Insofar as making an end-of-year Top 10 list is also a way to generally take stock of the Earth’s most recent revolution around the sun, this has been a tough list to make. Not at all because 2016 was lacking for worthwhile movies, but because the year itself was so exhausting and ill-starred and inconceivably, time-bendingly long. Peering back through the mists to January 2016, I can scarcely remember who I was then, let alone what movies I saw and what I thought of them. My skin was less broken out than it is now, that I can tell you. I slept more than four hours most nights, and I thought, talked, and cared about things other than politics—high-stakes, dystopian, apocalyptic politics—for a percentage of the time that now seems unthinkably luxurious.
Early in January, David Bowie died, and then Alan Rickman four days later, and those twin losses now seem like the double toll of a warning bell whose somber echo would resonate through the year. 2016 was a year when the pillars that used to hold up our shared cultural universe wouldn’t stop crumbling around us. Prince? You expect us to somehow continue American pop music without Prince? Oh God, Gene Wilder. Oh no, Leonard Cohen. And then the political pillars started collapsing too: Oh shit, Brexit? AYFKM, Trump?
Shortly after the election in November, I spoke on the Slate Culture Gabfest about treating sadness with homeopathic cultural remedies. In times of deep trouble, I tend to reach for troubled and troubling art. Escapism and fantasy—much as I respect and love both as movie-going modes—somehow require more emotional lightness and receptivity to pleasure than I can summon in moments of pain. After one bad breakup in my 20s I went on an extended Ingmar Bergman binge that was the VHS-era equivalent of a medieval purification rite. So, this list is probably a few shades darker than it would have been had the election results been different on Nov. 8. Even the romantic comedies on this list—of which there are a few, including one musical—aren’t without shadows: For all their effervescence, The Edge of Seventeen, Love and Friendship, and La La Land take place against a backdrop of grief, disappointment, loneliness, and loss.
In honor of our theme—the 10 best movies of the Year That Never Ended Oh God Why Will It Not End Already—let’s list this year’s honorees in chronological order, beginning with the first released and ending with those still to open.
Krisha (March 18). Trey Edward Shults’ first feature stars the writer-director’s aunt, the toweringly charismatic Krisha Fairchild, as a recovering addict in her 60s who crashes the family Thanksgiving after a long unexplained absence. Shults himself plays her wary adult son. As cinematically daring as it is morally capacious, this made-on-a-shoestring indie is the kind of movie that leaves you broken in the best way, vowing to handle both your loved ones and their turkeys with more attention, patience, and care. Streaming now.
Notfilm (April 1) Ross Lipman, a former film conservationist, was working on a historical restoration of Film—the 1965 avant-garde short that was the only movie Samuel Beckett ever wrote—when he found himself getting drawn into the many interesting stories behind Beckett’s collaboration with director Alan Schneider, cinematographer Boris Kaufman, and Film’s unlikely star, the 69-year-old Buster Keaton. So Lipman embarked on this meticulous reconstruction of Film’s disaster-strewn production history and afterlife as a cultural curiosity. The hypnotically beautiful Notfilm, which often dispenses with narration altogether to let us simply watch and listen, is a filmed essay in something like the tradition of Chris Marker. Not an easy genre to pull off, but Lipman does it with rigor and style. Streaming now. Read Slate’s interview with Lipman.
Love and Friendship (May 13). Whit Distill-man, more like. Only Stillman, expert chronicler of late 20th-century yuppie malaise in movies like Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, could boil down the essence of Jane Austen into a deliciously modern tincture of savage wit, keen social observation, and extended flights of sheer goofiness. Kate Beckinsale was born to dispense the droll barbs of the conniving flirt Lady Susan, and Tom Bennett, as a rich ninny who becomes a pawn in her social-climbing chess game, gave me the biggest single laugh I had at the movies this year with his delighted discovery of the common garden pea. Streaming now. Read Laura Miller on the movie. Listen to the Culture Gabfest discuss.
Certain Women (Oct. 14). Kelly Reichardt’s sixth film, a triptych of loosely connected stories about three women in and around Billings, Montana, pulls off the feat of being at once open-ended and unerringly sure of itself. Reichardt, a filmmaker of great modesty and patience, lets the rugged landscape and the silence between words tell us what we need to know about these lonely, struggling characters. Anyway, when you cast actresses of the caliber of Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and newcomer-of-the-year Lily Gladstone, you don’t need a lot of dialogue to communicate complex and sometimes paradoxical states of being. Their faces are landscapes unto themselves. In theaters now. Read Slate’s review.
