Times that are spirit-crushingly awful desperately need great films. And 2016, for all its daggers, at least delivered some of the best movies in recent memory. After a weak year (2015), the medium came roaring back in 2016. Especially encouraging was the diversity to be found in the best movies of 2016—three of our top six films feature African-American or mixed-race leads, and four of our top nine starred a female lead. Overall, there were an impressive number of truly transcendent films to find U.S. release this year, and many more that were fascinating and thrilling in their own ways. So much so that narrowing the list down to 50 was extremely difficult, and we suspect (and hope) that many of you will tell us about favorites of yours that missed the cut.
Here are the 50 best movies of 2016.
50. Miles Ahead
Director: Don Cheadle
Director/actor Don Cheadle dismissed a pitch for a conventional biopic structure and instead suggested making a film that captures the essence of Miles Davis’s spirit by bucking the biopic form—a film in which, as Cheadle tells it, Davis himself would want to star. Everyone got on board, so Cheadle proceeded to co-write, direct and star in what now amounts to a piece of Miles Davis fan fiction: Miles Ahead is a caper film with a refreshing sense of creative authority, chutzpah and goodwill. A musician in his past life, Cheadle makes a striking transformation in his role, parading a crown of Jheri curls and straining and rasping his voice to the point that he and Davis are indistinguishable. In that spirit, Miles Ahead is massively entertaining but guided with a shaky hand, at times overly stylized and others stiflingly formulaic, a film whose quest for innovation within its genre may have outpaced its ability to deliver. During a rehearsal scene, Davis implores his band to “be wrong strong,” one of the many callbacks to Davis’s passion for improvisation. If Cheadle meant to communicate the messy rebelliousness of jazz music, then he succeeded through a messy rebellion of cinema. —Melissa Weller
49. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Director: Brett Story
Empathy is at the forefront in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, director Brett Story’s masterful collection of vignettes. There’s no central figure, Story instead using her snapshots of different individuals to suggest something grander—namely, Americans’ inescapable entanglement with their country’s prison system. There’s a cumulative power, a headlong rush, in watching one vignette segue into another, the viewer trying to make connections between seemingly dissimilar American portraits. Other filmmakers would mount a frontal assault on the classism and racism rampant in the way we lock up so many people, but Story doesn’t want us to watch the usual images and absorb the normal statistics. She’s asking us to see the dilemma in a new light, and her powerful essay film never stops making us queasy—or, at the same time, alive with anger and sorrow that the dilemma is being communicated so forcefully. —Tim Grierson
48. Men & Chicken
Director: Anders Thomas
We live in a wondrous world where a film which breaks box office records in Denmark prominently features a chronic masturbator (the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen in his least embraced role in a year in which he’s been part of every worthwhile blockbuster tentpole) and a reasonable-sounding description of the logic behind certain forms of bestiality. In Men & Chicken, Elias (Mikkelsen, mustachioed repugnantly) and his pecky milquetoast of a brother Gabriel (David Dencik) share both a harelip and, upon trekking to a remote island estate where they meet their estranged brood, the discovery that the foundations of their existences hinge on a sort of nightmarish debauching of the basest tenets of life and love. What begins as a pitch-black take on a Farrelly Brothers farce descends irrevocably into madness when director Anders Thomas Jensen reveals—through a deeply unsettling mastery of tone—what the title of his film really means. Jensen never once loses his sense of humor or penchant for gross setpieces as he approaches trenchant, even transcendent ideas about what it means to be human. —Dom Sinacola
47. Kate Plays Christine
Director: Robert Greene
This film operates under a fake conceit: actress Kate Lyn Sheil (who appeared in Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth) is preparing to star in a biopic about Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV journalist who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head on-air in 1974, and Robert Greene will follow Sheil as she does background research for the project. But there actually is no biopic being made; Greene and Sheil film intentionally cheesy-looking scenes from their bogus movie, which are intercut with Sheil’s real conversations with Chubbuck’s former coworkers and, in one particularly excellent scene, a local gun dealer.
Actress, about actress Brandy Burre as she prepares for a comeback after years away from the business, dove deep into the ways our lives are actually just a series of roles—mother, daughter, lover, young, old—and Kate Plays Christine is also captivated by our ability (and our need) to create different guises. But this time, Greene wants to include us in his interrogation. The documentary fixates on Chubbuck’s suicide—the footage of which has been locked away for the last 42 years—but, more accurately, fixates on why an actress (or an audience) would want to relive such a horrific, traumatic act. Kate Plays Christine builds and builds to a finale in which Sheil must make the decision of how she will “perform” Chubbuck’s violent end, and while I won’t reveal the resolution, it most forcefully asks the question so many documentaries this year ponder: What are you looking at? —T.G.
Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
“Why did you let me film this?” This simple question, posed at the end of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, is as baffling to the movie’s subject as it is to everyone else. Anthony Weiner gave a documentary crew incredible behind-the-scenes access to his 2013 New York mayoral campaign while his political career crumbled and his personal life turned to a shambles. If the filmmakers had an agenda besides studying Weiner’s character, they did a great job of hiding it. Weiner shows many facets of his personality: He can be charming and funny, but he can also be a petulant, entitled jerk. The veneer wears off as the stress mounts, making things increasingly uncomfortable—it’s excruciating to watch this man try to salvage respect from certain humiliation, but it makes for a devilishly intimate look into the madness of modern politics. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Ross Partridge
Based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb opens on David Lamb (Partridge) as his life is imploding. His marriage has just failed and his invalid father, whom we briefly see in a neglected Chicago home-turned-hovel, soon passes away. Instead of earning sympathy, David immediately proves to be an untrustworthy and unreliable protagonist. Despondent about his father’s death and the tumult in his life, David turns his attention to an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence), a latchkey kid from a broken home. It may be easy to compare Lamb to Lolita, but Partridge’s film is darker and more uncomfortable, devoid of the comic undertones found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lamb toys with its audience, playing mind games until the very last frame—and even after the credits roll, questions linger about motive, about intention, about right and wrong. —Christine Ziemba
44. Miss Sharon Jones!
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-books opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick.
