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Ten Best Films of 2016

December 31, 2016

As I’ve probably said before, the whole idea of numerically ranking films to pick out the best ones is somewhat absurd at best. Still, some films are better than others, so I’ll take this time to shine a light on ten of the best films from this past year.

This year brought a lot of great films, and many that would have been strong contenders for this list just got squeezed out. There were plenty of thinkpieces about the “death of movies”, especially around the late summer, and maybe it was true that the usual tentpole blockbusters underperformed. But these films show that the movies are very much alive and well, and getting broader and deeper each year.

And so, with no further ado…

10: Moana
Yes, it’s the Disney princess musical format back again, nowhere near pushing boundaries the way Zootopia did. But the result is much more consistent in its quality. Working within the format they’ve just nailed it perfectly. Respectfully incorporating the stories and culture of South Pacific islands, this is Disney at its finest.

9: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi has a real talent for telling stories with children, and this is no exception. A sensitive, deeply felt story of a boy coming to find his place, it’s touching, but somehow also raucously hilarious. Waititi has the skill to skim the story off of some very dark, very real places, and yet never feel like he’s exploiting them. And if you’ve only known Sam Neill from the Jurassic Park movies, you’re in for a treat from him, too.

8: Eye In the Sky/Miss Sloane
I know it’s kind of cheating to slip two in here, but these are both coming at a similar idea from very different angles. And it helps that the idea is one that’s taking on incredible significance this year: the importance of paying attention to processes over principles. Whether in our foreign policy, expressed through drone strikes, or our domestic policy, expressed through lobbying, arguments about right and wrong must take a back seat to the practical reality of how things get done. And while Gavin Hood’s Lumet-inspired war story is the more solid, there’s a dark but necessary cynicism running through John Madden’s twisty DC intrigue.

7: Hidden Figures
It’s a Hollywoodified crowd-pleaser, but there’s no reason you can’t make a really good movie within that space. Just as director Theodore Melfi could nakedly manipulate an audience’s emotions in St. Vincent and make them feel glad to be taken for the ride, he never bothers to hide the kind of movie this is, and it’s all the better for the honesty.

6: Loving
This one, on the other hand, goes in exactly the opposite direction from what you’d expect, either from familiarity with director Jeff Nichols’ other work, or from knowing the history of the case of Loving v. Virginia. Eschewing the court case almost entirely, Nichols focuses on the portrait of two people in love, building a family together. It drives home the underlying point that legal arguments dance around but cannot say directly: what harm could there possibly be in this, that the state feels the need to intervene and prevent it?

5: Arrival
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, one of the finest current science fiction writers around, Denis Villeneuve delivers the calm, contemplative film I knew he was capable of. Eric Heisserer’s script builds on the existential meditation of Chiang’s story and renders it into a form more accessible to a mainstream audience. No mean feat when dealing with seven-fold symmetric aliens who view time as a completed, unchanging whole.

4: The Neon Demon
Nicholas Winding-Refn loves to push audiences’ buttons, and he pushes them with abandon in this first of his films to explore some of the darker recesses of female psychology. On the surface, a glib indictment of the fashion industry as a horrifying — and almost literal — meat-grinder, it hides an even darker descent into the ambivalent id of an adolescent girl who finds her own nascent sexuality both disturbing and enthralling. If there were doubts of Elle Fanning’s ability to take on more adult fare, they’re gone now.

3: 20th Century Women
Somewhere along the way, Mike Mills’ tribute to his mother turned into something much more. The post-punk and new-wave setting was a high-water mark for the feminist movement, as well as for the 20th century’s entire progressive New Deal project. In a way he couldn’t have predicted when writing the script, we can now look back forty years to see where we once stood, and what gains may finally be washed away as the tide runs all the way out.

2: Fences
Denzel Washington takes up his new mantle as the man bringing August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of plays to screens both big and small, and hits his first one out of the park. This is easily his best work as a director, not to mention a top-shelf performance in front of the camera, where Viola Davis proves herself his match with her own powerhouse performance. Gorgeously photographed, beyond what you might expect from a play brought to screen, the texture of 1950s Hill District Pittsburgh comes alive. And this project is just getting started.

1: Moonlight
Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is like nothing that has been seen in a feature film before, and especially not one that played at so many mainstream multiplexes. A complex, nuanced portrait of a young, black, gay man at three formative stages of his life, it’s a raw and honest look at someone who refuses to fit neatly into any of our preconceived boxes, as much as life may try to shove him back into one or another. A film like this is a leap of faith for any cast and crew, and their efforts have paid off handsomely. We are all the richer to have the chance to see this story.

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