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From Boston to L.A. and Everywhere In Between, Here Are 2016’s Best Films

Manchester by the Sea gets the top spot, but there are plenty of gems.

It seems the cinematic awards season in 2016 has been more wide open than any in recent memory. That seems appropriate, considering the diversity and artistry this year had to offer at the movies. Once you dig past the glut of superheroes, sequels, prequels, retreads, and reboots, quality was in abundance. Perhaps there weren’t many titles that will be considered classics in the decades to come, but several are worth seeing and revisiting. Here’s one critic’s rundown of the year’s best.


  1. Manchester by the Sea

The fragile dynamics of a suburban Massachusetts family defined by tragedy and regret are explored with heartfelt authenticity in this superbly acted drama from director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) that’s much more than a therapy session. Casey Affleck plays a handyman at a Boston apartment complex who can’t escape his past in a deliberately paced film that rewards patience as it carefully balances humor and pathos in ways that don’t feel forced or manipulative. While meticulously capturing its wintry New England setting, it also conveys a genuine bittersweet poignancy that sidesteps clichés of family dysfunction and healing, and should resonate well beyond its distinct locale.


  1. Moonlight

Although it might seem narrow in scope, there’s plenty beneath the surface of this stylish three-chapter drama from director Barry Jenkins to generate widespread sympathy for its lead character. He’s known as Chiron, and played by different actors as a boy, a teenager, and a young man dealing with his past that includes a junkie mother, a drug-dealer guardian, childhood bullying and repressed sexuality. Jenkins tackles with audacity and sincerity the taboos associated with masculinity and cultural expectations. And bolstered by an excellent cast led by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes, the result exhibits compassion without resorting to mainstream pandering or heavy-handed sentiment.


  1. La La Land

This delightful and visually spectacular musical romance from director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) provides a fresh contemporary take on a timeless formula. It follows two dreamers on the fringes of Hollywood fame who fall in love — a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) who compromises his creativity to pay the bills in nightclubs and at wedding receptions, and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) who works as a barista between auditions. The throwback vibe is appropriate because of its resemblance to the sort of escapist musical entertainment that used to be a Hollywood staple. Heartfelt and ambitious, it won’t make you think, but it will put a smile on your face.


  1. The Lobster

Both romantic and comedic, this exhilarating comedy obliterates any genre classification. It’s a dystopian story set in the near future, when David (Colin Farrell) is among the singles sent to a “hotel” and given a time frame to find a mate before being transformed into a beast and sent into the woods to be hunted. He connects with a woman (Rachel Weisz) who is part of a movement to rebel against the oppressive system. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) creates a fascinating world of repression and isolation, and tackles it with a deadpan sense of humor. The resulting tale of animal husbandry has real bite.


  1. Hell or High Water

Every frame of this razor-sharp crime thriller vividly captures its West Texas setting, not just in the sweat dripping from its characters but its backdrop of socioeconomic despair and xenophobic distrust that raises the stakes among both cops and robbers. Specifically, it tracks the cat-and-mouse pursuit by a veteran Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) of two bank thieves (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), with personal demons affecting all sides. It’s a contemporary Western that doesn’t fall victim to genre pitfalls. In other words, there’s more depth and complexity here than a simple manhunt leading to a climactic showdown. Yet it still dishes out some old-fashioned frontier justice.


  1. Captain Fantastic

Its title might suggest otherwise, but this thought-provoking drama isn’t about superpowers or special effects. Instead, it examines outsider belief systems through an iconoclastic family that lives defiantly off the grid. More specifically, it asks what might drive a parent and his kids to leave mainstream society, and what it takes to bring them back, after radical Ben (Viggo Mortensen) retreats to the Oregon woods with his six children while his wife battles a mysterious illness. Writer-director Matt Ross crafts a sharply observed and even-handed character study with offbeat charm, while Mortensen gives a ferocious performance as a stubborn malcontent who obstinately defends his methods.


  1. Tower

There’s plenty of contemporary resonance to this gripping documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the 1966 sniper shootings from the University of Texas tower. Mixing archival footage and interviews with rotoscope animation, director Keith Maitland re-creates the hot summer day in Austin during which 17 people were killed and dozens wounded in a random act of violence. Told from the perspective of survivors, rescuers and witnesses on the ground, the film is vivid and powerful without turning heavy-handed in making connections to the unfortunate prevalence of such attacks today. The visual gimmicks add a haunting layer to a well-researched chronicle that’s both insightful and poignant.


  1. Hooligan Sparrow

This powerful documentary looks as social injustice in China through the eyes of Ye Haiyan, a women’s rights advocate who stages a protest over a series of sexual assaults involving corrupt federal officials and young girls, and the loopholes in the country’s flimsy prostitution laws that allow them to get away with it. She winds up being persecuted by the government, of course, along with filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who was chronicling her efforts (the Chinese don’t like suspicious cameras). Although it’s structurally uneven, the film shines a thought-provoking spotlight on a courageous woman and offers a worthwhile salute to grassroots activism in the face of oppression.


  1. Krisha

What starts out as another dysfunctional family gathering for the holidays takes a dark turn into a middle-aged woman’s haunting struggle for normalcy in this striking debut from director Trey Edward Shults. Specifically, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) arrives with an affliction and plenty of emotional baggage to a suburban Thanksgiving, determined to reconcile with her family, before her demons don’t allow things to go as planned. The film achieves some authentic character dynamics with improvised dialogue and a cast of mostly newcomers. Yet the confident low-budget visuals and unflinching attention to sensory details add an unsettling layer of tension to the proceedings that sticks with you afterward.


  1. Eye in the Sky

A provocative examination of the logistical advantages and ethical challenges of essentially having an outsourced military, and how it affects traditional rules of surveillance and engagement, this thriller conveys an ominous authenticity. A top-secret British military operation in Kenya sees intelligence officials using drones to monitor suspected suicide bombers. When a colonel (Helen Mirren) tracks them to an abandoned house in a small village, she alerts an American pilot (Aaron Paul) behind a console in Las Vegas who’s appointed to fire the kill shot. As it ratchets up the tension, the film smartly incorporates common fears regarding the evolving war on terror without resorting to cheap exploitation.


Honorable mention:

  1. Jackie
  2. I Am Not Your Negro
  3. Toni Erdmann
  4. The Handmaiden
  5. Hacksaw Ridge
  6. Sully
  7. Silence
  8. The Wailing
  9. Zootopia
  10. Midnight Special