But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknownst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy (Jones succumbed to her sickness on November 18th), Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —D.S.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Like some of the best documentaries of our time, 13th is not just a film, but a demand; it’s a call to reject dangerous reiterations, specifically newer and newer Jim Crows. DuVernay’s work doesn’t expressly name what we might build in their place, but it demands that those of us watching resist the seduction of sameness disguised as slow progress, and imagine something: actual freedom. —Shannon Houston
42. Operation Avalanche
Director: Matt Johnson
In Operation Avalanche, Canadian Matt Johnson plays American Matt Johnson, a CIA agent who talks his way into an undercover gig at NASA, posing as a documentary filmmaker to report back to the CIA Director the space agency’s progress on getting an astronaut onto the Moon. When Johnson discovers that NASA is too far behind technologically to beat the Soviets to the surface of the lunar rock, he concocts a plan to fake the landing, drawing inspiration from both Georges Méliès and Stanley Kubrick. Shot as a handheld, faux-documentary glimpse into the long process of what it could believably take to accomplish such a monster ruse, the film balks at a requisite need to ever settle on one genre, skirting a (really funny) buddy comedy, light procedural and bureaucratic farce before devolving seamlessly into bleak territory—though not after an electrifying car chase shot with a budget that’d make the Duplass brothers cry—and winding down to a smirking, if nihilistic, note. That Johnson and his crew actually snuck into a NASA facility by posing as a documentary film crew fits perfectly within Operation Avalanche’s opinion of how America writes its history: Ambition, not idealism, will always win in the end. —D.S.
41. Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
David Mackenzie’s film gets the balance between genre and plot so right that, after a while, I forgot I was watching a genre film and simply found myself immersed in the lives of these characters. That is a tribute to not only the performances and Mackenzie’s direction, but also to Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, which finds seemingly boundless amounts of colorful human detail and unexpected humor in what, on the surface, stands as a clichéd narrative. Hell or High Water is essentially a cops-and-robbers tale, with grizzled soon-to-retire veteran sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), going after a brotherly duo of bank robbers: Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. Sheridan’s characters are so fully imagined that, combined with actors and a director sensitive to the nuances in the script, we ultimately respond to them as flesh-and-blood people. But Sheridan—who tackled the moral difficulties of the drug war with his script for Sicario—has even bigger thematic game in mind. Hell or High Water is also meant to be a topical anti-capitalist lament, being that it takes place in a west Texas town that looks to have been decimated by the recent economic recession, with big billboard signs of companies advertising debt relief amid stretches of desolation, and with Toby driven in large part by a desire to break out of what he sees as a cycle of poverty for his loved ones, to provide a better life for his two sons and ex-wife. —Kenji Fujishima
40. Nocturnal Animals
Director: Tom Ford
After A Single Man was (unjustly) criticized in some quarters for its preoccupation with surface beauty, fashion designer-cum-filmmaker Tom Ford has returned with something ugly. Aesthetically, Nocturnal Animals is still deliberately gorgeous, with its model-handsome actors, designer costumes and career-high lensing by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. It’s also a film that presents two worlds—one real, one fictitious—in which people are compulsively, perhaps inevitably, driven to do horrible things to one another. A revenge movie that features only imagined violence, Nocturnal Animals is all the more uneasy for having a male “hero” who seeks to mentally brutalize its heroine. This one feels personal for the filmmaker, a bundle of ways to explore multiple anxieties: creative stagnation and infidelity; familial responsibilities and loss of control; fear of failure and rejection. Each story thread comes with a different kind of dread—though all of them are unified in their investigation of toxic masculinity. Male anger and resentment drive this savage tale, a thriller as gripping as it is stomach-churningly frank. —Brogan Morris
39. The Fits
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
It’s not difficult to imagine a different cut of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits that hews closer to the arc of a traditional sports story. Hers has the makings of a familiar one, of a misfit who wants more than anything to compete—but unlike most stories of inspirational audacity, The Fits is as much about discomfort as the catharsis that comes with achievement. In it, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old who has more experience with stereotypically male pursuits like lifting weights and punching speed bags than the usual interests of a pre-teen girl. She spends nearly all of her time at the Lincoln Recreation Center alongside her boxer brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), pushing her body to the limit. While she shows a remarkable aptitude for the ascetical devotion required for boxing, she still dreams about competing on the dance team, “The Lincoln Lionesses.”
Framed with a rigid sense of space by cinematographer Paul Yee, and backed by the groaning score from veteran composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The Fits is infused with such dread that one can’t help but imagine that characters’ muscles and bones could break or shatter at any moment. The film’s most explicit example of which may be Toni pulling off a temporary tattoo, but The Fits is firmly a story of metaphysical body horror, an allegory about our greatest fears of physical fragility shot brilliantly through a feminist lens. With that, the film manages to reinvent the sports story as something both brainy and physically pure. —Michael Snydel
38. Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Kubo and the Two Strings operates in much the same way as any other Laika movie does, by blending authentic sentimentality with equal parts dread, perception and excitement. It is often scary, like 2009’s Coraline, though not quite as often or quite as much; it loves its genre elements, like 2012’s ParaNorman; and it’s so oriented toward engaging our senses that we feel as though we’re bystanders on the set, like in 2014’s The Boxtrolls. In Laika’s canon, it wouldn’t be off base to describe Kubo and the Two Strings as “workaday.” This, philosophically, is what we expect Laika films to be, and what we expect them to deliver on.
But the film is distinguished first with tweaks on old themes and the introduction of new ones, and then with personality derived from its choice in setting. The film takes place in historical Japan, or, more accurately, a fantastical version of historical Japan, but it doesn’t suffice to say that the backdrop alone gives Kubo and the Two Strings its unique identity. Travis Knight and his team have embraced their backdrop to the fullest extent and beyond, approaching each piece of their mise en scène with a reverence that is at once hushed and pronounced. That speaks to the level of the film’s refinement of craft, too: It’s more tactile even than its predecessors. Catch a 3D screening and you’ll instinctively reach out to touch the film’s beautifully detailed backgrounds. (Maybe you’ll shrink away from its array of supernatural hazards as well.) Kubo and the Two Strings is better than immersive—it’s absorptive.—A.C.
37. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Though The Witch ends as it must—not, it should be noted, with a “twist,” because the stakes had already been set from the first moment we knew the titular monster to be real—it’s an ending which, while resting on a striking final image, tips almost too readily into the supernatural elements so much of the film tries for so much of its run-time to delicately avoid. There is a goat named Black Philip, there is blood, there is the line you will quote for weeks after seeing it. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It’s a fair question—because of course thou wouldst. Because even if The Witch implies that the mortal fear to which its characters prescribe in the face of such real evil makes plenty sense, Eggers still doesn’t buy that the puritanical hysteria at the heart of America’s founding was anything reasonable. Why does this evil exist at all? When the alternative is so dehumanizing, why doesn’t it?” —D.S.
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson’s title for her latest documentary feature could not be any more nondescript. And yet, the anonymity of that title points to perhaps the most remarkable aspect about this film: its maker’s sheer selflessness, her devotion to her craft and her subjects, her seemingly complete lack of ego. The film is pieced together from outtakes from the long-time documentary filmmaker/cinematographer’s extensive body of work, but beyond occasionally hearing her voice behind the camera (and one shot towards the end in which we finally see her face as she points the camera toward herself), Johnson forgoes the safety net of voiceover narration to tie all this footage together. The footage speaks for itself, and for her. Which is not to say that the film is just a compilation of clips strung together willy-nilly. Johnson breathes an animating intelligence into Cameraperson’s construction, employing a method that suggests a mind processing one’s life experiences, contemplating the sum total of her work, veering off into tangents whenever she happens upon a piece of footage that triggers broader reflections. It’s a measure of Johnson’s overall humility that she is willing to be as brutally honest about herself with the viewers in this way—and it’s that humility that ultimately makes Cameraperson such an inspiring experience. —K.F.
35. Little Men
Director: Ira Sachs
In its gentle, compassionate way, the unassuming drama Little Men says as much about self-preservation and mistrust as any hand-wringing, message-based movie. Director and cowriter Ira Sachs uses a simple story about the friendship between two teen boys as a springboard to address the myriad obstacles that keep people from different walks of life from seeing eye-to-eye. Never smug in its observations and always fair to all its characters, Little Men leaves us moved in an offhand, almost accidental manner. The film has all the breeziness of an ordinary day, albeit one with gray clouds on the horizon. Little Men adeptly pinpoints the poisonous self-interest that cuts us off from others, examining how being pragmatic and looking out for ourselves undermines communities. —T.G.
34. Green Room
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
What’s perhaps most refreshing in Green Room is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s lack of interest in the kind of moralizing that made his last film, Blue Ruin, ultimately seem conventional. Instead, Saulnier simply presents us this scenario without feeling the need to lard it up with anything as cumbersome as topical commentary or moral ambiguity. He proceeds to wring as much tension and suspense from its pulpy retro plot as possible, adding a few entertaining grace notes along the way, which can best be seen in its performances. In the ensemble-based Green Room, Saulnier revels in the contrasts of personalities and styles: band bassist Pat’s (Anton Yelchin) Bill Paxton-like desperation, for instance, set alongside the weary, near-drugged-out deadpan of Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of the woman whose murder sets off the film’s violent chain of events; or the imperial calm of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the ruthless leader of the band of white supremacists who attempt to kill Pat, Amber and the rest. It’d be a stretch to call these characters three-dimensional, but nevertheless, under Saulnier’s writing and direction, they all manage to stand out just enough as individuals for us to become emotionally involved in their fates. Meanwhile, Saulnier supports these characters and plot turns with filmmaking that is remarkable for its economy and patience. D.P. Sean Porter gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters and grimy lighting of the bar, lending its wide (2.35:1) frames an appropriately nightmarish feel amidst many suspenseful set pieces. In those ways, the lean, mean Green Room stands as one of the best B-movie genre exercises in quite some time. —K.F.
33. Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols’ fourth film continues a streak of smart, idiosyncratic genre tales that focus on family matters. But in Midnight Special, he gets a little more cosmic, telling a very human sci-fi story about a concerned father (Michael Shannon) trying to keep his boy (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the Feds, who believe (correctly) that he has special powers. Midnight Special is the sort of personal, ambitious mainstream film that seems to have all but evaporated from studios’ release schedules, which makes the fact that it was a commercial dud even more upsetting and dispiriting. Maybe on home video people will have a chance to catch up with this emotional drama, whose intimate contours and precise character work make it just as transporting on the small screen. —T.G.
32. Sing Street
Director: John Carney
Sing Street spins art out of history, but you might mistake it for pop sensationalism at first glance. If so, you’re forgiven. In sharp contrast to John Carney’s breakout movie, 2007’s sterling adult musical Once, Sing Street aims to please crowds and overburden tear ducts. There’s a sugary surface buoyancy to the film that helps the darkness clouding beneath its exterior go down more easily. Here, look at the plot synopsis: A teenage boy living in Dublin’s inner city in 1985 moves to a new school, falls in love with a girl, and forms a band for the sole purpose of winning her over. If the period Carney uses as his storytelling backdrop doesn’t make Sing Street an ’80s movie, then the mechanics of its story certainly do. You may walk into the film expecting to be delighted and amused. The film won’t let you down in either regard, but it’ll rob you of your breath, too. —A.C.
Director: Ross Lipman
Some movies are the happy accident of mismatched collaborators who, against the odds, produce a masterpiece forged in the fire of their creative clash. Then you have Film, a misbegotten 1965 avant-garde short put together by famed playwright Samuel Beckett and desperate-for-a-paycheck Buster Keaton. In the revelatory documentary Notfilm, director Ross Lipman excavates this little-remembered curio, talking to everyone from cinematographer Haskell Wexler to film historian Leonard Maltin to create a mosaic about celluloid, thwarted ambitions and the reasons why movies still enrapture us after so many years. This is a gift for film-lovers, even if you’re not a Film-lover. —T.G.
30. Things to Come
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings, and her latest, Things to Come, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. (In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.) Huppert is marvelous in the role: Between this performance and the one in the far spikier Elle, she’s made a compelling case for Actress of the Year, blending vulnerability and defiance in inspiring ways. —T.G.
