The Best Movies of 2016: Our Staff Picks

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2016


The Film School Rejects team shows off their top ten lists.

Here are some interesting facts about the films of 2016, courtesy of our friends at Box Office Mojo. 709 films were released for at least one week, long enough to earn some money at the box office. The highest grossing domestic release was Pixar’s Finding Dory, which spent 25 weeks in theaters and grossed $486 million in the United States. The lowest grossing film of the year was Pet, a horror film starring Dominic Monaghan. It spent one week in theaters and earned $70. We were one of a handful of publications that reviewed it (Rob Hunter didn’t like it) and handed it a 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Speaking of Rotten Tomatoes, they list 180 movies as being Certified Fresh, which means that over 500 movies didn’t make the cut. What does that say about the quality of the cinema of 2016? Well, there were 180 good movies. And only one Suicide Squad. So not bad, overall. The Worst Reviewed movie of the year was Ratchet and Clank, an April theatrical release that scored a sizzling 18% from critics and made $8 million at the box office. The best reviewed film of the year: Zootopia at 98%. Oddly, there doesn’t appear to be a 100% Fresh movie in 2016. But, according to the Rotten Tomatoes team, this year set a record for the most Certified Fresh movies.

What this all means is that there was plenty of cinema out there in 2016 and your mileage was dependent upon your choices, as it always is. If you followed along with the consensus of critics, you probably saw some good stuff this year. If you swam against the grain, you probably saw two movies that involved Batman. Sorry, we can’t resist. We don’t really hold any animus toward the Zack Snyder DC-verse, but it was a favorite punching bag in 2016. If you liked it, that’s fine by us. You just sadly won’t see it among our Staff Picks below. Despite the lack of broody superhero films, you will see a wide range of selections from our staff. Everything from the biggest blockbusters to the smallest indie releases. We’ve scoured the cinematic landscape of 2016 and this is what we liked…

Film School Rejects: Team Top Ten

  1. Moonlight
  2. Arrival
  3. The Lobster
  4. Green Room
  5. La La Land
  6. Manchester by the Sea
  7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  8. The Handmaiden
  9. Jackie
  10. Captain America: Civil War

It might be surprising to see a film like Captain America: Civil War make our overall list, but it ended up getting some very high marks from a few of our team members, as you’ll see below. What won’t be a surprise is the fact that we named A24 our Filmmaker of the Year, considering the fact that 3 of our top 4 movies were among their distributed titles this year. Also, spoiler alert for movie of the year, which we’ll be announcing tomorrow…

Individual lists and thoughts from the staff can be found below.


Jamie Righetti

  1. Moonlight
  2. The Lobster
  3. American Honey
  4. 20th Century Women
  5. Elle
  6. Arrival
  7. Lemonade
  8. Toni Erdmann
  9. 13th
  10. Swiss Army Man

It’s really been a fantastic year for film and trying to narrow down a Top Ten selection has been hard to say the least as many of the films that didn’t make the cut are still films that blew me away. Sonia Braga was a revelation in Aquarius and should be talked about alongside Isabelle Huppert as one of the strongest, tour de force performances of the year. The Fits, Krisha, Kubo and the Two Strings and The Childhood of a Leader were all films that had an impact on me this year and deserve recognition. Documentaries such as 13th and OJ: Made in America made me sit up and trace back generations of protests to the ones unfolding today, reminding me we are doomed to repeat the past if we forget our history. Almodóvar returned with Julieta, a more subdued and mature look a female grief that superseded the much celebrated (but very white male centered) Manchester by the Sea for me. And of course, there are the films I’ve yet to see – Jackie, Silence, La La Land – that are absent here. But in the end, these are the ten films that I truly cherished, films I haven’t stopped thinking about, filled with moments that took my breath away, left me in tears, brought me joy and made me incredibly grateful that I get to spend my time writing about movies.

Manchester by the Sea

Tomris Laffly

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Things to Come
  3. La La Land
  4. Hidden Figures
  5. A Bigger Splash
  6. Moonlight
  7. The Love Witch
  8. Fire at Sea
  9. Sand Storm
  10. Cameraperson

I have always found the task of compiling year-end Top 10s impossible. I have taken part in various critics polls this year, and I don’t believe I have submitted two identical lists to any of them just yet. I have always made slight variations, feeling guilty leaving one out from one certain list, so including it in another. At this point, I have lost track of how many times I have cheated this way. But amid all that uncertainty, one thing remained the same across all versions: Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea never changed in position. It is the best film I have seen this year: a small story on the monumental grief of an everyman, told with the kind of precise emotional build up I came to expect from Lonergan following his You Can Count On Me, Margaret and even stage work. I haven’t seen a film like Manchester (or witnessed a performance like Casey Affleck’s) that affected me and marked my soul more deeply in 2016.

