What a dark, weird year for our tired old world and, in lots of ways, for our movies. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s sometimes been tough to separate our reactions to films—especially those released in the past few months—from the acrid aftertaste of election-year funk and the ongoing fumes of anger and hatred. Despite or because of all that, 2016 brought a bumper crop of films worth cheering about. Here are 10 of the very best from a very good, super odd year.
The alien invaders in director Denis Villeneuve’s mind-messing science fiction tearjerker have big things to tell us—if we’re not too greedy and ignorant to listen. Amy Adams is mournful stoic, and overall terrific. The movie not only aches with heartache and grief, it also features refreshingly new-style interplanetary craft and extraterrestrials. It would be hard to imagine a smarter, better-looking or more touching screen version of Eric Heisserer’s script, based on Ted Chiang’s short story.
Director Park Chan-wook sets his voluptuous, highly stylized erotic love story/vengeance thriller/con job in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. His characters are an heiress, her monstrous uncle, her selflessly devoted maid and a rakish cad out to perpetrate a deliciously elaborate hoax. The movie is nowhere near as blunt and blood-spattered as is usual for the director, but the tangled plotlines, sexed-up torture scenes and final twist are outrageously perverse, silly and satisfying.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Director David MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan are onto something haunting and great here with their nouveau Western crime drama packed with classic elements of the genre. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fantastic as estranged brothers out to settle the score against predatory banks. Jeff Bridges is big and blustery as the sarcastic, nearly-retired lawman who doggedly pursues them, too old school and hidebound to see who the real criminals are. A damn near great movie with a sharp political edge.
Director Pablo Larraín, with a mighty assist from a never-better Natalie Portman, has made something fresh, startling and remarkable out of Noah Oppenheim’s original screenplay—an acid-etched portrait of grief, the sausage-making of politics and the manipulation of tragedy and public image. The movie, with a chilly, riveting score by Mica Levi, feels fragmented, disembodied, and shockingly personal. Funny how some critics are dogging it for being a TV movie-style gloss on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy; have they actually seen it? Funny how other critics have called this strange, singular, constantly moving film too arty and pretentious. Screw ‘em.
LA LA LAND
Damien Chazelle aims for the stars with his dazzling, romantic, L.A.-centric musical in which Ryan Gosling plays a prickly jazz musician and Emma Stone is a struggling actress. The movie is pure bliss and pure abstraction, with every camera swoop, location, costume, song and line of dialogue meant to create a world that suggests our own, only better because it’s filtered through the surrealistic majesty and magic of old musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and those starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Although utterly contemporary and wised-up, in La La Land, everything Old Hollywood is new again.
This first English-language movie from the boundary-pushing director Yorgos Lanthimos, is a vibrant, deeply weird, all-too-human, unforgettable science fiction curiosity. Colin Farrell, playing a pudgy nonentity, gets banished to a hotel with a 45-day mandate: either mate or get turned into a beast. The hotel’s stellar gallery of guests and staff include Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly, and there is wonderful stuff, too, from Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux. Despite this unique and special movie’s chilly tone, it’s never remote or precious. It’s full of humanity and inventiveness.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Tragic, powerful, and elegiac without self-indulgent wallowing, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s sorrowful drama set in the waterfront towns north of Boston is shot through with humor, grace and hope. Casey Affleck gives a classic performance as a taciturn guy frozen in grief and loss. It’s up to his teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, and his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams, to burn through those layers of permafrost. Good luck with that. Gorgeous, restrained, grownup moviemaking from top to bottom.
Filmed in tones of blue, pain and regret, this haunting film about a young black man searching for his identity gets told in three acts and through a barrage of mosaic-like memories composed mostly of light and human faces. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and although its dialogue is strong and its performances indelible, its poetic story-telling, luminous imagery—and powerful social message—knock the breath right out of you.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
Directed by Ezra Edelman, one of the great movies of 2016 dissects America’s blind, cultish fetishization of sports stars and celebrities, personified by the wealthy, insulated, Teflon-coated athlete-pitchman-movie actor of the title. While doing that, the movie also unpacks the politics of race, social class, police brutality, and sex with a rare incisive brilliance. Mandatory viewing, especially in 2016.
Some of the biggest, most exquisite laughs of the year are delivered by this German-made, nearly three-hours-long film about a workaholic professional and the life-invasion she endures from her practical-joking old father who parades down streets wearing a bear costume and greets the mailman wearing joke teeth and speaking in a bizarre accent. The extraordinary movie, from writer-director Maren Ade, is smart, free-spirited and confrontational and leaves a potent afterglow. It should come with an iron-clad guarantee that it can never, ever be remade as, say, a Robert DeNiro-Sandra Bullock movie.
Runners-up: Aquarius, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, Doctor Strange, Embrace of the Serpent, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Fits, Krisha, Loving, Things to Come, 20th Century Women.