There was most definitely a trend to 2016 pop culture: in our rush to escape the harsh realities of politics and the current world landscape, as a collective we gravitated toward events of the past. Whether it was the ’90s criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, the life and times of a young Queen Elizabeth II, or a bunch of kids in the ’80s discovering something otherworldly in their own backyard, TV was our lifeboat from reality.
The best movies of 2016 were less steeped in the past (and there were far fewer candidates for this list), though ESPN tackled Simpson’s trial with the seven-hour-plus documentary O.J.: Made in America, and one of the most buzzed-about films, Moonlight, happens to take place in 1980s Miami.
Here are the best TV and movies 2016 had on-offer, in no particular order.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
When word broke that American Horror Story and Glee creator Ryan Murphy was producing an O.J. TV show, it was hard not to think of the campy concoction that might result. While yes, there was a touch of camp, but what we ultimately ended up getting was an absolutely spellbinding miniseries with a killer cast (no pun intended). Leading the charge were Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, who each turned in award-worthy performances. Even John Travolta (as lawyer Robert Shapiro) expertly captured his character. An indicator of a great show: audiences came back week after week, even though they fully knew what was going to happen.
The monarchy, you say? Ten episodes about a young Queen Elizabeth, you say? What sounded like a potentially dull affair ended up being very interesting, thanks in part to the stellar performances by Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and 3rd Rock From the Sun‘s John Lithgow as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s fascinating to see the inner workings of the monarchy — since, hey, we never get to — and despite the fictional liberties taken by The Crown, it’s difficult not to be seduced by the pomp of it all (and the humanness, faults and all, of Elizabeth).
Making a Murderer
OK, so technically Making a Murderer was released on Netflix in mid-December 2015, but it was a societal zeitgeist for nearly all of 2016. People around the world were literally obsessed with the story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were jailed for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Some believed their innocence, some thought for sure they were guilty. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, you most likely have a stake in the outcome, right? Making a Murderer can also be credited with starting the true-crime TV trend (along with the 2014 fictional series True Detective), which doesn’t look like it’s abating any time soon.
WATCH BELOW: The latest on Making a Murderer
If you haven’t heard of this show, then you must be living in a cave somewhere. Stranger Things was arguably the breakout show of the year, and hit peak nostalgia with its title font, music, time frame and subject matter. Reminiscent of ’80s hits The Goonies and E.T., people flocked to the show like Chunk to a Baby Ruth. The casting of ’80s and ’90s darling Winona Ryder, calculated or not, also helped up the attractiveness of the series. People are still talking about it, and news of a Season 2 coming down the pipe spawned thousands of celebratory internet articles.
Game of Thrones
This gigantic, lumbering beast finally paid off its loyal fans with a developmentally robust season, after a few preceding ones that felt like a slog through mud. Yes, lots of stuff happened on Game of Thrones in Season 6, including long-separated family members reuniting, deaths (many deaths) and a slow build towards all-out, total war. With so many disparate plotlines going on, audiences were starting to grow weary, but luckily the TV drama righted the ship just in time.
Crudely animated comedy South Park has almost always lived in the shadow of The Simpsons, but it has been going strong alongside it for decades. This season in particular perfectly captured the 2016 presidential election, and its timely commentary nailed it in ways most shows would be afraid to even attempt. In its own meta fashion, the show blamed our obsession with nostalgia as the reason for Donald Trump’s (Mr. Garrison’s) victory, and despite the outrageous series of events on the show leading to his election, in some weird, twisted way, it all made sense.
One of the most brilliant shows to start up in 2016, Westworld takes the heavily trodden path of robots becoming sentient and puts its own steampunk-ish spin to it. Previous shows like Battlestar Galactica adeptly dealt with the robots-turning-against-their-creators plotline, so it was a risky road for HBO. It all paid off, though, with the show’s alluring complexity and rich storytelling keeping audiences captive. It actually ended up being the channel’s most-watched first season ever for an original-scripted series.
