2016: A film odyssey

10. “Zootopia”

It beats out “Moana” for the animated movie slot because its lesson is slightly better: the film doesn’t just stop at the fact that men are often boorish and unhelpful, it continues to show that institutional racism is awful but correctable. The film, about a majority prey population living in close contact with demonized “predators,” has many funny jokes that work on two levels (e.g. “Only a bunny can call another bunny cute”) and visuals with unexpected punch. Consider the bracing microaggression when a rabbit hugs her baby closer as a tiger sits next to her on the subway.

9. “Hell or High Water”

A throwback cops and robbers Western about law and order vs. lawlessness, as revealed by facial hair. Reluctant heist man Chris Pine gives one of the finest performances by a man with an unpardonably messy beard since Colin Farrell in “Miami Vice.” He’s chased by Jeff Bridges, a Texas Ranger with a perfectly-maintained soup strainer. The two men tangle across West Texas, with each other and with hilarious diner proprietresses who are having none of their bull.

8. “Arrival”

Denis Villanueve directs this quiet, intellectual film about language and aliens. Though the threat of species annihilation is always bubbling in their minds, “Arrival” manages to be less depressing than Villanueve’s previous feature, “Sicario,” probably because there are fewer human beings involved. One lasting glory of this year at the movies is Amy Adam’s linguist looking at the full message the aliens leave her, a broad abstract expressionist canvas of their peaceful offering to the world.

7. & 6. “Loving” & “Midnight Special”

The finest contemporary chronicler of simple American lives is Jeff Nichols and he gifted us two features this year. He refuses flourishes, whether making a film about the seminal Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case (“Loving”) or the saga of an extraterrestrial boy who can shoot satellites out of the sky with his mind (“Midnight Special”). His motifs include roadways, impossible family decisions, lived-in houses and the cavernous eyes of his go-to actor, Michael Shannon. This line of dialogue might apply to either wrenching film: “The blood don’t know what it is.” But Nichols does.

5. “The Lobster”

In this highly credible satire, “the City” is patrolled by uniformed men demanding marriage paperwork and, if you don’t have it, you’re sent to “the Hotel,” where you’ll find a mate or be turned into a wild animal of your choice. “The Lobster” is the logical extension of our current mania for the polite emptiness of online dating, where couples are pressed together by algorithms and every dream vacation destination is deadened by the tepid prose of glossy airplane magazines. In the movie at least, those who break free spend an uproarious time on the lam, in woods filled with people they used to know, now in the form of a camel or flamingo.

4. “La La Land”

Here’s the throwback to classic Hollywood we pretended “The Artist” was in 2011. As with “Whiplash,” when director Damien Chazelle swings, he swings again and again until his arms get tired. Seeing a Los Angeles where the old movie palaces are shut down and the big band halls have transitioned to samba and tapas places, Chazelle reveals his burning passion for jazz and classic cinema. “La La Land” is jammed with song and dance, rash technicolor displays and literal flights of fancy. Charming actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone often wear looks that show they can’t help themselves — they’ve made something special.

3. “Manchester by the Sea”

Casey Affleck proves a thousand times better than his brother at playing a damaged man, featuring in one of the best films of the year while Ben cast his steely gaze at whatever it was in the last “Batman” flick. Given the brutal plot summary of “Manchester by the Sea,” it’s surprising that it’s also the most laugh-out-loud funny film of the year. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan provides a savagely hilarious script, including a very funny cameo for himself, yelling at Affleck. As a bonus, the film doubles as excellent motivation to drink less over New Year’s.

2. “American Honey”

In making the combustible “American Honey,” director Andrea Arnold embedded herself with many nonprofessional actors and one merely unprofessional one (Shia LaBeouf, rocking perhaps the world’s most alarming pigtail). The best of her finds, picked off a beach in Miami, is Sasha Lane, who brings startling passion to her role as a door-to-door magazine seller. A whole crew of hustlers, led by LaBeouf, is shot hazily from vans and cheap motels — this is a meandering road movie lensed across the South and Midwest, places deep in the American twilight full of poverty and grace and bad tattoos. Arnold knows how music can make or break a moment and when Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blasts across the Wal-Mart checkout aisles it’s a fitting hymn for the film and for our time.

1. “Moonlight”

No points for originality here. But it speaks to the brilliance of Barry Jenkins that the critics’ choice and the Oscar favorite are one and the same this season. One hopes this remarkable film, eye-catching on the first viewing and rewarding across many more, is the start of a needed response to the whiteness of the Hollywood whale. After most other images from this year are forgotten, there will be the magnificent Mahershala Ali holding that boy in the water — so, so blue.

Ten more to see:

Auteur Curiosities:

“Knight of Cups”

“Neon Demon”

“Nocturnal Animals”

Can’t Miss Documentaries:


“I Am Not Your Negro”

“O.J. Simpson: Made in America”

Amiable Ensembles:

“Hail, Caesar”

“Love and Friendship”

Solo Acts:



Watch the 'Manchester By The Sea' trailer here: