Every year, my fellow movie reviewers and I bemoan the current state of cinema — Too many comic-book flicks! Not enough substance! Where are the musicals/love stories/chick flicks of yore? Wah, I’m bored! — only to realize that, when it’s time to compile our year-end 10-best lists, we’re (once again) spoiled for choice.
This year has been particularly gratifying, if only for its sheer diversity — not only in terms of gender and ethnic representation in front of and behind the camera (Oscars won’t be nearly So White in 2017), but in terms of categories and platforms, with filmmakers reinvigorating classic genres with imagination, brio and unbridled love for a medium that felt vibrant and new, whether taking the form of big-screen spectacle or a streaming visual album.
Enough throat-clearing! Here’s a highly personal list of this year’s best movies, with quite a few honorables worth mentioning.
1. “Moonlight” Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original story about a young man coming of age on the streets of Liberty City in Miami pulsed with life, observant drama and deep emotion. Jenkins’s elegant visual approach provided a flawless frame for some of the most indelible performances of the year, including by Mahershala Ali as an improbably tender drug dealer and Andre Holland as a highly evolved diner cook.
2. “Manchester By the Sea” In case you didn’t cry enough during “Moonlight,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan had you covered with this beautifully crafted drama about a man coming to terms with his tragic past. Written with Lonergan’s distinctive mix of observant humor and melancholy, the film starred Casey Affleck in a performance all the more breathtaking for its subtlety and stillness.
3. “Hell or High Water” A contemporary western about a couple of bank robbers eluding a crafty sheriff on the rawboned plains of Texas. Just what the world needs, right? But just as I was preparing a snippy tweet invoking “No Country For Old Men,” I saw the dang thing and it turned out to be terrific: Brilliantly written by Taylor Sheridan, perfectly executed by director David Mackenzie and featuring stunning performances from Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine, this alternately funny and sober-minded cat-and-mouse tale entertained and evoked present-day economic realities with sensitivity and smarts.
4. “The Confirmation” This might be the best movie you didn’t see in 2016, if only because it had a blink-and-you’ll-miss it theatrical run before being shown on Netflix. No matter, there’s still time to enjoy this affecting funny-sad drama (are you detecting a theme?) about a flawed divorced dad spending a pivotal weekend with his son, who’s about to be confirmed. Written and directed by Bob Nelson, this quiet gem has the scruffy, rough-edged charm of Nelson’s previous script, for “Nebraska,” made all the more lovable by a cast that includes Clive Owen, Maria Bello and Patton Oswalt. Never has irreverence been made so reverent.
5. “O.J.: Made in America” Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary about O.J. Simpson defied expectations that it would only rehash what we already knew about the idolized athlete-turned-notorious murder suspect. Instead, Edelman created a sprawling yet meticulous portrait not just of the man, but of Los Angeles, collegiate and professional sports, celebrity, race and American culture.
6. “Cameraperson” Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has filmed some of the most recognized nonfiction films of the past decade and a half, from “Fahrenheit 9/11” to “Citizenfour.” In this deeply personal essay film, Johnson creates a collage of footage from those projects, as well as personal material with her family, to meditate on art, trauma, documentary ethics and the surpassing power of simply bearing witness to one another’s pain.
7. “La La Land” Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash)” single-handedly sets out to save cinema with this throwback of a song-and-dance musical that begins with an exhilaratingly staged production number set within a Los Angeles traffic jam. As a couple of kids looking to make it in showbiz, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling keep right in step with the tonal shifts of a movie that indulges our most romantic, sweet-toothed pleasure centers while paying attention to pathos as well. Yum.
8. “Lemonade” Beyoncé proves to be a scholar of cinema history and a canny curator of present-day art in a “visual album” that showed the influences not just of Stanley Kubrick and Julie Dash, but of installation artist Pipilotti Rist and the great emerging filmmaker Khalik Allah. Sensuous, confrontational and drenched with unapologetic rage and beauty, this was an example of visual language at its most fluent and expressive.
9. “13th” Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the U.S. Constitution, criminal justice, racism and history qualifies as must-see viewing, touching on the animating political and philosophical issues of our era. On the heels of a comprehensive and enraging primer, DuVernay gifts the audience with what might be the most healing, heartening sequence of the year, simply by sharing joy, perseverance and the implacable insistence on survival despite all odds.
10. “Southside With You” The thought of a filmmaker making his writing-directing debut with a speculative romantic comedy-drama about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is fraught at best. But Richard Tanne stuck the landing with a movie that captured its characters and their time and place in late-’80s Chicago with insight and impressive authenticity. As the lead couple, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers delivered performances that were impressions rather than impersonations; by going back to the beginning, the film made a fitting goodbye to the couple that has occupied the White House for the past eight years.
Here are some movies that easily could have ended up on my top 10 list, had I not been constrained by numerical obstinacy: “Loving,” “Arrival,” “The Fits,” “A Bigger Splash,” “Love & Friendship,” “Sully,” “Captain Fantastic,” “Paterson,” “Eye in the Sky,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “Last Days in the Desert,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Tower,” “Weiner,” “The Eagle Huntress” and “Jackie.” Check them out if you haven’t already.