2016 was an up and down year in Hollywood. While the box office is set to break records, the plethora of celebrity deaths and underachieving summer blockbusters cast a shadow over the year in cinema. As always, smaller films were able to shine towards the end of the year, but larger budgeted, big name blockbusters also surprised. These are Halftime’s Top 10 Films of 2016.
10.) Star Trek Beyond: Beyond was easily the most surprising film of the summer. A rushed production and a weak advertising campaign suggested that the film was going to flop. Despite its weak box office returns, the third entry in the rebooted Star Trek franchise turned out to be an incredibly fun ride. The cast was excellent: the crew of the Enterprise had crackling chemistry and great banter, Sofia Boutella stole entire scenes as Jaylah, and Idris Elba turned in a great performance as the villain. The film also deftly handled the passing of Leonard Nimoy earlier in the year, and included a nice tribute to Anton Yelchin at the end. While Beyond may feel a little bittersweet, its heart and enthusiasm provide for a great celebration of Star Trek’s 50 years of existence.
9.) Sully: Clint Eastwood’s workmanlike directing style helps glorify an everyman of a hero in Sully. The film triumphs thanks to Tom Hanks’ incredibly likeable performance as the eponymous pilot. The script smartly relegates itself to only the landing on the Hudson and its aftermath instead of trying to tell a more trite biographical story. The landing plays out with enough tension to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and the ending of the film is wholly satisfying. Sully may not be spectacular, but it does a wonderful job of displaying the heroism and ingenuity of one New Yorker in the face of incredible odds.
8.) The Lobster: The Lobster made this list almost solely on its wildly original premise alone. The film presents a bizarre dystopia in which an individual has 45 days to find a significant other before he or she is transformed into an animal of his or her choice. The Lobster embraces this absurd premise, and takes it to its extremes. Colin Farrell anchors an excellent cast, and the film’s dark sense of humor allows it to make some genuinely interesting commentary on monogamy and commitment in relationships. If nothing else, The Lobster is worth seeing for how it takes an inherently ridiculous premise and turns it into a surprisingly poignant film.
7.) The Nice Guys: In a summer dominated by franchise films, The Nice Guys presented a much-needed breath of fresh air. Written and directed by Shane Black, the film stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as two mismatched private eyes in 1970s Los Angeles. Crowe and Gosling are on point, and their performances help elevate the film. Black’s sense of humor lends a certain sense of awkward hilarity to the proceedings, and the plot has an engaging and inventive mystery to it. The Nice Guys wins points for being an original film in the midst of a mess of sequels, but it becomes truly memorable when it distinguishes itself with great comedy blended with realistic and compelling action.
6.) Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck gives one of the year’s best performances in a moving, if sometimes relentless film. Manchester by the Sea tells the story of Affleck’s character, who is forced to become an adoptive father to his nephew when Affleck’s brother dies. The film is a portrait of grief, but writer and director Kenneth Lonergan manages to inject enough humor and heart to keep the story relatable. At times, the film feels almost needlessly depressing, but Affleck’s performance is too good to look away from. The ending eschews Hollywood cliché in favor of a more personal conclusion to the story, which will make Manchester by the Sea a sure Oscar favorite.
5.) The Witch: 2016 was an especially strong year for the horror genre. While films like The Conjuring 2, Don’t Breathe, and Lights Out gained mainstream success, the best of the bunch was The Witch, a terrifying authentic film about witchcraft and religion in 1600s New England. The entire film feels real: the dialogue is period-faithful, the music is hauntingly eerie, and the lighting is almost completely natural. The Witch offers horrifying imagery and disturbing violence in lieu of cheap jump scares. What makes the film so successful is that in addition to the violence, it also offers suggestions of much darker forces at play in the story. While the film is certainly not for the faint of heart, even horror buffs will find themselves deeply unsettled by one of the most disturbing films of the decade.
4.) Midnight Special: The best superhero film of 2016 did not involve spandex, showdowns, or spectacle. Midnight Special tells the intimate story of a father trying to protect his son, who is endowed with otherworldly powers, from those who mean to use him as a weapon. Much of the film is spent on the run, and this makes the proceedings engaging and entertaining. Visually, the film is gorgeous to watch, but what makes it so unique is the emotion and the characters in the story. The script hints at the boy’s ability, but keeps the focus on the relationship between father and son, which helps ground the film. Midnight Special proves that you do not need huge action scenes or amusing quips to tell a deeply emotional story.
3.) Hell or High Water: Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers who go on a bank-robbing spree to try to pay off the debt on their family’s ranch. The story is practically extraneous in this film: the real charm is watching the game of cat and mouse between the brothers and the police officers pursuing them, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. The film is careful not to paint either side as heroic or villainous, and instead chooses to present both the cops and the robbers as distinctly flawed individuals. Short vignettes involving Bridges and Birmingham provide great comedic moments along the way, and the ending is surprisingly touching. Where Hell or High Water really triumphs is in its portrayal of the power of brotherhood set against the spacious backdrop of rural Texas.
2.) Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson makes a stunning return to the world of filmmaking with the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan. Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist medic who served in the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. Gibson creates some of the most harrowing war scenes in recent memory: his war has no glory, only brutal, unforgiving violence. Andrew Garfield does an excellent job of conveying the struggles Doss faces, from his rocky relationship with his father to the conflict between his duty and his ideals. Gibson does not lets the film become too overwrought, instead working to make sure that Doss’ squadmates never feel like caricatures. His expert direction conveys Doss’ heroism in the heat of a dehumanizing war. Hacksaw Ridge is equal parts personal, shocking, and inspiring, as Gibson creates a masterful portrayal of a man committed to his beliefs and his convictions.
1.) Arrival: Director Denis Villeneuve is becoming one of the best directors in Hollywood today, and his Arrival distinguishes itself as the best film of 2016. The premise is deceivingly simple: a set of alien spaceships arrive on Earth hovering above the ground, and humanity tries to make contact. Amy Adams gives a great performance as the linguistics professor charged with figuring out how to communicate with the aliens, yet Arrival is about so much more than first contact. It is a story about perceptions of time, how language affects humanity’s thoughts and actions, and the relationships between children and parents. Such a gamut of topics might derail lesser films, but Arrival’s third act masterfully weaves these themes together in a great twist and an extremely satisfying ending. The film is thought-provoking, emotional, and awe-inspiring. It demands repeated viewings to understand just how the different themes combine to tell the story of one woman’s life. Arrival beautifully demonstrates the reaches of the science-fiction genre, and it cements itself as a masterpiece of filmmaking.