Top 20 Best Films of 2016

2016 was a roller coaster year for many reasons: from celebrity deaths, to political upheavals, to the unfortunate death of a certain precious gorilla. Luckily, this year provided a bevy of cinematic distractions to keep this critic entertained and satiated while the darkest of times so far this century descended upon us all. Every year, each reputable critic releases a list of their favorite films of the year, so I figured my time has come to join in and make my own. I could not narrow my list down to a top ten like many critics have, as I felt there were too many films worthy of mention to watch this year. 

This list is solely my opinion, and is not representative of your opinion or even of the other writers here at the CBC, so let me know if you agree or disagree with these picks in the comment section. I'm interested to hear what you think. 

20. Don't Breathe (Dir.: Fede Alvarez)

Don't Breathe is the newest feature film from Fede Alvarez, the director of the surprisingly well-executed and enjoyable 2013 remake of the beloved cult horror classic Evil Dead. Alvarez proved that he had an eye for detail and a style that complimented the best aspects of horror and suspense, but at the same time, he knew not to leave his films too visually dark to see or too reliant on jump scares like a lot of other horror directors. He continues this style in his newest film, where a skillful absence of score, a precise direction towards his actors, and a tendency to build upon tension scene after scene all make Don't Breathe a film worth watching for all fans of the psychological thriller. While the third act of the film does veer a little bit into territory that could be considered far-fetched, Stephen Lang's performance and the tight screenplay make this a white knuckle thriller in the best possible way, and one of the best thrillers of the year.

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19. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dir.: Dan Trachtenberg)

When J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves unleashed the found footage monster film Cloverfield upon cinemas in 2008, audiences reacted with fervor and awe at the surprisingly well-established lore, backstory, and creature design that the film presented, giving the film a devoted cult fan base rather quickly. It didn't take long for fans to demand a sequel to the film, but rather than follow the straight sequel route, Abrams and company decided to anthologize the series as a whole, and establish a Twilight Zone-esque pattern for the films. The second film in the Cloverfield brand, 10 Cloverfield Lane, establishes brand new characters and a new story, but one with no less tension, suspense and creativity. Featuring stellar sound design, an Oscar-worthy supporting performance from the always excellent John Goodman, and a great narrative that slowly peels back layers of its characters and contributes greatly to its own world-building, this is a contained science fiction thriller that you should definitely check out.

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18. Krisha (Dir.: Trey Edward Shultz)

While Krisha owes a debt to Paul Thomas Anderson's films - particularly Punch-Drunk Love - Trey Edward Shultz' indie Thanksgiving drama feels far more intimate, smaller and scope, and above all, more volatile than his mentor's romantic dramedy. Taking place in one location, in one day, and revolving around one small family, the film utilizes a manic, percussive score, and intentionally low depth of field cinematography to heighten the tension in every scene, completely immersing the viewer in the familial conflict that slowly and methodically brews. Ultimately, the narrative's focus relies on the lead titular character, played brilliantly by Krisha Fairchild, as she struggles to reconnect with a family where she has long functioned as a pariah. Though the runtime is brief, Krisha never shows a dull moment, and this is a familial thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Despite being void of action or suspense, Shultz's direction and Krisha Fairchild's performance combine to create a cinematic whirlwind of desperation, anxiety, and empathy. 

Krisha is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

17. The Nice Guys (Dir.: Shane Black)

Shane Black has made his name writing screenplays for hit films such as the Lethal Weapon franchise, so it comes as no surprise that his newest film, The Nice Guys, follows a similar action-comedy formula. This film works both as a period piece, taking place in the '70s (neon colors and all), and also as a further continuation of the neo-noir style film that the aforementioned Mel Gibson-led franchise spawned, and his other films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang perpetuated. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe prove to have excellent chemistry as the two lead private investigators, and their scenes together never cease to provide entertainment. While the actual narrative starts to peter out in focus in the last thirty minutes, the film as a whole is a fun, stylistically sound ride that not only Shane Black fans but fans of action comedies in general can enjoy. This type of film is not made too often anymore, so whenever a film like this does come along, whether it be penned by Shane Black or another writer, it deserves a chance. Thankfully, The Nice Guys was a chance well taken. 

