All right, so maybe the movies aren’t dead, after all.
Earlier this year, a few other writers and I caused a ruckus among those who care deeply for the medium by stating that the sun may be setting on the movies as we’ve known them for over a century. Outrage ensued, and valid disagreements, and an awful lot of testy sub-tweets. Which is as it should be.
I was writing at the end of an especially dispiriting summer silly season, after our communal cultural sensibilities had been ground to a nub by hollow, joyless spectacles like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” and cynical “alt”-superhero movies like “Deadpool” and “Suicide Squad,” the former a big, snarky hit and the latter a seeming commandment.
Soon enough, though, the fall film festivals and the run-up to awards season were here, and, lo, cinema that was rewarding, interesting, and good was once more upon the land. As it had been all year, if you knew where to look.
In point of fact, it has been harder than usual to narrow my Top 10 list this year, since there was so much out there that deserves to be seen. On the most straightforward level, 2016 was a tremendous year for the movies. If you look at it another way, though, by far the majority of audiences will see the films below not in a movie theater but at home on TV or on a laptop, where those movies will compete with long-form TV series that encourage novelistic binge watching, with short-form video that serves as a daily entertainment drip, and with an ongoing barrage of social media that saps our attention span for anything we can’t pause at the press of a button.
A humorous and horrifying aside: I teach a course in criticism and review-writing, and I marvel regularly at my students’ unfamiliarity with cultural history — how they’re so overwhelmed with the Now of their current media that they have little time to investigate the Then of the past. And yet a group of them were loudly complaining the other day about younger siblings who do nothing but watch YouTube and for whom a half-hour TV show is a frightening drag on their time. Now tell me again that in 20 years the majority of the population will be going to movie theaters to marvel together at a 120-minute story?
Maybe we will be. More likely, movie theaters will have even further split into mega-coliseums for the “event” franchises that trade on moviegoers’ nostalgia and love of known quantities, and small dens of cinema where the faithful can still see non-factory movies in an intimate group setting in addition to watching them at home. The two-hour film that tells stories about the human comedy or the human condition is not dying — not remotely. But it will be harder to find and to share in coming years as it gets crowded out by a multiplicity of different forms that matter not to you or to me but to all the unborn coming on the heels of my students’ little brothers and sisters.
Depressed yet? Don’t be. There were some fantastic entries this year in the medium we still call the movies (and which may be fair, looking forward, to call “traditional film”). Given last year’s furor over the lack of minority representation in the Oscar nominations, it was ironically a groundbreaking year for creators of color. And not just in the cinema — the variety of vibrant and individualistic new work coming from black artists in film, TV, music, literature, and other fields was fitting for a year that saw the opening, at last, of a national museum of African- American history.
It was also a year in which the most powerful films were often about people out on the fringes, exiled by their color or sexuality, by events in their past or their place in history. In 2015, many of the most memorable movies were about teamwork — “Spotlight,” “The Martian,” “Inside Out,” “The Big Short” all stood back to showcase groups of characters working toward a common goal. In 2016, the movies that stayed with me were about the perils, pitfalls, and occasional pleasures of loneliness. Which maybe makes sense in a year in which so many cultural heroes fell by the wayside and in which the ties that bind us as a nation and a culture have rarely seemed more frayed.
Movies do reflect their times, just with a lag of a few years as they proceed from inspiration to realization, from page to screen. Maybe the isolated heroes and heroines of Cinema 2016 mirror the fractures and divisions — and the finding of strong new voices — of the late Obama years. Perhaps we’ll be witnessing a fresh burst of onscreen activism and anger in the coming decade; Lord knows, we already have enough studio fantasies to buy into. Or will the masses come to find those fantasies preferable to reality, as they did during the Great Depression?
That may depend on you — on what you yourself want from entertainment and reality looking ahead. The traditional two-hour film may not be changing. But everything around it is, and that includes us.
TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2016 (ranked in rough order of preference)
A great American story, by which I mean Barry Jenkins’s film is a great, heart-wrenching, ultimately hopeful story about growing up in an America where too many of us are labeled and sorted before we ever get a chance to do it for ourselves. How that results in cruelty and self-deception, and how unmasking oneself can sometimes take the greatest leap of faith. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and an astounding Trevante Rhodes play the three faces of Chiron — boy, adolescent, and man — navigating an urban Florida slipstream of a flawed mentor (Mahershala Ali) and addicted parent (Naomie Harris), tormenters and trusted friends, possible lovers and short-order saviors. Perhaps most refreshing, it’s a movie about a black, gay man in America that doesn’t try to be any sort of allegory, and that in its specificity seems to speak more clearly and more radically than ever. The final act, hushed and hard-won, is one of the most luminous sequences in recent movies. Hello, stranger — seems like a mighty long time.
