Movies & TV

The 25 Best Movies of 2016

With just days left before we turn another page in the calendar, here's a look back at the year's best films.
IMAGE Esquire

The movie year is just about over, and a review of the past twelve months makes clear that cinephiles have been spoiled with sterling movies, from blockbuster superhero sagas and low-budget horror thrillers to bizarre dystopian comedies and politically oriented foreign imports. With our late-year binge-watching now complete, our final assessment—which still only scratches the surface of everything worth watching—proves that, whether at the multiplex or the art house, filmgoers were blessed with a bounty of great offerings in 2016.

25. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

Jonathan Demme's acclaimed career may include numerous beloved dramas and comedies—from Something Wild and Married to the Mob to The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Rachel Getting Married—but he's also the world's foremost music-concert documentarian. In the grand tradition of Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is a thrilling showstopper focused on its headliner as he completes his two-year 20/20 Experience World Tour with two final shows at Las Vegas' MGM Grand (in January 2015) alongside his enormous backing band, the Tennessee Kids. Demme captures Timberlake's multifaceted talents in a collection of rousing greatest-hits numbers, which place a premium on in-the-moment artistry. In the way his camera pans in long unbroken takes between Timberlake and his fellow on-stage singers, guitarists, keyboardists and horn players (as well as frames him amidst a sea of adoring arena fans) Demme subtly celebrates the joyous collaborative spirit that guides Timberlake's infectious shows—and elevates him above his pop-star peers.


24. Kill Zone 2

Don't worry if you haven't seen the 2005 precursor to this Hong Kong-Chinese import (also known as SPLII: A Time for Consequences)—aside from their titles, the two films share no relationship. And don't worry if you can't follow its myriad crime-saga plot strands, which involves a dying Hong Kong gangster (Louis Koo) who sells organs on the black market and plans to kill his brother so he can steal his heart, a Hong Kong undercover cop (Wu Jing) intent on infiltrating this kingpin's gang, and a Thailand prison guard (Tony Jaa) trying to save his daughter who is dying of leukemia. What matters here is that director Cheang Pou-soi's film features the finest hand-to-hand skirmishes of the year, with Wu Jing demonstrating deft martial-arts skills and Jaa—he of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior fame—bringing the concussive thunder via his trademark elbow drops and flying knee attacks, which peak with him leaping, knees first, through the windshield of a moving bus. The film's melodrama and comedy (including a subplot involving a Down's Syndrome-afflicted teen texting with a dying child via emojis) are overcooked, but Jaa and Jing's fighting prowess make this a must-see for genre aficionados.

23. Ouija: Origin of Evil

Just about everybody agreed that 2014's Ouija, based on the popular contact-the-dead board game, was a dud. But this Halloween season's follow-up, Origin of Evil, is an altogether different beast—a sterling '60s-set period piece that's only loosely related to its predecessor, and one that manufactures terror by first making one care about its well-drawn characters. In this case, those are a mother and two daughters who, while running a séance scam out of their home, wind up in real supernatural trouble when the youngest of their clan (Lulu Wilson) makes contact with what she initially believes is the spirit of her dead father. Another superb chiller from director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush)—mainstream horror's best new filmmaker—about the peril that can come from grieving lost loved ones, this stylish work is a throwback in terms of not only its setting, but also its preference for hold-your-breath suspense and unforgettable otherworldly imagery over cheap scare tactics.

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22. Kaili Blues

A lyrical import about the circular relationship between the present and the past, Kaili Blues heralds an exciting new filmmaking voice in debut director Bi Gan. In this haunting, elliptical tale, a physician travels to his hometown to rescue his nephew, who's been unceremoniously dropped there by his disreputable gambler father. Gan sets up this story in an oblique fashion, full of subtle allusions and offhand implications. Once the proceedings move to the protagonist's rural childhood stomping ground, the director captures his action via a 41-minute handheld single-take that's breathtaking in its formal dexterity. This tour-de-force sequence, in which numerous characters and relationships are introduced and developed, is powerfully attuned to its subjects' uneasy circumstances, even as it self-consciously calls attention to itself (via bobbing and weaving movements that suggest the director's own just-off-camera presence). The result is a uniquely mesmerizing portrait of people caught in a purgatory between what came before and what's still to come.

