No matter the year, there are always people who think it’s been a horrible one for movies. If you’re going only to the multiplex and taking in what the major studios are selling, I can understand why. With the help of a multitude of local film festivals and more access than ever to independent titles through streaming and VOD providers, I managed to take in 256 movies in 2016. While things were fairly slow to get ramped up, I found a lot to admire on the big screen in 2016 and ended with a list of more than 50 titles to recommend from my movie-going experiences. Here is that list, narrowed down to the top 10, several of which will factor into the Academy Awards coming up on Feb. 26.
1. “La La Land”: Director Damien Chazelle’s ode to musicals of yesteryear had me in its sights from the opening moments and the display of the old 20th Century Fox Cinemascope logo. It’s gorgeously shot and ridiculously charming, almost entirely because of the casting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (previously paired in 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”). It’s a love letter to Los Angeles, but also immediately identifiable to anybody who has ever kept on going even though they were close to giving up on their dreams.
2. “Moonlight”: I was a huge fan of Barry Jenkins’ 2008 film “Medicine for Melancholy” but didn’t imagine he would create a follow-up film that is so bold, brave and poetic. With the life of main character Chiron split into three distinct periods, we are able to bear witness to his evolution and struggles. Audiences have embraced this film in a way that I didn’t expect for a story primarily about growing up poor, black and gay. It illustrates how universal many of our experiences are and, I hope, has given some viewers a much-needed lesson in empathy.
3. “20th Century Women”: Mike Mills is an expert at crafting an intensely personal family story. The phenomenal Annette Bening stars as a single mother trying to understand her teenage son as he grows up. It’s probably my favorite performance of her career (and that’s saying something). This film has an inherent tenderness and all of the supporting performances are stellar, with terrific roles inhabited by Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann. Combined with an expertly curated soundtrack, it’s a wonderfully progressive semi-autobiographical tale.
4. “The Lobster”: Colin Farrell gives a fearless performance in this English-language debut feature from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s an absurdly comic yarn about a dystopian future where single people are forced into finding love or risk being turned into an animal (of their choosing). It’s absolutely crazy and the comedy is super dry and occasionally bleak. Even after multiple viewings I’ve found myself thoroughly in love with it.
5. “Elle”: Speaking of bleak, I walked out of a press screening of Paul Verhoeven’s latest and was legitimately terrified of my reaction to it. I loved the bravura performance from Isabelle Huppert, but how could I justify the film’s sexual politics? “Elle” also utilizes a few different storylines with the controversial rape-revenge thread being only one aspect (although certainly the most polarizing). Ultimately, I cannot imagine the movie working without Huppert, who takes on an unlikeable and boldly vulnerable character and gives it great complexity and power.
6. “Arrival”: French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is becoming a true auteur, and his body of work gets stronger with each new release. He’s managed to make an unintentional Hollywood blockbuster with this sci-fi thriller, which makes sense because he financed and shot it independently before selling the distribution rights to Paramount. Amy Adams (who is also excellent in “Nocturnal Animals”) carries nearly every frame of this film and makes everything work, even if you might have to suspend disbelief at the notion of Jeremy Renner as a theoretical physicist.
7. “Sing Street”: John Carney’s latest film was one of the most joyous experiences I had at the movies all year. Set in Dublin, Ireland, in the mid-80s, it tells the story of a teenage boy who starts a band to impress the girl of his dreams. The soundtrack is filmed with showstopping tracks like “Ride It Like You Stole It,” which I hope will manage an Oscar nomination this year for best original song.
8. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”: Aging out of the foster care system, Ricky Baker is a hip-hop loving kid growing up in the margins of New Zealand. Just when it appears as though his luck has changed, the rug gets pulled out from underneath him again. He ends up on the run with his new foster uncle and they’re forced to help each other survive. In terms of laugh-out-loud moments, only the far more vulgar “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” came close to matching this one during the year.
9. “Toni Erdmann”: Here comes one of those movies that festivalgoers have been raving about for months. I caught this darkly comic German film at Fantastic Fest and consider it almost impossible to explain. With a running time just shy of three hours, it’s something that many viewers will not have the patience for (I suspect there will be some frustrated audience members walking out when the movie opens in Austin). If you do give in to its many charms, you’ll find a movie that simply breezes by. I loved that it deals with what happens when a person moves far away from their hometown and family members to discover a new life and how those left behind often don’t understand the motivations why.
10. “O.J.: Made In America”: Clocking in at nearly eight hours, Ezra Edelman’s revelatory examination of the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial has a lot more on its mind than “did he or didn’t he.” At the intersection of celebrity and true crime comes a genuinely prescient look at race and class and how those divisions determined the lens through which you viewed what happened in this case. In a time where binge-watching is king, this lengthy documentary is worth tackling.