The Best Films of 2016

Top 10 of the Year

1. La La LandDamien Chazelle
2. MoonlightBarry Jenkins
3. PatersonJim Jarmusch
4. The Neon DemonNicolas Winding Refn
5. ArrivalDenis Villeneuve
6. JackiePablo Larraín
7. SilenceMartin Scorsese
8. The Lost City of ZJames Gray
9. Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan
10. Everybody Wants Some!!Richard Linklater

Best Film

La La Land. Damien Chazelle takes another step up from the fast-cutting, virtuosic direction of Whiplash, and delivers one of the greatest movie-musicals of all-time, letting loose one cinematic highlight after another. The opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’ is a colourful long take on a crowded Los Angeles highway. ‘A Lovely Night’ is a gorgeous tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, set against a stunning view of Hollywood at sunset. Emma Stone dazzles us with an impassioned solo in ‘Audition’. Perhaps Chazelle’s finest moment comes in the dreamy, wordless montage of the epilogue, floating us through so many different worlds set inside his characters’ dreams. All of this considered together makes for a pretty easy #1 pick.

The opening number of La La Land will dazzle you with its single long take, energetic camera movement, meticulous choreography, and colours – and somehow the film will just go on to keep topping itself.

Most Underrated

The Neon Demon. Nicolas Winding Refn may forever be doomed to inhabit this category, sitting at #38 on TSPDT. Complain about his slow pacing, uncomfortable violence, and opaque narratives all you like – this is a director with a defined aesthetic and formal acuity, and here he applies that to the cult-like world of models and fashion. As a result, this is also a cutting study of femininity, asking the layered question to its central character early on, “Are you sex, or are you food?” If she is sex, then she is a woman who will engage directly in the ways others devour her beauty; if she is food, then she will be feasted upon and destroyed in the process. Either way, she is joining a community of women whose purpose is to satiate the appetites of consumers, and Refn fully recognises the body horror potential in mixing these two symbols within the setting of a menacing, erotic cult.

No one is quite making films like Nicolas Winding Refn these days, and his style certainly isn’t for more casual cinema lovers. But those with the patience and stomach for the grisly psychological horror of The Neon Demon will find lots to appreciate and pick apart.

Most Overrated

Toni Erdmann. TSPDT has this at #1 of 2016, which is frankly unreasonable. Its biggest supporters fall back on its unconventional German humour, warm character dynamics, and touching performances. I don’t disagree that these are its greatest strengths – but the formal achievement is minimal, and its cinematic style is all but non-existent.

Great writing, great characters – and entirely lacklustre direction from Marien Ade.

Best Directorial Debut

Raw. Julie Ducournau would go on to win the Palme d’Or with Titane in 2021, but she gets her start here with a coming-of-age horror drama, using cannibalism as a metaphor for a growing sexual appetite. Her visual flourishes are scarce but worth savouring, showcasing some fine compositions and tracking shots, though it is clearly the body horror imagery where she is most comfortable.

Julia Ducournau is clearly a David Cronenberg acolyte, using body horror as a coming-of-age metaphor in Raw.

Gem to Spotlight

Everybody Wants Some!! Richard Linklater’s nostalgic musings have an immortalising effect on the youthful characters of his films. As far as we are concerned, Jake Bradford will eternally be 18, permanently existing within those three, carefree days leading into the official start date of the 1980 college semester. This is richly character-driven, and while each member of this college baseball team is defined early on by their quirks and relationships, it isn’t until after the accumulation of time they spend together that we, along with Jake, begin to sink into the cool dynamic between them. Linklater is entirely committed to the subtle form of the piece, gradually evolving it into a compelling, unhurried study of young adulthood at the point that one is truly free from their parents for the first time.

Richard Linklater is no great stylist, much like Dazed and Confused he finds these ripe opportunities for visual flourishes – especially with his colourful wall murals.

Best Male Performances

Ryan Gosling is a master of stoic subtlety, and yet he integrates that manner perfectly with Damien Chazelle’s expressive musical vision in La La Land, smoothly pulling off a dance tribute to Fred Astaire and effortlessly running his fingers across piano keys. There is great passion in his performance, but he often plays it as slightly uptight and conservative compared to Emma Stone’s more relaxed demeanour. This is the third time the two have played lovers onscreen, and the chemistry they share is incredible.

Adam Driver has had a prolific decade thus far playing bit parts in dramas like Inside Llewyn Davis and kicking off the Star Wars sequels as its main villain, but Paterson marks his finest achievement to date. Paterson is a man with structure embedded so deeply into his bring that the only alarm he needs is his ‘silent magic watch’ that wakes him up at the same time every morning. He is one of Jim Jarmusch’s greatest character creations, and Driver brings such warmth, poetry, and sensitivity to this study.

Mahershela Ali and Trevante Rhodes both get a mention apiece for their roles in Moonlight – the former as young Chiron’s warm, sturdy father figure, and the latter as Chiron himself all grown up. He carries a huge presence onscreen, and yet he is cripplingly shy character, deeply affected by the trauma of his childhood. Finally, Manchester by the Sea sits a little further down my top 10 than those other films cited above, but Casey Affleck’s performance in it is so purely devastating that it nabs a mention.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is bursting with both passion and restrained subtlety. There are so many emotions in the final look he gives right at the end.

Best Female Performances

Emma Stone sings and dances her way across beautiful panoramas and dream sequences in La La Land, becoming a purely magnetic force of emotionality and musicality. Struggling actress Mia is one of this decade’s finest female characters, and Stone proves she has both the comedic and dramatic chops for the part, effortlessly becoming a classical Hollywood movie star in ‘Someone In the Crowd’ and then moving us as she belts out her big solo ‘Audition’.

