Over the next few weeks, Vulture will be publishing our critics' year-end lists. Today, we're looking at the best films and performances.
1. La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical revolves around a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) who fall lyrically in love and threaten to come uncoupled when the needle gets to the record’s end: The tension between Hollywood dreams and the reality of making art is too fierce. Despite the real-world sting, this is the closest thing since Umbrellas of Cherbourg to what I’d call a “unified field theory” of music and film. Everything — the movement of the camera, the vibrant colors of the set and costumes, the rhythms of the (gorgeous) actors — enhances everything else, so that the stylishness is exponential, maybe even existential. But the movie doesn’t feel over-manicured. There’s an easiness to its gait. Justin Hurwitz’s songs aren’t big blowouts. They’re intimate, like humming or whistling taken to the next level. After a year like 2016, we need us some harmony.
2. Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie’s haunting neo-Western (from a witty, layered script by Taylor Sheridan) features bank robbers, rangers, cowboys, and Indians, but the time is the present and the West — here, West Texas — is a different place: The frontier that gave birth to symbols of “rugged individualism” is now a home for the collectively dispossessed. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the brothers who steal from banks that have stolen from others, Jeff Bridges the sardonic lawman on their tail. It’s a near masterpiece.
3. 20th Century Women
Mike Mills’s funny, tender, angry, and deeply affecting tribute to the women who made him a man is set in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter’s preacherly warnings of spiritual malaise drove America into the arms of the sunny con-man Reagan. Annette Bening gives a career-peak performance as the nervous, overbearing mother who struggles to maintain her equilibrium. Elle Fanning is the beautiful teenage neighbor who nightly slips into the bed of Mills’s alter ego (Lucas Jade Zumann) — but only to cuddle. Greta Gerwig is the free-spirited boarder. What’s incomparable is the mix of New Age dreaminess and tough psychological realism.
Trey Edward Shults’s micro-budget debut charts the Thanksgiving family-reunion movie of our nightmares — a virtuoso symphony of bad vibes featuring members of Shults’s own family. Chief among them is the director’s aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who plays a bedraggled woman in her 60s who’s eager to prove to the relatives she has hurt or abandoned that she’s different — clean, sober, responsible. Too eager, maybe. Shults is not yet 30, but he has a gift for translating thought and emotion into camera moves, composition, and sound, so that Krisha’s inner chaos becomes the whole world.
5. O.J.: Made in America
And made for television, really, but shown in enough theaters to qualify for encomiums and awards from film critics. It deserves them. Using amazing archival footage and fresh interviews, Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute O.J. Simpson epic pokes and prods, extrapolates and interpolates. We see the fractious world out of which the inhumanly handsome and talented black football star emerged and the impact of that world on his psyche. We see how a man with zero interest in being a symbol for his race became an instrument of black revenge on a police force that had brutalized them for decades.
A delicate, moody exploration of identity — sexual, racial, and human. In three chapters with three different main actors, director Barry Jenkins puts us inside the head of a tight-lipped, fatherless African-American named Chiron as he grows from a lonely boy to a lonely adult, with a moment of intimacy in the middle of the middle section: a brief sexual encounter with a teenager named Kevin on a Florida beach. It’s the gentlest of great films.
7. The Witness
James D. Solomon’s often agonizing documentary follows Bill Genovese, whose older sister, Kitty, was stabbed to death by a man named Winston Moseley outside her Kew Gardens apartment in 1964, screaming for help while (according to the New York Times) 38 people watched and did nothing. A poster child for an age of apathy, Kitty inspired Bill to go to Vietnam — where he lost both his legs. Now, a half century later, he’s tracking down the surviving “38,” a number that turns out to be far from accurate, although how far is one of the movie’s many haunting mysteries.
8. The Handmaiden
That fount of cinematic cruelty Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) is the last director I’d have imagined could turn out a melodrama as lush and romantic as this adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith. But the formal constraints do wonders for him. The surface — set in Korea in the 1930s under Japanese occupation — is gorgeous, while the director’s perversity bubbles up from beneath.
Director Keith Maitland uses rotoscoped animation to recreate events from the excruciatingly limited perspective of people near the University of Texas at Austin clock tower on August 1, 1966 — when a man on the 27th floor opened fire on passersby. The narrators include two people struck by bullets, a pregnant woman and a boy on a bicycle, as well as cops and civilians who risked their lives to carry off victims or climb the tower. Maitland switches back and forth between animation and grainy news footage, often mixing the two. Rather than distancing us, the animation brings us closer to the horror — for which people in 1966 had no context. Different times.
