If you have told me at the mid-point of the year, that our community’s list of the best films of 2016 would eventually include more movies than ever before (83 this year to 2015’s 65 and 2014’s 60), I would have scoffed. In July, 2016 wasn’t shaping up to much cinematically. Knowing our community as I do, I would have pointed to only two then-released films as having a chance of making it onto our year-end list—Hail, Caesar! and Zootopia—and I wouldn’t have been confident about either. Neither was so good I could be sure people would remember them come January 2017 when we all started assembling our lists.
Then the summer blockbuster season crested, we began making our way into fall, and the movies just kept getting better. Hell or High Water made waves. The Lobster started its slow, quizzical crawl around the country. The OJ Simpson trial may have taken over the television airwaves again in the first half of the year, but it escaped the confines of cable in the second half, appeared on streaming services, and found a wider audience. Moonlight appeared out of nowhere and showed us the world we thought we knew in a new way.
And then, in the weeks following a contentious national election, when we were most in need of a balm, our cineplexes were graced with two films about grief that take loss seriously and find hard-won hope in the midst of it – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. As our new reality settled in, La La Land danced into our hearts and lifted our spirits, suggesting that though things don’t always work out like we hope, good yet can come if we persevere. And Paterson began making its rounds, warming us again to the simple beauty of a life well-lived and a place well-loved.
Finally, the film we’d been waiting for all year, the one 2016 film I would have picked as being most likely to appear on our communal list, released in four theaters, two in New York City and two in Los Angeles. Martin Scorsese’s Silence settled into our cinemas. We were able to screen Silence in Pasadena for an overflowing house of Fuller Seminary community members on January 7 as well and welcome writer/director Martin Scorsese for a conversation afterwards. (You can watch a FULLER Studio-produced film of the conversation here.) Marty, as he told us to call him, wasn’t there campaigning for the top spot on our list, of course, but it certainly helped his film achieve it.
Naturally, the Reel Spirituality community tends toward films that marry artistic ambition with theological grit. We awarded Calvary the top spot on our list in 2014 and The Revenant the top spot in 2015. But those films “won” by only a few points over their runners-up, Boyhood (-1) and Inside Out (-8), films with much more subtle theological import. Silence dominated our list this year, out-earning the runner-up by thirty-five points. Curiously, Silence only received three number one votes. Moonlight, our number two film this year, received seven number one votes. But 20/21 voters placed Silence on their list; only 13/20 placed Moonlight.
If ever since we began making this communal list a film deserved the top spot on our list, it’s Silence. The film is the perfect “Fuller” film – theologically, missiologically, and psychologically complex. It’s the perfect “Brehm” film, as it is artistically astute and concerned with the kind of “care of culture” for which Brehm Center Director Mako Fujimura advocates. And it’s the perfect “Reel Spirituality” film, as it joins both Fuller and Brehm concerns and provides an opportunity for us to bridge divides between the Church and the film industry. There is perhaps no greater emblem of that divide than in the way the Church has responded to Martin Scorsese’s films in the past. Silence is Martin Scorsese’s complex peace offering to institutional Christianity; our genuine embrace of the film is ours to him. We are all on a journey of faith. It’s best when we walk together.
As always, that “walking together” is what this list most clearly represents. It’s a symbol of the faith and film-loving community of filmmakers and film scholars who are gathered under the banner of Reel Spirituality, each in their own way. We are trying to make beautiful films, to celebrate beautiful films, and to encourage others to do the same. Read this list as a testament to the cinematic bright spots that most enlivened us this past year. Use the list to guide your own film-watching. May you be enlivened as well.
Each voter is instructed to rank their ten favorite films of the year. Ten points are awarded for a first-place ranking, nine points for a second place, and so on down to one point for a tenth-place ranking. The points are totaled, and the films are ranked according to their point totals. Point ties yield tie-placement.
Tomorrow we will release the individual top ten lists of each of our community members.
