Critics' picks: Janet Smith selects the best films of 2016

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      Sci-fi movies, disaster flicks, horror, and cops and robbers: the best films of the year upended genres as well as expectations. And they provided a great escape from the black comedy that was going on in the real world.


      Hell or High Water

      A wild mix of a modern western and heist movie, where the biggest villain is the American economy—the one where banks are the real robbers. Jeff Bridges kills it as a wizened ranger, as dry and hardened as the sun-baked West Texas backdrop.



      Denis Villeneuve brings strange new atmosphere and intelligence to the alien movie. Tentacled, B-movie heptapods serve as the unlikely leaping-off point for big questions about the universe and mankind’s ability to get along. And Amy Adams grounds it all in a deeply human sadness and empathy that make her a sort of anti-Ripley.


      The Handmaiden 

      Korean maverick Park Chan-Wook does it again, with a playful erotic thriller where nothing is as it seems. Under every pretty surface is a darker, more twisted and unrepentantly perverted reality. It’s a puzzle box with imagery so painterly, it practically drips.


      Manchester by the Sea 

      An aching study of grief and familial love, served up as unsentimentally as the gritty fishing village it plays out in. Watching characters and relationships evolve here, you’ll see some of the strongest, most palpably authentic performances of the year. And weirdly, you’ll laugh, too.


      Hunt for the Wilderpeople 

      Taika Waititi dodges all clichés in his offbeat tale of a rap- and haiku-obsessed foster kid who ends up on the run with a crusty outdoorsman in the New Zealand wilderness. Big laughs, deep humanity, and Kiwi quirks galore.


      The Wave 

      Epically named Norwegian director Roar Uthaug reinvents the disaster movie, pitting an impossibly picturesque fjord village against a giant wall of water. Frantically edited underwater carnage takes action to teeth-clenching new heights.


      Under the Sun

      This eerie look inside the closed world of North Korea could easily be dismissed as a staged documentary, except that Russian director Vitaly Manskiy lets his camera linger longer than the omnipresent government officials would approve of. That means we get to see citizens being ordered to smile, but unable to mask the fear in their eyes. It’s all majestically shot, with tiny subjects dwarfed by monuments, and in its sly way, it could be the most frightening film of the year.


      Hello Destroyer 

      Kevan Funk’s low-key, tightly shot look at hockey and the way it manipulates male aggression gets under your skin. It inhabits an all-too-Canadian world we usually never see on film: bleak northern landscapes where futures are limited. Through near-wordless scenes, Jared Abrahamson conveys entire universes of pain as a minor-league enforcer, building an unforgettable portrait of the scourge of male depression.


      The Witch 

      The horror movie, taken back to a spare, bone-chilling folk tale, all set in perfectly rendered Puritan New England (actually the cold, skeletal woods of prewinter northern Ontario). Strangling repression, infanticide, blood rituals, and a menacing goat named Black Phillip bring frights that hit you in a more primal place than jump scares.



      The assassination of John F. Kennedy and all the photos and film around it are so etched on the collective consciousness that Chilean director Pablo Larraín does the smart thing: he forgets about doing a traditional biopic. Instead, he focuses his camera intensely on the woman at the centre of it all and takes her story into a heightened, dreamlike realm that evokes the mythology around Camelot.