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The Independent Film Community Picks the Best Films of 2016

We asked our friends and colleagues in the indie world to share their favorites.

Clockwise from left: “Sieranevada,” “Aquarius,” “Moonlight,” “Maurice”

Every year, IndieWire looks beyond the countless top 10 lists written by critics to widen the field. We turn to friends and colleagues in the independent film community — programmers, distributors, publicists and others — to give them the opportunity to share their favorite films and other media from the past 12 months. We also invited them to share their resolutions and anticipated events for 2017.

The Best of 2016: IndieWire’s Year in Review Bible

Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival

I’m limiting my list to films that had US and Canadian theatrical releases in 2016. I saw far more than 10 this year that I liked, but if I have to be brutal, I’ll limit it to the films that lifted me.

1. “Moonlight”
2. “Julieta”
3. “Toni Erdmann”
4. “Cemetery of Splendor”
5. “Arrival”
6. “Fences”
7. “13th”
8. “American Honey”
9. “Things to Come”
10. “Moana”

Toni Erdmann

“Toni Erdmann”

Michael Barker, Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” (“Richard III”: Act 1, Scene 1)

A few weeks ago my 29 year old daughter calls me. “Dad, he’s picking his cabinet and his tweet says, ‘Only I know the finalists.’ How do I deal with this, Dad?” “Well, Callie, put a copy of that great 1975 documentary ‘Network’ under one arm and the complete box set of ‘The Apprentice’ under your other arm and that’s what we’re dealing with.” “But Dad!” “I know, Cals, I know.”

Geesh, and here I thought last year was rough. We really are on the edge of a precipice, aren’t we?

Per usual, no Sony Pictures Classics titles are included. EXCEPT I do want to mention, in a year in which women have been especially inexplicably maligned, a deep appreciation to Pedro Almodovar and Alice Munro, Maren Ade (!), Rebecca Miller, Isabelle Huppert, Susan Sarandon and Lorene Scafaria, Margo Martindale, Meera Menon, and the young eagle huntress Ashiolpan, amongst others, for standing tall in 2016.

In a year of disenchantment, we find hope in our artists.

1. “O.J.: Made in America”
Works on all levels, as a thrilling narrative drama and as a detailed impeccably researched dissection of truth. At the end of the seven and a half hours (I have seen it three times), it says look in the mirror and admit to yourself WE created this guy.

2. “The Night Of”
Perfection. Richard Price’s complex human drama(created with Steve Zaillian) and the realities of New York justice. John Turturro inhabits every frame of this miniseries the way Brando did in “The Godfather,” while still leaving room for the incredible Jeannie Berlin, Bill Camp, Peyman Moaadi (from “A Separation”), Riz Ahmed, and Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from “The Wire” is back!). And then there’s the cat! That cat is our only hope.

3. “Atlanta”
The freshest and best TV series going.  The charisma and intelligent acting chops of Donald Glover (creator and writer) and Brian Tyree Henry knock it out of the park (as does the rest of the cast). There’s a complete world here, edgy, full of character, dramatic in-your-face social issues and funny as hell. Binge watch this sucker.

4. “Moonlight”
It’s everything you’ve heard and more. Impossible to describe the power of the last 30 minutes, the most moving piece of film in 2016. Writer-director Barry Jenkins and his awesome ensemble cast amaze.

5. “I Am Not Your Negro”
James Baldwin and Raoul Peck, a perfect match for this superlative piece of social commentary.

6. “Fences”
August Wilson has finally gloriously arrived on the big screen. The cast is superb. The poetic language rivals Shakespeare in its musicality. I turned the picture off my screener (on my third viewing) and for over two hours I listened to the finest piece of music in 2016.

7. “Roads to Home” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
Who would have thought Horton Foote and Eugene O’Neill would be the go-to guys in 2016.  “The Roads to Home” production at the Cherry Lane Theater directed by Michael Wilson interpreted by Hallie Foote and an exceptional cast gave us a play as rich as “The Glass Menagerie” in poetic vision and as modern as Pirandello. In “Long Day’s Journey,” Jamie Tyrone and Mary Tyrone are the most difficult roles to play in American theater history. If you were one of the fortunate to see Michael Shannon and Jessica Lange play them on Broadway you will remember it forever.

8. “Neruda”
A stunning movie. Part Victor Hugo, part Borges, part early 70’s Bertolucci, all Pablo Larraín. I propose a 24-hour binge watch of the work of Gael Garcia Bernal, clearly one of the finest actors of his generation in the world.

9. “La La Land”
The first two-thirds of this movie is very good. Then it goes into the stratosphere of greatness. Only in a movie musical can we reach a state of pure happiness that real life  can never provide. Damien, I love Minnelli nd Demy a bit more than you, but, man, you’re close.

10. “Manchester by the Sea”
A rare film. Tragedy on an epic scale made sad, suspenseful and laced with humor by Kenneth Lonergan. All made human by yet another perfect cast.

