(Barry Jenkins, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels, the deeply engaging and empathetic Moonlight has extraordinary writing, acting, directing, cinematography, sound and music. The central character barely speaks a word at times, but the three actors playing him at various ages still manage to communicate so much with their expressions and the way they carry themselves. It’s entirely persuasive that they’re all the same person, even through major physical changes.Throughout all three chapters, Chiron’s remarkable eyes watch the world around him with a guarded, wary shyness. On one level, this is a film about an African-American’s experiences; on another, it’s a film about a gay youth’s sexual awakening. Like the best stories, it feels very specific and universal at the same time. I felt an especially strong connection to Chiron in the middle chapter, where he faces bullying as a teenager; it brought back memories of just how cruel children can be to one another. It’s also refreshing to see a movie portraying drug dealers and drug addicts as complex people who defy stereotypes. In the end, Moonlight is a beautiful portrait of a boy — and later, a man — discovering his own identity.
2. Toni Erdmann
(Maren Ade, Germany) — Exceedingly odd and utterly original, this German comedy delivers unexpected cringes and smiles at every turn — and a few truly hilarious moments. Very few films have ever focused on the relationship between an adult woman and her father; that alone would make this intriguing. But it’s a deeper experience than that. A synopsis might read like the script for a piece of performance art, but even in its most bizarre moments, Toni Erdmann comes across as authentically human. (An American remake is in the works; why bother?)
3. Manchester by the Sea
(Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.) — A devastating story of how to live with grief and guilt. Every moment of Lonergan’s script feels honest, and the acting is just as superb. Casey Affleck gives a subtle performance as a taciturn man who’s shielding himself from the world. The moment on the street between Affleck and Michelle Williams — when the pent-up emotions burst into plain sight — is an all-time great scene.
4. The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S.) — The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos proved he was a master of the absurd with his great films Dogtooth and Alps. In his first English-language movie, he continues in the same disturbing and surreally humorous style, creating yet another world with its own set of demented rules. This time, his alternate reality works brilliantly as a commentary on courtship and romantic relationships in our real world.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
(Raoul Peck, U.S.) — This thought-provoking and emotionally powerful film about race in America is an innovative variation on the documentary form. In some ways, it’s a portrait of the author James Baldwin, but it’s really more of a personal and poetic essay by Baldwin himself — brought to life on the screen with archival footage as well as actor Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words. There’s a striking clarity to Baldwin’s thoughts, and Peck’s movie shows how relevant they remain in today’s America.
(Keith Maitland, U.S.) — Another film that stretches the boundaries of the documentary form. The brilliant Tower uses animation and actors’ voices to re-create many scenes from the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin, blending those simulations with actual movies, photos and audio from the horrifying historical event. The sniper, Charles Whitman, is not the focus of Tower. Instead, the movie shows what was happening on the ground as he fired his rifle. With the terror and tragedy playing out almost in real time, stirring stories of heroism and survival emerge.
7. April and the Extraordinary World
(Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, France) — A delightful animated adventure, filled with memorable characters and clever visions of a steampunk world parallel to our own.
(Cristi Puiu, Romania) — A dysfunctional family’s gathering for a memorial service goes disastrously wrong in this claustrophobic black comedy, which screened last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival. Some viewers may find Sieranevada to be taxing and exasperating; to me, it was a mesmerizing picture of a taxing and exasperating ordeal.
(Denis Villeneuve, U.S.) — A thoughtful and emotionally engaging science-fiction drama anchored by a typically great Amy Adams performance, Arrival subverts our expectations of how time unfolds on the screen.
(Jim Jarmusch, U.S.) — A poetic film about a poet, this is an almost perfect distillation of Jarmusch’s cinematic style. Is Paterson a realistic depiction of a New Jersey community or an idealized vision of what America could be? Whatever — I feel like living inside this movie’s world.
Loving (Jeff Nichols, U.S.) The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland) The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran) Lost in Paris (Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Belgium/France) Fences (Denzel Washington, U.S.) The Garbage Helicopter (Jonas Selberg Augustsén, Sweden) Hail, Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, U.S.) 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, U.S.) The Witch (Robert Eggers, U.S.) Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, U.S.) Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, U.S.) La La Land (Damien Chazelle, U.S.) The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit, Netherlands) Jackie (Pablo Larraín, U.S.) One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Domnik, U.K.) Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China) Notfilm (Ross Lipman, U.S.) Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)