21. Don't Breathe

Director Fede Alvarez proved he was a gifted technician with his 2013 Evil Dead remake, but it's his latest thriller that establishes him as more than just a look-at-me behind-the-camera showman. Alvarez's latest concerns three kids (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto) who, desperate to get out of their working-class circumstances, decide to rob a blind man (Stephen Lang) reportedly in possession of a stash of money hidden in his dilapidated home. Their plot, however, goes awry when that sightless individual turns out to be far more capable—and lethal—than anticipated, leading to a perpetrators-become-the-victims nightmare that the director orchestrates for maximum tension. Even when it eventually turns to third-act bombshells, Don't Breathe is a work of superbly sustained suspense, employing its gorgeous widescreen visuals to deliver a bevy of heart-pounding thrills—and one that also, subtly, doubles as a commentary on the literal, emotional, and psychological decay that's overtaken modern-day Detroit.


20. The Handmaiden

South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook has made a name for himself with deliriously violent, sexually deranged revenge tales like Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and 2013's English-language Stoker (starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska). Thus, The Handmaiden finds him back in familiar terrain, given that it charts a con man's scheme to use a young female pickpocket to help him marry, and then commit to an insane asylum, a mentally unstable heiress—a ruse that gets hopelessly complicated the further it progresses thanks to a series of didn't-see-that-coming twists. Rearranging characters around his narrative playing board like a devilish chess champion, Park stages his material with serpentine sensuality and playfully grim wit, all while presenting a vision of femininity that, true to his prior form, is seductive, sinister and empowered. Come for the luxurious period décor, uninhibited carnality and ominous atmosphere, and stay for the octopus.

19. Louder Than Bombs

Joachim Trier isn't a household name in America, but the Norwegian filmmaker's first two features—2006's Reprise and 2011's Oslo, August 31st—were startlingly incisive dramas about young men struggling with issues of adulthood, responsibility, and regret. His third feature, and first in English, is this sterling work about a teacher (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons, married Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and disaffected high-schooler Conrad (Devin Druid), trying to come to terms with the death of their famous photographer matriarch Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). That woman's shadow, and the secrets she took to her grave, loom large over their present, fraught-with-friction circumstances, which Trier investigates with a novelist's attention to his character's interior lives. Employing subtle visual framing and numerous narrative devices (most forcefully, flashbacks), Trier's Louder Than Bombs is less than explosive look at out-of-control emotions than a slow-burn portrait of miserable loved ones desperately trying to reconnect, as well as to reconcile their personal, artistic and familial desires.


18. The Invitation

For her first feature since 2009's Jennifer's Body, Karyn Kusama delivers one of the year's great gripping thrillers with The Invitation, an intensely unnerving story about a Los Angeles man (Logan Marshall-Green) who, with his girlfriend in tow, attends a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new boyfriend (Game of Thrones' Michiel Huisman)—an awkward situation compounded by the fact that Marshall-Green and Blanchard's characters split following the death of their young child, which neither has properly gotten over. Kusama shrewdly lays out her psychological dynamics, and she imbues her action with an eeriness that suggests there's more to this get-together than initially meets the eye, and which slowly builds to near-unbearable levels. By the time its revelations finally arrive, The Invitation has become a small-scale masterwork of sustained anxiety, and all the more chilling for casting its eventual horrors as the natural byproduct of madness begat by grief.

17. Hush

Hush is the first of director Mike Flanagan's three 2016 releases (the second is this September's Before I Wake, the third is October's Ouija: Origin of Evil), and even though it was only released as a Netflix exclusive, this expertly executed thriller generates an impressive amount of terror from its bare-bones set-up. At a remote rural cabin, a deaf-mute author named Maddie (Flanagan's wife, Kate Siegel) finds herself menaced by a masked predator whose intentions don't extend past wanting to torment and then kill her. Their cat-and-mouse showdown is plotted with a preponderance of rational decision making and a dearth of stupid what-are-they-doing? moments, and the material's consistent character-based internal logic goes a long way toward maintaining its sinister suspense. There's nothing particularly fancy about Hush, but it does what all great economical thrillers do: It maximizes the terror promised by its premise through deft narrative and visual storytelling.


