Contrary to a misconception that cropped up in 2016, movies are not dead. The year was a great year for cinema. There are always truly great films being made, just not always in Hollywood. And those great movies aren’t always playing at your local multiplexes, either. Sometimes they’re only available on-demand or through streaming services. Regardless, good cinema is always available. You just have to know where to look.
For this list of 2016’s best films — better late than never, right? — I selected movies that had some sort of major release or distribution here in the United States. Even if a movie went straight to VOD or streaming, or only had a limited release in a few theaters in major cities before going onto one of those platforms, it still counts.
I’m also not ranking any of them or limiting myself to any specific number of films. I’m against both of those practices. The former would eventually come down to me assigning numbers to films arbitrarily. The latter prevents me from acknowledging all of the truly great, interesting or worthwhile movies this year.
It’s also worth noting that there are several interesting films I haven’t seen and probably won’t see until later this year, when they’re made more widely available. Notable films such as “Elle,” “Certain Women,” “Toni Erdmann,” “I Am Not You Negro,” “Neruda,” “Paterson,” “Cameraperson,” “The Love Witch” and many others have eluded me. So if I leave certain buzzy films off, I apologize, but I might not have had the opportunity to see it yet.
So, listed alphabetically, here are what I consider to be the films that represent the best of what cinema had to offer in 2016.
“13th”: Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, released on Netflix, is a powerful and infuriating look at mass incarceration, police brutality and racism in the U.S. Its central thesis — that the prison industrial complex’s exploitation of a loophole in the thirteenth amendment has allowed for the flourishing of a modern form of slavery — is not exactly original, but has never it been laid out as poetically, passionately and convincingly as it has here. This is DuVernay’s best film yet and a prime example of the sociological value of film, specifically documentaries.
“Arrival”: Like a lot of so-called “hard sci-fi,” “Arrival” does suffer from being a little too cerebral and plot focused, but it was refreshing to see a prestige science fiction film that had an actual message — one that was incredibly timely and delivered in an intelligent, compassionate manner. Amy Adams is incredible, giving a performance that doesn’t feel like a performance because it’s so natural and quiet. Bonus points for another strong musical score by Johan Johansson.
“The Edge of Seventeen”: There have been few high school films that portray the teenage experience this accurately and even fewer that are this funny. Hailee Steinfeld is great, leading an outstanding cast that includes standouts like Woody Harrelson and Hayden Szeto.
“Hail, Caesar!”: Between Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit” and now Alden Ehrenreich in this, their newest film, the Coen Brothers are making a habit of giving talented young actors their breakthrough roles. Don’t be fooled by those who are saying this is a blip in the Coen’s already impressive filmography. “Hail, Caesar!” contains sharp examinations of the relationship between art, religion and ideology, all wrapped up in their funniest film to date.
“The Handmaiden”: Definitely not for those with delicate sensibilities, this sex, violence and intrigue-saturated masterpiece from Korean director Park Chan-Wook is one of the twist-iest, funniest, most provocative thrillers in ages. I’d even go so far as to say it beats Hitchcock at his own game. And Hitch never had this much fun.
“Knight of Cups/Voyage of Time”: How lucky are we that we get two Terrence Malick films in the same year, with a new one, “Song to Song,” right around the corner in 2017? Malick may have lost many people with his last few films, but I imagine these two might crystalize what he’s all about for the skeptics who can’t make heads or tails of him or just find his style insufferable. These films are the apotheosis of his formal experiments and his primary thematic concerns. “Knight” fully realizes the stream-of-consciousness editing and narrative style he’s been working on for years, while “Voyage” finally makes lucid his belief in how humans are interconnected with, and dwarfed by, the forces of nature. For many, these films will just seem like Malick gazing further into his own navel. But look closer and allow these works to wash over you, free from traditional narrative logic, and you’ll be drawn into two revelatory and moving cinematic experiences.
“Krisha”: A heartbreaking portrait of addiction and familial discord, this story of a black sheep returning to the fold for Thanksgiving dinner is one of the best debuts in years. Often, a filmmaker’s first feature shows promise but also some rough edges. Not so with Trey Edward Shults, who begins his career strong, directing his own aunt, Krisha Fairchild, to an exciting and painfully compelling lead performance. Let’s hope this isn’t a fluke and represents only a fraction of what Shults is capable of.