29. Right Now, Wrong Then
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Fans of Hong Sang-soo’s films can feel reasonably confident anticipating what to expect from any new offering from the prolific South Korean writer-director: scenes of conversation in restaurants, characters drinking and fumbling toward love, men who often act like dolts, plots that sometimes repeat sequences with faint discrepancies. And yet, within these familiar tenets, considerable rewards can flourish when Hong is feeling particularly inspired, which is especially true with his latest film. The Hong trademarks are all there in Right Now, Wrong Then, but so is a newfound optimism and romantic glow. Rarely has he been such a crowd-pleaser while also being so bittersweet.
Ham (Jung Jae-young) is an art-house director in town to do a Q&A, but because he’s there a day early, he’s looking for something to do. Checking out the sights, he meets Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an aspiring painter who doesn’t know his work but knows his name. (Essentially, she’s just impressed because he’s famous.) The first hour of the film, entitled “Right Then, Wrong Now,” follows them over the course of a day as they get to know one another. The second hour, called “Right Now, Wrong Then,” repeats the first half’s general outline, but with some slight, meaningful revisions. Which hour you prefer of Right Now, Wrong Then will probably say more about your philosophy on romance than it does about Hong’s. —T.G.
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —D.S.
27. Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo García
In one of the most controversial scenes in Martin Scorsese’s landmark examination of the duality of flesh and spirit, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) speaks to Judas (Harvey Keitel) after addressing a fanatical crowd out for blood. He says, “I wanted to kill them, but out came the word, ‘love’.” It’s a moment that’s been decried as blasphemy by some, but for others it’s one of the greatest cinematic moments showing how a Christ figure reveals his limits.
It’s hard to be a god, or at least that’s what film has shown us for decades amidst various interpretations of Jesus moping, questioning his own capacity for sin, for decency and for having to shoulder the weight of the sins of our fathers. Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert is yet another exploration of the antagonistic relationship between temptation and some kind of ultimate good, and it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine that it takes Scorsese’s infamous scene as a thematic foundation of sorts. Granted, García’s vision is anything but transgressive, even if The Last Temptation of Christ is practically dogmatic compared to the spiritual endurance test imagined by Last Days in the Desert. But both interpretations have a refreshing openness to the purpose behind worshipping a God who demands so much pain and suffering, as well as to an equally flexible view of the Devil. Though García’s film isn’t a new perspective, that doesn’t mean it’s not moving, especially in bringing out the loneliness underlying the messiah complex. And while so many interpretations of Jesus life are so explicitly concerned with underlining his superhuman resilience, Last Days in the Desert is a meditation about the moments between all that suffering.—M.S.
26. The Red Turtle
Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
Wordless, The Red Turtle is an attempt to find new ways to communicate old truths—or old new ways, ways that feel new but aren’t. There is one word in The Red Turtle, but its isolation amongst the loud non-language of the rest of the film—the ever-present, somnambulant waves; the fauna of the film’s tiny “deserted” island; Laurent Perez del Mar’s score, which itself feels tuned to the natural rhythm of the world emerging within Michaël Dudok de Wit’s animated film—makes us question if it is actually a word at all. “Hey!” our nameless main character yells, otherwise carrying on a lifetime of subverbal communication, but it’s uttered so often amidst de Witt’s carefully built soundscape that it’s not all that impossible for the director to convince you there are no words in his film. Perhaps, a man of both Dutch and British descent, de Wit finds language a barrier between the audience and the emotional breadth of his (admittedly pretty archetypal) story, further inspired to ditch dialogue altogether by the film’s joint Japanese-French funding, and by the fact that if there’s any feature-length cinematic medium more forgiving of having no words, it’s animation. Consider that one simple example among many of the film’s power: Just as The Red Turtle could make you doubt whether a word you’ve known your whole life is actually that, so does it leave you with plenty of wonder—whether all animated films could be so lovely, so careful, so obviously the work of one person who’s given his everything to a single story because he might not have an opportunity to do so ever again. —D.S.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Full disclosure—I’m not the biggest fan of science fiction. But this is the kind of science fiction I can get behind, using the genre to explore larger issues in ways that are impossible outside those bounds. This is science fiction along the lines of Contact, of Interstellar, of Inception, and at its best, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arrival doesn’t scale the philosophical and spiritual heights of that last film, of course, but it’s to his credit that director Denis Villeneuve even tries to get into that range. The plot revolves around a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) trying to help decode the language of aliens who have landed a dozen massive ships in various parts of the Earth. But that plot is interwoven with a mysterious connection to a daughter she lost, and other unexplained phenomena. Part of the fun is seeing the mysteries unravel, so I won’t go any further. But Arrival is certainly worth the experience if you like your sci-fi heady and pensive. And—need it even be said?—Adams is fantastic in the lead role. —Michael Dunaway
24. Cemetery of Splendor
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Deep into the enchanting Cemetery of Splendor, an assortment of fit-looking bodies get up, sit down, join one another, walk away, split apart, ride bikes and trade seats, all without reason but obviously with rhyme, as if, as a viewer, you’ve stumbled upon a reel of background footage with the film’s main action cut out. Soon after, a sparkling shot of blue sky is calmly violated by a giant amoeba—or not, because maybe the amoeba is normal size, because the perspective isn’t clarified. And soon after that, a woman (Jenjira Pongpas) rises from an unperturbed nap, unsure if she’s found her way out of the labyrinth of her dreams, or if she’s only woken into another level of subconscious surreality. Meanwhile, a hospital of soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, who rest indefinitely under glass tubes used as part of an ill-defined light therapy, rests indefinitely upon a sacred burial ground. At least that’s what the modern manifestation of god-like princesses, come to life resembling the statues at the woman’s favorite shrine, tell her. Such is the stuff of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s typical filmmaking fodder, the Thai director not so much doing something radically different with Cemetery of Splendor as just laying one more layer of fantasy upon his oeuvre, waiting with clairvoyant patience to see if his characters, and by extension his viewers, will ever wake up—or if they even want to. —D.S.
