A fantastic movie year is heaven for a critic but hell on his Top 10 list. It was painful narrowing down my favorites from 2016, and I’m sorry not to make room for Toni Erdmann, Jackie, Elle, Christine, and Right Now, Wrong Then. But the below films best represented a year in which established directors reached new peaks and newer ones began cementing their legacy.
10. Everybody Wants Some!!, directed by Richard Linklater
If youth is wasted on the young, nobody told the guys on the Southeast Texas Cherokees baseball team. In writer-director Richard Linklater’s ebullient follow-up to Boyhood, we witness the pure, no-strings-attached pleasure of college life in the early 1980s, the filmmaker’s ensemble of beer-loving, skirt-chasing bros just lookin’ for another good time. But what makes Everybody Wants Some!! a deeply wise comedy is the way Linklater keeps exposing the fault lines in his immature characters, locating the vulnerability, sexual insecurity, and unarticulated fears of an unknown future that inform their hedonistic pursuits. The seemingly never-ending euphoria will someday stop for these jocks and, on some level, they understand that—it’s why the movie ends up feeling so poignant.
9. La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle
Depending on when you read this, the presumptive Oscar front-runner will either be in the midst of a critical backlash or a backlash to that initial backlash. While some may carp about La La Land’s nonstop crowd-pleasing tone, this bighearted romance is actually much more melancholy than its shimmering surface suggests. Yes, La La Land is a widescreen, Technicolor rendition of the typical boy-meets-girl, a-star-is-born fantasy—except this time, the fantasy has plenty of hard news about the limits of true love and chasing a dream. Emma Stone is just right as an aspiring actress running out of optimism, while Ryan Gosling is her perfect complement as an opinionated jazz pianist who gets sidetracked by the lure of a steady paycheck. More than his last film, Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle makes the struggle between idealism and practicality sting, buoyed by a fleet of original songs that are so euphorically catchy that you’re even more blindsided when the really sad one comes along near the end.
8. Notfilm, directed by Ross Lipman
It really happened: In 1964, playwright Samuel Beckett and faded star Buster Keaton collaborated on a short black-and-white film simply called Film. Not well-regarded and quickly forgotten, Film is now the sort of cinematic curio that only attracts the attention of historians. Thankfully, one of them was preservationist Ross Lipman, who spent years compiling interviews and doing research into exactly how Film came together. The resulting documentary, Notfilm, is described by Lipman as a “kino-essay,” but that academic-sounding label doesn’t begin to suggest the fascinating, passionate, and surprisingly tender portrait that Lipman has constructed. Not only does Notfilm lend fresh insights into the opaque Film, it also brilliantly studies the careers of Beckett and Keaton—who didn’t see eye-to-eye on the set—to find invisible connections between their work. As a labor of pure film love, Notfilm is a treat for those of us who relish getting lost in the mystery of how art gets made.
7. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
There’s no such thing as true love. Marriage is a sham. You will die alone. These and other heartwarming sentiments form the core of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’s jet-black satire, which takes its futuristic premise just seriously enough to exploit all its dramatic and comedic potential. Colin Farrell gives one of his best performances as David, a tubby nobody who has been dumped by his wife. In the film’s dystopian reality, this means he’s sent to a special hotel populated with other single people—he must find a new mate in 45 days or get turned into an animal. The director behind the unsettling Dogtooth has made the sort of low-tech, incisive sci-fi film that’s ingenious when done right, exposing our romantic foibles while saying something piercingly true about our need for (and fear of) commitment. Plus, this may be the year’s best ensemble, particularly Rachel Weisz as a kindly resistance fighter. And that techno-music joke still makes me laugh.
6. Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt
Drawing inspiration from a handful of Maile Meloy short stories, Certain Women brings together writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s starriest ensemble—Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams—for a trio of tales set in rural Montana. In each, a woman is at a crossroads, and as always with Reichardt, it’s the quiet, unspoken moments that resonate most powerfully. The filmmaker behind Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Night Moves is long overdue to be recognized as one of America’s finest chroniclers of everyday lives, a master of miniature whose seemingly tiny dramas produce profound emotional ripples in audiences days later. The whole cast is superb—even in small parts, Jared Harris and René Auberjonois are astonishing—but Certain Women’s happiest revelation is newcomer Lily Gladstone, who portrays a ranch hand who decides to go into town one day, finding herself pulled into the orbit of a disillusioned out-of-town lawyer played by Stewart. The result is subtly remarkable, like much of this gem of independent cinema.
5. Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch prefers working within genres, turning them inside out while playing with existential questions. What’s remarkable about Paterson is that, for once, he’s exploring these issues almost completely head-on. Telling the story of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey, over the course of about a week, Jarmusch focuses on the minuscule, examining the small differences from day to day that create subtle, unforeseen shockwaves in a relatively normal life. But because this is a work from the director responsible for Stranger Than Paradise and Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson is also a playfully profound, supremely cool look at an oddball who follows his own drumbeat. Driver has never been better as an aspiring poet trying to find the courage to pursue his potential. With Golshifteh Farahani radiant and funny as his supportive but frustrated wife, this is a slice-of-life drama that makes the everyday feel extraordinary without an ounce of cutesy preciousness.
4. O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman
The finest sports documentary since Hoop Dreams shares with that film a clear understanding that our fascination with athletes is inextricably connected to our inability to have serious discussions in this country about race and class. Running nearly eight hours, O.J.: Made in America recasts O.J. Simpson as a microcosm of America’s internal tensions. A preternaturally talented and charming black man, Simpson sought to escape his racial identity and to be embraced by the white mainstream, in the process revealing a calculated, tragic, need to be loved. Director Ezra Edelman weaves together all the aspects of his subject’s life—the gridiron glory, the pitchman years, the so-called Trial of the Century, the shameful aftermath—without ever taking his eye off the larger social implications of Simpson’s celebrity and complicated personality. O.J.: Made in America is long partly because it has so much terrain to cover and partly because it aspires to be definitive. It succeeds, thrillingly.
3. The Other Side, directed by Roberto Minervini
Who are the Americans supposedly experiencing “economic anxiety” who flocked to Donald Trump this election? The Italian-born, U.S.-based director Roberto Minervini made The Other Side long before Trump’s rise, but this experimental documentary (which mixes nonfiction elements with staged scenes) offers one perspective on the angry, disillusioned spirit coursing through parts of this country. Taking place in the deep marsh of rural, poverty-stricken Louisiana, the movie introduces us to drug addicts and spring-break revelers, militiamen and card-carrying Obama-haters, all for the purpose of humanizing but also dramatizing these people’s frustration at being left behind in an age of globalization. Are they deserving of our compassion? Or are they simply ignorant, hateful souls who have brought their misfortune upon themselves? It’s a testament to Minervini’s visually stunning film that we wrestle with these questions, both intrigued and horrified by the onscreen behavior he shows us with such bracing intimacy and casualness.
2. American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold
The culmination of everything British writer-director Andrea Arnold has made to this point, American Honey is an epic road movie that seeks to do nothing less than offer a grand, sweeping, staggering portrait of the United States as seen through the eyes of a restless young woman named Star (newcomer Sasha Lane). In Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold demonstrated an aptitude for raw, ardent tales of people in search of themselves, but training her camera on the American Midwest brings a fresh sense of discovery and electricity. You can quibble with her portrayals of born-again Christians and Texas cowboys, oil workers and meth-heads, but American Honey has a rollicking compassion for its entire cast of characters, and its tone is always loving and inclusive. There is no one America, her film argues, just the one we find ourselves in, and a cast that includes Riley Keough and a never-better Shia LaBeouf are all under the same wanderlust spell.
1. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
We may not know it at the time, but there are moments in our life that shape our destiny. In filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s exquisite drama, three such moments are examined with care and precision. The result is a movie that recalibrates our understanding of cause-and-effect, showing how a boy named Chiron learns how to grow up, in all the wrong and right ways. With a different actor playing the main character in each section, Moonlight brushes past plenty of meaningful themes: love, masculinity, homophobia, poverty, the daily racism that visits every African-American every day of his life. But the wonder of Jenkins’s sophomore feature is that it feels mighty while staying low-key. The people we see in Moonlight don’t want our pity, which is what makes these characters exceedingly inspiring and human: Whether it’s Naomie Harris’s drug-addicted mother or the closeted Chiron, everyone in the ensemble can only see their life in the urgent present, unable to conceive of a future. Each performance sparkles with modest immediacy, and the film’s cumulative impact is so astonishing because so much remains unresolved. All Moonlight can leave us with is hope, which is one of the best gifts the movies can give us.
10. Louder Than Bombs, directed by Joachim Trier.
In a year full of films about families and loss and the thin threads that tie us together—not to mention a year full of great Isabelle Huppert performances—one of its strongest and most adventurous films has nearly been forgotten. Trier’s follow-up to his magnificent Oslo, August 31st once again shows off his ability to make films that feel fully realized, messy but coherent, plunging us into a world that instantly feels familiar—it’s a surprise to learn afterward that it wasn’t based on some celebrated best-selling novel. In an up-and-down year, this was Jesse Eisenberg’s finest performance, as a someone who tries to run away from his family before realizing he was the problem all along. And Huppert, as great as she is in Elle and Things To Come, is intoxicatingly unknowable here. How much do we really understand the members of our family, anyway?
9. Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols.
Jeff Nichols’ career has been marked by both its unpredictability and its versatility. From a gritty family crime drama (Shotgun Stories), to a Southern gothic romance (Mud), to a terrified father who might be losing his mind in order to protect his family (Take Shelter), to a tale of an interracial couple trying to validate their marriage (Loving), Nichols is a director who can seemingly do anything. But I didn’t know he had a smart, semi-big-budget studio thriller in his repertoire. All the usual Nichols themes of the terror of parenting and the desperate desire for home are here, but Midnight Special is lively, riveting, and trusting of its audience in a way few movies of this scope dare to be anymore. Michael Shannon is breathtaking as the father trying to protect his son, who is special in ways no one understands, and the entire cast is splendid top to bottom, from Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Bill Camp, Sam Shepard to a surprisingly funny and light Adam Driver. Someday Nichols is going to make his masterpiece. For now, I’ll settle for this consistent run of greatness.
8. Jackie, directed by Pablo Larrain
Like his previous film, No, about the movement to remove Pinochet from power in Chile in the late 1980s, director Pablo Terrain has a way of making history feel alive and urgent. It’s one thing to pull this off when it’s about a Chilean advertising revolution, it’s quite another to do it with one of the most raw American tragedies of the last 75 years. The story of JFK’s assassination has never felt more all encompassing than it has here; there is an undeniable sense everyone involved is only just barely keeping it together, especially Jackie herself, who, as portrayed by Natalie Portman in the best performance of her career, is alternately destroyed, empowered, terrified, and more formidable than anyone else in the room. You’ve seen the story a thousand times, but never like this.
7. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
For its first half, The Lobster is a dry, dark comedy of absurdity, in which a man whose wife has left him moves into a hotel to try and couple up before he is turned into an animal. Lanthimos, who was similarly obsessed with the creation of a strange world with specific rules in Dogtooth, has a lot of fun setting up this universe, which is why it’s that much more thrilling when he pulls the rug out from under us halfway through the film to reveal that rules are often bad just because they’re rules. Somehow, he attaches this to a cracked little love story of its own. The Lobster is wonderful comedy of language—an amazing achievement for a Greek director working on his first English-language film—that never shies away from its more despairing elements. And it has one of the most fascinating, upsetting final scenes I’ve seen in a long time.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!, directed by Richard Linklater
This is a film that was defined what people were expecting it to be—a follow-up to Boyhood, or better yet, a spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused—that it was never allowed to truly be what it was, a riotiously funny, sneakily moving look at the both the impermanence and immortality of youth. Everybody Wants Some!! is one of the great hangout movies, a bunch of dude bros who look like stereotypes at first but are slowly revealed to be flawed, scared, good-hearted humans This is Linklater in nostalgia mode, but his memories are never hazy; he’s firmly aware he’s capturing a moment right before everything changes, and that sense of loss permeates the whole film. But let’s not lose the point here: This movie is freaking funny. I want to hang out with these guys forever.
5. Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker who has evolved stylistically but is often stuck in his own head thematically, and Paterson is a film that feels like a wry, warm justification of staying there. It’s a film that celebrates the act of observation and creation without ever fetishizing it. Jarmusch is the rare filmmaker who can be fanciful and surrealist while remaining firmly in the real world. As his eponymous bus driver, Adam Driver is perfect, a poker-face poet who remains open to the world while standing precariously outside it. You’ll want to go make art after you leave the theater—something, anything.
4. La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle
As exuberant as La La Land is, what truly makes this movie soar is how firmly it keeps its feet on the ground. This is a film that is swept up in romance but also wise about love, about understanding how two people’s personal and professional growth can cause them to grow apart. It has the warm, wistful, sad heart of a vintage Woody Allen movie, but the energy and zest of the a delightful Hollywood musical, an irresistible combination. Both leads are fantastic—Emma Stone will never, ever be better—and the movie jazzes you up and rings you out in equal measure. The final sequence somehow manages to be both emotionally and thematically satisfying, and like the rest of the film, makes sure to keep you still dancing as well.
3. Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan
For a movie so lyrical, immaculately structured, and observant of every little detail, Manchester by the Sea works best when it’s focused on Casey Affleck’s eyes, which are constantly searching for an escape that they’ll never find. Lonergan has said he wanted to do a film about a character who “just never got over it,” and his portrait of grief is at times overwhelmingly powerful. But that’s because Lonergan’s meticulousness can’t help but occasionally be overtaken by Affleck’s breathtaking performance, which takes anything literary or self-consciously classical—one of Lonergan’s minor blind spots as a filmmaker is that his ambition sometimes gets in his own way —and obliterates it with raw, unyielding pain. There isn’t much solace for anyone in Manchester by the Sea, but that Lonergan and Affleck can find any comfort at all feels, in its own tiny way, like a triumph.
2. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
Every description of Moonlight feels limiting, because it’s a movie about everything: Life, love, identity, sexuality, fear, longing, and the universal sense you never became the person you were supposed to be. Jenkins uses techniques from Terrence Malick but burrows so deep into them that the movie is both magical and still feels like it’s happening to you, personally. Mahershala Ali gives a standout performance, but also notable are Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mother and, especially, Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron, who has a way of pushing you away while still breaking your heart: Never before as searching seemed so powerful. Moonlight is a movie that is often diminished by discussion: It must be seen, experienced, and absorbed.
1. O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman
Massive but never sprawling, epic but never not meticulous, grand in its scope but never taking its eyes off its propulsive narrative thrust, OJ: Made in America managed to be the best movie of the year about race, about celebrity, about truth, about justice, about America. Its nearly eight-hour running time—which flies by when you sit down to watch it; I’ve seen 73-minute Adam Sandler comedies that felt twice as long—allows the film to answer every question from nearly every angle. It’s remarkable that a documentary can make so many profound points while never feeling like it’s coming from one perspective. Roger Ebert once said that the movies are a “machine that generates empathy,” and I’m not sure that’s ever been more true than here. This is America at is rawest and ugliest and worst, and yet it still never fails to educate, to enlighten, to rattle our very foundations. You won’t be able to look away, even if you want to. It’s the best film of 2016.