25. Hell or High Water
Despite being as old as time itself, the Western genre still manages to crank out at least an offering or two per year, but seldom do they take place in the present moment, with characters suffering from modern problems. A pair of brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) take to bank robbery as a means to save the family's West Texas ranch, with both a pair of police officers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) and legalistic entanglements hot on their tail. Taylor Sheridan's script is almost laughably awesome, cranking out one 'man's man' dialogue exchange after another while building tension as the forces at play near their collision. Playing out like a less obvious, less stylish version of Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, Hell or High Water pits man against the modern American system, resulting in one juicy scene after another.
24. A Monster Calls
Following the time-honored tradition of movies that are about both cancer and giant tree demons, A Monster Calls stars newcomer Lewis MacDougall as a young boy who is periodically visited by a Groot-like behemoth while his mother (Felicity Jones) struggles with an increasing sickness. Rather than preach about the powers of love and human decency, Monster's ultimate lesson is uniquely inclusive, suggesting that there are a multitude of ways to look at any situation, and that an individual is capable of both good and evil without completely siding with one or the other. MacDougall is remarkable in the role, his pain and confusion completely believable from first frame to last, his suffering palpable. Director J.A. Bayona has been one to watch for a while, and if this heartfelt, beautifully-rendered slice of gothic folklore is any indication, his upcoming Jurassic World sequel will be one to watch out for.
23. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
A Harry Potter spin-off series (arriving after the eight films already in existence) is a pretty tough sell to non-obsessives, which makes it all the more impressive just how quickly Beasts does away with your skepticism. Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a magical Zoologist who travels from Britain to New York in the 1920's with a very simple mission that experiences a myriad of setbacks. Director David Yates, back from helming the final four HP installments, has a deft ability to zig zag between breezy brightness and startling darkness without giving you whiplash, and experiencing J.K. Rowlings world exclusively through the eyes of adults gives the flick an entirely different hue than any before it. Fantastic lives up to its name with brilliant effects, likable characters, and a sweet, sensitive performance from Dan Fogler.
22. The Lobster
If you haven't already heard the premise of The Lobster, here it is; in a bizarro present day, single people are rounded up like cattle and booked into a resort where they have less than a month to find a new mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. Now... stay with me here. The latest from writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is as darkly savage in its humor and paradigm as anything he's made before, creating an entire world of rules for our poor rube of a hero (Colin Farrell) to stumble through, only occasionally making the right decision. The film is split evenly into two halves, and while I understand the turn it takes, and genuinely enjoy most of its second act, the first hour is essentially peerless, as beautifully orchestrated and bleakly hilarious as anything I saw last year. 60 minutes in, The Lobster is a masterpiece. After two hours, it's one of the best movies of 2016.
21. Captain America: Civil War
The latest Marvel team-up movie seems to be made as a response to all the criticisms the studio's output most commonly faces: the bad guys are lame, the action is limp, the consequences aren't dire enough, and there's always a glowing macguffin to fight over. Civil War certainly has a bad guy, but he mostly lurks in the shadows, allowing the central conflict between Earth's Mightiest Heros to occupy the space usually allotted to someone in silly face makeup. The Russo brothers, back from their first comic book joint Captain America: The Winter Soldier, concoct the best action sequences the brand has ever seen, both dizzyingly fun and imaginative. And look, no glowing rock to chase after! Just a group of people on two sides of a thorny issue, including newly-minted and expertly woven-in newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). By brushing up against real consequences without skimping on their signature rollicking vibe, Marvel Studios made one of their very best to date.
Never in my life has a Martin Scorsese movie been released to such little fan fare, but I suppose that might have something to do with the grueling endurance test that is Silence. Set in the 17th century, a pair of Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Japan to rescue their long lost mentor (Liam Neeson), finding the region to be less than hospitable to their chosen faith. A passion project that Scorsese has been trying to get off the ground for years, Silence is a beautiful, brutal exploration the intersection between religion and colonialism. Featuring stunning camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and a slew of great performances from the Japanese cast whose position as antagonizers somehow becomes easier to understand as their methods of resistance become harder to watch, the latest Marty Party stays in your head long after the lights come up.
19. Midnight Special
The ultimate superhero movie for people who are sick of superhero movies, Jeff Nichols' first film of 2016 follows a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who is taken from a cult-like commune by a mysterious pair of men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) hellbent on delivering him to an undisclosed location. Midnight Special's greatest asset is coolness, from the way it looks to the fashion in which it tells its story to the intricate details of individual scenes. But the film also packs and emotional punch once it reveals its hand, and the motivations of each character come into focus and gain your empathy. It's one of the only movies since the post-90's superhero boom to think outside the box in terms of what it would actually mean for an advanced human to walk among us, and having this great of an ensemble (Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Bill Camp round out the cast) doesn't exactly hurt either.
18. The Neon Demon
Oh boy. No film in 2016 was harder to evaluate or earnestly recommend than The Neon Demon, an utterly amazing experience that sometimes amazes in ways you... might not want to be amazed. Aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles and experiences little-to-no setbacks within the industry itself, but the jealousy of her older, more experienced rivals threatens to derail her at every turn. The All About Eve-like premise might sound quaint and passive, but that couldn't be further from the truth; the latest from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn makes his most famous film to date, Drive, look like kittens and rainbows. The visuals and the sound design are absolutely incredible, and the knotty themes and ideas lurking just under the surface are enough to keep your wheels turning for days. But, my god, is this thing grisly, and anyone with even a slightly soft stomach might be wise to stay away. Its peaks are preposterously high; just don't say I didn't warm you when it all starts going down.