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16. The Conjuring 2 (Dir.: James Wan)

Following the success of The Conjuring, a sequel was quickly announced, much to my own skepticism and many other critics around the land. Horror sequels almost never turn out to be any good, let alone follow well into the footsteps of its acclaimed predecessor. James Wan proved us all wrong, however, as The Conjuring 2 was every bit as formidable, terrifying, and subtly skin-crawling as its forebearer. Yet again Wan's excellent horror direction and his eye for detail helped to make this film creepy in all the right ways. At the same time, the continued acting talents of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga were put to good use, as they both were given a more emotionally in-depth, personal story than the former entry in the series. While the introduction of the new English family was well-executed, and you cared about their plight in their haunted house, the Warrens remain the main focus and are given the most detail and character depth, further fleshed out in sympathetic fashion. While the film had a longer runtime than most horror films, it balanced its scares with its emotional core and never felt too boring or too horrifying to make viewers want to let go of its grasp. This film broke the horror sequel curse in the best possible way, and as long as Wan remains behind the camera, I look forward to the next film in the Conjuring series.

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15. The Lobster (Dir.: Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster tells the highly unconventional story of a single man who is forced by his own society to attend a hotel with other single people who share a single common goal: find a significant other within a few weeks' time, or be transformed into an animal of his own choosing. While the premise itself sounds ridiculous, it is executed staggeringly well, forming one of the sharpest sociological satires in recent cinema. The Lobster exaggerates and criticizes the modern conceptions behind romance, friendships, social hierarchy, class-based caste systems, and much more. Yorgos Lanthimos proved highly capable of mocking and deconstructing societal conditioning with his own tortured nurture film Dogtooth, and while much of the inherent structural cynicism in The Lobster is played for laughs rather than gasps, the journey of the individuals in the mating hotel remains just as relevant in today's social media era of dating and human relationship building. While the film takes a radical turn in the second half, it never loses its wit, and Lanthimos deserves to be commended for his continued excellence in satirical, refreshingly absurd filmmaking.

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14. Captain America: Civil War (Dir.: Anthony and Joe Russo)

While Disney has helped the Marvel Cinematic Universe crank out films for the greater part of the decade, many were skeptical that there would ever be films in the MCU that topped the original Iron Man or Joss Whedon's ensemble spectacle The Avengers. Captain America: Civil War not only gives those above two films good competition, but it succeeds in doing the impossible: combining two key, personal character arcs with the obligatory fast action and CGI-filled superhero throwdown in a tasteful way. While fans have come to know and love Captain America and Iron Man as superheroes, this is the first film where their differences in political and moral opinion serve to usher in the greater conflict of the film, dividing the Avengers in half and giving the film's fights their due diligence along the way. While it's definitely the darkest and most mature Marvel film to date, it's also accessible for the younger crowd, as characters like Spider-Man and Ant-Man provide comic relief and levity alongside the dark, brooding nature of Cap and Iron Man's conflict. While casual filmgoers not up to date with the MCU will get lost, and the bloated nature of the multiple characters at times can feel overwhelming, the sheer fluidity and balance of character development and grand set pieces in Captain America: Civil War make it as powerful of a blockbuster as they come.

