In 2016, anyone who complained that movies were bad just wasn’t trying. The year was full of stunners in all categories: tear-jerking comedies, joyous musicals, moving dramas, haunting fables, and everything in between. It was a year full of surprises from first-time directors to veterans.
Here are 21 of the best, ranked, with 10 honorable mentions at the end.
Teen comedies aren’t always the site of great filmmaking, but with a Golden Globe-nominated performance from Hailee Steinfeld and a deft, surprisingly insightful script, The Edge of Seventeen is a clever and fun movie about growing up and navigating grief. (Read our review.)
Don’t call it a biopic: In Jackie, Natalie Portman plays the first lady as she grieves following the assassination of her husband, then quickly begins to spin the mythology of Camelot. It’s not a simple telling of the story, but rather a meditation on how legends are constructed in America. (Read our review.)
19. Fire at Sea
Over the past few years, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. Documentarian Gianfranco Rosi shows what life looks like for the island’s residents and the rescue crews, cutting between scenes of life on the island (especially a young boy who is more interested in his slingshots and spaghetti) and the people who help receive and treat migrants. Beautifully shot and highly lauded on this year's festival circuit, Fire at Sea is a deeply humane exploration of the human cost of the crisis, and how people live in the midst of it.
18. Sunset Song
British filmmaker Terence Davies is one of the best in the world at capturing light on camera, and in Sunset Song he does plenty of that — though darkness is part of the story as well. Sunset Song is the story of Chris (Agyness Deyn), who grows up in a household ruled by a stern father on their homestead in Scotland just prior to World War I. Adapted from a novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, it’s part romance, part triumph, part tragedy. It’s slow and at times strange — certainly not to everyone’s taste, but a beautiful story about the ways that the very piece of land on which a person is raised can shape their character and life.
Telling the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the couple in Virginia whose case eventually went to the Supreme Court and resulted in laws against interracial marriage being struck down across the country, Loving is the second film from prolific American director Jeff Nichols this year (the first was Midnight Special). Nichols avoids making Loving a triumphalist court drama, instead focusing on the couple’s simple desire to just live their lives together. (Read our review.)
16. Little Men
Ira Sachs’s tender, poignant drama Little Men recalls a lot of things: the uncertainty of childhood friendships, the feeling of coming into your own, and the things that families do to get by. After his grandfather dies, 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his family move to Brooklyn to take over the family home. Jake's father (Greg Kinnear) tangles with Leonor (Paulina Garcia), the seamstress who has rented the first-floor shop for years. Meanwhile, Leonor's son Tony (Michael Barbieri) has become Jake’s new best friend, but their friendship takes a hit from their parents’ dispute.
Arrival is science fiction as we rarely see it: There are aliens and spaceships, but Denis Villeneuve’s film (based on a novella by Ted Chiang) is much more interested in how language not only lets us talk to one another, but actually shapes the way we perceive and imagine the world. If that all sounds pedantic, don’t worry: Arrival boasts a mind-bending story and a great performance from Amy Adams as the linguist sent in to communicate with aliens. (Read our review.)
14. La La Land
Both a throwback to old-school Hollywood musicals and a poignant, contemporary reflection on the difficulty of “making it” as an artist, La La Land is a lot of melancholy fun. Not to mention that its leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are pure joy to watch as they sing and dance their way across Damien Chazelle’s dreamy version of Los Angeles. (Read our review.)
Jane Austen movies are rarely hilarious, but Love & Friendship is one of the funniest comedies of the year, with Kate Beckinsale in the lead and a tremendous supporting cast. Written and directed by Whit Stillman and based on an unpublished Austen novel, Love & Friendship is a farce with a wicked sense of humor — it’s a total delight. (Read our review.)
12. The Witch
In colonial America, a family with unorthodox religious views are cast out from the village and made to live at the edge of the wood — one where a witch may live, too. The Witch is gorgeously shot and unsettling, less interested in jump scares than it is in the growing, uncanny sense that one’s body and soul — in particular those belonging to the family’s teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) — are being taken over by powers from beyond (or maybe just by the goat out in the yard). (Read our review.)
It wouldn’t be right to call Kate Plays Christine a “documentary”; it’s more of an inquiry into the very nature of performance and reality. Robert Greene’s film follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she researches and prepares for the role of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota newscaster who killed herself live and on air in 1974. Kate Plays Christine asks us to question what we see on screen and, in turn, our own selves.
The film’s genius lies in the way it accomplishes this: As Sheil dives further into her research of Chubbuck, her character’s psyche begins to infiltrate her own, and she struggles with the ethics of even trying to play the role. The film is a document of preparing for the role, not a documentary about Chubbuck — though it is, of course, also a film about Chubbuck, in its way. And if that sounds complicated, that’s the point. Kate Plays Christine is messy and unsatisfactory, in all the right ways.
10. Things to Come
Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a philosophy professor whose life falls apart when her mother passes away and her husband of 25 years leaves her for a younger woman. Nathalie is resilient and thoughtful, and Things to Come (directed by Mia Hansen-Løve) is a funny, pensive, ultimately hopeful film about a woman looking at her past for clues to the future. (Read our review.)
Under the Shadow is the UK's entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars this year, and no wonder: An admirably strong feature debut from writer-director Babak Anvari, the film puts a mother and daughter at the center of war-torn 1980s Tehran, just after the Revolution. The panic that Shideh (Narges Rashidi) experiences while trying to protect her feisty daughter (Avin Manshadi) translates into attacks from djinn (the word for ghosts in Islamic mythology). It’s the rare knockout political ghost story that also explores the psychological terror of repressive regimes, particularly on women.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel about faith and doubt stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel from their native Portugal to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have apostatized. Not only is Silence one of the best films of the year, but it’s also ready to take its place in the canon of the most stunning films about faith and doubt ever made. (Read our review.)
7. The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut stars newcomer Royalty Hightower as Toni, an 11-year-old trying to fit in with the older girls on her school’s dance team. Some of the girls start to experience mysterious fits, and Toni, with her peers, wonders what’s happening. The Fits has no answers, but is a masterful and confident take on the pressure to become part of the crowd among adolescent girls. (Read our review.)
Kenneth Lonergan’s tale of heartbreaking grief and family stars a superb cast, led by Casey Affleck as a bereaved man who comes back to his hometown to settle the affairs of his deceased brother. Manchester By the Sea boasts a pitch-perfect (and often hilarious) screenplay, as well as some of the best performances of the year. It’s the rare film that provokes both genuine laughter and real tears. (Read our review.)
Adam Driver stars as a poetry-writing bus driver named Paterson who works in Paterson, New Jersey, where he also lives with his beautiful, free-spirited girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, who steals the show. Director Jim Jarmusch has crafted a wistful, artful film that feels deeply good, a life-affirming but non-corny story of ordinary people with ordinary lives, seeking meaning in both creative pursuits and the everyday. In 2016, it’s hard not to wish Paterson would never end. (Read our review.)
4. Toni Erdmann
German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is technically a comedy, but it’s got a lot of pathos as well: Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who’s a bit of a practical jokester, doesn’t see his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) much; she lives far from him due to her high-powered job and finds him a bit embarrassing. So he goes to visit. Hilarity ensues, along with tears. Toni Erdmann boasts what may be the funniest scene to appear on the big screen in 2016, as well as a moving story about fathers and daughters. (Read our review.)
If you stumbled into the parts of Twitter where film and TV critics argue this fall, you’d have gotten caught in the crosshairs of a long-running dispute over whether Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is a film or a TV show. Created for ESPN, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Its nearly eight-hour runtime was sliced into five episodes and aired on TV, but was also screened in full in some movie theaters. And it’s a likely frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.
No matter. Whatever its classification, O.J.: Made in America is an achievement: a sweeping look at what led to the O.J. Simpson homicide case, the case itself, and the fallout, that combines to tell a story that about much more than one football star on trial for murder. It seems eerily prescient for a 2016 release, prefiguring national debates about justice, police, race, celebrity, politics, and much more. It’s a must-see. (Read our review.)
Kirsten Johnson has spent most of her career behind the camera, working on some of the most prominent documentaries of our time, from Citizenfour and The Invisible War to Derrida and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. For Cameraperson, Johnson turned to the cutting room floor, using footage shot mostly for other films to construct a sort of memoir, letting us see the world through her eyes. The juxtapositions and common themes she unearths and edits together are often breathtaking. Cameraperson is no mere assemblage of outtakes: It’s about what it is to be a human, to live in the world, and to accumulate experiences that become part of one’s own personal landscape.
A movie like Moonlight doesn't come along often, and it's no wonder: A film this carefully crafted can't be hurried along. A triptych of vignettes centered on Chiron, a young black boy in Miami living with his mother and grappling with the cards life has dealt him — addiction, an absentee father, bullies, abuse, and a growing realization of his sexual identity — Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (based on a story by playwright Tarell McCraney) is gentle, complex, and above all, filled with grace.
With a cast that includes Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, and three actors who play Chiron at different ages (Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), and a dynamite score, it has earned nearly universal praise. Like a symphony, Moonlight’s cinematic themes, melodies, and harmonies keep humming in your mind long after the credits roll. It’s a masterpiece. (Read our review.)
Honorable mentions: Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen), Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols), Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair), 20th Century Women (Mike Mills), A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino), Elle (Paul Verhoeven), Sing Street (John Carney), Fences (Denzel Washington), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), and Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante).