The Best Films of 2016

PopMatters presents a list of the best films that surfaced in 2016 and impressed us with their cinematic visions of where we’ve been.

Films don’t materialize overnight. Most take months or years to move from pitch or page to screen. For that reason, it’s not particularly useful to view movies as products of their release year. Most likely the films being developed at this moment will be the ones that later communicate the ideas that are most topical right now. Films are always slightly out of time.

Here PopMatters presents a list of the films that surfaced in 2016 and impressed us with their cinematic visions of where we’ve been. Last year’s list included a film that screamed “Witness Me” (Mad Max: Fury Road), but many of this year’s efforts dramatize that feeling in ways that respond to recent calls for more diversity in film production, distribution and accolades. Unlike the Academy Award for Best Picture, which has for years been on a predictable cycle of rewarding one or two violent and/or war films followed by one or two light-hearted or escapist films, the array we highlight here has no dominant style or genre. There are thrillers, comedies, documentaries, road movies, animations, musicals, action films, and dramas.

What most connects these films to 2016 is that they offer willing viewers a chance to see, and a means to discuss, many of the subjects that were subsumed into contentious politics. Here are films about war and peace, crime and punishment, the effects of historical trauma, and identity formation. Here too are films that imagine vastly different worlds from our own, but communicate themes relevant to the world we’re in. It’s doubtful that any single viewer will enjoy all of these movies, but every viewer stands to benefit from spending a couple of hours at a time considering a wider range of human lives, as offered here. -- Thomas Britt

Film: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.

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10 Cloverfield Lane

With Hollywood deep into a safety zone of remakes, reboots, and general avoidance of original stories, the Cloverfield films stand out for generating new thrills from mashed-up genres. Matt Reeves' first installment from 2008 combined a Godzilla-type monster with the discovered footage shooting technique. Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane, originally called The Cellar, has been categorized as a "three-hander" with a trio of characters sharing a bunker during a disaster. It's also a film in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead, about a retreat from danger that proves to be fraught with interior conflict.

It's also a film about -- oh, to say more would spoil the surprises. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. play the young characters assessing their chances of surviving threats unknown. Mostly they want to stay on the good side of Howard (John Goodman in his most memorable role outside of a Coen Brothers film). In 10 Cloverfield Lane, the worst thing you can imagine might change in an instant to another menace entirely, and the person you come to fear the most might have some good advice to offer about always being prepared. -- Thomas Britt

Read the full review here.

Film: 13th

Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: Angela Davis, Corey Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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Delivered in a breathlessly paced tapestry of interview clips, statistics presented over somber black and white graphics, and historic footage continuously juxtaposing early 20th century forms of nakedly violent racism with more latent (and overt) contemporary forms of the same, 13th captures severe racial injustice not so much as a series of separate events than as a smothering inferno singed deep into America's economic, social, and legal systems. The effect is an immersive feeling that preconceived notions of progress must be severely re-examined. 13th is a powerful entreaty for Americans to get to work on fighting racism -- Argun Ulgen

Read the full review here.

Film: American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold

Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough

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American Honey

Andrea Arnold’s first American feature sticks with her stories of the disenfranchised, this time expanding the frame to the dusty emptiness of the Midwest. Eschewing narrative, a collection of lost teenagers live from town to town, flogging magazine subscriptions any way they can. It’s a voyage of discovery for new arrival Star, with no comfortable beginning or clear end. Such luxuries don’t exist for the kind of people stuck in this world. Debutant Sasha Lane lights up the screen as Star, and Shia LaBeouf puts in a career best performance as the turbulent lead salesman. In a year that has shown a country split apart, American Honey is a beautifully shot glimpse of the people stuck in the cracks. -- Stephen Mayne

Read the full review here.

Film: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

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Just when it looked like the studio system had abandoned forward-thinking sci-fi to the realms of indie film and cable TV, up cropped this welcome surprise. At first glance, it’s a first-contact story in which a language specialist (Amy Adams, rarely better) is called on by the US military to attempt communication with an alien orb hovering silently and ominously over Montana. She and her physicist partner (Jeremy Renner, a warmly resilient presence throughout) untangle the complexities involved in speaking with a species whose entire concept of language and possibly time itself are utterly different from ours. Meanwhile, their army handler (Forest Whitaker) pressures them to hurry up, as other nations are trying to do the same with the aliens hanging in their their airspace. Denis Villeneuve’s eerie screw-tightening suspense is balanced almost perfectly with the mournful moodiness and China Mieville-like knotty philosophical and linguistic implications of the script. Appropriately for a film so resonant with unavoidable echoes ranging from Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to Zemeckis (Contact), the human touch embodied by Adams’ soulful heartache of a performance wins out in the end. -- Chris Barsanti

Read the full review here.

Film: The BFG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton

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Steven Spielberg delivers one of the best Roald Dahl adaptations with this film. The tale of young orphan, Sophie, and her friendship with the gentle behemoth of the title, a "dream-catcher" with whom she travels to Giant Country, The BFG published in 1982 and soon became among the most beloved of Dahl's books, with an animated version made for British TV in the late '80s. This movie's greatness lies, in part, in the way that it chimes with established Spielberg preoccupations -- lonely kids, the consolations and terrors of dreams and imagination -- while also remaining true to Dahl's vision. Intelligent, huge-hearted, and as rich in its dialogue as in its visuals, The BFG is an enchanting adaptation -- Alex Ramon.

Read the full review here.

Film: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro

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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

If a filmmaker revolutionizes cinema in an empty theater, where go the sights and sounds? For several months, Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, adapted from Ben Fountain's 2012 novel, was expected to dominate the box office and movie accolades season with visionary technological innovations promising audiences unprecedented immersion. Industry and critic trepidation following initial screenings turned into muted marketing and a release marred by the inability of most venues to show the film in its intended exhibition format. The film fell short of $2 million at the domestic box office and was in and out of theaters in a month. For this film to meet such a fate is a shame. Not only is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk a 120 fps stunner, but the technology and the form of the film serve the content so well that the movie could be Exhibit A in the case for the necessity of the theatrical movie-going experience. With a narrative following the men of Bravo Squad on their short "victory tour" in between serving / fighting in Iraq, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a movie about seeing others, about image-making, and differing realms beyond the real into which soldiers escape. The visual approach affects every component of the film's production, from performance to production design to makeup to sound, connecting the viewer with the sensory overload of Billy Lynn. It's an excellent satire about how war is marketed as well as a moving drama about duty and fate. Lee's film is perhaps too clever, with references to Hollywood's capriciousness throughout. So maybe his film was destined to fail. But what a spectacular moonshot it was for those of us who paid to see it. -- Thomas Britt

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Film: Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson

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Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War reflects current global issues in a surprisingly personal way. Whether the perceived physical or ideological threat is from ISL, Russia, North Korea, China, or elsewhere, the film offers an opportunity for self-reflection. Civil War holds up a mirror to the audience and brazenly reflects back our foibles and flaws, along with the dysfunctional ways even the smartest, richest or the bravest amongst us deal with them. The film offers viewers a glimpse into a new world order, but not just in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the world inhabited by real people sitting in a darkened theater thinking they bought a ticket just to be entertained. -- Daniel Rasmus

Read the full review here.

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Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

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