Looking at the rest of my list (where the likes of I, Daniel Blake, The Handmaiden, 13th and Toni Erdmann would also belong, if we were going just a bit longer), I notice a common thread. While set in entirely different universes, I sense a conversation happening between The Love Witch, Sand Storm and Things to Come. After all, they are all about women looking for a way out or for a fresh start following personal trauma. I notice Cameraperson and Fire at Sea aim at the same side of human sensibility, while organically generating empathy through observation and juxtaposition. I also acknowledge my personal need for dreamers and real-life superheroes on big screen. The struggling artist-turned-successful-performers at the heart of La La Land give me a sense of joy and longing, whereas the exceptional heroines at the heart of Hidden Figures who stand up tall against a system designed to cripple them fills my heart with unprecedented bliss. The visually opulent and luxe A Bigger Splash gently strokes my playful fantasies while the end-to-end exquisite Moonlight fills my heart with warmth, compassion and a deep sense of aching melancholy rarely achieved in cinema.

The talk around whether 2016 has been “good for film” is nonsense. If you look hard enough, there is always a film out there that will make you a changed person. Hopefully, a more complete one too.

Kate Plays Christine

Christopher Campbell

  1. Moonlight
  2. Cameraperson
  3. Loving
  4. O.J.: Made in America
  5. Certain Women
  6. Kate Plays Christine
  7. Jackie
  8. Weiner
  9. Midnight Special
  10. Under the Sun

As I do every year, my top 10 alternates between fiction and nonfiction, but they don’t seem so strikingly different this year. They are all about people, some real and some not, and get to a sense of humanity deeper than most of today’s films do. The characters in the five dramas feel more fleshed out and contain more surprises and empathy than I tend to expect from fiction. I usually don’t care about fake people (and that includes portrayals of real people), but I cared about all of them. And the characters in the docs were fleshed out more than nonfiction films often offer because actuality doesn’t necessarily mean three-dimensional. They show abridged and heavily edited versions of lives. One of those docs (O.J.) benefits from being extremely long and therefore more exhaustive, while another (Under the Sun) is literally about showing the truth of people behind a false front. Moonlight and Certain Women challenge our expectations of what could have been stereotypical screen characters. Kate Plays Christine and Jackie investigate complex personas split between the public and the private. Loving and Weiner present opposite approaches to political pursuits and the depiction of those different attitudes. And Cameraperson and Midnight Special play with their respective film mode and genre to make us appreciate their characters and their journeys on the way to, not upon reach of, their destinations. They say film is dead, but how can it be with so much life to be found in at least these 10 new works?

The Handmaiden

Jacob Oller

  1. The Handmaiden
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Kubo and the Two Strings
  4. 20th Century Women
  5. Green Room
  6. Everybody Wants Some!!
  7. The Lobster
  8. La La Land
  9. Arrival
  10. 10 Cloverfield Lane

My favorite films are always the ones that stick with me. They move me in ways that leave me shaking as I walk out of the theater, connecting things in my daily life back to them for weeks or months afterwards. I’ll never see a doorway ajar without thinking of the ultra-tense Green Room or hear “I Ran” without thinking of the delightfully sour La La Land. A boy that controlled paper with his guitar made me cry just as hard as a grieving Bostonian while I’ve never rooted for anyone harder than Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The images of 2016’s real world are violent, despotic, and often frustratingly bleak. Thankfully, I’ll always have lonely wooded EDM dances, baseball short-shorts, punkass Greta Gerwig’s outfits, and exquisite linguistics to remind me of what this world can offer.

Max Covill

  1. La La Land
  2. Toni Erdmann
  3. Arrival
  4. Manchester by the Sea
  5. Sing Street
  6. Moonlight
  7. 20th Century Women
  8. Jackie
  9. The Lobster
  10. Midnight Special

Above everything else that drives the ten films I’ve selected for 2016 is love. Love is unfathomable, but these ten films attempt to convey love in very different ways. Sometimes you need to find love in order to survive, literally in the case of The Lobster. It could be the case of paternal love as is the case in 20th Century Women, Midnight Special, and Toni Erdmann. Even when it is beautiful and true, love can be difficult as in Jackie, Moonlight, and La La Land. Extremely difficult choices must be made when in love, as seen in Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. Even when life leads to no other choices, love can lead to a new adventure as in Sing Street. 2016 has been an extremely difficult year for many, but where hope has been lost, love has the ability to heal.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

William Dass

  1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. The Invitation
  4. Green Room
  5. Always Shine
  6. 10 Cloverfield Lane
  7. A Man Called Ove
  8. Arrival
  9. A Bigger Splash
  10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The boss man said pick ten, so I can’t tell you I also loved The Witch, Hell or High Water, Mustang, Remember, Zootopia, I Am Not Serial Killer, Shin Godzilla, Morris From America, The Sound and the Shadow, and The Neon Demon. I just can’t. I kid, I kid. But, look. 2016 was a good year in film for me. I’ll watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople every year for the rest of my life. The MCU continues to reward my interest. The final shot of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation lodged in my brain for months after I first saw it. Green Room still has me in knots. Always Shine sky-rocketed onto the list with extraordinary performances from Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald. My final disclosure for 2016? I promised myself I wouldn’t mention politics, so my sincere appreciation of all the penises in film this year (I’m looking at you A Bigger Splash, The Chevalier, Captain Fantastic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I could go on) is right out. I guess it’ll have to be that I’m grateful for my year in cinema and I’m eager to see what’s next.

