Between studio offerings and independent efforts, 2016 was a feast of cinema. Filmgoers found a lot to love and to honor: Movies reaped critical praise, prizes at film festivals, honors from Hollywood guilds (including the PGA and WGA), Golden Globes and, of course, Oscar nominations. And moviegoers also paid homage with an all-important criterion: They made these works major hits at the box office.
What follows is a list of 10 films that distinguished themselves in the combination of box office, awards and critical praise.
There are still a few skeptics in the world who are not sure that sci-fi can be both artful and commercial. They need to see “Arrival,” which was both a critical and box office success, and scored a DGA nomination for Denis Villeneuve, and PGA nomination for best picture. Eric Heisserer’s multi-layered adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story resulted in people returning for multiple viewings, while Amy Adams continued her impressive run of performances. With a worldwide gross of over $190 million and counting — on a $40 million budget — this exploration into extraterrestrial communication has picked up eight Oscar nominations, including those for picture, director, and adapted screenplay.
The Paul Verhoeven-directed “Elle” turned heads at film festivals before getting snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics. Since then, it’s won numerous awards and an Oscar nomination for its star, Isabelle Huppert, while some consider it a return to form for the Dutch auteur in its mixture of tension, drama and black humor.
The Golden Globe-winning film was featured on various top 10 selection lists, while Huppert has won lead actress from the New York and Los Angeles film critics associations as well as the Golden Globe for lead actress in motion picture drama.
With “The Handmaiden,” Korean auteur Park Chan-wook returned to his home country after his U.S. debut, “Stoker,” and the results have delighted critics and audiences on the art-film circuit worldwide, grossing close to $40 million. An erotic love story mixed with the art of the con, which results in something eye-popping and jaw-dropping, this tale was adapted by Park and Chung Seo-kyung from the Welsh novel “Fingersmith.” Playing in competition at Cannes in 2016, “The Handmaiden” grabbed numerous awards at film festivals and critics organizations across the globe.
Representing a return to ’70s-style filmmaking where the social message was firmly enmeshed within a genre plot, “Hell or High Water” became one of the biggest indie hits of the year while also garnering some of the best reviews. Helmer David Mackenzie was a great match with “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. The tightly constructed drama was included on various top 10 lists, while the film nabbed a PGA nomination and Oscar nominations for picture, original screenplay, and supporting actor for Jeff Bridges. Unpretentious films like this one can sometimes get brushed aside by bigger and splashier competition, but this is the “little movie that could” of 2016.
Coupled with rave reviews and ecstatic word of mouth, director Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” seems destined to become one of the film world’s all-time movie musicals. Thoroughly modern and yet paying respect to cinematic history, this has been hailed by numerous critics as the best film of 2016, and scored a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, after it won a record-setting seven Golden Globes, including those for stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, director Chazelle, and for best picture (musical or comedy). The bold and vibrant widescreen cinematography is by Linus Sandgren. And the film has earned an amazing $300 million worldwide already, and is destined to rise even more.
“Lion” has turned awards season on its head, especially after it landed DGA and PGA nominations, to match its critical darling and crowd-pleaser status. Debuting feature director Garth Davis’ true-life tale nabbed six Academy Award nominations. The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto Intl. Film Festival and stars Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, while the imagery captured by cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Rogue One”) has been praised by numerous critics. Australian screenwriter Luke Davies handled the adaptation of Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose’s book. Patel won the BAFTA Award for supporting actor.
Kenneth Lonergan is a filmmaker known for his character-based stories that take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride, and his “Manchester by the Sea,” is no exception. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams received Oscar nominations for their work in the drama, while the PGA and DGA bestowed nominations on the film, which nabbed six Oscar nominations. It also had six BAFTA nominations, and critics groups across the country have included it in their top 10 lists and awards nights. Affleck won a Golden Globe for his performance.
Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” tackles cinematic territory not often explored by the mainstream — the African-American homosexual experience — and has become the film of the moment, scooping up eight Oscar nominations, including those for picture and director. “Moonlight” won the Golden Globe for motion picture drama, and has been included on more critical top 10 lists than any other motion picture from 2016. Its appeal has also crossed the Pond, as BAFTA honored it with six nominations.
One of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year, “O.J.: Made in America” is an exhaustive and devastating portrait of the American justice system, racism and the power of celebrity. Produced by ESPN Films and directed by Ezra Edelman, “O.J.: Made in America” debuted at Sundance last year and wowed audiences. Since then, it’s racked up critical kudos across the country, as well as nabbing the Intl. Documentary Assn. feature kudo and a documentary Oscar nomination.
An Oscar nominee for foreign-language film, Germany’s “Toni Erdmann” was one of last year’s most critically admired films. Since its debut at Cannes last year, where Maren Ade’s film won the Fipresci Award, it’s ended up on top 10 critics’ lists all over the world. And it’s the first female-directed film to win top honors at the European Film Awards, where it won in five categories.