1. Moonlight- “Who is you?”
The question seems to knock Chiron backward. That’s because when it’s asked toward the end of Barry Jenkins’ moving, intimate epic, everything that preceded it seems to wash over him at once. Told in three stages of his life — as a young boy, a teenager and an adult — Moonlight charts Chrion’s evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity. Jenkins crafts scenes filled with long, winding conversation where Chiron slowly unfolds his inner desires as well as moments of loud, visual splendor, as in a scene where Chrion’s father figure Juan brings him to the beach. Chiron’s entry into the water is overwhelmed by Nicholas Britell’s stirring, string-heavy score, the camera seemingly placed on the water’s surface as Juan supports Chiron as he floats on his back.
It’s exceedingly rare to see a film like this, a black, queer coming-of-age story that morphs into a beautifully observed romance, get a nationwide release and even an awards push. It’s nice to see the film get this kind of exposure, and hopefully it leads to Jenkins getting more resources for his next endeavor. However, the breathtaking artistry with which he realizes this deeply personal vision transcends whatever awards hype Moonlight might garner. Jenkins charts Chiron’s inner life and emerging queer identity with extraordinary empathy and images of overwhelming power, finding rhyming verbal and visual cues that echo across decades. –Matt
2. Manchester by the Sea- Films often portray grief as a series of steps characters move through to reach the end of a dark tunnel and emerge back into the light. Kenneth Lonergran’s exceptional Manchester by the Sea is one of the few to acknowledge that, sometimes, a tidy reconciliation never arrives. The past continues to haunt and inform the present. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living in Massachusetts – he sulks through his work with a dead-eyed stare, sometimes snapping to life at slight transgressions from customers and bar patrons. It is clear he is a man suffering, unable to rectify himself. Chandler is called back to his hometown, Machester-by-the-Sea – a place that holds painful memories – when he is informed his brother Joe has had a heart attack. Joe’s son, Patrick, comes under the temporary guardianship of Lee as the two negotiate the best course of action and form a strained – and often humorous – reconnection.
Lonergran’s 2011 film Margaret was an operatic and ambitious melodrama about a teenager emerging from solipsism in New York City, with narrative threads that piled on and split off in all directions to overwhelming effect. The tangled narrative structure is still here, albeit on a much smaller scale, absent of the escalating drama and more attuned to the ways comedy can coincide with tragedy. Its script is unconcerned with easy resolutions or adhering to formulaic notions of “growth” and “change” – most of the characters here end up much the same as before. As we all often do. -Sam
3. Little Sister- Zach Clark’s Little Sister at first seems like a more traditional dysfunctional family story, one of old wounds reopening and resentful black sheep. However, Clark and his superb cast take the movie in surprising, moving directions. Set mostly in October 2008, the plot is structured around the build-up to the election of Barack Obama, focusing on a family that is devastated and exhausted, though defiantly upbeat, at the end of the Bush II era. After several years away, the young novitiate Colleen Lunsford is returning home to Ashville, N.C. from Brooklyn to see her brother, who is recently out of the hospital after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War. Since returning home he lives as a recluse, and Colleen becomes determined to help her brother heal in what limited ways she can.
Her solution? Bringing back her high school goth look: dying her hair, whipping out her neglected black lipstick and donning her old wardrobe. (When she returns home, her bedroom is just as she left it, painted black and decked out with an upside down crucifix, band posters and drawers full of Hot Topic ware.) It’s part of her higher calling, an attempt to stir her brother out of hiding by giving him a glimpse of the past. Little Sister culminates in a hallucinatory Halloween gathering that ends with a drugged-out car chase. It’s the perfect climax to this astonishing movie, a touching, twisted family drama told against America’s uneasy political landscape. –Matt
4. Certain Women- In Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt weaves together three quietly wondrous and moving tales of women living on the Montana plains. The characters rarely cross paths directly, but they are connected by both the setting and a meditative yearning. The film features a slew of understated, melancholy performances from established stars like Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, but a breakthrough turn from Lily Gladstone, who anchors the third segment, steals the show. As a rancher inexplicably drawn to a lawyer (Stewart) teaching a school law class in her town, Gladstone taps into a profound, quiet longing, enhanced by Reichardt’s devastatingly precise use of close-ups. Certain Women is filled with moments of performance that are so finely calibrated they stick in your mind for days afterward. –Matt
5. Love & Friendship- In Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s latest sharp-tongued comedy of manners, the widow Lady Susan navigates an intricate web of 18th century British aristocrats as she seeks out a suitable new husband. She’s also on the lookout for a husband for her daughter, Frederica, but she has no qualms about looking after herself first. Lady Susan bests the easily scandalized noblemen and women she’s forced to tolerate by knowing the rules better than any of them, and Kate Beckinsale brings ruthless comic timing and unbreakable poise to role. Stillman’s fusion with a Jane Austen short story yields one of the wittiest films of the past several years. –Matt
6. The Other Side- Roberto Minervini’s meta-documentary The Other Side, a disquieting interrogation of the Obama-age reverie, now plays as almost prophetic post-election. For most of its runtime, the film follows Mark Kelly, a man living in West Monroe, Louisiana. A warrant is out for his arrest and so he is forced to the margins, living as a manufacturer, seller and user of meth. He interacts regularly with his girlfriend Lisa, his sister, his niece, nephew and a few of the locals. From the beginning, two details are made clear – Minervini has somehow gained full access to Mark’s life and is working with him to construct scenes for the film.
