Substream presents the top 25 films of 2016

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Top 25 films of 2016

The Golden Globes were last night, and like many of you we were huddled around our televisions watching Hollywood’s best and brightest (mostly those involved with the creation of La La Land) accept awards while drinking seemingly endless glasses of champagne. 2016 was an amazing year for film, just as long as you knew where to look, and now that we have finally been able to see everything we are prepared to share our picks for the best movies last year had to offer.

This list was not easy to create. Our team (Film Editor James Shotwell and lead critic Leigh Monson) spent weeks debating over the ranking you’re about to see. The discussions were mostly polite, and never once did they come to physical violence, but to be completely transparent a few joking threats of unleashing Michael Bay-hem on one another may have been sent via group chat.

It’s important to mention that everything is subjective and we understand that your list may be completely different than our own. If so, please share it with us! Maybe you saw something we missed, or maybe you appreciate something in a way we never thought to consider. The only reason to make lists, in our opinion, is to compare our thoughts with everyone else. So please, comment below and let us know what films you enjoyed in 2016.

25. The Edge of Seventeen

edge of seventeen

The number 25 spot was contentious, and it almost went to the fantastically disturbed Green Room, but in the end we couldn’t resist putting credit where it’s due for The Edge Of Seventeen. A character study in teenage angst that keeps an R rating to avoid pandering to a teenage audience, Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut is heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly dark. However, it never loses sight of its protagonist’s expanding consciousness, and Craig’s clever screenplay allows our perception to expand right along with hers. – LM

24. The Smart Studios Story

We contemplated waiting another year to choose this film, as most of the world has still yet to see it, but the fact remains that we were fortunate enough to catch this essential bit of music history way back in March of 2016. Telling the story of perhaps the most influential recording studio of the last thirty years, The Smart Studios Story offers an in-depth look at the tiny space that made Nirvana, Garbage, and many more now-iconic rock bands household names. It also serves as a reminder that you don’t have to leave home to build a career for yourself in music, and that the most important piece of gear any musician can possess is the drive to be the best they can possibly be. – JS

23. Moana

Disney absolutely killed it this year, both in terms of animation and in their general output of quality films, and Moana is a fantastic example of just that (and not the last to be seen on this list). Even if you’re lukewarm on Disney’s postmodern commentary on their own tried and true princess formula, this movie delivers purely on a structural and emotional level. Between the gorgeous animation, a pair of fantastic leads, and some of the best musical tracks Disney has put out in years (yes, better than Frozen), this is a film that deserves to be added to the collection of any lover of the Disney canon. – LM

22. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Review

The high-brow stupidity of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone is unlike anything else in Hollywood today. It took a little longer for the Lonely Island to release the movie fans began demanding as far back as 2006, but the wait was definitely worth it. Popstar is the public skewering the music industry—not to mention our relationship with celebrities—has needed for quite some time. – JS

21. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One

It’s becoming in vogue to nitpick the problems with Rogue One, and while it is a flawed film in some respects, those flaws are minor in light of what it accomplishes. This was Disney’s grand experiment to see if they could depart from the pulp aesthetics of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, and with Gareth Edwards’ astounding eye for action they proved that it is not only possible, but might be a good idea in expanding the series beyond its episodic format. Combine that with a fantastic cast of diverse actors, a message of political hope, and a fantastic finale, and Rogue One deserves to have its greatness recognized. – LM

20. The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book Movie Review 2016

Most people thought Iron Man would be the movie that served as the peak of acclaimed filmmaker Jon Favreau’s career. After all, that film launched a cinematic universe that completely altered the way studios look at blockbusters and marketing. We are not trying to take anything away from that accomplishment, but The Jungle Book is another beast altogether (no pun intended). Favreau took a property largely considered to be perfect as is and found a way to improve upon it while using state-of-the-art digital animation that must be seen projected on a gigantic silver screen in order to be fully appreciated. It’s a work of art, a modern classic. – JS

19. 10 Cloverfield Lane

best movies of 2016

How have we not gotten John Goodman an Oscar yet? Seriously, this man’s acting chops are obscene, and one of the most underappreciated performances of the year is his in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The ending may be divisive, but regardless of how you feel about that you have to admit the first two acts are a tense bottling of conflicting personalities with some of the best subtle turns this side of Hitchcock. It’s essentially a brutally violent episode of The Twilight Zone, and we should all be on board for that. – LM

