Favorite Films of 2016

My top 10 list this year contains a 45-minute IMAX film and an 8-hour ESPN documentary. My list also includes films from some of my favorite directors: Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols, Jim Jarmusch. It was a year in which established directors took risks and up-and-coming directors reached new heights. It was a year which saw a first in the history of cinema: two films by Terrence Malick released in one calendar year. It was a year that gave us not one but two nostalgic musicals (Sing Street and La La Land), and not one but two films in which Andrew Garfield plays a persecuted Christian (Silence and Hacksaw Ridge). In fact it was, as my former Christianity Today colleague Alissa Wilkinson has pointed out, a "banner year for onscreen treatments of religion." It was a good year. Here are my favorite films of the year. In addition to my top 10, I have also included a set of 10 honorable mentions, each of which I recommend as enthusiastically as my highest ranked picks. I also include a few of my favorite documentaries and favorite things from T.V. What were your favorites this year?

Overall Top 10

1) Silence: As a Christian and a film critic, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a collision of worlds for me. Scorsese is one of my favorite filmmakers, but he’s also the guy whose infamous Last Temptation of Christ sparked boycotts and protests that epitomized the hostile skepticism of my faith community toward the “unsafe” frontiers of cinematic art. In Silence we have a film that is both cinematically brilliant and devotionally profound. It doesn’t mock Christianity or provoke theological skirmishes. It tells a powerful story of suffering, sacrifice and grace (based on Shusaku Endo’s novel) that gets to the heart of who Christ is. It’s the greatest and sincerest work of Christian cinema since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In my dreams I picture theaters rented out by churches next month and Bible study curriculum developed around this film in the mold of The Passion of the Christ or God’s Not Dead. This film is a gift to Christians. I pray we receive it as such. (my full review)

2) Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience: What Terrence Malick’s “documentary short” lacks in length (it’s only 45 minutes long) it makes up in its IMAX size, “history of the universe from beginning to end” scope and unapologetic spiritual zeal. The title is certainly apt. In 45 brisk minutes, Malick takes the viewer on a voyage through the entirety of time, and mankind only gets a few fleeting scenes (but they are glorious). While this might sound audacious and gimmicky, the reality is this is a film of deep humility, restraint and reverence. It’s like a child’s meandering reverie, in science class or in church, on the bare, beautiful fact of being. Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer to that question is everywhere in the symphony of sound and image Malick parades before us, whether it be forming galaxies or grazing giraffes. (my full review)

3) O.J.: Made in America: To say that this 5-part, 8-hour magnum opus from Ezra Edelman is the definitive work on the O.J. Simpson saga is to minimize its greatness. It is the definitive work on O.J., but it is also a new high for the documentary form. This is the best Ken Burns meets the best Errol Morris, with the operatic grandeur of Francis Ford Coppola and the grim elegance of David Fincher. It’s about race, class, sports, celebrity, L.A., American history, human nature and O.J. Simpson. It’s maddening, disturbing, fascinating, tragic. This is the Citizen Kane of the documentary genre. Rent it over the holidays, settle in with your loved ones and take the time to watch every compelling minute of it.

4) Arrival: Is there a more exciting director working today than Denis Villeneuve? Not for my money. He has such a fascinating way of building tension and dread while simultaneously soaking in beauty and wonder. His latest, an “alien-invasion” film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, is as moody and beautiful as his stunning last film, Sicario, but less of a downer. In fact Arrival is, in its own wrenching way, the feel-good movie of the year. It’s a film for everyone: linguists, theoretical physicists, people who like twists, Calvinists. Go see it with a group and then discuss it together. If you leave the theater after this one and stop thinking about it an hour later, you’re doing it wrong. (my full review)

5) American Honey: In a year which made obvious the extent to which vast populations of Middle America (the huge swath of red that went for Trump) are unseen and unknown to blue state “sophisticates,” a film like American Honey takes on a special significance. Fittingly made by a non-American (the brilliant British director Andrea Arnold), Honey is a sort of “Hillbilly Elegymeets On the Road” verité epic. Part road movie, part social-realist expose (most of the cast are non-actors), part music video, Honey is thoroughly original cinema. It has no apparent agenda beyond simply capturing a slice of America in 2016 by way of a ragtag van full of American youth: weary capitalists, sexually confused, looking for the authentic and the unexpected, singing along to Rihanna and Lady Antebellum in equal measure.

6) Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson’s comeback film is the second “Andrew Garfield plays a Christian whose faith is tested” movie of 2016 (Silence being the other). Like Silence, Hacksaw is an earnest exploration of Christian conviction by a filmmaker of Catholic faith. Though it feels noticeably vintage at times (the first half especially), Hacksaw is incredibly timely in terms of our current debates about religious liberty, posing questions like: Are there limits to how far a pluralistic society should go in honoring an individual’s religious conscience? On the level of filmmaking alone, Hacksaw is brilliant; it includes perhaps the best war scene choreography since Saving Private Ryan. But as a film of subtle healing for our deeply fractious times, it rises to the level of greatness. (my full review)

7) Everybody Wants Some: Ostensibly a raunchy college comedy and “spiritual sequel” of sorts to his 1970s comedy Dazed & Confused (1993), Richard Linklater’s latest is actually a surprising meditation on the preciousness and pain of the passage of time. This is a recurring theme in Linklater’s work, perhaps most explicitly in his “Before” trilogy or acclaimed 2014 film Boyhood. Everybody Wants Some might be considered a sort of “College Years” B-side to Boyhood. It explores similar terrain but expands on the “boy” part of the idea: the nature of masculinity, especially in the idea of competition. It’s an all around glorious film, tender and fun and light and profound. (my full review)

8) Loving: I’ve liked all of Jeff Nichols’ films (Shotgun Stories, Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special… all are worth seeing), but Loving is the first one I’ve really loved. I love it for some of the same reasons I loved Brooklyn last year; it’s an old-school story of committed love between a man and a woman, well told. No twists. No clever stylizing. No need. The simple presentation of a loving marriage that becomes a loving family is subversive in 2016. Of course there is also drama, this being the true story of an interracial marriage that led to a landmark Supreme Court case. But even more compelling than the plot are the well observed textures of the life one couple (played beautifully by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) are building together in 1960s Virginia.

9) Certain Women: Kelly Reichardt understands what cinema does. It captures the particularity of a person and/or place, in time. It is moving pictures capturing a sliver of life. Her films are all quiet and observant and confident in cinema’s inherent power, which is to turn our gaze to particularity so that we slow down and truly contemplate a person or thing. Her latest, Certain Women, is especially quiet and observant and confident. It doesn’t care that we don’t know much about the women we watch aside from the very limited interactions we observe. It is enough that these are certain women. Their stories are real and largely unseen. And yet at least in part, we bear witness.

10) Paterson: The latest from bohemian minimalist Jim Jarmusch is an utter delight. Starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly) as a stable, conflict-free married couple in New Jersey, the film is about the poetry of mundane life and the stability of committed love. Though many of the quirky trademarks of Jarmusch are present (including an array of encounters with diverse strangers and a requisite cameo from a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), Paterson is perhaps the director's most joyous and grounded film. Along with Loving, this is a film that makes no apologies for presenting married love in its beautiful everydayness, as the couple goes about working and cooking and sleeping and supporting one another in the little challenges of a week in their life.

Honorable Mention

Favorite Documentaries

  • 13th
  • Gleason
  • Lo and Behold
  • Amanda Knox
  • The Witness
  • Weiner
  • Under the Sun

Favorite Things on T.V.

  • The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX)
  • Stranger Things (Netflix)
  • Black Mirror (Netflix)
  • This is Us (NBC)
  • The Crown (Netflix)