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The top 10 best films of 2016 (plus 15 more that were great, too)

This year blew, except at the movies.
Manchester by the Sea, Toni Erdmann, Elle, MoonlightO.J. Made in AmericaMoonlightThe Nice GuysCertain WomenSilencePatersonElleEverybody Wants Some!!Manchester by the SeaToni ErdmannCameraperson

2016 can suck it. This wasn’t a good year, unless you were Trump supporter. One thing that didn’t stink was the movies. We don’t mean the big ones. There were a number of pricey box office casualties this year, and even the year’s top grosser, “Finding Dory,” was only slightly more than an enjoyable distraction.

RELATED: The Golden Globe nominations love "La La Land" and "Moonlight"

If you did some searching, though, you could find diamonds in the rough. Collectively, the films in our list of the year’s best films have grossed about $60 million, and the three that have yet to hit theaters may not add much more to that sum. Don’t hold that against them. This year popular really didn’t mean good, especially if the Electoral College got involved. Here are 10 movies you should seek out, plus 15 more that proved all was not lost in 2016. And many of them, especially in the top 10, are from the United States! Turns out America was already great, at least at the movies.

10. ‘O.J.: Made in America’
You could tell the story of Orenthal James Simpson in a standard two-hour doc. Or you could spend close to eight hours getting it right. Exhaustive but never exhausting, Ezra Edelman’s addictive, super-sized study of the footballer-turned-possible-murderer takes a deep dive into the rare life that’s unfolded like a tragic novel. Along the way Simpson’s story speaks to race, fame, self-delusion and the way the media intentionally and unintentionally turns the masses into irrational dittoheads. The Trial of the Century is the centerpiece, but it’s the final hour — about the aftermath, trailing someone who’s been damned but not condemned (until he is) — that really hurts. And it should turn the film’s most reliably frank and funny of the many sharp-tongued talking heads, defense attorney Carl Douglas, into a star. (You can binge the whole thing on Hulu.)

9. ‘Moonlight’
It certainly sounds Important: A movie that follows a shy boy named Chiron from a low-income black neighborhood as he ages into a bullied, closeted teen and finally into a grill’d-out young adult thug. That might have gotten viewers in the seats, but what’s great about Barry Jenkins’ three-part drama is the way it resists being put into little boxes. Its hero may be doomed by society and circumstances to follow a certain, grim path, but the film keeps pushing against borders. By its final stretch, when he reunites with an old friend (and, briefly, lover), it dares us to think it will go art house bleak-o-rama. And then it doesn’t. It finds its own, unique, transcendent path. (Read our review.)

8. ‘The Nice Guys’
Let’s pretend that any award Ryan Gosling scores for “La La Land” is really for his goofball turn in Shane Black’s wackadoodle detective lark. In the nice but overpraised musical, his dance moves were stiff and studied, his demeanor gloomy and remote. He’s far more graceful in “The Nice Guys,” even when drunkenly caterwauling through a Hollywood Hills soiree. The best Gosling is goofball Gosling, and so he stumbles off balconies, does his best Lou Costello and performs ace slapstick with a bathroom stall door. He’s just another top-notch part of Black’s coal black comedic mystery, with its unceasing one-liners and loopy twists and one of the greatest and weirdest plant-and-payoff gags in history. (It involved a talking bee with the voice of Hannibal Buress.) (Read our review)

7. ‘Certain Women’
It takes a couple hours, maybe days for the latest from Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) to really hit you. When unfolding in front of you, the three stories within seem almost sleepily mundane — even the one where Laura Dern’s lawyer gets involved in a high-stakes hostage situation. (And definitely the one where Michelle Williams buys sandstone from an old-timer.) Give it time, though, and it lingers — as a look at minor heartaches that haunt us for all our days, as a study of women quietly eking by amidst a world hostile towards their presence, and as a film whose languorous rhythms are like no other. (Read our review)

6. ‘Silence’
Thank god “The Wolf of Wall Street” was a hit (even if some fans didn’t realize it was satire). It meant Martin Scorsese could coax a major studio to fund his $50 million priest movie. It's a masterwork deeply untrendy in so many ways: as a slow and serene time-gobbler amidst busy and clangy blockbusters; as a thoughtful movie about religion when believers flock to evil crap like “God’s Not Dead”; and, apparently, as an awards magnet. There’s suspiciously little fanfare (read: Oscar talk) for this look at Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who willingly travel to anti-Christian 17th century Japan, knowing they almost certainly will be rounded up and tortured. The often (but far from always) keyed-up Scorsese shoots it all in hushed, slowly paced shots, even the parts where people are burned alive or crucified at sea. It’s no “The Passion of the Christ,” rubbing our noses in unspeakable agony. It’s as reserved and committed to its craft as its protagonists are to theirs — a calm yet intense safe space in which to ruminate on faith, doubt and a filmmaker who’s doing some of his best work well into his 70s. (In limited theaters Dec. 23; going wide on Jan. 6)

