It’s always risky to name your top 10 movies of the year, in part because no one can expect anyone else to be in complete agreement. Tastes evolve with education, age, experience and other factors. And many people go to the movies with different aims: to be entertained, to be challenged, and sometimes to gain greater insight into the human condition. Great movies do all of those things, and most of the following do, too. (Note that “Toni Erdmann” and “20th Century Women” premiered in 2016 but have not yet opened in Austin theaters.)
1. “La La Land”: It’s tempting to say that this musical is beautiful escapism. Yet it’s ultimately bittersweet, an ode to love and the ups and downs of that love. You may or may not like the ending. But you’ll love the beginning and middle, especially the emphasis on saluting those of us brave enough to pursue our dreams. Emma Stone is brilliant, and Ryan Gosling isn’t too shabby, either, although no one will ever mistake him for Fred Astaire.
2. “Manchester by the Sea”: If “La La Land” makes you smile wistfully, this drama from director Kenneth Lonergan will kick you in the gut. It’s about death, and that’s putting it mildly. It’s also about figuring out how to live again after tragedy. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career, and Michelle Williams turns a minor supporting role into a powerhouse moment.
3. “Love & Friendship”: The delightful adaptation of a wickedly funny early tale by Jane Austen is possibly the funniest movie of the year. Director/screenwriter Whit Stillman channels Austen in the best possible ways as he looks at a conniving widow and her efforts to snare a wealthy new husband while keeping a lover on the side. Kate Beckinsale stars, with Chloe Sevigny as her gossipy best friend.
4. “Moonlight”: Director Barry Jenkins has single-handedly assured that this year’s Oscars won’t be “so white,” with a beautiful, haunting tale of a young gay kid coming into his own despite a lot of obstacles. It’s a quiet film, never preachy, never judgmental. But in its smallness, it achieves greatness. The ending will make you say “wow.”
5. “Loving”: Ruth Negga should get a best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Mildred Loving, and Austin writer/director Jeff Nichols should be nominated, too, but probably won’t be. “Loving” deals with the interracial marriage case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and changed history. Like “Moonlight,” however, it never preaches or dips into false heroics. It’s another tale that’s great in its simplicity.
6. “Toni Erdmann”: This rare German comedy should have won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but was bested by Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake.” Go figure. Newcomer Marion Ade directs Sandra Huller as a ladder-climbing executive who doesn’t have time for her nutty dad. Well, guess again, corporate lady. Dad is rather persistent.
7. “Fences”: Denzel Washington stars in and directs this August Wilson adaptation, and he’s fierce as a sanitation worker who’s trying to cope with dreams deferred in Jim Crow America. But the real standout in this film is Viola Davis, his wife, who exudes love and wisdom and humor. She and Michelle Williams of “Manchester” will probably square off in the Oscar race for best supporting actress, and that’s a tragedy. Both deserve every accolade they can get.
8. “20th Century Women”: Annette Bening is fearless about her looks and her vulnerabilities in this tribute to moms. Bening plays a single mom who oversees an eclectic home with an ever-present handyman (Billy Crudup), a boarder (Greta Gerwig) and her son’s best friend who often sleeps over (Elle Fanning). Quirky, original and intelligent, “Women” is bound to make you laugh.
9. “Elle”: Perverse, funny, shocking, completely original. That’s “Elle,” the controversial new movie from Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”). It a tale of rape and revenge, with lots of cat-and-mouse turns that will make you quite uneasy. Isabelle Huppert stars as an amoral woman who refuses to be a victim. Fasten your seatbelts.
10. “The Birth of a Nation”: Nate Parker writes and directs the story of Nat Turner, the slave who led a bloody rebellion in the antebellum South. The movie was a sensation at Sundance but then faced controversy because of Parker’s history of involvement in a case of sexual assault and suicide. But a good movie is a good movie. Anyone want to argue about “Chinatown” and its director, Roman Polanski? (I shouldn’t have asked that question. People are always willing to argue. Well, have at it.)