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The Best Movies of 2016, According to IndieWire Critic Eric Kohn

It's been a strong year for cinema that tackles the uncertainties of modern times. Here are some of the highlights.

eric kohn best films 2016

Clockwise from left: “Paterson,” “The Academy of Muses,” “Moonlight,” “Swiss Army Man”

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Every December it bears repeating: Anyone who thinks this was a bad year for movies simply hasn’t seen enough. In an age of binge-viewing, a preponderance of must-see premium cable shows and, hell, even smartphone apps that command far more attention most feature-length achievements, the true range of quality cinema is often obscured by the noise of an ever-cluttered media landscape. To really assess the state of modern movies, one look beyond the obvious. Sure, it was a weak year for movies that stand out mainly due to star power and sizable marketing budgets, but those options represent only a small fraction of the marketplace.

The film festival circuit provides an ideal alternative to conventional channels for discovering movies worth talking about all year long — and, if they’re lucky enough to land distribution, they quality for year-end celebration on lists like this one. This year, every single finalist for my list of the year’s best surfaced at a major festival and, in most cases, found its way to theaters later on. None of them were safe commercial bets; in fact, their cumulative box office figures might paint a dreary picture of this art form’s commercial viability, but that picture’s only one small piece of a much bigger puzzle. Movies that challenge conventions, throw people off and leave them uncertain about what they just experienced are often the ones most deserving of celebration.

READ MORE: New York Film Critics Circle Names ‘La La Land’ Best Film Of 2016, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Manchester By the Sea’ Earn Three Awards

My list showcases a lot of movies that struggled to get out there, that don’t work for everyone, that provoke strong debates — and yet I’m entirely comfortable deeming them the year’s best. Consensus is boring. If anything here provokes disagreement, it only strengthens the vitality of these great works.

If there’s a theme running through them, it’s the anxiety of modern times. Our society is increasingly shaken by unexpected developments — as evinced by Donald Trump, Brexit and the Chicago Cubs alike — and many of this year’s best movies speak to that queasy feeling of a mysterious world and the surprises it offers us. These stories involve characters adrift in uneasy settings where the boundaries between reality and fiction dissolve, leading to uncertain quests for an elusive truth. Not everyone finds it.

2016 year-end list runner-ups "Eyes of My Mother," "Nuts!", "Manchester By the Sea" and "The Lobster"

2016 year-end list runner-ups “The Eyes of My Mother,” “Nuts!”, “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Lobster”

The following list is ranked. It requires a few caveats to acknowledge some runner-ups. First off, my curatorial approach takes into account factors such as balance and scope. There are plenty of first-rate efforts that would rank highly on my list were there not other, similar titles that I appreciate just a touch more (thus, “The Witch” gets the horror slot over “The Eyes of My Mother,” and “Swiss Army Man” beats out “The Lobster” in the quirky, allegorical fun department).

While I’ve expanded the list beyond the usual top 10 to encompass 16 titles, there are plenty of others than didn’t quite make the cut. These include the Coen brothers’ delightful spoof of the Hollywood dream factory “Hail, Caesar!” and Penny Lane’s inventive semi-documentary of an infamous snake-oil salesman in “Nuts!”, both of which speak to ideas reflected throughout this list. “Manchester By the Sea” is an expertly-scripted look at living with grief, and “The Lobster” (which surfaced on a version of this list earlier in the year) excels at exploring the catharsis of escaping an oppressive society. See them all.

Above all, this list reflects a wildly complex year of cultural experiences, when society was turned upside-down and the movies anticipated as much. They are a mirror to the world we live in now.

Lists are inherently limiting, so you can expect to see a lot of them these parts as we spread the love around. Other voices from the IndieWire team will weigh in throughout the week, and this article will be updated with links. For now, here’s this critic’s final assessment on the best movies released in 2016. Arguments are welcome, but readers quick to pass judgement are encouraged to track down all these titles first.

