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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016

Written by on December 30, 2016 

30. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)

The Fits 1

Few films perfectly capture the restlessness of girlhood quite like the feature debut from Anna Rose Holmer. A touch of magic realism elevates the tale of Toni (Royalty Hightower in an impressive breakout performance), a tomboy who witnesses members of her all-girl dance troupe fall victim to a mysterious, convulsive illness. What begins as a menacing epidemic, however, soon becomes an unlikely rite of passage, leaving Toni wishing she could be next. With its quiet poetry, excellent cinematography, and a naturally talented young cast — Hightower’s co-star Alexis Neblett emerges as a wonderful little powerhouse — The Fits adds to a year defined by intelligent, worthwhile films about the female experience. – Amanda W.

29. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)


Over the course of the European refugee crisis, the name Lampedusa became so fraught with political agenda one could easily forget it’s an actual place with inhabitants and their everyday worries, a destination millions died trying to reach from across the Mediterranean Sea. The genius of this deeply affecting documentary, then, is how it never breaks into the blame game but simply restores, with disarming, enchanting poise, the human aspects of a tragedy happening right under our eyes. In this time of hyperbole and judgment, hearing what a child with a slingshot has to say and having the stories of the nameless and displaced told through their silent faces prove to be riveting, essential viewing. – Zhuo-Ning Su

28. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)


Christine Chubbuck’s final words resound with more eeriness the further the media collapses in on itself. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” Kate Lyn Sheil and Robert Greene dive into the gap between performance and authenticity, both as it pertains to the craft of acting and our lived and public lives, and cast about for the truth. Whether they find any is up for debate, but the journey is unquestionably riveting. – Dan S.

27. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

Cameraperson 1

Kirsten Johnson brings us her memoirs by way of a videographic scrapbook. Bits and pieces of the numerous documentaries she’s shot in her years as a DP have been woven together into a travelogue / ethnographic study / commentary on the nature of cinematic framing. What was an establishing shot in one doc becomes, here, a study of the vagaries of a camera operator’s job. Documentary editing is already a frustratingly ignored art, and Cameraperson‘s assemblage of scenes from the cutting-room floor into a new narrative is a masterwork. – Dan S.

26. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)


The follow-up to Jeremy Saulnier‘s 2013 revenge thriller Blue Ruin pits urban punks against rural skinheads in a battle royale befitting America’s current social and political climate. Despite its uncomfortable timeliness, the film is less interested in making a statement than thrashing the viewer through a cinematic mosh pit of gut-wrenching, expertly choreographed violence. It also serves as a swan song for the late Anton Yelchin, whose stand-out performance will leave fans forever mourning his untimely passing. – Amanda W.

25. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

Everybody Wants Some 5

I like a friend’s suggestion that this is Animal House as directed by Eric Rohmer, the accuracy of which should evince how particular a balance Richard Linklater strikes between ephemeral pleasures and quietly transformative emotional experiences. That’s something he’s chased his entire career, and has perhaps never done better than over this film’s profoundly plotless two hours. – Nick N.

24. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)


Inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This HouseRaoul Peck creates a sweeping commentary on race through the lens of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and featuring an archive of interviews with Baldwin, Peck’s cinematic essay juxtaposes the author’s observations and travels with contemporary materials that offer a warning from the past as unresolved racial tensions bubble up, even in a supposed post-racial Obama era. I Am Not Your Negro provides a broad overview of 20th-century race relations, and is an essential companion to bookend two films featured elsewhere on this list: 13th and O.J.: Made in America. – John F.

23. 13th (Ava DuVernay)


Alongside a number of other films on this list, Ava DuVernay’s passionately charged piece feels, almost impossibly, more relevant now than it did before November 8th. It details racial and social oppression as an evolving beast, mutating from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration and police brutality — all within the guise of the Constitution’s 13th Amendment. At its most harrowing — images of Trump rallies recalling “the good old days” crosscut with brutality from the Civil Rights movement — the film connotes not a light at the end of the tunnel, but rather a reversion backwards into something far worse. – Conor O.

22. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)


The Coen Brothers’ blending of the silly, the sinister, and the surreal throughout this backhanded compliment to 1950s Hollywood is matched only by the consistent success with which they deploy it. In a year bereft of quality studio releases, it’s fitting that a takedown of Tinseltown should prove to be one of its best offerings. It’s Barton Fink by way of A Serious Man, wherein studio heads are God and moving pictures are the Good Word. With homage and self-reflexivity, it imbues something altogether snarky and sincere. Shoutout to Alden Ehrenreich for delivering the most effortlessly quotable line of 2016. – Conor O.

21. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)


Cinema is: a title card that drops 40 minutes into a film, after the first of three segments have ended; aspect ratios shifting from one chapter to another for the sake of sensory pleasures and an obvious-but-nevertheless-intelligent comment on our ever-changing world; a rather serious, sometimes outright difficult artist ending their movie with a future-set story that’s essentially their Oedipal take on Futurama; and Zhao Tao dancing to “Go West.” That’s all cinema is – or, at least, all it ever needs to be. – Nick N.

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