“Lemonade”: I’ve often felt that music videos are, in their way, the purest and most expressive form of cinema. They’re audiovisual art freed from the constraints of dialogue, language and traditional narrative. Here, Beyoncé and her co-directors, including Khalil Joseph and Mark Romanek, make perhaps the most lucid case for that theory. Synched to some of the best, most inventive music she’s ever created, “Lemonade” also contains some of the most startling images you’re likely to see all year, culled not just from Beyoncé’s myriad cinematic influences, but also from her own psyche. We’re likely not going to see cinema like this, which seems to have been ripped from the artists own furious and impassioned subconscious, until David Lynch makes his return with “Twin Peaks” later this year. Phooey to those say this doesn’t count as a film. “Lemonade” is more cinematic and mesmerizing than almost any actual movie released this year.
“Love and Friendship”: As hilarious as it is infuriating, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan” is also arguably the best film adaptation of her work. Stillman sets constricting social mores and oppressive codes of “morality” in his mercilessly satirical sights, producing a film of intense but necessary cynicism. He also directs Kate Beckinsale to her career best performance, showing the world what a formidable actress she is.
“Moonlight”: The incredible cast is only a fragment of what makes this movie so special. Director Barry Jenkins injects some much needed poetry and cinematic verve into the social realist drama, which turns “Moonlight” into something much, much more. If you don’t think this film is for you, then that’s precisely why you should see it.
“The Neon Demon”: This alien and alienating horror-thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn, about the modeling world of Los Angeles, is sure to piss off some viewers. But those of us who love it would argue that this is a film best not looked at through the lens of traditional narrative cinema, where theme and plot are king. Instead, see this for what it is: a sensory experience, a mysterious, blood-soaked nightmare that’s not meant to comfort or present the best of humanity, but some primal and symbolic darkness that shows us at our worst. “The Neon Demon” is one of the year’s most evocative films, more about the images and sound than story. In other words, it’s pure cinema.
“Pete’s Dragon”: A lovely, gentle film that shows that there is the potential for magic in this new wave of Disney’s live-action remake. It’s that rare blockbuster that doesn’t insult the intelligence or emotions of the viewer, whether child or adult. Far superior to the over-hyped “The Jungle Book,” this film, and its approach to filmmaking and storytelling, is where the mouse house should be taking its cues from.
“The Shallows”: I know, right? I didn’t expect this to be that good either. But somehow, “The Shallows” transcends its silly, B-movie premise about a woman terrorized by a shark while surfing, to become one of the most nerve-shattering, white-knuckle action thrillers of the year. It also just happens to contain potent symbolic heft, a surprisingly solid performance from Blake Lively and some of the best cinematography and editing this year.
“Silence”: Certainly one of Martin Scorsese’s most morally complex and politically provocative films, even if it is less cinematically daring than some of his other films. Scorsese considered this story of two 17th century Jesuit priests who venture to Japan in search of their missing mentor his ultimate passion project, and he has attempted to get it made for nearly thirty years. The effort has paid off and the passion shows. Many will be angered by this film, incensed because it shows cultural insensitivity to any number of religions, races, or cultures, but that’s precisely the point. Scorsese has made a career out of challenging your assumptions, as well as forcing you to ask yourself why you might identify or sympathize with this or that character. No character in this film has the moral high ground and nobody is without sin. So, if any of the characters in “Silence” frustrate you, or if this movie enrages you on some level, remember to ask yourself if that isn’t exactly the point.
“Sunset Song”: Terence Davies is one the best directors working today — maybe ever — and his forthcoming Emily Dickinson biopic, “A Quiet Passion,” starring Cynthia Nixon, is hands down my most anticipated film of 2017. Adapted from a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, “Sunset Song” tells the story of a young woman working on her family farm under her poisonously patriarchal father and then taking over the farm with her husband before he is sent off to fight in World War I. I first saw “Sunset Song” back in April at the Capital City Film Festival and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. What amazes me about this, and all of Davies’ films, are how they can be so quiet and meditative and yet so transcendentally, passionately emotional all in the same moment. Like I wrote in my review for “Moonlight,” words will simply not do this film justice. It’s available on Netflix as of the time of writing. Watch it as soon as you can, because films like “Sunset Song” are why I love movies. They prove that, far from being dead, cinema is as alive as it’s ever been.
Honorable Mentions: “Cemetery of Splendour,” “The Invitation,” “Louder Than Bombs,” “The Mermaid,” “Swiss Army Man,” “Weiner-Dog,” “The Witch”