By dissolving barriers between subject and filmmaker almost entirely, the director seems to court accusations of dubious intent from the start: Mark shoots up a pregnant stripper, smokes meth, proposes in a swamp and is even intimate with Lisa on camera. Minervini complicates perception of his character – and all of his subjects – by showing the breadth of his personhood – from his fear of the impending death of his mother to his hopes for getting clean and growing old with Lisa. Love is still alive through the despair. In the final third, the film leaves Mark’s story for a libertarian anti-Obama militia, all preparing for the day Martial Law comes to America. Unlike Mark, these men have the power to exercise and organize as a group. They are armed and convinced. In this environment, shrouded in fear, Minervini suggests an abject failure of commiserating with a country steeped in paranoia. He is presenting questions but denying answers. It is an angry, important and confounding film that runs the risk of dismissal as a “shock-documentary,” undermining both its political fury and complex humanism. –Sam
7. Hail, Caesar!- Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! is a detective story set amid the extravagant musicals and melodramas of a ’50s Hollywood studio. The “detective,” Eddie Mannix, is a fixer for Capitol Studios out to find the star of their latest epic, who was drugged and abducted from the studio before his crucial closing monologue scene. The Coens stage Mannix’s search for leading man Baird Whitlock not as something urgent but as something that will likely sort itself out. His location is just one of the many things on Mannix’s plate, and long stretches of the movie abandon the central plot altogether. The Coens bask in the wonder and behind-the-scenes intrigue of old Hollywood productions, conjuring up a mood of mystery rather than focusing on the process of solving one. –Matt
8. Mountains May Depart- Told over the span of more than two decades, Jia Zhangke’s latest film is a chronicle of the seismic shifts in Chinese society that is centered around a woman named Tao and her friends and relatives. Beginning in 1999, Mountains May Depart focuses on two men vying for Tao’s hand in marriage. She chooses Jinsheng, the wealthier of the two who owns a coal mine. Once the two have a child together, the movie skips ahead to 2014, where a now-divorced Tao is reunited with her and Jinsheng’s young son Dollar after the death of her father.
The middle segment is anchored by an exceptional performance by Zhao Tao, who heartbreakingly conveys both Tao’s grief over her dad’s death and the uncertainty over how to interact with her son. Dollar dominates the final portion of the movie, set in 2025 in Australia. He has hidden his memories of China and his mother away, though his longing to reconnect with them surfaces when he begins an affair with his language teacher. Mountains May Depart is a moving, singular meditation on family in the face of rapid, constant change. –Matt
9. O.J.: Made in America- With O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman has crafted an exhaustive, probing interrogation of celebrity, race and the media. The O.J. Simpson murder trial became a flashpoint for all of these things and more, and Edelman uses a wealth of archival footage and several newly conducted interviews with key players in the trial to create a nearly 8 hour epic that chips away at the highlight reel still embedded in the national conscience. Beginning with his time as a college football player, the movie covers his rise to NFL stardom before the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. It then goes through the trial and out into its bizarre aftermath, where Simpson slowly crumbles under the weight of his perceived invincibility. Made in America is as much a portrait of him as it is the society that produced him. –Matt
10. Weiner- The story of Anthony Weiner, the former New York Congressman and failed mayoral candidate, took a disturbing turn in 2016. In late August, months after the Sundance debut of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s stunning documentary about him, it was reported that Weiner had been sending raunchy messages and photographs to a woman while his young son was in bed with him. This development casts a shadow over the Weiner of Weiner, a man attempting to overcome his initial sexting scandal during his failed New York City mayoral run. In the documentary, he comes off as a relentless, impulsive narcissist, but also as a confrontational idealist. Weiner shows how the causes he championed fell to the wayside once he became an easy punchline. He attracted large media crowds mostly so they could remind him that everyone has seen his penis. Whatever happens to Weiner from here, the documentary remains a real-life horror story of the digital age, a grueling tale of the permanence of online communication and the ways it seeps into the real world. –Matt
11. Krisha- Trey Edward Shults makes an bold directorial debut with this relentless Thanksgiving melodrama. Krisha is the story of a woman (Krisha Fairchild) who visits her family for the holiday to make amends for her turbulent past. The reunion only causes her to retreat back into it, opening up old wounds and carving out fresh ones. The camera shares Krisha’s frantic perspective, sometimes observing her at a nervous distance or lingering on Fairchild’s face as she searches for a way back into the family. It’s a hallucinatory, volcanic tale of dysfunction with an incredible lead performance. –Matt
12. A Bigger Splash- Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is a transfixing, jealousy-tinged pool party anchored by four distinct, memorable performances from Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson. Swinton plays the Bowie-esque rock star Marianne Lane, who is rendered nearly silent for much of the movie after vocal chord surgery. (She whispers occasionally). Her and her lover Paul (Schoenaerts) retreat to the Italian island of Pantelleria for her to recover and relax, though that is interrupted when her old friend Harry (Fiennes) shows up with his daughter (Johnson).
