Top Ten Films of 2016

1. “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins, United States)

One of many ways “Moonlight” feels transcendently sensitive is in its storytelling; we drop into the life of Chiron at three distinct chapters, but we aren’t filled in on the gaps or the backstory. We’re just there in the moment with young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) whose mother struggles with addiction and whose peers bully him as a child—he finds family in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer, and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Next we’re dropped into Chiron’s troubled teen years (played by Ashton Sanders), where he sorta falls in love, and where he’s beaten by his peers for being gay and for otherwise not fitting in with those who’ve deemed themselves cool and powerful. Finally we see him grown up and beefed up (now played by Trevante Rhodes), having followed in Juan’s footsteps as a dealer, and still struggling through the experiences of his youth, how they’ve turned him into who he is now. And then there’s the way director Barry Jenkins does it all: With soft focus and moments of blurred sounds, we’re with Chiron as he swims fearfully in the ocean with Juan, as he dissociates while being talked at by a school counselor, we’re in the passenger seat with him under deep and glowing lights as he drives through Miami. (Rebekah Kirkman)

2. “The Fits” (Anna Rose Holmer, United States)

Part character portrait, part sci-fi thriller, “The Fits” adds a touch of the surreal to the coming-of-age story. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is ready to leave her boxing gloves behind and join the all-girl dance team and does everything she needs to do to shed her “tomboy” appearance and reputation to belong. Her plan seems to be going well until all the girls are hit with a sudden case of “the fits,” a seizure-like experience that spooks the entire community and makes Toni question her desire to join. It’s a unique story told smoothly with very little dialogue, and a can’t-miss if you’re a fan of sci-fi surrealism and longing to see black faces in that genre. (Nia Hampton)

3. “Lemonade” (Beyoncé/Kahlil Joseph, United States)

I am always searching for images of black people. And I’m not just satisfied with the one token black person thrown in with a bunch of white people—I want to see all hues, all body types, all different versions of myself. While a lot of the songs on Beyoncé’s accompanying album “Lemonade” have to do with a love relationship—maybe even Beyoncé’s relationship with her husband, Jay Z—the film “Lemonade” is a love letter to black women. In many parts of the film, she surrounds herself with women, and even features the mothers of the movement: the moms of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and others. It feels like home. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

4. “Cemetery of Splendor” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Not satisfied with reinventing cinema, Apichatpong Weerasethakul reinvents time, warping all of reality around the moment of nodding off. “Cemetery of Splendor’s” story of hospitalized soldiers afflicted with mysterious sleeping sickness gives Weeraskethakul a perfect opportunity to highlight three of his favorite subjects: dreaming, Thai history, and an insistence the present can haunt the past just as thoroughly as the past can haunt the present. Of course nodding off leaves you vulnerable to being caught off guard, and while the moments of unique beauty, both natural and neon, are consistent, it’s the deft humor, effortless magical realism, and profound respect of humanity that hit when you least expect it. He’s also great at dance numbers and, thankfully, “Cemetery of Splendor” has one of those too. (Sean McTiernan)

5. “13th” (Ava DuVernay, United States)

That this Netflix-produced documentary so forcefully charts how the Constitutional amendment that supposedly ended slavery created a loophole that gave rise to the mass-incarceration state we live in today isn’t what makes “13th” so impressive. What does is how DuVernay weaves together interviews with a wide array of academics, activists, politicians, and policy makers—including Michelle Alexander, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, and Marie Gottschalk—into such a gripping visual essay that is as emotionally volatile as it is historically and journalistically on lock. Fact-based storytelling rarely operates at this level of human poignancy without lapsing into the cloying, and DuVernay simply but forcefully demonstrates how this country created ideas and policies that permitted it to create a new enslaved labor force after the 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished the practice that built America’s economy in the first place. (Bret McCabe)

6. “The Nice Guys” (Shane Black, United States)

