But it is, as always, a top ten, and so sacrifices had to be made. The following ten films have lingered in my thoughts more than any other films I've seen this year (in a positive way, at least). At least four of them are out-and-out masterpieces from auteurs who are decidedly outside of the mainstream, but, as you can see, there were pleasures to be found in studio fare as well. These certainly aren't the only great films released last year, but they are the ones that stand above the rest.
Since only films that received a US release were eligible, I have to extend my apologies to the following great as-yet-unreleased films: Strike a Pose, Sonita, Down Under, Goldstone, Barakah Meets Barakah, Zach's Ceremony, The Year We Thought about Love.
Find out who made the list after the jump.
10. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
In a year marked by intolerance and anger against those who look different from you, it seems even more prescient that Disney made Zootopia. The film could arguably make this list just for daring to deal with institutional discrimination, racial profiling, the role of police in a diverse society, and the ways we divide each other too easily. But with Howard (Tangled), Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and Bush (Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero) at the helm, Zootopia is not simply a feature-length lecture on social justice delivered by talking animals. The film's narrative is an entertaining riff on the buddy cop film, with eager new officer Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) teaming up with slick huckster Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman) to solve a recent rash of predators turning feral. The directing team also work hard to build an endlessly fascinating, beautifully-realized world (check out that eye-popping "Try Anything" sequence) worthy of getting lost in. The voice acting is tops, the jokes are well-played (look out for the nod to Breaking Bad, of all things), and the mystery is captivating. That the film carries a message of tolerance that's straightforward about how difficult progress will be? Well, Zootopia is all the more impressive for it.
9. The Witch: A New England Folktale (dir. Robert Eggars)
When you consider how brutal life was for the first European settlers in the Americas, it's amazing that more horror films don't mine this period for inspiration (concern that audiences don't know enough about the period, or is it easier to watch someone attacking us on "our" land rather us being attacked for entering someone else's world?). First-time feature director Eggars makes a compelling case for early colonial horror, however, with this chilling tale of a family moving into the not-yet-Massachusetts wilderness. Eggars' presents this world as strikingly alien: dark greys and earth tones dominate the color palette, and the tree line dominates the family's modest homestead. The land isn't the only uncanny aspect, however, as the dialogue is derived directly from source texts of the 1630s (and thus jarring to modern ears). This is to say nothing of Anya Taylor-Joy's unreadable visage; this is a star-making turn for the young actress, and she handles the role of oldest child Thomasin with remarkable opacity. Is there a witch? Is the family goat actually the devil? Was it black magic that led to that terrifying quasi-exorcism? Is there even a devil at all, or is this devoutly Christian family just fearful of their children's sexual maturity? It's a testament to the film's ambition that these questions aren't easily answered. More importantly, it does all of this while still being a profoundly terrifying experience. One wonders what hex Eggars will conjure next.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards)
At this point its a well-trotted cliché to say that Star Wars succeeded because it was a mashup of everything director George Lucas thought was cool: cosmic science fiction, medieval fantasy, Westerns, samurai films, action-adventure serials, you name it. But it's a cliché because it's true: the better films added their own mishmash of ideas, while the lesser ones simply tried to be like Star Wars (this was my biggest issue with last year's The Force Awakens, which so desperately wanted to be liked that it forgot to forge its own personality). Rogue One is the first official "ancillary" film in the franchise, and thankfully it follows the blueprint of the original without directly following that same blueprint. Telling the story of how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans for the Death Star, Rogue One is a Star Wars version of The Dirty Dozen, with a motley band of ne'er-do-wells (Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed) coming together for a common cause. The WWII siege picture is tossed together with Chinese wuxia, aerial combat films, heist films, and even a little dash of The Battle of Algiers to make a delicious Star Wars film. Terrific performances from the entire cast (especially Jones, Luna, Yen, and Alan Tudyk as a particularly sassy droid) and magnificently scaled direction from Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) make this one of the best films the franchise has produced yet. Future spinoffs - and canon films - would be wise to follow its eccentric, exciting lead.
