Honorable Mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hell or High Water, Captain America: Civil War, Moana.
- A Monster Calls
If you’re in the mood for a happy movie, then stay away from A Monster Calls. This guaranteed tear jerker tells the story of a young boy dealing with the impending death of his mother due to cancer. The boy is visited by a tree monster who tells him three tales, allegories for the harsh realities of life as an adult. This is a coming of age story framed though the worst experience a child could ever go through, and beautifully outlines the transition from the magic of childhood to the cold hard reality of adulthood. Each of the monster’s tales is beautifully animated in 2D, and Liam Neeson’s haunting narration as the monster ensures that these sequences are the highlights of the movie. A Monster Calls is a cathartic study of grief and a true testament to the power of storytelling and imagination.
- Swiss Army Man
There’s no getting around the fact that this is one of the weirdest movies you will ever see in your life. You have just as much of a chance of thinking it’s brilliant as you will think it’s a total piece of trash. The weird tale of a man (Paul Dano), building a relationship with a talking, farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) is so much more than what you expect from a movie centered on fart jokes. At its heart, it’s about a lonely guy desperately trying to find companionship, and accept himself for who he is. The movie uses the narrative device of Dano’s character teaching the corpse how to be human as a way to explore how humans behave socially. Why is it considered so disgusting to fart in front of people? Why is masturbation something you should be ashamed of? Why can’t you just talk to some random person on the bus without seeming weird? If those questions don’t make you pause and think, then chances are Swiss Army Man is not the movie for you.
2016 was a great year for animation, and I could have easily put either Moana or Finding Dory on this list as well. But, Zootopia managed to crawl its way to the top of the pack, due in no small part to its extremely timely message about tolerance and acceptance for other races. Zootopia is fun for adults and kids alike and contains dozens of easter eggs that Disney fans will have fun spotting. An all-star cast voices this beautifully animated buddy cop movie centered in a world where anthropomorphic animals, both predator and prey, live in peace inside a large city. Funny, smart and adorable, Zootopia proves that Disney still knows how to make a truly amazing animated movie.
- Star Trek Beyond
When J.J. Abrams re-launched the Star Trek movie franchise back in 2009, a whole new generation of people were introduced to the franchise. A brand new set of actors brought new life to the classic Star Trek crew, and J.J. Abrams’ distinct visual flare seamlessly transferred the world into a modern context. With Star Trek Beyond, director Justin Lin takes the franchise back to its origins as the crew of the Enterprise face off against a brand new foe after crash landing on a strange new planet. Every bit of Star Trek Beyond feels like an episode of the original 1960’s show, without ever feeling the need to wholesale copy it like Star Trek Into Darkness did. What really makes Star Trek Beyond work is the interactions between the characters, who are split into pairs for a large portion of the movie. Everyone gets their time to shine as the script by actor Simon Pegg makes sure no character gets left behind. This was one of the most satisfying blockbuster movie experiences of the year, and a great send-off for the tragically deceased Anton Yelchin.
Québec’s own Denis Villeneuve continues his winning streak with this thought provoking science fiction film about humanity’s efforts to communicate with a mysterious alien species that have arrived on earth. Unlike most science fiction movies these days, you will find very little in the form of action here. The movie moves at an almost frustratingly slow pace, but it’s all in the service of walking you through the inherent difficulties of communicating when both parties can’t speak each other’s language. It’s also very refreshing to see an alien movie where the aliens are not just there to destroy all humans. In fact, it’s the humans who are the biggest threat, something that likens Arrival to the equally brilliant sci-fi movie District 9. Amy Adams gives a great performance here as the linguist hired to interact with the aliens, and the revelations about her character lead up to an ending that will have your jaw hit the floor. Villeneuve has a very distinctive visual style here that makes the film standout. Arrival is proof positive that science fiction can say more than any movie grounded in reality.