18. Sing Street

John Carney’s greatest work since Once is an ode to his own childhood in 1980s Dublin. The film follows a 14-year-old boy named Conor who escapes the pain of his parents’ broken marriage by committing himself to a life of music. Through his pursuit he makes a number of new friends, films his own music videos, and even manages to fall in love with a young woman who is lost in her own way. Together they find the strength we all hope to discover in our search to be the people we were meant to become (all while writing phenomenal pop songs). – JS

17. Kubo And The Two Strings

kubo two strings

Laika is the beautiful artisanal gem of an animation studio that often gets overshadowed by the titans of computer-generated flicks, but their dedication to stop-motion and bringing it to the modern audience is simply jaw-dropping. Kubo And The Two Strings not only looks gorgeous—and it does look gorgeous—but it tells a gripping tale of loss and acceptance that is unlike just about anything out there in family cinema. So few films targeted at children so fully embrace the bittersweet ending, but Kubo rises to the occasion and becomes a modern masterpiece. – LM

16. Pete’s Dragon

Pete's Dragon

David Lowery, not unlike filmmaker Jeff Nichols, is a man whose work we celebrate for their ability to create an illusion of simplicity. Though this feature relies on an incredibly well-designed CGI dragon to tell its story, Lowery finds a way to make the whole affair appear as if it were a slice out of everyday life. Movies today do not get more grounded in the presentation than in Lowery’s, and that talent for relatability allows him to take us on magical journeys that offer hope in the most unlikely of places. – JS

15. Hell Or High Water

hell or high water

Well, wasn’t this the surprise hit of the year? Hell Or High Water is a great example of just how well a modern Western can be implemented without reliance on cliché or nostalgia. Incredibly well-written, fantastically acted, and more tense than it has any right to be, this is a movie that will go down as not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best Westerns of the new millennium. – LM

14. Train To Busan

train to busan

This one was a total surprise in the best possible way. Korean horror has long been heralded for its quality and ability to catch the rest of the world off guard, which is exactly what makes Train To Busan such a brutal delight. Set largely within a speeding bullet train filled with zombies, the film manages to combine the endless terror of George Romero’s best work with the tension and socio-political commentary of Snowpiercer. This is a movie that is far better than it has any right to be based on its premise alone, but somehow it manages to be one of the best zombie films in the last decade. – JS

13. Captain America: Civil War

best movies of 2016

Marvel. Just. Won’t Quit. Even their weaker outings retain a certain level of charm and watchability, but when they knock it out of the park, they really knock it out of the park. Captain America: Civil War is one of the best Marvel outings because it marries the large cast and dynamic action of an Avengers movie with the personal stakes and emotional drive of a solo hero installment. The juggling act necessary to keep all the pieces of this film comprehensibly moving while delivering a thematically rich narrative is no small feat, and if Marvel can keep this kind of momentum up, we have some great superhero films on the horizon. – LM

12. Don’t Think Twice

Don't Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia’s second feature film is a refined mixture of the same things that made his debut work, Sleepwalk With Me, so great. Don’t Think Twice follows the members of an improv group in the final weeks of their host theater’s existence. The impending closure forces each to face the reality of their own situation and grapple with what they will/should do next. Birbiglia balances the humor and heartache well, and thanks to a very talented cast he is able to capture many unique and engaging perspectives on a single event as few filmmakers can. This is a movie for anyone who has ever been brave enough to ask themselves honestly whether or not they’re good enough to be the thing they want to be. – JS

11. Swiss Army Man

swiss army man

The farting corpse movie made our Top 25, and though this may sound absolutely absurd, watch the movie. Swiss Army Man is surprisingly deep and nuanced, meditating on the nature of existence, depression, relationships, loss, romance, bromance, and individuality. And somehow this all exists in juxtaposition to fart jokes and gross body humor gags. This is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed, and though you may walk away questioning what the hell you just saw, you’re sure to remember it for a long, long while. – LM

10. Midnight Special

best movies of 2016

Jeff Nichols gave us two features in 2016, and though we enjoyed Loving a great deal it was Midnight Special that lingered in our minds and conversations for weeks on end. Filled with original ideas and built from a wholly original premise, this tasty piece of quiet science fiction told a powerful story of a father’s love for his child and the lengths any parent will go to in order to keep their children safe. We won’t spoil the big reveal in the film’s final moments, but suffice to say we still get lost imagining what such a twist would mean for us it were a true story. – JS

