I was fortunate enough this year to be at both Sundance and Cannes, so it was something like agony for me to watch the litany of critics and commentators who spent the summer and early fall complaining about the year in film — all while movies such as Manchester by the Sea, Cameraperson, Paterson, Toni Erdmann, and The Handmaiden waited in the wings. The release schedule these days mandates that studio blockbusters dominate the summer, while the awards contenders (the supposedly “good stuff”) rule October, November, and December. I can say that whittling the list of films I liked down to twenty — forget about ten — was a supremely painful experience. That’s a good year.
But here’s the thing: Even as the oh-noes-what-a-turribul-year hot takes were rolling in, the best and most electrifying film of 2016 had already come out. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, a 71-minute, coming-of-age drama about an eleven-year-old tomboy who decides to join a dance drill team, premiered at Sundance and was in theaters by early summer. Released by Oscilloscope, it did solid business for such a modestly budgeted film. But that should emphasize, yet again, the importance of seeking out smaller titles. The Fits is a movie that pays less attention to dialogue and more to space, movement, composition, and sound.
My favorite documentary of the year, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, had a similarly aestheticized logline and approach: It’s a personal memoir built out of unused fragments Johnson, a veteran doc cinematographer, has shot over the course of her career. Both works sound like cerebral oddities, yet they wiped the floor with me emotionally. Still, they are tiny films, and you have to know them to seek them out; there aren’t going to be giant billboards or exhaustive Oscar-season campaigns piledriving them into your consciousness.
And, irredeemable vulgarian that I am, I must discuss Oscar season a bit. This has been a strong year for awards contenders, too; that’s not always the case. Nominations and at least a win or two seem all but assured for films like Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, La La Land, and maybe even Hell or High Water and Silence. Many of my critic friends will spend the holiday season duking it out over the relative merits of each, and will surely be convinced that anyone who likes this or that title should be banished from the ranks of those worth trusting.
For my part, I’m excited by a landscape that can make room for Damien Chazelle’s shambling, colorful confectionery alongside Barry Jenkins’s understated coming-of-age drama, and Kenneth Lonergan’s spectacle of irreducible grief alongside Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-the-making meditation on faith. Cinema as banquet and cinema as prayer; 2016 gave us plenty of both.
Here are my top 20 films of 2016:
1. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
3. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
4. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
5. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
6. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
8. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
9. Tower (Keith Maitland)
10. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
11. Little Men (Ira Sachs)
12. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
13. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
14. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
15. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
16. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau)
17. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
18. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
19. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
20. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)