Captain America: Civil War

Brad Gullickson

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
  4. Green Room
  5. The Witch
  6. Star Trek Beyond
  7. The Nice Guys
  8. Arrival
  9. Manchester By The Sea
  10. The Lobster

I wear my heart, and my fandom on my sleeve. In a year that saw that said organ ripped from my chest, and pulverized by flicks like Moonlight, Jackie, Krisha, American Honey, and Manchester By The Sea, the films that really stuck with me were the ones that reveled in genre. The Lobster ground the sadsack romantic comedy through a Soylent Green dystopian prism that struck an all-too-relatable resonance. Arrival might have packed a little too much hope into its Tower of Babel invasion fable, but it was the perfect antidote for Election Night. Whereas rewatches of The Witch in President-Elect Trump’s America made that film even more terrifying than previously viewed. The Nice Guys continued Shane Black’s obsession with trashy pulp novels, and once again, perfectly replicated the buddy cop formula in the delightfully pathetic duo of Gosling and Crowe. After the Trekkie atrocity of Star Trek Into Darkness, Justin Lin’s threequel embraced the joys of its characters on the 50th Anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s original series, and gains bonus points for making me a believer again. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is the John Carpenter siege film I didn’t realize how desperately I missed. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a true cheat of a film, juggling every emotion, every tone, and succeeding with the cliché of “I laughed, I cried…” Hell or High Water is the type of performance driven crime flick we don’t see too often this side of the 1970s. Finally, just when I feared that it was time to get cynical over the Marvel/Disney blockbusting onslaught, Captain America: Civil War delivered an epic internal brawl that solved their “villain problem” by forcing audiences to choose #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. Marvel does not need a doomsday, or even a Thanos to keep us coming back; they own our butts through pure execution of character.

The Fits

H. Perry Horton

  1. The Neon Demon
  2. The Fits
  3. Midnight Special
  4. Weiner
  5. The Lobster
  6. The Witch
  7. The Invitation
  8. Green Room
  9. The Nice Guys
  10. The Shallows

Before you angry-tweet me, hang on. I live about 80 miles from the nearest movie theater, so if it isn’t streaming or on DVD or Blu-Ray, I haven’t seen it. That means no Moonlight, no Arrival, no American Honey. You guys have noticed I only cover videos and old stuff, right? Anyway, these are the 10 best 2016 releases I actually got to see in 2016, but that being said, my top three would have made the list no matter how many films I’d seen. In the top spot is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which was so visually lush and narratively wicked I could watch it over and over again forever. The Fits for me features the year’s breakout performer – Royalty Hightower – and the most captivating cinematography (by Paul Yee), while Midnight Special solidified what I’ve thought since Shotgun Stories: Jeff Nichols is going to have a great career, like Scorsese-, P.T. Anderson-, Spielberg-great (and I still need to see Loving). Outside the top three, The Lobster reinvented how I think about romantic comedies (as well as both romance and comedy), I thought The Witch by Robert Eggers was 2016’s best debut feature, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation made my skin crawl in the best sort of way, Green Room confirmed my suspicion that Jeremy Saulnier is the next prominent thriller director, and there are two kinds of movies I never pass up: anything written and/or directed by Shane Black and shark flicks, hence The Nice Guys and The Shallows rounding things out. In three or four months when everybody else’s lists have been released on disc maybe mine will look a little different, but until then this is my year in film.

Neil Miller

  1. Arrival
  2. Swiss Army Man
  3. The Handmaiden
  4. Kubo and the Two Strings
  5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  6. Moonlight
  7. Pete’s Dragon
  8. The Edge of Seventeen
  9. The Brand New Testament
  10. Deadpool

For better or worse, populism was a big deal in 2016. Fortunately for all of you, my populism is simply about movies and has nothing to do with encouraging divisiveness. Unless you want to talk about Suicide Squad. If so, I’ll go ahead and draw a line in the sand right now. Alas, this is about good movies. Jaw-droppingly smart sci-fi at the top of my list next to weird musical flatulence fantasy. Gorgeous, sumptuous erotic storytelling next to a stop-motion epic about a kid samurai and a monkey voiced by Charlize Theron. A huge galactic war rollercoaster followed by a three-vignette tale about being young, black, and gay. There’s one remake, one completely original coming-of-age comedy, a foreign film about how God is a total dick, and of course, the year’s most alluring, surprising, and vulgar superhero movie. It’s a list that represents the diversity of 2016 at the movies. Not a perfect diversity – we could use more voices of color, female filmmakers, and stories that represent the way our world really looks – but a diversity in tone and hue and rhythm. It was a strange, off-kilter year that saw some risks pay off while others fell flat. The great films of 2016 might end up being a smaller group than other years, but they are great. Especially when they have a farting corpse or some light sensual choking.

For more of our #2016Rewind coverage, click below:

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