Times that are spirit-crushingly awful desperately need great films. And 2016, for all its daggers, at least delivered some of the best movies in recent memory. After a weak year (2015), the medium came roaring back in 2016. Especially encouraging was the diversity to be found in the best movies of 2016—three of our top six films feature African-American or mixed-race leads, and four of our top nine starred a female lead. Overall, there were an impressive number of truly transcendent films to find U.S. release this year, and many more that were fascinating and thrilling in their own ways. So much so that narrowing the list down to 50 was extremely difficult, and we suspect (and hope) that many of you will tell us about favorites of yours that missed the cut.
Here are the 50 best movies of 2016.
50. Miles Ahead
Director/actor Don Cheadle dismissed a pitch for a conventional biopic structure and instead suggested making a film that captures the essence of Miles Davis’s spirit by bucking the biopic form—a film in which, as Cheadle tells it, Davis himself would want to star. Everyone got on board, so Cheadle proceeded to co-write, direct and star in what now amounts to a piece of Miles Davis fan fiction: Miles Ahead is a caper film with a refreshing sense of creative authority, chutzpah and goodwill. A musician in his past life, Cheadle makes a striking transformation in his role, parading a crown of Jheri curls and straining and rasping his voice to the point that he and Davis are indistinguishable. In that spirit, Miles Ahead is massively entertaining but guided with a shaky hand, at times overly stylized and others stiflingly formulaic, a film whose quest for innovation within its genre may have outpaced its ability to deliver. During a rehearsal scene, Davis implores his band to “be wrong strong,” one of the many callbacks to Davis’s passion for improvisation. If Cheadle meant to communicate the messy rebelliousness of jazz music, then he succeeded through a messy rebellion of cinema. —Melissa Weller
49. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Director: Brett Story
Empathy is at the forefront in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, director Brett Story’s masterful collection of vignettes. There’s no central figure, Story instead using her snapshots of different individuals to suggest something grander—namely, Americans’ inescapable entanglement with their country’s prison system. There’s a cumulative power, a headlong rush, in watching one vignette segue into another, the viewer trying to make connections between seemingly dissimilar American portraits. Other filmmakers would mount a frontal assault on the classism and racism rampant in the way we lock up so many people, but Story doesn’t want us to watch the usual images and absorb the normal statistics. She’s asking us to see the dilemma in a new light, and her powerful essay film never stops making us queasy—or, at the same time, alive with anger and sorrow that the dilemma is being communicated so forcefully. —Tim Grierson
48. Men & Chicken
Director: Anders Thomas
We live in a wondrous world where a film which breaks box office records in Denmark prominently features a chronic masturbator (the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen in his least embraced role in a year in which he’s been part of every worthwhile blockbuster tentpole) and a reasonable-sounding description of the logic behind certain forms of bestiality. In Men & Chicken, Elias (Mikkelsen, mustachioed repugnantly) and his pecky milquetoast of a brother Gabriel (David Dencik) share both a harelip and, upon trekking to a remote island estate where they meet their estranged brood, the discovery that the foundations of their existences hinge on a sort of nightmarish debauching of the basest tenets of life and love. What begins as a pitch-black take on a Farrelly Brothers farce descends irrevocably into madness when director Anders Thomas Jensen reveals—through a deeply unsettling mastery of tone—what the title of his film really means. Jensen never once loses his sense of humor or penchant for gross setpieces as he approaches trenchant, even transcendent ideas about what it means to be human. —Dom Sinacola
47. Kate Plays Christine
Director: Robert Greene
This film operates under a fake conceit: actress Kate Lyn Sheil (who appeared in Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth) is preparing to star in a biopic about Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV journalist who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head on-air in 1974, and Robert Greene will follow Sheil as she does background research for the project. But there actually is no biopic being made; Greene and Sheil film intentionally cheesy-looking scenes from their bogus movie, which are intercut with Sheil’s real conversations with Chubbuck’s former coworkers and, in one particularly excellent scene, a local gun dealer.
Actress, about actress Brandy Burre as she prepares for a comeback after years away from the business, dove deep into the ways our lives are actually just a series of roles—mother, daughter, lover, young, old—and Kate Plays Christine is also captivated by our ability (and our need) to create different guises. But this time, Greene wants to include us in his interrogation. The documentary fixates on Chubbuck’s suicide—the footage of which has been locked away for the last 42 years—but, more accurately, fixates on why an actress (or an audience) would want to relive such a horrific, traumatic act. Kate Plays Christine builds and builds to a finale in which Sheil must make the decision of how she will “perform” Chubbuck’s violent end, and while I won’t reveal the resolution, it most forcefully asks the question so many documentaries this year ponder: What are you looking at? —T.G.
Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
“Why did you let me film this?” This simple question, posed at the end of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, is as baffling to the movie’s subject as it is to everyone else. Anthony Weiner gave a documentary crew incredible behind-the-scenes access to his 2013 New York mayoral campaign while his political career crumbled and his personal life turned to a shambles. If the filmmakers had an agenda besides studying Weiner’s character, they did a great job of hiding it. Weiner shows many facets of his personality: He can be charming and funny, but he can also be a petulant, entitled jerk. The veneer wears off as the stress mounts, making things increasingly uncomfortable—it’s excruciating to watch this man try to salvage respect from certain humiliation, but it makes for a devilishly intimate look into the madness of modern politics. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Ross Partridge
Based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb opens on David Lamb (Partridge) as his life is imploding. His marriage has just failed and his invalid father, whom we briefly see in a neglected Chicago home-turned-hovel, soon passes away. Instead of earning sympathy, David immediately proves to be an untrustworthy and unreliable protagonist. Despondent about his father’s death and the tumult in his life, David turns his attention to an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence), a latchkey kid from a broken home. It may be easy to compare Lamb to Lolita, but Partridge’s film is darker and more uncomfortable, devoid of the comic undertones found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lamb toys with its audience, playing mind games until the very last frame—and even after the credits roll, questions linger about motive, about intention, about right and wrong. —Christine Ziemba
44. Miss Sharon Jones!
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-books opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick.
But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknownst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy (Jones succumbed to her sickness on November 18th), Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —D.S.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Like some of the best documentaries of our time, 13th is not just a film, but a demand; it’s a call to reject dangerous reiterations, specifically newer and newer Jim Crows. DuVernay’s work doesn’t expressly name what we might build in their place, but it demands that those of us watching resist the seduction of sameness disguised as slow progress, and imagine something: actual freedom. —Shannon Houston
42. Operation Avalanche
Director: Matt Johnson
In Operation Avalanche, Canadian Matt Johnson plays American Matt Johnson, a CIA agent who talks his way into an undercover gig at NASA, posing as a documentary filmmaker to report back to the CIA Director the space agency’s progress on getting an astronaut onto the Moon. When Johnson discovers that NASA is too far behind technologically to beat the Soviets to the surface of the lunar rock, he concocts a plan to fake the landing, drawing inspiration from both Georges Méliès and Stanley Kubrick. Shot as a handheld, faux-documentary glimpse into the long process of what it could believably take to accomplish such a monster ruse, the film balks at a requisite need to ever settle on one genre, skirting a (really funny) buddy comedy, light procedural and bureaucratic farce before devolving seamlessly into bleak territory—though not after an electrifying car chase shot with a budget that’d make the Duplass brothers cry—and winding down to a smirking, if nihilistic, note. That Johnson and his crew actually snuck into a NASA facility by posing as a documentary film crew fits perfectly within Operation Avalanche’s opinion of how America writes its history: Ambition, not idealism, will always win in the end. —D.S.
41. Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
David Mackenzie’s film gets the balance between genre and plot so right that, after a while, I forgot I was watching a genre film and simply found myself immersed in the lives of these characters. That is a tribute to not only the performances and Mackenzie’s direction, but also to Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, which finds seemingly boundless amounts of colorful human detail and unexpected humor in what, on the surface, stands as a clichéd narrative. Hell or High Water is essentially a cops-and-robbers tale, with grizzled soon-to-retire veteran sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), going after a brotherly duo of bank robbers: Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. Sheridan’s characters are so fully imagined that, combined with actors and a director sensitive to the nuances in the script, we ultimately respond to them as flesh-and-blood people. But Sheridan—who tackled the moral difficulties of the drug war with his script for Sicario—has even bigger thematic game in mind. Hell or High Water is also meant to be a topical anti-capitalist lament, being that it takes place in a west Texas town that looks to have been decimated by the recent economic recession, with big billboard signs of companies advertising debt relief amid stretches of desolation, and with Toby driven in large part by a desire to break out of what he sees as a cycle of poverty for his loved ones, to provide a better life for his two sons and ex-wife. —Kenji Fujishima