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13. Hell or High Water (Dir.: David Mackenzie)

What starts as a Coen-inspired Texan noir quickly turns into a commentary on a post-financial crisis America that you don't often see in modern independent cinema, let alone one this stylishly shot and powerfully acted. Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges all bring their A-game to this southern fried thriller, as this story of two bank robbers and the federal marshal hot on their trail feels simultaneously classic and contemporary. Director David Mackenzie works great magic with Taylor Sheridan's screenplay, and while neither the side of the law nor the outlaws are given preferential treatment, Mackenzie shows great care in building the characters' interactions and developing them organically. Even the hyper-conservative, concealed-carry Texan civilians of the film are given more depth than standards extras, and the countryside of Texas becomes its own character in the film, explored more with each passing scene. Hell or High Water is a slow burn, but the time it takes to develop the plot is necessary, as the final thirty minutes of the film provide a violent punch in the gut that feels as bittersweet as it does deservedly unclean, with the eternal dichotomy of order and chaos on display in all its cinematic and literary glory.

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12. The Witch (Dir.: Robert Eggers)

Robert Eggers spared no expense in making The Witch as historically accurate as he could, while simultaneously providing enough scares and supernatural flair to make the horror presented onscreen as ambiguous and endlessly interpretable as possible. This historical texture adds to the film's own uniqueness as a part horror film, part familial drama, and part period piece. For standard jump-scare, haunted house horror fans, The Witch doesn't provide much in terms of shocking or loud crashing thrills, but it does consistently unnerve and creep into the viewer's psyche. Even if it doesn't outright horrify, it succeeds incredibly in making the viewer feel uncomfortable. The acting is unusually fantastic for the genre as well, as even the child actors in the family make the most of their almost impenetrable colonial English lines, and the cinematography is simultaneously gorgeous and claustrophobic. Finally, the ending of the film is perhaps the best ending to a horror film since John Carpenter's The Thing, though it's far more outrageous and over-the-top, in the most visually entertaining way. The Witch is a horror film for cinephiles above the casual jump-scare addicts, but its inherent versatility as a historical film and a family drama make it worthy of its place on this list.

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11. Manchester by the Sea (Dir.: Kenneth Lonergan)

While most critics have put Manchester by the Sea on their lists as an acting showcase for Casey Affleck, the rest of the film is pretty solid as well. The film tells a slow but powerful narrative of a man who has lost everything and has moved away from the hometown where tragedy struck him, only to be forced to commute back to said town because of a family member’s passing. While the film is a tad too long and repetitive in delivering its themes, said themes are shown maturely and realistically. Grief in films often feel overly ‘theater’: Shakespearean and over the top. The more realistic displays of grief and loss in this film, relayed expertly by Affleck and company, help to ground the film and provide extra immersion in a film that refuses to take the easy way out. The viewer sympathizes with Affleck’s character, as he/she witnesses the rise and fall of his familial life and his happiness, and through character development and honest, methodical narrative flow, the film never sinks to a level of boredom. W viewer never stops caring about the different citizens of Manchester on display. Director Kenneth Lonergan is to be admired for crafting a niche drama that’s not for the faint of heart, and for creating one of the best films of 2016.

You can purchase Manchester By The Sea using our Amazon affiliate link or stream it on Amazon Prime starting on May 5, 2017.

10. Green Room (Dir.: Jeremy Saulnier)

With his previous film, Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier showed that he is unafraid to unapologetically show the consequences behind characters who inevitably make the wrong decisions, but also not without making them sympathetic at the same time. He continues this tradition with Green Room, a contained thriller that tells the story of a young hardcore punk band who play one last show on their tour. That show just happens to be at a neo-nazi club. One of the bandmates enters a green room at the wrong time, setting off a violent and thrilling chain of events that never finds respite until the end credits roll. The violence in this film separates itself from other violent cinema by just how brutal, unflinching, and realistically gory it is, and the characters who are maimed and brutalized don’t shrug it off in Hollywood fashion. Thus, the stakes are consistently high throughout the film, as Saulnier’s writing and direction make the characters suffer and succumb to the nihilistic, violent group that the film narrative itself rails against. Featuring Anton Yelchin in one of his last filmed roles, an unusually chilling antagonistic performance from Patrick Stewart, excellent cinematography, a minimalist but creepy soundtrack, and a screenplay that surprises as much as it disgusts, Green Room is quite possibly the most violent film of the year, and definitely one of the most thrilling.

