20. Christine (Antonio Campos)
A portrait of a troubled, depressed woman that never resorts to easy answers or explanations. Director Antonio Campos and actress Rebecca Hall, playing the titular character, are both brave enough to allow Christine to remain occasionally abrasive and unlikable. She's a genuinely troubled person and not a perfect victim. This deeper play for truth instead of sympathy (or a a pat explanation as to why she's depressed) lends the film a lasting power. Oh yeah, and Rebecca Hall gives the performance of the year.
19. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
May have spoken too soon with that performance of the year talk, as Sonia Braga is phenomenal as the lead in Aquarius. She plays Clara, a 65 year old widow fighting against a group of real estate developers trying to buy her apartment. She refuses to sell, but instead of a straightforward story of one woman battling a broken system (though that's in there), Aquarius presents a story of the past, of history and of memory. Unfolding at a leisurely pace, Aquarius is the story of a woman navigating her place in a changing world while still remembering the past.
18. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
A filmmaker visiting from out of town meets a young artist and they get to talking. Coffee follows, then dinner and drinks and a party before the night winds down. Then the film resets back to the beginning and we get the whole thing again. Small variations create ripples throughout the second version of the story, as honest candor is revealed to be the clearer path to human connection than sweet talk or flattery. Right Now, Wrong Then is a small film in terms of plot, but its straightforward dual story contains a world of human interaction. A warm, funny and sincere film, one that's honest without being cynical and sentimental without being saccharine. Perhaps the best film yet from prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo.
17. SPL 2: A Time for Consequences aka Kill Zone 2 (Cheang Pou-soi)
A brutal martial arts epic starring Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Whaddya need, a road map?
This sequel (in name only) to 2005's SPL was the best action film of 2016 and it wasn't even close. A must watch for anyone who loves action movies but who's bored by digital cities getting leveled and giant blue lasers shooting into the sky.
16. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
A profound and inventive piece of cinema, director Kristen Johnson presents an auto-biography constructed almost entirely out of footage she shot for various documentary projects over the years. What starts out as sort of a wry look at how the sausage gets made, slowly reveals deeper levels. This is a film about films, imagery about images showing the interplay between the people in front of and behind the camera and how this interplay affects everyone involved. This is a film which will only continue to grow in reputation in years to come.
15. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
An efficient and un-pretentious crime film about two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks and the two lawmen who're after them (played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). The script is smart and detailed in all the right ways; the plausible details of the robberies and interactions between the two pairs of men are highlights here and director David Mackenzie slowly ratchets up the tension leading into the big third act showdown. As far as the performances, Foster and Bridges are playing very well to type but Pine and Birmingham are both very pleasant surprises here. I'm already looking forward to the next appearance of Scuzzy Loser Chris Pine.
14. The Neon Demon (Nicholas Winding Refn)
Maybe the best looking film of the year, Nichols Winding Refn's The Neon Demon is a plot-less neon horror nightmare set in the world of fashion modeling. A lot of critics got hung up on trying to piece together what this film had to say about the fashion industry, but they were missing the forest for the trees. This is a fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood turning into the Big Bad Wolf, and while it may not have much to say beyond that it sure looks great in the meantime.
13. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
A zen comedy about identity starring a bunch of affable jocks in their first week of college. Charming and decidedly low-stakes, this is a Richard Linklater film through and through and all the better for it.
12. Tower (Keith Maitland)
I was skeptical of the premise for this film (an animated documentary about the infamous University of Texas tower shooting) as it seemed a little too cute for such a serious topic. But Tower is a smart film and, most importantly, a humane film. There's no free publicity given to the killer himself and no attempt to explain his actions, instead Tower presents stories of bravery as regular people were forced into a horrific situation.
11. Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier)
A kaleidoscopic exploration of a grief wracked family, Louder Than Bombs draws its power from the way it restlessly changes time periods, styles and points of view between a father and his two sons. This is a film that avoids easy answers while honestly grappling with uncomfortable truths, asking us to interrogate memories and dreams in search of some kind of meaning. Unfairly overlooked on its release, Louder Than Bombs is a film that I hope more people watch in the coming years.
10. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
An ode to mindfulness and creativity told through the story of a simple working-class life in a simple working-class town. Profound in its subtlety.
09. Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick eschews character and narrative entirely in delivering this essay film about the history of life on Earth. Brad Pitt's narration is more functional than profound, but the powerful imagery, which causes you to see various landscapes and lifeforms on Earth in entirely new ways, like an alien visitor, is constantly breathtaking. Voyage of Time finds an almost unparalleled beauty in the natural world, in things both large and small.
08. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Oz Perkins)
Abstract imagery and beautifully written, looping narration make this one of the most distinctive films of the year. Slowly builds a sense of fatalistic dread until it hits a soul shredding climax.
07. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
This movie pulls of a few neat tricks: the production design for the aliens and their ships feels genuinely otherworldly, the cinematography and deliberate pacing combine for a dark, moody tone, the script crafts an actual science fiction story about communication that doesn't come down to a third act fight scene and the performance of Amy Adams grounds a story that packs a genuine emotional wallop. Arrival is the 2016 version of Mad Max: Fury Road, in that it showcases what's possible when talented people work in the world of big budget genre filmmaking while being allowed to stay true to their creativity.
06. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt finds profundity in spare Montana landscapes and three small stories of women navigating the modern world. By keeping the focus razor sharp on the lives of the three leads, Certain Women is able to chart a vast emotional landscape with only the barest of plotting. A quietly beautiful film in the best possible ways. Reichardt continues to make her case to be considered one of the greatest living American filmmakers.
05. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Much has been written about Moonlight by people smarter than me, so I'll just say that I was moved not only by its unrequited love story and search for identity but by the deliberate and restrained nature of its storytelling. That a Wong Kar-Wai inspired gay arthouse love story was able to find a large audience and mainstream critical acclaim was an undeniable highlight in the world of film in 2016.
04. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
I'm a little disappointed, but not really surprised, that this film got savaged by critics. Late period Terrence Malick films are pretty much the dictionary definition of Not For Everyone, and this film continues the almost entirely plot-free stream of consciousness style of filmmaking seen in To The Wonder. That's a film that I liked a lot, but Knight of Cups has the advantage of having a justification for its stylistic eccentricities. The film is a visual representation of the protagonist dreaming, sometimes literally but always metaphorically. The film is framed around the story of a sleeping prince and Rick, being the stand in for that prince, spends the entire film "asleep" and trying to wake up into the life he really wants (which is really just the same search for transcendence that every Malick character undergoes). So Rick goes off on his spiritual quest, trying to shock himself awake, and Malick takes us on a beautiful two hour journey through mansions, strip clubs, night clubs, concerts and the streets of Los Angeles. This quest, far from being the empty perfume commercial that critics have snarked about, has an emotional through line that persists through the film's dream logic and elliptical storytelling. Part of what makes the emotions of the film work is how accurate it is as a portrait of depression and grief; Rick isn't just some bored rich guy but a man still grappling with his brother's suicide and locked into a catatonic state of depression. The entire film is essentially Rick's repeated failed attempts to self-medicate his emotional and spiritual pain with physical pleasure. But those pleasure are always fleeting. Unfortunately for Rick, though, he's hooked and the city of Los Angeles is his dealer.
03. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
A puritan family battles sin and temptation while trying to adhere to their strict religious beliefs. That's scary enough, in a "am I going to Hell?" kind of way. But what if the devil you feared was not only literally, physically real but was lurking in the dark, unexplored woods outside your home? Director Robert Eggers created the most horrifying movie of the year by bringing the spiritual fears of the Puritan settlers to life, and everything from the period dialect to the costumes and the production design makes the world of this film feel terrifying real.
02. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese interrogates faith and spiritual hubris in beautifully fog-shrouded feudal Japan. An intense slow burn of a film that asks a multitude of difficult questions and leaves you to puzzle over the answers.
01. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)
The Handmaiden is not only the best film of 2016, but it might be the most movie of 2016. This is pure maximalism, a constantly twisting plot, exquisite cinematography and the most beautiful costuming and production design of the year. Also outsized are the emotions; under this beautiful surface is a story of two women pitted against each other by controlling men, who instead fall in love and turn the tables. The Handmaiden is the exquisitely produced period lesbian adventure melodrama that everyone needs in their life.
Rebecca Hall in Christine
Sofia Braga in Aquarius
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden
Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship
Amy Adams in Arrival
Adam Driver in Paterson
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Tadanobu Asano in Silence
Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
Natasha Braier for The Neon Demon
Rodrigo Prieto for Silence
Emmanuel Lubezki for Knight of Cups
Chung-hoon Chung for The Handmaiden
Bradford Young for Arrival