Thank the cinema gods for Damien Chazelle’s pink-lit La La Land, a rare bright spot in a year of gloom. By and large, the best movies of 2016 were an echo of tragedies outside the multiplex. Police brutality, racial divides and unresolved issues of black identity found expression in two landmark documentaries (O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro), as well as the indie of the year, Moonlight. Elsewhere, dramas took on the subject of grief like never before, in contexts that were historical (Jackie), satirical (Wiener-Dog) and downright ruinous (Manchester by the Sea). And never to be outdone, Martin Scorsese found a whole new register with which to impress us, in Silence, a movie about private faith that will definitely gain in resonance as time goes on. Hang on, folks: 2017 is just around the corner.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best of 2016
Best movies of 2016
A product of extensive research, Kubrickian attention to detail and that undefinable something that makes a horror film unnerving, Robert Eggers’s confident feature debut was the creep-out of the year. It also made an internet star out of one unlikely goat, the demonically possessed #BlackPhillip.
The real-life story of suicidal Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck found two cinematic expressions in 2016: the conventional Christine and this film, a far more adventurous quasidocumentary starring the extraordinary Kate Lyn Sheil. She brings us into the mystery of this woman’s pain while indicting our bloodlust.
Nothing less than a revolution in action cinema, Ilya Naishuller’s dazzling first-person shooter made audiences sick—and gave plenty of critics headaches over its nonstop violence and videogame aesthetic. But the movie will survive for its groundbreaking GoPro technique; its cult already grows.
Something would be seriously wrong if a new film from Todd Solondz didn’t offend a sizable portion of its audience. His latest—a dark fantasia about pets and the unrealistic expectations we put on them—proved enraging. But no movie of 2016 was as insightful into human viciousness. Bark, beg, roll over.
The scene of the year comes from socially enraged filmmaker Ken Loach. It takes place in a food bank for Brits on welfare. In it, you see hunger, embarrassment, shame and—towering about it all—compassion. It’s the scene that every Trumpian sore winner, lost in their smugness, should be forced to watch.
Writer-director Anna Biller is no mere nostalgist. She’s been developing her visual style—a pastiche of Russ Meyer pulchritude, retro fashion and a decidedly liberated spin on women’s issues—for years. Her latest film is her most accomplished, making room for humor and dark, delicious psychodrama.
Based on an unfinished book by memoirist James Baldwin (voiced here by Samuel L. Jackson, who triumphs in a hushed register), this superb documentary charts the crushed dreams of black activism during the civil rights movement. The takeaway is an electric sense of outrage, one that’s depressingly timely.
Love, relationships, marriage—by one way of looking at them, they're a colossal farce, a losing game that turns us all into animals. Genius satirist Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) makes that notion explicit in his punishing comedy, set in an alternate reality where the unloved have to shack up, or be surgically transformed into beasts of their choice.
His life caromed like few others: from the heights of football celebrity and corporate pitchdom to the lows of an infamous highway Bronco chase and a trial that showed off the worst of human nature. Doc director Ezra Edelman frames the saga in the necessary context of L.A. racism and Simpson’s own desire to pass.
The return of screenwriter Shane Black to the L.A. buddy action-comedy (a genre he defined with Lethal Weapon) made us set our expectations unreasonably high. Amazingly, those expectations were met—even exceeded—in a mystery replete with ’70s sleaze, caustic one-liners and Ryan Gosling on comedic fire.