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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016

Written by on December 30, 2016 

10. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)


Although Paterson is still marked by Jim Jarmusch’s hip proclivities and nostalgia, its restrained aesthetic and Adam Driver’s sublime, understated performance render it the director’s most recognizably human and poignant film. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also his most distinctly autobiographical. Not only did Jarmusch aspire to become a poet before turning to filmmaking, but he also peppers Paterson with allusions to his previous work. Examples include the shot of Paterson and Laura in bed that starts each day, reminiscent of a similar recurring image in Only Lovers Left Alive, or the vintage matchbox that inspires Paterson’s love poem, which harkens back to those containing the hitman’s assignments in The Limits of Control. Like the best poetry, Paterson keeps its meticulous construction hidden, letting its impact sneak up on you unawares. When the final image cuts to black, it triggers an overwhelming surge of emotions that’ll make you want to remain seated in the dark until long after the credits have finished rolling, basking in this marvelous film’s afterglow. – Giovanni M.C.

9. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)


Within the alien subgenre, there lies another. Therein, knowledge is treasure and the fifth dimension is love. The major rule: once the mystery and the chills have subsided, the revelations are enlightening and the welcomes warm. Thankfully, Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival is more worthwhile than that. The film juggles a bit of world-building with meaty, compelling characters while trying to make linguistics look cool. No easy task, but the film does so in a breeze that feels light enough to digest (props to some stellar chemistry between its leads), yet brooding enough to resonate. With some brilliant editing and narrative structure, the result is perhaps more interesting to discuss than to watch — and it’s really, really interesting to watch. – Conor O.

8. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

Defendant OJ Simpson wearing one the blood stained gloves found by Los Angeles Police and entered in..

Incrementally sprawling over eight hours, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America begins comparatively small as a well-made 30 for 30 sports documentary before gradually revealing its interests in symptomatic national problems through a microscopic regional context. This chronicle of star football player / public lightning rod O.J. Simpson soon transforms into a decades-spanning examination of America’s willful blindness about racial assumption, class perception, and exceptionalism. Overflowing with sheer information, context, and kind and critical perspectives, it avoids all opportunities to streamline Simpson’s story for the sake of neatness, instead presenting O.J. with all of his contradictions — political and personal — intact, and deftly folding in every social context from the Rodney King riots’ repercussions to the impact of O.J.’s visibility as a famous black man in the ’70s and ’80s. – Michael S.

7. Jackie (Pablo Larraín)


Pablo Larraín’s Jackie upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a piercingly smart, emotionally probing script. The film belongs to Natalie Portman, but its entire cast stands out — especially John Hurt. With Jackie and his other late-2016 release, Neruda, Larraín has deconstructed the film biography, and the results are thrilling to watch. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent historical figure that feels as emotionally affecting. It’s also a certainty that we’ll never look at Jackie Kennedy the same way again. – Chris S.

6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)


Stories — whether black, white, or other — always have the potential to transcend race, economics, and environment to hit on a deeper level, stripped of labels, known as universal humanity. Barry JenkinsMoonlight does this. I’m not black, gay, or poor, yet I saw myself in Chiron’s struggle for identity within a world trying to exclude him. He’s betrayed and bullied, but never broken. We never grow to become quite what we expect, despite forever remaining a manifestation of our individual pasts. Nothing reveals this truth better than Trevante Rhodes‘ portrayal of Chiron in this time-warp triptych’s final third: wholly different from the boy met an hour previous, and identical to his core. – Jared M.

5. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)


Most love affairs don’t start when girl finds boy dancing on top of a K-Mart checkout counter to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” but it’s a fitting start for Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a sprawling, over-sized epic road trip following a magazine crew’s tour of the midwest. Anchored by a flawless performance from first-time actress Sasha Lane (who holds her own in scenes with movie stars like Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough), it’s a funny, heartbreaking, and tense drama with boundless energy and enthusiasm as Arnold examines culture conditions from wealthy Kansas City suburbs, a rust belt town hit hard by crack and meth, and the industrial landscapes where men come to do the dirty work that literally fuels the American dream. American Honey is a rich cinematic tapestry that takes no prisoners and offers little chance to catch one’s breath during its 163-minute running time. An ambitious and brilliant socioeconomic critique of a fragmented and divided country, it announces a newcomer’s arrival and cements its helmer as one of the bravest provocateurs working in narrative filmmaking today. – John F.

4. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)


Damien Chazelle‘s vibrant ode to musicals past, featuring the unstoppable chemistry between stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, has been a shining light for many at the end of a hard year. Exploring the hardships of a creative life, both in paying the bills and fueling the passion, Chazelle pulls from classics (New York, New York comes to mind), while playing with the cynicism of the now. Jazz is dying, film is dying, but, by God, there will be dancing. There will be singing. And there will be wonderfully lensed romantic kisses to composed crescendoes. Maybe we will be all right. – Dan M.

3. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)


Maren Ade‘s Toni Erdmann is one of the most stirring cinematic experiences to come around in a long time. It’s also immensely rewarding to witness, and Ade makes sure to gift her protagonist, Ines (Sandra Hüller), with moments of transcendent catharsis so as to prevent the film from deteriorating into a depressing wallow in the miseries of contemporary life. Ines’ ferocious rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” and a spontaneous nude birthday party wonderfully evoke her suffering as they affirm her struggle. They also represent an exemplary harnessing of cinema’s full potential to bring viewer and character into a state of mutual ecstasy. – Giovanni M.C.

2. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)


Paul Verhoeven’s latest treatise on high / low art isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and, as this awards season has shown, it’s already deeply offended some. But its messiness and blurred moral provocations are key to its power as a piece of cinematic trickery. A masterful character study, Elle dresses up a pulpy morality play with an austere European arthouse sheen, then sends its powerfully passive lead through a minefield of ethical conundrums, often praising and condemning sticky taboos at the exact same time. And while Verhoeven is firmly in his cinematic niche as a proud pervert and armchair psychologist, this is foremost an act of supreme control from Isabelle Huppert, who, even when forced to be the story’s victim, plays her role with such blinding conviction and thorny pragmatism that she can only emerge from these horrors with renewed strength. – Michael S.

1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)


When we meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), he’s already shattered. Hidden from life, Lee works as a handyman for an apartment building, shoveling snow and replacing lightbulbs. He can barely make eye contact, even when informed that his older brother has died, rendering him the sole guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. As he returns to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts, so too do the searing feelings of regret – memories once blocked now reemerging with shocking clarity. Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, Manchester by the Sea, is a howling study of loss and grief, of how life pushes forward even when we cannot. Young Patrick has an existence outside the feelings for his father, thus forcing Lee, like a sleepwalker rudely awakened by fate, into the world and exposing his own buried anguish. Lonergan finds remarkable contrarieties in the material as he nudges these seemingly unfixable lives toward a dawning sense of hope. There’s little catharsis to be found, for Manchester by the Sea regards its subject with an unflinching gaze, but Lonergan executes this heartbreaking exploration of grief’s universalities with a tenderly redemptive embrace. – Tony H.

Read More: The 50 Most Overlooked Films of 2016


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