I didn't see a ton of movies in theaters this year. At the beginning of 2016 it seemed like there was at least one new release every weekend that I was interested in seeing. But as the reviews rolled out in the week leading up to most releases, my enthusiasm waned and I ended up choosing to do something else that weekend.
I was surprised to find that the box office has actually fared a little better in 2016 than 2015, so maybe my apathy wasn't shared by everyone. But of the movies I saw – even the ones I enjoyed – most of them were sequels, a few others were spinoffs, and only one was truly original.
Original films are admittedly more of a risk, but when they pay off, they pay off huge. Hollywood is fairly risk-averse, so it's not surprising to see a lot of sequel and franchise releases scheduled over the next few years. But it does seem like studios are learning that audiences do have some standards, even for sequels; a great example of this is Lionsgate being forced to release Ascendant – the final movie in the Divergent franchise – straight to video instead of to theaters. But I do hope they keep funneling some money towards talented filmmakers and original projects.
Historically these end-of-year posts include an honorable mention section, but I'm skipping it this year because I saw so few movies. As usual, I've tried to keep this spoiler-free, but I do roughly outline some plot points, so if you haven't seen these movies, please read with caution. Without further ado, here are my top five favorite movies I saw in 2016.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There were several spin-off movies released in 2016, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was by far the most hyped and is on track to be among the most profitable.
Rogue One is set a short time before A New Hope; the former tells the story of how the Rebels stole the plans for the Death Star which they would ultimately blow up in the latter. The outline of this story is fairly well known among even casual Star Wars fans, so there aren't many surprises here. But there aren't many recycled characters in Rogue One, particularly on the Rebel side, so while the plot is fairly easy to guess, the characters involved are brand new.
You might have read elsewhere that Rogue One is a war film – a particularly good one, in fact. But while I agree that Rogue One is a good film, I don't agree that it's a war film. The fact that we know the ending makes the characters feel a little disposable, and it never feels like the stakes are quite high enough to be a war film. The dialogue is fast-paced and lighthearted, and the cinematography is much sharper and brighter than the prototypical war film.
But while it lacks the gravitas of a war film, Rogue One is a very enjoyable action/adventure film. It manages to feel like Star Wars without feeling too stale. It resists the temptation to use familiar characters too often (aside from one cameo that felt completely out of place). The last ten minutes or so of the film are excellent and somehow manage to keep the tension even though you already know how it ends. (The last ten minutes are so good that they make you forget about a sort of ho-hum third act.)
Rogue One is the first step of Disney's plan to apply the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula to Star Wars. With what we got from Rogue One, it's not too early to say that if they stick to this plan, we'll be seeing Star Wars movies for years, even decades to come.
4. Star Trek Beyond
After Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams departed the Star Trek franchise for The Force Awakens, and I think many Star Trek fans were worried about the direction the franchise was headed. I liked Star Trek Into Darkness, but many “true fans” didn't. The more generous detractors agreed that Into Darkness was a good action movie, but not a good Star Trek movie, while the harsher critics wouldn't even concede that Into Darkness was a fun summer movie. The “true fans” couldn't have been too excited when it was announced that Fast Five director Justin Lin had signed on to direct the third Star Trek movie.
But you know what? Star Trek Beyond works, and in a summer movie season filled with disappointments and letdowns (looking at you, Jason Bourne), it was a pleasant surprise. This isn't an origin story, and unlike Into Darkness it's not a movie that relies heavily on surprising you with who someone is, so the story feels straightforward and self-contained.
Simon Pegg – the actor that plays Scotty and also stars in the Mission: Impossible franchise – co-wrote the screenplay, which cleverly splits up and puts the group in unlikely pairings. This lets the characters play off each other more freely, and improves the overall chemistry of the group when they're reunited. The pacing is less frenetic than Into Darkness and the scenes feel more organic.
The action sequences are shot well (with less lens flares) and the sound and music are excellent. I get the feeling that “true” Star Trek fans still won't be fully satisfied, but Beyond feels weirder and more unique than the first two movies in the franchise and I'm excited to see where they go next.
