Amazing stories and where we found them.
Escapism was needed this year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the greatest time for science fiction and fantasy movies anymore than it was the greatest time for much of anything at all. Many of the big superhero movies disappointed. Almost all of the sequels were terrible. In their given years, original Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Batman and Superman films would have placed very high on our list of the best of genre cinema. This year, the latest entries in the franchises aren’t even represented among our many highlights.
Still, we were occasionally entertained by smartly imaginative movies in 2016 and managed to escape to other galaxies, different realms, and some seemingly reclusive and truly bizarre hiding spots while the real world was being so unbearable this year. We also met many new friends, plus a lot of slightly familiar friends in wonderful new forms. The following 16 titles include five essential works, with the rest all worthwhile efforts that kept us astonished, spellbound, and/or laughing for a good chunk of time.
16. The Mermaid
This broad and very silly Chinese production is one of the biggest hits of the year worldwide, and it definitely deserves to be. The plot, involving half-human sea creatures endangered by greedy people and their environment-harming ways, is common material through which we encounter some fabulously weird characters. The most incredible of which is an octopus-man with a cooking scene more memorable than anything in a recent Hollywood blockbuster.
14 & 15. Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Two magical men delighting us with exotic settings and species, the newest heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter kicked off their respective sub-franchises with a lot of good humor and awe-inspiring, sometimes surreal visual treats. From semi-sentient cloaks and trippy special effects to suitcases and biological pouches that hold much more than they seem, these IP spinoffs are clever concoctions offering just the sort of cinematic sorcery we need to distract us from our everyday (and especially this year’s) muggle problems. Doctor Strange is just slightly the more satisfying.
12 & 13. Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings
The best animated films of the year include two enchanting features mostly set on a raft on the open sea with young protagonists joined by muscle-bound heroes. One is a Disney musical with an empowered princess and some very catchy songs, while the other is the latest lovable Laika stop-motion achievement with a very cool score. Both are artful adventures with their own unique appeals, but Moana gets an extra point for its racially authentic casting and another for delivering a greater emotional movie experience.
Sure, this R-rated anti-superhero movie is immature at times. A few of the movies on this list are (see also #s 16, 9, 4, and 2). But it’s a very witty kind of infantile humor, and the movie works well with that, plus the charm of Ryan Reynolds, for a more consistent tone than most comic book adaptations maintain. It’s refreshingly smaller in scope and focused in what it’s supposed to be, and it’s amazing that it pulls off a coup for its genre and still managed to be a huge hit at the box office. Movies rarely are so successful in so many ways.
8 & 9 & 10. Pete’s Dragon and The BFG and A Monster Calls
If you wanted extra-large fantastic beasts this year, there were a few places to find them. These three movies are each about a young child and a friendly giant of some kind. The best of them, Pete’s Dragon, remakes, just barely, a not-so-classic Disney movie as a simple, sweet, folky film centered on a wild child and his rather tame fire-breathing companion. With The BFG, Steven Spielberg targeted an even younger audience than usual and wound up with the second-most fart-filled masterpiece, an underrated, taken-for-granted fairy tale with another terrific performance by Mark Rylance as the titular big fella. And A Monster Calls has more style than soul, in spite of its supposed sentimental drive, but it also has the most interesting and interesting-looking creature, a storytelling tree-man who helps divert attention from an extremely sad situation. We can all use a Liam Neeson-voiced monster after the year we’ve had.
6 & 7. Star Trek Beyond and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
For only the second time ever, we got a Star Trek movie and a Star Wars movie in the same year. The last time, they both sucked. This time they’re both pretty good, if not the best they can be. Or the worst. Star Trek Beyond benefits from a playful script and a story that’s more of a standalone episode, as it should be. Rogue One is also meant to be a more independent entity than its brand tends to give us (and than it actually turned out to be) and has some appropriately stealthy methods of appealing to fans with its less blatantly recognizable elements (balancing out the totally clear Easter eggs). Both tweak things enough to be full of surprises and give us hope for the future of their franchises.
Speaking of hope, Denis Villeneuve went against the norm with this movie about close encounters of the third kind where there is never any abduction or deadly invasion. And what a relief that is. Although not the smartest sci-fi in its execution, nor the most moving (that isn’t to say it’s not smart or affecting on varied levels for different audiences), it at least has a perfectly sophisticated story and is stunning in how it tells that story visually. From its hero being a linguist to the strange design of its aliens, there’s a lot of stuff here we don’t see at the movies these days, and that’s appreciated.
4. Swiss Army Man
For extreme originality, though, there’s the debut feature by the Daniels, a movie that couldn’t possibly sound more odd and juvenile yet actually is totally relatable and heartwarming and sort of enlightening. Swiss Army Man comes very close to not qualifying as a fantasy film, because its reanimated faring corpse (a stellar performance by Daniel Radcliffe) often comes across as something that might just be in the mind of its main character. Apologies if featuring it here is a spoiler.
3. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This second installment in what’s apparently a Cloverfield anthology series also doesn’t always seem fit for the list, but even if there were no physical monsters or aliens or any other clear fantasy or sci-fi element, 10 Cloverfield Lane still plays like a Twilight Zone episode in which everything appears to be based in our present reality, but might not be. Regardless of what it is or becomes, the movie is an impeccable thriller with a terrifyingly fun performance by John Goodman and direction from Dan Trachtenberg that always has you feeling like you’re there with the characters, never a step ahead or behind, and constantly wondering what you’d do in every situation.
2. The Lobster
Romantic interest, or the forced lack of such, has always been a staple of dystopian fiction, and so it continues with Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut. The idea maybe hasn’t ever been as funny outside of broad parodical works, however. In this absurdist satire, we see two extremes play out, first with a society that forces men and women to find a partner within 45 days or they’re turned into an animal of their choice, then with an opposition group that bans romantic connections (they’re a rebellion far more interesting than that of Rogue One). The Lobster is deliciously deadpan from beginning to end, a fantastical love story that joins and such modern masterpieces as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Upstream Color.
1. Midnight Special
At a time when nostalgia rules most of genre filmmaking, and ‘80s-philia drives the success of stuff like Stranger Things, it’s great to have something influenced by the likes of Spielberg and Carpenter that isn’t just a regressive mashup of things we love. Midnight Special doesn’t cater to people who grew up on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman but it feeds them well as it delivers something all its own, a father and son road movie with a supernatural MacGuffin and a dazzling climax and more interest in the family drama than the occasional fireworks. Writer-director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon continue to be a perfect partnership, but Adam Driver is the MVP as the comic relief. This is a movie that respects its adult audience when so much entertainment wants to make us feel like kids.