For a variety of reasons, 2016 marked my personal record for the most new films I’ve seen in any given year, which is simultaneously a triumph and a problem. More movies equals more choice, and I’m nothing if not terrible at making decisions. But the following 10 films (and runners-up, because again, I’m terrible at making decisions) are the ones I loved most this year, edging out the titles I found worthy of respect, but not affection (like the ambitious Martin Scorsese opus “Silence“).
10. “Sing Street”
Though my adolescence wasn’t quite “Footloose,” it wasn’t far from it, and dancing still isn’t instinctual to me. That said, the catchy tunes of “Sing Street” are infectious enough to cause even my limbs to move in Elaine Benes-like fashion. I fell hard for John Carney’s “Once” almost a decade ago, but this musical is an even better marriage of song and cinema from the director. “Sing Street” has a wonderful sense of what it feels like to grow up, hitting each nostalgic note perfectly, whether it’s paying homage to the bands of the ‘80s or reminding audiences what first love feels like. Despite its teenage characters, the themes of the film resonate with adults, evoking the feelings we once felt – and may still feel at times. Part of this is due to its talented young cast, particularly lead Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor as his brother/musical mentor and Lucy Boynton as the object of his affection. But beyond the strong performances and the perfectly composed soundtrack, Carney’s screenplay offers insight into the first time we fall in love with a person and the first time we fall in love with music.
9. “Always Shine”
Sophia Takal’s thriller at once feels like a throwback to Hitchcock, Lynch and De Palma, while remaining an entirely modern film whose female perspective sets it apart. In “Always Shine,” Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald give what should be a pair of star-making performances as two actresses at different places in their respective careers. Takal’s ace direction and a strong script from her husband Lawrence Michael Levine highlight the internal and external pressures on the women that threaten to tear apart their friendship, but this isn’t just a relationship-driven drama about a Hollywood rivalry. There’s real danger here, and the feminist commentary “Always Shine” offers doesn’t limit itself just to the role of women in Hollywood. Instead, many of the barriers and conflicts they face feel familiar to women off-screen as well, from the need to conform to a certain “type” to being prized – or devalued – solely for your looks. This is an unsettling film to be sure, but with its suspense and style, it’s a full of pleasures, too.
8. “Toni Erdmann”
Generally, the only films I want to approach three hours are ones featuring wizards, elves and orcs, but this dry German comedy breaks my rule. “Toni Erdmann” should be unbearable: 162 minutes of awkwardness, punctuated by moments of even more awkwardness that had me curling into myself with shared embarrassment. But somehow, Maren Ade’s film knows exactly when to hold back and when to push for more in its story of adult daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) and her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who follows her on a business trip to Bucharest. There, he adopts the persona of “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach whose real identity is hidden by fake teeth, a horrific wig and a questionable career choice. The film never takes the path you think it will, and it still manages to surprise each time a scene establishes its trajectory. Even though my relationship with my own father is nothing like the one between Ines and Winfried, I found it refreshing to see a cinematic father-daughter relationship in a sea of dads and sons on screen.
7. “Maggie’s Plan”
Rarely have I felt so in synch with a movie as I did with this Rebecca Miller gem. From its setting in my city of New York to its mixture of cynicism and romantic hope, this movie gets me (bonus points for the casting of my adolescent crush Ethan Hawke in the perfect role for the actor). Miller’s film takes equal parts William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Woody Allen and combines it with her own sensibility to create her best work yet. Greta Gerwig stars as a woman who has an affair with a married professor of “ficto-critical anthropology,” then ultimately concocts a plan to reunite him with his ex-wife when she wants out of the relationship. It’s wry, funny and insightful, aware of its characters’ (many) flaws and loving them all the more for them. This is a great ensemble piece with parts for a Scandinavian-accented Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel and Wallace Shawn, but it’s ultimately Gerwig’s film. Along with “Jackie” and “20th Century Women,” this cements her as one of our best actresses.
6. “Hell Or High Water”
One of 2016’s most unassuming pleasures and most unexpected critical hits, this Western/heist-movie hybrid is just as funny as it is thrilling. Even more surprising is that a film so purely West Texas at its heart as this was made by Scottish director David Mackenzie, but credit also goes to “Sicario” screenwriter — and native Texan — Taylor Sheridan. With these two talents, “Hell Or High Water” is a near-perfect melding of tone, setting, plot, dialogue and character, and each element perfectly serves all the others. Despite polar-opposite temperaments, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) band together to rob the bank chain that foreclosed on their family’s land, while two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are on their tail. Foster’s firecracker, ex-con brother and Bridges’ cursing, on-the-cusp-of-retirement lawman have gotten most of the praise, but it’d be a shame to overlook the quieter performances from the driven-by-desperation Pine and the long-suffering Birmingham. Mackenzie’s direction and Sheridan’s script make the seesaw between suspense and comedy look easy, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score — alternately rousing and mournful — further settles us in the Lone Star State, taking up residence alongside those who are out of legal options, and those who will pursue them no matter how much their ideologies align.