If anyone tries to feed you a line about cinema’s impending death, and how TV is better now, and how there’s never anything to go see at the movies, check back with that person after she or he has just put together a Top 10 of the Year list. There’s nothing like having to narrow the previous dozen months to just ten films to provide a little perspective.
Sure, “The Americans” and “Better Call Saul” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” were engrossing, but the big screen didn’t lack for revelation and insight and drama and power and laughs. Were there lots of disappointments and mediocrities at the movies this year? Absolutely. Is CBS still on the air? Same deal.
It’s a testament to 2016 that narrowing it down to just ten was quite the challenge – I have a very solid number 11, plus several runners-up, and that’s not even counting the many fine documentaries and animated films this year, which got lists of their own:
1. “Moonlight”: I am loath to use the word “poetic” when describing a film, mostly because when someone else does I either don’t believe it or I immediately assume it’s describing a movie that’s just going to lull me to sleep. But Barry Jenkin’s long-awaited sophomore feature was poetic in all the best ways – deeply humane, emotionally resonant, powerfully empathetic.
2. “Take Me to the River”: Matt Sobel’s first film starts out like a city-mouse-country-mouse family reunion comedy and then goes much darker, digging into long-buried secrets and exploring the damage of silence and repression. That he makes all this both suspenseful and mordantly funny reveals his gifts as a writer-director working in tandem with a talented cast and intuitive editor (Jacob Secher Schulsinger, “Force Majeure”).
3. “La La Land”: L.A.’s dreamers are usually blocking traffic or getting my coffee order wrong, so it’s a testament to writer-director Damien Chazelle that he made me care so deeply about two of them in this valentine to Southern California. The fact that they’re played by a singing and dancing Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, admittedly, helps. Somewhere Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) is smiling.
4. “The Lobster”: Either the pursuit or the avoidance of love can destroy you, according to this hilariously bleak comedy, but we scuttle along anyway. The latest from Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) portrays romance as an absurd dance we are forced to perform – but then so does “The Bachelor.”
5. “Love & Friendship”: The perfect symbiosis between artists of different centuries; writer-director Whit Stillman brought Jane Austen’s long-forgotten novella “Lady Susan” to the screen, building upon it in a way that reminded us that, with his tales of worldly-wise but heart-foolish young people, he’s been doing Austen all along anyway. As a bonus, he gave Kate Beckinsale her greatest role in ages, and she more than met the challenge.
6. “The Handmaiden”: This tale of seduction and double-cross fits so well amidst the Korean-Japanese conflicts of World War II that you’d never guess it was adapted from a novel about Victorian-era Britain. In an era where narrative twists have been dulled by overuse, director Park Chan-wook pulls the rug out from under us time and again with breathtaking grace and precision.
7. “Julieta”: Modern master Pedro Almodóvar channels his influences (here, Hitchcock and Sirk) and adapts the work of Alice Munro, but the results are 100% his own. Few modern filmmakers can flirt with classic Hollywood’s outsized emotions without ever slipping into camp or irony, and nobody does it better than this legendary Spanish auteur.
8. “Certain Women”: Kelly Reichardt’s slow-paced films aren’t for everyone – sometimes they’re not even for me – but when she taps into her characters’ emotions and frailty, the results can be devastating, as in this tale of Montana women grappling with career and romantic setbacks, in a world that’s constantly asking them to do and to be more just to get equal footing.
9. “Things to Come”: Isabelle Huppert gave a pair of extraordinary performances this year, and while “Elle” is a knockout, I ultimately responded more to Mia Hansen-Løve’s quiet, powerful examination of a philosophy teacher forced to reassess her life when she loses almost everything that defines her.
10. “Queen of Katwe”: In years to come, we will wonder why so few people saw this inspirational sports movie in theaters. In this true-life tale of a young Ugandan girl who became an international chess sensation, director Mira Nair revealed a talent for stirring audience emotion that rivals Spielberg’s at this best. More great performances from Lupita N’yongo and David Oyelowo, but keep an eye on African discovery Madina Nalwanga.
Number 11 (because it was really close): “Southside with You”
Runners-up (alphabetical): “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “20th Century Women,” “Aquarius,” “Arrival,” “Cemetery of Splendour,” “Christine,” “Chronic,” “The Clan,” “Deadpool,” “Doctor Strange,” “Don’t Breathe,” “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Elle,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “Hell or High Water,” “The Invitation,” “Little Men,” “The Love Witch,” “Miss Stevens,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Other People,” “Paterson,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “Sing Street,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “The Witch”
Documentaries: “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “13th,” “Tower,” “Wiener,” “De Palma,” “Kiki,” “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened”
Animation: “Your Name,” “April and the Extraordinary World,” “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Finding Dory,” “Storks,” “Zootopia” (with a special mention of “Only Yesterday,” a 1991 Studio Ghibli classic that got its first official U.S. release this year)