This year, we saw a range of great movies — from documentaries to kids’ films — and some Oscar-worthy performances, too. Here’s our list of 2016's best movies, ranked.
25. '10 Cloverfield Lane'
If you missed this little gem when it came out in March, there are reasons. It was pitched as a follow-up to the monster-movie “Cloverfield,” but it wasn’t a sequel, prequel or spin-off (huh?). Not even the actors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher, Jr.) knew there was a connection until after filming. The plot was kept under wraps, and critics stayed mostly mum so as not to spoil the fun. Even now, the less said the better, because this taut thriller – set almost entirely in an underground bunker – is a nerve-jangling treat. For added fun, see if you can tell why Bradley Cooper is in the credits.
Disney’s animated movie is full of wild ideas, starting with its colorful backdrop, a sprawling metropolis where all animals live in peace. It’s also an enjoyable buddy-comedy about a rabbit cop (Ginnifer Goodwin) and a con-man fox (Jason Bateman) who team up to solve a crime. The clincher is that “Zootopia” also works as a massive analogy for race-relations. Lo and behold, it all works, resulting in one of the smartest, funniest animated movies of the year.
Todd Solondz’s latest may be his angriest comedy yet, and that’s saying something given his track record (“Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness”). A quartet of mini-stories connected by a migratory dachshund, “Weiner-Dog” is also his wackiest movie, full of broad humor (Danny DeVito as a screenwriter who goes crazy), strange interludes (a music-video set to a Western ballad) and a couple of sight-gags that are too good to spoil here. It won’t be for all tastes, but if you like your humor with a dark streak, this one’s for you.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga say almost nothing in this movie, and they don’t have to. As Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose legal battle to live as a married couple in Virginia became a landmark Supreme Court case in 1969, the two actors somehow express not just love but a deep commitment that no law could break. Jeff Nichols’ quiet approach – no big speeches, no syrupy Hollywood moments – lends just the right notes of respect and dignity to their story.
Dev Patel plays Saroo, an adopted young Australian man who begins a search for his lost family in India, but the real star of this film is Sunny Pawar, the first-time actor who plays Saroo as a little boy. Pawar uses his guileless eyes and little body to carry us through the terrifying, heart-breaking first half of this movie almost single-handedly, and although the film loses some steam once Saroo grows up, those opening scenes stick with us. Pawar might be a long-shot for an Oscar – or he could, at the age of 8, become a young nominee like Justin Henry (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) and Quvenzhané Wallis "Beasts of the Southern Wild”).
20. 'Everybody Wants Some!!'
Richard Linklater’s non-narrative story about college baseball players is a follow-up to “Dazed and Confused,” another look back at an era that was not so long ago – the year is 1980 – but seems weirdly like the distant past. Blessed with an unknown and highly energetic cast, it’s the kind of loosely-structured, moment-driven, bittersweet youth-movie that Linklater does so well.
19. 'The Birth of a Nation'
It was touted as the masterpiece that would save Hollywood from another round of #OscarsSoWhite, but that was before a long-ago rape case came back to haunt writer-director (and producer-star) Nate Parker. Controversy aside, Parker’s film about the Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831 is worth seeing. It’s an ambitious, powerful and unsettling story about what desperation can do to an entire population.
18. 'Maggie’s Plan'
Haven’t we seen this premise – single woman turns to sperm donor, gets pregnant, then falls in love with another guy – somewhere before? Yes, but not quite like this. Writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of novelist Arthur Miller) casts Greta Gerwig as our heroine, Ethan Hawke as her ill-timed crush and Julianne Moore as that guy’s inconvenient wife, and the result is an unpredictable, zig-zagging comedy whose characters feel like actual, real people. This definitely ain’t “The Back-Up Plan.”
17. 'Hello, My Name Is Doris'
Sally Fields plays a New York office worker who falls for a younger colleague – like, 40 years younger – in this slender but utterly charming comedy. Much of the fun lies in the way Fields' shy, eccentric Doris makes friends with clueless John (Max Greenfield) and becomes a major hit with his hipster friends thanks to her kooky dresses, “vintage” eyeglasses and daring Staten Island ZIP code (“That’s so first wave!”). There isn’t much more to the plot, but who cares when Fields, 70, is lighting up the screen as brightly as she did in “Gidget” five decades ago.
16. 'The Witch'
True horror lives not in the multiplexes but in the art-houses, where movies like this one – along with “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and many others – are giving the genre a level of artistry and intelligence it hasn’t had since the 1970s. “The Witch” stars Anya Taylor-Joy as a Colonial girl in 17th century New England whose family begins to blame her for their misfortunes. Employing period English dialogue and details (no artificial lights were used), “The Witch” fully immerses us into its creepy time and place, and builds an agonizing sense of dread. You’ll think about its ending – unexpected and enigmatic – for days.
