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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016

Written by on December 30, 2016 

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For our most comprehensive year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2016. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions — those personal lists unspool following this one — and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled.

It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next. So, without further ado, check out our rundown of 2016 below, our complete year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2017. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.

50. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

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A note from Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul to the audience of his Cemetery of Splendor at last year’s New York Film Festival offered little commentary, other than to welcome the audience into the show and let them know that, if they were to doze off during the screening, he hopes they have a nice dream. Apichatpong’s films play like tender, lucid dreams seducing the audience into a frame meant for contemplation and exploration; those seeking traditional narratives and aggressive, rapid-fire editing ought to look elsewhere. Cemetery of Splendor fittingly takes place in a land where the men have gone to sleep, stricken with hallucinations that grow indistinguishable from reality as a nurse, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), comes into a state of awareness. His work requires both an open mind and an openness to being completely present within the screening room, surrendering to his cinematic hypnosis. – John F.

49. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster

The Lobster deploys immaculate control to keep its script, cinematography, and performances on the same wavelength of weird po-facedness. If it didn’t, this fable about love and courtship would just be off and not offbeat. Yorgos Lanthimos can craft a dark lens on society that no one else could imagine. The funniest movie of the year is the one in which no one smiles. A pudgy, bespectacled, sad sack Colin Farrell is the best Colin Farrell. – Dan S.

48. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

Kaili Blues

It’s not rare for an adjective such as “dreamlike” to be attributed to any number of films each year, but recalling the experience of seeing Kaili Blues many months ago quite literally feels like a dream I had rather than the memory of sitting in the cinema, watching a movie unfold. Bi Gan‘s debut is not just impressive for its 41-minute single take, but the serene, affecting way in which it is able to depict this specific landscape of contemporary China. In a world of cinema that aims to satisfy with every rapid new cut, Kaili Blues is one of the most refreshing, bold films of 2016. Sit back, let the images wash over you, and your worldview will feel anew. – Jordan R.

47. The Vessel (Julio Quintana)

The Vessel

Movies that wrestle with faith, religion, grief, and the melding of those three are not all that uncommon, but it is uncommon that they should approach these subjects in the same manner as The Vessel. Beginning from a place of immense tragedy before drilling down into the finer details of its effects, writer-director Julio Quintana‘s feature debut peers into every nook and cranny of sadness to find the ways in which it infects and alters its hosts. Shot with the sort of ethereal, haunted camerawork that makes one feel as though they are a ghost observing the soon-to-be-dead, this Terrence Malick-produced drama delivers a cinematic experience unlike any other you might find this year. – Brian R.

46. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

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Though regularly grouped with directors behind the Romanian New Wave, Corneliu Porumboiu exhibits a brand of social realism that is all his own. Dispensing with the shaky cam so popular amongst his peers, his fictional features capture the world through contemplative long takes, their duration and frequent immobility allowing for careful observations of the subjects’ relationship to their environment, which is always reflective of wider-reaching concerns. The Treasure, his fifth feature, is the latest gem in the director’s exquisite filmography — another tightly focused, minimalist, and enchantingly humane story of individual struggle within the broader social reality of contemporary Romania. – Giovanni M.C.

45. De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

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Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s loving tribute to cinematic master Brian De Palma captures the pain and enthusiasm for creating art, and with a thoughtful eye for detail. Unlike many filmmaker docs — I’m looking scornfully at you, Ron Mann’s Altman — the entire oeuvre is covered, putting the full weight of De Palma’s career into context. Despite a stuffy talking-head documentary approach, the film never becomes stagnant, cleverly intercutting clips from De Palma’s works with his stories. These insights reveal even his most violent films to be achingly personal works of art, sprung from chapters of his own life story. It’s a charming and remarkably entertaining look at one of the most important and underrated filmmakers alive. – Tony H.

44. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

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Mia Hansen-Løve followed up a chronicle of her brother’s experiences in the French electronic music scene with a film even closer to home. Things to Come showed the young director examining the memory of her parents’ divorce and, perhaps, the choices her mother was faced with thereafter. Isabelle Huppert enthralls as the philosophy teacher who, after losing a mother and a husband, must reassess what direction her life is going in. Løve’s film not only understood the tragedy of life; it appeared to embrace it with thrilling defiance. Huppert’s performance might have been the greatest 2016 had to offer were it not for another from the same ageless wonder that appeared around the same time. – Rory O.

43. Divines (Uda Benyamina)

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In a year bursting with remarkable debuts, this furiously envisioned and executed coming-of-age tale stood out for its emotional radicality which throws the viewer on a bona-fide rollercoaster ride inside the protagonist’s mind as she discovers sisterhood, romance, and the overwhelming hostility faced by young, ambitious daughters of immigrants fighting for a better life in France today. Divines‘ boldly physical forms of visual expression can seem overzealous at times, but what hot-blooded truths it speaks: from vindicatory highs to existential fears, the plight of the marginalized has seldom felt more real, their every instinct more raw, beautiful, valid. – Zhuo-Ning Su

42. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama)

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Working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, director Karyn Kusama produces a glamorous thriller worthy of its posh Los Angeles setting. Logan Mashall-Green leads an attractive, talented ensemble as Will, a bereaved father who suspects sinister motives behind the dinner party organized by his estranged ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) in the Hollywood Hills home they once shared with their now-dead son. When booze, drugs, and mysterious guests come into play, the film intensifies as misdirects and red herrings lead the viewer to question whether Will’s theories are justified or the product of a mind still reeling from loss. The breathtaking finale places The Invitation among a roster of recent films where paranoia and doubt are replaced with the realization that things aren’t just as bad as they seem – they’re much worse. – Amanda W.

41. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)

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That thing we can’t take for granted: a film whose many parts – period piece, war picture, blood-spattered actioner, deception-fueled espionage thriller, sexy romance, and, at certain turns, comedy – can gracefully move in conjunction and separate from each other, just as its labyrinthine-but-not-quite plot jumps from one setpiece to the next with little trouble in maintaining a consistency of overall pleasure. Another late-career triumph for Robert Zemeckis, and one of the year’s few truly great American movies. – Nick N.

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