1. Author: The JT LeRoy Story
In the late '90s and early '00s, a San Francisco woman named Laura Albert pulled off the kind of fame more associated with being a rock star than an author. But an author she was — from a novel, a short story collection, and a novella, Albert became a favorite of celebrities like Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, and Asia Argento, who'd support her and call her and fill in for her at readings when she claimed extreme reticence. The rub was, she did this by lying — grandly and spectacularly. Albert was publishing her work under the pseudonym and persona of JT LeRoy, a twentysomething man from West Virginia who claimed to be drawing from real, troubling experiences of underage sex work, abuse, and addiction. When the excuse of shyness no longer cut it, Albert recruited her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to put on a wig and sunglasses and play LeRoy in public — a gambit that, astonishingly, worked, until it didn't.
It's a hell of a tale, and documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) lets Albert tell it, ethical queasiness and all. It's an approach that feels, at first, like giving a fraud an unearned platform on which to defend herself, unchallenged. But the more Albert talks, the more her quicksilver ability to build herself up as the tragic hero, offer up trauma as a narrative spine, and demand empathy pulls you in. She is, huckster or not, an incredible storyteller. You may not come around to her side, but you definitely understand why she was able to fool so many people with such outrageous prevarications and such a cunning positioning of pain as proof of artistic authenticity. Author: The JT LeRoy is an unsettling watch, but it's also the kind of thing you can't get out of your head. —Alison Willmore
Where to see it: Author: The JT LeRoy Story is available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer who's worked with all sorts of big names in the documentary world — like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated), and Michael Moore (Captain Mike Across America). She had been the woman operating the camera in situations around the world, dangerous, intimate, intense, and scenic. Johnson calls Cameraperson, which she directed and cut together out of outtakes, extra footage, and home movies from across her career, a "memoir." It's a label that feels at once accurate and like it falls short — Johnson has created a montage of moments that give insight into her experiences while providing constant reminders that there is nothing objective about the recording of images.
An interview with a young woman getting an abortion, which focuses on her hands to preserve her anonymity, breaks so that the subject can be reassured that she's not a bad person. A child plays with an ax while Johnson audibly frets over safety, but keeps filming. Footage of Johnson's mother, in the throes of Alzheimer's, raises questions about consent but also about the power of the camera to preserve a moment in someone's life as their sense of self continues to slip away. Johnson weaves her argument so deftly and subtly that it's only until halfway through her unusual film that you realize she's making one at all. —A.W.
Where to see it: Cameraperson is still in a few theaters. It'll be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD/Blu-ray on Feb. 7.
A sadly timely film given our current political climate, Denial focuses on a 1996 court case where self-appointed Nazi expert David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued Holocaust studies professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for libel after she called him a Holocaust denier in one of her books.
The film is fascinating because I, for one, had never heard of this seemingly insane court case (turns out in England, the burden of proof lies with the defendant! WHAT?) and boasts tremendous performances from Weisz, Spall, and Tom Wilkinson as the head of Lipstadt’s legal team. —Jarett Wieselman
Where to see it: Denial is available for purchase online, and will be out on Blu-Ray, DVD, and On Demand on Jan. 3.
4. Don't Think Twice
Don't Think Twice is a drama about comedians. In his second film, standup-turned-director Mike Birbiglia stars as a member of a New York–based improv troupe called The Commune. Its members are famous and credible in a hyperlocal and extremely poverty-stricken way that Birbiglia understands with unwavering accuracy — his deep knowledge of the New York comedy scene and the people in it gives the film a startling melancholy.
The Commune's members are played by Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher, a group of talented goofballs slowly having to come to terms with the fact that they're not all going to make it into fame and fortune, and that fame and fortune may not be the secret to happiness anyway. There's an SNL-type show called Weekend Live that everyone yearns to join, there are relationships stretched by uneven success, and there's a palpable sense of staying too long at the party. Don't Think Twice is a sweetly sad film about realizing that it may be time to revamp your dreams. —A.W.
Where to see it: Don't Think Twice is available for purchase online, and it's also on DVD/Blu-ray.
5. Green Room
Even before his tragic death, every Anton Yelchin performance felt like a gift. He was one of the most talented actors of his generation and consistently chose increasingly fascinating projects. Since Yelchin’s untimely death in June, the small handful of his films yet to be released have felt even more precious. So if you missed Green Room in theaters when it was released in April, brace yourself for an unrelenting thrill ride.
