’t leave you for a long time, in all the best ways.

#6: Sing Street

Amidst all the heavily-lauded Oscar contenders and big-budget blockbusters, there’s been one film that has managed to slide its way into a number of top ten lists despite being one few people are particularly familiar with. And I couldn’t be happier that it is getting the recognition that it deserves. Sing Street is not the most well-known musical romantic dramedy to come out in 2016 and it won’t be the one to win the Oscar, but it is a great movie in its own right. John Carney has made his name on films like this, scoring critical love for 2007’s musical Once and 2013’s Begin Again. Sing Street is similar in format and genre, but strikes a very different path by crossing those films’ relationship travails with the coming of age story of a John Hughes film.

It’s almost unfair to call Sing Street a musical, because that summons up the kind of image that La La Land is known for and this is a much more grounded piece. But it is just as good at evoking emotion as any musical and any child of the 1980s is sure to fall in love with its devotion to new wave pop. The performances are quite good; Lucy Boynton gives an extra edge to the manic pixie dream girl that her Raphina could have been and Jack Reynor makes you forget how bad he was in Transformers: Age of Extinction with his rebellious older brother character of Brendan. Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy are as good as we would expect them to be, but the weight of this film rests on young Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s shoulders and he handles it very capably. Blending Carney’s usual sensibilities with coming of age story could have been a tricky prospect but he comes out with his best movie yet, and one that will only get better with rewatches.

#5: Moonlight

Moonlight is the kind of cinematic effort that couldn’t have been told by any other group of individuals and come out this good. Sure, you could switch out a few parts and it would probably still be a fine story, but the whole film is so personal and so carefully pieced together that it would have lost something in its intimacy and power. Barry Jenkins expertly adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue after conversations with McCraney, which he then put to film with exquisite care. The tale of a young man as he struggles with a drug-abusing mother, an uncaring world and his own sexuality may be considered “Oscar bait” by some, but that doesn’t preclude it from being a truly great movie.

The power of Moonlight, at its core, is what it has to say about struggling not just with sexuality and racism, but rather with the expectations of masculinity. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are seamless as the lead character of Chiron in various stages of his life, trying to make his way in the world and figure out not just who he is, but who he wants to be. That’s a universal theme, one that is given powerful weight within Chiron’s personal complications, and Jenkins finds that weight by imbuing the movie with his own energy. The film has style to spare but never feels stylized, which would have robbed it of the grounding it needed to feel real. Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and especially Mahershala Ali are sublime in their supporting roles. While many have labeled Moonlight as a queer film and/or a black film (and make no mistake, it’s very much both of those), it’s less about identity than it is about our choices that makes us who we are, and what affects those choices. That allows this deeply personal film to have an appeal that can reach many and makes it among the best of the year.

#4: Captain America: Civil War

Marvel doesn’t always make perfect films, but it’s safe to say they’re a well-oiled machine by now. That’s not an insult or a critique; sure, there is a formula to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it’s one that has worked well to date and most of the films have found a way to shine within that formula with something inherently unique that the others don’t have. The most explicit example of that is Captain America: Civil War. Joe and Anthony Russo officially take over stewardship of the MCU with this pseudo-Avengers film that contains all of the action, humor and comic book fun of the franchise to date while still having a few topical things to say here and there about real world events.

Where some of the lesser MCU films have tried to rely too much on the admittedly-impressive visuals and cast, Civil War finds strength in its script. That’s not to say that the cast isn’t great — they are — but the story by the Russos effectively riffs off of its controversial source material, adapting it for the continuity of the MCU and bringing several new players into the game. It’s difficult for any film to juggle as many characters as Civil War does but the Russos not only give each character their appropriate screen time, they even find enough time to give the new players like Black Panther and Spider-Man near-perfect introductions. The story is topical in surprisingly subtle ways and the action scenes are pure geek joy; the battle at the airport stands as perhaps the most comic book-y fight scene of all time (in a good way). It shakes up the status quo a bit to great effect and sets the stage for more to come, which makes it the best blockbuster in a year where many of its fellow action-fests fell short.

