I don’t think I’m the only person to have wondered about the usefulness of watching, discussing and writing about film — or any art — when it feels like outside the theater, the sky is falling. Great chunks of catastrophe are raining down from the heavens and I’m pondering crucial issues like the mythology of the “Transformers” cinematic universe and whether there’s any way to use the phrase mise-en-scene without sounding pretentious. At worst, consuming art in times of crisis can feel like falling prey to the narcotizing distraction tactics relied on by The Enemy, and at best a benevolent and slightly fusty irrelevance, like birdwatching or entering the New Yorker caption competition.

I’m also a little embarrassed to have had a year at the movies so wildly out of kilter not just with the general vibe of Oh God Oh God We’re All Going to Die, but also with the lackluster cinematic 2016 that many of my colleagues endured, certainly prior to the Fall awards window. That was a factor of me getting to Cannes, which had the all-round best lineup since I started attending (I got actively worried about the sheer number of A-grades I was handing out), and to Venice where the selection was similarly excellent, as well as to a very solid Berlin, a stronger-than-usual Karlovy Vary, and a terrific Tokyo, the latter two of which I covered for Variety. But that is also what made this list such a pleasure (if also a bit of a bugger) to contemplate — the knowledge that since it’s my personal year in movies I’d get to talk about a few titles that haven’t yet been released and hopefully whet your appetites for them. This timing issue also means that there are some 2016 releases that have cropped up on other lists but that were included in my 2015 roundup, such as “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Cemetery of Splendour,” “The Lobster” and “The Club.

So in the process of assembling my picks, I did worry whether all this frenetic listmaking, this year especially, can really be anything more than rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. But then I think of how each of these films has made me feel and how each, in some obscure sense has improved me, and I realize: they’re not deckchairs, they’re lifeboats.

Click here for our complete coverage of the Best of 2016

Shallows Blake Lively
20. “The Shallows”

When it came out, Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark movie was hailed as an unexpected treat: a June release B-movie thriller that was as engaging, lean and lithe as its star Blake Lively, giving the year’s most convincingly physical performance. By the time I actually got round to seeing it (late November) it was still all that, but it also felt almost comically cathartic — all you have to do is recognize that you are Blake Lively and 2016 is the shark. How many of us have felt like that bastard year reared up out of calm waters to maim us, and then left us stranded on a rock within waving distance of safety, aware not just of the desperation but also the sheer absurdity of the situation? The shark then kills every person who offers the hope of rescue or comfort, rather like the way the year devoured so many of the artists whose work we relied on for succor and inspiration. And the only way we could escape was by hiding in a bloom of stinging jellyfish. Ok, so maybe the allegory doesn’t exactly work, but in the most important sense it does: as fireworks flare in the night sky, may you triumphantly impale that godawful year on a big spiky thingie, and may you wash up on the shores of 2017 battered, scarred and pruny but alive, goddammit.

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19. “Graduation”
Cristian Mungiu has an extraordinary talent for making ordinary, completely believable situations feel like gargantuan morality dramas steeped in caustic social critique. Almost lost amid the shuffle of greatness that was the Cannes 2016 lineup, his latest film follows a father’s attempts to game the system on behalf of his daughter — but only just a little, only just this once and for ever such justifiable reasons. Romeo, consummately underplayed to everyman perfection by Adrien Titieni, merely wants to protect his daughter’s scholarship-worthy grades, after she is traumatized following an assault. But the architecture of Mungiu’s film is so grand that this becomes simply the visible stem of a root system of corruption that undermines all of Romanian society. The ultimate irony is that Romeo gets embroiled in the under-the-table, tit-for-tat favor economy he despises specifically to protect his daughter’s chances at a life far removed from such corruption, but in doing so, perhaps compromises that life also. Intimate on an epic scale like an Ibsen play, fatalistic without being nihilistic, “Graduation” feels less lacerating than Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and less austere than “Beyond the Hills.” But that’s only because its concerns are broader, and more cyclical than linear: it’s a brilliant evocation of how picking at a single thread of personal moral compromise can further unravel the already ragged fabric of a whole social system, and of how good intentions pave the way, if not to hell, then to unlovely, inescapable suburban Cluj. [Review]

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18. “American Honey”
Andrea Arnold‘s blazed, propulsive, sun-flared reverie is not a film of particularly deep philosophy or even social comment (though its scrappy locations do sometimes lend it a Robert Frank-esque vibe of marginalized Americana). But there were few other films this year that matched the 2 hours and 43 minutes of “American Honey” for sheer, giddy, cinematic experience. There’s a lightning-in-a-bottle quality to Arnold’s filmmaking here (captured in Robbie Ryan‘s remarkable, deceptively loose and freewheeling Academy ratio compositions) that is simply intoxicating, and that does an extraordinary job of capturing a thrummingly alive, choral impression of youth — a concept which, more even than the rivetingly watchable Sasha Lane, is the true star of the film. In fact, it’s so much about youth, so much an expression of an absolutely futureless now that it’s almost painful to watch it from an older vantage point: it operates as a vivid visceral recollection of how it felt to be young, to find your tribe, to fall in love, to expect the exhilaration of the moment to last forever. As a result it doesn’t really linger in the mind, it’s a firework of movie that expends all its energy as you’re watching it, and leaves you only with the almost physical sensations it inspires: sense memories of a warm night breeze on your bare shoulders or the smell of cigarette smoke on the wind. It is ephemeral, but so is youth and that is both its tragedy and its beauty. [Review]

