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From Rogue One to La La Land, These Are the 12 Best Movies of 2016

All told, 2016 was a pretty uneven year for movies. For every surprise hit like Moonlight, there was a surprise miss like Suicide Squad. (OK, maybe that last one wasn’t really a surprise so much as a raging disappointment, but you get what we mean.) That said, there were still quite a few stellar films that hit theaters over the last 12 months. Here are WIRED’s picks for the best of the best.

Moonlight

Everything wonderful about Moonlight lives in its tiniest moments: a look, a music cue, the way the light falls on someone’s face at the beach or in a diner. On its surface, it might just be a coming-of-age movie, but thanks to the masterful direction of Barry Jenkins, it’s also a beautiful tale of heartbreak and self-acceptance. If all if this sounds vague, that’s because it has to be. Moonlight is less about the story it tells, and more about the way you feel when you see it. And that feeling is real. —Angela Watercutter

Everything wonderful about Moonlight lives in its tiniest moments: a look, a music cue, the way the light falls on someone’s face at the beach or in a diner. On its surface, it might just be a coming-of-age movie, but thanks to the masterful direction of Barry Jenkins, it’s also a beautiful tale of heartbreak and self-acceptance. If all if this sounds vague, that’s because it has to be. Moonlight is less about the story it tells, and more about the way you feel when you see it. And that feeling is real. —Angela Watercutter

American Honey

The homeless teens and twentysomethings in Andrea Arnold’s road-tripping drama are hardly heroic: As they travel from state to state, led by a career-revived Shia LeBeouf, they lose themselves in low-budget booze and high-cost decisions, sometimes barely making it to the next town intact. But throughout this gorgeous, romance-slash-cape, Arnold gently zooms in on these kids’ open-ended spirits and against-all-odds resolve, making them as root-worthy as any other gang of big-screen misfits this year. The slow-paced American Honey doesn’t take it easy on its viewers, but it is as essential and empathetic as a youth drama can get in 2016. —Brian Raftery

The homeless teens and twentysomethings in Andrea Arnold’s road-tripping drama are hardly heroic: As they travel from state to state, led by a career-revived Shia LeBeouf, they lose themselves in low-budget booze and high-cost decisions, sometimes barely making it to the next town intact. But throughout this gorgeous, romance-slash-cape, Arnold gently zooms in on these kids’ open-ended spirits and against-all-odds resolve, making them as root-worthy as any other gang of big-screen misfits this year. The slow-paced American Honey doesn’t take it easy on its viewers, but it is as essential and empathetic as a youth drama can get in 2016. —Brian Raftery

20th Century Women

Set in a tastefully coming-undone boarding house in late-’70s Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women is a tightly controlled but wonderfully loose-fitting comedy-drama about an ad hoc family whose chain-smoking matriarch (a splendid, spot-on Annette Bening) enlists some help when it comes to raising her New Wave-enamored teenage son. The result is a brightly colored, pop-savvy mini-symphony made up of impromptu bedroom dance parties, uncomfortable conversations, and half-resolved crushes, all of which help give 20th Century Women its almost brazen big-heartedness. You’ll want to move in immediately. —Brian Raftery

Set in a tastefully coming-undone boarding house in late-’70s Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women is a tightly controlled but wonderfully loose-fitting comedy-drama about an ad hoc family whose chain-smoking matriarch (a splendid, spot-on Annette Bening) enlists some help when it comes to raising her New Wave-enamored teenage son. The result is a brightly colored, pop-savvy mini-symphony made up of impromptu bedroom dance parties, uncomfortable conversations, and half-resolved crushes, all of which help give 20th Century Women its almost brazen big-heartedness. You’ll want to move in immediately. —Brian Raftery

La La Land

When La La Land started its festival circuit run, it was celebrated as a fun, whimsical musical in the Old Hollywood style. It’s still that film, but as 2016 has wound down, it’s also become a somewhat necessary bit of escapism. Does it feel almost frivolous considering everything that’s going on in the world? Yes. Do the stellar performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling offer a wonderful distraction from that? Absolutely. —Angela Watercutter