The film follows four members of a punk band (Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) who unknowingly agree to perform at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in the middle of the deep woods. Then, following an incendiary yet surprisingly successful set, the foursome find themselves locked in the venue’s green room with a dead body, cut off from the outside world, and surrounded by a horde of malicious men determined to keep them from reporting the crime to the cops. It’s an incredibly tense cat-and-mouse game with some of the grizzliest special effects seen all year. There’s a sterling turn from Patrick Stewart as the neo-Nazi leader who might actually be a potential ally, but Green Room belongs to the deeply human character Yelchin conjures up. —J.W.
Where to see it: Green Room is streaming on Amazon Prime. It's also available for rent and purchase online.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
Few of us have gotten to experience the charmed life of a swaggering star athlete in the '80s, but courtesy of Everybody Wants Some!!, it's a lifestyle we can slip on like a worn-in T-shirt. Richard Linklater's spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! is really a testament to the filmmaker's incredible gift with hangout comedies. He manages to make a movie about a group of testosteroned-out jocks getting loaded and getting laid into something not just downright lovable but crazily rewatchable.
It might have something to do with the charms of his charismatic, easy-on-the-eyes cast, which includes Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and a scene-stealing Glen Powell. Or it might have to do with Linklater's abiding faith in the transformative powers of college to open the eyes of even a group of dudes as comfortably settled in their identities as his baseballers. Long stretches of shooting the shit with new people in Everybody Wants Some!! have the potential to expand the most unmotivated of horizons. —A.W.
Where to see it: Everybody Wants Some!! is available for rent and purchase online, and is also on DVD/Blu-ray.
7. The Fits
Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer's fable about adolescence unfolds with haunting dreaminess within the seemingly mundane confines of a community center in Cincinnati. That's where 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) has been hanging out and training with her brother, and it's where she starts to feel the creeping in of adulthood in the gender divide that appears among the older kids: The girls all drift toward the dance team, while the boys do boxing.
Toni gamely joins her assigned side, but doesn't find dancing easy going, especially when what's either an epidemic or an instance of mass hysteria hits the girls, sending them one by one into ecstatic fits. It's maybe a metaphor for the milestone that is menstruation, but The Fits is better left unparsed — that's how eerily and elegantly it renders the mysteries of growing up. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Fits is streaming on Amazon Prime. It's also available on DVD/Blu-ray.
8. The Handmaiden
There’s nothing quite like a Park Chan-wook movie. From Oldboy and Lady Vengeance to Stoker and Snowpiercer, the South Korean auteur has developed a singular sense of storytelling and a visual flair that continually surprises, confounds, and delights. His latest is no exception. The Handmaiden takes place in Japanese-occupied Korea during the early 1900s and charts a young con woman's journey as she conspires with a con man to rob an heiress of her fortune.
If only it were that simple. One of The Handmaiden’s greatest joys is discovering the boundary-pushing twists and turns for yourself. So go in knowing as little as possible and brace yourself for one of the year’s most gorgeous, erotic, hilarious, and satisfying films. —J.W.
Where to see it: The Handmaiden is still in theaters.
9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
One of 2016’s most joyous performances came from Julian Dennison, the now 14-year-old star of director Taika Waititi’s charming comedy. Dennison plays Ricky, a juvenile delinquent whom social services places with the loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous husband Hec (Sam Neill). Bella and Ricky develop a quick love for each other, so when she suddenly dies, Ricky flees, fearing he’ll be put back into the system.
Unable to let the boy wither and die in the harsh New Zealand wilderness, Hec sets out to find him, which he easily does because Ricky is woefully unequipped to rough it. But their adventure is unexpectedly extended when Hec injures his leg, forcing them to camp out for weeks and forcing Ricky to become a truly competent caretaker. While Hec recoups, the authorities mistake the trip for an abduction and a series of unfortunate events lead them to believe Hec is a pedophile. Soon, the two become the focus of a national manhunt that culminates in some genuinely hilarious, deeply touching, and adrenaline-pumping scenes. —J.W.
Where to see it: Hunt for the Wilderpeople is streaming on Hulu. It's also available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
10. The Invitation
As someone who has watched a lot — A LOT — of thrillers over his 35 years, it takes a truly inventive screenplay to surprise me. So when I say that The Invitation genuinely had me guessing right up until its big final act revelation(s), trust in that.
The film opens on Will (Logan Marshall-Green) making his way to a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard, in one of the year’s most unnerving performances), who basically disappeared following the accidental death of their son, which fueled their split. Eden reemerges to introduce Will and their friends to her enigmatic new husband, David (Michiel Huisman).
