Opinion

The 7 best movies we saw in 2016

The Week's writers and editors reflect on the best films we saw this year

1. Hail, Caesar!

I saw this Coen Brothers take on the golden age of Hollywood in a historic two-screen picture house. It was an appropriate setting for this endlessly funny romp featuring an aquamusical, communists, Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists, and the titular prestige picture about the life of Christ. ("It's a swell story," Josh Brolin's studio fixer Eddie Mannix announces to his religious advisory panel, "a story told before, yes, but we like to flatter ourselves that it's never been told with this kind of distinction and panache." The Patriarch replies, "Perhaps you forget its telling in the Holy Bible.")

Hail, Caesar! is undoubtedly best appreciated by those raised on Hollywood classics. Its greatest point of reference is Singing in the Rain, which in 1952 offered a similarly droll take on an earlier era of cinema. The Coens perfectly update the older film's sequence of a frustrated director coaching a comically intractable star. Of course, the comparison is not exact: Channing Tatum can gyrate well enough, but he's no Gene Kelly. Still, the feeling Hail, Caesar! creates — and it is much more concerned with mood than story — is just swell. —Bonnie Kristian, weekend editor

2. Fire at Sea

2016 was the year of the need-to-see documentary, from 13 to Weiner to O.J.: Made in America. Those are indeed good movies. But it is Fire at Sea that is essential. Italian director Gianfranco Rosi introduces his audience to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the pulsing heart of the European migrant crisis. But instead of harrowing images of half-drowned refugees, Rosi shows the quiet life of a charming local fishing family, chiefly through its youngest member, a 12-year-old boy. On the kitchen radio there might be a mention of a capsized boat, dozens dead, followed by a request for an oldies hit. Tragedy continues to flicker at the corners of the film until the horror of the crisis comes full screen in one of the most unforgettable moments committed to film in 2016. It is our most human responsibility to not look away. —Jeva Lange, staff writer

3. Ghostbusters

This is the movie that delivered the most sheer fun this year. It had me laughing hysterically — and even crying. It isn't all that often that you get to see four comedians at the top of their game making a movie together. Bridesmaids was a gift for that reason, and Paul Feig's choices in the Ghostbusters reboot were bold: It was a stroke of genius to make Melissa McCarthy the straight man, and to cast Kristin Wiig as a brainy ex-kook straining for scholarly respectability. Leslie Jones crackled onscreen, and Kate McKinnon was this year's greatest comedy revelation — her Kellyanne Conway, her Hillary Clinton, but above all, her Jillian Holtzmann (watch McKinnon's deleted scenes for a glimpse at her almost deranged ad-libbing skills). Chris Hemsworth more than held his own against this formidable team as the debonair dimwit whose spectacular dance number I've rewatched too many times.

It's infrequent for comedies to earn the awards they deserve, but it's even more rare for a comedy to clear-sightedly address the virulent resistance against it and come to stand as a touchstone in American cultural history. The vitriol this movie received from a particular group of men (whose anaphylactic response to seeing women in the lead maps rather neatly onto other angry masculinist movements like Gamergate and the alt-right) was so disproportionate that it proved the movie's significance as a mark of how women's place in America has changed. The greatest hero of the cast was Leslie Jones, who was viciously targeted by a Breitbart troll named Milo. Her resilience is an inspiration and a model, given how empowered this group feels now. And it turns the scene where the Ghostbusters watch the buildings in New York light in up in love for their service into a dream of what America may someday be able to achieve. That a fluffy comedy generated that much insane antipathy shows both that they're onto something and comedy matters, now more than ever. —Lili Loofbourow, culture critic

4. Hush

At first, Mike Flanagan's new horror film Hush appears to be of the straight-forward, slasher flick, final girl vs. masked home-intruder variety. But it's so much more.

The movie stars Kate Siegel as Maddie, a writer who has retreated to an isolated cabin. But there's a twist: Maddie is deaf, so there's essentially no dialogue. Flanagan resisted the temptation to fill the silence, so the film instead relies on ambient sound and a subtle but effective soundtrack by The Newton Brothers to set the scene and propel the story. John Gallagher Jr. makes for a delightfully creepy villain; he and Maddie are well-matched opponents in this taut game of cat-and-mouse.

