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Best movies of 2016 include 'Moonlight,' 'Weiner' and 'O.J.: Made in America'

In a year characterized by tremendous global upheaval, from sweeping currents of political change touching the United Kingdom and the United States to the most horrific humanitarian crisis in decades continuing to unfold in the Mideast and Europe, it's not surprising that many of the best movies of 2016 were documentaries that evoked this pervasive instability. They did so in, primarily, two modes: directly engaging with the here-and-now and delving into the immediate past on a journey to understand who we are today.

That's not to say the past 12 months lacked great fictional narratives. There were many, far more than could be conceivably highlighted in a wrap-up like this. Anyway, enough introducing. These are the best movies of 2016.

16. 'Jackie' and 'Neruda' (a tie)

With his biopics about the Chilean poet Pablo
Photo Credit: Stephanie Branchu

With his biopics about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Jackie Kennedy, respectively, the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín establishes a gift for making movies about famous figures in which the shape and form of the films themselves reflect fundamental truths about the individuals at their centers, or at least the ways we've perceived them historically. Natalie Portman is a particularly amazing as Jackie, capturing the breathy cadence of her voice, her mannered self-presentation and a deeper level of perception and cunning beneath it.

15. 'Under the Sun'

Here's a documentary shot entirely within North Korea
Photo Credit: Icarus Films

Here's a documentary shot entirely within North Korea that follows a young girl as she prepares to join the Korea Children's Union as a first step toward entering the Workers' Party. The circumstances behind it are fascinating -- Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky only got permission to make the movie by agreeing to draconian conditions including a script by the government, the presence of handlers at all times and the surrendering of final say. And through surreptitious and truly dangerous means, Mansky and his crew managed to sneak out the behind-the-scenes footage of the governmental representatives shaping the project, so that the movie functions as a riveting first-hand account of the propaganda machine in motion.

14. 'Tower'

There are few movies that can be said
Photo Credit: Kino Lorber

There are few movies that can be said to genuinely re-invent their form, but this documentary about the 1966 sniper attacks at the University of Texas by Keith Maitland does so by interweaving animation and archival footage. The approach transforms the deadly events at hand into a waking nightmare, at once far removed in the past and immediate in the sense that the sights and sounds of that terrible day have become all-too-familiar in 21st-century America.

13. 'Silence'

Martin Scorsese grapples with his own Catholic faith,
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / Kerry Brown

Martin Scorsese grapples with his own Catholic faith, with all that it demands and offers, in his long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel about Portuguese Jesuit priests searching for an apostatized colleague amid the anti-Christian fervor of 17th century Japan. It's a film of fascinating contradictions, often both gruesomely violent and painstakingly serene, and it resonates ultimately as a picture about nothing less than the nature of faith itself.

12. 'Cameraperson'

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson structures the footage of a
Photo Credit: Rooftop Films

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson structures the footage of a lifetime of experiences, derived everywhere from international war zones to her childhood home in Washington state, into a non-fiction autobiography comprised of fragments that collectively amount to a profound truth about the common threads of humanity that bind us all. It's another documentary that reconsiders the potential of the medium and, in so doing, underlines the importance of bearing witness to a world filled with both horrors and pleasures that demand to be perceived.

11. 'Arrival'

Denis Villeneuve has established himself as one of
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures

Denis Villeneuve has established himself as one of the best filmmakers working within the studio machine these days, blessed with a knack for entertaining by building genuine suspense and creating fully-fledged universes rife with three-dimensional characters. "Arrival" is emotionally affecting on a human level and an edge-of-your-seat achievement in its portrait of an alien invasion.

10. '20th Century Women'

Here's a wonderful movie about three strong and
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton

Here's a wonderful movie about three strong and powerful women -- played by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning -- that dares to consider the complex forces that have shaped their lives and will continue to do so long after the events of the picture have concluded. If you don't know how rare that is in American cinema these days, you haven't been paying attention.

