Jacob Hall's Top 10 Movies Of 2016: Music, Magic, Heartbreak, And An Evil Goat

Let's get one thing straight: 2016 was a great year for movies.

It certainly didn't feel that way in the doldrums of the June and July, when audiences found themselves staring down the barrel of the worst summer movie season in years. But while the larger movies fell on their faces, the smaller movies flourished, proving that the only people who think cinema is dead are people who only see movies with numbers and colons in their titles. To carve out my top 10 of 2016, I had to work down from a list of 33 contenders and to be quite frank, I feel like a garbage human for leaving certain movies off this list. But here we are. Liking too many great movies is an excellent problem to have in the grand scheme of things.

Naturally, there were some movies I simply didn't find time to see and others that barely missed the mark. I don't want to make excuses and provide a laundry list of everything I didn't see because that's not going to do anyone any good. However, I will say that High-Rise, The Lobster, Hail Caesar!, The Handmaiden, and American Honey all narrowly missed this list and will be included in my full top 15, which will be published as part of /Film's overall site top 15 in the days ahead.

top 10 movies of 2016 jackie

10. Jackie

Jackie isn't a movie about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy, former First Lady of the United States and the widow of President John F. Kennedy and anyone looking for a traditional biopic is in for a shock. Jackie is a movie about grief, that demon that tears you open, spills your insides, and infects your mind as you and your loved ones rush to stop a bleeding that no one can see. Director Pablo Larraín superb film puts history under a microscope, ignoring the big picture in favor of tiny moments.  Jackie is raw and immediate, chaotic and messy, leaping through its timeline and reflecting the scattered, grief-stricken mindset of its title character. It's stressful portrait of shock and anger and bargaining – how do you grieve a loved one when the whole world is watching? As Mrs. Kennedy herself, Natalie Portman gives the finest performance of her career, taking what could have been a laughable imitation and transforming into the Jackie Kennedy we never saw and have always wondered about. Time dulls pain. The decades transform trauma into trivia. Jackie is reminder that real people breathe between the pages of your history textbook. They love and hate and weep. And they remember. 

9. Sing Street

If you look at its component parts, Sing Street should have been a treacly disaster. However, writer/director John Carney showcases a gentle and thoughtful touch that elevates its movie-of-the-week premise into something joyful and beautiful, a testament not only to music, but to youthful rebellion and the joy of creation. Yes, this is a movie about a group of awkward teens who create their own rock band in '80s Dublin as part of a dopey scheme to impress a cute girl, but it's really a tale of self-discovery, personal awakening, and that one moment in your life when you realize that the system wasn't built for you, doesn't deserve your respect, and god damn it, you're going to wear make-up to school and not care what anyone else has to say. Fighting against the system is hard and difficult and will leave you battered and bruised...but man, it sure can feel good. The songs are terrific, the performances sharp, and the hopeful conclusion well-earned. In one of the year's best supporting performances, Jack Reynor creates an older brother for the ages.

8. Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is the single most intense movie released this year, a horror film that drops you in a pot of water and increases the heat so slowly that you don't realize how truly, powerfully fucked everything is until your skin has started melting off. Call it a detailed profile of a Bad Situation: members of young punk rock band witness a murder after performing in a white supremacist venue and lock themselves in the green room as the equally desperate neo-Nazis on the other side of the door plot to leave no witnesses. Each injury looks like it hurts. Characters die painful, humiliating deaths. Every heroic rise to the occasion is tempered by recognizably human desperation. Everyone makes poor decisions. Green Room never feels like a typical Hollywood thriller, instead choosing to focus on the inexplicable decisions that real people would make in a claustrophobic siege where neither side knows quite how to get out of their situation. It's chilling, grotesque and, like a bizarre article you'd read out loud to your shocked friends after stumbling across a local news link, darkly hilarious. How the hell did that happen? Green Room provides the answer.

7. Manchester by the Sea

If Jackie is about the open wound of fresh grief, Manchester by the Sea is about the scars that linger for the rest of your life. The wound has healed, but you never forget it. You are forever marked. And while Kenneth Lonergan's film is appropriately brutal and uncomfortable and unflinching in its portrait of crippling tragedy, it is transcendent because it recognizes that the passage of time breeds comedy. The gallows humor in Manchester by the Sea is as effective, and as important, as the gut-punching sorrow, a perfect reflection of how we protect ourselves with the mundane and the ridiculous lest we totally fall apart. There are no easy answers here, no promises that everything will be okay – the grieving uncle and nephew played so magnificently by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges have a long, hard road ahead of them. There will be tears. There will be pain. But there will be plenty of fond memories and even a chuckle or two.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

You don't make stop-motion animated movies because you want to make money – you make them because you have a story you want to tell and feel that there is only one way to tell it. One look at the box office receipts for Kubo and the Two Strings will prove the former and one look at the movie itself proves the latter. Travis Knight's film would be a must-see if it was just the most visually stunning and technically astonishing film released in the year 2016, but it has the story and character chops to back up that "How Did They Do That?" animation. The gentle, character-driven humor proves just as vital as the dynamic action scenes. The nightmarish monsters are just a warm-up for scenes of stirring humanity. The key to Kubo and the Two Strings is the true nature of its title (a surprisingly late revelation that shall not be spoiled here), which represents film's truest and most crushing ideas. Come for the visuals and the promise of fantasy adventure, but let yourself be wooed by the aching beauty of it all. Fighting is easy. Forgiveness? Now that's the real battle.

