2016 sure was a year, huh? While the world at large kind of seemed to have lost its mind, cinema, and particularly genre cinema, was at the top of its game. There were so many excellent films I loved released in 2016 that my Top 10 very easily could have been a Top 20. It was that good. Alas, years of critical tradition and my own personal energy levels dictate that it is, in fact, a Top 10.
For consideration on this list, the film must have entered wide-release in 2016, either via theaters, video-on-demand, or the like. If I’ve written about the film previously on the site, you’ll find a blurb from that review as well as a link to the full review that can be reached by clicking the name of the film or the link at the bottom of each section. Without further adieu, here are my Top 10 Films of 2016.
10. The Shallows
DIRECTOR: Jaume Collet-Serra
I’m going to get this out of the way: I loved The Shallows. Is it perfect? No, but Collet-Serra brought his A-game to what could have been a boring flop in less deft hands. “Survive The Shark” has been done many times, but Collet-Serra routinely sets your expectations in this nail-bitingly tense survival story. Blake Lively is stellar, and this is the only film I saw this year that made me have serious thoughts about a seagull.
A thrilling, well put together action-horror nightmare, The Shallows packs a wallop. With a well-conceived emotional hook, enough action to sink your teeth into, and some excellent scares, The Shallows is a fun, frightening way to spend an evening.
For a movie about a bigass shark trying to eat the pretty blonde girl, The Shallows has heart in all the right places. The human element is never removed from the story and you grow to care for Nancy and Lively’s performance is stellar. You feel her agony, you feel her pain, and you feel the intense strain of the situation as she must decide how much fight she has in her. Most importantly in a genre film, you want to see her succeed. You want her to find the will to beat this damned shark. Due to the film’s focus on her isolation the film’s success hinges on Lively’s performance and she absolutely nails it.
For more thoughts on The Shallows, see my full review.
DIRECTOR: James Wan
Studio horror ain’t dead. It might look that way, but like all great horror monsters, studio horror comes back when you least expect it. After this film, there is no doubt in my mind that James Wan is a new master of horror. Packing heart, terror, and joy into a slick, beautiful package, The Conjuring 2 elevates everything I loved about the first film and hones it down until it’s razor sharp.
Wan’s second Conjuring film once again follows the Warrens as they investigate supernatural phenomena. This time, the focus is on the real world Enfield poltergeist in dreary ol’ England. With a stellar cast, excellent scares, beautiful set and sound design, and a captivating story, The Conjuring 2 is a force to be reckoned with.
I suspect you’ll hear a lot of people lobbing comparisons to The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist. Those people are not overselling this film or the impactful scares Wan and his cast expertly pull off. Perfectly timed, the actors and the score work together like a well-choreographed dance sequence, the actual content of the scares plays perfectly off your sympathetic feelings for this well-crafted band of characters. There are jump scares, but they’re very well executed and the majority of them are diegetic and organic, not removing you from the scene but expertly releasing the tension that the performances, Wan’s direction, and the Hayes brothers script have so wonderfully constructed. These scares are powerful and valid, not the cheap loud bang in a dark room scare many have come to expect from Hollywood horror.
For more thoughts on The Conjuring 2, see my full review.
DIRECTOR: Mike Flanagan
Hush was such a pleasant surprise. With little to no fanfare, it just hit Netflix and it spread like wildfire. Mike Flanagan, to my mind, has never made a bad movie. I don’t think he’s capable of it. He had three, count ’em three, movies in 2016. Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Before I Wake, 2 of which I saw and enjoyed, and a third which has been stuck in studio release hell for longer than I’d like. Of the two I saw, Hush was my favorite. If Hush wasn’t on this list, Ouija 2 would be, but Hush is such a taut little home invasion thriller that it had to take the spot. With a tiny cast, a well-tuned story, and enough excitement, terror and tension for 3 movies, Flanagan absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.
Following a young female author who lives alone as her path crosses with a lunatic in a mask, the less you know about Hush going in, the better.
Hush is a simple movie with a lot of power. What could very easily just be a pedestrian run of the mill home invasion flick becomes a bit more than that in the deft hands of director Mike Flanagan and co-writer / star Katie Siegal. The hook of the film is a simple but effective one. Our heroine is deaf. A masked lunatic comes a’calling with bad intentions, and she must survive the encounter. Home invasion is not my favorite subgenre and I tend to just wish they’d (d)evolve into slashers, but the performances, the payoff, and the overall intensity of the film elevate it beyond your average home invasion thriller.
7. The Eyes of My Mother
DIRECTOR: Nicolas Pesce
If I were going to describe The Eyes of My Mother in a single word it would be “Haunting”. A strong directorial vision from Nicolas Pesce, a hypnotic lead performance by Kika Magalhaes, to-die-for black and white cinematography by Zach Kuperstein and a mesmerizing score by Ariel Loh converge to make a film that creates such a singular and heartbreaking world that I was quite honestly struck silent by the end of the film. Sparse, timeless, disarming and disturbing, every element of this film works in perfect harmony to leave the viewer with conflicted emotions, a great sense of unease, and a well of sadness.
