Zootopia includes effective humor, impactful themes, and introduces a beautiful, immersive environment to boot. The film follows Judy Hopps’s move to the city of Zootopia where she attempts to prove herself against existing stereotypes. The plot is engaging, hilarious, and ultimately uplifting. Each of the characters grapple with how their identities shape their interactions with their society and like the predators in the film, Zootopia bares impressive fangs.
2.) Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who go on a bank robbing tear and the cop (Jeff Bridges) tasked with catching them. The film intimately illustrates the power of brotherhood: the relationship between Bridges and his partner parallels the relationship between Pine and Foster. The colorful characters and sweeping Texan vistas are mere window dressings to the touching central story about the love between brothers.
3.) Finding Dory
Finding Dory takes audiences back to its expansive ocean world where Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) tries to reunite with her long-lost parents. Finding Dory features an eclectic group of ocean creatures and punchy humor. The film also delves into more complex themes as Dory struggles with a lack of self-confidence due to her amnesia. Through her interactions with various characters who try to help her, Dory must most importantly learn to trust herself in her journey to find her way back to her parents. Finding Dory combines a light-hearted theme with poignant lessons of love, determination, and trust to produce a successful sequel to the beloved Pixar original.
Moonlight explores an experience all but ignored by Hollywood: that of a poor, black, gay man. The film follows Chiron as he navigates drugs, bullying, and his own sexuality in 1980s Miami. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron as a young boy, an adolescent, and a grown man, respectively; each actor expertly conveys Chiron’s outsider status with nuance and grace. The film is a skillful balance: it is universal in that it grapples with questions of identity, yet it still maintains a devoted specificity to its cinematically neglected subject. In this way, Moonlight does more than deal in identity politics: it creates a subtle, moving portrait of a young man.
5.) Captain America: Civil War
Civil War brings the Avengers to their breaking points as Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), finds his past conflicting with his duty. The building rivalry between Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Rogers explodes, marking a watershed of division for the Avengers. Rogers sees his inherent goodness challenged, and Stark must step into the leadership role he has so persistently avoided. Ultimately, viewers gain deeper insight into these seemingly infallible heroes, and the film marks a fascinating new step for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as basic comic book identities are put to the test.
6.) Manchester by the Sea
A death in the family and a run-down Mass. town may not sound like a film to pick you up during the holidays, but Manchester by the Sea’s heart-wrenching realism is both haunting and reassuring. The story is one of loss and the absurdity of the normalcy that follows it. Director Kenneth Lonergan finds humor and humanity in telling the tale of a broken family, and Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and the rest of the cast bring to life a script that refuses to reconcile the anguish felt following personal tragedy. Manchester sugarcoats nothing and is worthy of every award that comes its way.
7.) Hail, Caesar!
The Coen brothers’ latest effort, Hail Caesar!, is inspired by the bombastically absurd films of Hollywood’s Golden Age as characters navigate the even more absurd stories behind their productions. The film takes place over the course of a single day, following Josh Brolin’s gruff studio fixer. An absolutely brilliant cast— including Tilda Swinton, uber-refined Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson with a mellifluous New York accent, “all-American” dancer Channing Tatum, and oblivious megastar George Clooney—elevates the comedy into a true mastery of the genre.
8.) Sing Street
Set in 1980s Dublin, Sing Street follows fifteen year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he assembles a ragtag band of Irish schoolboys to impress the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton). At once utterly endearing yet piercingly sorrowful, Sing Street manages to capture intricate entrapments of love: discovering a best friend, winning the heart of a girl, finding comfort in an older brother, and navigating the bitter divorce of one’s parents. Director John Carney’s exploration into the burgeoning music video industry in the ‘80s perfectly captures Conor’s loss of innocence without becoming trite or clichéd.
9.) Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange uses stunning special effects and a unique storyline to deliver a film that is both creative and fun. The movie follows neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s transformation into the magic-wielding, reality-bending hero Doctor Strange, who uses his powers of teleportation, time travel, and dimension hopping to save the world. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tilda Swinton all deliver powerful performances that will leave the viewer excited for the next installment of the franchise.
10.) 10 Cloverfield Lane
Where the first Cloverfield film was loud and bombastic, 10 Cloverfield Lane, its spiritual successor, is soft and tense. Dan Trachtenberg directs a masterclass in suspense, anchored by a gripping performance from John Goodman. The story is set in a confined location, giving both the characters and the audience an unnerving sense of claustrophobia. As the film progresses, Goodman expertly unravels his character’s sanity and keeps the audience on edge with his unpredictability. 10 Cloverfield Lane proves that sometimes the scariest thing can be the kindness of strangers.