7. The Light Between Oceans (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
Oh yes, let's go ahead and hem and haw about what The Light Between Oceans is. Yes, it is a decidedly old-fashioned melodrama based on a popular novel - exactly the kind of movie that scored big with critics and audiences alike in the 1930s (and 1950s, and 1980s) but is now emphatically hokey and passé. Yes, it is a romance set against a sweeping foreign backdrop (Western Australia) with two beautiful movie stars falling in love and finding that love challenged by unforeseen circumstances. Of course there's mortal danger! Of course there is tasteful production design, and gorgeous cinematography, and a stirring orchestral score! I hear all of your complaints and appeals to "better" (that is, trendy, ironic, "intellectual") taste. And frankly, when the film combines all of those aforementioned aspects as well as The Light Between Oceans, I don't give a damn for your better taste. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander give their all to these pitch-perfect roles as a lighthouse keeper and his wife who, by tragic circumstances, find themselves caring for a baby washed up on their shores. Rachel Weisz is terrific as a local mother whose child recently went missing, playing her sorrow with just the right emotional modulation. Cianfrance, previously best known for Blue Valentine, presents a gorgeously constructed narrative anchored by fine acting in an underappreciated genre. What more could you ask for? And yes, those sweeping shots of the Australian coast don't hurt either.
6. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Here's to the fools who dream,The above comes from Mia's (Emma Stone, excellent) showstopping number near the end of the film, and it works perfectly as the mantra for this delightful, hopeful, and decidedly dreamy homage to musicals both classically Hollywood (the Astaire-Rogers pictures) and New Wave chic (Jacques Demy's films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). It's a deceptively simple story of aspiring actress Mia meeting jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling, utterly charming) and chasing their dreams in the City of Dreams, Los Angeles. The musical numbers are exceptionally beautiful, as Gosling and Stone get a chance to show off their decent voices and impressive hoofing. As much as the film pays tribute to the aforementioned musicals, however, filmmaker Chazelle (Whiplash) crafted a film that's more about the feelings those musicals inspired: joy, hope, wonder, love, and inspiration. This is a film for dreamers, by dreamers, and about dreamers, cautioning of the risks that come with pursuing a dream but showcasing the rewards two dreamers can push each other towards. Hearts are broken, messes are made, but as La La Land shows, what a beautiful mess dreaming can be.
Crazy as they may seem,
Here's to the hearts that break,
Here's to the mess we make
5. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
"Who is you?" This is the question that Chiron, the enigmatic lead character of Jenkins' (Medicine for Melancholy) astonishing second feature, faces throughout his life. The film itself provides three possibilities. Is he "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert), the young boy abandoned by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris is an excellent performance) and taken in by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, stunning in a limited role) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe)? Is he "Chiron" (Ashton Sanders), the gawky teenager discovering his sexuality with friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) as well as his anger? Is he "Black" (Trevante Rhodes, a true find), the adult dealer so guarded that even he doesn't understand his impromptu trip home to Miami to meet up with Kevin (André Holland) again? Maybe he's all three, the progression of each informing the next? Perhaps the film's greatest feat - and it has many, from the gorgeous cinematography to the haunting score - is recognizing how difficult that question is for any of us to answer. We are every version of our selves, but not all at once, not to the same degree, and maybe not even to other people. Who is you?
4. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Like many of Jarmusch's (Stranger Than Paradise, Broken Flowers) films, Paterson is quiet. Paterson (Adam Driver, never better), the bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, is also quiet - at least in person, as he observes the world around him with an acute attention to detail and maintains a fairly strict daily routine of patronizing a local bar after work. In his spare time, Paterson writes poetry, and its here that he asserts his voice. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani, a frequent Asghar Farhadi collaborator), is louder, but also a creative, following her muse wherever it leads (in this sense, Paterson shares a "creatives supporting each other" theme with La La Land, though the comparison ends there). Paterson, the film, is more like its main character, but Jarmusch lets the bits of Laura in him thrive as well. Jarmusch's direction mirrors the lyrical observation of Paterson's verses, but he shows flashes of adventure in the breaks in Paterson's routine. Jarmusch is well-established as one of the United States' finest independent directors, but who could have known he would deliver a film with such aching, beautiful power as this? Paterson is the year's most graceful film.
3. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
It's the near future, and "romantic" relationships are compulsory. Those who are not coupled up go to a coastal resort, where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be transformed into the animal of their choosing. David (Colin Farrell, never better) arrives at the resort at the beginning of Lanthimos' (Dogtooth, Alps) latest black comedy, and the results are Lanthimos' best film yet. Over the course of 119 minutes, Lanthimos wryly tweaks, satirizes, and lambasts the courtship process, where every couple is paired according to complimentary attributes (which every character except David is named after, such as "Nosebleed Woman" or "Lisping Man") and, if there are relationship problems, children will be assigned as a solution. As noted, Farrell gives the performance of his career, playing David as a meek, passive, futzy, and beleagured man simply trying to make it through this bizarre world. But the rest of the cast is note-perfect as well, from Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux as EDM-listening rebel singles living in the forest, to John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw as David's equally forlorn friends, to Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia as David's pre-selected mate. The Lobster is certainly absurd, but it's observations on modern courtship reveal truth can be stranger than fiction.
2. Don't Think Twice (dir. Mike Birbiglia)
There are certain expectations for a film about an improv troupe challenged by the closing of their theatre. It could be a ripe backstage drama with bits of comedy peppered in. Or it could be an uproarious comedy with a few dramatic touches. Considering that the cast features comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Gillian Jacobs (Community), Mike Birbiglia (Orange is the New Black), Kate Micucchi (Garfunkel & Oates), Tami Sagher (Inside Amy Schumer), and Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show), you would understandably expect the latter. And to be fair, Don't Think Twice is plenty funny, especially when it lets these gifted actors cut loose. But the film has much more than that on its mind, as Jack's (Key) opportunity to land a spot on a Saturday Night Live-esque show opens up old wounds and new opportunities for the group. Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) evades the easy clichés of this type of story by grounding everything in the interactions between the characters, borrowing more from John Cassavettes than other stand-ups-turned-filmmakers such as Woody Allen or Louis C.K. Make no mistake, however, that Birbiglia is doing more than mere impression; he's created a truly engaging work of art, one that earns every laugh and tear it provokes.
1. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
On the surface, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) latest film doesn't seem like much: three quasi-connected stories about three women living in Montana, adapted from a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy and shot in Reichardt's usual quietly observational style. That's where Reichardt has been taken for granted over the past decade-plus of her career: where "nothing" seems to be happening is actually rich with meaning in the pauses, the glances, the way her characters carry themselves or stand in each other's company. Certain Women is Reichardt's strongest film yet, as she takes advantage of the triptych structure to present three very different elliptical stories that thrive on the performances of the lead actors. Laura Dern is a lawyer caught up in the least-intense hostage situation ever committed to film. Michelle Williams is a mother stubbornly steamrolling everyone around her to build the cabin of her dreams. And, in the film's most breathtaking sequence, newcomer Lily Gladstone is a rancher who chases her attraction to the new teacher (Kristen Stewart, amazing) at the learning annex. Reichardt refuses to frame these stories in traditional ways, instead letting her actors make the story happen as she observes them (but make no mistake, Reichardt has considerable control of her art). There's indescribable power in the way Dern exhaustedly agrees to help her client, in the self-satisfied smile on Williams' face, and the gut-wrenching silence between Gladstone and Stewart. That power is cumulative; by the time the credits rolled, I was devastated. Certain Women is more than the best film of the year. It's a masterpiece by one of the United States' best working filmmakers.