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9. Swiss Army Man (Dir.: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

There comes a time when a film is released that defies categorization, that splits audiences right down the middle, and causes cinema-goers to either turn from a film away in disgust or to be enraptured in awe at the sheer uniqueness of said film. I fell in the latter camp with Swiss Army Man, the directorial debut from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. While the film can be described as a tale of magical realism, featuring a farting corpse that can be ridden like a jet ski, describing its plot is not the best introduction to the film. The premise may be absolutely bonkers, but its execution is beautifully crafted, and it’s a film that must be seen to be believed. While the film does at first seem crude and immature, if the viewer sticks with it until the end, the screenplay twists and turns its inherent, initially crass nature into something honest and sincere, and as the film slowly shifts from a dark and profane comedy into a sweet little indie drama. I was captivated by the directors’ skill at gradually shifting tone. Plenty of filmmakers attempt this type of shift but fail, proving to have less versatility in filmmaking than they believe. Though this ambition is usually charming, to see a film like Swiss Army Man pull it off with gusto and flair truly behooves recognition.

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8. Zootopia (Dir.: Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)

Disney has remained the paragon for mainstream animated filmmaking for the better part of a century now, but their forays into computer generated (rather than hand-drawn) animation are relatively new, at least independently, without the aid of Pixar. With Zootopia, Disney has quite possibly crafted their first CGI-animated classic, as this film teaches a profound message that adults can appreciate and that children need to learn. Essentially a commentary on modern prejudice and racism, the narrative of the film provides depth and layered characterization for its animal kingdom (err, city?) that rivals many of this year’s live action films. The animation also remains gorgeous and detailed throughout its runtime, and the voice acting never disappoints. It’s refreshing to see a clever animated film unafraid to take on a heavy message in today’s culture climate. I grew up with tons of animated films in the 1990s that achieved this type of mature storytelling, and I loved seeing this type of animated filmmaking return in a new and exciting digital format. Zootopia is a film I’ll most likely remember for years to come, not just for its messages, but for its visual beauty, easily lovable characters, and exciting world.

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7. The Wailing (Dir.: Na Hong-Jin)

The Wailing is a two-and-a-half hour long film, but it never wastes a single scene. This psychological thriller shows a town afflicted with a deadly plague that not only infects its citizens with boils and rashes, but also with homicidal rage, as the victims end up brutally massacring their families, leaving our protagonist, an inept but well-meaning police sergeant, investigating the string of infections to discover the source of the plague. I’m a big fan of the recent renaissance that Korean cinema has undergone in the past fifteen or so years. I can confidently state that this film ranks up with some of the best recent Korean thrillers available to watch. This film does a brilliant job of combining the Fincherian detective thriller with supernatural horror, and it does so to the benefit of its narrative. The cast is also excellent, with particularly grand performances from the little girl, one of the best child performances of the year, and the lead protagonist, who must transform from an apathetic cop into a reluctant Byronic hero. The real hero of the film, however, is definitely director Na Hong-Jin, as he combines excellent cinematography with a sprawling screenplay that offers twist after turn after surprise until the last ten minutes of the film, never letting up the mysterious intrigue that surrounds the plague, culmonating in an unforgettable finale that gives the film a tremendous payoff. It’s a crazy, bewildering cinematic journey that deserves to be taken.

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6. Arrival (Dir.: Denis Villeneuve)