Some feel like Shane Black’s dogged obsession with buddy pictures is a crutch, but “The Nice Guys” proves otherwise. More so than any filmmaker who dabbles in noir, Black is uniquely adept at finding nourishing catharsis in the well-worn tropes surrounding wounded, self-defeated men banding together to solve a mystery. He’s able to tap into something visceral in the national pop cultural subconscious about seeing failed heroes get second chances to get it right. His latest doesn’t match the complexity or novelty of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” but Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe nimbly weave through the script’s twists and turns to deliver some of the sharpest, most brutal work of their career. Also, it’s funny as hell. (Dominic Griffin)

7. “The Witch” (Robert Eggers, United States)

This year saw more than a few art-y movies about witchcraft—including the unfairly maligned “Blair Witch” and the morbidly fascinating “The Neon Demon”—but writer-director Robert Eggers’ fire and brimstone period piece is undeniably the best of the set. It’s an oddity, a genuinely unnerving horror film that’s also a painstakingly researched period piece (Eggers reportedly based his dialogue on actual 17th century diary and journal entries) that grounds its brief glimpses of infernal evil in ostensible teenage protagonist Thomasin who finds herself ignored and powerless to save her doomed puritanical family unit. Great horror leaves us on a note of existential hopelessness and “The Witch’s” bleak “I’m not selling out, I’m buying in” ending certainly qualifies it for the classic spooky movie canon. Special shout out to G.O.A.T./literal goat Black Phillip, the best movie villain of 2016. (Max Robinson)

8. “Arrival” (Denis Villeneuve, United States)

Looked at one way, “Arrival” is just a leveled-up ‘50s sci-fi flick, as earnest brainiacs and slightly sinister authorities struggle to overcome their foibles and save the day in the face of inscrutable cosmic mysteries—“The Day the Earth Stood Still” for the smartphone era. It does a great job at that. But, like the Ted Chiang short story on which it’s based, it’s also a deft and slippery grown-up drama that taps a surprisingly deep reservoir of our species at its best (love, thought, hope) and its worst (our poor showings on fear, compromise, empathy, and trust). Director Denis Villeneuve is in the midst of an unprecedented run of films that imbue blockbuster vigor with political undertones (“Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Sicario”), and “Arrival” plays like a humanist swing for the fences in a time of clenched global anxieties. It connects. (Lee Gardner)

9. “Do Not Resist” (Craig Atkinson, United States)

In “Do Not Resist,” Craig Atkinson amasses a few years worth of unprecedented access into American police departments that, by virtue of the footage acquired, ends up being a portrait of American law enforcement operating as a covert army. Here, the threat of terrorism gets tacked on to the war on drugs as a false pretext to basically occupy low-income black neighborhoods and destabilize movements like #BlackLivesMatter. It plays like an absurdist nightmare equal parts “Minority Report” and “Tales of the Out & Gone.” Eschewing the slick infotainment packages of someone like Alex Gibney, Atkinson favors a more intuitive approach. His fly-on-the-wall immersion into the inner world of policing seminars, tactical training, and invasive searches allows the footage to mostly speak for itself. Thus, we don’t get a history of how we got here (pairing this with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which features talking heads like “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander, would help in that regard). What we do get is a sense of just how systemic the problem is and how much worse it will get come Jan. 20. (Adam Katzman)

10. “Green Room” (Jeremy Saulnier, United States)

An adept and understated yet ultra-violent thriller about a punk band who stumble upon a murder by Neo-Nazis and must fight their way out of a white supremacist club, “Green Room” doesn’t waste its time with much exposition. It chooses to exist in a well-realized pocket of Oregon, instead of creating tidy contrived story arcs for its relatable young punk band, and runs on fear of America’s all-too-present white supremacy movement. However, the film doesn’t offer concrete political discussion. Its head Neo-Nazi villain, chillingly portrayed by Patrick Stewart, is a calm, intelligent, and well-organized man who wants to clean up a mess at his venue in the most economic way possible. It’s a thriller in which the characters act in believable ways and where just about everything that happens could happen IRL—which might be what’s so frightening about this coy, dry movie. (Garrett Stralnic)

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