5. The Witch

Is The Witch a black-hearted depiction of a family being torn apart by primal evil forces or a proudly feminist depiction of a young woman breaking free of her patriarchal chains? Maybe it's both. Maybe it's neither. Robert Eggers' debut feature is an atmospheric enigma, a calculating horror movie made with the attention to detail you'd expect from an Oscar-friendly historical drama. It is terrifying and elegant, mystifying and direct. It questions everything and provides no answers. It treats evil seriously, refusing to suggest that the power of a hypocritical, abusive man of faith is a better alternative than Satan himself. It's also scary as hell and, to be quite frank, pretty rad in that heavy metal kind of way. The Witch is indefinable, but it plants itself in the back of your brain and lingers there like a bad dream. You don't shake it. Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Yes, I would. All hail Black Phillip.

4. Arrival

For its first two acts, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is a fascinating, if somewhat chilly, science fiction tale about humankind's attempt to communicate with alien visitors who unlike us in every conceivable way. It's a pretty terrific movie up until that point, a tense blend of genre and drama that believes wholeheartedly in science, level-headedness, and intellectual curiosity. And then it happens. The film cracks open, sheds its icy shell, and reveals the warm heart that has been quietly beating underneath the surface the entire time. It's a sentimental reveal, but it's one that tugs on the heartstrings while simultaneously providing a specific human face for the film's most oblique science fiction concepts. Arrival is a film powered by hope, overjoyed by discovery, and in love with human possibility. It will also make you cry a whole bunch.

3. O.J.: Made in America

About halfway through O.J.: Made in America's sprawling eight-hour running time, you start to wonder when the title subject will finally crack and showcase even a tiny sliver of recognizable humanity. The fact that it never happens is chilling. But Ezra Edelman's documentary masterpiece (which has since been edited into five parts and aired on ESPN) isn't just a brilliant portrait of a charming sociopath – it's a level-headed examination of the racial tensions that have always bubbled under the surface of American culture, barely contained at the absolute best of times, and how the trial of O.J. Simpson led to a full-blown eruption. O.J.: Made in America never apologizes for the actions of its chief subject (he's depicted as clearly being guilty), but it masterfully provides context for everything that orbits him and explains the why of it all. To understand the O.J. trial, you have to understand Los Angeles, and to understand Los Angeles, you have to first grapple with race in America. Edelman does just that and the results are disturbing, sobering, relevant, and, let's be honest here, wickedly entertaining. Even at eight hours, this movie feels far too short.

2. La La Land

There's something to be said for anyone who dares make an honest, live-action musical in 2016. There's also something to be said for a filmmaker knowing the inherent joy that comes from watching two charming, beautiful people singing and dancing. So there's a lot to be said about Damien Chazelle and La La Land before you address what elevates this film from a pretty good time at the movies into a straight-up work of emotionally truthful art. When it's being a straight-up musical, like the brilliantly staged "Another Day of Sun" number that opens the film, La La Land is pure bottled joy. But when it uses the iconography of the traditional Hollywood musical to linger on the ordinary beauties of modern romance and, more importantly, to highlight the heartache of love lost, it approaches some kind of cinematic transcendence. La La Land is a melancholy film, but it knows that every beautiful moment is composed of shards collected from previously broken dreams. Life is hard, love is hard, and you're going to fail a lot and wish that things could have been different...but every failure makes you stronger and every love will arm you to face the days ahead. All of that and a damn great soundtrack, too.

1. Moonlight

Imagine looking into the eyes of a stranger and finding a mirror. That's the experience of watching Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, a film composed of such empathy and love and hurt that it's as painful to watch as it is intoxicating. You don't have to be black or gay to understand Chiron – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes bring him to life with three miraculously unified performances, offering a compelling and moving glimpse at a man struggling with race, sexuality, and masculinity at three vital points in his life. What does it mean to be a black, gay man in America? There is no definitive answer to that question, but Moonlight invites us to join Chiron as he searches for his own personal response to that query. That search is sometimes funny, sometimes sexy, sometimes violent, and sometimes romantic. It sometimes involves delicious Cuban food cooked by an old friend. It sometimes involves a heartbreaking schoolyard brawl. It sometimes involves being taught to swim by Juan (a shattering Mahershala Ali), a kind-hearted drug dealer who represents a flexibility and gentleness so many men deliberately avoid. Moonlight loves its characters and wants you understand them, to walk with them on their journey. It's a bumpy road, but it's a trip worth taking. The reward at the end is understanding. And love.