“Manchester by the Sea”

Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios

11. Performances of the Year
On stage: Ben Platt in “Dear Evan Hansen”
Superhuman stage performance in the once in a lifetime category. The musical is sublime as well.

On film: Issei Ogata in “Silence”
Ok, Marty, where did you find this guy? This performance is spoken in a few languages (wait until you hear his English intonations). There is a scene where, as the Inquisitor, he physically sinks into himself a la the Wicked Witch melting in The Wizard of Oz. We’re talking Ralph Richardson crazy good here.

12. “Little Men” and “From Afar”
Two movies that deserved greater success. Ira Sachs and Lorenzo Vigas are masters at telling psychological stories visually. No one moves us like Ira Sachs. And Lorenzo Vigas has us on the edge of our seats speculating what is going on in the minds of an older enigmatic man and a young street walker.

Andy Bohn, The Film Arcade

I’m excluding 2016 films I was involved with and there are a handful of films (e.g. “O.J.: Made in America,” “Toni Erdmann,” “Tower,” “20th Century Women,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “I, Daniel Blake”) I haven’t seen yet that might have made my list.

In addition to how these films inspired me, I’ve included an insightful review for each. Thoughtful criticism is essential for independent film and should be championed as often as possible. Moreover, I have been reflecting on Owen Gleiberman’s 2016 book, “Movie Freak,” and how corporate agendas and groupthink endanger his profession. Criticism excels when diverse opinions can flourish, so along with personal goal below, my hope is film lovers read a vast array of film critics in 2017.

My Favorite Film of 2016
“La La Land” by Damien Chazelle
A love letter to my adopted hometown, the dreamers who energize it and the Vicente Minnelli musicals that were produced on its sound stages. We may be living in a golden age of television, but “La La Land” is a reminder that movies, when executed at their highest level, are magical and moving beyond compare. Review from Anthony Lane at The New Yorker.

The Rest of My Favorites in Alphabetical Order

“Arrival” by Denis Villeneuve
Brilliant manipulation of storytelling convention to deliver a jaw-dropping finale. I may have preferred a version without the looming military confrontation tacked-on, but the storylines and themes from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” were the most thought-provoking and emotional moments I experienced in a theater this year. Review by Christopher Orr at The Atlantic.

“A Bigger Splash” by Luca Guadagnino
Virtuoso, balancing, performances from Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in the most seductive film of the year. And yet underneath the charismatic characters, exotic locale and indulgent behavior is a morality play with an alluring amount of jealousy, manipulation and ambiguity. Review from David Ehrlich at IndieWire.

“The Handmaiden” by Park Chan-wook
Is there another film in 2016 so unique to its filmmaker that it couldn’t have been directed by anyone else? Review by Manohla Dargis at The New York Times.

“Hell or High Water” by David Mackenzie
With an expanse that often signifies endless possibilities, these West Texas plains feel more like a bottomless pit that you can’t dig your way out of.  A thrilling Western with sharp dialogue, “Hell or High Water” would stand-out in any year, but by capturing post-recession disenfranchisement it will have additional staying power.Review by Owen Gleiberman at Variety.

“Manchester by the Sea” by Kenneth Lonergan
There is no better example of how parenthood has deepened my connection to certain films. I cannot imagine anyone not moved to tears during the Casey Affleck/Michelle Williams confrontation scene. Review by Kenneth Turan at The Los Angeles Times.

“Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins
Hope fighting its way through heartbreak. Deserving praise abounds for this groundbreaking film and I was particularly moved by Ashton Sanders’ devastating portrayal of Chiron’s pain and yearning in Act II. Review from A.O. Scott at The New York Times.

“Sing Street” by John Carney
Love Conquers All. A direct hit to my Achilles’ heels of romanticism and nostalgia. Add 80’s Brit pop, a John Hughes coming-of-age sensibility and John Carney’s heartfelt portrait of siblings and it would have been virtually impossible for me not to love this film. Review by Michael Roffman at Consequence of Sound.

Sing Street

“Sing Street”

The Weinstein Company

“Weiner” by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
Ego, betrayal and modern media’s shortsighted and insatiable appetite for scandal over substance are on full display in this wild political ride.  The thematic and actual intersections with the 2016 presidential campaign make “Weiner” one for the ages. Review from Eric Kohn at IndieWire.

Honorable Mentions in Alphabetical Order
“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” by Jeff Feuerzeig
“City of Gold” by Laura Gabbert
“De Palma” by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
“Fences” by Denzel Washington
“Green Room” by Jeremy Saulnier
“Hail, Caesar!” by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
“Jackie” by Pablo Larrain
“Loving” by Jeff Nichols
“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
“Sausage Party” by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon
“Things to Come” by Mia Hansen-Love
“The Witch” by Robert Eggers
“The Witness” by James Solomon
“Zootopia” by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Work highlight of 2016: Trying to keep-up with the hardest working man in show business, Mike Birbiglia, during our release of his wonderful film, “Don’t Think Twice.”  The non-stop Q&aAs opening weekend at the Sunshine were electric.

Work-related resolution for 2017: Knock another 100 films off my “still need to see” list.

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