The year wasn’t all bad for movies. For all the complaints you see on message boards across the internet, you’d think that Hollywood was completely incapable of producing anything worthwhile. While it might be true that sequels and comic book movies get an inordinate amount of play in today’s culture, the reality is so much deeper and richer than the collective mind of the internet would have you believe.
There’s no denying that this year featured a lot of bullshit, but that’s true of every year. As ever, you sometimes have to sift through a ton of mud before finding a nugget of gold, and this year provided audiences with plenty of riches if they desired to find them. While overall there was a lot to hate about the cinematic offerings of 2016, the gems far outweighed soot.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay takes an unflinching look at the history of institutionalized racism in America in this powerful documentary. DuVernay tells the history of America from the freeing of the slaves to the modern day to paint a picture of how laws and institutions were built around perpetuating the ideas of white superiority, and how that eventually evolved into the privatized prison industrial complex driving today’s criminal justice system. Shocking, heartbreaking, and eye opening, 13th is one of the most important and moving documentaries of the decade, and should become required viewing for students of all ages.
One of the most beautiful and meaningful science fiction films in recent years, Arrival came at just the right moment for our culture and these times. Backed by a powerful performance from Amy Adams, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer crafted an inspiring look at the power of communication to overcome boundaries and obstacles. Now—perhaps more than ever—it’s important that remember to talk to one another and gain understanding into each other’s perspectives and mind frames. Even our biggest enemies can be made friends if we take a little time to talk.
You’d be hard pressed to find a movie with better performances than you’ll find in Fences. That shouldn’t be surprising with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis anchoring the cast, but even they—two of the best, most accomplished actors of our day—achieve stunning new heights in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is a stunning portrayal of the hopes, fears, and dreams of an African American family as they struggle to hold themselves together. A richly developed slice of humanity, Fences is one of the most powerful films you’ll see in any year.
Like the music of punk itself, Green Room burrows into your soul and takes up residence, altering you in ways you can’t rightly explain—ways you might not fully appreciate—but for which you are eternally grateful. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2013’s magnificent Blue Ruin proved himself a master of the modern thriller, crafting a story full of taut suspense and hair raising twists that should set a new standard for the genre. Then there’s Anton Yelchin, who gives a remarkable performance in what would unfortunately become one of his last roles before his horrific death earlier this year. He holds his own against fellow Star Trek alum Patrick Stewart, who sheds his kindly grandpa façade to become one of the most terrifying horror villains in recent memory.
Hell or High Water
A morality play for these troubled times, Hell or High Water is a standout among standouts, gently capturing the political and economic angst of our era and distilling it into a story that’s timeless and beautiful. Chris Pine and Ben Foster outdo themselves as a pair of outlaw brothers who hatch a scheme of robbery and revenge against the bank that threatens their family’s land in a tale that highlights the grey in an otherwise black and white world. Taylor Sheridan’s richly nuanced script is a masterwork of neo-noir that deftly plays to the sensibilities of whomever watches it, leading them to the same conclusions regardless of whatever personal isms they viewer brings with them. Part spaghetti western, part good ol’ fashioned heist movie, and part critique of modern economics, Hell or High Water is an instant classic.
Grief has rarely been so poetic as it is in Pablo Larrain’s heartbreaking look at the former first lady in the day’s following her husband’s assassination. Natalie Portman doesn’t play Jackie Kennedy so much as she embodies her, body, mind, and spirit. In a way, it almost feels like the role she was born to play, harnessing all her powers as an actress and funneling the total of her experience into this moment of her career. The result is a film that explores both grief and the way myth affects persona (and vice versa) to create a biopic unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
No less than a work of art, Moonlight is this year’s most beautiful film. A triptych of tales, each showcasing the same person as he grows from boy to man, Moonlight is a film like no other, and features one of the best ensembles in recent memory. While no one actor shines bright than the others, it’s hard to deny that Mahershala Ali’s performance is star making in intensity, adding a hefty weight to his growing career. So, too, with writer/director Barry Jenkins, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, who manages to craft one of the most intensely moving depictions of humanity ever committed to film.
The Nice Guys
Remember when movies were fun? Shane Black remembers. As a director, Black always strives to walk the fine line between artistry and commercial, and does so with such acumen that the line between the two is so blurred it’s easy to forget it exists at all. In this 70s-throwback romp, Black enlists the unlikely comedic duo of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe for a film that’s equal parts buddy comedy and noir, deftly moving between both elements in an engrossing mystery. With whip-smart dialogue and genius plotting, Black once again raises the bar for the genre and created a movie for the ages.
It should come as no surprise that Amy Adams is the center of two of this year’s best movies. Though more people will no doubt remember Arrival over Nocturnal Animals, her performance in Tom Ford’s emotionally devastating masterpiece is more intense, more nuanced, and more engrossing than her other knockout of 2016. No small feat, to be sure, but it helps to have a writer and director like Ford at the helm. His story within a story framework, adapted from the book Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, allows varying narratives to bleed into one another, creating a beautiful portrait of post-relationship angst that David Lynch would be envious of.
No film has managed to capture the true essence of horror—which exists on the level of atmosphere and tone—more than The Witch. This stunning tale of a puritan family ripping itself apart from paranoia is one of the most unsettling works of cinema produced in years, or even decades. Backed by a star making performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, writer/director Robert Eggers mines the lore of New England and delivers a stunning work of horror that drives deep into your subconscious to lie in wait and fester in your nightmares. In a just and righteous world, The Witch will become the new standard by which horror movies are judged.