The reason Jeff Nichols’ historical drama has been largely overlooked amidst year-end acclaim is related to the very reason why the movie is so good: its aesthetic humility. What could have been played to the back row of the Dolby Theatre—the true story of the interracial couple whose 1958 marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court—is instead a collection of quiet, domestic moments. The Lovings (played by a subdued Joel Edgerton and a sublime Ruth Negga) stage a political revolution, simply by ironing shirts and mowing the lawn.
9. Toni Erdmann
It’s easy for thrillers to keep you on the edge of your seat, so extra points to German filmmaker Maren Ade for managing to do the same with a nearly three-hour relationship comedy about a goofball father and his corporate-minded adult daughter. Sandra Hüller is diabolically deadpan as the stone-faced daughter, but this is Peter Simonischek’s show. As her father Winfried, who adopts a wild wig and fake buck teeth to take on the alter ego of the title, Simonischek will make you care deeply for a person who, by all accounts, should give you hives.
Every moment matters, especially when put in the proper context. That’s the truth revealed by this collection of “leftover” footage, taken from a dozen or so documentaries that cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (the director here) has worked on over the past 25 years. Mostly we visit sites of trauma and suffering, including a village in postwar Bosnia, a refugee settlement in Darfur, and a courtroom in Texas. Yet somehow, when brought together in what amounts to a deeply empathetic feature-length montage, these excerpts help us make sense of a senseless world.
The most unifying element in this triptych, which explores three periods in the life of a quiet boy in a rough Miami neighborhood (with three different actors playing the same character), is—appropriately—the lighting. A triumph of cinematography, Moonlight is one of those precious films that knows how to honor the various textures and tones of African-American skin. Whether we’re watching Little, Chiron, or Black (or the many people who come in and out of his tumultuous life), each person on the screen is bathed with the beautiful light of grace.
Don’t take the latest provocation from Nicolas Winding Refn too literally. The fashion-model setting, where a 16-year-old neophyte (Elle Fanning) rises to prominence at her own risk, is simply backdrop for a strobe-lit fairy tale in which narcissism eats the beautiful for breakfast. Witches abound in The Neon Demon, but Fanning’s Jesse is the trickiest figure in these woods—part Little Red Riding Hood, part wolf.
5. La La Land
I feel only sadness, not ire, for the detractors of Damien Chazelle’s original movie musical, which balances the perfect amount of affection for the classics of the genre with a desire to take the form into an exciting new age. This movie is pure joy. I’ve described its responsive lighting scheme as a movie mood ring, for the way the colors work in concert with the characters’ emotions. Watching La La Land, my mood ring glowed bright pink, which the Internet tells me means “very happy, warm, affectionate, loving, infatuated, curious.” Sounds about right.
One of the true metaphysical experiences I’ve had at the movies was watching this languid meditation from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which centers on a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness at a tiny rural hospital. In its lighting and rhythm—particularly the image of pulsating, colored breathing machines that sit by each soldier’s bed—the movie lulls you into a spell where waking life, dreaming, and memory all merge.
3. The Lobster
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ trick is to devise absurd and often perverse situations, and then make them seem funnily, scarily familiar. And so The Lobster—set at a hotel where single people are forced to find a companion in 45 days or be turned into the animal of their choosing—sneakily comes to resemble our own world, where relationships can also be rigid and commoditized. There are a lot of dry laughs here, including many from a hilariously deadpan Colin Farrell as a recently divorced architect who tries to rig the system.
2. The Fits
More metaphysics, as first-time feature director Anna Rose Holmer portrays female adolescence as an out-of-body experience. An 11-year-old tomboy (Royalty Hightower) joins an all-girl competitive dance squad, and shortly thereafter some of the older girls begin to suffer unexplained seizures. Yes, it’s a menstruation metaphor, but also something more mysterious—especially in a bold finale that combines magical realism, Pentecostal fervor, and choreography reminiscent of Beyoncé’s Lemonade (another striking display of feminine identity from 2016).
There’s a rumor going around that the “important” Coen brothers movies are the serious ones. Yet I’d put this farce—set on a studio lot in 1950s Hollywood, where the star of a Bible epic (George Clooney) gets kidnapped by Commies—up with the likes of No Country for Old Men and Miller’s Crossing. Some movies give us Channing Tatum and a bunch of sailors tapping atop tables to the tune of “No Dames!,” while others force us to ponder theological queries about the nature of God. Hail, Caesar!, miraculously, does both, most memorably in a climactic scene of slapstick at the foot of the cross. Leave it to the Coens to combine irony and epiphany in a single moment.