I loved Prisoners, but after being disappointed with both Enemy and Sicario, I was looking to give up on Denis Villeneuve as a director. Then along comes Arrival, which put me back in the saddle again, as this is one of the director’s best films to date. In this science fiction drama, Amy Adams plays a linguist with some hefty personal baggage who must uncover why aliens have landed on earth. Her performance in the film is definitely Oscar-worthy, as she brings a fantastically nuanced and layered portrayal of a woman who for all intents and purposes is still trying to heal from a heavy loss that reveals itself as the film progresses. Though the personal motivations of each other character may not be as sympathetic or well-developed as Amy Adams’ character, the cinematography, the minimalistic score, and the creature design all help to give a smooth and invigorating cinematic experience. The narrative may be slow, but it’s never boring, as Adams’ performance carries even the most mundane of scenes in the grand translating game that the team of scientists all play. The narrative is definitely far more cerebral than advertised, as there is virtually no action and almost no violence to speak of, but this makes the film feel unique rather than uninspired. The final reveal at the end of the third act also makes the film as a whole have a greater meaning, and it drives home the massive impact of the struggle that Adams’ character consistently wrestles with. Arrival is destined to be regarded as a sci-fi classic, and it’s among the best films of the year.

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5. Nocturnal Animals (Dir.: Tom Ford)

From the opening credits of Nocturnal Animals, director Tom Ford lets his audience know that he’s not interested in basic mainstream filmmaking. This is a thriller that consistently shocks and surprises, not only by showing scenes of bleak hopelessness or loss, but also through the meta nature of the narrative. In another Oscar-worthy turn from Amy Adams, her character in the film receives a novel from her long-estranged ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, called Nocturnal Animals. Part of the film’s narrative involves Adams’ life as an arthouse gallery owner, part of the film involves the narrative of the book she is reading, and later on, a third main storyline is added that tells how Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters got together and married in the first place. The film's narratives blend together in interesting ways, and the transitions always feel intertextual and seamless, despite each narrative thread having complex and differing tones. Both lead performances are stellar, as are the supporting performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon, the latter of which stealing each scene he is in. The cinematography, set design, and costuming are all impeccable, and the score is also surprisingly resonant, giving even the darkest scenes some orchestral light. While this film shows that Tom Ford has an eye for visuals and music, he proves to be a capable writer here as well, as the story ends with an ambiguous ending that was the subject of some intense analysis between myself and the friend I watched the film with. As it stands, Nocturnal Animals is a bleak, depressive, but ultimately profound work of cinema that demands to be seen.

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4. Deadpool (Dir.: Tim Miller)

Comic book fans have waited for Deadpool for over a decade, and the long wait pretty much guaranteed that the film would inevitably disappoint when it finally released. Fortunately, director Tim Miller and executive producer, lead actor, writer, and Deadpool mega-fan Ryan Reynolds did the unthinkable: they not only made a near-perfect Deadpool film, but they also made one of the best comic book films of the year, and definitely the best comic book film under the Fox umbrella. Tim Miller’s directorial debut, a surprising and incendiary piece of action comedy filmmaking, released to unprecedented critical and commercial success for an R-rated comic book film, the success of which serves a testament to his and Reynolds’ talents in enacting a faithful adaptation of the comic book hero to the big screen. Ryan Reynolds excels as the titular antihero, even going so far as to be nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. The jokes and the action never cease in what is easily one of the most fun cinematic experiences of the year. Deadpool never pretends to reach for high art or mature themes like The Dark Knight or Captain America: Civil War attain, but this focus to simply relay the story of a sarcastic, wisecracking antihero bent on revenge is maximized to its fullest extent. The soundtrack and the supporting cast both add to the humor, but the main heroes of the film, the collaboration of a first-time director and a superfan with a diehard faithfulness to the character, make this film’s execution alone worth the price of admission. It’s an excellent action film, an excellent comedy, and an all-around excellent film in 2016.