The hero of Jim Jarmusch’s 14th feature film is another of the year’s solitary heroes, but by artistic inclination and observation: a poetry-writing bus driver (played by Adam Driver) named Paterson, in Paterson, N.J., onetime home of the great poetry writer William Carlos Williams. That last sentence is nearly a palindrome, and Jarmusch, the old Zen trickster, fills “Paterson” with doublings and visual rhymes and random sightings of identical twins. Paterson’s wife, played by the enchanting Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, is a looney-tune free spirit; their home is a small working-class bubble of creative ferment and profound contentment. In a way, “Paterson” plays like “Groundhog Day” remade as a parable of spiritual freedom, where every day is the same yet transcendently different. It’s a movie that in a terrible year gave some of us the deepest sort of solace. (Opens in Boston Jan. 6.)
Manchester by the Sea
That Kenneth Lonergan’s bleak, compassionate drama — a two-hour and 20-minute downer about a lost soul — found an appreciative mainstream audience is cause for hope. But, then, many of us know or have known someone like Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), pushed off life’s road by events and unable to ever climb back. And I think most moviegoers recognized the honest truth of the film, its sense of tragedies big and small, and how close they can come to our own dark kitchens. There’s a wintry humor to the hero’s bickerings with his nephew (Lucas Hedges) and real heartbreak in the scenes with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), but the greatness of Affleck’s minimalist performance is in his eyes, and in those long, inconsolable looks he gives from the ice floe where he lives to the warmth of our world. It’s a movie to make you feel both sad and alive.
OJ: Made in America
“He had everything,” someone says about O.J. Simpson in the final moments of this epic eight-hour documentary, made for and aired on ESPN but available in theaters as well. Ezra Edelman’s film has everything, too: celebrity, race, racism, murder, entitlement, delusional thinking, the madness of crowds. By going back to root the story in Simpson’s legendary rise from poverty to athletic superstardom and in the sorry legacy of race relations and policing in California (and elsewhere), “OJ: Made in America” at last pulls “the trial of the century” away from tabloid sensationalism toward clear-eyed social history. In the process, it offers a richly damning portrait of compartmentalization as it functioned in the mind of one very famous, very disturbed individual and in the culture that helped create him.
The lost soul in Pablo Larraín’s nervy, empathetic psycho-bio-drama is merely one of the most revered women of the 20th century: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, careening through the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Rather than a historical tableau that presents Jackie as waxwork nobility, Larraín brings his camera so close it seems to penetrate her emotions. Is fame without power just a kind of cage? How is performing as a great man’s wife different from playing the role of his widow? What is Jackie supposed to do with the parts she can’t show the public: the sorrow, the resentment, the rage? In the early scenes, Natalie Portman appears to be doing a breathy celebrity impression; only as the film rolls on do you realize that’s the point and that her Jackie is gasping for freedom.
A watchful coming-of-age story set in the social cracks. Cincinnati, specifically; an inner-city community center, even more specifically. The boxing gym, most specifically of all, where a lonely 11-year-old girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower, as regally poised as her name) is learning how to parry the punches she senses are coming in life. But then she looks out at the older girls in their sexy, confidant drill-team routines and wants to be one of them — even if it means mimicking the seizures that roil the group like a psychological virus. Written and directed with assurance by newcomer Anna Rose Holmer, it’s a small, nearly perfect work about girls, women, fitting in, and finding oneself.
La La Land
Remember when the Hollywood musical was one of our national blessings and birthrights? Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) wants to whisk us back to that Technicolor fountain of delights in his story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) and love and Los Angeles. With dance numbers that erupt out of traffic jams, duets in the Griffith Park Observatory, lonely ballads out on the Santa Monica Pier, the movie’s a love letter to a place and a dream factory — and to the very idea that people carry grace inside themselves at all times, ready to burst out in song and steps. Along with “Paterson,” “La La Land” is a paean to the artistry in each and every one of us.
Park Chan-wook’s erotic mystery chiller thriller is, hands down, the most exquisitely crafted film of 2016 — a work of such opulent visual pleasures and subversive humor that it seduces an audience as surely as the characters seduce each other. Transposing the Victorian Era-set novel “Fingersmith” to World War II Korea, Park creates a world of gorgeous surfaces and submerged kink, of pleasure and decadence and (as always) bloody revenge. Kim Min-hee plays a fragile heiress and Kim Tae-ri a scheming housemaid, but then the twists start coming, and they keep coming. What does it all mean? Not a thing, probably. But you won’t forget it any time soon.
