"Best films of 2016" lists are a dime a dozen this time of year. (You can read our critics' favorites at "Melissa Anderson’s Top Films of 2016," "Top 10 Films of 2016? Bilge Ebiri Says It Was More Like 20," and "L.A. Weekly Film Critic April Wolfe's Top Horror Films of 2016"). But even though 2016 was a disaster in many ways, it gave us plenty of great films by women. So just as we did in 2015 and 2014, New Times is running down the works that reigned above the rest. These are the 16 best films by women of the past year.
Yes, Lemonade. Beyoncé Knowles took the visual album concept of Beyoncé to a new level with an hourlong feature film that delivers over and over again. Knowles and her codirectors — Dikayl Rimmasch, Todd Tourso, Kahlil Joseph, Mark Romanek, Jonas Åkerlund and Melina Matsoukas — shift through the songs while maintaining a consistent aesthetic, and the accompanying poetic interludes call to mind a certain Malickian flow. But above all else, it's an incredibly black and incredibly feminist production from head to toe — essential viewing for this year in cinema.
Andrea Arnold's latest film surpasses the running times of practically every film Marvel has released in the past decade, and in terms of ambition, it's a hell of a lot bigger and better. American Honey is a sprawling film, featuring a massive cast of characters, all of whom are just getting through the day selling magazine subscriptions and having a good time together, even when shit hits the fan. As much as it's about something as grand as the American Dream, an oft-explored concept that everyone views through a different lens, it's also about looking at a young woman named Star as she comes of age in a world that doesn't necessarily want her.
Let's face it: Men are babies. Masculinity is fragile as hell, and Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari explored that theme best this year. Chevalier, which can be succinctly summed up as a bunch of men on a yacht having an increasingly ridiculous dick-measuring contest, is ten kinds of absurd and an utter delight because of that absurdity. Tsangari exploits human insecurity without indulging in the excesses of violence and yelling that many explorations of fragile masculinity tend to. You'll laugh at the sheer insanity of some of the things these men do, but at the end of the day, it's a near-perfect vision of how men react to being pitted against one another the same way they often pit women against one another.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse described her film The Dressmaker as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine." If that sounds silly, it's because it is. But The Dressmaker — which opens with Kate Winslet looking like the femme fatale of anyone's dreams as she lights a cigarette and mutters "I'm back, you bastards" — is more than just silliness. It's a comedy, a Western, a neo-noir, and a romantic drama all rolled into one; it's a tale of vengeance that took a year to get from Australia to the States. It's because of that, and the fact that so few folks watch this gem, that we also declare it the most underrated film on this list.
5. Toni Erdmann
The phrase "German comedy" sounds like an oxymoron, but not in the case of Toni Erdmann. Maren Ade's nearly three-hour comedy boasts two stellar lead performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, who play a father-daughter duo. The film delivers plenty of laughs but also explores the strained relationship between the two characters and the inherent sexism in a male-dominated workspace. And once the midsection lull is gone and you've seen a good chunk of the cast nude, you'll realize Toni Erdmann is one of the year's best.
Though she has just two films under her belt, director Anna Biller deserves the title of auteur. Her latest, The Love Witch, follows a modern-day witch who uses magic to make men fall in love with her — and doubles as a brilliant love letter to a long-gone era. There's an utter sincerity and love to the way Biller creates her very own universe, fully fleshed out. Even though it looks like films we've seen before, The Love Witch subtly critiques the others' overtly masculine gaze through a wonderfully feminist work of art.
7. Collective: Unconscious
Collective: Unconscious, initially planned as a series during its Kickstarter campaign, is a rare thing: a cohesive anthology film. Each short is just as engrossing as the last, and that's because it tasked five of the coolest working indie filmmakers around — Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, and Lauren Wolkstein — with adapting one another's dreams. It's not difficult to compare it to a Twilight Zone-style experience, though less focused on narrative and more interested in delivering five wholly original and fascinating short films connected by nothing but a great concept. Plus, the producers released it free to watch online.
