Only God should make a Top 10 list of anything. You need omniscience to say for sure that the 10 best movies of any year don’t include a documentary in Tagalog about bat deaths in the Philippine Islands or a romantic comedy from Sri Lanka that never got released internationally.
Yet calling a list “the 10 best movies I saw from among an admittedly limited selection” or “the 10 movies that got stuck longest in my brain” wouldn’t have nearly as much pomp. So here are The Top Ten of 2016:
1. “Arrival” – A linguist and a physicist (Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) try to interpret what aliens from another world want to convey when they land all over the globe. Along the way, they come to a different understanding of time and their own lives. This complex tale jumps in and out of sequence and requires you to be an active participant, but it reaches both your brain and your heart.
2. “Loving” – Sometimes simplicity can be almost perfect. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s understated performances and Jeff Nichols’ script and direction quietly convey the struggles of a Virginia couple prosecuted in the 1950s for breaking a law against interracial marriage. The film’s observations on class and race seem pertinent in a sadly current way.
3. “Moonlight” – Director Barry Jenkins beautifully paces this story of a fatherless black boy, whose drug-addicted mother is no help to him. We see him learning maturity as a child from a sympathetic drug dealer, having his first sexual experience with a male high school classmate, then trying to break out of his shell of loneliness as an adult whose life has followed an unhappy path.
4. “Manchester By the Sea” – Another low-key movie speaks volumes. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan shows us the tragedy of a Massachusetts janitor who commits an unforgivable act but gets a chance at redemption, when his brother’s will makes him the guardian of a teenaged nephew. Casey Affleck stands out as the man who can’t see a reason to go on but must.
5. “Kubo and the Two Strings” – Every year brings a terrific animated feature, and 2016 had two. Laika Entertainment (“Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls”) produced this magic-filled tale about a samurai’s one-eyed son, who must defeat his father’s ancient enemy with the aid of an enormous beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and a droll, bitter monkey (Charlize Theron).
6. “Zero Days” – Alex Gibney’s documentary scared me more than any horror film. The U.S. and Israel invented the computer virus Stuxnet to ruin Iran’s nuclear plants. It didn’t, but it rebounded on us, affecting American computers and giving our enemies technology they did not have. How does the cyberterrorism race differ from the nuclear arms race? The latter has treaties to prevent it.
7. “La La Land” – Like “The Artist,” Damien Chazelle’s musical fantasy about a would-be actress (remarkable Emma Stone) and a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles is an unrepeatable work of joy leavened with sadness. Writer-director Chazelle was inspired by Jacques Demy’s 1960s French musicals, where everyday people sing and dance through romances light or serious.
8. “The BFG” – Every critic should have a movie to champion in spite of indifferent reviews and uncaring filmgoers. Mine this year is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy, adapted from Roald Dahl’s novel about a London child who travels to a world inhabited by one gentle giant and many not-so-gentle ones. Handsomely done in every regard, with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance voicing the title character.
9. “Zootopia” – This animated winner about a bunny who wants to be a police officer in her animal universe has a droll sense of humor, some moments of deep emotion, a whodunit plot – someone is turning civilized beasts into predatory killers – and a snarkily funny performance by Jason Bateman as a con-artist fox. It’s Disney, but with a welcome edge and no songs.
10. (tie) “The Lobster” – Yorgos Lanthinos directed the year’s oddest film with mainstream stars. Colin Farrell plays a solitary man sent to a resort where people have 45 days to find mates or be turned into animals; Rachel Weisz plays one of the rebels who live in the woods and want to bring down the system. As they bond, the movie travels deeper into love-it-or-hate-it territory.
10. (tie) “A Monster Calls” – Lewis MacDougall gives a breakthrough performance as Conor, a bullied 12-year-old whose terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones) starts to slip away. He’s visited in his rage and sadness by a monster (Liam Neeson) who tries to console him. Or did Conor somehow summon the monster? And is it there to help or destroy him? A powerful fable.
Honorable mentions in alphabetic order: “Captain Fantastic,” “Deadpool,” “Doctor Strange,” “Eye in the Sky,” “Fences,” “Hell or High Water,” “Hidden Figures,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Moana,” “The Witch.”