In a sense every year is a good film year, but some years you have to go further afield than others.
Mainstream multiplex fare in 2016 was pretty dismal; indeed, apart from Disney’s increasing dominance, there was very little worth mentioning.
Yet I can’t think of another year in which there were so many films worth calling out and honoring — in which, at the end of my runners-up and honorable mentions, I was still listing films, and even omitting films, that in another year I would have been pleased to include in my top 10.
For me, the year’s most satisfying Hollywood blockbuster (as I was not a fan of Rogue One) was Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange — a rare superhero movie that didn’t look like every other superhero movie, or any other action movie; that cleverly avoided and even inverted the usual epic urban mayhem marking nearly all films of that genre; a redemption story that challenged the protagonist’s materialistic nihilism as well as his egocentrism.
I saw Doctor Strange twice in theaters. I brought my whole family to see it in 3-D. I was sure it would make my top 10. Yet in the end 10 other films made a stronger case, and Doctor Strange had to settle for runner-up — along with 9 other exceptional films.
Likewise, I enjoyed Disney’s Zootopia more than a dismissive reference below would suggest, but it didn’t even make my top 30. And while there is a Disney family film in my top 10, it’s neither Pete’s Dragon nor The Jungle Book, which made runner-up and honorable mention, respectively. (In an excellent year for family films, such notable films as Kubo and the Two Strings, The BFG and Finding Dory didn’t make the top 30.)
It was an extraordinary year for films with religious themes, including films by filmmakers with faith backgrounds, Hacksaw Ridge, The Birth of a Nation and Silence among these. Jesus himself appeared onscreen in a startling number of films, from The Young Messiah, Risen and Ben-Hur to the film that in a way upstaged them all, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! — another film I enjoyed but couldn’t find a place for below.
With such a rich crop of outstanding films, my rankings have never felt more subjective to me. Which horror film about traditional religious fears of evil spirits was more outstanding? Which tale about a young black girl entering a world of competitive performance was more deserving? Which Hollywood spectacle with shifting gravitational frames of reference was more memorable? How to rank the year’s documentaries dealing with race relations?
I have my reasons for every call made below. Other calls are certainly possible.
SDG’s Top 10 Films of 2016
- Paterson. Jim Jarmusch’s quietly transporting sketch of a week in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver who reads and writes poetry (Adam Driver) and his restlessly creative wife (Golshifteh Farahani) contemplates the prose and poetry of daily life and how each informs the other.
- Cameraperson. Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s one-of-a-kind cinematic memoir, stitched together from unused footage from past projects, offers a cumulative examination of conscience, and at times confession, regarding a filmmaker’s relationship and responsibility to subjects. Mature subject matter, including genocide, murder, rape and abortion.
- Silence. Martin Scorsese’s quarter-century quest to adapt Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece results in one of his greatest masterpieces — a film as difficult and troubling as the source material. The slow-motion collision of Jesuit zeal and Tokugawa shogunate ruthlessness is devastating.
- The Red Turtle. Oscar-winning Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit and Studio Ghibli join forces in this imaginatively dazzling fable-like tale of survival and love. It’s a rare feature-length movie with the power of the best animated shorts, partly because it eschews dialogue. Scenes of peril and thematic elements. Fine for patient kids.
- O.J.: Made in America. Far more than a rise-and-fall recap of O.J. Simpson’s life, Ezra Edelman’s riveting, revelatory five-part, 7 1/2-hour documentary for ESPN illuminates and critiques the various cultural and social spheres in which O.J.’s private and public personas took shape — worlds he sought to conquer or to escape, and how his fall from grace reflects on all of them. Disturbing content, including graphic crime-scene photos. Mature viewing.
- Love & Friendship. Whit Stillman, “the Jane Austen of indie film,” finally adapts Austen herself — an early, unfinished novella with an unusually unsympathetic protagonist, Kate Beckinsale’s deliciously arch Lady Susan. Stillman’s hyper-articulate dialogue meshes perfectly with Austen’s witty language, making it impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
- April and the Extraordinary World. Forget Zootopia. As complicated and exciting as The Red Turtle is simple and slow, this French-Belgian-Canadian animated adventure is the year’s best family film, set in an alternate European history with Jules Verne steampunk technology and talking animals. Stylized violence and menace. Older kids and up.
