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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
40. Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery)
A magical work that some might call “slow” or “dull,” and which I’d instead label as confident and unhurried, Pete’s Dragon proves that not all children’s films have to be flash sans substance. David Lowery‘s studio debut is a quietly moving film about loss and childhood that embraces the fantastical elements while still tweaking the foundation of the Disney original’s theme. Everything, down to the music, is a potent mix of nostalgia in a modern world. – Bill G.
39. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
Sully is perhaps the grand culmination of Clint Eastwood’s fascination with deconstructing myths and American heroes. This is supported by the fact that it’s the one most about 21st-century living — its climax not the actual Miracle on the Hudson, but the ensuing trial that tried to render human action into ones and zeroes on a screen. And at a tight 96 minutes, it also comes as one of his most focused statements on a kind of pragmatic decency. – Ethan V.
38. Dirty Grandpa (Dan Mazer)
In a particularly intolerable year of social media feeds that saw “political correctness” monetized by the left and straw-manned by the right, it came down to an uncool, raunchy comedy dumped in January, and unbeknownst to most, to offer the most hilarious mocking of both sides. Featuring a very game Robert De Niro in what just may be his Gran Torino, the titular dirty grandpa seemed to restore, to quote Kanye West, “that DMX feeling” on multiplex screens. – Ethan V.
37. A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
An emotional gut-punch of a movie, A Monster Calls carefully explores what it means to be old enough to have true emotions and, still, not quite know how to process them. We are put in that headspace by the fantastic performance by young Lewis MacDougall who is visited by a tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) while his mother is sick in a hospital. Each night, the boy is visited and told a story that challenges him. Each night, our attachment to the journey grows until it culminates in a powerful finale that mixes the magic of J. A. Bayona’s visual grandeur with his personal touch. – Bill G.
36. Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski)
In which notorious cinematic psychotic Andrzej Żuławski goes out on a final jittery, stark-raving-mad note. How fitting that the year’s most intelligently directed film – what zooms and glides and stops and starts that drive this thing forwards, backwards, and sideways – would so furiously chart the dissolution of rational thought and action, though to even say as much might inaccurately suggest that its characters are anything but cracked. Special notice to Sabine Azéma for a supporting performance that plays as the entire picture in miniature. – Nick N.
35. A Dragon Arrives! (Mani Haghighi)
Ping-ponging between doc and fiction in sublimely unexpected ways, the year’s most original thriller not only dares you to find the correct answers but to even ask the right questions. Writer/director Mani Haghighi, who embeds a murder mystery into his family history while making an implicit political statement, proves he can cook up Farhadi-esque plot twists just as brilliantly and bend storytelling forms like a true Panahi. By further giving the film its sensational look and sound, the Iranian master has crafted a cerebral workout so layered and cryptically spectacular it leaves you in an awestruck state of cinematic stupor you hardly wish to recover from. – Zhuo-Ning Su
34. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
Eight million dollars. That’s the budget of Ben Wheatley‘s wild ’70s romp High-Rise, a brilliantly adapted (by Amy Jump) descent into madness of J.G. Ballard‘s seminal novel. Nothing about the film shocks me more because of its stellar cast, impeccable art direction, and sheer scale of themes, visuals, and dystopian nightmare. It’s no surprise that shades of Terry Gilliam’s gonzo epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and masterpiece Brazil come to mind — the torch of directorial vision making mountains out of molehills has been passed. My review called it “dense, hilarious, and timelessly prescient,” and I stand by those words. This is an intellectual revolution of feral creatures rejecting the status quo. This is America circa 2017. – Jared M.
33. Little Men (Ira Sachs)
Using the microcosm of a Brooklyn rental dispute as its backdrop, Ira Sachs’ latest film was both a timely comment on class in present-day liberal America and an emotional wrecking-ball account of adolescence — that time in a young person’s life when an earth-shattering family dispute can seem far less significant than a train ride home after a young love’s rejection. Little Men seemed to argue that while convenient liberalism and local businesses might be the first things to go when gentrification rears its head, far more tragic rifts will occur in the process. The whole thing resonated like a sad and beautiful farewell to the Melting Pot and, contrary to all the grown-ups’ bickering, it was Jake and Tony’s endearing friendship — which bridged class, ethnicity and, perhaps, sexual persuasion — that really lay in the balance. – Rory O.
32. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Actions should have consequences, which is exactly what Hell or High Water delivers upon in the end. In getting there, though, you have to wade through a bleak and dirty modern-day western as we follow two bank-robbing brothers out on a tear through West Texas. The film never strays from being honest about the despair many in the locale face while managing not to paint too-perfect a picture of the brothers as people with a heart of gold. The humor is often dry, but if you can find yourself on the good side of the lawman (played by Jeff Bridges) and see past his stereotyping wisecracks, it’s one of the year’s most well-oiled films. – Bill G.
31. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s welcomed return to the detective genre, gleefully wallows in quips, twists, and punches, lovingly paying homage to hard-boiled fictional tough guys of yesteryear. It’s a film anchored by two shamelessly likable performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, whose unexpected comedic chemistry makes for an incredibly rewatchable and entertaining experience. We have genuine fun in their presence, hanging out with the two of the world’s worst detectives as they stumble ever closer to a characteristically violent conclusion. The other star is unquestionably Black’s playful screenplay (co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi), which beautifully weaves the required elements of the detective movie formula around the peculiarities of its ‘70s Los Angeles setting. I predict that within ten years, we will have forgotten that The Nice Guys wasn’t the smash hit of summer 2016, as it clearly should have been. – Tony H.
30. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
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)
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)
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 House, Raoul 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.
20. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
This exotic, hypnotic, perhaps psychotic film out of Colombia (and the country’s first nomination for the foreign language Oscar) takes us on a Conradian quest into the heart of the Amazon. Lusciously filmed in black-and-white 35mm, director Ciro Guerra gives us a transcendental vision of a community lost in time, wiped off the map by colonialist thinking that has robbed the Amazon of one of its most distinct cultures. Werner Herzog’s work might make an obvious comparison, but while Fitzcarraldo centered on a white European, Guerra’s film is significant in that its story revolves around Antonio Bolivar‘s indigenous shaman. His furious gaze as the final white man’s greed is revealed is haunting. – Ed F.
19. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt‘s mesmerizing triptych sees women battered by society and the bitter Montana breeze. Distant railroad horns and the epic Rocky Mountain scenery make it inescapably American, and, in a year in which one woman didn’t break the highest glass of all, the domestic struggles of these assertive, more “certain” women — including never-better Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and breakout Lily Gladstone — carry greater poignancy. I saw the film in January at Sundance, and the feelings it provoked haven’t left me. – Ed F.
18. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
That it’s taken Whit Stillman nearly thirty years to adapt Jane Austen feels like a crime. Built from the novella Lady Susan, Love & Friendship features Kate Beckinsale as the titular Susan Vernon, a mean, smart, and funny widower on the hunt for a husband for her daughter and a new suitor for herself. Sharp and biting, Beckinsale delivers her best performance since The Last Days of Disco, her previous outing with Stillman. Other stand-outs include Chloë Sevigny as Susan’s equally brutal American friend and Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a potential match and unbelievable dope. – Dan M.
17. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Movies are meant to transport us to new and wonderful worlds and times, yet so often do they barely deign to show us something interesting in our own. What makes The Witch so wonderful is the manner in which it fully transports its audience — not only to another time, but another frame of mind. Thanks to the meticulous art direction and costuming and performances — not to mention the perfectly modulated tone and writing — Robert Eggers‘ masterpiece of horror and atmosphere is able to full immerse the audience in the mindset of an ultra-religious colonial family beset by a malevolent witch. One might think the superstitious mindset of a Puritan family would be impossible to fully empathize with, but The Witch makes it happen. – Brian R.
16. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
The most beautiful film of the year for both its aesthetic and emotional range, Sunset Song is a grand, sweeping romantic epic the likes of which are otherwise absent in filmmaking today. The director I’m perhaps most thankful has never compromised his style — a notion to be repeated next year with the magnificent A Quiet Passion — Terence Davies ravishingly adapts Lewis Grassic Gibbon‘s novel, and with all of its charm and heartache. One could write books on the dissolves employed here — after they are finished discussing Agyness Deyn‘s tremendous performance, of course. – Jordan R.
15. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
One need not have any background with faith to be enraptured in the philosophical questions at the center of Silence. Sure, having a theological familiarity with the soul-wrenching struggle of Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) will increase one’s appreciation, but Martin Scorsese‘s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō‘s novel succeeds as a lucid exploration for anyone who has been conflicted with a crucial decision. By meticulously placing us into the battle both internal (through voiceover) and external (how the basis of that voiceover wars with opposing views) raging through Rodrigues, Scorsese’s feat is his patient build-up to one of the most profound endings of his career. – Jordan R.
14. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Hang-soo)
South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has built a formidable career with variations on the same thematic, structural, and formal choices, and Right Now, Wrong Then is another permutation involving his three favorite subjects — film critics, drinking, and pathetic men — but while the films almost always have a playful intelligence in their construction, they rarely feel this deceptively moving. Expertly shifting between naturalism and self-awareness in both its formal choices and performances (Kim Min-hee imbues every line with a crucial conversational purity), it becomes not only a great romantic comedy, but an examination of how we process the experience of watching a film. – Michael S.
13. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick‘s embrace of the modern has been one of cinema’s most thrilling evolutions. Rather than retreat further into the past and nostalgia in his older years, Malick has shifted his focus, and, with it, embraced contemporary technology. Watching footage shot in present-day L.A. on consumer-grade digital cameras and woven with his poetic, aesthetically gnostic vision is an experience not to be denied. That his stories have only become more personal, more heartsick, and more raw in their philosophical hunt for meaning only makes this aesthetic evolution more thrilling. Knight of Cups may be the apotheosis of this new phase in Malick’s career, and it stands as perhaps his best film ever. – Brian R.
12. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
That emotional profundity most directors try to build to across an entire film? Mike Mills achieves it in every scene of 20th Century Women. There’s such a debilitating warmness to both the vibrant aesthetic and construction of its dynamic characters as Mills quickly soothes one into his story that you’re all the more caught off-guard as the flurry of emotional wallops are presented. Without ever hitting a tonal misstep, Mills’ latest feature takes place in a short period of time within relatively few locations, yet seems to pick up every wavelength of the human experience. There are also few funnier scenes this year than Billy Crudup‘s William attempting to explain the ending of a certain classic. – Jordan R.
11. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Cho Young-wuk, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound. – Chris S.
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)
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 Jenkins‘ Moonlight 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