There’s no better encapsulation of the year in film than the re-mastered 30th-anniversary print of David Lynch’s masterful Blue Velvet, which kicked off its arthouse engagement run in March at the Film Forum in New York City. I credit that film as the one setting me on the path to becoming a critic. I attended four screenings of Blue Velvet during its opening weekend, when I was a film-obsessed high school senior back in 1986, and was fortunate enough to be able to take my oldest daughter — a high school senior herself at that point — to one of the Film Forum showings. That’s a film experience, 30 years in the making, I will never forget. None of this year’s films can top the shared magic of that moment, but this list contains ones that will define 2016 for years to come.
1. Manchester by the Sea — Heartbreaking tragedy and the ensuing grief are not supposed to be funny, but somehow that is exactly what director/writer Kenneth Lonergan unearths in this unflinching portrayal of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his attempt to come home long enough to bury his older brother (Kyle Chandler) and offer some brief comfort to his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) The resulting story truly allows us to laugh away some tears, although certainly not all of them.
2. Moonlight — “Where the hell had you been, Barry Jenkins?” I asked myself when word of the director’s Moonlight began buzzing through the festival circuit. His debut feature, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, spoke to the new millennium’s black West Coast bohemians. But with Moonlight, he made the coming-of-age story of a disenfranchised young gay black man seem like the long-lost fragment of an ongoing American narrative. Hopefully, he won’t make us wait so long for his next film.
3. Hell or High Water — Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up), working with a smart script from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), drops us in a desperate West Texas landscape hollowed out by financial crisis and with no hope for any kind of bailout. So when two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) take matters into their own hands, even the lawmen on their trail (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) must confront truths that can’t set any of us free.
4. A Bigger Splash — Is there a bigger star in the world than Tilda Swinton playing a famous Rock star on vacation as part of her recovery from career-threatening throat surgery? Exuding glam without speaking above a whisper, she is like the love child of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. She is a slinky alien goddess. And there’s a real force of nature on display opposite her — Ralph Fiennes as an old manager/lover intent on upsetting her happy home. ThisSplash, directed by Luca Guadagnino, hits land with the impact of a meteor strike.
5. Barry — The year’s second Barack Obama biopic (following the earlier Southside With You) presents a portrait of the future president as a young man in search of an identity and a community to call his own. Director Vikram Gandhi’s film shows Obama, before he embraced his full name and well before he achieved becoming the nation’s first African-American leader, as a student (Devon Terrell) navigating the mean streets around Columbia University in the early 1980s. And if you can make it there . . .
6. Loving — Having dazzled audiences with the understated Spielbergian charms of Midnight Special earlier this year, director Jeff Nichols returned with Loving, a Civil Rights-era story detailing the struggles of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) to have the anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and the rest of the country found voided. Their quest bypassed the defiant marches and fiery speeches of the day. And this wise film spotlights the thing that mattered most to the them — family.
7. Jackie — Director Pablo Larraín’s film details the tragic week between the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the burial, viewing it through the perspective of his shocked yet firmly in control widow Jackie (Natalie Portman).
8. The Witch — What is the greatest fear? Is it fear itself or fear of the unknown? I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I do that director Robert Eggers generated an unhealthy degree of both in The Witch, which transported us back to New England in the 1630s and tied us to a family of outcasts who come face-to-face with all manner of horrors in the woods. Anya Taylor-Joy, as the teen daughter, was memorable but the voice of Ralph Ineson as her father William is the rumbling echo that haunts my nightmares.
9. Arrival — Thankfully, director Denis Villeneuve had no interest whatsoever in rendering yet another Close Encounters clone. Instead, he and screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life as a wonderfully moody piece of speculative science fiction that engages the single greatest special effect ever produced — the human imagination. And they set Amy Adams loose in our heads and hearts.
10. The Fits — This surreal tale from director Anna Rose Holmer, filmed and set in Cincinnati, is about a disciplined tomboy (Royalty Hightower) who switches from boxing to a highly choereographed precision dance troupe only to succumb to mysterious fainting spells and violent fits. After bemoaning how Cincinnati has been a stand-in far too often for other cities onscreen, you can’t fault me for praising this gorgeously specific look at the Queen City as the raw gem that it is.