It wasn’t so long ago that Suicide Squad was inspiring movies-are-dead thinkpieces. But, as sometimes happens, what at times felt like an historically awful year for movies produced no shortage of great films. (That so many arrived at the end of the year and are still making their way out to the world distorts the picture a bit.) So maybe there’s hope for movies yet, and for movie experiences that unite us instead of dividing us. It’s a quality found in abundance in our list-topping pick, but also throughout our list of the best films of the year, which include everything from an unsparing (but frequently funny) drama about grief to a buddy-cop comedy starring cartoon animals.
1. La La Land
Writer/director Damien Chazelle didn’t reinvent the musical with his third film. Instead, he took the elements of classic musicals out of mothballs to show how joyful and relevant they could still be when done right. It plays like the sort of film from a director who’s dreamed of trying to make a splashy, heartfelt musical his entire life and didn’t want to let the opportunity pass him by without trying every trick he’d dreamed of trying. It’s easy to play spot-the-reference with La La Land. Chazelle practically invites it. (The final sequence alone draws on, among other sources An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) But this isn’t just an act of homage. Stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance their way through a bittersweet love story that’s full of big, overstated emotions but also grounded in the present, and a world in which dreams don’t always come true and lovers can’t always sing their way to a happy ending. It’s a lovely movie, but in its own way, it’s a tough one, and one with more sheer filmmaking pizazz than most directors manage in five films. — Keith Phipps