10. Hell or High Water: I saw someone write last year that Hell or High Water was a movie about “Trump country”, which is one of the more annoying phrases you could include in a thinkpiece. Their point was that the movie is about the sufferings of flyover country, which is fair, but Trump doesn’t come to mind when I watch this. Obviously there are people with big names that have screwed over a lot of people, but watching the taut filmmaking and intimate story of Hell or High Water is a reminder that corruption runs from the top of the totem pole all the way down.
9. Everybody Wants Some!!: Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, is more of a college movie than a baseball movie, but both aspects are crucial to appreciating it. As a college movie, Everybody is rambling and aimless, in a good way; as a baseball movie, Everybody captures the looming uncertainty of a prospect’s future. The combination of the two manages to concoct a rare formula of haphazard poignancy.
8. La La Land: At this point, I’ve mostly forgotten what the backlash was even about. I mostly just remember how wrecked I was after the final scene, one of the most effective endings to a mainstream movie in recent memory. And I mostly just want to watch La La Land again as soon as possible and lets its musical and visual beauty just wash over me.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings: There are franchises and sequels in the honorable mention section of this post, but it’s telling that the Top Ten is made of up of original movies. Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable from the stop-motion masters at Laika, may be the most original of them all. Kubo, a young boy with a musical gift, must team up with a snow monkey and a giant beetle to confront his grandfather (the moon) and his aunts to retrieve his left eye and avenge his- listen, it’s good, I promise.
6. Green Room: Sadly, Green Room ended up being more relevant than I’m sure director Jeremy Saulnier wanted. Featuring an eerie Patrick Stewart performance and the best work of the late Anton Yelchin’s career, Green Room is scary as hell, and not just because it’s a horror movie where white supremacists are the monsters. It also includes some of the most suspenseful scenes of the year with a soundtrack that ratchets up the intensity.
5. Jackie: Jackie is not a traditional biopic. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Jackie gives us a truly intimate portrait of the former First Lady by showing us days following the death of her husband. One could be frustrated with not seeing more of her life, but biopics that attempt to show the subject’s whole life often try to do too much. By showing us only a small glimpse of Jackie Kennedy at her most vulnerable time, Larraín and star Natalie Portman paint a complex picture of a woman who also happened to be an icon. Jackie contains multitudes.
4. Arrival: Science fiction does not have to dabble in the realm of ideas. Cool lasers and aliens are often enough to satisfy me. Yet the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of the themes of discovery and progress, it is hard to find a science fiction movie that does not touch on them. Arrival may surpass them all. With a simple conceit, but a remarkably intricate inner structure, Arrival hits on all levels intellectual and emotional.
3. American Honey: When I first saw director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I tweeted that it was the best American indie movie I’d seen since 2008’s Chop Shop, which was clearly not true, even at the time, since I had already seen the two movies above American Honey on this list. What American Honey and Chop Shop do have in common is that they both personify the fight to survive in the midst of the American dream. Sasha Lane’s character in Honey, Star, joins up with a traveling magazine sales team partly because she needs to make some money. Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the man who recruits her, is a part of the team because he thinks he will hustle his way to prosperity. Everyone on the team is either forgotten by society or used by others as a foothold to a future they will never see, but Arnold finds triumph in the life they build anyway.
2. The Witch: There are three horror movies that have created a ripple in the structure of my Christian faith. I don’t mean to say that they shook my faith, only caused me to think differently about my God and His will. The first was The Exorcist, which is so effective in its terrifying portrayal of the random corruption of innocence that I was forced to consider what the existence of demons truly means. The second was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not a particularly good movie, but which so directly faces the idea that God allows awful things to happen to the people who love Him. The third is The Witch, which deals with the seductive power of the devil in the face of a cold, godless world. The Witch was marketed as a horror movie, and it is certainly creepy and suspenseful, but it is not a traditional horror movie in the slightest. It is horrifying, but more for its ideas than for its jump scares. The ending alone would place The Witch among the horror movie greats, but it’s the slowly unraveling journey there that gives the ending its power and ultimately makes The Witch among the best movies of the year.
1. Moonlight: In the Oscars’ entire 89-year history, there had never been a mistake like the one at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight will always be associated with everything surrounding that error: Warren Beatty’s confusion, the grace and pain of the La La Land producers, the wild applause that greeted Moonlight’s announcement, and the revelation later that one of the accountants messed up because he was trying to get a freaking selfie with Emma Stone. It truly was a historic moment, so if Moonlight forever brings up that memory, that’s okay.
But its win was historic for other reasons too: the least expensive Best Picture winner (by far), the first with all African-American actors in its starring roles, the first with an explicitly LGBTQ character as its main character (you could count 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but because that film basically treats Jon Voight’s character’s sexuality as a pathology, I don’t think you should).
Even if Moonlight was not a historic Best Picture winner, it would have deserved to be remembered. I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks its actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.
Captain America: Civil War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I Am Not Your Negro
Manchester by the Sea
Past Top Tens
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Look of Silence
The Big Short
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Two Days, One Night
Guardians of the Galaxy
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The World’s End
Short Term 12
Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
The Tree of Life