40. Nocturnal Animals
Director: Tom Ford
After A Single Man was (unjustly) criticized in some quarters for its preoccupation with surface beauty, fashion designer-cum-filmmaker Tom Ford has returned with something ugly. Aesthetically, Nocturnal Animals is still deliberately gorgeous, with its model-handsome actors, designer costumes and career-high lensing by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. It’s also a film that presents two worlds—one real, one fictitious—in which people are compulsively, perhaps inevitably, driven to do horrible things to one another. A revenge movie that features only imagined violence, Nocturnal Animals is all the more uneasy for having a male “hero” who seeks to mentally brutalize its heroine. This one feels personal for the filmmaker, a bundle of ways to explore multiple anxieties: creative stagnation and infidelity; familial responsibilities and loss of control; fear of failure and rejection. Each story thread comes with a different kind of dread—though all of them are unified in their investigation of toxic masculinity. Male anger and resentment drive this savage tale, a thriller as gripping as it is stomach-churningly frank. —Brogan Morris
39. The Fits
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
It’s not difficult to imagine a different cut of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits that hews closer to the arc of a traditional sports story. Hers has the makings of a familiar one, of a misfit who wants more than anything to compete—but unlike most stories of inspirational audacity, The Fits is as much about discomfort as the catharsis that comes with achievement. In it, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old who has more experience with stereotypically male pursuits like lifting weights and punching speed bags than the usual interests of a pre-teen girl. She spends nearly all of her time at the Lincoln Recreation Center alongside her boxer brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), pushing her body to the limit. While she shows a remarkable aptitude for the ascetical devotion required for boxing, she still dreams about competing on the dance team, “The Lincoln Lionesses.”
Framed with a rigid sense of space by cinematographer Paul Yee, and backed by the groaning score from veteran composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The Fits is infused with such dread that one can’t help but imagine that characters’ muscles and bones could break or shatter at any moment. The film’s most explicit example of which may be Toni pulling off a temporary tattoo, but The Fits is firmly a story of metaphysical body horror, an allegory about our greatest fears of physical fragility shot brilliantly through a feminist lens. With that, the film manages to reinvent the sports story as something both brainy and physically pure. —Michael Snydel
38. Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Kubo and the Two Strings operates in much the same way as any other Laika movie does, by blending authentic sentimentality with equal parts dread, perception and excitement. It is often scary, like 2009’s Coraline, though not quite as often or quite as much; it loves its genre elements, like 2012’s ParaNorman; and it’s so oriented toward engaging our senses that we feel as though we’re bystanders on the set, like in 2014’s The Boxtrolls. In Laika’s canon, it wouldn’t be off base to describe Kubo and the Two Strings as “workaday.” This, philosophically, is what we expect Laika films to be, and what we expect them to deliver on.
But the film is distinguished first with tweaks on old themes and the introduction of new ones, and then with personality derived from its choice in setting. The film takes place in historical Japan, or, more accurately, a fantastical version of historical Japan, but it doesn’t suffice to say that the backdrop alone gives Kubo and the Two Strings its unique identity. Travis Knight and his team have embraced their backdrop to the fullest extent and beyond, approaching each piece of their mise en scène with a reverence that is at once hushed and pronounced. That speaks to the level of the film’s refinement of craft, too: It’s more tactile even than its predecessors. Catch a 3D screening and you’ll instinctively reach out to touch the film’s beautifully detailed backgrounds. (Maybe you’ll shrink away from its array of supernatural hazards as well.) Kubo and the Two Strings is better than immersive—it’s absorptive.—A.C.
37. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Though The Witch ends as it must—not, it should be noted, with a “twist,” because the stakes had already been set from the first moment we knew the titular monster to be real—it’s an ending which, while resting on a striking final image, tips almost too readily into the supernatural elements so much of the film tries for so much of its run-time to delicately avoid. There is a goat named Black Philip, there is blood, there is the line you will quote for weeks after seeing it. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It’s a fair question—because of course thou wouldst. Because even if The Witch implies that the mortal fear to which its characters prescribe in the face of such real evil makes plenty sense, Eggers still doesn’t buy that the puritanical hysteria at the heart of America’s founding was anything reasonable. Why does this evil exist at all? When the alternative is so dehumanizing, why doesn’t it?” —D.S.