16. The Nice Guys

Shane Black perfected the mismatched buddy-cop formula with 1987's Lethal Weapon, so it's no surprise that, 29 years later, he's delivered another bickering-duo gem set in the L.A. underworld. In this thoroughly amusing 1970s neo-noir comedy, Ryan Gosling is a bumbling private investigator who finds himself paired with Russell Crowe's for-hire enforcer on a case involving a missing girl and a dead porn star. As they make their way through a seedy showbiz landscape, Crowe and Gosling prove an irresistibly combative, cantankerous pair, with Crowe's gruff exasperation clashing with Gosling's doofus bumbling. Energized by a dry, wry cynicism that borders on fatalistic desperation, The Nice Guys is an idiosyncratic crime romp that builds humorous momentum as it moves towards its mystery-unraveling conclusion. Plus, Gosling's impromptu Lou Costello homage is one for the ages.

15. Chevalier

Like her Greek countrymate (and frequent collaborator), The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari is a droll social satirist, and her latest plays like an opposite-sides-of-the-gender-coin companion piece to 2010's Attenberg. Here, Tsangari's focus is a group of men on a deep-sea fishing trip who decide that they'll pass the time by playing an elaborate "game" to determine which of them is "The Best in General." To figure out who deserves that lofty title, these self-centered individuals set about judging each other in every conceivable manner. That, in turn, leads them to behave in increasingly competitive ways, all of which Tsangari depicts with a cool detachment that only further heightens the scathing absurdity of their loony decisions and actions. Mocking the macho male psyche with sharp observations about masculine aggression and ego, it boasts a deadpan wit accentuated by cinematography that places a premium on off-kilter imagery.


14. Embrace of the Serpent

Something like a cross between a long-lost documentary and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra's drama charts two hallucinatory courses—during distinct, and yet eerily similar, time periods—through the Amazon. In both stories, a German interloper seeks assistance from a native shaman in his quest for a plant that reportedly has magical healing qualities, with both separated-by-decades journeys revealing the ways in which Western interlopers has affected the region and its indigenous cultures. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Guerra's trance-like tale is rich in ethnographic details, and its lead performances from non-professional actors Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama (both as the shaman) are unaffected and haunting. Though highly critical of the damage wrought by modern civilization in this untamed land, it's a film that refuses to simplistically lecture, instead ultimately expressing a mature ambivalence about colonialism's complicated legacy.

13. Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck gives one of the year's most affecting lead turns as a Boston bachelor who, after the untimely death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), is saddled with custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) in Kenneth Lonergan's stomach-punch of a drama. That situation is created by tragedy, but it's not the only instance of traumatic loss addressed by this expertly calibrated portrait of grief and recovery, given that Affleck's loner—divorced from the mother (Michelle Williams) of his children—is already a deeply scarred individual with his own agonizing sorrow to shoulder. Affleck's muted embodiment of this fractured young man conveys volumes about misery, guilt and regret, and he's matched by a sterling supporting cast that delivers similarly unaffected, bone-deep performances. They're further aided by Lonergan's natural evocation of his cold, grim New England milieu, and aided by a script that manages the not-inconsiderable feat of finding consistent humor amidst so much despair.


12. Paterson

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch's films have always been guided by something of a ramshackle poetic spirit. That's once again the case with Paterson, the understated story of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who shares the same name as the city in which he works, and whose days and nights are spent listening in on passengers' conversations, hanging out with his flighty, artistically minded wife (Golshifteh Farahani), taking evening walks to the bar with his not-very-nice dog, and scribbling poetry in his notebook. Set over the course of a relatively uneventful week in its protagonist's life, Jarmusch's story is far less interested in big dramatic incidents than it is in the small details of Paterson's routine life, which slowly coalesce to form a muted, melancholy portrait of everyday existential despair. As the center of this quiet character study—a man resigned to his fate, and yet unable to stop dreaming of new beginnings that might take him down novel routes—Driver is remarkable.

11. Mountains May Depart

No filmmaker has been more adept at examining China's political/culture climate than acclaimed director Jia Zhangke, and his latest only reaffirms that standing. A story split in three, Zhangke's trifurcated drama—with each chapter shot in ever-expanding visual aspect ratios—concerns three friends caught in a love triangle on the eve of the millennium. While that dawn-of-a-new-century moment is infused with pressing hope, the subsequent development of these men and women's lives—involving marriage, children, divorce, and illness—provides depressing rejoinders to their early optimism. Rife with bemused commentary about the alienating role technology plays in interpersonal relationships, and opening and closing with tonally opposite dance sequences that further underline its intricate thematic arguments, Mountains May Depart is an alternately funny and morose study of a country's (and global society's) evolution, and its positive and negative ramifications for its inhabitants.