This film is definitely on the art house side of the horror aisle and is seemingly quite divisive, but I personally loved every gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching second of it. The reason this film is not higher on my list is because quite frankly, it’s about 20 minutes shy of perfection. This is a 77-minute film. There are longer episodes of TV out there. With that in mind, every one of those 77 minutes is drenched in emotion, both harrowing and heartful. Nicolas Pesce will be a filmmaker to watch.
DIRECTOR: Fede Alvarez
I think Fede Alvarez may be some kind of wizard. Aside from forging a friendship with Sam Raimi, the man brought the absolutely grisly and phantasmagoric Evil Dead (2013) to us, and has proven himself able work just as well inside the confines of grim, gritty reality with Don’t Breathe. Well, Don’t Breathe is at least grim and gritty on the surface, with all the dark and sordid trappings of poverty, drug abuse, and shock value of an exploitation film, but like those exploitation wonders it also manages to find joy in its tension and functions equally well as an anarchic roller coaster as it does a tense, nail-biting thriller.
Strong performances, realistic (if obnoxious) characters, and a level of meticulous craft applied to its tension building, Don’t Breathe does everything in its power to get your heart racing and does so while pulling the rug out from under you by toying with and twisting your expectations until you’re just as confused and terrified as its young miscreant leads. I still believe this film stands out as an expertly crafted slice of white-hot tension and it is well worth your time.
Don’t Breathe is a tense, terrifying film and from top to bottom […] Everything perfectly ramps up in intensity until the gut-wrenching climax of the film leaves you breathless (Get it?). A perfect counterpoint to his previous film, Alvarez proves he is capable of creating terror in the most humble of places, with the most Spartan of premises, and his genuine talent to pull heartrending performances from his actors is on full display.
For more thoughts on Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe, see my full review.
5. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
DIRECTOR: André Øvredal
I am a big fan of André Øvredal’s Norwegian language found footage monster movie, Trollhunter. I’ve written about it before on this site in my Netflix & Kill column, but it’s a great movie. Completely unique. Øvredal has done it again and done it again with such gusto, grace, and creativity that you would be hard pressed to identify the two (excellent) films as being by the same hand. Jane Doe is a supremely engaging film that centers around, well, an autopsy of an unidentified woman. It would be a massive disservice to the twists and turns that characterize this film to reveal much more than that but rest assured that this locked-room horror show is fantastic.
With grounded and honest performances from Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox grounding it, the film is able to believably go to some unexpected places, shock your expectations, play with your heart and mess with your head. I absolutely loved this film. Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s script is packed with mystery, intrigue, and a kind of terror and foreboding that is able to absolutely sing thanks to the director’s skilled hand. You should be able to track this one down on VOD, but it’s good enough that the second a Blu-ray becomes available, I’ll be snatching it up to share with friends for years to come.
4. Green Room
DIRECTOR: Jeremy Saulnier
To my mind, Jeremy Saulnier has never made a bad film, nor one that is easily classifiable. 2007’s Murder Party was a gleeful and unique Halloween-centric horror comedy that a lot of folks still insist is mumblecore, and his 2013 follow-up, Blue Ruin was an absolutely astounding horror-drama-thriller-revenge picture that’s so good it borders on being a masterpiece. That smart, stripped-down vengeance story was followed up by 2016’s Green Room, a film that still ruins your twitter mentions whenever you insist it is or isn’t a horror film. To my mind, it is, but more importantly: Green Room is a hardboiled, kickass, punk as fuck trip through an all-too-believable nightmare.
A young punk band on the last legs of a failed tour find themselves in need of a show to play to get gas and make it back home, they find a show, and the show they find is unfortunately at a Neo-Nazi punk compound. What follows is hard to watch, but a hell of a lot of fun. Grisly, brutal, exhilarating and physical, Saulnier once again asserts that he is a director who’s not comfortable being boxed in. He swings for the fences with what has to be one of the most exciting genre films of the last decade. Honest and touching performances from the leads, terrifying gravity from the Nazis, and enough kinetic energy to give life to ten films mix to form a stellar inverse-siege film that absolutely begs to be shared, no matter what genre you think it is.
Thematically the film is about survival and the value of passion and asymmetrical warfare. In other words, it’s about punk. The characters are true to their punk origins, and the film oozes with DIY punk intensity. Even the neo-Nazi characters are well characterized, and are authentic enough to make anybody who’s had an unfortunate encounter with Nazi punks have flashbacks. Just like punk rock music, it’s super easy to make a punk rock film that doesn’t ring true or hit the right notes. This movie is not one of those lesser punk films. This movie has instant cult classic written all over it.