15. 'The Lobster'
The premise alone is brilliantly weird: In a parallel dystopia, all single people must find love within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice. “Most people choose a dog,” says the woman who runs the desperately romantic Hotel. “That’s why the world is so full of dogs.” Starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as illicit lovers who try to buck the system, “The Lobster” is a richly detailed, black-humored and utterly original film.
14. 'Hail, Caesar!'
The Coen brothers’ latest is a tossed-off comedy with precious little plot and even less structure – and it’s wonderful. Josh Brolin plays a movie executive during the 1950s whose biggest and dumbest star (George Clooney), goes missing during a big-budget production. Throw in Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-style water-wunderkind, Channing Tatum in a jaw-dropping musical number and Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy, and you’ve got a terrific screwball comedy, even if some of its own screws fall off in the end.
13. 'A Bigger Splash'
This splintered, stylish movie about an ailing rock star (Tilda Swinton), her much younger boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) and her sexually voracious manager (Ralph Fiennes) won’t be for everyone. It’s hard to define – a New Wave thriller with shades of Edward Albee, perhaps? – but it’s also an electrifying cinematic experience that will keep you on tip-toes throughout. Why nobody is lobbying the Oscars for Fiennes is a mystery.
12. 'Hidden Figures'
The story of three African-American women trying to break the color barrier – and the glass ceiling – at NASA during the 1960s could have been a typically earnest Hollywood drama. Instead, it’s an upbeat, feel-good movie whose sparkling cast turns the movie into something that feels almost like a comedy. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and an Oscar-worthy Janelle Monae play our heroines, and together they make a powerhouse trio. But this is also a very smart and clear-eyed movie about what racism once looked like in America and, in some ways, still does. “’Hidden Figures” feels like the right movie at the right time.
Pig, mouse, gorilla, elephant and porcupine enter a singing contest in this animated musical from Illumination Entertainment (“Despicable Me”). It’s a jubilant crowd-pleaser full of wonderful characters and snazzy musical numbers set to several decade’s worth of pop-rock hits. The one song it’s missing: “Simply Irresistible.”
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are in full movie-star mode in Robert Zemeckis’ World War II drama about secret agents who fall in love. It’s grand, old-fashioned moviemaking – “I’ve loved you since Casablanca!” she says – and smashingly entertaining
9. 'The Edge of Seventeen'
Writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig came out of nowhere to deliver this top-notch teen flick about a grumpy adolescent (Hailee Steinfeld) who is in grave danger of becoming a dysfunctional adult. Funny, insightful and perceptive, with a fine turn by Woody Harrelson as a tough-love schoolteacher.
One of the better Phillip Roth adaptations stars Logan Lerman as a promising young college student who gets seriously distracted by a sexually aggressive classmate (Sarah Gadon). It’s a moody, unsettling film that uses small moments to explore the larger puzzle of life.
7. 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'
This oddball New Zealand comedy-drama, about a foster kid (Julian Dennison) who tromps off into the bush with his curmudgeonly guardian (a wonderful Sam Neill), is the kind of coming-of-age movie they don’t make anymore: smart, funny, honest and personal.
6. 'Manchester by the Sea'
Casey Affleck turns in another gripping, seemingly effortless, performance as a solitary handyman suddenly asked to care for his teenage nephew.
Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, the unstable television reporter who shot herself live on air in 1974. Clearly not an upbeat film, but it’s a moving and cautionary tale about the dangers of depression, with Hall delivering what might be the performance of the year.
An all-access, uncensored, keep-the-cameras-running documentary about Anthony Weiner’s disastrous New York City mayoral campaign. It’s full of scenes you’d never thought you'd see, and some you might wish you hadn’t.
3. 'Florence Foster Jenkins'
Meryl Streep is terrific as a tone-deaf opera singer (a real-life figure, by the way), but it’s Hugh Grant as her doting-cheating husband that makes this screwball comedy a winner.
2. 'Toni Erdmann'
A three-hour German comedy? Maren Ade’s strange, funny, unsettling film – about a father who plays practical jokes on his uptight daughter – is worth every one of its 162 minutes.
Barry Jenkins’ film about a gay African-American growing up in a Miami — from difficult boyhood to traumatic adolescence to shame-riddled adulthood — takes us into a little-explored world with evocative visual style and some of the most moving performances you’ll see all year. The soundtrack alone is almost worth the experience. “Moonlight” does everything a movie can and should do.