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The 20 best films of 2016

La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)
La La Land (Photo: Lionsgate)

When people talk about what a terrible year 2016 has been, they could be referring to any number of things, from virus scares to the death of beloved celebrities to whatever the fuck happened on November 8. What they can’t mean is the movies, though. Only those who spent all their money on the biggest Hollywood product could really complain about the cinema of 2016 (and even then, they’d have some pretty good Marvel movies and a solid Star Wars spin-off to fall back on). As usual, there was no grand unifying element linking all of the year’s finest films, but there were some shared themes and motifs: grief, and coping with it; strained family bonds; the responsibility (and burden) of religious faith; and, of course, cars. More than a few of the year’s best films also took time to highlight the details of normal life, tethering their drama, comedy, or delirious fantasy to something mundanely relatable. Mathematically ranked by our six regular reviewers, who each filed an annotated ballot, the 20 films below all have at least one thing in common: They made 2016 a little easier to bear, either by offering an escape from its nightmares or helping make sense of them.

20. Louder Than Bombs

Louder Than Bombs

Norway’s Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st) is a great filmmaker often mistaken for merely a good one, which helps account for why his English-language debut got a polite critical reception back in the spring, before quietly disappearing from sight, mind, and screens. But in its minor-key way, Louder Than Bombs is a major achievement: an intimate family drama that turns the private process of grief management into an exhilarating audio-visual experience. Centered on a family grappling with the death of its famous photographer matriarch (Isabelle Huppert, who’s having a hell of a year), the film uses a collage of familiar stylistic/narrative tricks—flashbacks, dream sequences, multiple narrators, elliptical montage—to plug viewers right into the emotional state of its characters, a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two bereaved sons (Devin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg, the latter having a pretty good year, too). Novelistic in insight, thrillingly cinematic in technique, it deserves at least a portion of the acclaim showered upon 2016’s critical darlings, including its nearest spiritual relative, that other study of closed-up men in mourning sitting pretty at the top of this very list. [A.A. Dowd]

19. Jackie

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Not strictly a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biopic, this impressionistic take on the former first lady from director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman is primarily a look at how Jackie dealt with the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A few flashbacks recall how the patrician Mrs. Kennedy won over a skeptical America and became a style icon. But the bulk of the film is about how she asserted her rights as a widow to make sure that her husband was properly honored, at a time when the entire country was on edge. Portman’s iron-spined performance affirms the dignity of an institution often seen as archaic and frivolous. Meanwhile, home-movie-like visual textures from cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine and a thrillingly abrasive Mica Levi score enhance the immersive qualities of a movie that argues for the value of ritual, symbols, and tradition, even in the midst of unimaginable tragedy. [Noel Murray]

18. Midnight Special

Image: Screenshot

A chase thriller, a supernatural parable, an experiment in minimalist narrative and sustained mystery—Jeff Nichols’ superb foray into genre material is so inextricably rooted in day-to-day American reality that it can be easy to overlook how strange and uncommon it is as a piece of filmmaking. The motels, gas stations, and roadsides where much of the movie is set look familiar, and the story feels like it’s been told before: a child with extraordinary powers, pursued by government agents and doomsday cultists. But Nichols, gifted with an eye for suggestive empty spaces and landscapes, creates something ambiguous, poignant, and ultimately transcendent, risking much on performances, unspoken internal conflicts, and an ending that seems to reveal too much, but not really. Led by Michael Shannon, who has appeared in all of Nichols’ films, the large cast is fantastic; although Joel Edgerton has received acclaim for his role in Nichols’ Loving (also released this year), his laconic supporting performance here is arguably his finest work. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

17. Right Now, Wrong Then

Photo: Grasshopper Films

Prolific Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has never achieved even the moderate success in the U.S. of his countrymen Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) and Park Chan-wook (see #6), mostly because he makes tiny, talky, largely plotless films about feckless, drunken men (almost all of them film directors and/or screenwriters—no one is more firmly committed to the “write what you know” maxim). Right Now, Wrong Then doesn’t stray far from the template, but it’s perhaps the most thoroughly entertaining picture Hong has yet devised. In its laid-back, gently probing first half, the usual celebrated art film director (Jeong Jae-yeong) meets an aspiring artist (Kim Min-hee—again, see #6; she stars in that, too) and utterly fails to seduce her, in part because he’s trying so damn hard. The second half, despite being a nearly scene-by-scene replay of the first half, soon deviates from the original story, though not necessarily for the reasons or in the way you’d expect. Behavioral contingency has rarely been so acutely or hilariously diagnosed; if this is fundamentally the same film Hong always makes, may he make many more. [Mike D’Angelo]

16. The Witch

The Witch

A title card at the outset reads, in full, “The Witch: A New-England Folktale.” Technically, in fact, it’s The VVitch, with two capital V’s (more or less interchangeable with the letter “U” for centuries) instead of the modern “W.” These details matter, because Robert Eggers’ singularly creepy debut derives much of its power from stringent period accuracy. Set early in the 17th century, among a Puritan family that’s been exiled to a solitary existence in the woods, it features dialogue taken directly from diaries and court records of the era, creating an additional layer of distance that heightens the already pervasive feeling of strangeness. For those not disturbed by this alienation effect, there’s also an infant-snatching (and -devouring) witch, as the title promises, along with escalating paranoia, multiple crises of faith, hallucinatory madness (culminating in one brief but unforgettable shock), and a literally diabolical goat called Black Phillip. In the end, The Witch poses a question that some found irresponsible, but that makes first-rate nightmare fuel: What if the women who were hanged in Salem a few decades later were, to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy? [Mike D’Angelo]

15. Everybody Wants Some

Photo: Paramount Pictures

“Bros will be bros” sounds like a pretty noxious description of any movie, even a Richard Linklater comedy. But while that phrase absolutely applies to Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some, it also makes the film feel damn near miraculous for the way it reclaims dopey, competitive, ball-busting dude behavior and makes it charming. Linklater follows freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) as he gets acclimated to life on a college baseball team over the course of a weekend, a time frame that—combined with the 1980 setting—makes Everybody a suitable bookend to his seminal Dazed And Confused. But it has connections to his other films, too, like the way Linklater can’t help but send Jake into a miniature version of a Before Sunrise situation with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a theater girl he meets by chance. With a few acknowledgments of how fleeting these moments may be, Linklater continues, post-Before trilogy and post-Boyhood, to examine the passage of time, even when he’s capturing the act of living in the moment. [Jesse Hassenger]

14. The Fits

Photo: Oscilloscope

Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film is partly a coming-of-age tone poem and partly a deeply metaphorical art-horror exercise, but mostly it’s its own strange and wonderful thing, as unclassifiable as it is beautiful. Preteen actress Royalty Hightower plays a tomboy who becomes enamored of the award-winning dance troupe at her Cincinnati community center, which she joins right around the time that her peers get seized by unexplained spasms. Has something gone sour in the environment? Or is all this strangeness just an expression of the heroine’s alienation from other girls, who seem to know much more than she about how to talk to each other and how to look pretty? Holmer never offers any definitive answers as to what The Fits means. She just sticks close to one kid who’s trying to figure it all out herself and lets us see and feel along with her. [Noel Murray]

13. Silence

Silence

Silence carries the weight of history, both that of its decades-long journey to the screen and that of the horrific events depicted within. But where some filmmakers would turn scenes of Christians being tortured and executed into a borderline-pornographic spectacle, conflicted Catholic Martin Scorsese quietly shoulders the burden of their suffering. Heaviest of all is the silence of the title—the awful void of unanswered prayers that overtakes Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as his faith is tested time and time again. Traveling to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have disavowed Christianity and taken a Japanese wife, Rodrigues and his fellow Jesuit Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are confronted with abject poverty and an oppressive government that condemns Christians to live in fear—desperate circumstances the fathers believe can be improved only by faith in God. Virtually devoid of comic relief and persistently bleak, Silence isn’t a fun film to watch. But it is a powerful one. [Katie Rife]

