It’s always an interesting exercise to arrive at the end of a year and take stock of the films that it produced, to squint for as much perspective as you can and see what the movies might have been saying to us, or to each other. Given the, uh, unique events of the last 12 months (or even just the last four weeks), it might take a little while longer than usual for us to have a clear sense of what the landscape really looked like. Will these films offer us rare insight into turbulent times, or — like much of what was released in theaters just prior to 9/11 — will they seem like relics from a more innocent world?
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to get a bit more granular than usual, and to highlight individual moments from my 25 favorite films of the year (and, at least for the moment, these are my 25 favorite films of the year). I don’t know how something like “A Bigger Splash” or “O.J.: Made in America” will play a decade down the line, but I think it’s safe to assume that I’ll carry these moments with me wherever the future takes us.
Memorable Moment: No film has shape-shifted in my mind over the last 12 months more than Josh Kriegman and Eylse Steinberg’s tragicomic portrait of Anthony Weiner’s failed mayoral campaign, which — in its final seconds — resolves in a staggeringly rich (and ultimately portentous) illustration of that old allegory about the scorpion and the frog. It’s a question that every documentary filmmaker probably wants to ask their subject at one point or another: “So why did you let us film you?” Weiner doesn’t have the faintest idea. Neither do I, but I’m glad they did. Perhaps they shouldn’t have stopped.
Memorable Moment: How about the last 45 minutes of the movie? I’m not sure I could disentangle the moments that comprise the bacchanalian apocalypse at the end of Ben Wheatley’s appropriately demented JG Ballard adaptation, and I’m not sure that I would want to. It’s just a whir of violins and carnage and dog meat and Tom Hiddleston smiling over it all.
Memorable Moment: I’ll never forget watching Beyoncé’s magnum opus as it debuted on HBO, as the haunting opening moments gave way to the explosive visual accompaniment that Jonas Åkerlund shot for “Hold Up” (the best thing he’s ever done), and realizing that this whole thing was going to be on another level.
22. “Things to Come”
Memorable Moment: I already knew that Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the very best filmmakers on the planet, but none of her previous movies have made me so excited for the future (appropriately enough, the French title of “Things to Come” is “L’Avenir,” or “The Future”). Watching the movie in the immediate wake of Abbas Kiarostami’s death, and coming across the scene where Isabelle Huppert is harassed out of a screening of “Certified Copy,” I felt the immensity of his loss more acutely than ever before, but also the feeling that the universe was already in the process of trying to balance things out.
21. “Kate Plays Christine”
Memorable Moment: Pound for point, no movie moment this year has inspired more debate than the final beat of Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine,” his thorniest and most accomplished film to date. At first, the confrontational sign-off feels showy, obvious, and immature. That’s when the fun starts, the final provocation serving as a sliver of light that illuminates an endlessly compelling house of mirrors.
20. “Always Shine”
Memorable Moment: There’s so much to love about Sophia Takal’s North Californian psychodrama about the horrors of being a woman in the modern world, and while a lot of it can definitely be traced back to the likes of “Persona” and “Mulholland Drive,” the directness of the film’s confrontational opening close-ups are enough to let you know that this story is lived-in, and that these traumas won’t be coming to you secondhand.
19. “Manchester by the Sea”
Memorable Moment: Kenneth Lonnergan’s profoundly moving “Manchester By the Sea” is as honest, messy, and unvarnished a story of grief as you’re ever likely to see on screen, and perhaps that’s why it hinges on a handful of moments that are always too small to notice. None of them appears tinier or lands harder than the one towards the very end of the film, where the film’s grief-stricken protagonist (Casey Affleck) lets a ball roll down a hill. It’s the kind of detail you might not even notice on first view (especially if your eyes are obscured by tears), but it captures a pinprick of healing in a universe of pain.
18. “Swiss Army Man”
Memorable Moment: Walking in to the world premiere of “Swiss Army Man” at Sundance last January, all I knew about the film was that it starred Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse — judging by the logline and the stills provided alongside it, I fully expected the movie to be a survival saga that played out like a self-serious indie riff on “The Revenant.” It didn’t take me long to learn otherwise, but the moment it clicked into place was the most enjoyable one I had at the movies this year.
Memorable Moment: It’s too soon to spoil this, but a scene in which Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) makes a fateful decision has haunted me since I saw it.
16. “Hail, Caesar!”
Memorable Moment: The knock against the Coen brothers’ brilliant showbiz satire — which ultimately becomes as profound a meditation on faith and the future as any other film this year — is that the film is just a series of memorable moments in search of something to bind them together. That knock rings terribly hollow, but some of these moments are so good that they can’t help but stand out and assume a life of their own. Take, for example, the show-stopping musical number “No Dames!,” in which the endlessly surprising Channing Tatum leads a chorus of sailors in a beautifully staged (and hilariously homoerotic) homage to classic musicals like “On the Town.” Just when “Magic Mike XXL” had me thinking that I’d seen that guy’s best moves, he raises the bar and dances all over it.