10. Zero Days
Another masterly Alex Gibney documentary — his most urgent, which is saying something. Using animation and interviews (some wonderfully wonky, others — by top U.S. officials — cagey), Gibney details the genesis of the super computer virus dubbed Stuxnet, created by the U.S. and Israel to disable Iran’s chief nuclear facility. The storytelling is superb, the climax dismaying. Israel allegedly went too far, leaving wised-up and increasingly computer-savvy Iranians and the likelihood of cyberwars to come. See it so you’ll know what’s happening when the lights go off — and why.
Although Donald Trump said that “movies aren’t as good as they used to be” (he was comparing them unfavorably to his own rallies — where crowds certainly got their share of creative fictions), I found there were too many I loved this year to include in a mere ten best list. I could easily have chosen 15 or 20. In short, the dividing line between the films above and these is very slim:
Jeff Nichols’s hushed, intense film is named for the mixed-race couple Richard and Mildred Loving, whose 1958 arrest in Caroline County, Virginia, would lead, a decade on, to the abolition of miscegenation laws in a raft of states. But by all means, feel free to read something else into that title. Taking his cue from his recessive protagonists (indelibly played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), Nichols pares down his style and paces the film slowly. But the air is thick with dread, and the longueurs have a tremendous cumulative power.
12. Toni Erdmann
The material is conventional, but the tone so insanely deadpan that audiences scream with pleasure. Sandra Huller is the severe, hypercontrolled Bucharest-based business consultant whose German father (Peter Simonischek) lumbers into her life with a black fright wig and fake snaggleteeth. He’s there to make her laugh — and make her human again. A reason for ambivalence: It’s an act of patriarchal sabotage against a woman trying to make it in business. A reason for embrace: The female director, Maren Ade, seems to identify so strongly with her female protagonist that the drama plays out in the movie’s tone. Toni Erdmann (that’s the name of the dad’s alter ego) brings joyful release whenever he comes.
I saw this very late and am still grappling with it. It’s Martin Scorsese’s austere and sublime adaptation of one of his favorite books, Shusaku Endo’s novel about Portuguese Catholic priests who travel to 17th-century Japan, where the government has begun to torture and even crucify Christians in huge numbers. Captured, the priests are called upon to become apostates — to stomp on an image of Christ called the fumi-e — and the “silence” is God’s response to the agonized cries of His adherents. The focus of the story turns out to be not conventional martyrdom but the unexamined complexities of Judas-like betrayal and failure — not an easy thing to capture onscreen. Still, you must see and grapple with it yourself.
14. Don’t Think Twice
Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s second feature is a bleak ensemble drama that charts the dissolution of a warm improv-comedy ensemble. It’s funny and inspiring and harsh and depressing. Birbiglia gets the minutiae of an improv-comedy show exuberantly right while using the form to build a kind of allegory of the corrosive effects of capitalism. (Movies tend to focus on winners — you don’t see many about the hell of being left behind.) The cast (which includes Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, and Seth Barris as a bloodcurdling stand-in for Lorne Michaels) is flawless.
15. The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer’s engrossing and increasingly bizarre drama opens as a conventional tale of a little Cincinnati girl torn between boxing (a stereotypically boyish sport at which she has great talent) and drill (at which she shows little talent). But then come the “fits”: seizures experienced by girls that might or might not be connected to the community center's water — or might be a manifestation of something else. In any case, you know from the first frame that Holmer is the real thing: She has an eye and, just as important, an ear. (The soundtrack has an insinuating life of its own.) And Royalty Hightower is a dream camera object: Everything she does feels both real and poetically heightened*.
16. Little Men
As in his Love Is Strange, Ira Sachs uses the terrifying New York real-estate market as a metaphor — as well as a catalyst for driving decent human beings apart. Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle are the financially strapped couple who inherit a brownstone with a first-floor tenant: a dress shop owned by a Chilean single mom played by the extraordinary Paulina Garcia. They could be getting more money, but the woman was good to the elderly previous owner and their 13-year-old boy has become friends with her son. The movie’s power is in its humanism, in how the characters resist the melodramatic flow. And yet ...
* This post originally misstated details about The Fits.