Associated Press Film Writers Jake Coyle and Lindsey Bahr name their choices for the best films of 2016.
1. “Moonlight.” The life of Chiron, the young man who grows up in three distinct chapters in Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece, is hard and full of pain. And yet “Moonlight” is so abundant with transcendent moments of grace and lyrical splendor. In the film’s blue-tinged darkness shines a tortured soul, one of the most intimately and fully realized ones I can remember encountering in a movie.
2. “Cameraperson.” In Kirsten Johnson’s memoir-like montage of film, momentary intimacies from a lifetime of making documentaries accrue a staggering poetry. From war zones abroad to her family at home, her camera is a force of connection that binds us, fleetingly.
3. “La La Land.” It’s not like we’re so overrun with blissfulness and charm that we couldn’t use Damien Chazelle’s light-footed celebration of classic musicals, Los Angeles, dreams, keytars and Emma Stone. It’s not a revolutionary work. It’s a knowing and full-hearted resurrection. It’s a conversation with nostalgia, held at golden hour between lampposts and tap shoes.
4. “I Am Not Your Negro.” Does anyone’s voice sound more urgent today than James Baldwin’s? Raoul Peck’s documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is culled largely from an unfinished manuscript of the writer, intellectual and social critic. Baldwin’s words wash over you, at once inspiring in their passion and alarming in their frightful insight into America. But Peck doesn’t need to mix in more recent footage to connect Baldwin’s thoughts with today. Amid the shards of 2016, Baldwin’s relevance is apparent enough.
5. “Sunset Song.” Rare is the combination of formal beauty and deep inner-life that’s found in Terence Davies’s adaptation of the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It was one of two films by the chronically underappreciated Davies this year, the other being his less sublime Emily Dickinson biopic with Cynthia Nixon, “A Quiet Passion.” But “Sunset Song,” about a young woman growing up in rural Scotland in the years before World War I, is one of the more exquisite and wrenching portraits of lives shaped and ripped apart by history.
6. “American Honey.” Nothing was more thrillingly alive this year than Andrea Arnold’s bass-thumping plunge into the American heartland. Arnold, the British director of “Fish Tank,” has both a keenly critical eye to what she sees around her and a deeply affectionate one for her young characters. Rihanna (played in a scene set in a Walmart) supplies Arnold’s anthem: She finds love in a hopeless place.
7. “Manchester by the Sea.” It might be my third favorite of playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s three films (the others are “Margaret” and “You Can Count on Me”), but it’s still one of the year’s best. Scenes this natural just don’t come along. Seemingly quotidian moments flicker with the past, with pain, with humor, with glimpses of insight. Lonergan’s way with words is trumped only by the great reaches of his empathy.
8. “O.J.: Made in America.” It’s an L.A. story. Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute documentary, released both as one long film and a five-part television series, has an almost Dickensian scope. Edelman uses the case as a prism through which to make a grand portrait of Los Angeles and of America.
9. “Hell or High Water.” David Mackenzie’s West Texas heist tale is a genre movie firing on all cylinders. There’s the fine acting of Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. There’s the economical but loose direction of Mackenzie (“Starred Up”). And there’s the flavorful, comic dialogue of Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”). Add it all up and you get a hell of a movie.
10. “The Edge of Seventeen.” The pleasures are similar in Kelly Fremon Craig’s spectacular debut: a genre movie (this time a teen coming-of-age comedy in the John Hughes mold) made with uncommon authenticity and wit. And I’m not sure I enjoyed any performance this year more than Hailee Steinfeld’s beset high-schooler who curses her generation as “mouth breathers.”
1. “La La Land.” Damien Chazelle’s film has more edge than many seem to give it credit for. Like those of its spiritual predecessor Jacques Demy, “La La Land” might be soaked in lavender skies, bright costumes and bouncy songs, but under the surface lingers a gnawing uncertainty about art and ambition and love and sacrifice. And it’ll leave you singing “Another Day of Sun,” even if it is through wistful tears.
2. “Manchester by the Sea.” The script! The performances! The atmosphere! The score! It’s all uncomfortably perfect. “Manchester by the Sea” is a fully realized and affecting American epic about all-consuming grief and the inconvenient, often funny and sometimes impossible life that remains. It’s a career-defining role for Casey Affleck.
3. “Jackie.” Moody and unsettling, “Jackie” might not explain the former first lady, but Pablo Larrain’s unconventional biopic illuminates her hand in crafting that indelible Camelot legacy for her family, with a pitch perfect performance from Natalie Portman.
4. “Moonlight.” What is really left to be said about “Moonlight”? It’s a triumph of storytelling and image about a man’s life in Miami told in three stages. Barry Jenkins’ film could easily be among the best of any year. Mahershala Ali is rightfully being singled out for his supporting performance as a drug dealer with a conscience, but he is just one part of an extraordinary cast of actors whose names you’ll want to know.
5. “The Red Turtle.” A gorgeous, hand-drawn, wordless fable co-produced by Studio Ghibli, “The Red Turtle” is an elegant gem about a shipwrecked man, whose impact will sneak up on you in the most devastating way. Take a pause from all the noise and give it a chance.
6. “20th Century Women.” Mike Mills is better than anyone at creating those transformative environments that look and feel and seem like real life, but better. Here, he transports you to sun-soaked and anxiety-ridden Santa Barbara in 1979 where three women, a wild teen (Elle Fanning), an angry 20-something (Greta Gerwig), and a 50-something mother (Annette Bening) rally around the emotional education of a teenage boy.
7. “I Am Not Your Negro.” There were a few great documentaries about the black experience in America this year, including Ava DuVernay’s look at mass incarceration in “The 13th” and the overwhelmingly powerful “O.J.: Made in America,” but Raoul Peck’s rendering of James Baldwin’s words about the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. stands out among the others for its artful poignancy.
8. “Hail, Caesar!” “Would that it were so simple” No single line this year has echoed in my mind as much as Alden Ehrenreich’s earnest rube Hobie Doyle trying so, so hard to please the refined Laurence Lauretnz (Ralph Fiennes, also a standout in “The Big Splash”). The Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” came and went with little fanfare, but this is a slapstick lark that just gets more dizzyingly delightful with every viewing.
9. “Certain Women.” Quiet and calming, “Certain Women” is a slow-cooked meditative poem about the lives of the modern frontierswoman whose beauty will leave your heart aching and warmed thanks to Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone and the strong supporting cast. It’s the best Kelly Reichardt has ever made.
10. “Sausage Party.” Who knew some of the year’s smartest comedy and most rebellious ideas would come from the mouth of a horny hot dog? Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s irreverent fever dream about food and religion and culture will make you blush, laugh, wince and think. It’s not for everyone, but it wouldn’t be great if it was.