The death of cinema has been touted for years, and it's an understandable concern. Hollywood's profit-watching bottom-liners have us in a seemingly endless cycle of superhero movies, sequels, remakes and reboots that increasingly seem to crowd out the freedom and distinctiveness of independent-minded, quirky -- or, better yet, maverick -- creators of big-screen content.
While you will continue to hear doomsaying, the state of cinema remains strong. Independent filmmaking is not dead yet; witness films like "Take Me to the River" and "Little Men." Hollywood production companies still put out artful films, albeit saving them almost exclusively for end-of-the-year awards season. And as it did in the 1950s, despite the threat of insurgent television, the flow of moviegoers will continue: As long as we crave spectacle (IMAX and 3-D being bonuses for seekers of "the big"), movie theaters will be there for the big stuff. And for the time being, at least, smaller films will be there to benefit from the runoff. After all, perhaps there's still something to be said for the communal experience of watching a movie: just ask the patrons of David Packard's thriving Stanford Theatre.
All of this is to say that Your Friendly Neighborhood Film Critic has had no trouble filling a "Top 10" list of the year's best cinematic achievements. Well, no trouble, unless you count the agonizing winnowing process of fine distinctions or the agony of sitting through the worst of the worst along the way. (What's always easier than making a "Top 10" list? Busting out a "Bottom 5" list.)
Perhaps, with the presidential election looming, filmmakers this year felt the rush of history behind them, as an unusual number of the films that rose to the top were reflections on the shifting ground beneath Americans' feet: our ongoing struggles with racism, our deep political divide and attendant breakdown of communication, the abdication of the middle class to corporate profit, and distrust of government.
And now the disclaimers: As always, a "Top 10" list is wildly subjective and more than a bit ridiculous. Unlike the Oscars (which also are ridiculous), a Top 10 list is not crowdsourced but individualistic. These are my Top 10 films of the year, and while I hope they also will be pretty close to yours, I recognize few Top 10 lists ever turn out exactly the same, from critic to critic or, indeed, from critic to movie patron.
As always, though, dear Reader, the list is meant to be put up on your fridge as a road map to your local cinema and as a guide for your remote control. You may not agree that these are the best films of 2016, but hopefully you will agree that they all have something to offer, something to show and tell. Happy watching!
The top 10 films of 2016
At 70, Oliver Stone is still fighting the good fight in Hollywood and in the media arena. He's not the bullfighter; he's the bull, taking the spears of critics but still saying what he feels needs to be said about history. He's never been more current than with "Snowden," in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt masterfully embodies the NSA whistleblower some see as traitor and some see as patriotic tech-nerd hero. This 21st century "Born on the Fourth of July" goes past the headlines to humanize Snowden and tell as much of his truth as is legally prudent. The film is a political act that may not only report history (in dramatic form) but help to shape it.
9. 'The Founder'
Call it "Big Mac-beth." Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel expertly frames the story of McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc (played with his usual aplomb by Michael Keaton) as an American tragedy: can-do spirit curdled by ambition and greed, pride in excellence abandoned to the profit motive. It's the story of capitalism in the 20th century told in microcosm, and by essentially being all of "Breaking Bad" in one, efficiently scripted 115-minute film, in a way it puts the lie to the idea that film cannot do what television can do. It's also quite entertaining: Director John Lee Hancock, I forgive you for "The Blind Side."
8. 'The Handmaiden'
The most elegantly stylized picture of the year hailed from South Korea, and the modern master Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy"). A crafty erotic thriller and a romantic drama, "The Handmaiden" also serves as a stealthy historical commentary on the place and time it depicts: Japanese-occupied Korea of the early 20th century. Fantastic leading performances by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri anchor a complex story of lush surfaces and roiling underbellies, of power and pleasure and pain, of spontaneous sex and unexpected love. Park executes every sight and sound with astonishing just-so precision.
No film this year ended with more of a gut punch than Antonio Campos' "Christine." Not the climax, which those familiar with the true story of troubled 1970s Floridian news reporter Christine Chubbuck will dread from frame one, but the film's haunting resolution, a coda with one lonely character peeling the foil off of a TV dinner and watching a very specific television program with a deeply ironic connection to what has come before. With this scene, Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich elevate what has already been a brilliant psychological study (with an amazing performance by Rebecca Hall) and workplace drama to a commentary on how media shapes what we see and believe about what's right in front of us.
6. '20th Century Women'
Writer-director Mike Mills offers a highly personal story in salute to his mother (akin to his salute to his father, "Beginners"). While nominally his coming-of-age story, "20th Century Women" primarily celebrates three generations of women in Annette Bening's mother and the family friends, played by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, that she enlists to help raise her son. National treasure Bening does some of her most heartfelt work, and Mills' limber direction provokes not only "feels" but historical reflection on 1979 as a turning point (coincidentally, not unlike the second season of FX's "Fargo").
5. 'O.J.: Made in America'
Ezra Edelman's extraordinary documentary about O.J. Simpson and his legal troubles clocks in at nearly eight hours and ran on ESPN this year. But since it also received a limited theatrical distribution, it qualifies as one of the year's best films. The text is everything you ever wanted to know about Simpson; the subtext is the complex causes and effects of confusion over racial identity and anger sown by race-based conflict in America. At the heart of it all: the true-crime story that riveted 1995 America for more than eight months.
