The Year in Film: The 10 Best Movies of 2016

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At least once a year, some bit of traffic-grabbing commentary posits that the movies are dying or dead, and gets all of us who care about film in lather. This year, it came in early September, which was sort of understandable – being, as it was,the conclusion of one of the grimmest summers for the art form in recent memory, a season in which we didn’t even get the usual one or two passable mainstream entertainments.

“Someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died,” predicted Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, a fine writer but, I’m guessing, a poor prognosticator; the headline insisted “Most of 2016’s movies have been soulless, noisy, and dull,” which is, at best, willful ignorance.

Most of 2016’s big movies were soulless, noisy, and dull, yes. But with movies, as with most pop art, the most popular stuff and the best stuff don’t always overlap. If you want to see great movies, you have to go find them – at festivals, at art houses, on the Internet. And I, for one, had great difficulty assembling a list of the year’s ten best films, not because there weren’t that many, but because there were so many more than that.

Most of the titles I settled on were independent releases. One was spurned by a studio and saved by Netflix. And one, I kid you not, was made and distributed by that same studio, which reminded us that when put to proper use, the resources afforded by that tried-and-true model can still create something wonderful. There might be a glimmer of hope, after all.

10. The Little Prince

This is the aforementioned dump-off title, initially set for spring release by Paramount Pictures (which distributed it to several foreign territories), then abruptly dropped from its slate a mere week before its release date. One can only presume that they were scared off – in this increasingly sequel-and ripoff-friendly family film landscape – by what makes the picture so special: its ingenious structure (in which the original Antoine de Saint-Exupéry book is a story within the story, told by its now aged aviator, in contrasting animation styles), its tricky and particular tone, its prickly charm. But there is magic in this movie; I’ve watched it countless times with my daughter and it only grows richer with each viewing. And yes, even after the 20th or 30th viewing, I still get misty-eyed when they smash that globe full of stars.

9. Green Room

The year’s most accidently prescient horror thriller, but that’s not what makes it great – it’s the precision of the writing and the ingenuity of the direction, the way writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is slyly setting the table when we don’t even realize it, with early scenes that establish geography, motivation, and characterization so meticulously that once the action begins, the rest of the movie runs like a Swiss watch. Yet because he’s gone to the trouble to create characters we care about, and put them in a situation of palpable danger, it’s never just empty style. Movies like this are what great genre filmmaking is all about.

8. Hell or High Water

A movie like Hell of High Water shouldn’t be an anomaly. After all, it’s just a neo-Western crime picture, featuring actors of note, done with intelligence and a dash of social commentary. They used to make stuff like this all the time – but they don’t much these days, so David Mackenzie’s late-summer tonic felt a good deal more revolutionary than it is. Yet its quality isn’t just about novelty; this is a satisfying and understated character-driven thriller, with just enough hopelessness and malaise to capture the moment of its arrival.

7. Manchester By the Sea

Writer/director Kenneth Longergan’s latest could’ve easily been a stock drama of grief and loss, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and grabbing for awards). Instead, it’s a portrait of private anguish, in which terrible secrets are left unmentioned and personal breakdowns occur far off-screen; it’s about the face we show to the world, even when the world knows we’re suffering. And yet it’s a funny, even joyful movie, finding tiny moments of levity in who its characters cannot help but be, and how they engage with each other. A beautiful film, most strikingly in its refusal to strive for such beauty.

6. 20th Century Women

We can all be better. That’s what I keep circling back to, when thinking about Mike Mills’s terrific coming-of-age comedy drama about a makeshift family of relations and friends and boarders in a big old house in Santa Barbara: these are good people, and they could all be better, and they know it, and they’re trying. It’s about more than that, obviously – it’s about growing up and growing old, about figuring out who you are how you want to be remembered, and all sorts of other non-vague plot things (but not too many; Mills’s script is unapologetically vignette-based, and good for it). But it’s mostly about wanting to be better: a better mother, a better son, a better woman, a better man, a better lover, a better friend. It sounds simple – as an idea, and as a movie. But, in both cases, it’s far trickier than it seems.

5. Sing Street

John Carney makes musicals – not as a lark, between other, “normal” movies, but as a general practice, and this one feels like a culmination of what he’s learned about them thus far: that there are certain emotions, longings, and moments in our lives that are simply inexpressible outside of song. His latest is about being a teenager, and it remembers that age with an immediacy most adult filmmakers can no long grasp – of a first crush, of being bullied, of finding something you’re not terrible at, and most of all, of knowing that if you don’t escape from your meager surroundings, you’ll turn into your parents. This all, I realize, sounds very familiar. It is. Maybe that’s why it resonates so clearly.

4. La La Land

And they say they don’t make musicals any more, but here’s another one – and one that proves the durability of the genre. It begins as the kind of sunny throwback Sing Street is, freeing itself even from the confines of Carney’s source music and allowing itself to be an old-dashioned, bursting-into-song, all-singing-all-dancing backlot extravaganza. But that kind of idealism can only hold for so long; the brilliance of Damien Chazelle’s script is how he uses those numbers and style to underscore the sunniness early in a relationship, and how that eventually has to give way to the hard work of making it last. In other words, it’s both musical comedy and kitchen-sink drama, and it not only works as both, but each element ends up bolstering the other.

3. Loving

It’s sort of amazing, how delicately writer/director Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) sidesteps all the clichés of the based-on-a-true-story prestige drama to dramatize the union and subsequent legal battles of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose eventual hearing before the Supreme Court would end the criminalization of interracial marriage. Nichols tells their extraordinary story in a refreshingly ordinary way, with easy, off-hand intimacy, making it not about two people who wanted to change the world, but two people who were in love and wanted to spend their lives together. Nichols and his actors (a marvelously taciturn Edgerton and the gloriously natural Negga) never step wrong, and never overplay these modest scenes. They don’t have to. They end up with not only one of the year’s best films, but one of its most honest.

2. Arrival

A big, expensive-looking science fiction film about alien invaders – but a film of ideas, about communication and humanity, and one whose honest engagement with notions of livelihood, memory, love, and loss elevates it far above the likes of, say, an Independence Day sequel. And yet, due not only to the persuasiveness of its effects but the dexterity of its storytelling and the wonder of its approach, it is as thrilling as any summer blockbuster.

1. Moonlight

“At some point, you’ve gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. You can’t let anybody make that decision for you.” Those words — spoken by Juan, the drug dealer who is also the protagonist, Chiron’s, early mentor — resonate through the entirety of Barry Jenkins’s extraordinarily personal drama, elegant in their simplicity, bottomless in their implications. That idea is a thread that runs through many of the films on this list, and through many great works of art – the notion that every journey is, on some level, a personal journey, that we spend our lives in a constant process of self-discovery, that we are not only the accumulation of our experiences, but defined by how we process them. Moonlight is about all those things, and a great many more besides, rendering them with both fragile sensitivity and great power.

Also worth celebrating: The Handmaiden, The Salesman, The Birth of a Nation, Toni Erdmann, The Edge of Seventeen, Paterson, American Honey, Midnight Special, In A Valley of Violence, The Witch, Always Shine, and the previously noted streaming runners-up and documentary stand-outs.

It was a good year for movies. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.