Director: Antonio Campos
Why did TV journalist Christine Chubbuck take her life on camera in 1974? The brilliance of this Antonio Campos drama is that it tries to answer that question while still respecting the enormity and unknowability of such a violent, tragic act. Rebecca Hall is momentous as Christine, a deeply unhappy woman whose ambition has never matched her talent, and the actress is incredibly sympathetic in the part. As we move closer to Christine’s inevitable demise, we come to understand that Christine isn’t a morbid whodunit but, rather, a compassionate look at gender inequality and loneliness. —T.G.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Beginning with a rape scene, Elle is the latest nasty bit of business from director Paul Verhoeven. It’s also one of his greatest films, exploring how the assaulted woman (Isabelle Huppert) decides to turn the tables on her attacker. Darkly funny but also very astute about our predatory, sensation-driven culture, this thriller upends societal hypocrisies—in particular, how we all like to pretend we’re nice, normal people with no kinks at all—and gives Huppert one of her best roles in the process. As the head of a videogame company that happily peddles gory, shoot-’em-up games, she’s a lethal, amoral businesswoman whose personal tragedy doesn’t cause her to even bat an eye. —T.G.
21. Swiss Army Man
Directors: The Daniels
It should be ridiculous, this. A buddy comedy built atop the premise of a man lugging around, and bonding with, a flatulent, talking corpse—but cinema is a medium in which miracles are possible, and many occus in Swiss Army Man. A film with such a seemingly unpalatable concept becomes, against all odds, a near-profound existential meditation. That this is a debut feature makes it even more of a marvel.
Even if Swiss Army Man’s reach to some extent exceeds its proudly ribald grasp, there’s something strangely moving about the filmmakers’ sincerity. For all the increasingly absurd gags about the utilities of Manny’s body—not just as a jet-ski propelled by bodily gas, but as a giver of fresh water through projectile vomiting and even as a compass through its erection—there’s not one iota of distancing irony to be found in the film. Dan Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (a.k.a. the Daniels) are absolutely serious in their attempts to not only re-examine some of the most universal of human experiences, but to also explore the idea of a life lived without limits, casting off the shackles of societal constraints and realizing one’s best self. It’s a freedom that the Daniels project exuberantly into the film itself: Swiss Army Man is a work that feels positively lawless. Witness with amazement what bizarrely heartfelt splendors its creators will come up with next. —K.F.
Director: Pablo Larraín
It’s difficult to remember where Jackie begins, and where it ends. Even minutes after leaving it, the moments that open the film and the moments that close it exist as diffuse notions rather than solid, plot-shrouded happenings. We understand that, barely a week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a conversation between Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and Life journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup, smugly zombified) frames the film, tacks it to some semblance of spacetime—but the rest of Pablo Larraín’s biopic operates liminally. This, most of all, the Chilean director understands: If the film is about grief, then the film must act as grief acts. Unmoored and aimless, Jackie acts like a bad dream.
Of course, the black hole at the core of Jackie is the assassination, rendered in one graphic image Larraín treats fairly. Throughout, the film hovers around the rim of this moment, and for much of Jackie’s running time, that moment seems like it will never come. When it does, though, it’s a relief we never realized we needed. Portman as Jackie pushes against the film’s reveal of that tragic split-second, and the film pushes too, and at times you want the film to stop pushing so much. This is grief, Larraín beautifully says—it is exhausting and relentless and dull, and, most of all, selfish. Sorry the movie is that way too. —D.S.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
You’ve seen the plot of Krisha before: self-destructive woman with a drinking problem goes to a family gathering supposedly having made strides in putting her life back together, but finds the tensions that arise testing her resolve to not go back to the bottle. Jonathan Demme explored similar territory in his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’ debut film does have a similar looseness to it, a feeling that anything can happen at any time. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Whereas Demme’s film was warmly observational, Shults’ film aims for an expressionism that imaginatively uses formal elements to invite us into the titular main character’s fractured psyche. Krisha could be seen as cinematic family therapy: Shults’ way of dealing with what was apparently a troubled home life. But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the passion he brought to this project. One can sense it in the film’s long takes and still setups, in the alternation between montages of unnerving chaos and lengthy scenes of shattering solitude. Krisha does more than announce a potentially major new talent; it shakes new, and tragically devastating, energy into the dysfunctional family drama. —K.F.
18. Toni Erdmann
Director: Maren Ade
And now, a high concept comedy from the country that invented comedy, Germany, in which a career woman’s ambition is pitted against her free-spirited dad’s waggishness. Maren Ade’s third feature film is light on its feet and sick in its heart, a discontent story about the danger capitalism poses to the human soul in our increasingly globalized corporate landscape. Its indelible dryness belies both the anger that seethes beneath its cool exterior as well as its cheeky, off kilter humor, defined in large part through awkward silences and bizarre but childishly endearing pranks. You may walk away from Toni Erdmann wishing you had a father who cared as much about your well being as Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) cares about his daughter Ines’s (Sandra Hüller). Alternately, you may be grateful that your sire doesn’t make a habit of dressing up in big, inexplicable monster costumes that suggest the lovechild of E.T. and Chewbacca. In either case, Toni Erdmann is a marvelous effort from Ade, a 162-minute film that feels half as long and which makes classic parent-child reconciliation tropes feel new again. It won’t necessarily leave you with the warm and fuzzies, but that’s okay: Happiness is, after all, a very strong word. —A.C.
17. The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook
There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. —A.C.
16. Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
The title of Whit Stillman’s latest comedy may be Love & Friendship, but while both are certainly present in the film, other, more negative qualities also abound: deception, manipulation, even outright hatred. Underneath its elegant period-picture surface—most obviously evident in Benjamin Esdraffo’s Baroque-style orchestral score and Louise Matthew’s ornate art direction—lies a darker vision of humanity that gives the film more of an ironic kick than one might have anticipated from the outset. Stillman’s film is based on Lady Susan, a posthumously published early novella by Jane Austen that, through a series of letters, chronicles the efforts of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (played in the film by Kate Beckinsale) to get herself back into the comfort of the upper class by finding husbands for her and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). While the more panoramic Last Days of Disco offered many different points-of-view to offset Charlotte’s scheming perspective, Love & Friendship puts us more squarely in the headspace of this one cunning character who sees people as little more than pawns in a chess game. It’s an uncompromising approach that is as necessarily discomfiting as it is gleefully droll. Such honesty has always been a hallmark of Stillman’s cinema, and even if Love & Friendship feels like more of a confection than his other films, that frankness, thankfully, still remains. —K.F.
