The Year’s Finest Films

Amid the ceaseless Hollywood sequels and superhero flicks, unlikely gems rose to the top.

While everybody else wonders whether 2016 was the worst year since 1968, or simply the worst year ever, the conversation in the world of cinema has brightened of late. Yes, for much of the movie year, 2016 was declared calamitous. Maybe movies were dead, or maybe were they merely much worse than television. And then (as always) a bushel of terrific, smart, challenging films arrived in the final weeks. From the vantage point of December, cinema looks very much alive.

The biggest disappointment of the movie year was Hollywood itself, and not just because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are calling it quits, devastating as that may be to our lives. The cycle of remakes and sequels was more relentless than ever, and they seemed emptier this year than usual. Of the superhero genre, only Deadpool showed signs of life … by ridiculing the clichés of superhero movies, And it made a lot of money doing so. Meanwhile, a would-be franchise starter, Warcraft, offered more fun than anything on the Marvel slate, but flopped in the U.S., although the international market—crucial to a blockbuster’s success now—saved the day.

The year’s losers included veteran Hollywood filmmakers who stubbed their toes at the box office: Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, Ron Howard’s Inferno, and Robert Zemeckis’ Allied all underperformed. Increasingly, it seemed as though the middle-range, old-fashioned entertainment struggled to connect with audiences. Unless it is made by Clint Eastwood, that is, whose Sully was not only a success but a formally complex movie with a refreshing point of view. The most philosophically searching sequence in a big Hollywood film this year was in Pixar’s Finding Dory, which doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the pack.

A group of American indie pros helped lift the year: Jim Jarmusch (Paterson), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), and Richard Linklater (Everybody Wants Some!!). And while Hail Caesar! may not have been the Coen brothers’ best film, it surely contained some welcome silliness. And then there was an unlikely smash hit (relative to budget, of course): Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen adaptation that reveled in its witty, erudite banter. A sign of civilized hope in hard times.

Another aspect of the year’s best movies is the abundance of films made for and/or about women. We dare not overemphasize this—one does not want to risk wounding the childhood memories of the snowflakey men who felt the female Ghostbusters tarnished their “No Girlz Allowed” clubhouse. But it was a strong year for female image-making, from the decidedly perverse Love Witch to the happily un-P.C. Absolutely Fabulous.

On to list-making, and the 2016 movies I found most stirring. A slightly used Ghostbusters Proton Pack award to the following:

1. Aquarius An unpredictable, insightful movie about a 65-year-old Brazilian (the great Sonia Braga) who fights a greedy property developer. But director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film is about a lot of other things, including, in some mysterious way, the world today.

2. Our Little Sister From Japan, a gentle beauty about an adolescent orphan taken in by her three older half-sisters. You keep expecting something awfully dramatic to happen, but director Hirokazu Kore-eda will have none of that; this is a movie about the rhythm of life, and the moments that accumulate as precious memories.

3. The Fits High-school girls, competing for roles in the school dance squad, begin keeling over in fainting spells. Anna Rose Holmer’s dreamlike film is all about the hothouse of youth—virtually no grown-ups are seen—and it also plays like a tone poem on introversion.

4. Cemetery of Splendor Comatose patients in a military hospital are having very vivid dream lives—and so would you if you were being called into the spirit world to wage battle. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafts a drowsy, haunting look at politics and memory, with magic realism thrown in.

5. Things to Come Isabelle Huppert anchors this study of fresh disasters in middle age, a scenario director Mia Hansen-Love treats not as tragedy but as a starting point for new opportunities.

6. Everybody Wants Some!! The kids are all right in Richard Linklater’s comedy of college jocks, a funny but philosophical tale of rampant masculinity circa 1980. I’ve rarely seen a film so accepting of its characters’ foibles and goofs—everybody’s human here.

7. Sully Clint Eastwood’s account of pilot Sully Sullenberger’s Hudson River landing is interesting enough as a look behind the scenes. But this movie is actually about the value of expertise and experience in a world that devalues those qualities.

8. Paterson Jim Jarmusch’s new film opens locally in 2017. It’s a whimsical look at a New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver) who writes poetry and loves his flaky wife (Golshifteh Farahani). Jarmusch is a master of finding the enchanted in the everyday, and there’s plenty of both here.

9. Green Room Changing the mood: A punk band is taken hostage by a cadre of Oregon neo-Nazis and must fight to survive. This violent indie by Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is a reminder that some people still know how to tell stories—this is a true action film in which the action defines character.

10. Aferim! There have been many fine movies from Romania in the past 15 years, but Rade Jude’s is different: a brutal 19th-century story of bounty hunters and Gypsies, a black-and-white “Western” from Eastern Europe.

Some of these are close calls, so let’s include 10 very potent runner-ups: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, a glowing remembrance of things past; Yorgo Lanthimos’ The Lobster, a bizarro story with claws; Andrea Arnold’s sprawling American Honey, a truly original road movie; Les Cowboys, a French thriller inspired by The Searchers; Kelly Reichardt’s episodic and sad Montana saga, Certain Women; Anna Winocour’s Disorder, a story of a damaged warrior; Kenneth Lonergan’s mournful Manchester by the Sea; Barry Jenkins’ also-mournful Moonlight; Anna Biller’s retro-’70s-zany The Love Witch (I know what I like); and Stillman’s bauble Love & Friendship.