The Films of 2016: A top ten list

New blood.  We got more good films in 2016 than we deserved, and more than I had expected: aside from Martin Scorsese (whose Silence is pictured above), Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kelly Reichardt, and Jim Jarmusch, most of the top-shelf filmmakers were off this year, which meant that the fate of the year in cinema was left in the hands of less familiar auteurs.  But the absence of the big-leaguers allowed talented new voices to emerge.  Several of the year’s best films came from directors who hadn’t put anything out in seven or eight years, and so while Moonlight and Toni Erdmann are not technically debut features for Barry Jenkins and Maren Ade they felt like they came out of nowhere.    

Black lives, women’s lives.  A cynical person would interpret the flood of new films this year by and about black Americans as a calculated response to 2015’s (and 2014’s) Oscars-so-white debacle.  But it’s hard to say why certain trends arise at certain moments.  A nexus of forces and factors—some of them political, some of them cultural—coincided in such a way that we got not only Moonlight and Fences and O.J. but also 13th and I Am Not Your Negro and Hidden Figures and Keanu and Birth of a Nation (these last four unseen by me) and The Fits and Loving.  And we saw a bumper crop of high-profile films by women: Chantal Akerman, Anna Rose Holmer, Kirsten Johnson, Ava Duvernay, Kelly Reichardt, Anna Biller, Mia Hanson-Løve, Julia Hart, Maren Ade.  Not all of them were masterpieces, but they represent a healthy diversity of voices that bodes well for the future of the medium.     

Ensembles.  The overwhelming number of ensemble-driven films this year made it hard to single out individual performances.  How to pick a favorite performance from Moonlight?  From Certain Women?  From Fences?  From 20th Century Women?  And yet my favorite film of 2016, a documentary, had no performances at all—unless you count Ezra Edelman’s direction, a virtuosic turn in its own right. 

The top ten (click each title for more details):

1. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

  2. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

3. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

4. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

5. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

  6. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)

7. Fences (dir. Denzel Washington)

  8. Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)

10. Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies)

Honorable mentionsLa La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle), Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan), Aquarius (dir. Klebel Mendoça Filho), Blue Jay (dir. Alex Lehmann), Things To Come (dir. Mia Hanson-Løve). 

Great performances.  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson in Fences. Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann.  Lily Gladstone, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Jared Harris in Certain Women.  Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning in 20th Century WomenSarah Paulson in Blue Jay.

Looking ahead.  2017 could bring an even more impressive batch of films than the one we got this year.  I look forward to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread; Michael Haneke’s Happy End; Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck; Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled; Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete; Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper; Dee Rees’ Mudbound; Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris; Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion; Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick; and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.  Cautiously optimistic about Noah Baumbach’s Yeh Din Ka Kissa (that title!) and Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (that title!).  Curious about Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, and Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night.  Quietly terrified for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.  And not expecting much from—but intrigued by—Andres Muschetti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It.  

See you at the movies.

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