Do you guys remember how much we heard around summertime about 2016 being a particularly dire year for movies? While it’s always possible that the movie year simply started to look a lot better once the real-life year started to really crater in early November, there was also a crush of fall releases that saved one kind of cultural face even as the US went bonkers. These are the ten I liked best; trust me, there are another twenty or so bubbling right under.
1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
I know, I know: it’s the white people singing and dancing their way into the spotlight where Moonlight should rightfully belong. But Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle is the real deal: A filmmaker who understands how to convey the rhythm and movement of the musical form on film (and actual 35mm film, naturally). This may sound like a small technical matter, but look no further than ninety percent of Broadway adaptations of this millennium for proof of what an impressive skill set this is. Of course, they didn’t have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, making their third movie together and taking full advantage of their two previous bad ones to relax into irresistible movie-star chemistry. This would all be “only” delightful if not for the bittersweet showstopper of an ending that brings real ache to a familiar story of Hollywood struggle.
2. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
There were plenty of reasons to be exhausted in 2016; the rare pleasurable case came from this 160-minute study of American teens in the wild. Andrea Arnold, a British director best known for the wonderful Fish Tank, found a bunch of performance newbies (and Shia LaBeouf) and took to the road (with Shia LaBeouf) for a wild, sprawling look at poverty, capitalism, and store-PA sing-alongs, fronted by the wonderful Sasha Lane (and co-starring Shia LaBeouf).
3. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
A crisp DIY punk travelogue turns to sweaty suspense as Jeremy Saulnier continues to figure out how regular folks might fight their way out of nightmarish genre scenarios. Bonus points for the newfound visceral thrill of present-day Nazis getting maimed (though, of course, not without cost).
4. Arrival (Denis Villenueve)
Speaking of genre scenarios: We’ve seen a lot of alien invasion movies over the years; hell, Independence Day: Resurgence‘s whole thing this year was predicated on the fact that it’s been twenty years since that throwback first felt hoary during its initial ’96 release. But this adaptation of a short story sinks in for the processes those types of alien pictures often elide, in this case the deciphering of a seemingly unknowable language. Amy Adams is the woman for the job; the personal and the professional bleed together on her face in a way that perfectly suits a deceptively moving sci-fi story.
5. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Apparently this movie is catching some flak because it’s yet another story of white, male, inarticulate grieving and redemption. And yet that’s not really what Kenneth Lonergan made at all. This is a movie about the wound, not about the healing, and there’s a strange, wonderful catharsis in a grief story that doesn’t insist on telling you everything is going to be okay.
6. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
In a disappointing year for big studio releases, the best set pieces came from an unexpected 2,000-screen Universal Picture: a Coen Brothers comedy about 50s Hollywood, following the blandly devout studio fixer (Josh Brolin) who keeps things together for another day on the backlot. The Channing Tatum sailor dance number, the ScarJo mermaid (“fish ass”) water ballet, the chorus of angry communists lecturing George Clooney, and the symphonically farcical two-hander between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (“would that it ’twere so simple”) would almost be enough for a spot on their own. But the Coens tie them together with a kind of steadfast approximation of midwestern spirituality while sometimes appearing (perhaps winkingly) to reinforce the status quo.
7. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Everyone knew Jeff Bridges could be this good; focus instead, please, on Chris Pine and Ben Foster as outlaw brothers enacting a desperate plan that the movie reveals only slowly. It turns out that apart from generic derring-do and sleazy character-actor menace, respectively, they’re both capable of wonderful, complementary shadings. Five months later, this still feels like one of the year’s best and brightest surprises.
8. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
The year’s most stunning debut is a 72-minute coming-of-age story that’s like a Step Up movie remade as an unsettling reverie. A young girl works at a boxing gym and stares longingly at the dance team practicing across the hall. That plus Anna Rose Holmer’s talent for drawing lyricism from every day moments are all you really need to know about it; this movie is on Amazon Prime right now and you should watch it.
9. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
This was the last year that a convivial 80s-set bro-down should have been watchable, let alone wildly entertaining, but that’s the kind of hot streak Richard Linklater is on. Within a semiautobiographical story of dudes being dudes, he finds a poignant appreciation of the impermanence of such experiences—and the kind of laughs that are difficult to describe or replicate, but hit you all the same.
10. Sing Street (John Carney)
Open with a musical and close with one, too: Carney atones for the sins of Begin Again with a proper companion piece to Once—and one that rips off its sibling a lot less than Begin Again did. It’s tricky to make a movie about a young band growing into their creative drive; Carney’s way in is the cycle of 80s-set teenage influences, resulting in some wonderful pop pastiches, low-budget music videos, and the youthful romance of starting something that may or may not be any good.
And the worst…
It’s hard to say whether Mother’s Day or Collateral Beauty reps the worst time I had watching a movie this year. Mother’s Day is more baldly incompetent on every level (Garry Marshall, rest in peace, makes your average Adam Sandler hanger-on look positively virtuosic), but Collateral Beauty is even more chockablock with stars (Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and on and on) who should know better. In a time when studios are more reluctant than ever to spend money on non-franchise pictures aimed at adults, it especially hurts to see two movies squander that cash on such elaborate insults to that audience.
Keep up with all of our Year in Film features here.