What the hell is Lion? exclaimed everyone on Oscar nomination morning, and I have a simple and succinct answer for you: one of the best movies of the year. Saroo (played first by Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy, is suddenly and randomly separated from his mother and brother in 1986, first arriving in Calcutta before being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) whose loving parenting isn't enough to completely expunge the memories of his biological family. The true story is a weepy in the most traditional and best of ways, with characters we care about and empathize with, and a screenplay structure that turns Saroo's life into a modern epic. First time feature director Garth Davis takes an awfully big bite and chews it well, sending us across continents and decades without ever losing sight of the task at hand. As well-crafted as it is inspiring and life-affirming.
And to think that Jim Jarmusch's last movie was about vampires. Adam Driver takes on the title role in the legendary director's latest, playing a bus driver in New Jersey with an interest in poetry, both in its written and readily-observable forms. One would be hard-pressed to think of a movie wherein less 'happens'; Paterson wakes up every morning next to his beloved, eccentric girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani), goes to work, comes home, takes the dog on a walk, hits his favorite bar, then comes to bed and starts it all over again. But Paterson isn't interested in events so much as the dignity of repetition, and an openness to the world that makes each moment special and worthy of acute observation. Driver is a revelation in the role, all show and no tell, emotions and thoughts passing quickly and gracefully across his face in a manner more effective than any dialogue could hope to be. Many independent films patiently observe the normal lives of normal people; Paterson celebrates them.
15. Captain Fantastic
Like an updated Swiss Family Robinson for the learned, book-smart type, Captain Fantastic introduces us to the Cash family, whose father and figure-head (Viggo Mortensen) has opted to raise his children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, only properly introducing them to the real world when their mother's funeral beckons. The movie has a merry time challenging each and every aspect of parenting, calling into question both the protective, stunting tutelage of modern society, and the aggressive, rigidly constant self-improvement preferred by the Cash clan. Mortensen lives up to the billing of the title, warm and philosophical despite the grief that's constantly simmering just below the surface. Fun and confrontational in equal measure, Captain Fantastic argues that no one is perfect, but that's no excuse for not trying to be.
14. Nocturnal Animals
In only his second film, fashion designer Tom Ford already has a firmer grasp on both visuals and story-telling than directors with three times his experience. Adapted from Austin Wright's novel of the same name, Nocturnal Animals follows a wealthy art gallery owner (Amy Adams) who's sent a manuscript of her ex-husband's (Jake Gyllenhaal) upcoming novel, a piece of violent fiction that bares some marked similarities to their failed romance. Combining the slow-drip madness of David Lynch with the salacious 80's bombast of Brian De Palma, Ford's latest is pulpy as all get-out, and could correctly be accused of misappropriating real-world trauma for the sake of entertainment if it wasn't so damn entertaining. The Adams portion of the movie is largely an afterthought, swallowed up by her dramatic imaginings of what's on page, a revenge saga featuring stellar performances from Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It's exhilarating stuff... if you can bare it.
13. 10 Cloverfield Lane
An out-of-nowhere revelation from early in the year, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves to only be a sort of spiritual sequel to the 2008 film referenced in its title, but once this thing gets moving, that'll be the last thing on your mind. After packing her things and fleeing her life in a largely silent opening passage, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is knocked unconscious in a car accident and wakes up in a the basement of a stranger (John Goodman) who claims to have saved her from an on-going chemical attack. The clever script gives both the viewer and Michelle just enough information to unlock certain mysteries while keeping others tantalizingly out of reach, all as first-time director Dan Trachtenberg tightens the screws on this game of cat and mouse. John Gallagher Jr. gives a strong performance to round out the cast, but its Winstead and Goodman who easily win the day, the former relaying a clever, observant resourcefulness with the most minor a facial movements, while Goodman returns to a level of titanic mania we haven't seen since Barton Fink. My heart was still racing for an hour after the credits rolled.
Part heart-breaking exploration of loss and loneliness, part cosmic, black-hearted prank, Wiener-Dog has a lot in common with the previous films of its writer/director Todd Solondz, and nothing with anything else in 2016. Operating like War Horse with a sense of humor and a fondness for the macabre, the movie follows the titular pooch as she's passed from one owner to the next, sometimes directly, others without any discernible exchange beyond simple fate. Featuring a spectacular cast including Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, and especially fine work from Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn, Solondz's latest will have you laughing out loud as the forces of the universe bare down and crush your soul. If that doesn't sound like a great night out at the flicks, you'll at least get to see the intermission, one of the most jarring, goofy, and wonderful things that happened on film in years.
For a movie that's racked up over 575 million bucks since its release last November, Moana still feels strangely slept-on, and I couldn't begin to understand why. The latest from Disney animation is yet another entry into their long line of princess movies, though our titular heroine here has precious little in common with other members of the lineage. When the crops on her gorgeous Hawaiian home mysteriously begin to rot, it's up to Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) to set sail for help, imploring the mischievous demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for his services. There's simply no over-stating just how beautiful the animation is here, the tropical rays of sun almost palpable on your back, the water pristine and inviting. And don't tell Oscar, but the slew of original songs on hand, composed by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, easily best those featured in La La Land, their shimmering sumptuous rhythms (not to mention the spectacular voices that sing them) rattling around in your brian long after the credits roll. Much has been made of the fact that Moana is the first princess to not even broach the subject of a prince, but the movie's progressive streak reaches far wider than just that, deeply steeped in a decidedly non-white culture and folklore. A massage for the eyes and ears that never stops entertaining, Moana is the best non-Pixar computer animated Disney release to date.