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson’s title for her latest documentary feature could not be any more nondescript. And yet, the anonymity of that title points to perhaps the most remarkable aspect about this film: its maker’s sheer selflessness, her devotion to her craft and her subjects, her seemingly complete lack of ego. The film is pieced together from outtakes from the long-time documentary filmmaker/cinematographer’s extensive body of work, but beyond occasionally hearing her voice behind the camera (and one shot towards the end in which we finally see her face as she points the camera toward herself), Johnson forgoes the safety net of voiceover narration to tie all this footage together. The footage speaks for itself, and for her. Which is not to say that the film is just a compilation of clips strung together willy-nilly. Johnson breathes an animating intelligence into Cameraperson’s construction, employing a method that suggests a mind processing one’s life experiences, contemplating the sum total of her work, veering off into tangents whenever she happens upon a piece of footage that triggers broader reflections. It’s a measure of Johnson’s overall humility that she is willing to be as brutally honest about herself with the viewers in this way—and it’s that humility that ultimately makes Cameraperson such an inspiring experience. —K.F.
35. Little Men
Director: Ira Sachs
In its gentle, compassionate way, the unassuming drama Little Men says as much about self-preservation and mistrust as any hand-wringing, message-based movie. Director and cowriter Ira Sachs uses a simple story about the friendship between two teen boys as a springboard to address the myriad obstacles that keep people from different walks of life from seeing eye-to-eye. Never smug in its observations and always fair to all its characters, Little Men leaves us moved in an offhand, almost accidental manner. The film has all the breeziness of an ordinary day, albeit one with gray clouds on the horizon. Little Men adeptly pinpoints the poisonous self-interest that cuts us off from others, examining how being pragmatic and looking out for ourselves undermines communities. —T.G.
34. Green Room
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
What’s perhaps most refreshing in Green Room is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s lack of interest in the kind of moralizing that made his last film, Blue Ruin, ultimately seem conventional. Instead, Saulnier simply presents us this scenario without feeling the need to lard it up with anything as cumbersome as topical commentary or moral ambiguity. He proceeds to wring as much tension and suspense from its pulpy retro plot as possible, adding a few entertaining grace notes along the way, which can best be seen in its performances. In the ensemble-based Green Room, Saulnier revels in the contrasts of personalities and styles: band bassist Pat’s (Anton Yelchin) Bill Paxton-like desperation, for instance, set alongside the weary, near-drugged-out deadpan of Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of the woman whose murder sets off the film’s violent chain of events; or the imperial calm of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the ruthless leader of the band of white supremacists who attempt to kill Pat, Amber and the rest. It’d be a stretch to call these characters three-dimensional, but nevertheless, under Saulnier’s writing and direction, they all manage to stand out just enough as individuals for us to become emotionally involved in their fates. Meanwhile, Saulnier supports these characters and plot turns with filmmaking that is remarkable for its economy and patience. D.P. Sean Porter gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters and grimy lighting of the bar, lending its wide (2.35:1) frames an appropriately nightmarish feel amidst many suspenseful set pieces. In those ways, the lean, mean Green Room stands as one of the best B-movie genre exercises in quite some time. —K.F.
33. Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols’ fourth film continues a streak of smart, idiosyncratic genre tales that focus on family matters. But in Midnight Special, he gets a little more cosmic, telling a very human sci-fi story about a concerned father (Michael Shannon) trying to keep his boy (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the Feds, who believe (correctly) that he has special powers. Midnight Special is the sort of personal, ambitious mainstream film that seems to have all but evaporated from studios’ release schedules, which makes the fact that it was a commercial dud even more upsetting and dispiriting. Maybe on home video people will have a chance to catch up with this emotional drama, whose intimate contours and precise character work make it just as transporting on the small screen. —T.G.
32. Sing Street
Director: John Carney
Sing Street spins art out of history, but you might mistake it for pop sensationalism at first glance. If so, you’re forgiven. In sharp contrast to John Carney’s breakout movie, 2007’s sterling adult musical Once, Sing Street aims to please crowds and overburden tear ducts. There’s a sugary surface buoyancy to the film that helps the darkness clouding beneath its exterior go down more easily. Here, look at the plot synopsis: A teenage boy living in Dublin’s inner city in 1985 moves to a new school, falls in love with a girl, and forms a band for the sole purpose of winning her over. If the period Carney uses as his storytelling backdrop doesn’t make Sing Street an ’80s movie, then the mechanics of its story certainly do. You may walk into the film expecting to be delighted and amused. The film won’t let you down in either regard, but it’ll rob you of your breath, too. —A.C.
Director: Ross Lipman
Some movies are the happy accident of mismatched collaborators who, against the odds, produce a masterpiece forged in the fire of their creative clash. Then you have Film, a misbegotten 1965 avant-garde short put together by famed playwright Samuel Beckett and desperate-for-a-paycheck Buster Keaton. In the revelatory documentary Notfilm, director Ross Lipman excavates this little-remembered curio, talking to everyone from cinematographer Haskell Wexler to film historian Leonard Maltin to create a mosaic about celluloid, thwarted ambitions and the reasons why movies still enrapture us after so many years. This is a gift for film-lovers, even if you’re not a Film-lover. —T.G.