3. Captain America: Civil War
One of Captain America's underrated abilities is… captaining. In addition to his super strength and resiliency, and in addition to his invulnerable physics-defying shield, both Captain America movies before Civil War have shown Steve Rogers assembling a team and leading them into the climactic battle. Even in the Avengers movies, Steve Rogers ends up leading.
So for Captain America: Civil War to be a true Captain America movie, Captain America needed a team to lead, and boy, did Marvel deliver. Because Civil War – also known as Avengers 2.5 – features most of the MCU that we've seen on screen so far, with the exceptions of Thor, Hulk and Nick Fury. Civil War even introduces some new characters like Black Panther and Spider-man.
But while it'd be tempting with all these heroes to marginalize Captain America in his own movie, that's not what happens here. Despite having such a large cast, the movie feels remarkably focused on Cap and saves its best moments for him. No one in the movie feels underused or underutilized. During the now-famous airport scene, a massive and lengthy action sequence, every hero gets some screen time and a cool moment.
Unlike the other hero vs. hero movie released this year, Civil War is intense without being overly so and it lacks the overt darkness of Batman v. Superman. While DC is still trying to play catch-up, Marvel is making it look easy.
2. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is loosely based on a throwaway book J.K. Rowling wrote for charity between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. But since that book offered only slightly more source material than the Pirates of the Caribbean ride offered its movies, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, for all intents and purposes, a completely original screenplay.
Fantastic Beasts takes us back into the Harry Potter universe, but unlike the preceding Harry Potter films, it's set in New York and takes place more than a half-century before Harry Potter is to be born. J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut, but it's not evident that this is her first screenplay. Fantastic Beasts is expertly paced and the dialogue is excellent. The screenplay is a little light on character development, but the actors convey so much in their body language and facial expressions that this is somewhat redeemed.
Returning as director from the last three Harry Potter films is David Yates, and so Fantastic Beasts looks and sounds very similar to the latter three Harry Potter movies. The score by James Newton Howard is also excellent.
My only complaints with the movie are with some of the choices Rowling made in her worldbuilding. Much of the wizarding world in America feels like a crude imitation of the one in England: the wizarding school has four houses, there's a Magical Congress instead of a Ministry of Magic, muggles are called no-mag's, etc. But after some reflection I've made my peace with most of these similarities. After all, if the earliest Americans immigrated from Britain and brought some of their own customs, why wouldn't the earliest American wizards do the same?
Fantastic Beasts has a lot in common with another movie on this list, Rogue One. But it had far less source material to work with and is far more original. This movie didn't need to be as original as it was to be successful: it could have been set in Britain, it could have featured many characters we already knew, and it would have still made a ton of money. But the fact that this movie was so original makes me really excited to see what comes next for this franchise.
As I walked to my car after seeing Arrival, I knew it was the best movie I'd seen in 2016. After thinking about it more, I can confidently say Arrival is the best science-fiction movie I've seen since Inception.
Arrival sort of feels like an early Christopher Nolan movie. The film jumps right into its plot, which is based on a straightforward premise but builds in twists and turns throughout the movie. I can't reveal too much even about the structure of the plot without giving anything away, but I will say that the movie is not about what you might think it is. (If you want a clue, look up the title of Arrival‘s source material.)
Amy Adams stars as an expert linguist who's been asked to determine what the visiting aliens are doing on Earth. The movie opens with a heartbreaking montage of her personal tragedy, and her character is still carrying that baggage as she accepts her mission. Amy Adams should get an Oscar nomination just based on that montage alone, but she's completely captivating throughout the entire movie. She's supported by Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker, who are competent if not exceptional in their roles.
Arrival is beautifully shot – reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's Wally Pfister – and the pacing is slow but steady until the end. The film has sort of a natural tension, which seems to be a talent of director Denis Villeneuve who also directed last year's excellent Sicario. The score, by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is haunting, beautiful and atmospheric and fits into the movie perfectly.
But above all, and the main reason Arrival was my favorite movie this year, is that it's a totally original movie. Judging by just the title alone, you might think you've seen this movie or something like it before. But I urge you to give it a chance, because by the time the end credits roll, it's no longer like anything you've seen before.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is my most anticipated movie of 2017, but following close behind are movies like Star Wars: Episode VIII, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, John Wick: Chapter Two, The Coldest City and The Circle. Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments, and I hope to see you at the theater next year!