15. “The Witch”
Memorable Moment: Robert Eggers’ astonishingly confident New-England Folktale finds its title character stealing a baby and crushing it into bits with a pestle and mortar. So I guess that’s one way of letting an audience know that you’re not fucking around.
14. “American Honey”
Memorable Moment: Shia LaBeouf and Sasha Lane find love in a hopeless place.
Alison Cohen Rosa
Memorable Moment: A young Jewish college student (Logan Lerman) is invited to an audience with the towering school dean (Tracy Letts), and suddenly the best Philip Roth movie ever made begins to melt away into an exchange that can only be described as sickeningly intense.
12. “Toni Erdmann”
Memorable Moment: The beauty of Maren Ade’s epic and fiercely loved father-daughter comedy is all in how it builds — it’s funny from the start, but the laughs only swell as the movie rolls along and sinks deeper into its warped charades. Eventually, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) worms his way so far into Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) head that, for reasons best unexplained, she decides to host a party for her colleagues completely in the nude. I saw the movie at 9am in a small Czech town and I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience howl so loudly in my life.
11. “The Handmaiden”
Memorable Moment: It’s tough to highlight just one moment from Park Chan-wook’s intricately assembled delight, because every beat is there in the service of another. Except, perhaps, for the clanging bells that close out the movie, and are focused only on their own pleasure.
10. “The Love Witch”
Memorable Moment: “The Love Witch” needs approximately four frames to conjure a Technicolor world of dark arts, but it’s in the film’s third proper scene — when Samantha Robinson’s eponymous sorceress sips tea in a giant pink hat that’s almost as big as director Anna Biller’s love for 1960s melodramas — that this spellbinding feminist psychodrama makes clear the full extent to which it believes in movie magic.
9. “The Lobster”
Memorable Moment: In a world where single people are transformed into animals if they can’t find suitable romantic partners, an expedition to a local shopping mall becomes a breathless suicide mission for two rogue adults who are twice as suspicious as they look.
8. “La La Land”
Memorable Moment: Damien Chazelle’s glorious musical throwback is ultimately less about following your dreams than it is about the need to reckon with them, but the movie’s astounding opening sequence — a seemingly uninterrupted song-and-dance number performed by the rabble of motorists stuck in that infamous L.A. traffic — is what it looks like when a filmmaker gets to realize his own.
7. “The Fits”
Memorable Moment: Anna Rose Holmer’s pint-sized debut packed an extraordinary punch, even if 11-year-old Toni (the unforgettable Royalty Hightower) might be tempted towards expressing herself through dance, instead. There were few scenes more raw and expressive than the early bit in which Toni turns an overpass into a practice space and synthesizes both of her worlds into one.
6. “Kubo and the Two Strings”
Memorable Moment: Laika’s best and most beautiful animated film culminates with a crushingly heartfelt note — it may not be the happy ending that young Kubo had in mind, but it’s all the more perfect for that.
5. “A Bigger Splash”
Memorable Moment: Ralph Fiennes dancing. So much Ralph Fiennes dancing.
4 “O.J.: Made in America”
Memorable Moment: It’s a testament to Ezra Edelmen’s monolithic doc that it’s so easy to pluck individual moments from his nearly eight-hour tapestry, but this essential portrait of race in America saves one of its best for last, as Simpson — acquitted on all charges — takes down the American flag in his back yard. And then he does it again for the cameras.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Memorable Moment: No movie this year was more instantly arresting than Pablo Larraín’s surprising portrait of Jackie Kennedy in mourning . In the opening seconds, the queasy discord of Mica Levi’s score immediately let you know that this isn’t going to be the usual womb-to-tomb story of an American icon, but rather something deeper, more personal, more conflicted, and more essential.
2. “Sunset Song”
Memorable Moment: Sitting in a cinema and gawping at the way that Terence Davies shoots a Scottish wheat field was enough to keep me off Netflix for a month. Cinema will hopefully survive long after this great man is gone, but it certainly can’t die while he’s still around.
Memorable Moment: Two men, separated by years of change and united by a formative memory from their youths, drive down a Miami highway in the dead of night. Jidenna’s “Classic Man” hums through the car stereo. The silence begins to say more than one of them is comfortable, and so he jacks up the volume on the radio. In the passenger seat, a familiar face smiles, knowing that more needs to be said but that he and his old friend are heading in the right direction.
And if you’d like to watch these picks in video countdown form: