The Oscars serve as something of an official end point to the annual film year, so I have made a habit of compiling a top ten list in the week leading up to the show each year. This has the benefit of giving me a couple of extra months to catch up on a whole host of films that either never made it to my area, or that I simply wasn’t able to see during their theatrical run.
This year I saw interesting and, in some cases, very good films from filmmakers I’ve enjoyed in the past (Linklater, Coens, Malick, Herzog) as well as exciting entries from newer or first-time filmmakers (Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, and Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle). I was also grateful for a number of films that tackled important themes such as otherness (Moonlight), injustice (13th), and family tension (Our Little Sister).
In addition to these, there were ten films that especially caught my eye this year.
10. The Innocents (dir. Anne Fontaine)
Unlike it’s namesake (1961’s The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr), this film doesn’t fit neatly into the horror genre. But a horror film it is, as we see on display these nuns falling to the temptation to preference laws over love, principles over people, and guidelines over grace. The results are painful, but even in Fontaine’s dark world, glimmers of light shine through.
9. Pete’s Dragon (dir. David Lowery)
I take great joy in sharing movies with my kids, and it is a rare treat to see a new film together that we all love. Lowery displays a sure hand at guiding a major studio project, but does so in a way that doesn’t avoid the messiness of reality, that appreciates the wonder of childhood, and understands the human need to believe in the unseen.
8. Silence (dir. Martin Scorcese)
I first read Endo’s novel, SIlence, 20 years ago when I heard Scorcese wanted to film it. Little did I know it would take so long to find the screen. The film reflects poignantly on the nature of suffering and martyrdom, particularly as they express themselves in the context of Christian faith. This film is an especially hard sell to American evangelicals, who tend to frame faith fundamentally in the context of joy and victory.
7. Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia is experimenting a bit here–moving toward greater emotional accessibility, using English for a significant portion of the film. I liked the first two acts better than the third, but Jia brings the film around by the end, showing us that once again the personal and political are not so far apart.
6. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Exuberant. Chazelle’s film speaks to the dreamers in all of us. In some ways, he mimics the 60s work of French filmmaker Jacques Demy, yet giving us a more “realist” portrait than Demy’s more polished offerings–neither Gosling nor Stone are exquisite singers or dancers. But this, it seems to me, is part of the point–the musical breaks into real life, on par with Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You.
5. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Lonergan’s strength throughout his career has been his writing, and that continues in Manchester. The film is in many ways overwhelmingly sad, but Lonergan manages to work in plenty of levity that gives shape and definition to the sadness. I most appreciate the attention to psychological and emotional details. Oh, and Michelle Williams. Good night does she make an impression in limited screen time.
4. Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Best I can tell, I haven’t seen Sonia Braga in a film since the not-very-good Eastwood film, The Rookie, which happened more than 25 years ago. I am happy to report that not only is she still working, she is radiant in this Brazilian film about an aging music critic hanging on desperately to the past. This is the second Filho directed film I’ve seen (after 2012’s Neighboring Sounds), and with Aquarius‘ reflection on memory, physical culture, and capitalism, there is much to chew on here.
3. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)
The formal work on display here is top notch–confident, rich in detail, and complementary to the narrative. I especially appreciate Holmer’s eye for framing and color, and so many of her formal choices make for a fascinating complement to the film’s story–I got a serious Claire Denis vibe. Of course, the central performance from Hightower is fantastic, relying as it does not just on her quiet persona, but on a kind of physical movement that deeply informs the characterization she offers. The film speaks powerfully to the invisibility that young black women face, and the ways an encounter with mystery might impact that reality.
2. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)
Biting dark comedy, this is. So much so that at times I found myself wondering if the film would ever come up for air. Stillman eventually gives us a breath here and there, even as he deftly avoids cheap sentiment. The real star here, however, is the verbal repartee, whether it’s the edgy contributions of Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, or the varied responses of those around her which serve to throw Lady Susan’s approach to life in sharp relief.
1. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
This is science fiction done well. This is filmmaking done well. It’s comfortable with silence and dialogue on a lower register. It doesn’t need explosions to advance its ideas. Because it has ideas, and it connects those to the lived experience of human beings. This is a film about choosing connection rather than destruction, life rather than death. This is a film that dares to envision a world of cooperation and harmony, a world marked by transcendent vision rather than limited perception. Even in its melancholy, this is a film that is as life-affirming as anything I’ve seen in recent memory.