Moonlight (Oct. 21). Barry Jenkins’ three-chapter portrait of a young man growing up in a rough Miami housing project has to be the movie of the year. It slips quietly out of every genre category it could at first be said to belong to—gay romance, coming-of-age drama, sociocultural document—and stubbornly insists on being just what it is. Jenkins never has to assert in so many words that black lives matter. He simply shows us one particular life—that of the lonely, tongue-tied boy known as Little, Chiron, and Black—and makes us feel how much it matters, both to the audience and to the other characters who love him. Four months after seeing it, anytime I feel the need to cry for no immediately obvious reason, I just think of Trevante Rhodes’ tears. I carry their memory around with me in a tiny jar, to be applied as needed. In theaters now. Read Slate’s review. Listen to a Represent conversation with Jenkins.
Manchester by the Sea (Nov. 18). Kenneth Lonergan’s storytelling perspective has a grand Tolstoyan sweep to it. He weaves words, images, and sounds together so densely that it’s impossible to separate out the elements and identify how the film does its work on you. Manchester by the Sea has a texture—a sound and a smell. The raw biting air of New England winter is palpable in every scene, and the fractious but loving history of the working-class Chandler clan is evident not just in the words they speak but in, for example, their pugnacious, ball-breaking style of teasing one another. Lonergan layers the flashbacks into the present-day scenes with such skill that when the tragic revelation at the film’s center arrives, you realize every scene up until then has been trying in vain to prepare you for it. In theaters now. Read Slate’s review.
The Edge of Seventeen (Nov. 18). Last year on my list, I included Diary of a Teenage Girl, the debut film from a young female writer-director who seemed to have tapped a direct psychological line to the outward bravura and inward terror of female adolescence. This year Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen occupies that sweet spot. Less disturbing and more lighthearted than Diary, this tart and sparkling rom-com should catapult the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld, discovered by the Coen brothers at age 14 for True Grit, into the firmament where she belongs. In theaters now. Read Slate’s review. Listen to the Culture Gabfest discuss. Listen to a Mom and Dad Are Fighting interview with Craig.
La La Land (Dec. 9). Making an original movie musical in 2016—a full-on, characters-bursting-into-song-on-the-street–style musical—would seem the equivalent to fashioning oneself a career noose. Instead Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, has made a kinetic, primary-colored rocket that somehow achieves liftoff, taking the audience with it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone aren’t working with the complete skill set of studio troupers in the heyday of MGM—their singing and dancing are charming but far from virtuosic. But that slight hesitancy seems appropriate to this musical made for a more uncertain time. I’ll admit that only one of La La Land’s musical numbers has stayed with me enough to hum it after three viewings, but they were all lovely while they unfolded—which, I guess, is why I kept on going back.
Neruda (Dec. 16). Forget Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. Well, don’t forget it entirely—it’s a good if not great movie whose success in awards season would bring some long-deserved attention to its remarkable director, a native of Chile. But if you’re going to watch one Larraín-directed almost-but-not-quite historical biopic this year, make it Neruda, his cerebral yet humane portrait of his country’s beloved national poet, who was forced to go into hiding after voicing support for the Communist Party in the late 1940s. Larraín mixes historical fact with diabolically funny fiction: Gael García Bernal plays a self-important and dim-witted police inspector who leads the charge to track down the elusive Neruda (Luis Gnecco), getting into Peter Sellers–worthy scrapes along the way. As the pursuit continues into the remote (and gorgeous) wilds of Chile, the cop growing ever more grandiose in his identification with his prey, this becomes a movie about much more than a cop chasing a poet. Neruda is, among other things, an investigation into the power of language in a political system where words have begun to come unmoored from their meanings. So, required viewing for all Americans in 2016.
Toni Erdmann (Dec. 25). It’s best to go in knowing as little as possible about Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, not even to whom the proper name in the title refers. All you need to know is this: A middle-age German man makes an extended visit to his emotionally distant daughter, who’s a successful businesswoman in Bucharest. And somehow or other there will soon be mistaken identities complete with bad wigs and false teeth, the impromptu belting of a Whitney Houston ballad, and the most excruciating office party in the history of offices or socialization. You never know to what physical or emotional place Ade will spirit you next in this anarchic, peripatetic, and ultimately moving film, but when you get there, you’ll realize it’s where you needed to be all along.
Runners-up: Finding Dory, The Fits, Hell or High Water, I Am Not Your Negro, Silence. In a different version of 2016 I might have included Weiner, a documentary whose disturbingly untrammeled access to Huma Abedin’s dissolving marriage to Anthony Weiner made it one of the more jaw-dropping political artifacts in a year that was hardly short on them. If you missed Weiner on its release in May and you really feel the need to gawk as a bottomlessly narcissistic politician self-destructs in real time, just turn on literally any television or computer screen in the world.