5. ‘Paterson’
Talk about good timing: Jim Jarmusch’s typically chill look at the week in the life of a poet/bus driver (Adam Driver, again) is the soothing antidote we need to the messes perpetually clogging up our social media feeds. Not that we want to make it sound topical. Like all Jarmusches, it was always made to exist on its own plane of existence. Nothing much happens to Driver’s Paterson (who lives in Paterson, NJ), and even when it does, it never fazes him. He keeps on keepin’ on, and so does Jarmusch, the great poet of the happy outsider, who’s made a film where routine and a lack of ambition become beautiful, not depressing. Best mutt of the year, too. (In limited theaters Dec. 28, expanding throughout January)

4. ‘Elle’
Actress Isabelle Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven were the year’s best couple. It was only a matter of time before the bad boy of Dutch — and, in the age of “RoboCop” and “Basic Instinct,” American — cinema teamed up with France’s iciest ice queen. And when they did, wouldn’t you know they’d make a rude, darkly comic yet insightful look at a woman who’s been sexually assaulted. No rape-and-revenger, this: Both star and director fearlessly light off in unpredictable and unsettling directions, unearthing grim truths while daring us to laugh. The funniest joke of all: It looks for all the world like a tasteful French character study, the kind you’d take your grandmother to see on a rainy Sunday, and yet it’s the most messed up film Verhoeven’s ever made. And he made “Showgirls.” (Read our review)

3. ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’
True story: We walked out of the cluttered, miserable “Batman v Superman” right into Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused.” Our head hurt. We longed for respite. And we got it: Within two minutes, this plotless hang-out movie cleared up our migraine like the world’s fastest-acting aspirin and made us enjoy life again. Who knew to the cure to the world’s annoyances were collegiate baseball bros? That’s the Linklater touch: No one loves people more than he does (hell, he’ll even tolerate his “Waking Life” performer Alex Jones). And like “Before Sunrise,” “Some!!” captures carefree youth at its most carefree, before excitement is ruined by the march of time — or two devastating nine-years-later sequels. (Read our review)

2. ‘Manchester by the Sea’
The movie we laughed at the most this year is, as it happens, also 2016’s saddest movie. A brutally honest look at the grieving process was also a study of Massholes at their most hilariously Massholiest. As Casey Affleck’s sadsack struggles with the headaches, major and minor, of his brother’s death, he also trades barbs with anyone and everyone, even the nosy jerk walking down the street (played by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan). We laugh, as they say, so as not to cry, especially during a mid-film maelstrom of tears when we finally learn the tragic episode from our punchy protagonist’s past. Lonergan may have come from the theater, but his movies play radically with the film form — from the structure, in which flashbacks crop up at random moments, to a tone that offers humor as a getaway from pain, and not always in a good way. (Read our review)

1. ‘Toni Erdmann’
OK, so it has almost the same plot as the Adam Sandler outing “That’s My Boy.” And OK, it doesn’t sound like a movie for the masses, being a comedy from Germany that runs nearly three hours. And yet Maren Ade's shaggy dog epic, about a workaholic (Sandra Huller) whose regimented life is upended by her goofy, fake teeth-wearing father (Peter Simonischek), has more to recommend than a handful of the funniest set pieces you’ll see all year. An art house experiment in long form, Andy Kaufman-esque comedy, it’s also a gutting character study that refuses to turn into a simple, heartwarming story of a tightwad who learns to loosen up. And yes, the only reason it’s able to do all this is because it’s longer than a “Sex and the City” movie. (In limited theaters Dec. 25; expanding throughout January)

To further prove what a great year it’s been, here are 15 more of our favorite new movies, some of which, at earlier parts of the year, lived on our Top 10:

11. ‘Cameraperson’ (our review)
12. ‘No Home Movie’ (our review)
13. ‘Things to Come’ (our review)
14. ‘Love & Friendship’ (our review)
15. ‘Sunset Song’ (our review)
16. ‘The Treasure’ (our review)
17. ‘Kate Plays Christine’ (our review)
18. ‘Cemetery of Splendor’ (our review)
19. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (currently in a week-long awards-qualifying run in NYC; returns to limited release on Feb. 3)
20. ‘Little Men’ (our review)
21. ‘My Golden Days’ (our review)
22. ‘Aquarius’ (our review)
23. ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’ (our review)
24. ‘Weiner’ (our review)
25. ‘The Fits’

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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