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17. “Tempestad”
It would be easy to leave this off this list and give the spot to some better-known title — Tatiana Huezo‘s film is a little-seen documentary that debuted in a Berlinale sidebar all the way back in February and has yet to pick up distribution. But its embers still glow, and its aura of hard-won, beautifully presented, desperately sad wisdom has stayed with me despite there being little echo-chamber buzz. It’s a dual portrait documentary, that mines two extremely specific, personal stories of kidnapping in Mexico — one from a victim, one from the mother of a still-missing daughter (mom is a circus clown, no less) — that somehow together form a sweeping, rending, very human lament for the disappeared, in a country where such disappearances are commonplace and often ignored or even sanctioned by corrupt, colluding authorities. But even more extraordinary than the bones of the narrative, is the quietly dazzling way Huezo interrelates the two women’s separate stories (one told only in voiceover, the other on camera) and how cleverly she structures this full-to-overflowing film around absence. It’s haunting, poetic and deeply moving, less a traditional documentary than an meditative essay on how loss can haunt your life, told by one who has lost, and one who was lost, and it culminates in perhaps the most remarkable final shot of my year at the movies. [Review]

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16. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
I honestly can’t fight my way through the thicket of ironies that surrounds the fact that the last big-screen image of Carrie Fisher before her death was a vision of Princess Leia, CG-ed back to her most iconic, youthful incarnation, uttering the word “Hope.” I can’t even work out if it’s a beautiful grace note or a wild absurdity or both at once — but any of those options would I think be an appropriate memorial for such a bright, complex, witty woman. What I do know is that ‘Rogue One’ meant more to me than any ‘Star Wars‘ film released during my adult lifetime, and more to me than probably any blockbuster should, to the point that half the problems that other critics have with the film I see as positives. Yes, the characters are sketched in, but that simply makes this a portrait of collective, boots-on-the-ground bravery rather than the same old individualist messiah myth that almost every space opera/superhero movie riffs on. And while I do wish that not all the antagonists and all the ship’s crew aside from Jyn had to be men, still collecting all this around a central female character who is not overridingly kick-ass or supernaturally gifted is its own kind of progress. I liked “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” just fine, but mostly on behalf of the kids the in the audience who get to grow up with heroes who don’t all adhere to the same cookiecutter white-male template. I loved ‘Rogue One’ all for me, because it tells the adult me that true heroism exists in scrappy acts of fealty and friendship and defiance, a moral that is not just inspiring, but attainable.

  • Bo

    “Or maybe it’s just that we grow towards kindness the way plants grow toward light, so the expansion we feel is the not movie at all, it’s us, becoming bigger, kinder people for having watched this little miracle of a film.” — This is a very nice sentence.

  • kp404

    Still my favorite Playlist writer and all-around film journalist/critic. Great work, Jessica, looking forward to more of your articles.

  • Brock Brahmes

    Always worth reading articles by Jessica Kiang. She’s the best thing that happened to indiewire.

  • Vitor Barreira

    I like to read, in general, Mrs. Jessica Kiang’s film reviews, although I often disagree with her perceptions, impressions, and judgments about movies; but I repeat, I usually like to read Mrs. Jessica Kiang´s excellent prose.

    As for the list of her favorite 20 films released in 2016, I can only follow her in three cases: the two Romanian films, Graduation by Cristian Mungiu and Sieranevada by Cristi Puiu (both belong to the category of Social Realism films), and the German film Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade (this film belongs to the category of Dramedy); the big surprise, and what led me to write this brief comment, was her choice of the film The House of Others by the Georgian film director Rusudan Glurjidze (this film is very difficult to categorize, but I would put it in the pure Aesthetic and Formal mould), which she ranked in 11th in the list of her preferences; this choice reveals a very accurate aesthetic sense, a very good taste and also very good sense. Congratulations, Mrs. Jessica Kiang, I am so fond of this latest choice, which is a true gem of Georgian and European cinema.

  • Chris Parkes

    I love the passion of the filmmakers and the stories you’ve conveyed, Jessica, it’s inspiring. And also thank you for including The Shallows, one of the few American mainstream films that delivered so perfectly on it’s promise for me.

  • Montage Matt

    Good list. I saw over 60 movies last year but missed a few on your list. Thanks for highlighting some of the lesser known titles.

  • emad orandi

    so you didn’t like hell or high water that much?!

  • Tommy T-tone

    This is a stellar list, Jessica. So many of my own picks for the best of one mother of a year for film. Some of the films on my top 25 list were originally released in 2015 (generally late in the year), but were 2016 releases in the U.S., so there will be that conflict between individual lists. I look forward to seeing many of those you have listed that I have not yet seen or heard of previously.