I’d like to punch him in the face.
—Donald Trump, referring to a protester at his Las Vegas rally, February 22, 2016
I don’t pick the movies for this list; they pick me. That may explain why, all during the national convulsion of the presidential campaign, the films I kept notching up as my favorites dealt so often with order, chaos, and civic responsibility. Two striking documentaries—Tower, about the 1966 sniper crisis at the University of Texas in Austin, and The Witness, about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, as neighbors ignored her cries for help—told true stories of people who rushed to help strangers threatened with violence, and of others who fled. London Road, a musical drawn from real-life interviews, shows a working-class neighborhood trying to recover (and banish the local prostitutes) after a series of murders. And in László Nemes’s harrowing Son of Saul, a prisoner at Auschwitz is handed the despicable job of maintaining calm as his fellow Jews are herded into the gas chamber. In all these films, civil society breaks down, and people are forced to choose between helping others and saving themselves.
In a country this divided, the pendulum swings wide, and as it happens, there were plenty of good movies this year involving dramatic turns of political fortune. In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s black comedy The President, a Saddam-like dictator whose regime has been overthrown goes on the run and faces the wrath of his citizens, witnessing for the first time the misery his policies have created. Pablo Larraín’s chilling The Club deals with Catholic priests who have abused their power and been sequestered in a house by the sea, their moral authority stripped away. Weiner, about the 2013 mayoral run of disgraced Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, documents the exile-and-comeback route that has become commonplace in our media-driven politics; weirdly, it became an instrument of the Democratic Party’s exile in November (see below).
The year has also brought moving stories of personal discovery. In Barry Jenkins’s sensitive Moonlight, three fine young actors present different stages in a young man’s life as he tries to come to terms with his race and sexuality. Clay Tweel’s wrenching documentary Gleason records the heroic battle of former NFL defensive back Steve Gleason to make the most of his time, giving to his family and his community, before he’s immobilized by Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sally Field gives the comic performance of the year in Hello, My Name Is Doris, playing a lonely old woman who falls for a young coworker in her Manhattan office and improbably becomes a dance club icon. And Michel Gondry explores a friendship between two prodigiously inventive schoolboys as they begin to engage the opposite sex in Microbe & Gasoline.
My favorite movie of the year, Embrace of the Serpent, came out of nowhere and apparently went back. If you ever track it down, prepare yourself for a tale that will make you think hard about your relationship to the planet. The same goes for Seasons, a French documentary that chronicles the history of the forest across the last 20,000 years. Neither of these movies stands any chance of getting near the Oscar for best picture, the race for which is currently shaping up as a contest between Moonlight and La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. One can easily see these as binary choices—the story of a gay black man coming of age during the 80s crack epidemic versus a dreamy, 50s-inspired vision of Los Angeles populated by white retro-hipsters. Given the year that generated these movies, I predict a violent clash on the floor of the Dolby Theatre, with numerous fatalities. That Ryan Gosling! I’d like to punch him in the face.*
1 Embrace of the Serpent Shot on location in the Amazon jungle, this black-and-white drama from writer-director Ciro Guerra offers all the pleasures of a simmering adventure story before resolving into a moody eco-parable. In 1909, a proud shaman, believing himself the last of his tribe, reluctantly agrees to lead an ailing German explorer on a river journey to the medicinal herb that will save his life; 30 years later, the shaman is approached by a botanist seeking the same plant, and the intertwining of these two picaresques allows Guerra to ponder the irreversible creep of first-world plunder and cultural eradication, in episodes so strange they call to mind another jungle odyssey—Apocalypse Now.
2 Manchester by the Sea Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan may be a professed atheist, but his third feature, starring Casey Affleck as a man overwhelmed by guilt and Michelle Williams as his estranged, heartbroken wife, is the year’s most incisive spiritual drama. Set in the title Massachusetts town, where the Affleck character arrives to bury his older brother and learns he’s become legal guardian to a teenage nephew, the story unspools in plainspoken dialogue and pedestrian situations, but certain scenes are so painful they sear themselves into the memory. A playwright at heart, Lonergan knows how to exploit the gap between what people feel and what they’re capable of articulating.
