Best Films of 2016 | Sarah Boslaugh

Not until I saw Ava DuVernay’s documentary did I relate the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans to a clause in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

This has been a strange year in film. While many of the highly touted studio releases have proved disappointing, there have been more than enough documentaries, foreign films, and independent releases to more than make up for them. I can’t bring myself to rank-order so varied a body of films, so, in the spirit of the New York Times Book Review, here are 10 notable films of 2016, in alphabetical order, followed by 10 honorable mentions.

Notable Films


I used to work for a criminal justice organization, but not until I saw Ava DuVernay’s documentary did I relate the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans to a clause in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” (italics added). Now I’ll never forget that connection, and once you’ve seen this documentary, neither will you.


You may not know the name of cinematographer Kristen Johnson, but you’ve almost certainly seen some of the films she has shot (which include Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and Derrida). In Cameraperson, her first directorial effort, Johnson allows us a glimpse behind the scenes through a film consisting of unused footage she shot for other director’s films. These clips underline the fact that documentaries are constructed objects just as surely as are feature films.

Certain Women

A fantastic sense of place and expert performances from Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Lily Gladstone highlight Kelly Reichardt’s spare film about the intersecting lives of four diverse women in present-day Montana.

I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s documentary offers an illuminating look at the thoughts and writings of James Baldwin, a native New Yorker whose clear-eyed view of America, and American race relations in particular, still rings true today.


One of the hardest things about making this list was choosing which Pablo Larrain film to including in the Top 10, and which to relegate to the honorable mentions. Jackie won the day thanks to Natalie Portman’s performance as America’s First Lady, and for its reminder that much of what we think we know about our politicians is really the product of carefully planned hype.


The facts of Loving v. Virginia were amply covered in Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story, but Jeff Nichols’ feature film Loving offers something different: a sense of just who Richard and Mildred Loving were, and how these extremely private people came to play a key role in the Supreme Court decision overturning state laws banning interracial marriage. It’s also worth remembering that Loving v. Virginia was a spiritual ancestor of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision overturning state bans on same-sex marriage.

Nocturnal Animals

No one makes more stylish films than Tom Ford, and Nocturnal Animals does not disappoint in that regard. It’s also intense, mysterious, and ambiguous, and features an epic performance by Michael Shannon in a story-within-a-story that seems more real than the so-called real life of the characters who wrote and are reading it (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, respectively).

O.J.: Made in America

I honestly didn’t think there was anything left to say about the O.J. Simpson case, but director Ezra Edelman proved me wrong. His film runs almost eight hours but I wouldn’t cut a second of it, and in the course of telling O.J.’s story, Edelman also illuminates aspects of American race relations that remain relevant today.

Our Little Sister

Hirokazu Koreeda’s film reminds me of all the reasons why I love Japanese cinema. The story is simplicity itself—three adult sisters invite their younger half-sister to live with them—and by keeping the focus firmly on the small, every day, moments of life, Koreeda celebrates the importance of being present in your life, enjoying the natural world, and being there for your family.


Martin Scorsese has reportedly been working on this film for 25 years, and it proves more than worth the wait. This parable of Jesuits in 17th century Japan raises questions of faith, vanity, and imperialism and features some of the most beautiful cinematography (by Rodrigo Prieto) ever seen in a Scorsese film.

Honorable Mentions

Doctor Strange
Fire at Sea
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Salesman
Sing Street
A War

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