Originally a British series, Black Mirror was taken over by Netflix for its third season, which debuted this year. Each episode has a different cast, a different story and a different city, and it explores the dark underbelly of social media and our complete reliance on new technology. A modern combination of Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone, the show is a complete mind-f**k, and may even cause you to get rid of your phone and social media accounts. Seriously, you’ll never look at Facebook or Instagram the same way again.
Better Call Saul
Overlooked, underappreciated and poorly described as the “prequel to Breaking Bad,” Better Call Saul continues to be one of the best shows on TV. Every episode is a theatrical wonder, with deliberate staging and exceptional acting. Bob Odenkirk, who reprises his Breaking Bad character Saul Goodman, is easily one of the finest actors in the biz, and it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off of him while he’s onscreen. For a show that’s dialogue-heavy, it is never dull, and series creator Vince Gilligan still uses the gorgeous New Mexico desert as the backdrop to the proceedings.
READ MORE: Better Call Saul Season 2 finale: Michael Mando on what’s to come
While Atlanta is lesser-known and might not bringing in huge audiences, the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. Managing to somehow be raw, hilariously funny and accurate all at the same time, it’s a refreshing take on modern life. Series creator and actor Donald Glover has crafted a gem, often inverting racial stereotypes to make audiences think (for example, he cast a black actor as Justin Bieber, highlighting how we tolerate a white pop star’s outlandish behaviour, but not a black one).
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee, a Canadian woman who headed south, has been providing the pointed commentary the American populace needed during the tumultuous presidential election. In the past, people looked to The Daily Show, but after Jon Stewart’s retirement the show lost much of its political bite. Thank goodness Bee stepped into the fray, because she has been absolutely nailing it over the past year.
O.J.: Made in America
By the time this ESPN special TV documentary aired, there was a very real chance of O.J. Simpson fatigue. Numerous specials and true-crime shows on Simpson saturated the tube this year, but Made in America managed to supersede them with its painstaking accuracy and exposition. Outstanding footage and interviews (some never-before-seen) made it a must-see, and as unbelievable as it may sound, it isn’t boring for one split-second of its 7.5-hour running time.
Buzz has been deafening around Moonlight since it started playing the film-festival circuit. The movie follows the life of a black Miami man from childhood to adulthood as he tries to find his way in life. Moonlight is starkly raw in its portrayal, and if you’ve ever been to Miami, the film absolutely nails the depiction of the hot, sweaty city. Brace yourself for some big, emotional scenes.
Many people are bored with alien movies and their generic approaches to otherworldly beings visiting our planet. This is why Arrival is such a standout this year; Canadian director Denis Villeneuve takes the typical extraterrestrial film and transforms the message. It should also be mentioned that it’s all wrapped up in a beautiful package (the cinematography is stunning, as usual with Villeneuve’s work).
La La Land
Even if you’re not a fan of song-and-dance, La La Land has the ability to sweetly burrow its way into your heart. Starring Canadian Ryan Gosling in yet another dreamboat role, the movie follows the trials of a young couple as they try to make their way in Hollywood. Despite a slight sag in the middle of the movie, it managed to spur tears from even the hardiest of critics. You can expect this film to rack up the accolades and awards come 2017.
WATCH BELOW: Interviews with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for La La Land
Manchester By the Sea
Anchored by an amazingly strong cast (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler) delivering some of their best performances, Manchester By the Sea is heavy and true-to-life. It’s hard to think of another film in recent memory that deals with the subject of grief so openly and laid-bare. Our advice: take an entire box of tissues with you to the theatre — you’re going to need them.
The follow-up to definitive children’s movie Finding Nemo, showing up 13 years later in cinemas, is just as cute as the original and is yet another example of society’s obsession with nostalgia and escaping to the past. Dory, voiced expertly by Ellen DeGeneres, is endearing despite her complete and total lack of memory, and you’ll root for her just like you did for Nemo back in the day.
Super-raunchy and actually funny, Deadpool was a surprise hit earlier this year. Starring Canada’s own Ryan Reynolds as the titular character (hahaha, titular), Deadpool took the dry, overdone superhero genre and turned it on its head. Simultaneously mocking the ridiculousness of our superhero worship while striking out on its own path, the comedic approach helped the film surmount the usual hurdles that stymie comic-book movies.
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.