In a year when politics (particularly religious politics) turned nauseating, Loving offered a lovely tonic. This historical drama, centering on an interracial couple whose 1958 marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court, is mostly a collection of quiet, domestic moments. The Lovings (played by a subdued Joel Edgerton and a sublime Ruth Negga) staged a political revolution in the courtroom simply by insisting that they had the right to iron shirts and mow the lawn together at home.
9. Toni Erdmann
A cringe comedy with heart, Toni Erdmann offers a chance to practice difficult empathy. Peter Simonischek plays the goofball father of a corporate-minded adult daughter (Sandra Hüller). His penchant for awkward gags involves wearing a wild wig, putting in buck teeth, and appearing at his daughter’s place of work, pretending to be a consultant. This sort of personal space-obliterating guy makes my skin crawl, yet German director Maren Ade and her performers managed to move me from annoyance to deep affection.
How do we depict suffering with dignity? That’s the unifying question of this collage experiment, in which documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (the director here) gathers extraneous footage from her 25-year career and weaves together a memoir of intense feeling. From a village in postwar Bosnia to a refugee settlement in Darfur to a courtroom in Texas, we’re nearly overwhelmed by the trauma she chronicles. Yet Cameraperson’s structure and tact remind us that part of our calling as fellow humans is to be loving witnesses.
There is a crucial constant to this deeply moving drama, which details three distinct periods in the life of a young man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes at different ages in the character’s life). Throughout the film, the gentle cinematography—inspired by the title and attentive to the various textures and tones of African-American skin—bathes the people onscreen in a generous light that feels, at times, like the cinematic embodiment of God’s grace.
This strobe-lit piece of sensory overload—about an aspiring fashion model (Elle Fanning) who quickly rises to prominence at her own peril—also gains much of its power from its cinematography. As the flashes of cameras reflect off the movie’s various surfaces, including the main character’s sparkle-sprinkled face, both she and we are nearly blinded. A stunning portrait of narcissism’s dead end, The Neon Demon depicts a level of adoration that we mortals were not created to receive.
5. La La Land
La La Land celebrates the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us, his created beings.
Movie musicals employ all the colors—often literally—in the cinematic palette, and as such are one of the best genres at celebrating the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us, his created beings. Music, dance, singing, costuming, camera movement, staging, and—yes—color are all at work in this original movie musical from director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz. Sure, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as aspiring creative types in contemporary Hollywood, but in many ways they’re simply the movie’s canvas.
Earlier on TC I praised Doctor Strange as the rare Marvel movie to recognize a spiritual dimension to the human experience. Cemetery of Splendor, from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, makes such spirituality palpable. The movie, which centers on a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness, is rooted in Buddhism, yet the way it blends waking life, dreaming, and memories will move anyone who yearns for the transcendent.
3. The Lobster
The Lobster takes direct, satirical aim at a societal sacred cow, one that’s particularly idolized in many Christian circles: the notion that marriage is our destiny and singleness is a deficiency. In the movie’s dryly comic alternate universe, single people are sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into an animal of their own choosing. The comedy only gets blacker from there, reminding us that Paul himself warned “those who marry will face many troubles in this life.”
2. The Fits
Whatever is going on in The Fits—in which unexplained seizures begin to affect an all-girls competitive dance squad—the religious overtones are hard to miss. Like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, this debut from director Anna Rose Holmer visually references the Pentecostal notion of being “slain in the spirit.” Thanks to Holmer’s perceptive camera, which emphasizes the physicality of her actors, The Fits blurs the lines between the bodily world and the spiritual one, never more so than in a jarring finale that plays like a possession/dance party.
Even more so than Last Days in the Desert or Martin Scorsese’s Silence, this is my favorite Jesus movie of 2016. Joel and Ethan Coen’s wildly entertaining farce—set on a studio lot in 1950s Hollywood, where the star of a Bible epic (George Clooney) gets kidnapped by Commies—features everything from full-scale musical numbers to a comical powwow among religious leaders debating the theological elements of the movie within the movie. “Does the depiction of Christ Jesus cut the mustard?” the studio rep, played by Josh Brolin, asks. Well, yes and no. There is plenty of irreverence here, but Hail, Caesar! is also the closest the Coens have come to reckoning with the reality of the Gospel. A climactic encounter between Clooney’s star and the actor playing Christ, meanwhile, is quintessential Coen: a laugh-out-loud moment that manages irony and epiphany at once.