James Cole Clay’s Top 18 Movies of 2016


James Cole Clay // Film Critic

People, critics, journalists have declared film is dying and the shift is moving towards television. While the water cooler talk has largely shifted towards – “What have you been binging this week?” – film is most certainly not dead, the quality just comes in on the independent circuit. Since I’ve been covering films 2016 has been the year for an eclectic mix of stories that are diverse, compassionate, philosophical and utterly beautiful.

This is a year I won’t soon forget, as it will go down as the year my love for cinema was reenergized. These films not only entertained but shined a light on the human experience, and that is a reward that’s worth way more than a $15 ticket price.

Without further ado, here are my top 18 films of the year. (Because 16 was too trite and 17 wasn’t enough.)


This is a 162-minute German comedy about a father who annoys his daughter in the most imaginative ways possible. Maren Ade’s film touches on the ever-changing relationships of parents and kids. We are there to boost each other when we are down, and sometimes we see each other in our most vulnerable moments. This film is unlike anything American cinema could offer this year (minus SWISS ARMY MAN). It’s sprawling, hilarious and just plain marvelous.


Clint Eastwood’s film about “The Miracle on the Hudson” could be seen as a movie about dads for dads, but the film is so much more than that. Tom Hanks gives a brilliantly restrained performance of a man tied to his convictions and ponders his place in the world while Eastwood’s direction showcases a theme of unity and banding together for one common goal. It’s stupendous.


Dealing with grief is single-handedly one of the most trying experiences a person can go through in life, especially as a child. J.A. Bayona (director of the upcoming JURASSIC WORLD sequel) made a film fantastical film that is sweet and pushes the limits of whimsy more than many other “Spielbergian” type films ever have. This film is therapy in celluloid form — a special gift from the movie gods and should be required viewing for any child ages 12 and over. 


Robert Egger’s religious horror film is perfect. Our editor Preston Barta and I saw this film in 2015 and it still lingers in our minds 18 months later. You can view this film through many lenses: It’s a family drama, a coming of age drama, a horror film, a story about a woman gaining her freedom from patriarchy. But for me, its a film about the history of America’s puritanical roots and that produce some of the most haunting results imaginable.


Living in Texas nearly my entire life, you see the vast landscapes and the strange cast of characters. This neo-Western directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie (STARRED UP) gave us an outsider’s perspective on Western culture. Not only did HELL OR HIGH WATER have three juicy performances from Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine, it had a poignant script by Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) and will secure cult status in the coming years.


Gender dynamics have gone mainstream these days and that’s for the better. Communication between the sexes has proved to be a difficult task for the past couple thousand years for humans. Mike Mills’ (BEGINNERS) film expertly takes on this topic as a video essay in narrative form. He has such compassion and admiration for the woman and people he profiles in this film. Many men (myself included) could learn a lot from the musings of Mills and it doesn’t hurt that Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig are firing on all cylinders — plus Billy Crudup is a criminally underrated actor.


I saw this film at SXSW and thought it was just going to be another cutesy indie film that goes straight to VOD. It’s not. This film may have been the most pleasant surprise of 2016. Mike Birbiglia’s (SLEEPWALK WITH ME) second feature is a colossal step forward for him as a filmmaker. Using the backdrop of improv comedy he asks, “What do you do if all your hopes and dreams don’t come true?” With an exceptional ensemble cast consisting of Keegan Michael Key, Birbiglia, Gillian Jacob, Kate Micucci and Chris Gethard, all find a way to shine light on one of life’s most difficult truths and getting older.


Independent filmmaking darling Jim Jarmusch made a film that’s poetry in motion, quite literally. The story follows the day-in and day-out of a bus driver who just so happens to be a poet. Led by Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani, they share the screen in what is the sweetest and caring romance to come across the screen all year — not to mention the film is bitingly funny.


WOW. This film is what spectacle is all about. It started the summer off with a bang, but unfortunately ended in a whimper. Yet, Marvel Studios, I think, has their high-point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a film that had the best action set-pieces of the entire series and certainly the most nuanced character development. If you haven’t seen this yet, rectify that immediately. (Now streaming on Netflix)


Life in New Zealand must be hilarious. Well, that’s a bit short-sided. But director Taika Waititi (upcoming THOR: RAGNAROK) made a unique film about finding family in the most unexpected places. Highlighting gorgeous landscapes and an understated musical score boosts an already touching story about an orphaned boy who loves American gangster rap and his crusty uncle. Just trust me and give this one a shot.


Ahhh to be young. The open road and the endless possibilities are wondrous. This is a film that asks you to just exists with its characters. While they may not all be likable, this group of 15-or-so wayward youths have a nomadic way of life that continues to unfold as they sell magazines by any means necessary. With a strange soundtrack of trap music and Shia LaBeouf’s rattail, AMERICAN HONEY is one of a kind.


Damn, this movie is sexy in every way, and, of course, it was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. This Russian nesting doll of a film is a gorgeous film about the ugly things love will make us do. Led by Amy Adams in a career best, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is trash in its finest form.


Raising children is a difficult task and there is no right way to do it, but CAPTAIN FANTASTIC shows both sides of the coin. This is a film tailor made for lead actor Viggo Mortensen who has created a person we have yet to see on-screen. Writer-director Matt Ross contrasts two ways of life with results that are life-affirming and, at times, utterly hilarious.


I’m sure you’ve heard of Damien Chazelle’s musical about falling in love and never giving up on your dreams. I fell under the spell of musical numbers such as “City of Stars” and the toe-tapping “A Lovely Night.” It didn’t hurt that leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the living embodiment of charm. This one is what cinema is all about– a modern day throwback.


Oh Lordy. This is a strange breed of comedy. With quite possibly the most curious premise I’ve ever seen in a film, THE LOBSTER is truly a diamond hidden in a mound of coal. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weiss lead the way with John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw doing the heavy lifting, adding nice character touches for a film that provides a rich and quite hilarious tapestry to enjoy over and over and over again.


I say this with a heavy heart, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a dramatic masterpiece about finding the humor in the wake of tragedy, but its not just about one thing. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafted together a film that shined light on how deal with family when there just simply isn’t any love left to give. And not to mention, Casey Affleck delivers a beautifully internal performance that’s nothing short of a miracle.


I’ve seen MOONLIGHT a total of five times and each time I cry (just a little). Conveying emotions and letting yourself become vulnerable is completely terrifying and simultaneously rewarding. Director Barry Jenkins is in complete control of this story about identity, youth, poverty and love, as we see the world from the perspective of a damaged young man. His craft as a director allows us to fully empathize and feel, which is so special in a world full of instant gratification.


Richard Linklater’s (BOYHOOD) spiritual-sequel to DAZED AND CONFUSED is more than a movie about dudes being dudes. I viewed this film as a two-hour lesson in philosophy filled with characters you instantly bond with, brought to life by actors like Glenn Powell and Blake Jenner. Sit back, crack a beer and relax in this laid back atmosphere. Don’t be surprised if you find a few nuggets of wisdom along the way.

Honorable Mentions:


About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.