It’s been quite a year, at the cinema and in real life as well, and once again I find it necessary to make two end-of-year film lists: one for features and one for documentaries. Hey—if the New York Times can separate fiction and non-fiction in their annual “Notable Books” lists, why shouldn’t I do the same? I’ll also follow their lead by refraining from claiming that these are the “best” films of the year (Seriously? It’s not a footrace), and say instead that these are films that have enriched my life and are well worth your time. Special bonus—this is a very non-Hollywood-establishment list, with several first-time directors, a variety of funding sources, and a lot more female-centric stories and women directors than I expect to see honored on Oscar night.
Battle of the Sexes Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris offer a light-hearted yet insightful take on a much-hyped media event that was really quite significant in determining the direction of women’s sports in America.
Detroit The subtitle for Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, a visceral drama centering on police brutality during the 1967 Detroit riots, might as well be “The more things change, the more they stay the same”–not only because she places you squarely in the midst of the action, but also because similar scenes still play out across our nation today.
Dunkirk I wasn’t sure about this one when I first saw it, but in retrospect I have come to appreciate the power and originality of Christopher Nolan’s largely wordless take on a pivotal incident in World War II.
Get Out Jordan Peele uses the conventions of a horror film to tell a story about racism and power in a film that is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity.
Lady Bird Saoirse Ronan embodies the contradictory nature of a young woman who is sure she is destined for greater things than her hometown can supply, but hasn’t quite figured out what those things are, in Greta Gerwig’s debut feature.
Mudbound Dee Rees, one of the more underappreciated directors in America today, continues to astonish with her third feature, a story of two families in the American South that is both epic and intimate. If I were picking a single “film of the year,” this would be it.
Novitiate Margaret Betts captures the joys and challenges of spiritual life, and of being female in a Church explicitly dominated by men, through the stories of a senior nun (Melissa Leo) and a young woman (Margaret Qualley) preparing to enter the sisterhood just as the radical changes of Vatican II are about to take effect.
The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro’s best film in years combines fantasy, social criticism, and a love of old sci-fi movies in a romantic tale that defies simple categorization.
Thelma Ignore the promotional art and view Thelma without horror-cliché expectations, and you’ll find it a sensitive and original tale of a young woman finding her way to a life that’s not at all what her sternly religious family had in mind.
Wonder Woman Patty Jenkins proves that there’s more than one way to make a successful comic book movie, while Gal Gadot is the kick-ass (and brainy) heroine that we’ve been waiting for all these years.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail The 2008 financial crisis destroyed lives, yet those working for big banks managed to evade prosecution because their banks were deemed “too big to fail.” Unfortunately, that defense was not available to the small Chinatown bank whose story is documented in Steve James’ latest film.
City of Ghosts Matthew Heineman documents the efforts of the citizen-journalists of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and at the same time reveals the media-savvy efforts of ISIS to present their own version of events in Syria.
Casting JonBenet I have some misgivings about this one, since it seems that deception of interview subjects may have played a role in creating the film, but the result is still powerful and revealing, and unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
Dawson City: Frozen Time Director Bill Morrison incorporates discarded materials—a cache of films buried under the permafrost in the Yukon—in a documentary that takes a hard look at the colonial history of Canada as well as the history of the cinema.
Ex Libris Frederick Wiseman has the gift of finding interest amidst the ordinary events of everyday life, and this is never more in evidence than in this documentary focusing on one of America’s great institutions, the New York Public Library.
I Am Not Your Negro James Baldwin never gave an inch, no matter how great the societal rewards might have been, a quality eminently captured in Raoul Peck’s documentary.
Jane Incorporating a treasure trove of 16mm footage shot by Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s, Brett Morgan’s Jane offers great insight into the working methods and accomplishments of primatologist Jane Goodall, focusing on her early years in Gombe, Tanzania.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 John Ridley’s documentary, one of several this year examining the riots following the Rodney King verdict, provides a historical and social context that may cause you to rethink your interpretations of these events.
Step Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s directorial debut follows several members of a step team through their senior year at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, in a context defined by both personal and societal challenges (filming began shortly after Freddie Gray died in police custody).
Strong Island First-time director Yance Ford combines the personal and the political as she exposing the many challenges faced by a black family that seems to have “made it” in white society, only to be betrayed by the justice system in which they mistakenly placed their trust. | Sarah Boslaugh