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This year was a toughie for good movies. We had some great films, and I found myself torn between my pop culture geekdom and cinematic nerddom. Let’s face it: we had both a new Star Trek and Star Wars film, and both were really good! (spoilers: they’re below). For my list, I looked for basics like story cohesion, compelling characters, stand out features to make it stand above other similar films of the year, and most importantly, fun. All of the films below fit those criteria for me. Some others were close too, and there are more still that I just didn’t make it out to see. But while I can re-order these films constantly, these are the ten that I got to see this year that are the best of the best. I tried to sort my list in what I believe got me the most excited for the film itself and more material like it, so without further ado, here are the films I had the most fun with in 2016!
10) Captain Fantastic
Directed by Matt Ross
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
Viggo Mortensen plays a father who raises his six children in the North Pacific wilderness with his wife as survivalists and philosophers, off the grid of typical American life. That is, until his wife passes and his family must now venture back into civilization to the funeral and to the children’s maternal grandfather (Frank Langella). Mortensen pulls off a great father role, showing how much he cares for his children while in pain over his loss and struggling with the life choices he’s made for his family. The kids do a good job immersing themselves into this role of survivalist children. The cultural shock they experience and we as an audience do interject a great comedic balance as this family struggles through a tough time.
9) Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges
Casey Affleck stars as a troubled man having to return to his small New England hometown to take care of his recently orphaned teenage nephew. I find it fascinating how much I relate to this film. I’m not nearly as traumatized as Affleck’s character is in the film, but his crippling indecision resonates with my own in a way that makes me feel ashamed because I haven’t earned it the way he has. We’ve all had some form of death in our lives, and they way Affleck and Lucas Hedges (the 16-year-old nephew) deal with it in different ways rings very true. This isn’t a film with a resolution because this kind of recovery isn’t quick or easy. Affleck is constantly teetering on the edge of coming unraveled, and it’s compelling to follow and hope for the best.
8) Moana
Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements
Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
Walt Disney Animation knocks another one out of the park with this tale of a young woman (Auli’i Cravalho) ventures out from her Pacific Island home in search of a Polynesian demigod (Dwayne Johnson) to help her save her island and people from a creeping blight. It’s a Disney cartoon, so it needs catchy songs and endearing characters, and Moana nails both. These songs will stick with you for a long while (and thankfully aren’t as annoying as “Let it Go”), with props to the musical Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-writing the soundtrack. Moana is a great lead, and it’s refreshing to have a Disney movie really nail not having a romantic relationship without it being painfully obvious that Disney is trying not to have a romantic relationship.
7) La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Talk about a love letter to struggling Hollywood upstarts. La La Land encapsulates the struggle of pursuing your own dream and how meeting the right person can change what that means. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone break out some great singing chops for a soundtrack that will stick with you for days to come. Musicals do by nature hesitate some, but this film draws you in and keeps hold as it seamlessly transitions through speaking and singing and even dancing, all well done.
6) Deadpool
Directed by Tim Miller
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller
Let me start by saying that I only like the character Deadpool in small doses in the comics. He always feels a little off (or very off) whenever he’s thrown into a team book or cameos with someone, but he shines in his own works. This is the case here. The fact that this movie got made is amazing, a testament to Ryan Reynolds’ love of the character after the lackluster X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This Deadpool is filthy, vulgar, and hilarious in all the right ways. It’s a surprisingly smart comedy that’s aware of itself and its history in just the right way Deadpool from the comics should be. Let’s just hope Fox doesn’t decide that Deadpool joins the X-Men.
5) Swiss Army Man
Directed by Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
Possibly my new favorite castaway-type movie. Paul Dano has been trapped on a deserted island for months when he happens upon a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). Pulling a Wilson, Dano begins speaking to the dead body, until the body begins to speak back and exhibit odd superpowers (rocket farts, erection compass, and unlimited drinkable water gushing from his mouth). Dano uses Radcliffe to get home while trying to get him to remember living. The bond between Dano and Radcliffe is touching as they stick it out through the wilderness and bond over Dano’s quest for the woman of his dreams. Plus it’s visually great and has a fantastically inventive soundtrack with vocals mostly from Dano and Radcliffe themselves.
4) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison
New Zealand comedies tend to have this quirky, oddball charm to them that make them endearing, and this is up there with the best of them. A young wannabe gangster boy (Julian Dennison) gets his last change in the foster system with a very rural husband and wife. Through circumstances, the husband who didn’t want the kid (Sam Neill) and the boy find themselves on the lamb, running from police and children services in the thick New Zealand woods for months, as they grow to understand and bond. It’s charming and hilarious. Neill nails being a grumpy outdoorsman, and he doesn’t even need dinosaurs this time. Dennison is able to go toe-to-toe with this seasoned actor. And Waititi does a fantastic job putting it all together, inspiring hope for his upcoming directorial role for Thor: Ragnarok.
3) Captain America: Civil War
Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland
Inevitably with the prominence of superhero films, we needed to have the superhero versus match as is tradition in their comic book source. The third Captain America film adapts one of the best-known hero-vs-hero story as Cap (Chris Evans) struggles against binding the Avengers to government bureaucracy while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) tried to place limits upon themselves to keep from making another Ultron incident. This film could have easily been Avengers 3 with its line-up, but the story is purely Cap as the focal point and plot driver. The gravitas that the Russo brothers brought with Winter Soldier is still here, although a little cut down in favor for more blockbuster action, and that’s not all bad. It’s a fun fight film with the meat that a Cap story should have as he struggles with his ideals and the system he supposedly represents. Not to mention, a fantastic new Spidey with Tom Holland.
2) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen
It feels so good to not only have a Star Wars movie on the list, but to have one two years in a row! Rogue One follows Felicity Jones as a rebel fighter (lowercase R) conscripted by the Rebel Alliance (capital R) to find her father (Mads Mikkelsen ) and the plans for his secret weapon for the Empire. Here’s a hint: it’s no moon. This movie gets back to the “War” part of Star Wars as a small group thrust into combat with the Empire, leading to a massive beach planet invasion. It evokes some of the best parts of Empire Strikes Back, including Darth Vader as a complete and utter badass. Plus it fits seamlessly into the canon just before the original film and leads right into the familiar story we all love.
1) Star Trek Beyond
Directed by Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba
It is great to have Star Trek back! Don’t get me wrong. While Into Darkness was a complete let down, I enjoyed the first of these reboot films in 2009. However this was the first to feel like a classic Trek movie, just with modern trappings and cinematic techniques. The crew of the Enterprise is dealing with a new enemy, a completely original story that gives the cast to really be themselves outside of the shadows of their original actors. It actually deals with similar themes of a listless Kirk that Wrath of Khan does even better than the Wrath of Khan rehash that is Into Darkness does. Plus they’re destroying an Enterprise in the third film, so some traditions get to live long and prosper.