10. “The Witch”
At the start of this year it was easy to think there was no part of witch-culture left untouched. From “The Crucible” to “The Craft,” horror across all mediums is full of witches. And yet, “The Witch” is fresh. The film follows a devout Christian family who leave their New England settlement following a disagreement over the New Testament to farm for themselves on the edge of a large wood. Their crops fail, their children disappear and the family quickly begins to unravel. The movie is horror at its most beautiful. First-time director Robert Eggers creates a rich world of cold beauty. Sound and volume are expertly manipulated to create suspense and shock. Each performance (even that of the goat, Black Phillip) is a quiet revelation. The best thing about “The Witch,” though, is that it completely rejects the victim narrative of most witch movies. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, “Barry”) is not persecuted or hunted and she’s not (although it might initially appear so) a victim of fate. Its final moments solidify both this point and the film’s spot on this list: a naked and unafraid Thomasin, surrounded by a coven of her own people, floats, shrieking above the flames.
— Madeleine Gaudin
9. “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Is there any better cinematic hang than a Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”) movie? A group of guys on a college baseball team spend the few days before the start of class drinking and hanging out. For fans of the Linklater aesthetic, that sounds like pure nirvana; for the rest, that’s the logline of a movie with no discernible point. What does the movie mean, we tend to ask ourselves — what is it trying to say? To be sure, there’s plenty of weighty material to glean here, whether it’s about the nature of male friendship, the not-so-imperceptible strands of casual homoeroticism or even the eternally intertwined natures of time and “growing up.” But “Everybody Wants Some!!” is less concerned with pretentious profundity than an earnest two hours of laidback fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewatched it. Set in the blissfully pre-technology early ’80s, it is fundamentally constructed on dialogue; connective tissue is not necessary in a movie with no plot, but Linklater, as he has for years, finds a way to make superfluous conversations read as vital and thrilling. He knows how to stage a party scene or two, and the movie’s soundtrack is one of the finest in recent memory. This is a movie that is aggressively male, but not irritatingly hyper-masculine — the meandering romance between Blake Jenner’s (“The Edge of Seventeen) and Zoey Deutsch’s (“Why Him?”) characters is patient but sweet, light but easily digested. This is a movie that luxuriates in itself, that takes its time in charting its subtly ingratiating characters; scenes run long, longer than they should, but you’re almost disappointed when Linklater cuts away. This is a movie whose only structural conceit is an intermittently appearing countdown clock, but feels more freed from the constraints of time and tension than any other film I’ve seen. The characters in “Everybody Wants Some!!” are Linklater classics: people on the precipice of maturity, staring down the barrel of inevitable change. Why not spend some time in the present?
— Nabeel Chollampat
8. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Ricky Baker, the wayward Maori foster kid with delusions of gangsta rap grandeur at the center of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Julian Dennison (“Shopping”) gives one of the most hilarious performances of the year as the plump Baker, while his co-star, Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park”), provides an excellent foil for the child actor as his no-nonsense adoptive father, Hector. The duo, on the run from child services, escape into the New Zealand brush and contend with a whole cadre of crookedly comical characters, who try to turn the two over to the authorities, fearing Hector is sexually abusing Ricky. But the film glides past its rather dark subject matter and proudly beams comedy. Director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) imbues his film with stylistic melancholic glee — a perfect balance between comedy and drama that recalls Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom”— that makes its charm undeniable.
— Daniel Hensel
7. “Don't Think Twice”
Improv comedians tend to be treated as the butt of the joke more often than not, whether it's Channing Tatum shouting out profane answers to prompts in “22 Jump Street” or comparisons to cult members/Scientology in the second season of “Bojack Horseman.” The biggest strength of “Don’t Think Twice” is the respect with which Director Mike Birbiglia (“Sleepwalk with Me), an improv comedian himself, treats his characters in sharp contrast to that stigma. In his hands, the members of The Commune and their quest to achieve their lofty dreams yet remain friends becomes one of the most relatable struggles of the year, engaging for anyone who has dreamed of a life beyond their own. The cast, made up of improv comidians like Birbiglia, is terrific, with particular praise due to Keegan-Michael Key (“Why Him?”) and Gillian Jacobs (“Community”), who aptly alternate between the comedic and dramatic elements of the script and create the two most endearing characters of the movie: a couple who find themselves increasingly torn apart by their differing levels of success. The result is one of the most incredibly funny yet moving films of the year.
— Jeremiah Vanderhelm
6. “Sing Street”
A high school boy becomes enamored with a girl and will do anything to win over her attraction. This plotline is just about as cliché as they get. Add a catchy New Wave-inspired original soundtrack, multidimensional characters and a heartwarming story, and the result is one of the most endearing coming-of-age movies in years that is anything but cliché. Irish filmmaker John Carney’s (“Once”) musical-comedy tells the story of Cosmo Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his goal to create a New Wave band in order to win over the heart of Raphina (Lucy Boynton, “Miss Potter”), an aspiring model. Cosmo’s band, surprisingly, performs many tracks that would blend in seamlessly on an ’80s radio station. In the spirit of Duran Duran, Human League and other New Wave sensations, the soundtrack reintroduces what made ’80s New Wave so much fun — even if some of it hasn’t aged too well. Amidst family conflicts and bullies, Cosmo’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), is his inspiration and driving force. “Sing Street” is as much about the music and romance as it is self-discovery and making sacrifices for loved ones, showing the complexities of adolescence, family and love.
— Will Stewart
5. “The Lobster”
How does one describe the most idiosyncratic film of the year? “The Lobster” is what would happen if a bunch of aliens who had never been to Earth before made a documentary about modern human mating rituals. Dating, marriage and the single life are absolutely skewered by surrealist director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”), whose completely absurd sci-fi premise (if these singles can't find a partner in 45 days, they're to be surgically transformed into an animal of their choosing) only obscures the much darker true subject of the film — the bizarre hurdles our species jumps through to engage with love and sex. Colin Farrell (“In Bruges”) roots this brilliant satire in a fascinatingly dry performance that he isn't receiving nearly enough awards attention for.
— Jacob Rich
“Arrival” is surely the best science fiction movie of 2016. In a sort of linguistic mystery, Amy Adams (“Nocturnal Animals”) and Jeremy Renner (“American Hustle”) must decipher the language of the “heptapod” aliens whom have landed their 12 ships across the Earth and discover their purpose on our planet. Both actors deliver engaging performances that are highlights of the film. “Arrival” is not only visually entertaining in the way that any good science fiction movie should be, but thought-provoking as well. After watching the movie, one can’t help but discuss the logic of the film with others, and its commentary on the role of language, politics and human society.
— Joseph Wagner
3. “Manchester by the Sea”
In the grand tradition of “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Manchester by the Sea” is arguably the hardest film of the year to get through, yet it is also one of the most rewarding. Anchored by titanic lead performances from Casey Affleck (“Ain't Them Bodies Saint”) and Lucas Hedges (“Moonrise Kingdom”), the film is a mournful, achingly human study of grief and coping that is simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and poignant. Director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) uses his newest movie to examine sorrow and life in a way that few do; there’s no classic climax here, no concrete resolution — there’s only two people desperately trying to navigate their rapidly changing circumstances, and the way Lonergan brings those characters and that struggle to life through flashbacks and humor reveals the director’s maturity and elevates “Manchester by the Sea” to masterpiece levels of filmmaking.
— Jeremiah Vanderhelm
Though it challenges prevailing conceptions of masculinity, sexuality, poverty and race, to describe “Moonlight” in terms of symbolism or theme would be to misunderstand its beauty. At its heart, “Moonlight” is simple: It’s a story about Chiron, a black boy coming of age in Miami. Told in three parts, each titled after one of Chiron’s nicknames, the camera moves fluidly with its characters to paint a searing portrait of their inner lives. We see Chiron meek and small, tormented by bullies and bashfully approaching his first homosexual encounter. We see him ashamed and worried about his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris, “Spectre”), finding a father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), a crack dealer who cares for him in his own home. We see Chiron older, bigger, growing different, staying the same.
It’s a refreshing and unflinching realism. There are no arcs of conclusion other than those initiated by the characters themselves. The social commentary comes not by way of agenda, but from the reality of life. Rather than create characters to be vehicles for universal themes, “Moonlight” eludes generalization, choosing instead to step into Chiron’s life and make all of its facets visible.
— Vanessa Wong
1. “La La Land”
We are lucky to have movies in our lives, and “La La Land” is living proof. It’s a classic in the making, thanks to the star power of the magnetic Emma Stone (“Birdman”), the almost superhumanly charismatic Ryan Gosling (“The Nice Guys”), and the deft directorial hand of Damien Chazelle. The characters sing and dance their way into our hearts as we are immersed in a beautiful cinematic world of primary colors, music, art, dreams, fears and love — so much love. In a year filled with cynicism, anger and so many mediocre and instantly forgettable movies, “La La Land” is a breath of fresh air. It does exactly what a good story is supposed to do by carrying audiences on a complete emotional journey, one devoid of any trickery, manipulation or shortcuts. “La La Land” is sincere in a way that wasn’t supposed to be possible anymore. But it is possible. Thank you, “La La Land.” You shine so very brightly.
— Asif Becher