It’s no accident that the very best movies of 2016 challenged the mainstream and were not from Hollywood. Too many American filmmakers have lost the ability to look at human experience without cheapening our responses to it. Our most urgent issues as human beings, and our most sensitive needs as people who think and feel, are betrayed by a culture committed to childish escapism produced to shore up fatuous, fashionable tenets — which then get endorsed by media shills.
The year’s Better-Than List has expanded because film culture has exploded beyond homogenous tastes and interests; multimedia competition has only exacerbated our fragmentation. But the point of the Better-Than List is always to inspire critical thinking and encourage personal response against the conformist hive-mind that aims to tame our diverse tastes. The best movies reward cultural courage, making it easier to reject the garbage.
Being 17 > Moonlight
André Téchiné’s exhilarating observation of French and Algerian teens in love anticipates New Europe’s complicated future; Barry Jenkins reduced the black gay American protagonist in his movie to an identity-politics martyr. A humane, visionary work vs. condescending, politically correct propaganda.
Sunset Song > Manchester by the Sea
Terence Davies’s deeply empathetic Scottish drama (from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel) finds national and ethnic awareness in a woman’s life struggle, while Kenneth Lonergan’s male weepie forgoes empathy for melodramatic clichés that never rise above self-pity.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk > La La Land
Ang Lee’s moving 3-D vision of post-9/11 stress shows Americans loving one another as citizens and as soul mates — unlike Damien Chazelle’s childish ode to showbiz vanity. Lee transcends genre to remind Americans of what connects them; Chazelle distorts genre into idiotic escapism then deadens it.
Beautiful Something > Moonlight
Joseph Graham’s intimate, multi-character cityscape follows the spiritual journey of several Philadelphia gay men, while Moonlight (yes, that con job again) exploits “minority” status to sentimentalize victimization. The personal vs. the pseudo-political.
Batman v Superman > Deadpool
Zack Snyder continues to find depth in pop myths, making comic-book archetypes reveal our souls. But Tim Miller’s Edgar Wright–lite comic-book sarcasm defies and denies serious fun.
Hacksaw Ridge, Knight of Cups, Voyage of Time > Silence
Mel Gibson professes faith the difficult way, by defending a conscientious objector’s war experience. Terrence Malick searches for faith in Hollywood (fiction) and throughout history (nonfiction). But Martin Scorsese’s latest protracted remake replaces their conviction and originality with a lapse of cinematic faith.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato > Cameraperson
Peter Greenaway’s outrageous bio-pic about Sergei Eisenstein, whose impact on cinema is still felt, pairs compassion for the Russian exile’s private life with respect for his art. Kirsten Johnson confuses her résumé as a photographer on PC docs with artistic expression. Genius vs. narcissism.
Miles Ahead > The Birth of a Nation
Don Cheadle finds inspiration and invention in Miles Davis’s genius, while Nate Parker misunderstands Nat Turner’s insurrection as instruction. History is to teach not repeat.
Valley of Love, Don’t Call Me Son > Toni Erdmann
France’s Guillaume Nicloux and Brazil’s Anna Muylaert both treat family dysfunction as serious business in two innovative films about the difficulty of parenting gay children, while Germany’s Maren Ade sees parental foibles and inherited perversity as a berserk sitcom. Nicloux and Muylaert go deep; Ade goes too far.
Will You Dance with Me? > The 13th
Derek Jarman’s previously unreleased record of one night at a London disco in the 1980s survives as a document of assorted human desires unified by popular culture. Ava DuVernay uses the documentary form to showcase today’s race-hustling elites who promote social division through black victimization. Jarman’s joyous, personal interpretation of dance culture makes history; DuVernay’s dubious misinterpretation of the Constitution’s 13th Amendment violates it.
Sully > Rogue One
Clint Eastwood celebrates true American heroism while reevaluating the cynical disbelief that has infected post-9/11 culture; Garth Edwards depicts the miasma of war as a dull Star Wars episode. An edifying entertainment for adults vs. ends-justifies-the-means propaganda for children of all ages.
The Mermaid > The BFG
Stephen Chow’s action-fantasy just happens to make ecological points while defending the ethics of the forgotten working class. Spielberg’s political parable is a transparent valedictory salute to Obama’s ruling-class elitism, normalized as childhood fantasy. The most popular film in China’s history vs. an American election-year flop.
Kubo and the Two Strings > Finding Dory, Sausage Party
Travis Knight responds to the crisis of our rotted pop culture with this fable about the sustenance a boy receives from family memory and hand-fashioned art. It’s far superior to another fishy piece of Pixar sentimentality and Seth Rogen’s millennial update of Animal House raunchiness.
Standing Tall > Fences
Emmanuelle Bercot’s story of a lost urban white kid in Paris gives an updated view of how society fails then rescues its own. It bests the theatrical and political clichés of August Wilson’s black Pittsburgh family drama. Contemporary humanism vs. cornball politics.
Patriots Day, The Finest Hours > Manchester by the Sea
Peter Berg’s and Craig Gillespie’s true-life New England adventures feature ethnic sensitivity that redefines American character and the action-history genre. But Manchester by the Sea (yes, that con job again) peddles ethnic smugness. Two classic B-movies vs. indie pseudo-art.
Hidden Figures > Elle
Theodore Melfi’s pre-feminist heroic trio outperform Paul Verhoeven’s Euro-trash post-feminist heroine. In the former, the personal humanizes politics, while the personal is shallowly politicized in the latter.
Love & Friendship > 20th Century Women
Whit Stillman satirizes modern morality in Jane Austen drag, while Mike Mills drags viewers through a Sundance reeducation course in “feminism.”
Warren Beatty’s misconceived whatzit briefly confesses the sex-and-business wonderland of his early days in L.A. It’s far more credible and fascinating than Chazelle’s clumsy, priggish, neo-yuppie “musical” (yes, that con job again).
Aferim! > Captain America: Civil War
Radu Jude’s profane Romanian folktale is also an epic satire (in majestic black-and-white) of how a debased culture rationalizes terrorism, pain, and inhumanity. Marvel attempts the same with its superhero franchise, trivializing the concept of “civil war” the same way Bernie Sanders trivializes the concept of “revolution.”
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.