10. Moonlight

Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale about a homosexual African-American boy living in Florida. That basic plot description, however, does little to convey the incisive poetry of Barry Jenkins' film, whose narrative is divided between three stages in the life of its protagonist, Chiron (aka "Little" as an adolescent, and "Black" as an adult). From its astounding opening shot on a street corner circling around a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who'll come to be young Chiron's surrogate father figure—since his mother (Naomie Harris) is a junkie—this evocative drama captures an overwhelming sense of both place and character. As Chiron grows up, enjoying fleeting moments of euphoria amidst routine abuse and neglect, Jenkins charts thorny individual and interpersonal dynamics in which both salvation and damnation seem to stem from the same (or, at least, similar) source. Sensitive, subtle, intense and complex, it's a triumph of both expressive direction and—courtesy of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, as well as André Holland and Janelle Monáe—nuanced, heart-rending performance.

9. Jackie

Pablo Larrain's cinema is one rooted in the knotty relationship between influential historical leaders and the people over whom they govern (or rule with an iron fist). That's true of both his superb 2016 releases, although in the final tally, his Neruda falls just shy of the piercing majesty of Jackie, an unconventional, hauntingly lyrical snapshot of Jackie Kennedy (played by an astounding Natalie Portman) in the week immediately following the November 23, 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Framed by an interview between Jackie and a reporter (Billy Crudup), Larrain's masterful drama uses incessant close-ups to dig deeply into the conflicted interior condition of his subject, who finds herself both battling with grief and struggling to immediately lay the groundwork for her husband's legacy. Graceful and gripping, it's a period piece character study that cannily speaks to the way in which words—and, tellingly, also visual images—are the tools by which we shape history.


8. The Fits

No 2016 debut has been as striking as Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, an immaculately conceived and executed small-scale indie about a young African-American girl named Toni (superb newcomer Royalty Hightower) who, while living in Cincinnati's West End, spends her time working out at a local boxing gym with her brother, even as she increasingly finds herself drawn to the championship-winning dance team that practices in the same facility. Holmer's precise aesthetics echo her protagonist's detachment from both the pugilistic and dance cliques from which she seeks acceptance, and her slow-motion sequences of the troupe's rhythmic routines have an overpowering, hypnotic grace and splendor. Fixated on Hightower's subtly expressive countenance and her spatial (and emotional) relationship to her peers, the film is more than just a coming-of-age saga; it's an expressionistic snapshot of a young girl trying to transcend her estrangement, define her identity, and find a place for herself in the world.

7. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to last year's Sicario boasts the same brand of gorgeously portentous widescreen imagery as well as a female protagonist thrust into head-spinning territory. In this case, however, the subject isn't Mexican drug cartels but aliens, who mysteriously arrive across the globe in giant ships, and who don't communicate in anything like a decipherable human language. Enter Amy Adams' linguist, who—paired with Jeremy Renner's mathematician—is tasked by the U.S. government with finding a way to communicate with these extraterrestrials, known as "heptapods" because of their seven-limbed physical form. What endues is a thrilling "first contact" drama that also splits its focus to concentrate on Adams' protagonist's grief over the loss of her daughter—twin narrative threads that eventually dovetail into a poignant portrait of the circular nature of life, and the way in which written and spoken language help connect us all to our pasts, present, and future.


6. Elle

"Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all," says Isabelle Huppert's French video game mogul Michèle to her best friend late in Elle, and that sentiment certainly pertains to every one of the twisted characters found in Robocop and Basic Instinct auteur Paul Verhoeven's stirring examination of intersecting passions. Beginning with Michèle's rape by a masked intruder, his story proceeds to confound expectations at every knotty turn, eschewing for long stretches any resemblance to a revenge fantasy as it investigates Michèle's relationship with numerous relatives and acquaintances—mostly male—who are, in some form or another, sexually intertwined with her. That Michèle has a deep dark daddy issue only further mires the material in deranged and deviant (semi-masochistic) desire, although Verhoeven's composed and chilly direction proves as adept at eliciting laughs as it is at generating suspense. Even after its rapist "villain" has been identified, it proves to be an exhilaratingly mysterious thriller-by-way-of-character-study about power, eroticism and need—a one-of-a-kind work energized by a lead Huppert turn of such rich psychological complexity (and contradictions!), it leaves just about every other 2016 performance in its wake.

5. Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie's outlaws-on-the-run saga concerns two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a bank-robbing spree in order to raise enough money to save their family farm from foreclosure—a conceit that lends the film a piercing timeliness. Nonetheless, the true power of this rugged genre effort comes from its stars and its attention to both atmosphere and character detail. As yin-yang siblings compelled to embark upon their mission by need, fury, and inherent recklessness, Pine and Foster share a compelling chemistry. And they're complemented (and, in fact, surpassed) in the charisma department by the always great Jeff Bridges. As the just-about-to-retire sheriff hot on their trail, Bridges delivers one of his finest performances, radiating both wit and regret as an old-school relic who—like the criminals he's pursuing, and the beaten-down land that he roams with his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham)—is on the precipice of transforming into a ghost from a bygone era.


4. Gleason

Steve Gleason was a sturdy New Orleans Saints safety who became immortalized in team history when, during the squad's first game back in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, he blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons—a play that came to symbolize the city's indefatigable comeback spirit. Tragically, at the too-young age of 34, and on the eve of his first child's birth, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (aka "Lou Gehrig's Disease"). Using copious footage shot by the former athlete himself (some of it addressed to his unborn kid), J. Clay Tweel's documentary details Gleason and his wife Michel's struggle with that incurable condition. To say Gleason is heartbreaking is a vast understatement, but amidst its tears-inducing horrors, it conveys a genuinely uplifting sense of its subject's refusal to quit, especially once he endeavors to use his fame to help others with ALS. The story of a man, and family, torn asunder by disease, and yet unwilling to just accept defeat, it's the non-fiction film of the year.

3. Green Room

The most hardcore thriller in years, Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to 2013's critically acclaimed Blue Ruin is another exercise in extreme, nail-biting suspense, this time about a just-scraping-by punk band (comprised of the late Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) that unwisely decides to accept a gig at a rural neo-Nazi music club. When they happen to witness the aftermath of a murder, they become captives of the resident skinheads and their leader (a terrifying Patrick Stewart), leading to a prolonged showdown which Saulnier stages as a series of quiet, panic-stricken moments and bursts of brutal violence—a storytelling rhythm in tune with the sludgy punk and metal thundering through the venue's speakers. A relentless assault on one's nerves that pummels viewers with the same all-out viciousness exhibited by the racists slam-dancing around the venue's grimy, beer-soaked floors, Green Room (which we dubbed "mosh-pit cinema") leaves a lasting mark.


2. The Lobster

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster is one of the strangest movies in recent memory—and one of the most hilariously (and surprisingly profound) ones as well. In this pitch-black future-society saga, a single man (Colin Farrell) checks into a hotel where, by law, he must find a mate within 45 days or be transformed into the animal of his choice. (His preference? A lobster.) In that wacko locale, Farrell's lonely loser pals around with other equally strange sorts, and tries to forge a romance with a female counterpart, before eventually fleeing for the woods where anti-monogamy rebels are stationed. A deadpan dystopian comedy that also functions as a bizarro-world examination of love, relationships, marriage, and the basic human desire for connection, Lanthimos' film is that rare thing in today's cinema: an unqualified original.

1. O.J.: Made in America

There will be those who argue that O.J.: Made in America—a documentary that runs seven hours and 47 minutes, and is divided into self-contained chapters—is in fact a long-form TV documentary. Nonetheless, thanks to a limited theatrical run in May, Ezra Edelman's non-fiction opus is eligible for 2016 movie awards, and even in a year overflowing with gems, it stands head and shoulders about the rest. A titanic work of socio-cultural commentary that plumbs issues of ambition, race, fame, ego and denial, Edelman's masterpiece spends its first three immersive hours conveying the magnetic personality and triumphant athletic (and advertising) career of O.J. Simpson, as well as providing background on the contentious historic relationship between Los Angeles' police force and African-American community. That engrossing material is the appetizer for its subsequent in-depth look at the "Trail of the Century" and Simpson's eventual conviction on armed robbery charges, all of which is examined from myriad enthralling, incisive angles. Illuminating, infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure, O.J.: Made in America paints a vividly ugly portrait of its notorious celebrity—and, in the process, gets to the rotten center of the culture that begat him.


Honorable Mentions:



Men Go to Battle

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


Miss Sloane

A Bigger Splash


Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World


This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Nick Schager
Nick Schager is a NYC-area film critic and culture writer with twenty years of professional experience writing about all the movies you love, and countless others that you don't.
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