9. 'Loving'

Writer-director Jeff Nichols understands the right way to
Photo Credit: Focus Features / Ben Rothstein

Writer-director Jeff Nichols understands the right way to make a biopic. Rather than focusing on the legal case in the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple that challenged and defeated Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws, he focuses on the deep and abiding love that kept them together through their hardships. The filmmaker lets Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga do their thing, and they are wonderful in a series of small and quiet moments that capture this love story in all its dimensions.

8. 'The Witness'

Kitty Genovese's brother investigates his sister's murder decades
Photo Credit: June Murley, The Witnesses Film, LLC

Kitty Genovese's brother investigates his sister's murder decades after her Kew Gardens slaying became subsumed by mythology, in a riveting documentary that stands as both an important addition to one of the city's most iconic stories and a treatise on the agonizing elusiveness of the truth.

7. 'Don't Think Twice'

The improv comedy scene, a staple of New
Photo Credit: Jon Pack

The improv comedy scene, a staple of New York City cultural life for a long time, is captured with pristine wit and an eye for subtle, layered emotions by writer-director Mike Birbiglia, who stars alongside a cast of first-rate talents (Keegan Michael-Key, Gillian Jacobs, etc.) in a movie about the tug-of-war between jealousy and happiness, competition and affection, as it plays out in a troupe.

6. 'Paterson'

The great Jim Jarmusch finds beauty in the
Photo Credit: Bleecker Street / Mary Cybulsky

The great Jim Jarmusch finds beauty in the unlikely setting of the eponymous New Jersey city, in a movie about a bus driver (Adam Driver, in a career best performance) who distills his experiences each day into impressionistic poems that transform the mundane into the profound. It's an extraordinarily optimistic piece of work, infused with a belief in the depth and power of the human spirit that feels genuine and well-earned, rather than forced upon the audience.

5. 'Weiner'

Anthony Weiner's epic public meltdown becomes the stuff
Photo Credit: Sundance Select

Anthony Weiner's epic public meltdown becomes the stuff of Greek tragedy in this behind-the-scenes documentary showcasing the disgraced congressman's failed run for mayor in 2013, a movie filled with the tension of a disaster in slow motion that plays even more eerily now in the wake of all the latest allegations.

4. 'Fire at Sea'

The filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi brings us to the
Photo Credit: Kino Lorber

The filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi brings us to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in a documentary of immense power, showcasing the human cost of the migrant crisis on its front-lines, demanding that we consume images imbued with the urgency of real-life tragedy on an extraordinary scale, pictures that are too often ignored or downplayed by a global media and political class that should be thinking of little else.

3. 'Moonlight'

Movies are frequently deemed
Photo Credit: David Bornfriend

Movies are frequently deemed "important," by critics, often for superficial reasons. But here's one that actually earns the designation, a tender and complex portrait of alienation, despair and just a smidgen of hope, depicting three periods in the life of a gay black man from one of Miami's most dangerous neighborhoods. Writer-director Barry Jenkins explores and tweaks conventions of masculinity and dares to make a movie that embraces the power and importance of close male friendships, in a setting that's often stereotyped to oblivion.

2. 'Manchester by the Sea'

Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece embodies grief and pain in
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions / Claire Folger

Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece embodies grief and pain in the story of a janitor (played, beautifully, by Casey Affleck) returning to his seaside Massachusetts hometown after the death of his brother, but with quiet grace and an abiding understanding of the way humans actually confront trauma, rather than the heightened dramatic crutches relied upon by lesser films and filmmakers. It's one of the most emotionally devastating movies imaginable, but it's also filled with humor and blessed with the power of restraint.

1. 'O.J.: Made in America'

O.J. Simpson returned to the zeitgeist in a
Photo Credit: ESPN Films / M. Osterreicher

O.J. Simpson returned to the zeitgeist in a big way this year, most spectacularly in Ezra Edelman's documentary, which expertly contextualizes the most familiar details of Simpson's rise and fall within the larger complicated narrative of race in the United States, an ongoing story that irrevocably shaped his identity and celebrity and remains the most significant in American life today. This is the definitive portrait of this tragic figure and stands as one of the greatest films ever made about where we've been and who we are today.

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