#3: Silence

2016 was the year that faith-based films really turned a corner. Sure, there were still terrible movies like God’s Not Dead 2 and I’m Not Ashamed or mediocre half-hearted attempts to rope in the Christian crowd with movies like Ben-Hur and Risen, but for the first time in a long while there were movies that legitimately managed to inspire and uplift with messages of faith. And Andrew Garfield was front and center in two of the biggest between Hacksaw Ridge and this, Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project. Scorsese has been trying to get his adaptation of the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel made for upward of twenty-five years at this point, and now that it’s finally been released I can safely say it was worth the wait.

Scorsese has been no stranger to the topic of religion in his movies. In addition to the most obvious and controversial example — The Last Temptation of Christ — it’s fair to say that there has been an element of faith and spirituality that runs through many of his films. Silence is merely the most overt and, in many ways, his most mature tackling of religion to date. Garfield shines in a career-best role as Father Sebastião Rodrigues, a Jesuit given permission alongside Father Garupe (the also-great Adam Driver) to track down their old mentor, who has reportedly apostatized in 17th-century Japan where Christianity has been outlawed. What they find is a group of people that desperately needs their faith and a land that has no use for it. Scorsese’s film brings to the forefront questions about the push and pull of faith versus sacrifice, as Rodrigues is put in impossible situations, and shows the persecution of the faithful without lingering graphically on it. It’s a remarkably solemn film for Scorsese, one that is striking in its simplicity and yet its nuance at the same time. Like many of the films on this list, it leaves you thinking about it for a long time but also never falters in its message. It’s one of the director’s better films, which is quite a statement.

#2: Arrival

There’s no film genre quite as heady as that of the thoughtful science fiction film. When it is at its best, sci-fi can tackle some of the loftiest themes and many of the greatest films of all-time fit that bill. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival certainly makes its case for inclusion in that grouping. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1988 short story “Story of Your Life,” the film features a stellar cast headed by Amy Adams navigating an alien arrival that pushes the world to the brink of cataclysm. That’s a subject matter that has been broached by many a film, but the way that Eric Heisserer’s script follows in the footsteps of movies like Close Encounter of the Third Kind is fresh and interesting while offering a relatable story amidst its time-hopping twists and turns.

At its core Arrival is about the power of language and communication, concepts that are increasingly relevant in an era of mass globalization. Language has power, and Heisserer’s script brings that story to the forefront in dynamic, bold ways. Adams and Jeremy Renner do stellar work as the linguist and theoretical physicist brought in to try and facilitate communication with the alien race, who are given unexpected and dynamic form by Villeneuve’s visual effects and creature design teams. Villeneuve films the movie in a gritty style while never shying away from bold decisions, all of which work quite nicely in bringing the story to live. Arrival is a film that enjoys asking the big questions — and, satisfyingly, isn’t afraid to provide answers without needing to ram them down our throat. It’s ambitious themes and introspective nature elevate it into being one of 2016’s best efforts.

#1: La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a glorious throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, given a modern spin. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling absolutely sparkle in La La Land, a brilliantly-choreographed and acted film that takes the standard conventions of old-school musicals and the themes of a studio system Hollywood romance, then sets them in a current-day tale. Stone is wonderful as aspiring actress Mia and is perfectly matched with Gosling, who gives a dedicated performance in a tricky role as the white man who wants to save jazz. Somehow the film sidesteps the weirdness of that and instead invests itself in the romance, which is nostalgic and forward-thinking in equal measures.

So much of this film doesn’t seem like it should work, and under a different writer-director it probably would have fallen flat on its face. But Chazelle’s love for the project shows through and he pays homage to the setting of Los Angeles in wonderful ways, relying on his capable stars to sell the story. They do, very ably. The musical numbers are grandiose and yet light as air, and the film projects an optimism that you don’t often see in cinema as of late, but with just enough real-world gravitas to avoid naivety. A wonderful production palette strongly evokes the mood in every scene, from the lighting and costuming to Linus Sandgren’s fantastic cinematography. For my money, La La Land sits as the best film of 2016.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! 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.