1. Manchester by the Sea is a heartbreaker that feels so real you leave the cinema feeling as if the story has happened to someone you know well and care about. I think it also boasts the best performances of the year in Casey Affleck's heartbroken handyman and Michelle Williams as a woman doing everything she can to survive. Rarely does a film so well use sense of place as this one. It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who also made You Can Count on Me, and--a favorite film of mine--Margaret, an underrated masterpiece inspired by a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem.
2. Sunset Song. Terrence Davies is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers ever yet this film didn't make much of a splash in America. It should have, as it is the film that has most haunted me this year with its sweeping scenes of farmers working their fields or the rising chorus as they stroll to church (as shown in the short scene I'm embedding below). It's a film that uses words like "gloaming" and Scottish colloquialisms, where long scenes have characters singing folk songs, where the lead character, Chris, sits in fields of golden wheat and considers her life.
3. The Witch. This is one of the all-time best horror films, I think. I loved everything about it, especially what it says about the dangers of fundamentalism. Most of the dialogue is taken from actual witch trial documents of the time period. The blooms of red amongst the mostly black, white, and gray tones of the film make the scenes of violence even more startling. At least a couple of the scenes are absolutely mesmerizing.
4. La La Land. True movie magic, and a soundtrack I can't stop listening to. Emma Stone will steal your heart.
5. Moonlight. The colors, the performances, the sense of place, that "baptism" scene, all of it is masterful, and perhaps its strongest suit is that it takes characters who are so often stereotyped and paints them as dignified, faulted, vulnerable, angry, and everything in between for complex and realistic creations.
6. Sing Street. The feel-good movie of the year but I confess the ending left me a sobbing mess. But in a good way. This story of a rag-tag bunch of musicians in 1980s Dublin will appeal to anyone who ever had a dream.
7. Midnight Special. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi so it's interesting that three of my favorites of the year easily fall into that genre. This film is by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols) and I love him because he so accurately captures the ways and cadences of rural people. He really gets country folks in way that very few people in Hollywood do. My favorite movie by him is Mud, but I was enthralled by this one, too. Most of the movie deals with very real issues before it turns more sci-fi toward the end and every moment of that is pretty perfect. I wasn't crazy about the ending but I loved everything before that, especially Michael Shannon's performance.
8. Rogue One. I loved everything about this one, although I went in with some trepidation. Some people have lamented the CGI but I even loved that new layer it brought to the film. My favorite parts of it were: the last couple seconds of the film; the performance of Felicity Jones, whom I love in everything; the instantly-iconic couple Chirrup and Baze; and the new tag-line "The Force is with me and I am one with The Force". It's excellent blockbuster filmmaking but it's even more profound than that, reminding us that "someone is listening," as Jones's character Jyn Erso says.
9. The Light Between Oceans. Old fashioned romantic filmmaking at its finest. I'll watch anything with Rachel Weitz in it, and she doesn't disappoint here in one of the most beautifully filmed pictures of the year.
10. The Lobster. Rachel Weitz stars in this one, too, and it's easily the weirdest movie on my list. But I can't stop thinking about it, and especially that silent vogueing in the woods (if you've seen it you'll know what I mean). Warning: there is a disturbing scene that involves a dog in this one that almost made me stop watching. I think the graphic nature of that scene was uncalled for but it's still a very interesting and original movie with some of my favorite actors, including Weitz, Colin Farrell, and the always wonderful Olivia Colman (Broadchurch).
11. Anthropoid. An intelligent, moving, and tight war thriller about an assassination attempt during WWII.
12. The Conjuring 2. I'm a sucker for horror movies but only when they're well-made. This one is, never relying on cheap thrills, and anchored by very strong performances from Vera Farming and Patrick Wilson. I especially love how this one takes its time in the way horror films from the 70s. And that singing scene (in the clip below) was pretty sweet.
13. Loving. I had high hopes for this film. It's based on one of my favorite true stories, it's written and directed by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols, the aforementioned writer and director of Midnight Special), it has some great actors in it, it explores the complex lives of rural people. It didn't live up to my expectations but I still think it's a very good film. I love the performances, the sense of place, the realism of it all. But I kept waiting for a big emotional release in the film where the tension comes to a head and all of the frustration of the characters. Still, definitely worth seeing.
While both were beautifully made I was very disappointed by Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (which is enjoyable to watch but is ultimately just a retread of Deliverance, complete with a "hillbilly" using a toilet on his front porch) and by The Girl on the Train, which, despite a great lead performance by Emiy Blunt, just becomes two hours of watching women being assaulted.