The night has a dark energy coursing through it seeing as it’s the first time Will has returned to the house where his son died — but more than that, he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with Eden, a fear that gains more and more credibility as the night goes on. But is the setting clouding his judgment or has Will tapped into something more sinister at play with his ex and her new husband?
I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling one of the year’s most exhilarating guessing games, but I will add that a script and performances are only as good as the eye behind the camera, and The Invitation’s greatest strength is that Karyn Kusama is calling the shots. —J.W.
Where to see it: The Invitation is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for rent or purchase online, and on DVD/Blu-ray.
11. Kate Plays Christine
Kate Plays Christine is one of two movies that happened to come out in 2016 about Christine Chubbuck, the TV news reporter who killed herself during a live broadcast in 1974, and who became a grim, sad after-the-fact symbol of a year in which media seemed to implode. While Antonio Campos' Christine had Rebecca Hall in the role of Chubbuck in a more straightforward biopic, Robert Greene's Kate Plays Christine tries something more experimental and more provocative.
It follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) as she goes through preparations to play Chubbuck herself, researching the late woman's life in Florida, rehearsing, and going through costuming. The result is a testament to acting as a form of detective work, as well as an interrogation of why someone would want to make a film about Chubbuck in the first place, using her depression and loneliness as uneasy symbols of something larger. —A.W.
Where to see it: Kate Plays Christine is available for rent and purchase online.
12. King Cobra
In 2007, gay porn producer Bryan Kocis was murdered by Joe and Harlow, two wannabe porn producers who were attempting to steal Bryan’s bigger star, Brent Corrigan, away from him. In 2016, that impossibly true story became one of the year’s most insane movies with Christian Slater playing Kocus, Garrett Clayton playing Corrigan, and James Franco and Keegan Allen playing the killers.
King Cobra is tonally uneven (Franco and Allen’s insane early scenes in which they work out, jerk off, and 69 feel like they’re from an entirely different movie), the script is as perfunctory as a Lifetime movie's, and the direction does little to escape that made-for-TV distinction.
But that’s also what makes King Cobra so damn enjoyable. Real-life best buds Franco and Allen are clearly having a lot of fun bringing their self-obsessed boyfriend characters to very naked life, Clayton strips off his Disney past with a palpable glee as he bottoms for a series of sweaty boys, and as the film careens toward its inevitable conclusion, it becomes the oddest Giallo movie Cocky Boys ever made. If you (like me) found any part of that last paragraph intriguing, then King Cobra is a can’t miss. —J.W.
Where to see it: King Cobra is available for rent online.
Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is the hero of her movie as well as the monster lurking within it. She's come (or crawled) back to her family's Thanksgiving dinner after a decade away, spent dealing with demons and addiction. She's determined to mend fences and to be on her best behavior, and yet her anxiety over and anticipation of her own failure is enough to set her off balance from the start in a way that no amount of good intentions can remedy.
Trey Edward Shults' astonishing microbudget directorial debut, shot in his parents' Texas house and with a cast consisting mainly of his family members, is a marvel of economy. He uses the filmmaking to reflect his main character's increasingly unstable state of mind. It's a holiday movie as horror flick, one about how the most frightening foes lurk within. —A.W.
Where to see it: Krisha is streaming on Amazon Prime.
14. Los Sures
A cinematic time capsule from an older New York, Los Sures is a documentary that was made in 1984 but that only received a real theatrical release this year. In the decades since, the neighborhood that Diego Echeverria captured on film, South Williamsburg, was transformed from a primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican area that was one of New York's poorest into Brooklyn's shimmering, pricey hipster capital.
But Los Sures, which dips into the lives of five of the region's residents, isn't just an inadvertent documentation of gentrification. It's an intimate but unflinching portrait of a neighborhood's sense of community and its violence, the strength of its families and the lure of its criminal economy. It's a grainy, tender, unromanticized love letter to a time and place in the city. —A.W.
Where to see it: Los Sures is available for rent and purchase online.
15. The Love Witch
Driven mad by mistreatment and a desire for love, the magically gifted Elaine (Samantha Robinson) goes on a spell-fueled rampage through the unsuspecting male population of Eureka, California, enchanting and then finding them wanting. The consequences are often deadly, and it's tremendously fun to watch, courtesy of writer-director Anna Biller's painstaking throwback sensibilities, which are tailored to evoke '60s thrillers even as her story technically takes place in the present day.