15. Knight of Cups
Director: Terrence Malick
Regardless of how successfully the film explores the once-elusive director’s recently obsessive, less universal themes like the banality of excess, Knight of Cups delivers on all things Terrence Malick. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s shot Malick’s last four projects and in February picked up his third Oscar, opulently embosses the sterile vacuum of high-living in L.A. One of the film’s most gratifying sequences has a dog underwater in a pool trying to retrieve an eerily elusive tennis ball—you half expect “Scarborough Fair” to queue up on the soundtrack.
But what ultimately elevates Knight of Cups above Malick’s last film, To the Wonder, are the performances. Wonder was left too much in the hands of Ben Affleck, an actor not known for physical emoting. The ability to convey much while saying little is a rather crucial trait for any actor serving as the protagonist in a Malick film, as they remain largely silent in the present action while other players provide voiceovers explaining in teasing, arcane wisps the backstory and dilemma du jour. Bale, so quirky and masterful in films like The Fighter and The Big Short, has much greater carrying capacity (for lack of a better phrase) than Affleck, and he’s blessed with a talented supporting ensemble. (The cast list has everyone from Fabio to Antonio Banderas in it.) His Rick is far less appealing than Affleck’s homeboy, but Knight of Cups in turn carries infinitely greater wonderment. —Tom Meek
14. Everybody Wants Some!!
Director: Richard Linklater
Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to play like a spiritual companion piece to Linklater’s ’70s-era Dazed and Confused, with the writer/director reveling in his turn-of-the-decade’s style and swagger. Big lapels, bigger hair, even bigger facial hair and outright enormous egos are the norm throughout this nostalgic saga. Boasting little in the way of plot, Linklater’s film is content to sidle up alongside Jake (Blake Jenner) and his new friends to see where their appetites, whims and libidos will lead. And its laid-back vibe pays dividends as it progresses, given that one-note characters who initially appeared to be smug louts, hyper-gonzo wild cards, dim-bulb doofuses or inane hillbillies slowly develop semi-distinct personalities of their own. Their days devoted to slacking off, their nights spent trimming mustaches and dousing themselves in cologne before hitting the town in search of the next woman to bed, Linklater’s play-hard-and-party-harder characters are the embodiment of cocksure macho vitality, all of them rightly convinced that, at least for the moment, they have the world by the balls. —Nick Schager
13. O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
This installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is its most obviously ambitious, transcending superficial descriptions such as “entertaining” to get at something deeper, richer, truer—O.J.: Made in America clocks in at seven-and-three-quarter hours, though it breezes by—but if you’re conversant with the structure of earlier 30 for 30s, it’s also pleasingly familiar. The film encapsulates 30 for 30 at its best: It’s endlessly riveting, smartly packaged and exceedingly intelligent. And most important of all, the nearly eight-hour O.J. makes a pretty convincing case to non-sports fans why the rest of us invest so much emotional energy into the exploits of men playing children’s games. Sports are never just sports—they’re an extension of the race and class issues we experience on a daily basis. O.J. Simpson symbolized something powerful in our collective unconscious. And as this movie demonstrates, his fall from grace was partly ours. —T.G.
12. Voyage of Time
Director: Terrence Malick
For a dose of some real perspective on the incomprehensibility of the past couple months, Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (the long version narrated by Cate Blanchette is better than the Brad Pitt-voiced 60-minute cut) will reduce your ego to a sniveling speck. Birthed from the 20-minute sequence splitting The Tree of Life in two, Malick partners phantasmagoric CGI with digital footage of addicts scuffling amidst urban detritus and the Arab Spring in medias res. It’s an overblown film, as big as its ideas, as audacious as it is beautiful, saved by the clarity with which Malick puts no pressure on his audience to garner any sort of agenda from the depths of the filmmaker’s philosophical mind. As the literal “Story of Our Universe,” Voyage of Time is as pregnant or as bereft of salient ideas as you want it to be: Life is symmetry; everything that rises must converge; consciousness destroyed the innocence of our baser animal instincts; drugs are bad; whatever. If, in the wake of an election which revealed the worst in American politics, writing about American film felt at its most futile, then we need the cold shower of one of our greatest living American filmmakers to confirm that futility. “See,” Malick says in each mythical narrative phrase and magnificent, cosmic visual, “You really don’t matter.” —D.S.
Director: Martin Scorsese
The title of Martin Scorsese’s latest is loaded, at once a reference to God’s tendency not to reply to the pleas and appeals of followers, a nod to the culture of secrecy maintained by Japanese Christians during Japan’s Edo period and an acknowledgment of the state you’ll be left in after watching. Silence isn’t an easy moviegoing experience—it isn’t an easy conversation point, either, but that’s because it shouldn’t be. Scorsese knows it. Most likely Shusaku Endo, the author of the text from which Scorsese adapted his film (and had sought to adapt since the 1990s), knew it too. Who is innocent in Silence? Who is guilty? If we can rule out Japanese villagers put to death for their beliefs, and we certainly can, then that leaves culpability at the feet of their spiritual and bureaucratic leaders, both at odds with one another while the faithful remain suffering between them as priests and politicos treat them as fodder for proving the illegitimacy of their opponents’ belief structures. The film’s complexity is expected from Scorsese, one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time, but it’s also a reinvention in style, a picture that both feels totally unlike anything he’s shot before and cannot be mistaken as anyone’s but his. —A.C.
10. The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
The Lobster opens with David (Colin Farrell) as he’s discovering his longtime lover is dumping him. That would be painful enough, but in the world of this film, which is set in the near future, the fact that he’s single means he has to report to a mysterious hotel out in the woods. Once there, he’s informed that he has 45 days to find a new mate within the hotel’s crop of fellow single people. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into an animal by the hotel staff, banished to live the rest of his days away from humanity.