Celia Rowlson-Hall's work concentrates on bodies in motion: the way bodies interact with dance and the world around them; how they are taken advantage of; and how they mold to the expectations of others. Ma, which showed in Miami during Borscht 9.5 and will receive its theatrical release after a long festival run in January, is a stunning debut feature that expands upon that focus. It's a modern-day update of the Virgin Mary's pilgrimage to give birth to Jesus. There's no dialogue; instead, it's guided by Rowlson-Hall's lead performance and the way she and the characters around her move.
9. The Fits
Celia Rowlson-Hall's choreography isn't just a highlight in her own feature this year, but also in the equally engrossing The Fits. Anna Rose Holmer's tale of a young woman trying to fit into a dance troupe that has been plagued by spells of fainting and violent but beautiful fits, is a Kubrickian exercise on a technical level. It's a small-scale story told in a way that feels unsettling, compelling, and huge. But for all the beauty of it, The Fits' greatest strength is its star, Royalty Hightower.
10. Certain Women
Miami native Kelly Reichardt is one of the coolest American filmmakers working today. In adapting three short stories from Maile Meloy's books Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love, Kelly Reichardt creates portraits of three women who are different but compelling to watch in their own ways. What might seem like utterly simple and frankly presented narrative chunks to some prove to be thematically linked: Each explores the way women are often placed in roles in which their feelings, their certainties, their wants, and their needs are lost. While Laura Dern and Michelle Williams helm two of the shorts, it's Lily Gladstone (and her support Kristen Stewart) who steal the show with a tale of queer longing that is ten kinds of heartbreaking.
11. No Home Movie
Speaking of heartbreaking, nothing hurts as much as watching Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie, the last work of art by a woman who took her own life in 2015. Not only did the world lose a great filmmaker, but the film — a two-hour series of interactions between Akerman and her mother — also offers such an unabashedly personal look into her life.
12. The Meddler
From the outside, The Meddler might look like fluff, with Susan Sarandon playing an overbearing mother to Rose Byrne. But beyond the stereotype lies an emotionally compelling story about two women who haven't yet learned how to deal with loss. Yes, it's light, but writer/director Lorene Scarafia and the two actresses ensure you'll be moved to tears without an ounce of manipulation.
No, this film, about a young woman who's going through some shit, doesn't use the Stevie Nicks song of the same title in its soundtrack. Filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig and actress Hailee Steinfeld work in tandem to perfectly convey the miserable experience of being a teen. Plus, this film gave us the most charming newcomer/love interest of the year in actor Hayden Szeto.
Some of the best horror films have been made by women, and Lucile Hadžihalilovic's Evolution proves we need more of them in the genre. While most modern horror aims for jump scares and barreling through clumsy narrative, Evolution is all about long, slow takes and an atmosphere of mystery. Its setting, after all, is a seaside town in which only women and boys exist. But there's also a promise of body horror for those who want more, with a reveal that's thrust upon viewers just when they're too deep to get out of the intoxicating world Hadžihalilovic has created through gorgeous imagery.
15. Kung-Fu Panda 3
To see a movie with the number 3 in the title is a worrisome thing; threequels aren't usually that great. But Kung-Fu Panda 3 proves otherwise. Unlike other animated feature films this year, which poorly engaged with racial politics (Zootopia) or threw out F-bombs every five seconds to try to get laughs (Sausage Party), Kung-Fu Panda 3 is a film that's about finding yourself and believing in your own strength. That might sound cheesy, but Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni's treatment never feels condescending or maudlin. And along the way, they blend styles of animation to create an artistic viewing experience.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Goshdarnit, Bridget Jones's Baby is one of the most delightful moviegoing experiences of the year. With Sharon Maguire, director of the original Bridget Jones's Diary, back at the helm of this third installment in the series, the characters appear rejuvenated rather than rehashed. Renée Zellweger looks like she's never left the role; Colin Firth proves as frustratingly charming as ever, even when he's kind of a dick; and Patrick Dempsey has never been as radiant and bubbly as he is here. For fans of the original, this is exactly what you need with a pint of ice cream on a lonely night. For everyone else, get with the program.