Top 20 Films of 2016

I noticed two thematic threads weaving through the films of 2016, ideas which seem at odds yet perhaps have more in common beyond an initial reaction: grief and coming of age. It seems fitting for a year like 2016 that grief would pervade our filmic imagination. Movies like Manchester by the Sea, Jackie, Arrival, Captain Fantastic, Tower, Don’t Breathe, The Witness, The Light Between Oceans, Collateral Beauty, A Monster Calls, Cameraperson, and Newtown dealt specifically with the sudden, often violent traumatic death of loved ones, especially children or parents. More than just a narrative feature, the weight of grief pervades each of these films as vital to their story.

The films of 2016 prepared us to grieve well, to be sad about death while continuing to live on, day by day, moving forward in hope despite the weight of past disappointment or suffering.

In contrast to grieving the loss of life, 2016 was the year that celebrated coming of age. The teen film grew up. The Fits, Queen of KatweKubo and the Two Strings, Morris in America, Sing Street, The Neon Demon, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, and The Edge of Seventeen were all unique, ambitious movies about young people moving into adulthood. (The Edge of Seventeen was also about grief, perhaps making it the most 2016 of all the films.) These are not your typically teen movies in the vein of John Hughes–these are mature, robust films featuring youth at their center. They’re decidedly hopeful, both in form and content, as they offer a creative vision for the future of our youth.

Both grief and youth are seasons of tumultuous change and opportunity, periods of life one doesn’t necessarily choose but must endure anyway with determination and grace. That’s how 2016 felt for me, anyway. Lots of the unexpected and surprising happened, with plenty of potential for maturation and reconstruction in response.

There are films from 2016 I’ve yet to see that could have potentially made this list (Toni Erdmann, Things to Come, and Paterson come to mind). In particular, there’s the notable absence of Martin Scorsese’s Silence. One of my most anticipated films of the year, it nevertheless has not been marketed to many Christian film critics or audiences, and I was unable to view it in 2016. Perhaps it will be like Selma from 2014, a film which did not appear in my published list, but remains one of my favorites from that year. When I see Silence, I’ll certainly write a review.

Grief and growth, death and youth, anxiety and hope–this was the year 2016, both in film and in the greater culture. In the film Sing Street, a character describes the emotion of happysad. It’s a word which could adequately describe the tumultuous, emotional year we’ve all experienced. The best kind of art is both prophetic and healing, inviting us to consider the truth and reality of our own lives and emotions, and to experience growth beyond it.

It was a great year in cinema. Anyone saying otherwise simply likely perhaps didn’t watch the right movies. I watched 220 films, 77 of which were released this year. There were a myriad of excellent documentaries (my top 10 includes two), as well as female filmmakers and inspirational debut films. Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols each had two movies release in 2016; friends, that’s a good year for film.

The following twenty films were companions with me in my own grief and growth during 2016. Perhaps they can be your filmic companions too. (Read reviews for all of these films–and more–here.)

swiss army man

20. Swiss Army Man (The Daniels)


19. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)


18. Loving (Jeff Nichols)

the witch

17. The Witch (Robert Eggers)

last days in the desert

16. Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo Garcia)


15. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

the witness

14. The Witness (James Solomon)

love and friendship

13. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

edge of seventeen

12. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon)


11. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)


10. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)


9. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

the innocents

8. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine)


7. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

hail caesar

6. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)


5. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)


4. The Fits (Anna Rose Helmer)

sing street

3. Sing Street (John Carney)


2. Tower (Keith Maitland)

la la land

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

What were the films from 2016 that will stand out for you? Share your favorites in the comments.

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