Cries of cinema’s death knell rang out among critics and journalists tracking this year’s poor-performing sequels and reboots. If franchises form Hollywood studios’ bedrock, one might assume American movies are in trouble. Look closer, and you’ll see, as far as quality is concerned, that’s not true at all.
Worthwhile films barreled into theaters left and right, so much so that I dare say 2016 was a fantastic year at the movies, if you knew where to look. Making a best-of list was so difficult that I couldn’t even stop at 20. I want you to see all of these! What are you waiting for?
When the United States raced the Soviet Union to space in the 1960s, it did so with the efforts of three black women who crunched the necessary calculations more proficiently than any of the white men they worked for. “Hidden Figures” tells their story. Amid a glut of comic-book mishaps on the big screen this year, these are the superheroes we need. Delightful and affecting, Theodore Melfi’s movie — starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe — reminds us that talent too often suffers at the hands of the system. You’ll forgive the film if it favors blunt summations over risky nuances. When something is this damn watchable, who cares?
Even if the title character’s poetry weren’t scrawled across the screen, Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” would still unfurl like a cinematic poem. Or maybe it’s better described as a dream set to the tune of quotidian sensitivity. Adam Driver is understated and fantastic as Paterson, a bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey, who scribbles observational verse about his daily encounters: overheard conversations, patterns, routines, small-town complacency and the love he shares with his ambitious, quirky wife (Golshifteh Farahani). Oh, and there’s also Marvin, a scene-stealing bulldog who might wish Paterson dead.
In a snug 72 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer accomplishes more than some filmmakers do in two hours. “The Fits” eases into a narrative about Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old whose dance-team cohort begins experiencing violent convulsions. With every passing moment, “The Fits” becomes more surprising. The camera loves Hightower, who makes a captivating guide in a tiny movie so well photographed (by Paul Yee) that it appears to have cost 10 times its reported $170,000 budget. Its final five minutes are some of the best on screen this year.
And a few more recommendations, because why not:
• “Cameraperson” [dir. Kirsten Johnson]. A meta celebration of life around the globe, this documentary probes a filmmaker’s relationship with her subjects.
• “The Handmaiden” [dir. Park Chan-wook]. A twisty erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea, this deceptive tale about a conman’s attempts to steal a Japanese heiress’ fortune will shock you.
• “I Am Not Your Negro” [dir. Raoul Peck]. This essential documentary traces the civil-rights moments through the words of James Baldwin.
• “The Invitation” [dir. Karyn Kusama]. A well-paced chiller about a cultish dinner party, this movie has one of the year’s best endings.
• “Little Sister” [dir. Zach Clark]. When a young nun (Addison Timlin) returns home to her dysfunctional family, she revisits her goth adolescence as the Bush era draws to a close. The results are smart and humorous.
• “Things to Come” [dir. Mia Hansen-Løve]. In the year’s second Isabelle Huppert stunner, the actress plays a philosopher facing domestic upheaval.