When La La Land started its festival circuit run, it was celebrated as a fun, whimsical musical in the Old Hollywood style. It’s still that film, but as 2016 has wound down, it’s also become a somewhat necessary bit of escapism. Does it feel almost frivolous considering everything that’s going on in the world? Yes. Do the stellar performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling offer a wonderful distraction from that? Absolutely. —Angela Watercutter

The Invitation

Years after their young child’s death, two lost-soul Angelinos are reunited at a get-together at their bougie-boho former home. But their awkward mourning is undercut by the revelation that one of them has fallen into the clutches of a dangerous cult—and it gets even weirder when more members start knocking on the door. Director Karyn Kusama’s uncomfortably engrossing thriller is part post-trauma drama, part Polanski-esque creep-show, full of jarring twists and turns, including the most startling closing shot of any movie this year. Like a great dinner party, The Invitation is best experienced with a group of friends; just be sure to show up with an extra bottle or two. —Brian Raftery

Years after their young child’s death, two lost-soul Angelinos are reunited at a get-together at their bougie-boho former home. But their awkward mourning is undercut by the revelation that one of them has fallen into the clutches of a dangerous cult—and it gets even weirder when more members start knocking on the door. Director Karyn Kusama’s uncomfortably engrossing thriller is part post-trauma drama, part Polanski-esque creep-show, full of jarring twists and turns, including the most startling closing shot of any movie this year. Like a great dinner party, The Invitation is best experienced with a group of friends; just be sure to show up with an extra bottle or two. —Brian Raftery

Green Room

In Green Room, Patrick Stewart plays a pragmatic, resourceful, and highly unsentimental tormentor—words that also apply to writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who turns this punks-versus-skins showdown into an itch-inducing claustrophobic delight. Set largely within the tight confines of a backwoods social club, Green Room follows a road-weary rock band (led by the late Anton Yelchin, as likeably fragile as ever) as they attempt to escape Stewart’s lean, mean clan of neo-Nazis. With its from-the-get-go gallows humor, smartly calibrated characters, and shocking snippets of highly educational gore, Green Room is the brainiest B-movie of the year. —Brian Raftery

In Green Room, Patrick Stewart plays a pragmatic, resourceful, and highly unsentimental tormentor—words that also apply to writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who turns this punks-versus-skins showdown into an itch-inducing claustrophobic delight. Set largely within the tight confines of a backwoods social club, Green Room follows a road-weary rock band (led by the late Anton Yelchin, as likeably fragile as ever) as they attempt to escape Stewart’s lean, mean clan of neo-Nazis. With its from-the-get-go gallows humor, smartly calibrated characters, and shocking snippets of highly educational gore, Green Room is the brainiest B-movie of the year. —Brian Raftery

13th

This year, the award for Exact Right Documentary at the Exact Right Time goes handily to Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Hitting Netflix just a few weeks before the US election, it presented thoroughly researched timeline from slavery in America to the country’s currently problems with police brutality and mass incarceration. It even tied in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s positions on the issues along the way. It was as urgent as filmmaking can get. —Angela Watercutter

This year, the award for Exact Right Documentary at the Exact Right Time goes handily to Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Hitting Netflix just a few weeks before the US election, it presented thoroughly researched timeline from slavery in America to the country’s currently problems with police brutality and mass incarceration. It even tied in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s positions on the issues along the way. It was as urgent as filmmaking can get. —Angela Watercutter

Arrival

Arrival is the kind of sci-fi movie audiences didn’t know they needed. Favoring subtle drama over bombast, it’s an alien invasion flick that doesn’t try to get all of its dramatic tension from making the audience wait for the big extra-terrestrial reveal. (The alien visitors are shown in the first act.) Instead, it builds a story around how humans would actually react if beings from another galaxy entered our atmosphere—and stresses the importance of communication over lasers. —Angela Watercutter