1. Silence (20 placements, 144 points)
Silence was a passion project for Martin Scorsese, and it shows. Too quiet (one might even say "silent") to capture the attention of audiences looking for the frenetic clamor of The Avengers, and too demanding for those who prefer a tame and domesticated vision of Christianity, Scorsese explores the contradictions and complexities of faith while remaining firmly rooted in that very faith. As a result, Silence invites us to reflect upon the gods that we have constructed in our own image – daring us to ask whether the most faithful act of devotion might very well be apostasy. - Kutter Callaway
2. Moonlight (13 placements, 109 points)
Think of a full moon and its light silently piercing the night to illuminate your way and bring you beauty beyond your often messy, everyday life. That experience was what I felt viewing Moonlight. Director Barry Jenkins displays the most respectful and gentle filmmaking I've seen in a long while. It’s a coming-of-age-story for our contested space and time. Each tender or violent interaction between the characters (shout-out to Mahershala Ali for his portrayal), each expression of longing of our protagonist as he grows up (portrayed beautifully by three actors whose eyes alone will slay you), each meditative silence, each glimpse of love, all set to a pathos-filled score, will take you on a moonlit journey. Both times I viewed the film, I wept for my world, my friends, and myself. The world is difficult these days, especially so. Moonlight reminds us of the moonlight in the midst of the darkness. Don't miss the experience. - Catherine Barsotti
3. La La Land (13 placements, 80 points)
La La Land’s setting may be contemporary but this old-school musical fairytale wears its movie musical influences of yesteryear—see Gene Kelly, Busby Berkeley, and Jacques Demy for starters—as confidently as Ryan Gosling wears a tailored white suit. The Catholic writer and teacher Richard Rohr writes beautifully about the importance and power of fairytales and myths: “Myths are true basically because they work! A sacred myth keeps a people healthy, happy, and whole—even inside their pain. They give deep meaning and pull us into ‘deep time,’ which encompasses all time, past and future, geological and chronological, and not just our little time or culture. Such stories are the very food of the soul.” La La Land matters because it transcend the pressing concerns of local and global sociopolitical realities and pulls us into the eternal truth of “deep time,” as Rohr puts it, where our sight is restored and we are given “ultimate perspective,” where we are realigned, grounded, and experience some measure of healing for what ails our hearts and souls. In these troubled times, we need fairy tales like La La Land more than ever. - Jonathan Stoner
4. Arrival (8 placements, 48 points)
In a tumultuous year, Arrival is an exciting and thought-provoking film about the subtle art of communication, overcoming barriers to collaboration, and the ability to love and hope in spite of certain despair and trauma. Science-fiction always affords writers and directors opportunities to explore the depths of humanity through the fantastic and unexplainable, and the filmmakers here have done that and more. Director Denis Villenueve balances the gritty tension of sci-fi with the emotional human drama, drawing comparisons to filmmakers across genres. - Kevin Nye
5. Manchester by the Sea (7 placements, 46 points)
Manchester by the Sea is the remarkable exploration of one man’s story and his quest for survival in the midst of depression and regret. Casey Affleck delivers what might be the best performance of the year, masterfully excavating the humanity of his tragic character, Lee Chandler. Downcast dramas sometimes struggle to create an empathetic experience, but Affleck’s brilliant acting and Kenneth Lonergan’s worthy directing offer the viewer an emotional connection unrivaled by many films. Manchester by the Sea is an instant classic, a film that thoughtfully contemplates tragedy and the human experience. - Matt Walker
6. Tie - Hail, Caesar! and OJ: Made in America (6 placements, 45 points, both)
Hail Caesar! frames the creative process of Hollywood filmmaking in all its splendor and banality. It simultaneously presents the superfluous and the consequential, the sacred and the profane. One moment, Channing Tatum is tap dancing and the next George Clooney is a the foot of the cross contemplating Christ's life. Despite the circus show that is filmmaking, as Eddie Mannix avers, "The picture has worth!" The Coen brothers are such entertaining and provocative storytellers because they understand that the same is true for human existence. Life's meaningfulness elusively lies between the quotidian, the chaotic, and the joyous parts of life. Hail Caesar! is one of their most comedic portrayals of that mystery yet. - Chris Lopez
I've never seen any film that shows so completely the messy thing that is America. Race, gender, class, celebrity, (lack of) due process, the urban/rural divide, media culture, violence, voyeurism, Conservative and Liberal agendas - it's all here. Even the fact that it was produced by ESPN matters. Ezra Edelman could have called it America: Made in OJ, and it would have still been true. One for the ages. - Elijah Davidson
8. 13th (5 placements, 35 points)
I spent 2016 becoming very “woke” as it pertains to racial injustice in America. Two extremely educational experiences helped solidify this year for me in that respect: reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and participating in Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of JR Thomas by police only a mile from my house. Both experiences, one academic and one experiential, shaped how I watched movies, and how I chose what movies to watch. My seeking out and being moved by 13th (among others) were shaped by these experiences. I hope this is true for many others as well. - Kevin Nye
9. Hell or High Water (5 placements, 31 points)
Hell or High Water places movie Western mythology alongside a stark, modern day reality. It has become somewhat of a bellwether for some regarding the recent election cycle, one which seems destined to be in large part defined by a seemingly discarded rural working class. Yet, from where I sit, the thing that makes the film so worthy to be on this list is its glaring view on the complexities that govern our world, our nation, and even our families. By choosing to let us root simultaneously for both the robbers and lawmen, the filmmakers invite us into a difficult narrative that is somehow both remarkably rewarding and undeniably tragic. This is not necessarily cinema par excellence but it is high-caliber, unflinching, and muscular movie-making at its best. “They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” one thinks as the tired old cowboy rides off into the dusty plains of the great state of Texas one last time—even if they filmed most of it in New Mexico. - Matt Aughtry
10. Tie - The Lobster, Zootopia (6 placements, 29 points, both) and Paterson (4 placements, 29 points)
Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos skewers our culture's ways of love and romance in this weird, brilliant allegory. Suppose there was a hotel where they sent all the singles to couple off, and whoever didn't find a mate they turned into animals? Suppose Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Wes Anderson met there and decided to make a movie? That’s The Lobster. It’s like nothing else. - Andy Singleterry
Zootopia is a great film for adults and children alike. It has it all – mystery, adventure, drama, wit, social awareness, great messages that facilitate theological discussion, references to The Godfather, and a catchy song by Shakira. It is a great example of the wave of conscientious animated films that actively engage and challenge our current reality by creating a safe space in which children of all ages can reflect. If Disney continues to make these type of films, I dare say Zootopia marks a new kind of Walt Disney Animation Studios classic. - Roslyn Hernandez
After 30 plus years of making films, Jim Jarmusch remains a true independent and a true counter-cultural. With Paterson, he offers one of his most moving visions of the utopian possibility of community yet, made all the more poignant for being firmly rooted in place and routine. Adam Driver's performance, as the title character, is a revelation: modeling a contemplative man who speaks gently and acts only when he must, and yet who, through his deliberate simplicity, embodies a profound openness to the world around him. In Paterson the film and Paterson the man, Jarmusch and Driver reveal cinema's power not to give us figures who are "larger than life," but rather to invite us into the presence of true individuals, with and through whom we can partake in a full measure of life that so often eludes us. - Sam Anderson
Each of these films received at least one vote by at least one of our community members.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Birth of a Nation
Captain America: Civil War
Don't Think Twice
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
No Home Movie
Notes on Blindness
Things to Come
One More Time With Feeling
After the Storm
I Am Not Your Negro
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Edge of Seventeen
Cemetery of Splendor
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Batman V. Superman
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Neon Demon
In the Shadow of Women
The Jungle Book
Whisky Tango Foxtrot
Voyage of Time
My Golden Days
The Unknown Girl
The Girl on the Train
10 Cloverfield Lane
Kate Plays Christine
Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk
Knight of Cups
The Nice Guys
Star Trek Beyond