So here it is, the top 10 plus honorable mentions. My "everything else" list is here, if you want the pants bored off you. :P
I’ve done top 25s and 20s in the past. These are the films that would be on a longer list. I’m not ranking them, though, so they’re just in alphabetical order.
10 Cloverfield Lane — Brilliant suspense thriller that turns into genuine sci-fi by the end. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr. are great, but John Goodman is the star of this show.
Arrival — Beautiful film about the importance of communication and the challenges of understanding people and beings who are not like yourself. I saw the reveal coming pretty early, so it didn’t have quite the impact I think the movie wanted it to, but it’s a powerful movie nonetheless.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe — Man, I loved this! As soon as I realized the whole thing was going to take place in that basement and be the Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch Show, I got really excited and this movie delivered big time. And I *LOVED* the reveal and what it says about evil begetting evil.
The Edge of Seventeen — Movies about teenagers rarely do this good a job at combining humor with truth bombs. The writing does a great job of giving us a female protagonist who doesn’t have to be likable (and Nadine is downright unpleasant) to make us care about her. More movies like this, please!
Fences — Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give the best performances of the year. Period. Washington’s directing is proof that you don’t need majestic vistas to show your goods as a filmmaker. Good cinema can come from two people sitting at a table having a conversation. This movie shows off its actors and shows off August Wilson’s writing, and that makes all the difference.
Hail, Caesar! — Such an enjoyable confection, from beginning to end. Every piece of this is magic, but you can still see Joel and Ethan Coen’s distinctive and delightfully cynical fingerprints all over it. The discussion of the depiction of Christ is one of my favorite scenes of the year, as is Clooney/Whitlock pulling out a star performance (finally) in his big scene.
Hell or High Water — Darn good suspense with great performances (Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, especially). This movie and Nocturnal Animals have convinced me to never, ever go to West Texas. I loved that these guys were specifically targeting the bank that screwed their family over. This movie also has a shoot-out scene that effectively shuts down the “good guy with a gun” argument.
Hidden Figures — We need to unearth more stories like this to erase the notion that white people (white men, in particular) have been the only contributors to the advancements of our world. I’m sure there are plenty of them if we’d only look a little harder. One of the things I like best about this movie is that I kept waiting for some devastating end-of-act-2 thing to happen but it never did. There was plenty of conflict already in the story without setting these women back even more.
Jackie — It may be revisionist, but I don’t care. This was compelling as heck, and Natalie Portman is on FIRE. I love that this movie was shot almost like a horror movie (particularly the White House scenes) and that there was this palpable sense of a woman who was incredibly smart and capable who was being forced into this box because she was “just” a woman, AND that without her, her husband would not have had nearly as rosy a legacy as he does. Someone should write a time-travel story where she meets Eliza Hamilton and the two of them knock back a few drinks.
Kubo and the Two Strings — Best animated movie of the year (though the next one is a distant second), and it’s a shame it wasn’t seen more. Breathtaking animation and a very moving story. I especially loved the ending, which I won’t spoil, obviously, but which is a brilliant subversion of the traditional comeuppance for the villain.
Moana — Gorgeous animation, great songs (I’ve been singing “Shiny” for weeks), and a lovely example of ladies helping ladies. Sure, Maui’s a demigod, but Moana is the hero of this tale, and her strength and perseverance is what drives everything. She’s aided by a badass granny and in turn aids a goddess, and there’s not a single mention of romance. She’s also a “princess” (actually chief’s daughter, but it’s basically the same trope) who has real responsibilities — which, newsflash, real princesses do as well. This is another Disney film you can show your daughters without worrying about what messages they’re going to pick up. (Hopefully the “pee in the water” joke goes over their head, though. :P)
The Nice Guys — A worthy follow-up to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it feels like a nice companion piece to that film, with Ryan Gosling in the RDJ role and Russell Crowe in the Val Kilmer role. Child sidekicks tend to be hit and miss in any movie, but Angourie Rice’s Holly is definitely a hit — believably precocious and plays a plausible role in the action. This movie is a ton of fun and has heart. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Silence — There’s a moment in this movie, when Andrew Garfield finally hears God’s voice, that knocked me out. I cried all the tears. It might play as unintentionally funny for someone else, but it was the lynchpin of the movie for me. The amount of emotional loading we put into the tangible symbols of faith can be a very dangerous thing and is exactly what turns religion into cultism. I love this movie for understanding that genuine faith is much more complicated than we’re comfortable admitting most of the time.
Toni Erdmann — A nearly three-hour movie that earns its runtime with scenes of painful and seemingly interminable awkwardness. There’s also a good deal of “business talk” that is absolutely necessary in understanding the main character’s struggles as a woman in a male-dominated world. This is likely the frontrunner among foreign films at the Oscars, and it’s brilliant. Hit my daddy-daughter buttons pretty hard.
Weiner — This is a movie where you wonder how on earth it was allowed to be made. A documentary following Anthony Weiner’s failed bid to run for NYC mayor, but the true hero of this movie is Weiner’s long suffering wife, Huma Abedin. I saw this movie well before the latest kerfuffle (without which I’m certain Hillary Clinton would have been elected President), and I’m glad I did, because it allowed me to feel at least a *little* empathy (though not much) for this guy. At the moment, though, the most I can say about him is that his continued existence is proof positive that the Clintons don’t actually murder the people who pose a threat to their pursuits.
THE TOP TEN
Trees. Birds. River. Sky.
Running with my Uncle Hec.
This movie snuck in at the last minute and stole my heart. A hilarious and touching story about a boy and his foster father on the run in the bush, pursued by forces that can't understand their situation, it gives us an unlikely hero in Ricky Baker (ah-ah!). Ricky's relationship with Bella is sweet, but his uneasy bond with "Uncle" Hec is the real magic of the movie. It might be easy to laugh at Ricky for thinking he's tougher than he actually is, but he actually does turn out to be pretty hardcore when it matters. The real joke of the movie is the child services duo, particularly Paula, who seems to think she's a character in a cop movie. This was a delightful surprise, but I suppose it shouldn't have been that surprising, considering how great Taika Waititi's previous film (What We Do in the Shadows) is. I can't wait to see what he brings to the upcoming Thor movie.
A lot of people think we’re crazy. But I doubt they’re as happy as we are.
A stealth cult movie (though not that stealth, if you're paying attention), this movie centers on a guy who's been invited to a dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband for several of their friends. We sense pretty early on that something isn't right, and the movie slowly reveals the backstory of what happened to estrange our protagonist and his ex-wife -- the fallout of their son's accidental death. One of the key things that makes this movie work is a possibly unreliable POV. Is Will right to be suspicious, or is his grief causing him to lash out unnecessarily? Once stuff hits the fan, the movie kicks into a whole new gear, and the conclusion of the film is jaw-dropping without being loud and showy. And you're left wondering in how many places, behind how many closed doors, did this same scenario play out.
I can't beat it.
If you were a masochist, this would make a hell of a double feature with The Invitation. And throw in a listen to "It's Quiet Uptown," too -- "there are moments that the words don't reach ... there is suffering too terrible to name." That describes this movie to a tee, because it is BRUTAL, in ways the trailers and advertisements don't warn you about. The reveal that comes about halfway through the movie refocuses the entire thing. Another movie would have saved it to the end, but that would have removed its power. You *need* to see how that backstory affects the decisions the main character makes. Stunning performances throughout -- Casey Affleck is getting most of the attention, but Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges are amazing as well. There are some more lighthearted moments, but make no mistake, this movie hurts. And frankly it should.
Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
I have never been more keenly aware than during this movie of the fact that witch hunts got started because people were afraid of women who were unusual and outside the norms -- women who had agency and power and weren't afraid to use it. They didn't have to have given their soul to the devil, but to the rest of their community they might as well have. This is an impeccably executed film (particularly for a director's first feature), from the costumes to the authentic period dialogue. And while it may be light on what most people consider horror, I can't think of a movie in recent memory that unsettled me the way this one did. If there's anything more scary than creepy kids (which this movie also has in abundance), it's creepy animals, and Black Phillip is still haunting me months later (THAT VOICE, GAH!). Perhaps most unsettling is that I get so annoyed on Thomasin's behalf that in the end I'm like "Good for her."
At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be.
Can't let nobody make that decision for you.
Three chapters in a young man's life -- childhood, adolescence, adulthood -- growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. He finds a mentor and friend in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack dealer who, along with his girlfriend, are the most nurturing force in his life. He also grows close with a schoolmate, Kevin, and deals with his controlling, crack-addicted mother. It might seem, from my feeble summary, that this is a depressing story, but it is surprisingly uplifting. There are characters that you want to just pull out of the stories they're in and feed them and protect them and have nice things happen to them. I felt that so strongly for Little/Chiron/Black -- all that mattered to me in this movie was that he should be happy and have good things happen to him. I loved watching his journey and, even though it doesn't exactly end in a happy place, it all feels very true and real. And in the end, he does have people who care about him, and that's not nothing.
