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
The horror event of the year was, like The Babadook and The Witch, a director's bold debut—which bodes well for a genre always in need of fresh blood. Filmmaker Nicolas Pesce milked nausea from his Texas Chain Saw Massacre–like setup; rural America got its revenge in a tale with obvious parallels outside the theater.
Increasingly a comedic godsend, Ralph Fiennes continues his irrepressible streak from In Bruges and The Grand Budapest Hotel via Luca Guadagnino’s debauched Italian thriller, marinated in rock-star irreverence and the vicissitudes of aging. With few words, Tilda Swinton continues to be our most magnetic star.
In a year of terrific documentary work, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s profile of the controversial Hollywood exile was 2016’s most painfully raw exposé. Throbbing with the bruised ego of its subject (still fighting his lost battles), it’s a rare example of warts-and-all enshrinement coupled with critical insight.
What happens to kids who don’t quite fit in? They become adults who don’t quite fit in—but the gift of Barry Jenkins’s masterly coming-of-age story is its unspoken conviction that, even in a harsh world, there’s a place for everyone. Quietly, Moonlight teases out a last-act solace that’s exquisite.
Her Camelot cut short, Jackie Kennedy took on the ambitious project of protecting her husband’s legacy while mourning his loss in public. Director Pablo Larraín made the political film of the year, enlivened by Natalie Portman as we’ve never seen her before: all the fragility hidden behind a fixed jaw.
Much has been made of how wonderfully annoying the actor Peter Simonischek is in this German comedy, playing a dad who can’t help intruding on the life of his lonely workaholic daughter (Sandra Hüller). Less noted is how serious the stakes are. It’s a film with the courage to ask: How do we stay young and not lose our souls?
Quietly, Richard Linklater downshifted from his towering 2014 epic, Boyhood, into a largely autobiographical college-baseball comedy that ended up feeling just as deep. Out of the movie’s bubbling stream of dorm parties, bong hits and perfect pop songs emerged a counterthread of incipient maturity and dawning ambition.
A completely original musical vibrating with the spirit of the immortal Jacques Demy (yet alive with the dreams of today’s Angelenos), Damien Chazelle's swirling masterpiece gave us a career-best performance from Emma Stone, heartbreaking in every shot. This director is only 31 years old. Let that sink in.
Martin Scorsese finally realized his passion project, an epic showdown of clashing faiths and secret sacrifice. It’s as challenging a movie as he’s ever made, even though it’s animated by the director's familiar preoccupations: ego, doubt, arrogance, a search for grace. Deferential and disciplined, Scorsese hit a new high.
As devastating as movies get, Kenneth Lonergan’s grief drama is both intimately familiar—a New England community of distracted parents, randy high-school kids and bitterly cold winters giving way to spring—and revelatory for not sparing us the hard truth of loss. Some aches don’t go away. Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams give the performances of the year.