The Best Films of 2016: Part One (#18–25)

No, there’s no definitive way to say what was the best film of the year. And no, it wasn’t the greatest year to go to the theater. But the good news is that, even though it can get harder and harder to find something worthy of your time, there’s enough directors and writers and actors out there who still think that cinema matters, damnit.

Here are 25 pieces of evidence to show that they’re right.

(25) 20th Century Women

“I want to see this modern world,” Annette Bening announces in Mike Mills’s sweet but spiky comedy about kids, love, sex, punk rock, and growing up in the late 1970s, and it makes perfect sense. As Dorothea, with her cigarettes, flinty demeanor, and high standards, she seems out of time, like a staunch career woman out of a 1930s comedy. Trying to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) without a father, Dorothea assigns extra parenting duties to surrogates hanging around or living in their sprawling fixer-upper Santa Barbara house: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the flame-haired proto-punk artist; Julie (Elle Fanning), the dreamy and rebellious neighbor girl he has a crush on; and William (Billy Crudup), the mellow post-hippie who’s helping Dorothea fix up the place. Mills’s hazily plotted but brightly enjoyable semi-autobiographical story, one of the year’s most uniformly excellent ensemble pieces, is in theory about Jamie’s navigating this tempestuous modern world and his adolescence. But it’s also a warm, resonant, and starkly feminist portrait of a vanished epoch, interleaved with historical data like documentary photos of the L.A. punk / New Wave scene and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, about to be swept away by the Reagan era, when “modern” would take on a more sinister tone.

(24) Love & Friendship

Given that Whit Stillman has been dancing around Jane Austen for years — 1990’s Metropolitan referenced her all over the place — it’s incredible that he took this long to adapting her. For this take on this little known novella, Stillman brings all his trademark talents for arch verbal comedy to bear on one of Austen’s least-romantic works. Kate Beckinsale (currently in cinemas wearing black leather and killing vampires, or is it werewolves?, in another of those Underworld flicks that pay the bills) plays the widowed Lady Susan Vernon, a cold-hearted operator balancing her scandalous affairs with a plan to manipulate some rich and hopefully stupid old sot into marrying her. Stillman muse Chloe Sevigny shows up as Vernon’s equally mercenary American friend, married to a hilariously clueless Stephen Fry. Love & Friendship likely didn’t connect with the usual Austen film crowd, as it contains much more of the author’s unsentimental wicked humor than romance. But the sharp turns of plot and perfectly timed black humor show that Stillman should likely be the go-to guy for whenever the next time it is that somebody gets around to adapting Pride and Prejudice again.

(23) Zero Days

Anybody seeking context for the current fracas embroiling Washington over the Russian disinformation campaign waged via hacking and other means during the 2016 U.S. presidential election would be well advised to check out this Alex Gibney documentary. A rundown of the espionage campaign codenamed Olympic Games, Zero Days tells how American and allied intelligence operatives implanted the Stuxnet virus into the tightly guarded Iranian nuclear complex at Natanz and then used it to damage some of the centrifuges being amassed there. What gives Gibney’s characteristically dramatic storytelling added importance, though, is the warning it poses about the future of electronic warfare. Once one party does something like this, the reverse usually happens as well. And the Stuxnet virus code is likely now loose on the Internet.

(22) Silence

When Martin Scorsese’s Silence opens, in 17th century Japan, the days when Catholic missionaries were openly allowed into the country are long gone. Now the few remaining Catholic converts are hunted down, tortured until they renounce their faith, and frequently executed. Chasing rumors that their mentor (Liam Neesom) has apostatized, two young Jesuits (Adam Garfield, Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to find out what happened. They first encounter a grueling exercise in physical deprivation as they scurry about in hiding, giving secret masses while nearly starving to death. Events later pivot to a spiritual challenge posed by the priests’ Japanese inquisitors: What’s more important, saving the lives of the converted or renouncing Christ? What gives Scorsese’s decades-in-the-works adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel such power, though, is not its stark and brutal cruelty (this is no Passion of the Christ, reveling in pain as some kind of redemptive act). Rather, the power of Silence comes from the tension between its acknowledgment that the dream of a Christian heaven gives solace to these peasants’ generally miserable lives and its uncertainty over whether their suffering is worth anything at all.

(21) Tower

On August 1, 1966, ex-Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin and started shooting at people on the ground. Dozens were hit and 16 dead by the time police finally took Whitman down an hour and a half later. Keith Maitland’s harrowing and hypnotic documentary tells the story of the first mass shooting of America’s modern era as an oral history, weaving together narratives from bystanders, victims, and police. Their stories range from the heroic to the terrifying, and are uniformly gripping. Maitland’s style overlays interview footage and recreations with rotoscoping animation — much as Maitland’s fellow Austin-ite Richard Linklater did in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. It produces a woozy, dreamlike effect which helps to translate the events of a beautiful day whose sudden horror probably never could feel quite real.

(20) Fences

By reuniting the 2010 Broadway revival cast of August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, Denzel Washington (who stars and directs from Wilson’s adaptation) did everyone two great favors. First, he captured on film one of the last century’s most definitive American plays for everyone who will never be able to see it live. Second, and more importantly, he delivered a knockout film. As Troy, a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington is all bluster and cadence, regaling everybody with stories and opinions that thread pathos with comedy and wistfulness. After a full-blast opening, the story opens up more once Troy’s loving but bullied family, wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), begin to challenge this impressive but preening speechifier who plays at being a standup guy but has more secrets than he’d care to admit. The raw torrent of emotion that Davis unspools in her confrontation with Troy is one of the single greatest moments of acting you will see on screen this, or any other year.

(19) Sing Street

A goofy, sly, and irresistible charmer from John Carney (Once), Sing Street is about Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a Dublin teenager in the 1980s who one day starts a band for the best reason of all: to impress a girl. He chose well, as Ann (Kelly Thornton) is beautiful, smokes, and irresistibly bored; just the kind of girl to win over with a keyboard-heavy ballad and some New Romantic fashion sense. The ragamuffin scrum of barely-competent kids Conor throws together are first more concerned with issues of style (dress, name, attitude) than music. Also key: getting the special effects just right for their music video. Of course, they’re able to pull things together just in time for the big school dance. But, just as in your better John Hughes efforts, there’s a melancholy undertone to the story. The bullying, economic tensions, and rancorous home lives don’t just give an edge to the story’s more bubblegum aspects but make the characters’ desire for escape, whether by music or other means, that much more critical.

(18) 13th

The conclusion of Barack Obama’s two terms as president and the (for now) relative quiet of the Black Lives Matter movement has already taken race off the radar for the short-attention-span media. But 2016 was in fact a banner year when it came to representations of non-white characters. From Fences to Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Loving, well-rounded black characters were suddenly visible in serious dramas to an almost unprecedented degree. That was also true for nonfiction film, of which Ava DuVernay’s 13th is an excellent example. An exhaustive tour through America’s post-Emancipation history of race relations, it starts with the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and runs through the post-Reconstruction rollback of civil rights, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, decades of police brutality, housing and voting discrimination, right up to the unprecedented nature and size of America’s modern-day prison system. Rounding up guests from the unsurprising like Angela David and Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow, which could function as a companion book to the film) to the occasional conservative interloper like Newt Gingrich, DuVernay (Selma) paints a powerfully bleak portrait of a country that hasn’t come close to reckoning with the strange fruit of its racial past and present.

Check back tomorrow for the next batch of 2016’s greatest films.

And, for something completely different, there’s also our list of the year’s worst and most disappointing releases.