Sometimes it’s almost scary how strong the love gets.
I've seen some staggering misinterpretations of this movie. Some critics seem to think it's a joke, some think it's an exercise in homage -- it is neither. It's wickedly funny, but it's not a joke. There are obvious influences, but it's not a self-aware knock-off. No, director Anna Biller is definitely doing something new here. That's not to say that this movie can't also be enjoyed as cheesy pastiche, because it certainly can, but there's so much more going on beyond that. This movie is fiercely and subversively feminist, and drenched in a kind of female gaze that we're not used to seeing -- a female gaze that's directed at a woman. And it revels in the unease our culture has with feminine sexuality and power -- look no further than Elaine's commentary on tampons and menstruation, a moment seemingly designed to make the viewer question why they're squirming at such things.
I had a feeling that the great word 'respectable' would some day divide us.
This was apparently the year for ladies who don't need your approval, thanks, and there is no better example of a woman who has no interest in scoring respectability points than Lady Susan. She abides by the social graces she has to to survive, but she finds ways around the ones she can do without. She's a terrible mother and a disinterested wife/widow and seems quite annoyed that those are roles she is expected to fill because she is a woman. Director and writer Whit Stillman seems to have been born for a Jane Austen adaptation -- his previous work is a modern equivalent of her social commentary, and I can't believe that never dawned on me before this movie. It's good to see Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny together again (they previously co-starred in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco), but the scene-stealer is Tom Bennett, whose innocent joy is infectious. I'll never look at green peas the same way again.
Ladies are the dolls of maids.
What a delight. Park Chan-wook's films are all exquisite, but this was a joy from start to finish. I'd never read Fingersmith (though I'd read one of the author's other novels), so I had no idea what to expect from the story except that there would be lesbians. I certainly didn't expect "lesbians in cahoots," which is fast becoming one of my favorite tropes, let alone "lesbians in cahoots in a society that oppresses women." HOLLA! Park Chan-wook takes the story out of Victorian England and plops it into colonial Korea in the 1930s, an equally rich environment for the story and characters. The film *is* fairly sexually explicit, but I would argue -- as someone who hates "expository" sex in movies -- that the sex in the film is essential to our understanding of the characters. It's also super hot. ;-)
I’ll see you in the movies.
I'd heard about this movie for months, from back when all I knew about it was that it was Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash (my favorite movie of 2014). This was easily my most anticipated movie of the year, and I grew increasingly anxious that it would disappoint, or that I would have already learned about all the significant beats of the story. Well, that didn't happen. It still managed to surprise me, pleasantly. I love that the romance in this movie isn't an instant thing -- they don't really like each other at first, but they seem drawn together by forces stronger than either of them. They speak a common language and have similar goals, which should be the perfect recipe for happily ever after, but it's not that simple. Because as fantastical as this movie is, it's still at least *somewhat* rooted in reality. And when the movie inevitably breaks your heart, it feels earned, not like some cheap slap in the face because a storyteller wants to perversely deny you the pleasure of a happy romantic ending. That said, I do think the movie *has* a happy ending, just maybe not the one you're expecting.
Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don't need to know
how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan?
I didn't expect this to be at the top of my list. It was pretty far up there -- I loved it when I first saw it and downloaded the soundtrack immediately -- but it wasn't until (of course) after the presidential election that it gained a new resonance. Because the bullies had won, and the rest of us were going to have to live in their world for a little while. So the story of Cosmo, a kid who deals with a disappointing home life and bullying at school by starting a band and creating something that makes him happy, was important to me. I love how much the movie revels in the band's frequently inexpert attempts to imitate their musical idols -- some of my favorite moments in the film are the shots of the band walking together after Cosmo has adopted a new style from another band he's discovered. I love that the big musical moment is imaginary, and that as big a moment as the ending is it's much more real and uncertain. And how awesome is the music in this movie?! Everyone loves "Drive It Like You Stole It," but even the smaller, learning-curve songs are pretty great (I get "Riddle of the Model" stuck in my head all the time!). Everyone in this movie is great, many of the teenagers being played by non-actors, but I need to give a special shout-out to Jack Reynor, who plays Cosmo's big brother Brendan, the true hero of the film. We should all have a Brendan in our lives.