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3. Moonlight (Dir.: Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight has an intimate premise: a young African American boy grows up gay, and as he slowly discovers his own sexuality, he struggles to find his place in the world. He attempts to make connections in the face of a drug-addicted mother, bullies at school, and a brief love affair that ends all too abruptly. The film takes a three act structure: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it follows young Chiron on his journey to find belonging and acceptance. This is a personal, niche film that tackles a specific, but ultimately universal question: when the world can’t find a place for you, can you find a place for yourself? Moonlight is a subtle emotional masterpiece; it is a film that does not accomplish its story through breakneck action or an overabundance of Sorkinian dialogue, but through its visuals and its acting performances alone. The score is good, if a bit generic, but the rest of the film, particularly Mahershala Ali’s performance and the very last scene help to give the film an incredibly powerful, emotional core that is explored with sincerity, love and depth. My initial reaction to the film was that it was pretty great, but the more I think about Moonlight, the more I pick up on its subtleties, its commitment to avoid shallow social justice and low brow pretension, and its cinematic integrity in simply providing a powerful, heartfelt story of a young man who navigates a difficult life as best as he can. It’s a beautiful, somber work of art that ushers in director Barry Jenkins as a man to watch in cinema, and it’s well deserving of its spot on this list.

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2. Sing Street (Dir.: John Carney)

It’s a premise done a million times in films before: a boy meets a girl, a boy starts a band, and the boy excels. This particular film, however, addresses this premise in a highly emotional, powerfully musical, and unbelievably charismatic fashion. Part coming-of-age drama, part 1980s music love letter, Sing Street follows this familiar premise to exciting places, as a young boy in 80s era Dublin, Ireland must contend with bullies at his new school, a douchebag principal intent on making his life miserable, his consistently fighting parents, a melancholy brother, and the girl of his dreams. The music in this film is incredibly well-written, and director John Carney proves just as valuable a songwriter as he is a film director in this capacity. Perhaps the most important detail of the film lies in the lead protagonist’s incredible will and perseverance. With plenty of reasons to give up, to complain, and to abandon his craft, the protagonist of the film has plenty of reasons to stop performing music and succumb to his vices, but he never does, even when his school, his family, and his infatuation get in the way. His brother, played brilliantly by Jack Reynor, consistently proves able to motivate him to overcome his troubles, and the film’s brotherly connection turns out to be a refreshingly powerful motif to combat these universal life struggles. Nevertheless, the focus of Sing Street primarily relies on the power that music can have over others, and how it can be utilized to turn a zero into a hero. It’s a surprisingly, sneakily phenomenal film, and if you don’t come away loving it, you can at least be charmed by its unabashed charisma and confidence.

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1. La La Land (Dir.: Damien Chazelle)

Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash was a welcome surprise in 2014, a powerfully effective musical thriller from a young, inspired director. It provided an Oscar-winning performance, and it helped solidify Chazelle’s name among independent film circles as a director to watch in the coming years. With his newest film, La La Land, Chazelle has surpassed his previous outing, and he has quite possibly crafted one of the greatest musical films ever made. This film tells the story of two aspiring dreamers: one bent on becoming a renowned actress, the other bent on becoming a professional jazz musician. When these two dreamers meet, the sparks fly, and the film not only details their courtship, but also their ambitions, and how they are forced to negotiate their ambitions with their inner selves, compromising and adapting their relationship to accommodate their different, but equally fiery passions. Chazelle’s direction and screenplay are both as close to perfect as I could believe, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling bring out some of the best performances of their whole careers to accommodate this cinematic masterwork. The soundtrack and the songs in question for the film both kick in at appropriate times, helping to contextualize the tone of the scenes they enhance, and the music never feels overbearing or like it’s getting in the way of the film itself. Above all, the film works as a more nuanced continuation of one of the main themes from Chazelle’s last film: the drive that it takes to become a master at your craft, and the difficulties that come along with making sacrifices to attain such skill. La La Land, from beginning to end, feels like a classic film from the golden era of Hollywood, and in its modern concessions in cinematography and music, it ushers in a new standard for musical films going forward. Whether or not future music-based films will live up to Chazelle’s example remains to be seen, but if this film is any indication, it’ll be a tough act to follow. This is the best film of the year.

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There you have it. These are the films I enjoyed most in 2016. As mixed of a bag as this year was, when I got to see these films, I was left pleased and elated at having experienced them. How do they compare with your list? Anything I left off that you wish were on here? Anything on here that shouldn't be? I'd love to hear your thoughts.