10. The Witness
That 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her Queens brownstone in 1964 is a verifiable matter of record. Less verifiable is the longstanding belief that 38 of her neighbors watched and did nothing. In James D. Solomon’s documentary, Kitty’s younger brother Bill investigates that now-infamous statistic, which has come to be shorthand for “Aren’t humans the worst?” What he discovers is in some ways even more personally horrifying. The Witness is an all-too-timely look at the way media falsehoods, once agreed upon, can have real consequences.
9. Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Director Peter Greenaway has always been an explorer of the ways cinema can be used to tell a story visually, and he finds the perfect vehicle in the sexual awakening of Battleship Potemkin director, montage theorist, and all-around flibbertigibbet Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) down Mexico way. Amidst the nudity, penises, and gay sex, Greenaway kicks his career-long love of optical trickery into overdrive. Some of it is so fake-looking that you can see the green screen around Bäck’s explosion of hair, but that’s also the point: Just because film is an illusion doesn’t make it less emotionally valid.
8. The Fits
The best portrait of female teenage alienation since It Felt Like Love follows 12-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower), whose social life doesn’t extend beyond training to become a boxer in Cincinnati’s bleak West End. Her attention begins to wander as she grows intrigued with a local dance group, but shortly after she joins and begins to discover the magic of friendship, a mysterious illness begins sweeping through the community. Not all its mysteries are explained, but the real revelation is Hightower’s astonishing, largely wordless performance.
7. Approaching the Unknown
Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s sci-fi chamber drama finds an impossibly handsome astronaut (Mark Strong) struggling to survive by himself when a Mars mission goes catastrophically awry. That makes it sound like a The Martian wannabe, but Unknown operates on a smaller and more philosophical scale, and has much more in common with Duncan Jones’ Moon. For sure, it’s the most melancholy space movie since Andrei Tarkovsky’s original 1972 Solaris, and in an age in which anything imaginable can be portrayed on screen, sometimes the greatest spectacle is one person reckoning with the infinite.
6. April and the Extraordinary World
Remember when adventure movies used to be fun? Inspired by graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s animated romp April and the Extraordinary World does. Set in an alternate-history 1941 Paris powered by coal and steam and in which scientific progress has been outlawed, teenage April (Marion Cotillard) and her talking cat, Darwin (Philippe Katerine), continue the work of her vanished scientist-parents while evading the police. April hits the ground running and never lets up, and it bears repeating: The heroes are a teenage girl and her talking cat. That’s all you need to know, n’est-ce pas?
Spellbinding and occasionally profane, Avishai Sivan’s disturbing black-and-white dream of a film follows young Orthodox scholar Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel) through life and death and back again, and he finds both wanting. Haim-Aaron’s butcher father (Khalifa Natour) revives him after an accident leaves Haim-Aaron legally deceased for a Talmudically significant 40 minutes — only for his son to find himself more troubled than ever by his sheltered Hasidic life in Jerusalem. His father, in turn, struggles with the fear that resurrecting his son sorta kinda maybe went against G-d’s will. (Turns out he hates that.)
4. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call
It may not be yet possible to fully consider Paul Feig’s latest on its own merits, but let’s give it the ol’ college try: The new Ghostbusters is a funny, well-constructed action-comedy from an experienced director with a cast of comedy professionals. Significantly, it’s a true ensemble comedy in which even the smallest roles are given a chance to shine. More people would have enjoyed it, had they given it a chance. But between the results of the election and Deadpool grossing $782 million worldwide, 2016 was a year in which all the wrong things were given a chance.
3. The Incident
Director Isaac Ezban spins a peculiar kind of nightmare: A policeman and two criminals become trapped in a stairway that has turned into an infinite loop, with no escape. Meanwhile, a divorcee takes her children on a road trip with her new boyfriend, only to find that they keep driving on the same few kilometers of road under an unmoving sun. Ezban commits to his premise, going deep into the minutiae of how his characters survive in their personal hells for three decades and what the ordeal does to their bodies and their minds, and it’s never less than chilling.
2. The Neon Demon
Set in the cutthroat world of fashion models, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest is a surreal meditation on how our culture ravenously consumes youth and female beauty. Though lead actress Dakota Fanning was underage during filming and nubility abounds, this isn’t mere T&A — and there’s no sex or nudity until the third act. Cinematographer Natasha Braier creates a lush, pink-and-purple-heavy color palette that you just want to live in, and which complements the dark sparkle of Cliff Martinez’s synthesizer score. If director Refn’s 2013 underrated Only God Forgives evoked Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, then this is his Mulholland Dr. (For the record, that’s high praise.)
It premiered with little advance warning on HBO, it’s officially referred to as a visual album, and at least one prominent critic has argued that it should perhaps be kept off best-of lists because its presence might prevent less well-publicized films from being recognized (a stance that didn’t disqualify the culture-shaking blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road from appearing on that same critic’s 2015 list). But none of that keeps Lemonade from being the most beautiful and emotionally resonant film of the year, in which Beyoncé works through her grief about the infidelity of her husband, Jay-Z, via song, poetic narration, and some truly startling and gorgeous imagery, while also celebrating the strength of Black women to rise above their systemic marginalization. Lemonade even elevates the source of its title from cliché platitude to hard-won wisdom.