The 21 Best Movies Of 2016

From a boy and his dragon to a first lady and her history.

Cries of cinema’s death knell rang out among critics and journalists tracking this year’s poor-performing sequels and reboots. If franchises form Hollywood studios’ bedrock, one might assume American movies are in trouble. Look closer, and you’ll see, as far as quality is concerned, that’s not true at all.

Worthwhile films barreled into theaters left and right, so much so that I dare say 2016 was a fantastic year at the movies, if you knew where to look. Making a best-of list was so difficult that I couldn’t even stop at 20. I want you to see all of these! What are you waiting for?

"Pete's Dragon"
As the summer blockbuster season drew to a close, "Pete's Dragon" was the warm blanket needed to shield ourselves from all the explosive mediocrity. Wrap yourself in Disney's finest live-action reimagining yet, an earnest adventure that pits childlike wonder against greedy profiteering. When townsfolk discover little orphan Pete (Oakes Fegley) in the forest, they decide his colossal green friend should be caged and displayed like a tourist attraction. From the wilderness to the quaint town surrounding it, "Pete's Dragon" roves with a splendor that opposes the cynical forces working against our heroes. Movies like this one, directed by David Lowery, insist that sometimes, in the midst of desperation, sweetness prevails.
"Hidden Figures"
When the United States raced the Soviet Union to space in the 1960s, it did so with the efforts of three black women who crunched the necessary calculations more proficiently than any of the white men they worked for. "Hidden Figures" tells their story. Amid a glut of comic-book mishaps on the big screen this year, these are the superheroes we need. Delightful and affecting, Theodore Melfi's movie -- starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe -- reminds us that talent too often suffers at the hands of the system. You'll forgive the film if it favors blunt summations over risky nuances. When something is this damn watchable, who cares?
Raised in a strict Catholic household, Martin Scorsese has always explored themes of guilt and atonement in his work. "Silence" may be the movie he was born to make. The director first began eying an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's novel of the same name in 1990. Starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as 17th-century Portuguese priests who travel to a violently anti-Christian part of Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson), "Silence" offers 161 minutes of acute, profound questions about religious conviction. How much persecution can the most devout person handle? Is it worth it? Scorsese grapples with these queries using the utmost serenity.
"The Lobster"
To realize "The Lobster" is merely the second-best dystopian satire that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has concocted is to grasp that we are blessed to live in a world with Yorgos Lanthimos movies. His finest offering is still 2009's "Dogtooth," a weird little story about three teenagers who know nothing of the world beyond their parents' compound. In "The Lobster," it's the near-future, and adults who go 45 days without a partner are transformed into animals. Featuring appropriately droll performances from Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw and Léa Seydoux, this dark comedy ironizes modern romance conventions and the idea that partnerships are life's game point. It turns dating into a toleration state, housed in a hotel where people go as a last-ditch attempt to find a mate before the clock strikes. Captured with graceful eccentricity, "The Lobster" bends expectations to become one of the year's most interesting films.
"The Edge of Seventeen"
STX Entertaiment
We tend to talk about teen movies in terms of how realistic they are, how well they capture the adolescent experience. Maybe it's because, for so many, that time of life is volatile. But teen movies rarely get it right. "The Edge of Seventeen" does. Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed the film, has created a tart-tongued but infinitely relatable protagonist -- fed-up junior Nadine Franklin (a great Hailee Steinfeld) -- who too often feels the world has it out for her. When Nadine's only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating Nadine's popular older brother (Blake Jenner), her limited world comes crashing down. We're with her every step of the way, recognizing her irascibilities and appreciating her flaws.
There's nothing more terrifying than the voices that rattle around our heads. For "Krisha," first-time director Trey Edward Shults cast his 64-year-old aunt, Krisha Fairchild, as the titular addict overcome by the noise of her troubled past. Krisha arrives at her semi-estranged family's Thanksgiving celebration with an arsenal of nerves and good intentions. Unfortunately, she can't escape her own neuroses. As Krisha unravels, Shults' micro-budget psychodrama grows more claustrophobic. We leap inside Krisha's conflicted head in a manner reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes classics. There's no moral certainty when it comes to Krisha's demons -- there is only the nightmare that she has created.
Sony Pictures Classics
Morally complicated and relentlessly absorbing, "Elle" doesn't let you off easy. Its ideas about rape and the power of sexuality will kick around long after the Isabelle Huppert showcase fades to black. Playing a sexual assault victim who ignites a sort of cat-and-mouse game with her aggressor, Huppert is the lifeblood of Paul Verhoeven's film. It's a master-class performance that nails the movie's postfeminist tightrope walk.
Bleecker Street