16. “Certain Women”

"Certain Women"

“Certain Women”

IFC Films

Kelly Reichardt continues to show her mastery of American isolation with this adaptation of Maile Meloy short stories. Each of the film’s three chapters speak to a sense of dislocation among working class figures in Montana. In a year in which working-class frustrations reached a fever pitch, it couldn’t be more topical. Reichardt’s anthology approach is riddled with ambiguous confrontations: With the plight of a bored lawyer (Kristen Stewart) teaching adult education classes and the lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who falls for her, Reichardt constructs her best two-hander since “Old Joy,” while the attempt by a married couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) to acquire ancient sandstone from an older man subtly addresses inter-generational conflicts.

But the movie’s true power comes from its bookends, in which a confident legal adviser (Laura Dern at her best) deals with a disgruntled blue-collar man who goes postal after his company cheats him out of settling for a workplace injury. The mounting rage of an angry older white man, and the struggles of Dern’s character to console him, gives “Certain Women” an astonishing degree of insight into the divisiveness of American society.

15. “The Witch”

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Witch"

Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Witch”

Billed as a “New England Folktale,” writer-director Robert Eggers’ accomplished feature-length debut manages a tricky balance: On the one hand, an elegant period piece about the dissolution of a New England family circa 1630, it’s also a genuinely unsettling horror movie about possession. Almost exclusively set at a drab cabin and the ominous woods surrounding it, the movie’s minimalist approach doesn’t lack for authenticity, as Eggers relies on court records and other documents to script the dialogue along with costumes from the period in question. The effect is a haunting narrative of otherworldly forces made especially scary due to the realism surrounding them.

Paired with Nicolas Pesce’s astonishing debut “The Eyes of My Mother,” it’s exactly what the horror genre needs right now — a genre-busting jolt of fresh blood and original storytelling.

14. “Toni Erdmann”

Toni Erdmann

“Toni Erdmann”

On paper, writer-director Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” has a simple premise: After the death of his dog, lonely single parent Winfried (Peter Simonischek) shows up in the big city to attempt to win back the affections of his estranged adult daughter Ines (an astounding Sandra Hüller), wearing disguises so he can follow her around town without her friends and co-workers figuring it out.

Drawn out to two hours and 42 minutes, however, the German filmmaker’s long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s “Everyone Else” becomes something much subtler and perceptive than its rudimentary set-up would suggest. Ade’s epic two-hander about family dynamics has payoff in its ambition. Both a touching account of father-daughter estrangement and a sly corporate satire, “Toni Erdmann” wrestles with big issues through a surprisingly intimate lens, in an uneasy balance that reflects its characters’ unstable lives.

At first, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it justified the heft, but “Toni Erdmann” has stuck with me in the months since I first saw it at Cannes, its layered narrative gradually revealing its masterstrokes in retrospect. That’s the mark of a genuine cinematic achievement.

13. “Uncle Kent 2”

Uncle Kent 2

“Uncle Kent 2”

Factory 25

“Cool, cinema is dead,” reads the tagline for “Uncle Kent 2,” citing a tweet-reaction to the film’s existence. But the brilliant coup of Todd Rohal’s meta-romp through the mind of “Uncle Kent” star and “Adventure Time” animator Kent Osborne is that the movie’s bizarre twists result in the most cinematically inspired sequel in ages.

In grimy opening chapter directed by Joe Swanberg, Osborne attempts to pitch a sequel to Swanberg’s little-seen portrait of the goofy fortysomething bachelor; when Swanberg tells Osborne to just make the sequel himself, the ensuing wacky odyssey becomes just that. Rohal, himself an under-appreciated surrealist filmmaker (“The Guatemalan Handshake”) delivers a brilliant spoof of narcissistic American indie tropes that just keeps getting crazier as it moves along. If Charlie Kaufman put the concept behind “mumblecore” in his sightlines, the result might look something like this. But if “Uncle Kent 2” is a lark, it’s a wholly satisfying one, delivering a shrewd indictment of self-aggrandizing creativity by burrowing inside its extremes and blowing them to pieces.