12. American Honey

Photo: A24

Andrea Arnold presents a dynamic vision of young, weird America in American Honey, a sprawling road movie that winds its way from wealthy suburban cul-de-sacs to poverty-stricken trailer parks on a cross-country trip. Newcomer Sasha Lane stars as Star, an impulsive teenager who abandons her abusive home life to sell magazines town to town and door to door with some misfits she meets dancing to Rihanna in the middle of Kmart, including rat-tailed heartthrob Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Driving the barren highways of red-state America in a white-paneled van, the kids tell their stories in between swigs of vodka and hits of an ever-present joint, each of them a block in the patchwork quilt of the U.S. underclass. Arnold allows her actors—many of whom were cast off of the street—to improvise organic, loosely constructed scenes that bring a documentary feel to their adventures. Take the aesthetics of a Harmony Korine movie, but substitute the nihilism with boundless humanity, and you’ll come close to understanding American Honey’s wild charm. [Katie Rife]

11. Elle

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.” With the French-language Elle, Paul Verhoeven, cinema’s defining subversive craftsman, returned to features after a decade-long break and delivered what is arguably his darkest and most caustic film. In one of her finest performances, Isabelle Huppert stars as a wealthy, successful businesswoman who is raped by an unknown intruder and opts to pursue revenge on her own terms. Elle refuses to acknowledge any contradiction or victimhood in its feminist antihero; jealous, overbearing, and masochistic, she embodies almost every negative stereotype ever used to rationalize misogyny and sexual violence. In his Hollywood days, Verhoeven did special-effects blockbusters better than almost anyone else; here, he twists the classic French bourgeois thriller (think mid-period Claude Chabrol) into a surreal social satire that is thrillingly unpredictable and black as pitch. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

10. The Lobster

Photo: A24

In a bizarre near-future dystopia, recently divorced David (Colin Farrell, cast very effectively against type) is sent to a seaside compound full of single adults to find a new partner in 45 days or else be transformed into the animal of his choice. Perfecting his style of absurdist deadpan comedy, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) introduces new rules, activities, and gruesome punishments at every turn: Matches are made based on arbitrary similarities; trial couples are assigned children; and time extensions can be earned by hunting down renegade singles who live in the woods and only listen to electronic music. More than just a witty parody of meaningless couplehood, The Lobster becomes more probing as it gets further and further into its strange and cruel world, building to a finale that asks whether two people can love one other on any terms except those forced on them by society. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

9. Paterson

Photo: Bleecker Street

What if there was a bus driver… who wrote poetry?! The log line for Paterson makes it sound vaguely off-putting, as though all of us are supposed to be surprised that there could be a creative person lurking inside a public transportation employee. But any whiff of condescension disappears within the opening minutes of Jim Jarmusch’s sublimely laid-back comedy, which believes with great sincerity in the virtues—and integrity—of ordinary living. Unfolding over a single week, Paterson follows its titular New Jerseyan (Adam Driver, locating grace notes in extreme understatement) as he goes to work, hangs out with his loopy artist girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani), makes nightly visits to a local watering hole, and finds the spare time to scrawl out the odd stanza. The film’s beauty lies in not just its gentle everyday rhythm but also its conception of Paterson’s artistic process—the suggestion that he finds inspiration in every interesting person, situation, and detail he encounters. For Jarmusch, that aging ambassador of cool, this is a Zen high point: his wisest, his funniest, his best. [A.A. Dowd]