Even if the title character's poetry weren't scrawled across the screen, Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson" would still unfurl like a cinematic poem. Or maybe it's better described as a dream set to the tune of quotidian sensitivity. Adam Driver is understated and fantastic as Paterson, a bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey, who scribbles observational verse about his daily encounters: overheard conversations, patterns, routines, small-town complacency and the love he shares with his ambitious, quirky wife (Golshifteh Farahani). Oh, and there's also Marvin, a scene-stealing bulldog who might wish Paterson dead.
"The Fits"
Oscilloscope Laboratories
In a snug 72 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer accomplishes more than some filmmakers do in two hours. "The Fits" eases into a narrative about Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old whose dance-team cohort begins experiencing violent convulsions. With every passing moment, "The Fits" becomes more surprising. The camera loves Hightower, who makes a captivating guide in a tiny movie so well photographed (by Paul Yee) that it appears to have cost 10 times its reported $170,000 budget. Its final five minutes are some of the best on screen this year.
Sundance Selects
The mere idea that "Weiner" exists is flooring. That its relevance swelled as the year progressed is ghastly and miraculous. In making the documentary, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg sought to capture Anthony Weiner's comeback campaign. When another sexting scandal broke, the directors were instead privy to a career combusting in real time. They also witnessed a bona fide narcissist's flagrancy surge at the expense of his more astute wife. "Weiner" both humanizes and chides its title subject -- or maybe he does that all by himself. Either way, this is the most revealing piece of political theater since "The War Room."
"Love & Friendship"
Roadside Attractions
See "Love & Friendship" twice. In fact, see it three times. You'll discover a new layer of jokes upon each viewing of Whit Stillman's tart comedy. The Jane Austen adaptation casts Kate Beckinsale as a manipulative Regency widow seeking to remarry so she and her daughter (Emma Greenwell) can secure their wealth. She finds a suitor in Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a well-meaning fool who turns every encounter into a verbal pratfall. (His banter about peas is one of the year's funniest scenes.) Stillman's script is razor-sharp, infused with keen social observances dressed up in spiked putdowns. And those costumes! "Love & Friendship" truly is full-package entertainment.
As long as Amy Adams is saving the world, I'll be there. Apparently, so will you: "Arrival" is a rare box-office hit that has also stoked awards esteem. If movie culture is floundering in America, it's projects like this that reinvigorate the glory of cinema. A cerebral sci-fi psalm that links empathy with peace, Denis Villeneuve's film charts the emotional currency of a skilled linguist recruited to find out why a handful of large extraterrestrial pods have landed across Earth. Adams isn't about to let us down. The reason the aliens visit is twisty and profound, doubly so thanks to Bradford Young's crawling cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson's ghostly score.
"La La Land"
"La La Land" reminds us why we go to the movies. A dazzling display of charisma, Damien Chazelle's musical blends fanciful escapism with the bittersweet realities of life beyond the big screen. Third time's the charm for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who reunite to dance and romance through the streets of Los Angeles. They play aspiring artists desperate for someone to lift them off the ground, but the experience of "La La Land" does just as much to lift us off the ground. With the help of Linus Sandgren's cinematography and Davis Waso's production design, the color palette sizzles with the same enthusiasm as Justin Hurwitz's music. Chazelle has crafted a film that flourishes at every turn, the kind you'll want to watch again and again.
"The Witch"
Was there a more savage screen villain this year than Black Phillip? The demonic goat ravaged the already tormented Puritan family at the center of "The Witch," an eerie tale about 17th-century religious paranoia. In Robert Eggers' debut feature, we witness an isolated clan facing dying crops and the mysterious disappearance of their newborn. Naturally, they turn on one another. Are their fears real or imagined? Are they delusional in accusing eldest daughter Thomasin (the stunning Anya Taylor-Joy) of colluding with the devil? Basking in Mark Korven's spine-chilling strings score, "The Witch" balks at the world's unforgiving adherence to doctrine. Life, after all, is better lived deliciously. Black Philip knows.
"Manchester by the Sea"
Roadside Attractions
Kenneth Lonergan writes dialogue that burrows into the most authentic facets of humanity. Lonergan views life as a tragicomedy, and "Manchester by the Sea" may be his magnum opus. The story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Massachusetts handyman who's become a shell of himself in the wake of personal loss, "Manchester" punctuates aching tragedy with uproarious relief. It moves at the perfect emotional tempo, treating grief as a phenomenon that rises and falls like waves. When Lee must decide if he will care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges, remarkable) after Lee's only sibling (Kyle Chandler) dies, the relics of his past resurface, including his relationship with his concerned ex-wife (Michelle Williams). "Manchester" is a heavy affair that isn't weighed down by its own sadness -- it bathes in its characters' heartache, but ultimately rises above it.
"Little Men"
Magnolia Pictures
