Twenty-sixteen, we're told, has been a banner year for both TV and film. And yet, Scene endured a nonstop barrage of some of the worst big-budget offerings in memory. This year produced even more startling evidence of Hollywood's increasing polarization. At one end, you've got brand-name franchises, cinema as spectacle, heartless action without pause. At the other, you've got shoestring-budget indies, often lacking refinement in their scripts, technical elements and lead performances. It's no accident that most of the films on our list fall somewhere in between. These are films made by exciting directors who haven't yet been enticed by Marvel or Star Wars. They are probing films with dark or effervescent world views, notable, indeed, because they have world views. Without exception, these are beautiful, or at least visually interesting, movies to watch. And as the best movies do, these create worlds of their own.
Our number one film of the year is director Denis Villenueve's sci-fi masterpiece starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It's a breathtaking and ambitious film. Adams plays a linguist summoned to communicate with aliens aboard an obelisk-ish spaceship in the Montana countryside. The aliens, having landed all over the world, appear to be benign, or at least inert, and the world's various militaries need justification before they pounce. Against the clock, Adams must decode the aliens' marvelously foreign language to determine why they've come. In an elegant act of mimicry, the film itself comes to mirror this non-linear language, and by the end of movie — its final 30 minutes careening toward a revelatory emotional climax — you're viewing Arrival not as a sequential series of scenes, but as a singular idea, a transfixing total image of love and loss and language and courage. It is a triumph of both cinematography and adaptation; a stunning marriage of mind and heart.
One of the most rich and textured cinematic portraits of the 21st century, Moonlight (written and directed by Barry Jenkins) follows the tumultuous coming-of-age of Chiron at three distinct moments in his life: as a nine-year-old outcast under the wing of a conflicted drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, in one of the year's best performances); as a bullied high-schooler in the throes of sexual confusion; and as a man, re-invented as a drug-dealer to protect himself, seeking connection with an old friend. A piercing, devastating glimpse into the life of an American Other, Moonlight is as relevantly vectored as it is magnificently acted.
3) Green Room
From the hardcore-punk mind of director Jeremy Saulnier exploded the dark and gruesomely violent thrill ride that was Green Room. Anton Yelchin, before his tragic death, starred as a bassist in a traveling hardcore act that, to make cash for food and gas money, agrees to perform at a backwoods neo-Nazi bar. When they witness a murder, they, too, must be disposed of. The movie screeches along in a series of edge-of-your-seat confrontations. It is hands down the year's best thriller. Furthermore, it's a corrective to Eli Roth's torture-porn garbage, a reminder that gory movies must be more than their gore. Sir Patrick Stewart as neo-Nazi kingpin = inspired casting.
4) The Handmaiden
Fans of Netflix's foreign offerings might be familiar with the work of Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur who made Oldboy and others. The Handmaiden is his latest, a movie in three acts, each of which reveal deeper layers of a single story. It's 1930s Korea. A con man and a pickpocket conspire to lock up an heiress in an asylum. The secrets of each character are well-planted seeds — compounded by the setting: an estate owned by a deviant book collector – and watching them blossom is a thrill and a pleasure. It's as sensuous and surprising as they come. Downton Abbey meets Hentai.
The year's best documentary doesn't boast incredible footage from combat zones or secret interviews; it has no conceit, no gimmick; it has no star. It is, rather, an argument, a laser-focused, masterfully assembled treatise on the endurance of systemic racism. Directed by Ava Duvernay (Selma), this essential documentary gathers some of the most cogent black writers and academics to consider a nefarious loophole in the 13thamendment, which outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime. 13th is a full-frontal attack on mass incarceration, a condemnation of racism in its current incarnation, and a call to action.
6) Swiss Army Man
Wacky and wonderful, Swiss Army Man stars Paul Dano as a stranded, suicidal doof and Daniel Radcliffe as the corpse whom he befriends. It is the logical extreme in a progression that began with Tom Hanks and Wilson (the volleyball) in Cast Away. Though undeniably odd, this movie beats with a spurned lover's heart and manages to say more true stuff about friendship and self-discovery than any other movie of the year. It's often borderline-juvenile (the fart jokes grow thin), but it is pleasantly bizarre, charming and indelible.
7) La La Land
With the most electric opening sequence of the year, La La Land informs you immediately that it's here to party, and ought to be taken seriously. Its seamless blend of old and new prove that Hollywood musicals, just like romance, can be both timeless and very very modern. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star, and even though they're not powerhouse singers, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is a powerhouse director, one with vision and panache. This one's a splashy fiesta.
8) The Light Between Oceans
An elegiac drama with deep wells of emotions in store, led by two of the finest working actors in Hollywood: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Grand and somber and beautiful, this is your chance to observe master craftsmen at the top of their game. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), returning to his dramatic sweet spot.
9) The Witch
The year's best pure horror film, from rookie writer-director Robert Eggers. Satanic possession, paranoia, the 1630s? Yes, please.
10) Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck, in a performance that should net him an Academy Award nomination (if not a win), plays a janitor summoned to Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts, where he's been saddled with the guardianship of his nephew. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan finds levity among shipwrecked souls. This one is a mirror of true tragedy and features the year's best scene.
*Almost made the cut: Sing Street, Eye in the Sky, Captain America: Civil War, The Neon Demon, Demolition, The Lobster, Hell or High Water