Flanagan seems to know that the best horror films are the simple ones, and he never overplays his hand (bonus points for taking inspiration from both the 1967 Audrey Hepburn thriller Wait Until Dark and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush"). Coming across a great scary movie is one of life's little pleasures and Hush already has a place on my list of classic horror flicks that can be watched again and again. —Jessie Wright-Mendoza, digital production assistant

5. The Jungle Book

Disney's new version of its animated classic sports dazzlingly realistic imagery, minimal singing, and a 3D option that will delight even the most steadfast of 3D holdouts. Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, the boy raised by jungle animals, absolutely nails the role of a spunky boy wise beyond his years and yet vulnerable to the follies of youth. Bill Murray voicing the bear Baloo is truly a delight, as is Christopher Walken in the role of the ape King Louie. The film is all the more awe-inspiring when you look back at photos taken during filming and realize how little of what appears on the screen actually existed in real life. Most of the scenes were filmed on a soundstage in downtown Los Angeles and later enhanced with CGI, yet it's hard not to feel like you're in the middle of the jungle when you're watching. —Becca Stanek, staff writer

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

It's a familiar trope: A precocious, slightly troubled kid gets paired with an old, curmudgeonly recluse — only to find that they have much in common and are both eventually changed for the better. Yes, it's a cliche. But it works to utterly endearing effect in the charmingly offbeat Hunt for the Wilderpeople, from New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi.

We meet hip-hop-loving orphan Ricky Baker as he's settling into a new home in the countryside with the loving Bella and cantankerous uncle Hec. Then his world is turned upside down... again. Through a series of tragic and unlikely events, Ricky and Hec accidentally set off on a months-long adventure in the bush, as a manhunt of misfits zeros in on them. Hec, a seasoned hunter, shows Ricky how to survive in the woods, while Ricky acts as Hec's liaison to the outside world, sometimes with mixed results.

Waititi peppers his fast-moving film with a few Wes Anderson-esque devices, like his penchant for symmetry and a plot told in chapters. But what truly makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople worth seeing is Julian Dennison's Ricky Baker. This fast-talking, chubby-cheeked kid with his gangsta lingo, money-sign hoodies, and walkman filled with rap and calypso music is one of the most hilarious, heartfelt, and genuine characters to grace the screen in recent years. His resiliently positive outlook on a life that hasn't yet to offer him anything but contempt will melt loner Hec's cold heart and will surely warm yours as well. —Lauren Hansen, executive editor of multimedia

7. Arrival

Arrival is gripping and smart science fiction, provoking profound thoughts about language, time, and memory, as well as the complicated ways that fear, rivalry, and conflict can inspire and feed off of one another. But what made the movie truly special for me was its deep spirituality. (Spoilers lie ahead — don't read the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen Arrival.)

The film opens with a brief montage of a woman (linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams) lovingly mothering a newborn, and then playing with a toddler, pre-schooler, and school-aged girl. Next the girl appears older (perhaps a late teen) and terribly sick. Finally, she's dead, with her mother grieving over her. Once the main story of alien first contact gets underway, we assume that the montage had been a flashback to the main character's past: She's endured immense suffering — the death of her child. But by the time the film draws to the close, we've come to understand that this opening, like the other glimpses of Louise's life with her daughter that have been revealed along the way, are in fact visions of her future, events that haven't yet taken place. Louise comes to understand it, too — and yet she still deliberately chooses to begin the chain of events that she knows will bring her daughter into existence, and ultimately bring them both horribly wrenching pain.

It's a beautifully rendered counter to the ethic of utilitarian control that pervades child-rearing in the modern Western world. None of us wants to endure the suffering and death of a child. But our strenuous, technologically aided efforts to insulate ourselves from such anguish can end up depriving us of the fullest experience of self-giving love — an experience that Louise freely chooses to take on when she acts to hasten a very different kind of arrival into her well-ordered life. —Damon Linker, senior correspondent

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