Thanks to my membership in GALECA, I got to see a lot more movies than I ever have before in my years as a critic. There were lots of hidden gems (Blue Jay) and pleasant surprises (Swiss Army Man), but when the big movies flopped, they flopped hard (looking at you, Suicide Squad). That’s probably why so many dubbed 2016 a “bad year.” That’s a total lie, especially compared to real cinematic droughts like 2005. So with so much beauty in a very ugly year, here are my top 10 films of the year, along with 25 honorable mentions.
10. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)
Mike Mills’ long-awaited follow-up to Beginners is a quasi-tribute to his mother. Annette Bening is quietly astonishing as Dorothea, the 55-year-old single mother trying to raise a teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) amid the death of punk, changing social mores and what President Jimmy Carter calls “a crisis of confidence.” One of the rare movies that could have been longer, 20th Century Women is beautiful, flaws and all.
9. Tower (dir. Keith Maitland)
Breathtaking in its innovation and humanity, Tower re-tells the tragedy of Aug. 1, 1966 and barely even mentions the name Charles Whitman. Instead, director Keith Maitland assembles his first- and second-hand accounts to ensure we focus on the heroes and the fallen of that day, and not the troubled ex-Marine responsible for the worst mass shooting in the U.S. until 2016, which also tragically saw campus carry laws go into effect in Texas on the very anniversary of the horrific murders.
8. Sing Street (dir. John Carney)
Pure, unfiltered John Carney. While Once could have drowned in its misery and Begin Again was too excitable to keep its story tight, Sing Street strikes exactly the right tonal balance. Plus, the songs are even better. This is nostalgia done properly.
7. Everybody Wants Some (dir. Richard Linklater)
The year’s ultimate hangout movie. While not as profound as Boyhood, pitch-perfect as Bernie or bone-deep as the Before trilogy, this is as relaxed as can be, which is a nice change of pace. Saved from being too bro-y by a game cast and characters that (occasionally) have more on their minds than baseball and ladies, this movie eschews most if not all college comedy clichés.
6. Captain America: Civil War (dirs. Joe & Anthony Russo)
Miles ahead of where DC is, and not just because they had a major head start, Civil War grapples with the cost of being a superhero, and whether the collateral damage is justifiable in protecting the planet (and soon, the galaxy). It also asks a pressing question that we may be asking ourselves sooner rather than later: How much can you trust a government that has continually proven itself to have nefarious intent? Did I also mention it has the best action set-pieces of the year?
5. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)
One of the year’s more divisive Oscar contenders is Pablo Larraín’s Jacqueline Kennedy biopic, which focuses on the week immediately after JFK’s assassination. Natalie Portman’s stellar performance is larger-than-life, befitting a movie that never even tries to be subtle. It’s more interested in how we mythologize our figures and the lies we tell ourselves to blur our memories. Was Jackie the epitome of class, the platonic ideal of a First Lady? Or was she really an incredible actress, able to turn on her smile for the camera in good times and bad to mask her pain? Was JFK the Democratic ideal of a young president? Or was he a philandering novice who didn’t accomplish much before he was killed? As always, the truth is somewhere in between.
4. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
As they say, the key to any great relationship is communication. But what about when one half of the relationship is an alien race whose language doesn’t resemble anything on Earth – or anywhere else for that matter? And when is it OK to lie, or at least obscure the truth? Arrival is perfectly content posing these questions without quite answering them, and with doling out fragments of its twist before revealing it in a truly breathtaking way. I have a feeling this is going to be a movie we’ll still be talking about a lot in 10 years.
3. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s candy-coated love letter to Los Angeles is a delight from start to finish. Emma Stone is at her most captivating and Ryan Gosling at his most charming. Is it unrealistic? Sure! Does it have zero qualms about ripping off all the musicals Chazelle adores? And how! Does this movie also commit the serious crime of not giving Rosemarie DeWitt enough to do? Yes, it does. But what pushed it over the top for me was the characters’ conflict between pursuing dreams and just putting your head down and finding a job that pays the bills. It hit me at the exact right moment, as I ponder what my next chapter will be. At least I’ll be humming along as I go.
2. Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)
I really wrestled with putting this as my No. 1 choice. This is Scorsese’s most challenging film in decades, and I know I’ll be thinking about it all year, replaying scenes in my mind, wondering if some of its choices are mistakes or strokes of genius. Are its characters too thinly drawn, or do the tremendous actors fill in what’s not exactly on the page? In showing us such brutality, is Scorsese putting us in the shoes of the priests and the persecuted? Or is he committing the same sin Mel Gibson did in The Passion of the Christ and overdoing the gore to a degree that it loses its impact? And that’s just on the cinematic level. What does it have to say about faith? What are the actual criteria for believing in Jesus Christ? Can anything – a language barrier, a lack of fortitude, a public denial – separate us from Him? At nearly three hours, Silence can be tough to sit through, but neither Christ nor Scorsese promised us an easy path.
1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
What else can be said about Moonlight that hasn’t been shouted far and wide by just about every critics’ group and award-giving body thus far? Well, just that it’s an extremely important and vital movie that never once draws attention to itself (at least not thematically – that cinematography is showy but jaw-dropping). Each cast member completely understands the notes they have to play for that character at that moment in the story. It’s a movie that, by merely existing and telling its story so well, performs what Roger Ebert called the purpose of cinema: it generates empathy.
Blue Jay (dir. Alex Lehmann)
Christine (dir. Antonio Campos)
De Palma (dirs. Jake Paltrow & Roman Coppola)
Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)
Deepwater Horizon (dir. Peter Berg)
Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson)
Don’t Think Twice (dir. Mike Birbiglia)
The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
Free State of Jones (dir. Gary Ross)
Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)
I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)
The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
The Meddler (dir. Lorene Scafaria)
The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)
Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dirs. Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone)
Rogue One (dir. Gareth Edwards)
Swiss Army Man (dirs. Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)
Weiner (dirs. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)
The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
Didn’t See But Probably Would Have Loved
The Birth of a Nation
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Love Witch
Did not release in time: The Founder, Gold, Live by Night, A Monster Calls, Patriots’ Day
The Worst Films
Collateral Beauty (dir. David Frankel)
Dog Eat Dog (dir. Paul Schrader)
Mojave (dir. William Monahan)
Suicide Squad (dir. David Ayer)
White Girl (dir. Elizabeth Wood)