Natalie Portman gets her second mention for the decade too with Jackie, an unnervingly psychological glimpse into the mind of Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s murder. It is a studied performance that transcends mere imitation and invites us right into her unsettled head space.

Elle Fanning and Amy Adams both get the final mentions of the year for The Neon Demon and Arrival respectively. For Fanning, this is her first mention in this category, and her icy cold demeanour is a perfect fit for Refn’s stilted style. Adams meanwhile is coming towards the end of her great 2010s run, teaming up with Denis Villeneuve on his unconventional sci-fi drama Arrival.

Emma Stone’s big, expressive eyes are one of her greatest assets as an actress, though it certainly isn’t her only strength in La La Land where her singing and dancing also impress.

Best Cinematography: La La Land

1. La La LandLinus Sandgren
2. MoonlightJames Laxton
3. The Neon DemonNatasha Braier
4. JackieStéphane Fontaine
5. SilenceRodrigo Prieto
6. ArrivalBradford Young
7. The Lost City of ZDarius Khondji
Chazelle’s work with his cinematography Linus Sandgren relishes the purple magic hour sunsets of Los Angeles, using it as backdrops to songs like ‘City of Stars’ and ‘A Lovely Night’.

Best Editing: La La Land

1. La La LandTom Cross
2. MoonlightJoi McMillon, Nat Sanders
3. PatersonAffonso Gonçalves
4. The Neon DemonMatthew Newman
5. ArrivalJoe Walker
6. JackieSebastián Sepúlveda
La La Land whisks you through on the sort of rhythmic montages that Tom Cross previously established in Whiplash, but it is the editing of the ten-minute epilogue which will bowl you over.

Best Screenplay: Paterson

1. PatersonJim Jarmusch
2. MoonlightBarry Jenkins
3. La La LandDamien Chazelle
4. ArrivalEric Heisserer
5. Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan
6. Everybody Wants Some!!Richard Linklater
7. Hell or HighwaterTaylor Sheridan
8. SilenceMartin Scorsese, Jay Cocks
There are few films from this decade which are as formally rigorous in their construction as Paterson, studying its central character as a man of comfort, routine, and poetry.

Best Original Music Score: La La Land

1. La La LandJustin Hurwitz
2. MoonlightNicholas Britell
3. The Neon DemonCliff Martinez
4. JackieMica Levi
5. ArrivalJóhann Jóhannsson
6. Manchester by the SeaLesley Barber
Justin Hurwitz was Damien Chazelle’s composer on Whiplash, though that film was largely dominated by existing music. La La Land gives him the freedom to create a fresh, jazzy sound, and weave that through both musical numbers and instrumental orchestrations.

Year Breakdown

With only four films sitting in the Masterpiece and Must-See range, 2016 is evidently a very shallow year for cinema. That said, we do get La La Land which safely sits inside the top 10 of the decade. It also laid claim to the Best Picture trophy for a short few seconds before Moonlight took it away, making Oscar history with the notorious mix-up. Both are fine choices, and there is no real beef between them. They also cement Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins as two of the best new auteurs to emerge in the 2010s, especially marking the breakthrough of the latter.

Not quite on the same level as Chazelle and Jenkins, we see Nicolas Winding Refn on his unstoppable 2010s run, continuing to polarise critics with The Neon Demon, while the formal master Jim Jarmusch is still going strong decades into his career with Paterson.

A tier below these films, we see quite a few familiar faces present. Martin Scorsese, Denis Villeneuve, James Gray, and Richard Linklater each make some great films that may have not cracked the top 10 of a stronger year. That said, it is especially worth singling out Linklater here – Everybody Wants Some!! is his fourth film in a very prolific decade for him, bolstering his position as one of the best screenwriters of the 2010s.

Marvel Studios continues to dominate the box office with Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, and Doctor Strange, but within the top 10 biggest earners of the year there is no real crossover with art. La La Land does get pretty close though.

Barry Jenkins makes his breakthrough in 2016 with Moonlight, shooting some of the greatest close-ups in cinema since Jonathan Demme’s work in the 80s and 90s.

Film Archives

ArrivalDenis VilleneuveHR
DeadpoolTim MillerR
Doctor StrangeScott DerricksonR
Don’t BreatheFederico ÁlvarezR
Everybody Wants Some!!Richard LinklaterHR
Hacksaw RidgeMel GibsonR
Hail, Caesar!The Coen BrothersR
Hell or HighwaterDavid MackenzieR/HR
Hidden FiguresTheodore MelfiR
Hunt for the WilderpeopleTaika WaititiR
JackiePablo LarrainHR
Kubo and the Two StringsTravis KnightR
La La LandDamien ChazelleMP
LionGarth DavisR
LovingJeff NicholsR
Manchester by the SeaKenneth LonerganHR
MoonlightBarry JenkinsMP
PatersonJim JarmuschMS
RawJulia DucournauR/HR
SilenceMartin ScorseseHR
SplitM. Night ShyamalanR
Swiss Army ManDaniel Kwan, Daniel ScheinertR
The Lost City of ZJames GrayHR
The Neon DemonNicolas Winding RefnMS
The Nice GuysShane BlackR
Toni ErdmannMaren AdeR
Train to BusanYeon Sang-hoR
The Lost City of Z parallels Apocalypse Now in some ways with the journey through jungles towards a singular goal, but it is James Gray’s use of natural lighting which is most impressive of all.


13thAva DuVernay
Voyage of TimeTerrence Malick
During his prolific stretch of filmmaking in the 2010s, Terrence Malick dipped into the world of documentaries with Voyage of Time, which feels very much like the ‘birth of the universe’ section of The Tree of Life stretched out.

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