It’s a funny, scary and slightly gonzo conceit, and one of the best things about it is that Lanthimos and cowriter Efthymis Filippou don’t take it all that seriously. To be sure, The Lobster has plenty of profound ideas, but they’re executed with a cheeky, sardonic lightness. Even when the movie gets dark and suspenseful—and it most certainly does—Lanthimos operates as if The Lobster is a tough-love satire. Dogtooth commented on the hell of family with an exaggerated, worst-case-scenario stylization. For The Lobster, he’s pulled off the same trick in an eviscerating dissection of the rituals around modern romance. —T.G.
9. Certain Women
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Silence speaks volumes in Kelly Reichardt’s films. In works like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she has explored how people spend most of their day thinking, not talking, and that perhaps those quiet moments can be as revealing of character as anything that comes out of their mouths. (And, let’s not forget, even when we speak, we’re rarely saying precisely what we mean.)
Reichardt’s less-is-so-much-more approach is again on display beautifully in Certain Women, a series of three barely interconnected stories in which empty spaces are pregnant with meaning and resonance. As usual with her films, Certain Women is so delicately but smartly constructed that ecstatic reviews may give people the wrong idea about its greatness. Certain Women is wonderful not because it’s some towering, imposing colossus, but because every small moment feels thoughtfully considered, fully lived-in. Certain Women seeps into the skin and expands in the mind. It leaves you shaken—even though nothing seemingly momentous has happened.
Reichardt treats cinema as a kind of meditation, which probably explains why her movies almost never feature traditional endings. Lives are a process, not necessarily a destination, and Reichardt honors her characters’ journey by letting it ebb and flow as it pleases. Like so many of her films, Certain Women is muted and restorative. Suddenly, the real world feels too loud. —T.G.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Like Chantal Akerman’s ascetic classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson concerns itself with routine. The film conditions you to jive with its particular rhythm, in part so you might feel the impact experienced by our hero when the unexpected punctuates what’s regular in this average person’s life. Only, where Jeanne Dielman depicted the day-in-day-out of working-class life as a monotonous horror show, Paterson takes an altogether different tack. To Jarmusch, the everyday existence of blue-collar individuals like bus driver-poet Paterson (Adam Driver)—whom we observe across a single week—is so simple as to be near transcendent.
Paterson’s a classic nice guy, but Driver helps us realize there’s more going on beneath that exterior that’s so cautious to offend. It’s a turn of minor gestures that lacks the obvious Best Actor grandstanding to, say, win an Oscar, but rest assured Driver’s performance is one of the most impressive given this year. As with Jarmusch’s beguiling film on the whole, once acclimated, you continue to feel it long after you’ve left the cinema. —B.M.
7. One More Time With Feeling
Director: Andrew Dominik
If you’re a longtime fan of Nick Cave, if you’re a father or even if you just have some modicum of human empathy, One More Time With Feeling is going to be a very, very hard watch. In 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, under the influence of LSD, fell from a cliff and died—a tragedy that pervades every note on Cave’s new album Skeleton Tree. Understandably reluctant to publicize the album and subject himself to talking about the tragedy over and over, Cave agreed to let his friend and collaborator Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) film a documentary about the making of the record instead. Dominik shot in the unusual combination of 3D and black and white, and as more than one reviewer noted, the effect is ghostly. Which would be appropriate for any film about Cave, but especially this one: It’s a devastating, gorgeous journey into a prolonged (permanent?) existential crisis. —M.D.
Director: Jeff Nichols
How well you like Jeff Nichols’ Loving, his second motion picture on 2016’s release slate, will partially depend on what you look for in courtroom dramas. If you prefer judicial sagas made with potboiling slickness and little else, you’ll probably like Loving less than Nichols likes filming landmark legal proceedings. His film isn’t about the case of Loving v. Virginia as much as its two plaintiffs, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter Loving (Ruth Negga), the married couple at the center of the 1967 civil rights victory over the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws. As an effect of Nichols’ focal point, the movie speaks little to no lawyer jargon and takes place almost entirely outside of the court rather than within.
So if you’re sick to death of courtroom dramas that insist on pantomime, and if you think those kinds of stories demand more restraint, then you’ll probably dig on Loving. It so studiously avoids the clichés of its genre that it feels fresh, original, a completely new idea based on a very old, very formulaic one. It’s a disciplined, handsome, unfailingly serious screen reproduction of an important real-life moment in the nation’s ongoing fight for civil rights; it’s hitting theaters at a time when we’re still having cultural arguments about who gets to marry; and it’s directed by one of the critical darlings of contemporary cinema. This is the kind of anti-prestige movie critics yearn for, a product stripped away of non-artistic pretensions and ambitions, leaving only the art. —A.C.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Loss and grief—and the messy, indirect ways people cope with the emotional fallout—were the dramatic linchpins of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s first two films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. And so it is again with Manchester by the Sea, a movie with a grand scope but an intimate story. An ambitious, practically novelistic exploration of the tragedies that have greeted a blue-collar Massachusetts family, the film touches on themes that won’t be unfamiliar to viewers, but Lonergan’s particular approach makes them unique, although not always completely successfully. Still, Manchester by the Sea is a commanding, absorbing work in which the sum of its impact may be greater than any individual scenes. As opposed to the intimate, short-story quality of You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea bears the same sprawling ambition as Margaret, Lonergan draping the proceedings in a tragic grandeur that sometimes rubs against the film’s inherently hushed modesty.
Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler is quietly magnetic as a man who can’t express himself at a time when he really needs to step up and be the patriarchal figure. Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler are also both quite good, their characters buried deep in the man’s-man culture of the East Coast communities in which the film is set. But especially terrific is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, who has played haunted wives before, in Brokeback Mountain and Shutter Island. Here, though, she really pierces the heart: Her character never stopped loving Lee, but her brain told her she had to if she was ever going to move on with her life. In this film, she’s actually one of the lucky ones.
Tragedies drop like bombs in Manchester by the Sea, and the ripple effects spread out in all directions. The movie’s ending isn’t exactly happy, but after all the Chandlers have gone through, just the possibility of acceptance can feel like a hard-earned victory. —T.G.
4. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
La La Land’s exhilarating and nearly unflagging energy strives to inspire in viewers an equally bold appreciation for all the things it celebrates: the thrill of romantic love, of dreams within reach, of what we call “movie magic.” In this, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, an opening scene blooms into an ambitious song-and-dance number set in the midst of a Los Angeles traffic jam. It’s there our protagonists, Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone), will have a terse encounter foreshadowing their destiny as lovers, but not before a flurry of acrobatic dancing and joyful singing erupts around them, as if heralding their own flights of fancy to come. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera guides us through the excitement, weaving and spinning among drivers who’ve left their cars to execute a stunning sequence of choreography which appears to have been performed in a long, unbroken take.
The combination of song and visual is how Chazelle renders the joy of being in love and the way love transforms the geography around those in its sway. Many of Sebastian and Mia’s scenes are awash in pastels, swoony golden light and the deep purples of early evening. The key to the impact and success of the musical sequences is Chazelle’s understanding that the fantastical requires the mundane in tow. If we’re thrilled when we soar, it’s because we are usually grounded, and Chazelle makes sure to show us enough reality—failed auditions and performances, bitterness, blouses stained with coffee—to give La La Land’s musical numbers surreal lift by way of contrast.
Stone and Gosling make all of Chazelle’s balancing worthwhile with realistic performances; their musical segments are all the more transporting as they commit themselves to the old-fashioned allure of Chazelle’s conceit. Gosling conveys an attractive air of cool (and appealing vulnerability) without being self-satisfied. For her part, Stone endows Mia with sensitivity and vitality that drive her to work past her self-doubt, to confront her lover when she sees him taking the safe route in life. —Anthony Salveggi
3. The Other Side
Director: Roberto Minervini
Director Roberto Minervini has crafted a nonfiction narrative in the thick of the Louisiana swamp, drawing on locals to tell a bifurcated story that both exploits liberals’ fears of what the “other” America looks like and constructs a compassionate, clear-eyed account of those who are being left behind economically and culturally.
Minervini’s film contains scenes that feel fly-on-the-wall, while others have clearly been rehearsed and scripted. If he was trying to mock these people, that line between fiction and reality might have been more uncomfortable, but The Other Side is actually a deeply empathetic portrait. It obviously has its share of cultural dog-whistling—the whole movie could be a cinematic illustration of the economically disenfranchised voters Obama was referring to in 2008 on the campaign trail when he said, “…they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”—but The Other Side brings this world to such vibrant life so that we can see these people’s pain, and, perhaps, even understand the rage and violence swirling around them. The Other Side has been made by an outsider who refuses to shy away from other outsiders’ humanity. In an election year dominated by anger and disillusionment, the movie isn’t some freak show but, instead, an incredibly moving, undeniably frightening articulation of why so many in America want to blow the whole thing up and start all over again. —T.G.
2. American Honey
Director: Andrea Arnold
Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is the sort of electric audacity that paves over the movie’s occasional wobbles. With Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has looked closely at poverty, youth and desperation in her native England. With American Honey, she turns her attention to the United States, and what she finds is a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land.
The film stars newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, who is caring for two young children (her boyfriend’s, not hers), somewhere in the South. Dumpster diving, Star radiates the sort of scrappy, raw energy that marks her as someone who’s never had much money and always had to fight for everything she’s gotten. So, it’s fairly obvious why she takes a liking to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who drives by in a van with a group of young kids. Catching her eye, Jake is a fellow charming survivor, explaining that he’s part of a group that travels cross-country selling magazines door-to-door. Star can’t believe such an operation exists in the 21st century, but Jake swears there’s decent money to be made. Impulsively, she abandons her makeshift family—her boyfriend seems like a redneck cretin, anyway—and runs off to join another.
Lane steals the movie, this newbie projecting an almost feral vibrancy which makes her character’s next move consistently unpredictable. One moment, she’s a real sweetheart, but then her anger flares up, almost as if what’s upset her is actually connected to some hidden past trauma. Cultivating her sex appeal, hoping for a place to belong, Star is looking for something indescribable on this odyssey—she won’t know what it is until she sees it. The heartbreaking beauty of American Honey is in its insistence that such a dream is anyone’s right. The United States has often promoted itself as a place for second chances. All Star wants is any chance at all. —T.G.
Director: Barry Jenkins
What’s remarkable about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is that it’s hardly remarkable at all. It’s actually mundane, though its mundanity can be mitigated—or, really, delineated—via qualifiers: buoyant, bitter, graceful, beautiful, harsh, coltish, doleful, vibrant. More to the point: Moonlight is familiar. If you strip away its exterior particulars, you’ll be left with the bones of a coming-of-age story. (And if you’re into fancy European labels, you might call that story a “bildungsroman,” wherein the principal character’s emotional growth is traced over the course of formative years, even decades.) Every film has a skeleton to support its musculature. Moonlight’s just happens to look like Boyhood’s and The 400 Blows’.
Moonlight is painted with brushstrokes of silence: of Jenkins’ unobtrusive direction, of Chiron’s mute trepidation, of his friends and caregivers, who speak to him in the knowledge that he’ll say little and less to them in return (if he says anything at all). But rather than make Moonlight inaccessible, silence opens it up. In film, silence is neither mortal nor venial sin—it’s actually a virtue. Jenkins is fluent in silence and possesses an innate understanding of how silent moments can communicate more than heaps of dialogue. It’s in glances that pass between Little and his surrogate custodians, Juan (Mahershala Ali, damn near ubiquitous in 2016 and at his best here) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the stillness Chiron responds with when in conversation with his chum-then-crush, Kevin.
Moonlight is nothing if not empathetic. But describing the film solely in terms of empathy is a misguided oversimplification: All movies seek out empathy to degrees, after all, and so Moonlight does what any human story on celluloid has to do. Jenkins opts for sensation in favor of the sensational, eschewing flash and bluster while making old hat feel new again. Most of all, he invites our empathy at the cost of our vanity. He leads us away from navel-gazing to see the stunningly constructed drama he and his troupe have laid before us on screen. The film encourages self-reflection, but not at the expense of either its narrative or the viewing experience. That’s the surest sign of a deft cinematic hand. In turn, this isn’t simply Jenkins’ sophomore effort—it’s the defining pivot of his career. —A.C.