2016 brought me back from Paris, where I had been focused on international cinema, to the United States, and for the most part, my preferences followed — at a time when it was impossible to ignore the way movies engaged with the issues consuming our country, and the world as a whole. In other cases, escapism seemed more important now than ever.
1. “Hell or High Water”
Remember the days when people robbed banks, not the other way around? Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has concocted a tough Texas snarl in which an about-to-be-foreclosed rancher (“Star Trek” star Chris Pine, showing facets we didn’t know he had) and his hot-tempered brother (Ben Foster, itchy as ever) turn the tables on the system that betrayed them. Presented as a racist sheriff’s last case (a role Jeff Bridges wears as comfortably as a pair of broken-in jeans), director David Mackenzie’s gritty crime caper does “No Country for Old Men” one better, putting its unforgiving acts in an economic context.
At a moment of powerful African-American portraits, ranging from angry, long-overdue “The Birth of a Nation,” to the more thoughtfully engaged “I Am Not Your Negro,” the one that touched me most was that of Chiron, a profoundly lonely young man growing up in Florida, with a junkie mother and no father. Glimpsed at three different stages in his life, Chiron is desperate for the sort of human connection that director Barry Jenkins enables us to experience virtually with him, transcending prejudice and challenging stereotypes in the process. In an industry with serious diversity problems, such stories matter as much as the lives they depict.
3. “Miles Ahead”
Writer-director-star Don Cheadle deconstructs Hollywood’s most tired format, the straight-laced musician’s biopic, in this wild riff on jazz maestro Miles Davis. It’s as if Cheadle, who’d spent years dreaming of what this movie could be, saw the project as an opportunity to do for film what Davis did for “social music,” tearing up the rules (there’s no moralistic from-humble-origins-to-high-stakes-humbling arc here) and scrambling the facts (loosely centered around Don DeMichael’s 1969 Rolling Stone interview), as the narrative dips, dodges, and folds back in on itself to find a mind-blowing cinematic equivalent for jazz.
4. “Toni Erdmann”
The funniest film of the year is also one of the shaggiest, running an indulgent 162 minutes. No doubt Hollywood could have whipped German director Maren Ade’s third feature into something tighter, and yet, the first thing to go would have been all those misfit details that make it so memorable — and specific. The story of a workaholic businesswoman and her all-but-estranged father, who jeopardizes an important trip to Romania with his nonstop practical jokes, this revolutionary comedy trades almost entirely in subtext, lacing unforgettable, often wince-inducing set pieces with layers that resonate long after the viewing has ended.
While Americans today distract themselves with questions of journalistic bias, we collectively ignore the more alarming shift to sensationalism over substance that crept in more than 40 years ago. In 1974, at a moment when Vietnam and Watergate nuked Americans’ trust in their institutions, a desperate local news reporter from Sarasota, Fla., took an unthinkable stand against the medium’s new “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Her name was Christine Chubbuck, and her actions inspired the movie “Network.” Now, director Antonio Campos takes us back, as Rebecca Hall, in a career-best performance, captures the chilling circumstances that led Chubbuck to become her own news story.
No filmmaker has more consistently challenged the line between exploitation and empowerment than Paul Verhoeven, making him the perfect director to tackle such a tricky piece of material. “Elle” opens with a violent sexual assault, but instead of spiraling off into a stock rape-revenge scenario, the film surprises by engaging with the unpredictable complexity of the consequences. Bolstered by a fearless lead turn from the world’s greatest living actress, Isabelle Huppert (in her most challenging role since “The Piano Teacher”), “Elle” demolishes the notion of rape as a generic narrative device, without compromising any of its potency as a psychosexual thriller.
In “Manchester by the Sea,” Casey Affleck plays a grief-stricken white guy who realizes he “can’t beat it,” acknowledging his tragic inability to look past the trauma that has come to define his life. Denzel Washington’s character has the same problem in his devastating adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, in which the dimension of race adds infinitely more depth: Slighted by his father and shut out of pro sports because of his skin color, this broken champ fails to recognize how the world is slowly changing (he’s the city’s first black garbage collector to be promoted to driver) and how his own disappointments poison the way he treats his wife and son.
8. “La La Land”
Like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” crossed with a Mumblecore movie, Damien Chazelle’s slightly jaded take on the impossibility of romance in Los Angeles reteams two of the most irresistible stars of their generation, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (paying off the chemistry promised in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”), as a couple we sincerely want to work — until work itself gets in the way, allowing narcissism and ambition to endanger their chances. Crammed with L.A. color and wall-to-wall music, the movie manages to be both audacious and cynically realistic, from its bold first shot to its unapologetically sentimental finale.
9. “Your Name”
It’s been a stellar year for animation, from the tolerance-minded message of “Zootopia” (which could inspire greater compassion from a generation of future voters), to the intricately conceived, epically realized “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but by far the most impressive was this time-travel/body-swap/disaster-movie hybrid, an anime treasure in which two characters from different cities share an imagination-tickling supernatural connection. For those of us who’ve been nervous that the retirement of Studio Ghibli’s top directors might mean an end to Japan’s peerless hand-drawn toon legacy, “Your Name” resoundingly affirms the talent of emerging independent auteur Makoto Shinkai.
Drama is conflict, and yet, Jim Jarmusch’s zen-like portrait of a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver contains practically nothing of the sort. Think of this gentle, light-as-a-feather ditty as an antidote to the spectacle-driven Sturm und Drang of comic-book movies (though I quite like “Doctor Strange”), one that invites us to patiently reflect upon the modest pleasures in a married couple’s routine through the eyes of an unassuming blue-collar poet (Adam Driver, at his best), whose gift for observing the world around him encourages us to do the same. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “so much depends upon” such simple truths.
Click here for Variety Chief Film Critic Owen Gleiberman’s top 10 films of 2016.