3 Don’t Think Twice Honest, observant, and wickedly funny, this ensemble comedy from writer-director Mike Birbiglia tracks the romantic and professional repercussions among a company of improv players after they lose their performance space and one of them gets recruited for a network comedy show (transparently based on Saturday Night Live). There are plenty of laughs here as the longtime friends fall prey to rivalry and competition, but there’s bitter wisdom as well, as some move ahead in the business and others realize they never will. Various romantic relationships bloom and wither along the way, but Birbiglia’s real passion is for the art of improv and the emotional openness it demands.
4 The Witness This documentary by James D. Solomon weighs our responsibility to our fellow human beings in moments of violent crisis; impressively, the film does this even as it mounts a potent attack against misguided liberalism at the New York Times. Bill Genovese, who lost his legs in Vietnam, returns to the Queens neighborhood where his older sister, Kitty, was stabbed to death in 1964; the crime became national news and then cultural myth after the Times reported, inaccurately, that 38 of the victim’s neighbors had watched from their windows as she was stalked and killed. As Genovese and Solomon learn, the truth was less dramatic—but no less tragic.
5 London Road Critics are hailing Damien Chazelle’s La La Land as a rebirth of the American movie musical, and a beguiling piece of screen magic it is. But the story it tells—a star-crossed romance between an actress and a jazz musician in Los Angeles—never really lives up to the numbers surrounding it. Give me London Road, a modestly scaled but more biting musical from BBC Films about an English backwater town trying to recover after a local man is charged with the serial murder of five street hookers. Writer Alecky Blythe interviewed real-life residents, reporters, and prostitutes as the story was unfolding, and their words, taken verbatim, supply the lyrics for a series of arias, delivered to arresting effect.
6 The Club Pablo Larraín just made his U.S. directing debut with Jackie, a ghostly portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the week after the president’s assassination, but this 2015 Chilean feature, which premiered in Chicago earlier this year at Gene Siskel Film Center, shows the filmmaker working closer to home both geographically and psychologically. An eerie and sometimes harrowing story of disgraced Catholic priests confined to a seaside home, the movie overtly references the pedophilia scandals that have rocked the Church internationally, but the story also serves as a sly metaphor for the dictatorial Pinochet regime of the 1970s, which Larraín’s parents supported.
7 Son of Saul Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes succeeds at the daunting task of making the Holocaust new again—partly through story, by plunging one deep into the heart of the Nazi genocide, but mainly through style, by restricting one’s field of vision to replicate a concentration camp prisoner’s desperately narrow focus on himself. The protagonist is a “Sonderkommando” at Auschwitz, charged with herding other Jews into the crematoria and helping dispose of their corpses afterward; Nemes hugs him with the camera, an extreme shallow focus reducing everything but the foreground to a blur. The film trades in the sort of mundane chores that keep the hellish operation running smoothly, though it ends in abject terror, its cascading chaos recalling another Third Reich drama, Downfall.
8 Microbe & Gasoline French filmmaker Michel Gondry is just a big kid, and this spirited tale of two grade-school misfits who set off for a cross-country adventure in a jerry-built automobile is his best feature since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The two pals bond over their love of junk, which they sift through at scrap yards and secondhand shops, and share a mystification with the opposite sex, whom they regard with terror and affectations of world-weary wisdom. The ramshackle house on wheels they construct is a comic wonder typical of Gondry—it’s the sort of glorious invention that springs to life at the intersection of childhood imagination and teenage impulse.
9 Tower Fifty years after Charles Whitman opened fire on unsuspecting pedestrians from a clock tower overlooking the University of Texas in Austin, gun massacres have become normalized in American society, which is what makes this documentary, an animated re-creation of that day in August 1966, so relevant now. Filmmaker Keith Maitland interviewed survivors of the noontime siege, which left 17 dead and 32 wounded, and their anecdotal memories reveal not only shock, terror, and anguish but moments of incredible bravery and compassion.
Disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner gave directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg extraordinary access as he campaigned for mayor of New York in 2013. Unexpectedly, they captured excruciating scenes between him and his wife, Huma Abedin—a close aide to Hillary Clinton—as news broke that Weiner had continued with the compulsive sexting that ended his congressional career. Released to theaters in May and to Showtime two weeks before the presidential election, this study of unchecked ambition and sorry self-deception helped to set up James Comey’s announcement that the FBI had linked Weiner’s laptop to Clinton’s private e-mail server. Can any other movie of 2016 have been more consequential?
* Before the comments start rolling in, I should clarify that I don’t really want to punch Ryan Gosling in the face. Gosling is a solid citizen and in fact once broke up a street fight in New York City. v