The Best Movies of 2016

From Moonlight and Arrival to Moana and Don’t Think Twice, the films that made waves this year, and some that may have gone unnoticed

Zak Bickel / Katie Martin / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Like the last couple of years (and in contrast to 2013), 2016 was light on great films but offered a solid share of good ones—so many, in fact, that I’ve considerably expanded my list of honorable mentions. As always, my favorites are somewhat eclectic and the individual awards that follow more eclectic still. And I should again caveat the entire enterprise with the note that, while I saw a great many films this year there are still quite a few of the more than 700 movies released domestically that I missed. If a favorite of yours goes unmentioned that may be why. And with that…

1. Arrival


At once epic and intimate, director Denis Villeneuve’s film accomplishes what science fiction cinema often strives for but rarely achieves: It makes us think and feel in equal measure.

2. La La Land

Lionsgate / Summit Entertainment

Damien Chazelle revitalizes the movie musical with a film that is just shy of a masterpiece. Keep an eye on the door beneath the “window from Casablanca” for the movie’s most important cinematic reference.

3. Manchester by the Sea

Roadside Attractions

Pitch perfect from first frame to last, Kenneth Lonergan’s portrait of working-class New England is sensitive but unsentimental. The long-underrated Casey Affleck delivers the performance of his career to date.

4. Hell or High Water

CBS Films

A magnificent neo-Western that understatedly captures the current economic moment and features powerful performances all around—in particular by Jeff Bridges.

5. The Lobster


A stunning exercise in dystopian absurdism and pitch-black comedy. The English-language debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos offers a precise and novelistic metaphor for love and couplehood.

6. Moonlight


Tender and meticulously observed, Barry Jenkins’s film is a marvel of intimate portraiture. Mahershala Ali dazzles in a supporting role.

7. The Handmaiden

Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures

Director Park Chan-wook’s elegant story of lust and betrayal in Japanese-occupied Korea holds back at first before gradually allowing its perversion and depravity to rise to the surface.

8. Zootopia


Seamless noir mystery, moral fable and, yes, Disney animal cartoon, Zootopia is the best animated film of the year.

9. O.J.: Made in America

ESPN Films

Television series? Feature film? Ezra Edelman’s documentary may defy easy categorization, but its brilliance is beyond dispute.

10. Loving

Focus Feautures

Featuring an extraordinary performance by Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols’s film about the marriage that led to Loving vs. Virginia movingly captures the trope that the personal is political.

11. Hail, Caesar!

Alison Rosa / Universal

A sharp, underrated offering from the Coens, and arguably their most compassionate film to date.

12. Sing Street

The Weinstein Company

A lesser cousin of John Carney’s great Once, this Dublin-based musical charmer about a teen boy and his 1980s-era band is one of the year’s genuine delights.

Honorable Mentions:

The Birth of a Nation; Captain America: Civil War; Don’t Think Twice; Elle; Elvis & Nixon; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Fences; God Knows Where I Am; Green Room; Hacksaw Ridge; The Jungle Book; Kubo and the Two Strings; Life, Animated; Love & Friendship; Moana; A Monster Calls; The Nice Guys; Operation Avalanche; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Tallulah; 10 Cloverfield Lane; Weiner; The Witch

And the Rest…

Best Use of a Song: Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” played in an underground bunker after a presumed extinction-level event, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Worst Use of a Song: Harry Nilsson’s “Can’t Live,” as special forces kill a group of terrorist insurgents, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The Please Don’t Use “Fortunate Son” in Another Motion Picture Ever Again Award: (tie) Suicide Squad, War Dogs

The “Girl in the Title” Award for Novel-Based Thriller that Most Needed to Be Directed by David Fincher: The Girl on the Train

The “Seven Pounds” Award for Ugly, Cynical Will Smith Vehicle Posing as an Uplifting Holiday Charmer: Collateral Beauty

Longest Expository Voiceover: J.K Simmons, The Accountant

Most Overrated Female Performance: Natalie Portman, Jackie
Most Underrated Female Performance: Amy Adams, Arrival

