Movies aren’t dying. They’re not. They’re not dying because of more and more first-run filmmaking moving to streaming platforms. They’re not dying in the name of a globalized box office market, even if that’s going to dramatically change what they’re going to look like by the time the transition is over. They’re not dying because of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice being a bad movie. They’re not dying because of artistic bankruptcy, no matter how many times people who live in Internet bubbles decide that’s the case because [insert critical darling] didn’t find a massive mainstream audience. They’re not dying. Just keep saying it to yourself over and over again until you have it right. Movies aren’t dying.
You’re already probably aware that 2016 was a pretty rough year for any person with a still-functioning moral compass. In that spirit, we’ll spare you any further reminders of how and why it was, because we’re not here to talk about all the movies that left us deflated, made us question the industry’s motives and vision, or reminded us that the franchise era is only going to claim more casualties before it abates. We’ve done enough of that for one year, and with fare like Emojimovie: Express Yourself on its way in 2017, we’ll likely find ourselves doing it again in due time.
Right now, though, we’re here to celebrate the great movies of 2016, the ones which moved us to laughter, tears, or overwhelmingly awkward discomfort. If major studios are trying to negotiate the tricky balance of artistic quality and economic imperatives, every so often they’ve found a way to succeed beyond all expectation. And it’s worth mentioning here that smaller studios like A24, Oscilloscope, and other notable independent bodies are still finding great lower-budget work and getting it in front of the people who appreciate it most, and they’re doing so with remarkable rates of success. Again, movies aren’t dying. They’re just migrating and changing, as they always will from time to time.
This year’s list, assembled after many hours of spirited debate among our staff, is proof that the stories being told are as innovative as they’ve ever been. And we’d like to think that there’s something for everybody here. Interested in a three-hour German seriocomedy about estranged families? We have you covered. An equally lengthy treatise on the indifference of God by one of cinema’s foremost artists? That too. We have an animated parable about the beauty and inevitability of loss, a screwball Shane Black comedy, a violent battle between a band of DIY punks and neo-Nazis, and an eight-hour documentary about one of America’s greatest and most telling modern tragedies.
There’s a lot of loss in many of our films this year, in one form or another, and maybe that’s our best commentary on the year that was. In one part of our list, a pair of bank robbers and an exhausted sheriff reckon with the 2008 banking crisis’ ground-level fallout in their own violent ways. In another, the disappearance of a small child sends a family into horrifying turmoil. Lonely women are driven to extremes, whether by the pressures of a family Thanksgiving or the sadistic thrills of taking another human life knowing that nobody will catch you. A young boy disappears into the woods and ends up pursued by half of New Zealand. The wife of a slain US president reckons with what life will be after the initial uproar dies down.
And yet, there’s hope too. There’s hope in a young boy becoming a young man in phases, learning how to live for himself even in the worst circumstances. There’s hope in star-crossed lovers dancing their way through a never-lovelier Los Angeles and in a woman finding the heart of all humanity when faced with extraterrestrial life. Hope in a broken man finding the possibility of salvation through family and in a pair of unlikely lovers running away from horrific circumstances in Japanese-occupied Korea. There’s hope in maturity, in the untamed corners of America still left to find, and in the simplicity of love, no matter who it’s with or where it’s found.
The movies are doing just fine, and if you’re still in doubt, read ahead as we break down our top 25 films of 2016. Check out the ones you haven’t yet, even if you have to dig around a little bit for them. And the next time you feel like everything is rehashed or forced into endless sequels: yeah, a lot of that is happening these days, but there’s still a wealth of exciting, innovative, essential filmmaking to be seen, talked about, argued about on Twitter, and loved for the many different reasons that people love movies. It’s out there waiting to be found, as it’s been since the early 1900s and always will be. Hopefully.