8. Toni Erdmann

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

We cheated a bit here, tossing two films into a single slot. One of them is an incisive, sober, sometimes despairing arthouse drama about the exhaustion of grappling with corporate sexism. The other is its polar opposite: a goofy, freewheeling comedy about a prankster dad trying to cheer up his uptight, workaholic daughter. We justified pairing them, though, on the grounds that both are directed by the same woman (German filmmaker Maren Ade), feature the same actors playing the same characters within the same narrative, and have been seamlessly edited together into a nearly three-hour seriocomic epic. In other words, Toni Erdmann (which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, with other cities to follow) exhibits a tonal range that rivals Mariah Carey’s vocal range… though it’s Whitney Houston who inspires the film’s most memorable set piece. No aspect of human behavior is too trivial for Ade to spin into a moment that’s heartbreaking, absurd, or somehow simultaneously heartbreaking and absurd. This is the Rainer Werner Fassbinder/Adam Sandler mashup you never so much as suspected you wanted. [Mike D’Angelo]

7. Arrival

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Is there a screen actor with a more expressively reactive face than Amy Adams? She can be compelling simply reading a seamy novel in Nocturnal Animals or, as in the wonderful Arrival, puzzling over how to decode an alien language while struggling with her own perception of memory and time. Adams’ thoughtful, unshowy displays of emotion make her perfect for the balance of pulp procedural and arty seriousness that Denis Villeneuve has been tinkering with since his American debut, Prisoners. That mixture reaches a perfect alchemy during Arrival, which follows a character—Adams’ linguist expert—who would probably provide walk-on exposition in any number of lesser sci-fi movies. Speaking of which: Earlier this year, alien-invasion excitement cratered with the unwanted sequel Independence Day: Resurgence. Arrival, with its damply autumnal cinematography and lovely but unforced emotional hooks, feels like the real resurgence. [Jesse Hassenger]

6. The Handmaiden

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Park Chan-Wook achieves the rank of cinema master with The Handmaiden, which transports Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ novel of hidden identities and lesbian passion, to 1930s South Korea, adding plenty of Hitchcockian suspense in the process. Sumptuously shot with a fetishistic formality that recalls last year’s The Duke Of Burgundy, Park creates a sensual experience as lush as biting into an overripe peach and as kinky as a pair of leather gloves gently stroking the back of your neck. Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee, a young pickpocket who is hired to work for seemingly sheltered Japanese noblewoman Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee); the plan is for Sook-hee to help fellow con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo)—who is, in reality, neither a count nor Japanese—defraud Lady Hideko of her fortune. But as their love triangle grows increasingly complicated, it becomes clear that Lady Hideko is not as naive as she seems. Outstanding performances from the female leads carry the film through its dizzying twists and turns, underlaid with a wicked streak of black comedy and an unexpected faith in the power of true love. [Katie Rife]

5. Hell Or High Water

Photo: CBS Films

A vision of the modern West that ranks up there with No Country For Old Men, the offbeat, entertaining, and elemental Hell Or High Water made for an unlikely breakthrough for the gifted Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up). Two bank-robbing brothers are pursued by a couple of lawmen across a landscape dotted with wildfires and foreclosures. Hearkening back to the creative wild days of 1970s American cinema, Mackenzie’s direction strikes a perfect balance between the relaxed atmosphere and eccentricity of the West Texas setting and the tension and desperation of the characters; his long takes put viewers in the moment and never feel ostentatious. The screenplay (by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan) has earned well-deserved praise for its dialogue, but is just as impressive for the richly novelistic structure it gives to a fairly straightforward tale of crime and pursuit. Full of evocative detours, memorable bit characters, and potent reminders of the West’s legacy of theft and exploitation, the film builds to an epilogue that more than earned its place on our list of the year’s best scenes. And we haven’t even mentioned the cast. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