For more thoughts on Green Room, you can check out my full review. As an aside, 2016 notoriously saw a lot of celebrity deaths, one of them was unfortunately Anton Yelchin, the young charismatic lead of Green Room. He, as well as the rest of the cast, are absolutely fantastic in this film, and it is an absolute tragedy that we lost someone so talented at such a young age.
DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve
Before we dive into Arrival, a short aside: In more than a few years in recent memory, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival would have been my film of the year. In all honesty, my top three positions are all pretty interchangeable. I love them all immensely. With that said, my thoughts:
Genre films can be incredible avenues through which to discuss both the more primal and more high-minded thoughts and issues that make up the human experience. There are genre movies that you enjoy, there are genre movies that you experience, and there are genre movies that touch you. Arrival does all of these and a whole lot more.
Adapted from the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Villeneuve’s 2016 effort absolutely wrecked me. An expertly crafted science fiction story wrapped around a beautiful story of love, hope, loss, and fear, the film is an absolute triumph. Beautiful and breathtaking cinematography from Bradford Young, a mesmerizingly well-crafted script by Eric Heisserer, some of my absolute favorite performances of the year from Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, and more than anything a clear, powerful vision have made Arrival one of my favorite films of the last few years. This is one to watch, and one to seriously absorb, especially in the political climate we find ourselves in both at home and abroad.
Arrival is both an incredibly well-made piece of cinema and a deeply moving journey. Simultaneously tackling intimate human relationships, and the relationships between humanity as a whole, Villeneuve and company have created a beautiful hard science-fiction film that speaks to love, loss, mortality, grief, fear, and perhaps most importantly the value of communication. With the world in the shape we find it and the problems we face growing more frightening every day, we would be well served as citizens of the world to make this film a hit and even better off having taken the lessons presented within it to heart. It would be overly simplistic to say that a single film can heal a nation, but I believe Arrival can give us some of the language we’ll need to do it.
For more thoughts on Arrival, check out my full review.
2. The Witch
DIRECTOR: Robert Eggers
It is absolutely unfair that Robert Eggers is as talented as he is. This was a debut feature, folks. First movie. First damn movie and it’s The Witch. Written and directed. That’s going up to bat for the first time and hitting a grand slam. Just absurd. That’s Sofia Coppola Virgin Suicides territory but somehow turned up to 11. If he can make a follow-up even half as engrossing and mesmerizing as this New-England Folk Tale, he’ll be skyrocketing to the top of my favorite directors list in no time.
A lot of folks right now, particularly the film writers I count among my readership are probably shaking their heads at the inclusion of The Witch in my best of 2016, seeing as it first premiered at Sundance way back in January of 2015, but the masses (myself included) did not get a chance to enjoy this peculiar and haunting vision until February of 2016, which honestly still feels like a lifetime ago.
A simple film with sharp teeth, The Witch is a film so beautifully made, with such an expert vision that the hands that shaped this world are completely invisible. I found myself so fully engrossed in its gray world of strife and terror that by the end of it I was simply left in awestruck silence. I simply sat in numb quiet as the credits rolled and the discordant and haunting music gripped me as I made feeble efforts to return to the normal world around me. Though I was in a crowd of people, I felt completely alone, awash in this richly imagined world. I cannot say enough about how wonderfully made, wonderfully acted, wonderfully scored this film is. Stronger writers than myself have written more words than I can muster, but quite simply, The Witch is a film that will be talked about for generations. There is nothing I have ever seen that is quite like it.
DIRECTORS: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
If at the beginning of the year you told me my favorite movie of 2016 was going to be the Harry Potter Corpse Boner movie, I’m not sure I would have believed you. It is though. It really, really is. I wrote at length about Swiss Army Man, bought the score seconds after leaving the film, pushed all my friends to go see it, pre-ordered the Blu-ray and have shown the film to every soul who would sit down on my couch for 97 consecutive minutes. Swiss Army Man is a film like no film before it.
Two viral music video directors set out to make a movie and the result is so absurd and beautiful, so honest and hilarious, with such an emotionally powerful exploration of friendship and individuality that I cried, folks. I was reduced to tears more than once. The film so lovingly delves into what makes a human being a human, what makes a friend a friend, and what love actually is. All of this set against hilarious set pieces, accompanied by an absolutely wonderful acapella score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra, and featuring deeply impressive performances by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. I don’t want to gush 1300 words about it again, but I easily could. I cannot speak highly enough of this film and humbly request you take a look at my full review. An excerpt:
Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, it will well up tears in your eyes with its no holds barred exploration of friendship, love, and shame, and it will be leave you thinking about it long after you’ve left the theater. People throw the term feel-good-movie around a lot, but Swiss Army Man is that in spades. I left the film more in love with humanity and with cinema than at any point before it. Swiss Army Man is life affirming.
For more thoughts on my favorite film of the year, Swiss Army Man, please see my full review.
So there you have it folks. The Humanstein Top 10 of 2016. Thank you so much for reading!
What did you think of the films I chose? What were your favorite films? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!