Critics' picks: Ken Eisner selects the best films of 2016

    1 of 10 2 of 10

      I don’t necessarily expect to find deep-tissue connections between my year-end choices, but this time I did notice that my faves all make notable use of sparely applied and exceedingly offbeat musical scores to set them apart from the Hollywood herd.



      It doesn’t hit every note perfectly, but Barry Jenkins’s sophomore outing comes at the right moment and achieves something no one else has tried: it carries you deep inside the soul of someone growing up poor, black, and (probably) gay in a forgotten corner of Miami.


      Elle/Things to Come 

      French superstar Isabelle Huppert assays similar yet contrasting roles as two middle-aged academics weighing their Parisian comforts against darker, more urgent needs. Directed by a rejuvenated Paul Verhoeven (yes, the RoboCop guy), Huppert’s kinky Elle opens in January.


      Manchester By The Sea

      You Can Count on Me director Kenneth Lonergan continues his study of troubled family dynamics in the leisurely look at a Massachusetts ne’er-do-well (Casey Affleck) who sort of rises to the challenge of multiple tragedies.


      20th Century Women 

      Annette Bening rules in this 1979-set, mostly comic tale of a single mom running a SoCal boarding house filled with social stragglers, all coping with changes in gender norms. Director Mike Mills, who told his father’s story in Beginners, displays some of the formal whimsy of his wife, Miranda July, but with more approachable warmth. Opens in January.


      Love & Friendship 

      Kate Beckinsale plays an oddly lovable villain in this nimble and delightfully verbose take on Jane Austen from writer-director Whit Stillman, who previously took aim at WASP-y American aristocracy in Woody Allen–esque films like Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco.


      Old Stone 

      For his feature debut (also called Lao Shi), young Vancouverite Johnny Ma made this unexpectedly naturalistic, yet subtly surrealistic look at the limits of the social compact in an increasingly capitalistic mainland China. If nothing else, this tale of mounting insurance (and moral) costs will discourage visitors from driving automobiles in the PRC.


      Our Little Sister 

      Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life; Like Father, Like Son) goes from strength to strength. And this manga-based tale of three very unlike sisters who upend their staid rural lives to incorporate a daughter their father had on the side is his strongest yet. Until the next one.


      Spa Night 

      First-time writer-director Andrew Ahn makes L.A.’s Koreatown a character—sometimes loving, occasionally unforgiving—in his tale of a first-generation son struggling with mixed-message immigrant expectations. Content aside, it’s a marvel of digital ingenuity and colour-soaked mood-setting.



      Assembled from personal projects and B-roll from the many tough documentaries she has shot over the years, this clever mosaic reads as a visual autobiography by veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (who also shot Citizenfour and The Invisible War).



      The animated effort of the year is Keith Maitland’s cleverly rotoscoped interpretation of interviews with witnesses looking back at the summer of 1966, when Charles Whitman took a rifle to the highest point of Austin’s University of Texas campus, setting in motion a legacy of mass shootings that ended up defining far too much of what America is today.