In Ira Sachs' movies, the ideals of love blur with the misfortunes of prosaic reality. "Little Men" focuses on the platonic romance between an introverted illustrator (Theo Taplitz) and a gregarious actor (Michael Barbieri), both 13-year-olds in gentrifying Brooklyn. When the pals band together to protest their parents' business dispute, "Little Men" celebrates their precociousness without shying away from the immaturity of everyone involved in the conflict. It is a tiny film that affords its characters the immense social and economic stakes they deserve. The snapshot of life's intersecting pathways steeps itself in feelings both spoken and implicit. It also forms one of the most intricate outlines of male friendship ever committed to the big screen.
"American Honey"
In "American Honey," pop songs forge the soundtrack of liberation. Our aimless protagonist, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), wanders into a supermarket, halting at the sight of young misfits leaping onto the checkout counters while Rihanna's "We Found Love" reverberates through the store. Star abandons her destitute reality and follows this traveling magazine sales crew to hopeless places, roving through the American heartland to escape rotten alternatives. As the open road takes them from one seedy motel and booze-soaked field party to the next, British director Andrea Arnold takes us on a lawless expedition that locates beauty and blight at every turn. Star finds ostensible love in Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a feral charmer indebted to the group's acerbic den mother (Riley Keough). More importantly, she finds herself, or as much as she can muster as an ambling teenager fleeing spiritual and economic impoverishment. As Star takes comfort in her makeshift family, "American Honey" swirls forward with ravishing impact.
Focus Features
In the hands of most filmmakers, "Loving" would end with a flurry of galvanizing hurrays. Via Jeff Nichols' delicate touch, this civil-rights sonnet about the couple whose 1960s Supreme Court case legalized interracial marriage culminates in a quiet victory devoid of melodrama. The movie remains faithful to Richard and Mildred Loving, the mild-mannered Virginia plaintiffs who sought peace, not fame. In two of the year's most subtle performances, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton ground the couple's battle, reminding us that equality is achieved in soft increments.
"20th Century Women"
In "20th Century Women," it takes a village of three ladies and one handyman to raise a teenager (Lucas Jade Zumann) who wasn't so lost to begin with. Annette Bening's soul-searching California mama feels more distant from her son every day, and she recruits a small army (played by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup) to help steer his maturation. Mike Mills' hilarious, vibrant film becomes, above all, a meditation on the passage of time. The action unfolds in 1979, suffused with punk-rock turf wars and a televised "crisis of confidence." But the story stretches far beyond a pinpoint in history. Like a wave, it curls forwards and backwards, celebrating every current of life's evolution.
Perhaps the best thing about Barry Jenkins' masterpiece is the shared experience of consuming it. When encountering someone who has seen "Moonlight," the first thing I wonder is which of its three chapters that person prefers. Each section explores a new phase for Chiron, a poor Miami boy grappling with his sexuality in a culture that issues strictures about black masculinity. The triptych grows more specific, more sublime, more sincere. James Laxton's tranquil cinematography emphasizes the most intimate details of Chiron's experience -- his young hand sinking into the sand, his strung-out mother screaming in his face, his gaze lingering on an old friend. Ordinary moments of bliss feel magnified, and magnificent moments of conflict feel ordinary. Our sympathy deepens. As Chiron grows up, so do we.
Fox Searchlight
No movie this year has rattled me like "Jackie," a crisscross of political folklore and intricate grief. Nothing else has shifted my perspective on American mythmaking or the limitlessness of cinematic storytelling. Pablo Larraín stations his camera tight on Natalie Portman's face, using extreme close-ups to document the rage that Jacqueline Kennedy shed to bury her husband while the world watched. Forever surrounded by vultures arbitrating her worthiness, her appearance and her politics, Jackie -- as portrayed by a career-best Portman -- processes JFK's 1963 assassination in ways that will forever define the Kennedy legacy. In this piercing psychodrama, she becomes the master of ceremonies, trapped in anguish she never summoned. With a script by Noah Oppenheim that's at once sprawling and alarmingly intimate, as well as a wailing score by Mica Levi, "Jackie" is a fierce act of filmmaking. It's bold, heartbreaking and revolutionary -- just like Jackie Kennedy herself.

And a few more recommendations, because why not:

Cameraperson” [dir. Kirsten Johnson]. A meta celebration of life around the globe, this documentary probes a filmmaker’s relationship with her subjects.

The Handmaiden” [dir. Park Chan-wook]. A twisty erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea, this deceptive tale about a conman’s attempts to steal a Japanese heiress’ fortune will shock you.

I Am Not Your Negro” [dir. Raoul Peck]. This essential documentary traces the civil-rights moments through the words of James Baldwin.

The Invitation” [dir. Karyn Kusama]. A well-paced chiller about a cultish dinner party, this movie has one of the year’s best endings.

Little Sister” [dir. Zach Clark]. When a young nun (Addison Timlin) returns home to her dysfunctional family, she revisits her goth adolescence as the Bush era draws to a close. The results are smart and humorous.

Things to Come” [dir. Mia Hansen-Løve]. In the year’s second Isabelle Huppert stunner, the actress plays a philosopher facing domestic upheaval.

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