Despite a, frankly, awful summer of disappointing blockbusters, 2016 was a year full of movies that got me to a theater, more so than the past three years, and most of those movies were independent movies, far away from the traditional studio system. A common sight in this list is a career-defining performance by an actor or actress, directed by somebody who also wrote the script. It just goes to show that the best that cinema has to offer is often outside of the traditional studio blockbuster. The best of this year are easily some of the best in many years, and it’s a fantastic list to produce before focusing forward in 2017.


  1. The Edge of Seventeen

Coming-of-age high school dramedies have been an exhausted dime-a-dozen trope in movies for decades now, but not since Superbad in 2007 has one been as fresh and well-written. First time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script and direction lend a hand to a truly tremendous leading performance by Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine. She smartly meanders her way through high school and deals with issues which, while certainly seen more than once before, manage to feel handled with more confidence thanks to Craig’s keen eye for both realism and heart. An absolute gem of a movie, criminally underseen by audiences in 2016.


  1. One More Time With Feeling

As an absurdly avid fan of kiwi director Andrew Dominik, it’s hard to be objective when talking about such a passionate project involving Nick Cave and his band the Bad Seeds producing a brand new album, but the entire project is handled with so much intimacy it’s impossible not to be engrossed in the nature and emotions inhabiting it. Half behind-the-scenes video, half personal journey of loss and grief, One More Time with Feeling is such a beautiful experience, both literally and figuratively. Through Dominik’s confident direction and Nick Cave’s (and his cohort Warren Ellis) stunning music the movie moves passively through quiet one-on-one soliloquys by Cave and the powerful roar of their music being recorded for the album. It was a special one-night-only event (although encore nights are forthcoming) that not only cemented me as a Dominik follower for life, but also gave me a new appreciation for Cave and Ellis’s music.


  1. Tickled

David Ferrier and Dylan Reeve’s mind-blowing documentary is the exact sort of nonfiction narrative I love most: Starting with one seemingly-innocent topic of competitive endurance tickling and diving deeper and deeper into a hellish rabbit hole until you’re left catching your breath, not understanding if you were meant to see what you just saw. To mention any more than that is a massive spoiler but Ferrier, being the face of the documentary, masterfully weaves through the tale by keeping the drama at a constant but uneasy rise as the audience falls deeper into a sort of grotesque and horrifying nightmare, all while keeping what’s next far out of the mind’s reach. Unbelievable at times and always engrossing, it’s hard to imagine a more unforgettable experience in a theater in 2016.


  1. Green Room

With the loss of actor Anton Yelchin this year, most audiences remember him most fondly as Chekov in the Star Trek movies, but Yelchin is arguably at his most talented and raw in fast-rising director Jeremy Saulnier’s punk-rock horror-thriller Green Room. Full of anger, dread, and glowing with a green color palette, Green Room is an absolute monster of a flick, a master class of completely confident directing, a near-perfect script, and solid youth acting across the board. Saulnier broke into the writing and directing scene in 2013 with Blue Ruin and firmly cemented himself as one of the premiere young filmmakers working today with Green Room. Violent, loud, and with a vicious performance by Patrick Stewart, the movie has the honor of providing one of the most unforgettable, specific scenes of the year involving a bloody arm. It makes the loss of Anton Yelchin all the more devastating.


  1. Hell or High Water

Scottish director David Mackenzie has primarily stuck to the U.K. with his movies, but with Hell or High Water he tackled a land as American as it gets: West Texas. With an incredible script of whip-smart dialogue and banter, actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan proves himself to be an impeccable talent after last year’s Sicario. Beautiful photography of the American Southwest and career-best performances by both Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster, wind together to create a daftly entertaining and morally justifiable journey of bank robbing and brotherhood. It’s an extremely efficient package and is surprisingly among the most entertaining and memorable movies of 2016.


  1. Jackie

Chilean director Pablo Lorrain had three different movies release this year, and Jackie is the only English-speaking one of the trio. It’s also one of the most unique and eye-catching movies of the year. Set during the hours before and after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jackie sports one of Natalie Portman’s greatest performances, as First Lady Jackie Kennedy, as she unravels her own feelings during such a widespread national tragedy. Hypnotic and meditative, Jackie is not a biopic but rather a snapshot of a certain moment in time, examined and dissected by both the filmmakers and the audience alike. It’s quiet but boasting, intimate but monumental, and the exquisite compositional score by Mica Levi roars down the hallways of the White House. Portman should be expect to be handed a statue for her performance in this excellently crafted movie.