4. 'I Am Not Your Negro'
A pithier and even more provocative documentary on similar themes is Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro." With its text sourced mostly from novelist, social critic and poet James Baldwin's unfinished book "Remember This House," Peck's brilliantly edited film features a fantastic vocal performance by Samuel L. Jackson (reading Baldwin's caringly accusatory letter to America); select clips of Baldwin on chat shows; archival footage of Baldwin's life, times and famous friends; and a canny montage to show the frightening relevance of past tragedy to our present moment, a year in which America continued to struggle mightily over issues around racism.
Denzel Washington directs and stars in this sterling adaptation of an American dramatic classic, August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fences." A study in pride and bluster, delusion and deception, Troy Maxon is an iconic American character to stand beside Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman, casting shadows every bit as long in desperate striving, prideful masking, and crushing defeat. In an equally towering performance, Viola Davis powerfully captures the smarts and sacrifice of Troy's wife, Rose; both actors may well collect Oscars for their work. Wilson wrote his version of the story of black America in the 20th century, and this 1950s chapter remains his best-known play for good reason. On screen, writ large by Washington, "Fences" remains every bit an American classic.
Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" dropped during election week, and not a moment too soon to offer America a lesson in bridging communication gaps. Amy Adams plays a linguist enlisted to speak to newly arrived alien beings. While functioning as her emotionally difficult personal story, "Arrival" also uses its science fiction to endorse seeking understanding before resorting to destruction, and to help us, like its characters, consider a whole new way of looking at our very existence. It's heady stuff for a Hollywood movie with aliens: Don't mistake this one for the usual action extravaganza. It is instead one of the year's most thoughtful dramas.
And the best film of 2016 goes to:
In skillfully adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney's unproduced play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," writer-director Barry Jenkins shows a deep curiosity about one person's development and inner life. We see this person grow from boy to teenager to man over the film's three acts, and although the trappings could easily play as clichÃ©s, "Moonlight" clearly comes from a (literal and figurative) real place for both creators. Filled with extraordinary performances, "Moonlight" explores the tension between private and public selves for a closeted black individual who feels pressure to conform to traditional but arbitrary standards of masculinity.
Runners-up: "Loving," "Manchester by the Sea," "Indignation," "Take Me to the River," "The Lobster," "A Monster Calls," "Certain Women," "Paterson," "Rules Don't Apply" and "Nocturnal Animals."
The bottom five films of 2016
The clodhopping symbolism of a laughably by-the-textbook but utterly clueless script spells the kind of mawkish movie that casual moviegoers may love but that will make literary-minded cineastes want to claw their eyes out. Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper: You read the damn thing, and sorry 'bout it -- you asked for it.
4. 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2'
Nia Vardalos' 14-years-later sequel doesn't offer many "good" laughs. They're mostly retrograde "aren't ethnics funny?" laughs that would've felt more fitting in a movie 50 years ago than one from today: outlandish stereotypes, shameless mugging, cheap Greek references and broad staging amount to a gaudy big-screen sitcom.
3. 'Mother's Day'
In honor of director Garry Marshall (R.I.P. 2016), a very likeable man, I will refrain from again knocking his final film "Mother's Day" in print. Except to say, yeah, it was the third worst movie I saw this year.
2. 'Keeping Up with the Joneses'
Only in a well-populated movie theater can one truly appreciate the sound of silence when a character boasts she could crack a walnut with her vagina. And that, my friends, is the funniest joke in "Keeping Up with the Joneses," a spy-meets-squares "comedy" vehicle for Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot that was truly all mindless mayhem, no laughs.
And the worst film of 2016 goes to:
1. 'Collateral Beauty'
The movie I called "Chicken Poop for the Soul" had me squirming in my seat as Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris (of best film "Moonlight") and others reduced themselves to playing out one of the battiest scripts ever. Ostensibly a Frank Capra-style fantasy with delightful characters, this was in fact a painfully stupid two-hour Hallmark card.
Of course, there's plenty more to remember beyond 2016's highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.
The best heroes
5. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in "Arrival"
4. Little/Chiron/Black (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes) in "Moonlight"
3. Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in "Snowden"
2. Sharon Jones in "Miss Sharon Jones!"
1. Mr. & Mrs. Loving (Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga) in "Loving"
(Honorable mention: Deadpool in "Deadpool," Jeff Bridges' Texas Ranger in "Hell or High Water," and the women of "Hidden Figures" and "Certain Women")
The worst villains
5. The Blind Man in "Don't Breathe"
4. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) in "The Founder"
3. David Irving (Timothy Spall) in "Denial"
2. Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata) in "Silence"
1. Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in "Indignation"
(Honorable mention: Aaron Johnson's killer rapist in "Nocturnal Animals," John Goodman's whack-job in "10 Cloverfield Lane," and The Witch in "The Witch")
More top documentaries
5. "Fire at Sea"
1. "Audrie & Daisy"
The animated winners
4. "Kubo and the Two Strings"
2. "Phantom Boy"
1. "The Red Turtle"
This story contains 2299 words.
If you are a paid subscriber, check to make sure you have logged in. Otherwise our system cannot recognize you as having full free access to our site.
If you are a paid print subscriber and haven't yet set up an online account, click here to get your online account activated.