30. Things to Come
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings, and her latest, Things to Come, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. (In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.) Huppert is marvelous in the role: Between this performance and the one in the far spikier Elle, she’s made a compelling case for Actress of the Year, blending vulnerability and defiance in inspiring ways. —T.G.
29. Right Now, Wrong Then
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Fans of Hong Sang-soo’s films can feel reasonably confident anticipating what to expect from any new offering from the prolific South Korean writer-director: scenes of conversation in restaurants, characters drinking and fumbling toward love, men who often act like dolts, plots that sometimes repeat sequences with faint discrepancies. And yet, within these familiar tenets, considerable rewards can flourish when Hong is feeling particularly inspired, which is especially true with his latest film. The Hong trademarks are all there in Right Now, Wrong Then, but so is a newfound optimism and romantic glow. Rarely has he been such a crowd-pleaser while also being so bittersweet.
Ham (Jung Jae-young) is an art-house director in town to do a Q&A, but because he’s there a day early, he’s looking for something to do. Checking out the sights, he meets Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an aspiring painter who doesn’t know his work but knows his name. (Essentially, she’s just impressed because he’s famous.) The first hour of the film, entitled “Right Then, Wrong Now,” follows them over the course of a day as they get to know one another. The second hour, called “Right Now, Wrong Then,” repeats the first half’s general outline, but with some slight, meaningful revisions. Which hour you prefer of Right Now, Wrong Then will probably say more about your philosophy on romance than it does about Hong’s. —T.G.
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —D.S.
27. Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo García
In one of the most controversial scenes in Martin Scorsese’s landmark examination of the duality of flesh and spirit, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) speaks to Judas (Harvey Keitel) after addressing a fanatical crowd out for blood. He says, “I wanted to kill them, but out came the word, ‘love’.” It’s a moment that’s been decried as blasphemy by some, but for others it’s one of the greatest cinematic moments showing how a Christ figure reveals his limits.
It’s hard to be a god, or at least that’s what film has shown us for decades amidst various interpretations of Jesus moping, questioning his own capacity for sin, for decency and for having to shoulder the weight of the sins of our fathers. Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert is yet another exploration of the antagonistic relationship between temptation and some kind of ultimate good, and it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine that it takes Scorsese’s infamous scene as a thematic foundation of sorts. Granted, García’s vision is anything but transgressive, even if The Last Temptation of Christ is practically dogmatic compared to the spiritual endurance test imagined by Last Days in the Desert. But both interpretations have a refreshing openness to the purpose behind worshipping a God who demands so much pain and suffering, as well as to an equally flexible view of the Devil. Though García’s film isn’t a new perspective, that doesn’t mean it’s not moving, especially in bringing out the loneliness underlying the messiah complex. And while so many interpretations of Jesus life are so explicitly concerned with underlining his superhuman resilience, Last Days in the Desert is a meditation about the moments between all that suffering.—M.S.
26. The Red Turtle
Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
Wordless, The Red Turtle is an attempt to find new ways to communicate old truths—or old new ways, ways that feel new but aren’t. There is one word in The Red Turtle, but its isolation amongst the loud non-language of the rest of the film—the ever-present, somnambulant waves; the fauna of the film’s tiny “deserted” island; Laurent Perez del Mar’s score, which itself feels tuned to the natural rhythm of the world emerging within Michaël Dudok de Wit’s animated film—makes us question if it is actually a word at all. “Hey!” our nameless main character yells, otherwise carrying on a lifetime of subverbal communication, but it’s uttered so often amidst de Witt’s carefully built soundscape that it’s not all that impossible for the director to convince you there are no words in his film. Perhaps, a man of both Dutch and British descent, de Wit finds language a barrier between the audience and the emotional breadth of his (admittedly pretty archetypal) story, further inspired to ditch dialogue altogether by the film’s joint Japanese-French funding, and by the fact that if there’s any feature-length cinematic medium more forgiving of having no words, it’s animation. Consider that one simple example among many of the film’s power: Just as The Red Turtle could make you doubt whether a word you’ve known your whole life is actually that, so does it leave you with plenty of wonder—whether all animated films could be so lovely, so careful, so obviously the work of one person who’s given his everything to a single story because he might not have an opportunity to do so ever again. —D.S.