  1. La La Land

After his breakout smash hit Whiplash in 2014, it’s been exciting to find out where writer/director Damien Chazelle would take his camera next, but with his passion project La La Land finally arriving, one can now assume music (mainly jazz) had to be involved. Labeled a love-letter to jazz, show business, and a love of Los Angeles, the movie is a true showcase of musical and musical talent not seen since Chicago in 2002. Every inch of every frame is a sonic and photographic delight as characters swing, slide, glide, and dance through song numbers, with career-best performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone through and through. Dazzling camera movements and colorful, lively sets illuminate the screen and invoke the dreamer and creator in each audience member. Tinseltown really doesn’t make movies like this anymore, or at least until now.


  1. Manchester by the Sea

Playwright and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is no stranger to tragedy, having that been a common trope surrounding his past works, but never has it been realized so truthfully here. A career-best performance (a theme of this list, it seems) by Casey Affleck has him showcasing the gamut of human emotions as tragedy strikes from every angle over the movie’s 2 hour 17 minute runtime, and he handles it with brevity and sincerity in a way not seen on screen anywhere else in 2016. Michelle Williams continues her run of flawless screen performances, and newcomer Lucas Hedges shows incredible promise as the nephew of Affleck’s Lee Chandler, Patrick. This is a devastating production but with enough wit and charm to avoid becoming emotionally manipulative, and proves Lonergan to be among the most consistently great filmmakers working today.


  1. Moonlight

A triumphant examination of self, sexuality, and internal struggle, up and coming writer/director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight leaves the most haunting impression on the psyche of any movie in 2016. Following three different actors portraying the life of the same character from adolescence to adulthood, there isn’t a single hitch in acting across the board, with lush photography illuminating a sleepy and sleazy Miami in a way never portrayed on screen before. As heartbreaking as it is sincere, Jenkins explores what makes us whole in a way that harkens back to the best of Terrance Malick, but in a more universal way that begs to be seen by a much larger audience. Important, timely, and timeless, Moonlight is the most essential viewing not only in 2016, but in the past sixteen years and beyond.


  1. Fences

Besides being a remarkable force, acting that puts people in seats in a way almost no other movie star can muster, Denzel Washington has also proven himself to be a tremendous director, especially when paired with a shakingly-timeless script in the late August Wilson’s stage play. When you place arguably the greatest actor in the world, Denzel Washington, with arguably the greatest actress in the world, Viola Davis, in the same movie, magic is bound to happen. What results are two of the finest performances not only this year, but of the last several years, as both acting giants make the most out of what is essentially an actionless discussion of life, love, manliness, and ambitions, involving every emotion a human can experience. It’s an absolute marvel to witness such raw talent left on screen tirelessly for 2 hours and 18 minutes, and not a moment is wasted. It turns a beloved stage play into a cinematic landmark that is without a doubt the very best movie of 2016.

Honorable mentions:

Looking back, 2016 is a year more fondly remembered than initially expected. Disney Animation had a tremendous year with both Zootopia and Moana, and some newer directors pushed out some fantastic works, such as Tom Ford’s sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals and Garth Davis’s Lion. Dan Trachtenburg surprised theatergoers by not only making a great Cloverfield “sequel,” but also an effectively intense gem with 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Russian director Ilya Naishuller took a risk that to me, was a great success with first-person action triumph Hardcore Henry. Marvel also had one of their best years yet, with Captain America: Civil War being my new favorite Marvel movie and the hugely successful Doctor Strange being a close second. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve proved he’s almost unstoppable with the excellent Arrival, while newcomer Richard Tanne proved he can make a presidential first-date movie charmingly apolitical with Southside with You. Overall, a pretty great year for movies, although 2017 frankly seems to be the best since 2007. Cheers to that.

About The Author

Steve Carley

Steve Carley is a Michigan-born lover and resident of the film industry in Atlanta, Georgia. When he's not infiltrating the nearest Waffle House or giving up on the most recent movie-adapted book he can be seen lounging in his apartment complex's pool and regretting the way he wrote his Film Takeout bio.