12. “The Fits”

The Fits

“The Fits”

Oscilloscope

Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature is a surreal portrait of an unlikely young heroine. Eleven-year-old Toni (breakout star Royalty Hightower) aspires to be a dancer while making her way through boxing training at her Cincinnati youth center. As a convulsive disease begins to affect several of her fellow dancers, “The Fits” gradually transforms into a “Twin Peaks”-like look at communal alienation, but it’s also a smart depiction of an insular community seen through the lens of childhood wonder.

Hightower’s astonishingly subtle performances meshes perfectly with the movie’s rhythmic portrait of the mysteries and alienation of adolescence. Holmer’s ability to remain within her young protagonist’s perspective of the world imbues “The Fits” with a disarming simplicity that’s almost jarringly poignant as it builds to a surreal finale.

11. “The Academy of Muses”

"The Academy of Muses"

“The Academy of Muses”

Finally released in a few theaters a year after its festival run, Catalan filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin’s portrait of romantic drama through a scholarly lens is one of the most unorthodox crowdpleasers ever. Though he hasn’t had a film released in the United States since 2007’s “In the City of Sylvia,” Guerin has continued to craft inventive cinematic experiments that blend documentary and fictional components with bracingly unpredictable results. “The Academy of the Muses” is the paragon of this unique approach; it’s also hilarious and touching in equal measures.

At first, Guerin focuses on the divisive lectures of a literature processor at the University of Barcelona who proposes that women should fall in line with the classic definition of the “muse” and use their seductive powers to inspire poetry. While the heavy discourse is engrossing on its own terms, this starting point becomes the first act of a sensational drama in which the student-teacher relationship evolves into ethically dubious territory: the professor not only sleeps with his students but also attempts to rationalize the decision when faced down by his no-nonsense wife.

Shocking, profound, funny and sad, “The Academy of the Muses” is a first-rate illustration of deep thoughts translated into an exciting narrative. Despite the heavy concept, it may be closest we get to a crossover work from the ever-innovative Guerin.

10. “Neruda”

"Neruda"

“Neruda”

The Orchard and Participant Media

Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s portrait of his country’s legendary poet, senator, and expert raconteur Pablo Neruda is a mesmerizing depiction of national identity and literary intelligence. Luis Gnecco delivers a vivid (and highly accurate) performance as the eponymous centerpiece of “Neruda,” which follows the seminal figure from his bohemian partying days through his escape from Chilean authorities angered by his Communist leanings.

But the real star of “Neruda” is a cunning police investigator Oscar Bustamante Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, an excellent comic foil) tasked with tailing the poet. As he continues to chase Neruda, Peluchonneau realizes he’s trapped in Neruda’s own self-made myth. “I’m not a supporting character,” he says, but ultimately his validation stems from Neruda recognizing that their story together matters. Along with Larraín’s “Jackie,” released in the U.S. just a week ahead of “Neruda,” the movie confirms this ingenious filmmaker’s ability to interrogate history in strikingly original terms. Larraín salutes one of his country’s greatest storytellers by matching his talents.

9. “American Honey

"American Honey"

“American Honey”

Even if Shia LaBeouf didn’t describe his suspenders-and-slacks getup as “Donald Trump-ish,” Andrea Arnold’s expressionistic road trip would resonate with a topical vision. From “Red Road” to “Fish Tank,” Arnold has consistently delivered compelling portraits of frustrated young women, but her ambition reaches its greatest heights with this sprawling depiction of a teen runaway (Sasha Lane, one of the year’s best discoveries) who joins a group of hedonistic young magazine sellers headed up by the cunning LaBeouf.

Some critics have derided the movie’s meandering pace and pop-heavy soundtrack as more posturing than genuine narrative finesse, but that ignores the sheer artistry of its design. Arnold delivers a shrewd look of alienated youth plundering the midwest with no precise goal aside from keeping their reckless lifestyles afloat. It’s an angry generational statement and a desperate call for help.

