There was once a time when great movies, as often as not, were mainstream movies. These days, it’s easy to feel that those two things are doomed to live on separate islands. Yet not always: A number of the movies on my list, from the bedazzled romance of “La La Land” to the somber excitement of “Patriots Day,” testify to a resurgence, at the movies, of a certain kind of old-school populism. And why not? These may be turbulent and troubled times, but that’s reflected in both the passion onscreen and the passion of moviegoers themselves.
1. “La La Land”
Damien Chazelle’s starry-eyed moody confection of a musical is the rare modern movie that does the thing we all (in our hidden hearts) long for: It puts you — and leaves you — in a trance. It’s set against a twinkling magic-hour L.A., with Ryan Gosling’s short-fused jazz snob and Emma Stone’s sharp-tongued aspiring actress melting through each other’s defenses until they’re dancing on air. But just when you think you’ve got it pegged as a newfangled, old-fashioned love story, “La La Land” becomes the ravishingly downbeat tale of what it takes to make creative dreamers tick. Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are irresistible in such a bittersweet way that they leave you in a teary swoon, and the movie, for all the MGM in its DNA, turns into a more sublime Jacques Demy film than Jacques Demy ever made.
2. “Hell or High Water”
You could call it a neo-Western, a hair-trigger crime thriller, or the tangled drama of two brothers: one (Ben Foster) born to be bad, the other (Chris Pine) a good man who needs to become bad to be good — to redeem his family in financially scary times. What it adds up to is that David Mackenzie’s riveting tale of amateur bank robbers is a movie that brilliantly echoes the desperate humanity of the underworld psychodramas of the ’70s. Pine, at last, proves that he’s a major actor, and Taylor Sheridan’s savory dialogue — the best of the year — is what Jeff Bridges chews on like tobacco to create a rawhide Texas Ranger as lived-in as he is ingenious.
3. “Manchester by the Sea”
“Devastation” is a word that’s been overused just enough to numb its meaning, but Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisitely sculpted drama never lets us forget what it means: The movie is about a man who’s a walking case of devastation — and with good reason. He destroyed everything he loved. Is there hope for him? That’s the question that powers Casey Affleck’s magnetically surly lost-soul performance. And it’s a question the movie confronts with masterly precision — and with a kind of cold-biting wintry wit, as Affleck’s Lee, a Massachusetts handyman, steps up to become the guardian of his nephew (the terrific Lucas Hedges), searching for a redemption that almost any other movie — i.e., one less bold than this one — would have given him.
4. “I Am Not Your Negro“
In a year of superlative nonfiction films (“Weiner,” “O.J.: Made in America,” “13TH”), Raoul Peck’s staggering meditation on the life, thought, and very being of James Baldwin towers over all of them as a documentary of haunting poetic force. It is also, ironically, the timeliest vision of racial politics made this year — even though it’s based on writings that are 30 to 50 years old. It’s an exhilarating kaleidoscope of filmmaking that explores the violence that racism inflicts upon the spirit: of the oppressed, and of the oppressors, too.
Jacqueline Kennedy remains such an iconic dawn-of-the-media-age figure — the wardrobe, the manners, the breathy Brahmin vowels — that Pablo Larraín’s drama about the agonizing week she spent after her husband’s assassination may sound like a gossipy art stunt. But it takes us movingly close to her trauma, sensitivity, and unacknowledged power as an image manipulator. Natalie Portman creates a brilliant impersonation and uses it to etch her way inward, so that you may emerge feeling that you know Jackie Kennedy for the very first time.
In his enthrallingly structured, heart-wrenching docudrama, Clint Eastwood has the audacity to portray Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) as a countercultural hero: an airline captain who, in meeting disaster by landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River, didn’t go by the book (or the computer). He went on instinct, and that places him in opposition to the whole techno-bureaucratic machine. Hanks reminds you of how good it truly is when he’s great.
7. “Don’t Think Twice”
As soon as you hear the premise — an indie drama about a troupe of improv comics in New York City — you think, “Okay, that sounds really small.” But the beauty of Mike Birbiglia’s second feature, apart from how fantastically written and acted it is (especially its acid inside satire of “Saturday Night Live”), is that it captures, as much as “La La Land” or the career of Arcade Fire, the struggle to keep the candle of bohemia burning in a world of corporate entertainment.
What if Oliver Stone made his most galvanizing film in 20 years, and nobody gave a damn? “Snowden” was written off as a middle-of-the-road, old-news triviality, yet it tells a story even “Citizenfour” didn’t: how the new surveillance state evolved — what it looks like, how it works, and (most subtly, since it’s something that a lot of critics didn’t get) why it’s probably not going away. As Edward Snowden, the lonely young hacker in the thick of it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t just a whistleblower hero. He’s our tersely captivating tour guide through the new Orwellian house of mirrors.
At this point, it’s no trick to concoct a franchise superhero movie that delivers the action/eye-popping/saving-the-world goods. But how do you make one that’s genuinely out-of-the-box thrilling? You do it by giving us an anti-superhero (Ryan Reynolds) with a face like the Phantom of the Opera, an attitude darker than Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and a wit like rusty barb wire. And you do it by having the movie itself mirror his cutthroat bravura: Tim Miller, in his first feature, directs with a zigzag nihilistic flash that makes every scene a surprise.
10. “Patriots Day”
Peter Berg’s film about the Boston Marathon bombing is the most riveting Hollywood docudrama to emerge from the post-9/11 world since “United 93,” and that’s not a coincidence, since Berg creates his own version of Paul Greengrass’s awesomely sprawling and spontaneous you-are-there aesthetic. The depiction of the bombing is profoundly suspenseful in its terror and horror, and the search for the perpetrators (who are portrayed as louts with a grudge) results in a gripping procedural that climaxes with an action sequence that will leave you drop-jawed.
Click here for Variety Chief Film Critic Peter Debruge’s top 10 films of 2016.