4. La La Land

Photo: Lionsgate

A lot of modern, original film musicals are as much about the feeling of their forbearers as anything else. This is somewhat true of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, with its CinemaScope aspect ratio (complete with Tarantino-like title card), lush and dreamy 35mm colors, visual nods to Singin’ In The Rain, and a coda that recalls The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. But Chazelle pulls off something so tricky it feels like magic: He makes these touchstones his own, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling providing a cocktail of movie-star glamour and real-world regret as two aspiring entertainers (one jazzman, one actress) falling in love and finding their voices. Despite the references, La La Land doesn’t especially resemble Rain or Cherbourg; through its interest in the costs and the glories of artistic ambition, it’s an effervescent companion to Chazelle’s thrillingly brusque Whiplash. Appropriately, the long takes in the musical sequences aren’t there so the audience can “see the dancing,” as the old cliché goes, but to cast a spell: The unbroken camera movements, self-conscious as they may be, make the movie more dreamlike. Even as the story turns achingly melancholy, it’s a dream you may not want to snap out of. [Jesse Hassenger]

3. Green Room

Green Room

There’s a moment in Green Room that never fails to send a collective gasp through any living room or auditorium. It’s the one involving a box cutter, an exposed belly, and the point of no return for its desperate heroes, a hardcore band holed up backstage at a backwoods concert venue, as violent skinheads circle like sharks on the other side of the door. Putting its good guys on the inside and its bad guys on the outside, like some punk-rock remake of Assault On Precinct 13, Jeremy Saulnier’s hellishly intense indie thriller shows no mercy to its characters or its audience. That this artful mayhem looks both chillingly relevant and borderline cathartic has everything to do with Green Room’s scary timeliness—its emergence, in our new age of politically emboldened hatemongers, as an accidental zeitgeist movie. Which is to say, even if you don’t have the stomach for the carnage, it’s darkly satisfying—here, now, and always—to see Nazis get the disemboweling they deserve. [A.A. Dowd]

2. Moonlight

Photo: A24

In the broadest sense, Moonlight could be called a movie “about being black” or “about being gay” or even “about being raised in the drug-ravaged Liberty City neighborhood of Miami.” But writer-director Barry Jenkins treats identity as more of a prism than a lens in his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In three haunting vignettes, set years apart, Jenkins examines the complicated urges and influences within a young man, Chiron, as a friendly dope-pusher (beautifully played by Mahershala Ali) offers the kid some guidance, and an affectionate classmate helps awaken his sexuality. From moment to moment, Moonlight is small in scale. But its various echoes and callbacks coalesce into an at-times sweet, at-times heartbreaking portrait of someone who hesitates to articulate his desires. [Noel Murray]

1. Manchester By The Sea

Photo: Roadside Attractions

However hard your 2016 was, it’s a good bet that the worst of it couldn’t quite compare to what eats away at Lee Chandler, the withdrawn Boston handyman Casey Affleck plays in Manchester By The Sea. Lee has returned to his seaside hometown to bury his older brother, and that’s just the tip of the traumatic iceberg for this broken man, whose devastating history hangs over the film’s events like a storm cloud over Massachusetts water. But for all the heartbreak that pumps through it, Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious third feature isn’t some miserable slog: Anchored by a career-best performance from Affleck, who achieves the herculean feat of making emotional unavailability compelling, Manchester By The Sea is often as flat-out funny as it is wrenching. What makes it our favorite movie in an exceptional year for them is the way that Lonergan, the playwright-turned-filmmaker behind Margaret and You Can Count On Me, manages to ground a family tragedy of staggering proportions in the quotidian crap of everyday life. Even when reaching for the operatic, he keeps the focus on small human foibles: a cellphone going off at a funeral; a car parked who knows where; a teenager (Lucas Hedges, in what should be a star-making breakout turn) whose mourning process is no more preoccupying than his desperate attempts to get some alone time with his girlfriend. In a year many couldn’t wait to finish, Manchester By The Sea argued not that everything will be all right in the end—for some, it definitely won’t be—but that the people in your life are the reason to keep on fighting, even when hope seems lost. Now, maybe more than ever, that’s commiseration we can use. [A.A. Dowd]