8. “Swiss Army Man”

Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man

“Swiss Army Man”

A24

“Thought I was rescued,” Paul Dano sings to Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse, “but you’re just a dead dude, and I’m all alone.” A surreal buddy movie energized by a few innovative uses of flatulence, “Swiss Army Man” is music video duo Daniels’ beautifully strange blend of slapstick and musicality rich with ideas: the trappings of political correctness, the isolating effects of low self-esteem, the homoerotic nature of male bonding, and so much more.

Trapped on a desert island when he comes across a dead body that brings him hope, Dano’s character figures out original uses for the body as it slowly comes to life. Radcliffe delivers a daring performance that’s both unsettling and absurd, much like most of this totally engaging movie that at times feels like it materialized from another dimension of the Daniels’ own making. That imaginary land is worthy of more visitations, so here’s hoping they’ll keep it up.

7. “Paterson”

"Paterson"

“Paterson”

Small exchanges and lengthy pauses are hallmarks of Jim Jarmusch movies, but few have the profound mixture of warmth and melancholy found in “Paterson.” Carried by an appropriately low-key Adam Driver and Jarmusch’s penchant for capturing offhand remarks, “Paterson” is his most absorbing character study since “Broken Flowers,” but it has a quiet sophistication that elevates it to another level. The lightweight tale of a bus driver who moonlights as a poet magnifies the daily rhythms of his contained world and transforms them into the art he aspires to create. By turns charming, melancholic and wise, “Paterson” perfects the archetype of aimless hipster wandering through Jarmusch’s oeuvre by validating his soul-searching ways.

6. “Cameraperson”

cameraperson

“Cameraperson”

Kirsten Johnson opens “Cameraperson” with a note describing the project as “my memoir,” but it’s safe to say there’s never been a memoir quite like this one. Cobbling together footage from her 25 years of experience as a documentary cinematographer, “Cameraperson” offers a freewheeling overview of the people and places Johnson has captured over the course of a diverse career. More than that, the two dozen projects showcased here alongside original footage confront the process of creation. This is a collage-like guide to a life of looking.

Johnson’s credits range from risky exposés such as “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “Citizenfour” to lighter fare like last year’s New Yorker cartoon portrait “Very Semi Serious,” all of which surface in this dense global survey. But the disparate subject matter congeals around her implied presence in every scene. Soviet film theorist Dziga Vertov would surely approve of Johnson’s approach — an alternate title could be “Woman With a Movie Camera” — since it turns the idea of the camera into a vessel for studying the world. Though much of the material in “Cameraperson” is old, Johnson has undeniably created something refreshing and new.

5. “Creative Control”

"Creative Control"

“Creative Control”

With its crisp black-and-white photography and snazzy effects, Benjamin Dickinson’s mesmerizing science fiction thriller “Creative Control” cleverly envisions a technology-dominated society that’s right around the corner. But the particulars of the plot, in which the Brooklyn-based developer of new augmented reality glasses loses touch with the world around him, imbues the target of its critique with a sharp contemporary edge. No matter the genius of new technologies, the film argues, every fancy new tool is subject to human foibles. It’s at once otherworldly and familiar — a futuristic satire that stings with immediate relevance.

4. “Everybody Wants Some!!”

"Everybody Wants Some!!"

“Everybody Wants Some!!”

Richard Linklater’s movies are filled with energetic observations in small doses. Dense philosophical ramblings surround the flimsiest of plots; a casual air meets existentialism. While discussed for ages as a “spiritual sequel” to his seventies-set high school classic “Dazed and Confused” — and set just a few years later — the college baseball comedy “Everybody Wants Some!!” contains many of the best ingredients found throughout Linklater’s career: A carefree attitude about life paired with sneakier observations about its deeper mysteries.