Arrival is the kind of sci-fi movie audiences didn’t know they needed. Favoring subtle drama over bombast, it’s an alien invasion flick that doesn’t try to get all of its dramatic tension from making the audience wait for the big extra-terrestrial reveal. (The alien visitors are shown in the first act.) Instead, it builds a story around how humans would actually react if beings from another galaxy entered our atmosphere—and stresses the importance of communication over lasers. —Angela Watercutter

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Back when Rogue One was announced, no one really knew how one-off “anthology” Star Wars films would work. Now we do—and they work just fine, thank you very much. This one, which focuses on the Rebel Alliance’s operation to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star, was a fun—if awfully deadly—trip to the galaxy far, far away that gave fans a glimpse into a world that didn’t entirely revolve around the Jedi. It also had a stellar cast that included Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, and a lot of great cameos from other Star Wars stars. —Angela Watercutter

Back when Rogue One was announced, no one really knew how one-off “anthology” Star Wars films would work. Now we do—and they work just fine, thank you very much. This one, which focuses on the Rebel Alliance’s operation to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star, was a fun—if awfully deadly—trip to the galaxy far, far away that gave fans a glimpse into a world that didn’t entirely revolve around the Jedi. It also had a stellar cast that included Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, and a lot of great cameos from other Star Wars stars. —Angela Watercutter

Jackie

Jackie is unlike almost every other biopic out there. In fact it’s not entirely a biopic. It’s solely about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, but instead of telling her life story, it just focuses on the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s dense and claustrophobic and, thanks to a great performance by Natalie Portman and an almost overpowering score from Mica Levi, feels as haunting as those days must have felt for Jackie herself. It sticks to your ribs. —Angela Watercutter

Jackie is unlike almost every other biopic out there. In fact it’s not entirely a biopic. It’s solely about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, but instead of telling her life story, it just focuses on the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s dense and claustrophobic and, thanks to a great performance by Natalie Portman and an almost overpowering score from Mica Levi, feels as haunting as those days must have felt for Jackie herself. It sticks to your ribs. —Angela Watercutter

Deadpool

Deadpool: the movie in which the foul-mouthed Wade Wilson delivers one-liners at the expense of Marvel, Ryan Reynolds, and, actually, everything else. From origin story to showdown, the box-office-record-breaking Deadpool proved that self-deprecation and cockiness aren’t mutually exclusive, and that cursing and breaking the fourth wall can successfully capture the mainstream. With one experimental treatment gone wrong, two X-Men, and an endless stream of takedowns from T.J. Miller, it’s a really irreverent, really good time. —Charley Locke

Deadpool: the movie in which the foul-mouthed Wade Wilson delivers one-liners at the expense of Marvel, Ryan Reynolds, and, actually, everything else. From origin story to showdown, the box-office-record-breaking Deadpool proved that self-deprecation and cockiness aren’t mutually exclusive, and that cursing and breaking the fourth wall can successfully capture the mainstream. With one experimental treatment gone wrong, two X-Men, and an endless stream of takedowns from T.J. Miller, it’s a really irreverent, really good time. —Charley Locke

Hell or High Water

It’s a joy to watch Jeff Bridges play an aging Texas Ranger, but the brotherly love/rivalry between Chris Pine and Ben Foster is what elevates this modern-day Western to a truly great film. The story of two cowboys robbing banks across West Texas could have been a throw-away popcorn movie, but this film from the writer of Sicario manages to tell a larger story about a struggling region, pillaged by predatory banks. As the stakes of blockbuster films keep getting larger, Hell or High Water succeeds with a small, perfectly woven tale of West Texas tragedy. —Joseph Bien-Kahn

It’s a joy to watch Jeff Bridges play an aging Texas Ranger, but the brotherly love/rivalry between Chris Pine and Ben Foster is what elevates this modern-day Western to a truly great film. The story of two cowboys robbing banks across West Texas could have been a throw-away popcorn movie, but this film from the writer of Sicario manages to tell a larger story about a struggling region, pillaged by predatory banks. As the stakes of blockbuster films keep getting larger, Hell or High Water succeeds with a small, perfectly woven tale of West Texas tragedy. —Joseph Bien-Kahn

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