This past summer, a few articles appeared that called the Fate of Movies into question. “Why has this summer blockbuster season been so bad?” asked Benjamin Lee of the Guardian. “Could this be the year that movies stopped mattering?” pondered Wired’s Brian Raftery. The May-to-September season was indeed underwhelming, especially for comic book fans, and a string of disappointing reboots and superhero movies (Deadpool was a surprise exception) strengthened the argument that 2016 has been a subpar year for film in general. But I disagree with that assessment—I watched many features I liked or admired, only a few I loathed, and at least ten I loved. Several were independent productions, some arriving through nontraditional channels like Netflix and ESPN. The best of the bunch pushed at the boundaries of their form—they challenged viewers’ comfort levels and attention spans.
A caveat: I still haven’t seen a number of year-end releases (Silence, Hidden Figures, Jackie), but the following are my favorite films I saw during the course of the year.
10. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan is a gifted writer for the stage and screen (see his best-known play, This Is Our Youth, and his cinematic masterpiece, Margaret); and his latest drama, about a Boston-area janitor (Casey Affleck) grappling with an unspeakable tragedy, is another strong showing. The performances—most remarkably Michelle Williams in a small role as the janitor’s ex-wife—elevate this film above the myriad others about tough, tight-lipped New Englanders who bury their sorrows.
9. The Lobster
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos continues the weird incisiveness of his previous films (Dogtooth, Alps), with another trenchant social commentary, this time about the societal pressure to couple up. The Lobster is set in a dystopian alternate universe where adults who fail to find mates in a predetermined amount of time are transfigured into animals. Lanthimos’s darkly comic and robotic style, gamely employed by Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly, among others, may be jarring to some. But at its core, The Lobster pulses with a worthwhile question: Is the human desire for long-term partnership rooted in our nature, or is it more about bending to what society dictates?
Netflix produced several gripping documentaries in 2016; Amanda Knox, Audrie & Daisy, and Witness are standouts. But 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma) and titled after the 13th Amendment, holds America’s outsized prison system to account. Exploring the systemic racism of the failed War on Drugs and the ensuing mass incarceration of mostly black and brown men, DuVernay pries open a discomfiting subject that nonetheless demands immersion. The film also played in select theaters this fall, thereby qualifying for best documentary honors during awards season.
7. The Witch
Robert Eggers’s arresting directorial debut was inconveniently timed. Though The Witch premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the movie was widely released in February 2016, after Halloween and during a slow period for new releases. The most intriguing horror film of the year centers on a developing teen (Anya Taylor-Joy, excellent) in 17th-century New England who detects witchcraft in her Puritan family’s midst. Eggers, who based his dialogue on historical records, crafts a tense and hypnotic tale with a knockout ending that gleefully defies convention.
6. O.J.: Made in America
This fascinating, five-part ESPN documentary series counts because it also saw limited release in movie theaters this summer. Director Ezra Edelman weaves together more than 70 interviews and a wealth of archival footage into a comprehensive study of football star O.J.’s Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, while also exploring the long-simmering racial tensions that led to O.J.’s “not guilty” verdict. Painstakingly researched and stunningly delivered, O.J: Made in America is well worth its nearly eight hours of investment.
5. The Handmaiden
A master of the erotic revenge fantasy, South Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) artfully transposes the British Victorian setting of the 2002 crime novel Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. Sumptuous and bizarre, The Handmaiden is both a visceral and intellectual treat, introducing newcomers to Park’s oeuvre with delicious narrative twists that balance explicit sex with stylized violence. The film also gratifies movie buffs who delight in intricate stories about storytelling. I gasped on more than one occasion.
4. La La Land
Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, so this modern-day musical about a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who fall for each other while pursuing their respective dreams in the City of Angels likely filled producers’ heads with dancing golden statuettes from the get-go. But throwback romanticism trumps cynicism in this splendid version of LA. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) offers an infectious, candy-colored escape from quotidian drudgery. Beautiful people, beautifully lit and wearing beautiful clothes, pursue beautiful aspirations. Here also is why many of us continually turn to movies: for wisdom, comfort, or implausible, gravity-defying dance numbers.
A lyrical and prescient film for our fractured political age, Arrival employs an apocalyptic scenario—12 alien spaceships alight at random points across Earth, and wait for humans to approach them—to tell an achingly human story through five dimensions: three-dimensional space, time, and narrative. Cerebral sci-fi movies are formidable undertakings, and often undervalued (see Contact, Interstellar); yet director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and Amy Adams, in a moving lead performance, succeed in grounding the film’s scientific and philosophical elements in human emotion.
Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight presents three chapters in the life of Chiron, an African-American from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. His story, lushly photographed and scored to classical music, hinges on his burgeoning homosexuality and attendant feelings of otherness; often he stands alone, looking down or staring straight into the camera with soulful eyes. The three actors who play Chiron as a child, teenager, and adult, respectively, are superb; so too are Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, André Holland as his best friend, and Mahershala Ali as a local drug dealer who takes the boy under his wing. An expressionistic art film that is also more accessible than most mainstream fare, Moonlight boasts the year’s best ensemble cast.
1. American Honey
I’ve already watched the nearly three-hour-long road saga American Honey three times and I look forward to seeing it again. Though I was initially impressed by the film’s ambitious scope and verisimilitude, further viewings revealed that Arnold’s outwardly meandering story of a teenage runaway (Sasha Lane, magnetic in her film debut) is rather a complex and focused study in contrasts: the gulf between America’s rich and poor, most prominently, but also between the rigor and despair of the capitalistic material world, represented by Shia LaBeouf’s character, and the gentle simplicity of the natural world, embodied by Lane’s. Arnold invites viewers to wrestle with these contrasts in the same way that her protagonist does: slowly, sometimes tediously, but with depth and feeling that swells and sticks. While it’s unlikely to top most other critics’ year-end lists due to its exacting length and seeming aimlessness, American Honey, for many reasons, is my favorite film of 2016.