Over the 17 years I’ve been reviewing films and compiling Top Ten lists, I’ve never had trouble identifying my favorite film of the year. Until 2016. Perhaps it was the persistent haze hovering over a painfully strange year in culture and beyond, but no movie pushed its way to the fore of my brain. That doesn’t mean my top choice for 2016 isn’t as worthy as other No. 1s – in fact, the more I think about it, the more deserving it feels, and the more I look forward to watching it again.
I hope that after skimming this list (or, reading it completely if you so choose, and thank you), you’ll agree that no, cinema is not dead, despite a collection of clickbait headlines telling you otherwise. Not dead. Not sick. Not even resting.
As with past years’ lists, I’ve provided as much information as possible as to where these fine films can be seen, and links where applicable. And you can click on any of the movie posters below to get a closer look (and thanks to the fine Imp Awards for the posters.)
Whether you follow me here, Film Racket, Rotten Tomatoes or elsewhere, thanks for the continued online interest. See you in 2017.
:: 10. The Witch
It makes sense that a production designer would have the confidence to set his directorial debut in late 17th Century New England, but Robert Eggers’s skills go far beyond flawless design, in this chiller about strange events that plague a family exiled from the Salem community. The Witch combines open space, claustrophobia, whodunit mystery and doom, all with authentic setting and language. While leaving the theater, I heard one couple work “thou” into their conversation – but more than just words stick with you on the way out. Currently available on Amazon Prime.
:: 9. Moonlight
This critical favorite is a beautifully told triptych about three stages in the life of one black man – first, as a little kid, then a teen, and finally an adult. At first look, Moonlight is all about the careful tempo and tenacity of its three leads. But a second viewing reveals the artistry of Barry Jenkins’ direction, the camera spinning cautiously on an infamous drug street corner, slowly embracing two characters alone on a beach, or holding still on old friends reuniting. Currently playing on 137 screens in the U.S.
:: 8. Café Society
Amazing that an 80-year-old legend with 46 features under his belt still has some tricks up his sleeve. Those shrugging off Café Society as just gorgeous-looking fluff are missing Woody Allen’s commentary on the power that people – sometimes kind, often unforgiving – exercise over others. Jesse Eisenberg does some of the most natural channeling of Allen’s ongoing alter-ego, and skillfully transforms from a lovesick wannabe into a shrewd man in charge. A distant cousin to, and perhaps more evolved than, Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Currently available on Amazon Prime.
:: 7. Hell or High Water
The good ol’ fashioned new era western feels great in the hands of David Mackenzie (director of the equally masculine and explosive Starred Up) and his fantastically cast leads: Ben Foster and Chris Pine as bank-robber brothers on a mission, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the lawmen hot on their trail. Beyond the speeding cars and bullets is a story of American small towns and small-town Americans, both forgotten by big businesses, sometimes in their own neighborhoods. (Watch for the best walk-on of the year, a player named Margaret Bowman as the world’s nastiest steak joint waitress.) Available streaming, and on Blu-ray and DVD.
:: 6. The Invitation
The second of two horror dramas on the list, Karyn Kusama’s Twilight Zone episode of a dinner party is a masterwork of paranoia and a cool comment on New Age thinking, with one of the great final sequences of 2016. Infuses the classic elements of a mad-killer thriller with denser ideas of mourning and healing. At its best when discomfort gives way to batshit crazy, which is often enough. Available streaming, and on Blu-ray and DVD.
:: 5. The Fits
Few actors unleashed a performance in 2016 as commanding as young Royalty Hightower, playing a kid somewhere between tomboy and young lady, both boxing and dancing ferociously with much older teens. Anna Rose Holmer’s film is a remarkable study of movement – when she draws a parallel between the head-whipping sensuality of a dance battle and the uncontrollable twitching of a seizure, we know we’re seeing something tense, beautiful and fiercely unique. Currently available on Amazon Prime.
:: 4. The Phenom
This painfully overlooked drama is one of the most unassuming and effective works of art in recent cinema. Writer-director Noah Buschel uses baseball as a thin backdrop to study the troubled characters of an unsteady pro ball player and the ex-con father who’s regularly abused him. Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke are spectacular as dad and son, countering different acting styles like true pros. Paul Giamatti, as the player’s renowned shrink, reminds us how his method of line delivery can set the timing for an entire movie. Buschel, meanwhile, creates Edward Hopper-like postcard visuals, the right setting for his unusually quiet, enormously satisfying film. Available streaming, and on Blu-ray and DVD.
:: 3. Cameraperson
In a year of non-fiction riches, this little-seen documentary is the richest of the year. Expert cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembles footage captured while shooting films like The Oath and Fahrenheit 9/11, as well as her own family. Not just an insight into what a photographer’s thinking, but an unshakeable vision of humanity itself. Perhaps one of the most important documents of global experiences on film. I’m very proud that the Boston Online Film Critics Association (I’m a member) named this Best Documentary and Best Editing for 2016. Available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD beginning February 7, 2017.
:: 2. Everybody Wants Some!!
At the end of Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, I thought of something Keanu Reeves says in the documentary about Linklater, 21 Years: “That slacker is no slacker.” Amen. Linklater’s film seems like an innocuous period comedy – a week with a Texas college baseball team just before the semester begins – but the director brings unexpected complexity to just about everything. The characterizations. The setpieces. The storylines. What starts as some sort of dorm movie ripoff blossoms into a happy search for one’s own identity, and the short, exciting period when you can reinvent yourself nightly. Spectacular and great fun. Available streaming, and on Blu-ray and DVD.
:: 1. Paterson
If 2016 was the decade’s high point for hatred and vitriol, Jim Jarmusch’s lovely little two-character story couldn’t have been better timed. Paterson is the main character (Adam Driver) and the New Jersey town where he drives his bus route and writes poetry. Both man and town are familiar, predictable, and doing just fine. And in Jarmusch’s world, that can make for a very happy life, especially when you have an adoring partner who loves sharing her own hobbies and passions. Jarmusch has always been entranced by the rhythms of conversation – in Driver and co-star Golshifteh Farahani, he has actors who linger on words and pauses, whether they’re talking about a new dinner recipe or taking up the guitar. Jarmusch conveys the importance of just thinking and being and sharing, each and every day. Now playing in limited release in theaters. Scheduled to open wider in early 2017.