As with his sweeping “Before” trilogy and the ambitious 12-year production cycle of “Boyhood,” the new movie also cleverly toys with time. Cramming three days of hard-partying antics into slightly less than two hours, “Everybody Wants Some!!” unfolds in the final days of summer at a small Texas college, in which the responsibilities of adulthood lurk just outside the frame. Equally charming and wise, “Everybody Wants Some!!” epitomizes Linklater’s unique ability to magnify human behavior with levity. There’s nothing showy about this movie, but that’s the brilliance of it. Life sneaks up on you, and so do Richard Linklater movies.

3. “Weiner”

weiner documentary

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner”

Sundance Selects

It started out as a tragic farce; as 2016 went on, “Weiner” became an alarming peek inside the world of the buffoon who may have cost us our democracy. Weiner, during his disastrous New York mayoral campaign, became a national joke for obvious reasons. But the public couldn’t see the sheer mayhem of the Weiner campaign as the politician faced one of the greatest public humiliations in recent history. “Weiner,” which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, pulls back that veil to reveal one of the great farces of modern campaign history (at least prior to the current presidential season).

Co-directed by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, the movie captures Weiner and his beleaguered wife, Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin, through a series of cringe-inducing circumstances as the media continually preys on the family’s hardships. Weiner’s divorce from Abedin over the summer in the midst of Clinton’s campaign only intensified the movie’s scenes of the couple; later, when FBI director James Comey revealed it was looking into Weiner’s exchanges with a teenager, the documentary’s relevance deepened even more.

Settling all that aside, Weiner’s attempt at pressing ahead against impossible odds results in a spectacularly entertaining look at the pratfalls of modern celebrity and the hubris involved in chasing power in the political arena. On the one hand, “Weiner” is first-rate cinema verite, capturing its subject’s constant humiliation and absurd investment in his campaign against impossible odds with striking details, even as the mayhem surrounding his downfall indicts the media’s obsession over his scandal as well. At the same time, it’s a boisterous editorial cartoon about the inherent madness of a system rigged for self-destruction. And now, as Weiner fades to oblivion, we have to live in his mess.

2. “Jackie”

"Jackie"

“Jackie”

Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s attempt to wrestle control of chaos following her husband’s assassination is equal parts psychological thriller and historical investigation. Anchored by Natalie Portman in a career-best turn, the movie’s atmospheric construction pierces the nature of public life and political machinations.

Noah Oppenheim’s script frames the taut few days in which Jackie plans her husband’s burial and Larraín’s camera stays close to his subject, forcing viewers to hover in her complicated mindset. No matter how much she tries to protect her grief, the world swarms in. “It’s not history if it’s not written down,” she tells a reporter goading her at every turn. That assertion is the biggest target of Larraín’s cinema: What is our relationship to the past — and how do we change it to meet our expectations today? As fact and fiction intermingle with the message-board conspiracy theories and the reductive social media that defines our information age, Larraín’s films couldn’t arrive at a better moment. “Jackie” consolidates their appeal.

1. “Moonlight

"Moonlight" Exclusive Image

“Moonlight”

Courtesy of Color Collective and A24

Barry Jenkins’ long-overdue followup to “Medicine for Melancholy” is a deep tragedy that’s told in passing glances. Rich with evocative images and tender exchanges, the filmmaker’s treatment of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” is a beautiful drama that manages to be both epic and understated.

“Moonlight” explores the plight of a young black man across three eras, searching for his place in the world while struggling with his gay identity under the burdens of class and a broken family. The story’s power comes from the gaps between words — and an ongoing battle to find the right ones. It’s an astonishing mood piece about the nature of being marginalized on many levels at once.

The tale of young Chiron as he grows up and misses his opportunity to find a satisfying life grows more desperate as it moves along, until finally the boy becomes a man and attempts one last shot at setting things right. Despite the somber tone, it’s a beacon of hope for the prospects of speaking up — and closes out the year by epitomizes its unsteady mood. No matter how specific its setting, the tone of “Moonlight” reflects a mixture of despair and yearning that defines our troubles times.

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