In 2016, Hollywood showed us a world where black lives matter, a musical had meaning, young filmmakers could strut their stuff alongside the classic likes of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and the Coen brothers – and no subject was too hot to handle. Here are 20 movies that reminded us that the best of cinema, whether studio-financed or independently-produced, is capable of lots of things beyond sequels, prequels, remakes, retreads and the Marvel Comic Universe. (Check out our 25 Best Movie Performances of 2016 list here.)
Animation was on a roll in 2016 – this was the year of Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Secret Life of Pets, Sausage Party and Sing. But none took fuller measure of the possibilities of the form than this look at an animal kingdom where predators, who once lived in peace, revert to attack mode. The kids will love the cute bunny and the fox. But grownups may find that the resulting rush of politics, prejudice, persecution and wall building resonate disturbingly for the Trump era. There's something for everyone here.
There were powerful documentaries this year, including O.J.: Made in America, Weiner, Tower, Cameraperson and I Am Not Your Negro. But for me, the most explosive is Ava DuVernay's incendiary take on the 13th amendment, the one enacted in 1865 that supposedly guaranteed racial equality and outlawed involuntary servitude in the U.S. Watch it and weep.
The year's best and most brilliant foreign-language film – sorry, Elle, Julieta and The Handmaiden – is this fierce flamethrower from the great German writer-director Maren Ade. Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are superb as a divorced piano teacher and his ambitious corporate daughter, united in depression and mutual disgust. Did I mention that Ade's film is comedy? It is, with laughs that stick in the throat, the kind that's so funny it hurts.
Box-office has been quiet for Kelly Fremon Craig's debut film, which means some of you are missing out on the year's most hilarious and heartfelt rager. Hailee Steinfeld, already an Oscar nominee for True Grit, is a volcanic, hormonal wonder as a pain in the ass named Nadine, an angry teen who gives hell to everyone around her – except for a teacher (a terrific Woody Harrelson) who won't take her shit. Craig and Steinfeld shoot down coming-of-age cliches on sight. Find this movie and hold it close. You can't miss seeing yourself in it.
OK, it's not so much a movie as a bull session that filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow conduct on camera with contentious, no-filter director Brian De Palma. With perfectly chosen clips from the veteran filmmaker's career highs (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) and lows (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Fury, Mission to Mars), the film is an impure education for De Palma geeks and newbies.
For those who are disappointed that the close encounter Amy Adams has with aliens in Arrival is about communication instead of global annihilation, I can offer no comfort. Except to say that the contemplative tone taken by director Denis Villeneuve and the full commitment Adams brings to a role of ever-surprising layers result in a movie that stays with you long after you leave the multiplex.
Richard Linklater makes movies, from Dazed and Confused to Boyhood and the "Before" trilogy, that never show off but keep showing up in our memory. There's nothing here but Linklater taking us back to 1980 as a handful of baseball jocks start a new year at a small Texas University. They listen to music, smoke weed, get laid – and somehow remind us of our first exhilarating taste on freedom.
So great to have Jim Jarmusch back in classic form with this minimalist mesmerizer about a New Jersey bus driver and poet named Paterson who lives in Paterson. Too twee? No worries. He's played by Adam Driver, a sublime actor who stays alert to every nuance as Jarmusch follows the film's hero, hanging out with his Iranian wife (rocker Golshifteh Farahani) and turning his daily encounters into verse that celebrates the mysteries of the everyday. That's Jarmusch in a nutshell – and a pure pleasure to watch.
Maybe because it opened way back in May, Whit Stillman's elegantly barbed take on Jane Austen's 1794 novella is being forgotten in the year-end prize-giving season. Wake up, people. Kate Beckinsale gives one of the year's best performances as a widow forced to use everything – sex, thievery, betrayal, you name it – to stay independent in a man's world. And Academy voters are hereby advised not to forget the pricelessly funny Tom Bennett as a wealthy idiot who blathers on about peas and what he calls "the 12 Commandments."
How to explain my passion for this Hollywood comedy from the Coen brothers, a whoosh of farce and spiritual dread? Would that it t'were so simple. It's basically a day in the life off a studio cop (Josh Brolin) who's job is to wrangle a nutjob star (George Clooney), a knocked-up swimming diva (Scarlett Johansson), a Commie song-and-dance man (Channing Tatum, pure perfection) and a drawling cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, also perfection) forced to play a sophisticate by a tyrant of a Brit director (Ralph Fiennes). I couldn't have liked it more.
One of the damn shames of this movie year is the way director Nate Parker's incendiary telling of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner (a stellar Parker) got lost in the controversy over the charges against Parker for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at Penn State in 1999. He was acquitted at trial, but the court of public opinion has left a flawed yet formidable film struggling for the wide audience it deserves.
David Mackenzie's modern-day Western doesn't do anything new – but it does everything right. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play West Texas brothers who come up against the law in the person of Jeff Bridges at his sly, old-coot best. It's a B movie, raised to the level of rough art.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga excel as Richard and Mildred Loving, the mixed-race couple whose 1958 marriage got them arrested in Virginia and whose legal fight became a civil rights landmark. The young Arkansas director Jeff Nichols may join the ranks of Eastwood and Scorsese if he continues to craft films as stirring as this one.
Clint Eastwood's brand of classic, no-bullshit filmmaking finds perfect form as a beautifully understated Tom Hanks plays Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot who ditched his disabled plane on the Hudson River and saved the lives of all on board. Job well done. That goes for the man and the movie.
Jackie Kennedy has been so microscopically examined in the media that you wonder what else is there to tell. And then you see her in Jackie, in the days following JFK's assassination, and you think you hardly knew her. Such is the revelatory vision of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín and the astonishing Natalie Portman in the title role.
Martin Scorsese's passion project (in development since 1990) follows two Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) to 17th-century Japan, where they search for their mentor priest (Liam Neeson) and risk torture and death for preaching Christianity. Matters of faith and its meaning in a material world have long obsessed Scorsese. Silence is alternately brutal and cerebral. Some may balk at grappling with moral ambiguity for two and a half hours. Who needs them. Scorsese has crafted a film of potent provocation and fervent heart.
What a triumph for Denzel Washington, who directs and stars in the film version of the stage success by the late, great August Wilson. Washington is monumental as a former Negro League baseball player now collecting garbage in Pittsburgh and roaring against anything that challenges his authority as husband and father. Viola Davis is Oscar material as his wife. The film betrays its origins as a play. But what a play. And you won't see performance fireworks like this anywhere.
Three wonderful actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) play the same boy at different stages of growing up black, gay and alienated in the Miami projects. Director Barry Jenkins handles every aspect of filmmaking, from dialogue to visuals, like the young master he is.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of the year as a Boston janitor faced with unspeakable tragedy. In only his third film, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan cuts to the core of what makes us human and gives us the strength to carry on.
A musical as movie of the year? You bet your ass. Damien Chazelle directs this rapturous song-and-dance romance as if cinema was invented for him to play with – and for us to get high on. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hit career peaks as lovers who try to make their creative dreams come true on the mean, art-fearing streets of the New Hollywood. La La Land swings for the fences. Chazelle puts his heart right out there where hipsters can mock him as tragically untrendy. He's not. He's an innovator, a fresh talent who puts technique in the service of feeling and makes the future of film seem like a bright prospect.