The Mel Gibson Award for Blood-Drenched Christian Pacifism: Hacksaw Ridge

Scariest Dogs: Green Room
Scariest Goat: The Witch

The Bobby Ewing Award for Lamest Misleading Dream Sequence: Hacksaw Ridge
Runner-up: Sully
Second runner-up: Sully, again

Meanest Mother: Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Meanest Daughter: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Septopus: Finding Dory
Best Heptapod: Arrival

Best Ursine Mobsters: Zootopia
Worst Ursine Mobsters: Sing

Best Video Brochure for Florence: Inferno

The Third Actor to Play a Superhero in 10 Years Award: Tom Holland (Spiderman), Captain America: Civil War
The Fifth Actor to Play a Superhero in 25 Years Award: Ben Affleck (Batman), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The Chronic Misuse of Voiceover Award: Knight of Cups

Best Elephants: The Jungle Book
Best Coconuts: Moana

Greatest Mileage Out of a Single Line of Dialogue: “Would that it were so simple,” Hail, Caesar!

Best Hollywood Inside Joke: Isla Fisher Playing a Fictionalized Version of Amy Adams, Nocturnal Animals
Worst Hollywood Inside Joke: “Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher—tonight’s going to be a total jack-off!” Zoolander 2

The Arrested Development “I Blue Myself” Award for Body Painting: Tom Hiddleston, High-Rise

Film That Most Completely Vanished From Memory: Jason Bourne

Best Villainous Jemaine Clement Vocal Performance: Tamatoa, Moana
Runner-up: Fleshlumpeater, The BFG

Best Cover of A-ha’s “Take On Me”: The acoustic piano solo in Sing Street
Worst Cover of A-ha’s “Take on Me”: Sebastian’s ’80s band in La La Land

The Liam Neeson Award for Fearsome Father Figures: A Monster Calls

Best Argument Against Prepared Meats: Sausage Party

Best Villain in a Terrible DC Comics Movie: Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Suicide Squad
Worst Villain in a Terrible DC Comics Movie: Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Film with the Most Awful Real-Life Sequel: Weiner

Best Homoerotic Dance Number: Hail, Caesar!
Best Seasonal Sex Montage: Deadpool

Worst Hot-Tub Experience: The Lobster
Worst Diner Experience: The Lobster

Best Film About an Evil Conspiracy to Produce Tickle-Fetish Films: Tickled

Best Fix of a 50-Year-Old Bad Ending: The Jungle Book

Best Brooklyn-Queens Bonding: Captain America: Civil War

Best Limited Use of Laura Linney: Nocturnal Animals
Worst Limited Use of Laura Linney: Sully

The William Tell Award for Two Innocents Accidentally Killed with a Single Arrow: X-Men: Apocalypse

Worst Box Office: Pet, $70
Runner-up: Satanic, $252

The “You’re Lucky My Mother Was Named Martha” Award: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Worst attempted reboot: Blair Witch
Runner-up: The Magnificent Seven

Fastest Evolution from Widely Anticipated to Intensely Argued Over to Largely Forgotten: Ghostbusters

Least Promising Franchise Arc: Dan Brown / Robert Langdon films (The Da Vinci Code: $217 million; Angels & Demons: $133 million; Inferno: $34 million)

The “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” Award: “I just don’t know if it’s possible for you to love me,” Lois Lane, Batman v Superman

Worst Spy: Brad Pitt, Allied
Best Triple Cross: Kim Min-hee, The Handmaiden

Saddest Posthumous Appearance: Garry Shandling as the porcupine in The Jungle Book
Creepiest Posthumous Appearance: Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One

Best Unintentionally Self-Critiquing Quote: “Needless to say, the whole thing was a bad idea,” Suicide Squad
Runner-up: “You should shut it down,” Suicide Squad

The Frank Welker Award for Voice Work Omnipresence: Alan Tudyk (Zootopia, Moana, Rogue One)

Breakthrough Performances (Grownup Division): Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Tom Bennett (Love & Friendship), Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), Ruth Negga (Loving), Alison Sudol (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).

Breakthrough Performances (Young ’Uns Division): Michael Barbieri (Little Men), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Lewis MacDougall (A Monster Calls), Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch).

(Previous Best Movies Lists: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2009, 2008, 2007)