- The Witch. Subtitled “A New-England Folk Tale,” Robert Eggers’ theologically and historically rooted horror story is an extraordinary immersion in the world of 17th-century Puritanism. Humanizing these most caricatured of adherents, the directorial debut exposes their failings without ridiculing their fears or verging toward sympathy for the (very real) devil — or his minions. Very disturbing themes and imagery, including graphic violence and nudity. Viewer discretion advised.
- Arrival. Denis Villeneuve’s poetic first-contact sci-fi film stars Amy Adams as a linguist tapped by the military, along with Jeremy Renner’s physicist, to try to communicate with the pilots of newly arrived alien spaceships. A life-affirming film embracing the value even of a life cut short amid suffering and grief, Arrival has something to say about humanity and the heart as well as the nature of time and space.
- Queen of Katwe. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o star in Mira Nair’s fact-based crowd-pleaser about Ugandan chess phenomenon Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a Kampala slum who learned the game at a Christian missionary outreach program.
10 Runners-Up (unranked)
- Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson’s genuinely visionary superhero origin story, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s sorcerer supreme in the making (teens and up)
- The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film, a poetic coming-of-age story about a young girl unsettled by an unexplained rash of seizures among her older peers (teens and up)
- Hell or High Water, an old-fashioned Western outlaw / heist movie smartly retooled for the 21st century, directed by David Mackenzie and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges (adults)
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi’s scathingly funny New Zealand comedy about a troubled foster child and Sam Neill’s taciturn backwoodsman (teens and up)
- I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s documentary of American race relations inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished reflections on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (teens and up)
- Little Men, Ira Sachs’ sensitive drama about a friendship between two New York boys whose families are divided by economic interests (older kids and up)
- Our Little Sister, Hirokazu Koreeda’s gentle, rewarding family drama about three sisters in their 20s who meet a teenaged half-sister after their father dies (teens and up)
- Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery’s heartfelt reinvention of the mediocre 1977 Disney musical, with Bryce Dallas Howard as a compassionate forest ranger and Robert Redford as her storytelling father (kids and up)
- Under the Shadow, Iranian-born filmmaker Babak Anvari’s debut, a horror film set in 1980s Tehran about a malicious presence haunting a mother and daughter during the Iran-Iraq War (teens and up)
- The Young Messiah, possibly the year’s most misunderstood film, directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh from the first of Anne Rice’s Jesus novels, with Jesus as a 7-year-old pursued by Sean Bean’s centurion (older kids and up)
Ten Honorable Mentions (unranked)
- Almost Holy, a remarkable documentary about a tough Ukrainian pastor’s controversial approach to addressing the problems of drug-addicted street kids in Mariupol (teens and up)
- The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s bravura, controversial celebration of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion (mature viewing)
- Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood’s tense, smart thriller, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, about the military and political machinations around a decision to bomb or not bomb in Kenya (teens and up)
- Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s brutal ode to the moral courage and battlefield heroism of WWII veteran and conscientious objector Desmond Doss (mature viewing)
- The Innocents, Anne Fontaine’s harsh WWII-era Polish drama about a Benedictine convent in crisis during the so-called “liberation of Poland” (mature viewing)
- Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s restrained, affecting reflection on parenthood, infidelity and guilt (mature viewing; discretion advised)
- The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau’s rollicking family-adventure homage to Rudyard Kipling and the 1967 cartoon (likely too much for younger kids)
- Life, Animated, an absorbing documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams about how Disney cartoons helped to unlock the hidden world of an autistic mind (teens and up)
- Loving, Jeff Nichols’ quietly moving fact-based account of the couple behind the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (teens and up)
- Paths of the Soul, a breathtaking quasi-documentary by Zhang Yang about a group of Tibetan villagers on a long, arduous pilgrimage to a Buddhist holy site (teens and up)