1. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
What It’s About: When twelve alien spacecraft arrive at various locations around the globe, a linguist (Amy Adams) is tasked with learning their language and discovering why they have come.
Why It’s Good: Arrival is a rare science fiction film that is both visually stunning and philosophically rich, marrying the exacting visuals of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young to Ted Chiang’s moving and challenging short fiction, “Story of Your Life.” Arrival ranks with the best science fiction stories. It asks a question about how we are shaped by the very tools we use, in this case language. Arrival is both the most daring film of the year from a narrative standpoint and the most moving.
2. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)
What It’s About: A seven-and-a-half hour documentary produced by ESPN, the film chronicles the life of superstar football player O.J. Simpson, his trial and acquittal for the murder of his ex-wife and its fallout.
Why It’s Good: Following critic Mike D’Angelo’s maxim that a documentary should be judged in part on whether the viewer would be better served reading about the subject matter, Edelman’s documentary is volumes worth of information augmented by the incredible footage drawn from what is now recent history. Made in America offers a meditation on celebrity culture, criminal justice, race relations, and the narcissism at the heart of the American Dream, that must surely seem unreal to those who weren’t alive at the time or didn’t know the facts of the case. I’ve seen no other film from 2016 that manages to offer more insight into the state of America today than this documentary.
3. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
What It’s About: A family of Puritans living on the edge of the woods in 17th century New England must confront both the evil presence of a witch and the limits of their own moral and theological understanding of the world.
Why It’s Good: The Witch is a film that invites you into a world that is entirely different from our own. As Lauren Wilford points out in her excellent review of the film, The Witch asks us to invest in the intellectual and emotional experience of characters who are not like us, who inhabit a different subjective perception of the world, that of the extreme Calvinism of the early Puritan settlers of America. Both a horror film and a finely researched historical sketch, The Witch never condescends to either its audience or the characters, and instead leaves one deeply disturbed.
4. Our Little Sister (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
What It’s About: After the death of their philandering and absent father, a trio of sisters meet their young half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), whom they didn’t know existed. When the eldest sister invites Suzu to come live with them, the sisters must grapple with the meaning of family and community in contemporary Japan.
Why It’s Good: Kore-eda manages to invest every character in his films with such a depth of understanding, and Our Little Sister is no different. Its quiet power sneaks up on you because it isn’t an overt tear-jerker or melodrama, but rather an exploration of the limits of forgiveness and the power of family. Our Little Sister communicates so much through its simplicity, its light touch, and its artful compositions. It surprises you at the end when you realize its power.
5. Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
What It’s About: In the north-east of Thailand, a woman (Jenjira Pongpas) caring for a group of soldiers stricken by a mysterious sleeping sickness encounters strange spirits and uncovers a connection between the hospital and the ancient site it is built on.
Why It’s Good: Apichatpong Weerasethakul once again explores the history of Thailand and its complex relationship to the past, which surfaces both in memories of religious and political events long gone and the presence ghosts and spirits in the present day. Cemetery of Splendor demonstrates Apichatpong’s gift for visual storytelling and evokes both the experience of daily life in Thailand while making manifest the presence of the spiritual realm in our contemporary world.
6. Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
What It’s About: In 1950s Hollywood, head of production and studio “fixer”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), must deal with a missing movie star, communist plots, and other crises, all while he prayerfully considers a job offer from a rival business
Why It’s Good: On the surface, Hail, Caesar! is a loving satire of 50s Hollywood, but its screwball veneer at the same time conceals what the film is really investigating: an existential quest for meaning in 20th century America. Framing the story around the making of a Christ-film at the studio (which lends its name to the film itself) offers an interesting comparison between religious calling and the appeal of the communist movement, even as it highlights Mannix’s own crisis of faith and belief that the movie business has real value. Hail, Caesar! is both one of the most hilarious and thought-provoking films of the year.
7. Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)
What It’s About: A Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) experiences an existential crisis as he faces the relationships with the various women in his life, his father, and brother.
Why It’s Good: Terrence Malick’s most recent film is in a lot of ways his most formally radical exploration of the meaning of life. Slap the name “Godard” on this film, and see the reaction you get. The use of sound and repetitive, free-associative editing makes it a challenging, yet beautiful visual and aural experience. What is most fascinating about it is how it combines the religious confessional (through quotations from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) with its sensual visual texture, typical of Malick’s films. It’s a challenging film, but one I expect to revisit multiple times in the future for its contemplative nature.
8. HyperNormalisation (dir. Adam Curtis)
What It’s About: Using footage and sound from the BBC archives and other films, documentarian Adam Curtis explores the history of how we got to the world of 2016.
Why It’s Good: Curtis’s filmmaking is addicting for how he draws you deeper and deeper into a narrative, pulling more and more interesting facts from history and yet making them fit together coherently. When the rest of our political discourse has the memory of a goldfish, Curtis asks us to consider the reverberations of past events, through the mess in Syria, the triumph of neoliberalism, and the failure of a system that is only concerned with maintaining the status quo. Released over a month before the American election, it loses none of its sting or fascination in the aftermath we now face.
9. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
What It’s About: A young punk band agrees to play a show at a neo-Nazi compound in the back woods of Oregon, when things, unsurprisingly, take a turn for the worst.
Why It’s Good: Green Room might be the most unbearably intense film of the year. Its descent into a horror-thriller unfolds so perfectly, without any unnecessary detail. It’s a lean, mean thriller that never overstays it’s welcome. The casting of Sir Patrick Stewart as the leader of the neo-Nazis is a stroke of genius.
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards)
What It’s About: The daughter (Felicity Jones) of a scientist working on the Empire’s Death Star project helps to lead a group of rebels to steal the plans to the superweapon.
Why It’s Good: Rogue One is the first of the Star Wars universe spin-off films. While it may play at times like a live-action version of the kind of expanded universe novels of the 1990s, it’s nonetheless one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the year. Rogue One is at times heavy on fan service (such as the thrilling Darth Vader sequence late in the film), but as a diehard Star Wars fan, it works. Its action is thrilling and it adds interesting complexity to the make-up of the Rebel Alliance and the notion of resistance against an evil empire.
Honourable mentions (alphabetical):
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder)
Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson)
Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater)
Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (dir. Jonathan Demme)
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (dir. Spike Lee)
Moana (dir. Ron Clements and John Musker)
The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)
Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang-soo)