9. 13th

Few documentaries so effectively take what you already know and frame it in such a way that completely upends what you assumed you knew. Ava Duvernay’s 13th is a gritty exploration of how slavery never completely went away in this country, and the mechanisms of Black oppression are so ingrained into daily life that many of us will go on not questioning it or even defend it as the proper state of things. You won’t think of the prison industrial complex the same way again, and if ever a film were filled with righteous anger, it’s this one. –LM

8. Tower

A cool thing about the age of streaming services is that it has made more people willing to watch documentaries by lowering the price of admission. Seeing a documentary in theaters can be a risky investment, but Tower should be considered essential viewing for movie lovers of all shapes and sizes. Told using gorgeous animation drawn over real performances, the story of the first school shooting on a college campus in North America comes to life in a way few films ever have before. If you don’t know the story already, go in blind. – JS

7. First Girl I Loved

first girl I loved

Sometimes a movie just works. First Girl I Loved isn’t a showcase of well-known acting talent or Oscar aspirations. No, First Girl I Loved is a smaller story of two teenage girls, struggling with an attraction to one another that they dare not reveal for fear of social suicide. Rocky communication and adolescent growing pains hamper their first exploration of romantic love, yet this film crafts that into something beautiful. Funny and touching, this is the year’s biggest hidden gem, and I hope everyone reading this will find this diamond in the rough. –LM

6. Tickled

Sometimes the best works arise from unexpected changes or challenges that come about when production is already underway. This is the case with Tickled, which follows one reporter’s journey to investigate an online competitive tickling competition. Things quickly go from weird to questionably criminal, and everything that follows plays out like a thriller no one, including the people involved with the production, could have anticipated. Don’t look up anything more about this film. The less you know, the better. Just see it. – JS

5. Zootopia

Zootopia is absolutely jaw-dropping. What at first appeared to be a cash-grabbing talking animal flick turned out to be much more than that. On top of having an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic sense and a fully realized world that easily lends itself to further stories, Zootopia is a biting social commentary on prejudice and racism in America. Who would have thought? It’s heartening to see this film become a staple of so many young viewers’ movie collections, because it has a message that we all should take to heart as we attempt to build a brighter tomorrow for everyone. – LM

4. Manchester By The Sea

Manchester By The Sea

Most movies show us a version of the person we all aspire to be. Maybe it’s a movie about a normal person who becomes a superhero, a hopeless romantic who finds a fellow dreamer, or maybe it’s about a teen outcast who finds the confidence to be their true selves and win over their crush. Manchester By The Sea, on the other hand, shows us who we really are. Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature offers an unwavering and often times uncomfortably honest look at our constant battle with the mortality as told through the eyes of a broken man, a lost boy, and a town that never forgets. It’s the kind of movie that is destined to leave you sobbing in your seat, but don’t worry because it’ll be one of those ‘good cry’ moments that leaves you feeling better about yourself and life in general. – JS

3. The Handmaiden

handmaiden

Move over, Oldboy. Park Chan-wook has a new best movie. It’s hard to get too far into the depths of what makes The Handmaiden great without getting into spoiler territory, but it somehow manages to be a romance, a thriller, a noir film, a heist movie, a gorgeously shot period piece, and a commentary on gender relations and sexuality that never feels exploitative. Meanwhile, any narratively karmic nastiness is directed at characters who ultimately deserve it, delivering one of the most uplifting endings of the year. The two-and-a-half-hour runtime may be intimidating, but it is worth the stunning twists and turns that await you. See. This. Movie. –LM

2. La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle is quickly building one of the most desirable resumes in Hollywood, and against all odds he is doing it with stories that revolve around a love of jazz in a time when that genre of music is less appreciated than ever before. La La Land blends Chazelle’s fervent love for jazz with elements of musicals from cinema’s golden age to create a new and entirely intoxicating kind of moviegoing experience that causes your brain to swell with dopamine for the bulk of its two-hour runtime. This one’s for the lovers who dare to dream and the dreamers who dare to love. – JS

1. Moonlight

moonlight

Despite my love of cinema, few films move me quite on the level that Moonlight does. What could have easily become an exploitative play at Intersectionality: The Movie is instead a celebration of non-hegemonic identities realized in one person, and the exploration of key moments in that person’s life is at once poetic and shockingly real. As portrayed by three talented actors at various moments of upheaval in his life, protagonist Chiron is going to be analyzed by film aficionados for years to come, and the fantastic supporting cast, beautiful cinematography, and alternatingly tense and touching direction make this not just the best film of the year, but a cinematic achievement that will be celebrated for decades. – LM