Having an actress as transfixing as Swinton relegated to a largely silent part may seem a waste, but the power of her screen presence is one of the movie’s main focuses. It’s also offset by an aggressive performance from Fiennes, who buries Harry’s resentment toward Marianne and Paul’s happiness with rambunctious acts of attention-seeking. Guadagnino’s camera captures the sun-drenched ecstasy of Pantelleria and ties its characters’ sexuality to the island’s earthiness. His movie’s eroticism carries an undercurrent of dread that erupts in a tragic, unexpected climax. –Matt
13. The Edge of Seventeen- Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature is a hilarious and poignant coming-of-age tale, one that hones in on teenage anxiety and depression with tremendous empathy. After her father’s death, Nadine hides behind a shield of detachment and sarcasm. One of the few people she confides in, her best friend Krista, begins dating her older brother, a stinging betrayal that makes Nadine feel even more alienated. With a whip-smart screenplay and one of the year’s best ensembles, including an excellent lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen establishes Fremon Craig as an exciting new filmmaking voice. –Matt
14. The Handmaiden- Park Chan-wook’s latest is a lavish and elaborate con movie set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. The mark, at first, is Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress living in an extravagant villa with her evil uncle. A con-man posing as a Count recruits a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to work as a handmaiden and help him persuade Hideko to marry him. Once married, the Count will have the power to have her declared insane and thrown in the madhouse so they can steal her fortune. Carnal attraction throws a spectacular wrench in the plan, though, as the handmaiden and Hideko fall madly in lust. As the nature of the movie’s con shifts, Park luxuriates in crossing and double crossing his characters, in observing their secret chats and stolen glances. It’s clear he enjoys teasing the kink out of the period setting, relishing in its over-the-top eroticism with a twisted sense of humor. He tells The Handmaiden like he’s lacing a corset, tightening the narrative until its combination of dread and desire feel suffocating, then taking a knife and slicing it open. –Matt
15. Jackie- In Jackie, director Pablo Larrain depicts national grief on a powerfully intimate scale. Told mostly in a feverish assault of flashbacks, the film hones in on former First Lady Jackie Kennedy as she relives the days surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during an interview, attempting to guide the historical narrative while simultaneously mourning him. Jackie is structured as a behind-the-scenes look at the crafting of many iconic images, images informed by both authenticity and artifice. The movie’s key scene happens in a nighttime car ride, when Jackie asks the driver about other presidents who died in office. He can only name the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln and moments later, back at the White House, she’s researching the details of his funeral as she plans her husband’s. She knows the world is watching her and her children mourn, and she knows the preservation of her family legacy is on the line even as she sits stunned on a plane immediately after his death, still wearing her pink, blood-stained suit. –Matt
Lemonade (Dirs. Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles)
The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)
Knight of Cups (Dir. Terrence Malick)
Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood)
They Look Like People (Dir. Perry Blackshear)
Everybody Wants Some!! (Dir. Richard Linklater)
The Invitation (Dir. Karyn Kusama)
Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie)
The Fits (Dir. Anna Rose Helmer)
Our Little Sister (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Note: Many films, like Silence, Elle and 20th Century Women, did not open in Michigan by the end of 2016 and were not considered for this list