Sometimes, you just want to see a vulgar and violent action comedy, because when that type of movie is done well, it can be one of the most satisfying movie experiences you will ever have. Deadpool most assuredly does violent and vulgar well, as Ryan Reynolds finally gets to be in the superhero movie he always deserved after suffering through Green Lantern and X-Men Origins Wolverine. Reynolds carries this movie on his shoulders effortlessly as he delivers laugh-out-loud jokes at such a quick pace, you’ll need to press the rewind button to catch the ones you laughed over. Though its basic story is a bit cliché for the superhero genre, Deadpool never feels boring or repetitive and moves at a rapid pace. Bring on the sequel!
- Don’t Breath
Being a horror movie fan is hard these days, as there is a LOT of cheap schlock that gets released. Thankfully, there are always a few diamonds in the rough to be seen each year, and Don’t Breathe was the shiniest diamond of them all. It shouldn’t be surprising, however, since it was written and directed by Fede Alverez, the same guy who gave us the 2013 Evil Dead remake (one of my favourite films of that year as well). This time around, Alverez provides us with the much simpler and grounded story of three delinquents who break into a blind man’s house to steal his fortune. What these robbers don’t know, however, is that they have stepped into the lair of a homicidal Daredevil, as the blind man begins hunted them down through his locked down house. What follows is 90 minutes of pure tension, as the thieves must navigate the blind man’s dark house without making a sound. Don’t Breathe is gorgeously filmed (making great use of the house’s twisty architecture) and uses light and colour in a way that allows you to see everything that’s happening even when it takes place in total darkness. Jane Levy (also from Evil Dead) is turning out to be the next great scream queen, and Stephen Lang is imposing as hell as the blind man. Don’t Breathe is horror at it’s very finest, done by a new master of the genre.
- Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson is a horrible human being; we all know this. Which makes it that much more frustrating when I have to praise him for making such a great movie. Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming war movies I have ever seen, mainly because it focuses on the importance of preserving human life, even if it means sacrificing your own. It’s the inspiring true story of Desmond Dawes, an army medic who willingly entered battle without a weapon due to his religious beliefs, and ended up saving the lives of 75 fellow soldiers from the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge. Gibson’s trademark ultra-violent battle sequences are present here, but they in no way feel exploitative. They instead serve as a harsh reminder of the quick and brutal way men die in battle, making Dawes’ efforts to save lives seem that much more heroic. Andrew Garfield shows off his acting chops, despite being saddled with an accent that veers on the cartoonish, and even Vince Vaughan of all people gives a good performance as Dawes’ drill sergeant. It’s hard to make a war movie feel original these days, but Hacksaw Ridge does it in aces.
- Rogue One – A Star Wars Story
Where 2015’s The Force Awakens was a great, yet all too familiar reintroduction to the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One takes the sci-fi saga to places it has never been before. I would have never expected a Star Wars movie to take the risks Rogue One does in its final act. Setting a much darker and grittier tone than the franchise is accustomed to, Rogue One emphasises the Wars part of the title much more than the Star. It does a much better job of making its characters feel like fully fleshed out people with clear motivations, and the sprinkles of humour (mostly doled out by the Ala Tudyk voiced K2-SO) ensure that Rogue One never feels overbearingly dreary. Although the first half may be a little hard to follow, the movie more than makes up for it with a truly spectacular final action sequence that is better than any the franchise has done before. No only that, but it even comes up with an entirely justifiable explanation for the stupidest part of the original movie: The weak spot in the death star that would destroy the whole thing if shot at. As if that wasn’t enough, the film even gives us the Darth Vader we have been waiting decades to see.
- La La Land
At this point, it has become redundant to call La La Land the best movie of 2016, so much so that a vocal group of people are lashing out against the unanimous critical acclaim by calling it “overrated”. Those people are crazy, because Damian Chazelle’s exceptional musical romance about a struggling actress and jazz pianist falling in love in modern day Los Angeles is every bit as good as critics say it is, and then some. Anchored by career defining performance from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, a rapturously catchy soundtrack and breathtaking cinematography, La La Land will make you laugh, cry and experience every other emotion in between. It pays loving tribute to old school Hollywood and jazz music, while also subverting the clichés of the genre. I have no doubts that in a few years, director Damian Chazelle will fit perfectly among the ranks of all time great directors like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. In short, La La Land is an unequivocal triumph of cinema, and an instant classic.