I Am Not Your Negro
Writer James Baldwin died in 1987, but his voice — lucid, truth-telling, blisteringly profound on the subject of America and race — seems more than ever necessary to the national conversation. In the wake of such Baldwin-influenced essayists as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the original has seemed present but absent, a ghost in the machine, so Raoul Peck’s documentary offers itself as an essential occasion for reacquaintance. Over archival footage of Baldwin’s talk-show appearances and lectures through the decades, Samuel L. Jackson reads from the work, published and unpublished, and Peck interweaves the civil rights struggle with Black Lives Matter, the deaths of Martin and Malcolm with the death of the Dream. And that voice — that voice. Required viewing, because someday there will be a quiz. (Opens in Boston in February.)
Kristen Johnson has been shooting other people’s documentaries for more than 20 years. This year she made her own out of snippets of scenes and outtakes from all those movies, and it’s a masterpiece of collage, one that forges connections across decades and continents. Brilliantly edited, “Cameraperson” cuts from genocide survivors in Bosnia to mothers in Darfur to the filmmaker’s own mother, disappearing under Alzheimer’s in the American West, and the connective tissue, you slowly realize, is empathy, sharing — seeing. Attuned primarily to the lives of women but taking in the entirety of the human drama, “Cameraperson” is simultaneously the most macro and micro work of witness this year.
The Other Best Films of 2016
(I told you it was a good year)
“Arrival” Aliens land? Send in Amy Adams, the heart and soul of this ambitious sci-fi drama.
“Certain Women” Kelly Reichardt’s trio of stories give breathing room to Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone.
“A Bigger Splash” Deliciously bad behavior and great acting from Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and manic pixie punk boy Ralph Fiennes.
“Elle” A Bunuel-esque tale of rape and revenge from Paul Verhoeven, featuring a mighty Isabelle Huppert.
“Everybody Wants Some!!” A blissfully chatty Richard Linklater party about college baseball players widening their horizons in the 1980s.
“Fire at Sea” Gianfranco Rosi’s eerie documentary about the island of Lampedusa, its fishermen, and the waves of refugees dying off its coast.
“Green Room” Fearsomely smart genre mayhem from Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin”) pits punk rockers against skinheads led by Sir Patrick Stewart. Rest in peace, Anton Yelchin.
“Hail Caesar!” A lot of people hated this daft Coen brothers romp, but anyone with a love for high old Hollywood nonsense was in clover. Channing Tatum’s dance number = sublime silliness.
“Hell or High Water” More taut genre craftsmanship, with Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbin’ brothers tailed by foxy Sheriff Jeff Bridges.
“Krisha” No-budget movies about the filmmaker’s dysfunctional family should all be this good. In the title role, Krisha Fairchild astounds.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” From animation outfit Laika (“Coraline”) comes the year’s most rapturously inventive visual feast.
“Little Men” Ira Sachs’s plangent drama follows two New York kids (shy Theo Taplitz, mouthy Michael Barbieri) whose friendship is tested by gentrification.
“Love and Friendship” The return of Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”) finds him in fine period fettle with a hilarious Jane Austen adaptation. Tom Bennett is the year’s most entertaining idiot.
“Mountains May Depart” From Jia Zhangke, a sorrowful three-act saga that meditates on China’s past, present, and future. None of them is pretty.
“Sausage Party” The filthiest, most irredeemable animated farce of 2016 was also its most metaphysical and funny. The phrase “food orgy” will never sound the same.
“13th” Ava Duvernay (“Selma”) documents America’s sorry history of racial containment and incarceration from the Civil War to today’s penal state.
“Toni Erdmann” From Germany and director Marin Ade, a woefully wonderful shaggy dog story about a slacker dad (Peter Simonischek) and his workaholic daughter (Sandra Hüller). (Opens in Boston Jan. 27.)
“Tower” A documentary about the 1966 University of Texas shootings that uses animation to take us back in time with unsettling power.
“20th Century Women” Any movie that gives free rein to Annette Bening (as a stressed-out Cool Mom in punk-era Santa Barbara) is doing something right. (Opens in Boston Jan. 13.)
“Weiner” Remember when politicians could do stupid things and not get elected? This documentary is a major work of schadenfreude — a ringside seat at an immolation.
“The Witch” Robert Eggers’s spectral debut is a bone-chiller about a Puritan family whose haunting may be all in their heads. Or not.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.