The colors are bright, the acting deliberately stylized, and the fashion gorgeously retro (Robinson's cat-eye liner and blue eyeshadow are particularly covetable). But it's the flickers of self-awareness that occasionally show through Elaine's sociopathy and internalized misogyny that make The Love Witch more than just an exercise in vintage style. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Love Witch is in theaters.
16. Miss Sharon Jones!
There are many moments in Miss Sharon Jones! — a lovely documentary about the Dap-Kings singer of the title as she battles stage 2 pancreatic cancer — that will bring tears to your eyes. The emotions kick in early (for me, it was when Sharon proactively shaves her head before the treatments take her hair) and carry through to the doc’s end.
But the scene that best captures the spirit of the film, and of Jones herself, comes about one-third of the way through. Following a round of treatment, Jones returns to her church, struggling to walk up the front steps. Once inside, she makes her way to the pulpit for a resplendent rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Then, as she heads back to her seat, Sharon is overcome with ebullience and her ailments suddenly pale in comparison to the emotions that are coursing through her. So she dances. And she praises. And she screams, “Thank you, God,” as her fellow parishioners cheer her on. They cheer for a friend, for a sister, for a child of God who is so thankful for another day on Earth that for an all-too-brief moment, she feels no pain.
And Jones’ death in November of this year amplifies every single emotion. —J.W.
Where to see it: Miss Sharon Jones! is available for rent or purchase online, as well as on DVD.
17. Miss Stevens
In Miss Stevens, a gentle dramedy from Julia Hart, Lily Rabe plays a grieving young woman forced to act like the adult when all she wants is to be taken care of for a moment. As the 29-year-old English teacher of the title, she's talked into chaperoning the drama club to a weekend competition. Over the two days, she has to weather the high-strung Margot's (Lili Reinhart) insecurities, the romantic excursions of the gay-and-exploring Sam (Anthony Quintal), and the darker complications offered by the gifted, off-his-meds Billy (Timothée Chalamet).
Hart's small-scale movie perfectly captures the temporary kingdoms that form during extracurricular trips, the hotel room alliances and various flirtations. But she also explores, marvelously, the boundaries between teenager and adult, and between student and teacher, and the ways they can slip during emotional stress — especially when you need a friend as badly as Miss Stevens does, and when the only people who seem interested in hearing you out are the ones you're supposed to be caring for. —A.W.
Where to see it: Miss Stevens is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for rent and purchase online.
18. Other People
Writer-director Chris Kelly has pulled off the near impossible: a genuinely funny movie about death that will also make you cry. Molly Shannon delivers an ovation-worthy performance as Joanne, a small-town mother of three battling cancer, and Jesse Plemmons co-stars as her son David, a gay comedy writer who moves from New York City to be with his ailing mother in her time of need.
The comedy also boasts one of the mightiest supporting casts of the year: Bradley Whitford, Retta, Maude Apatow, June Squibb, Kerri Kenney, Paula Pell, Zach Woods, John Early, D’Arcy Carden, Colton Dunn, Nicole Byer, Lennon Parham, and J.J. Totah all slay in their respective scenes.
But the movie really comes alive in the quiet moments, like when David’s search for a laxative becomes a metaphor for the grieving process or when Joanne’s story about a dead chicken becomes a painful reminder of how much she’s actually lost the second time she tells it. Other People is a truly audacious film debut from Chris Kelly that will forever change the way you look at birch trees. —J.W.
Where to see it: Other People is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for rent or purchase online, as well as on DVD.
19. Queen of Katwe
I will never understand how or why Disney’s Queen of Katwe flew so far under the radar in 2016 (it has only made $10 million globally). Director Mira Nair outdoes herself with the visually sumptuous true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan girl who discovers she’s a chess prodigy thanks to the benevolent dedication of a passionate educator, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, a performance that should be attracting end-of-year accolades).
The film includes many of the cinematic touchstones we’ve come to expect from underdog stories: nail-biting tournaments that lead to big wins and even bigger losses that lead to crippling self-doubt.
But the massive beating heart of Katwe lies in the tough but fascinating story of Phiona learning to reconcile her two families. Does she belong with the self-constructed clan of like-minded prodigies and instructors who travel with her from international triumph to triumph, or is her place alongside her siblings and widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o), struggling to keep the family out of poverty? It’s an unexpectedly nuanced and deeply poignant look at the price that comes from rising above your presumed station in life and a film worthy of a much, much larger audience. —J.W.
Where to see it: Queen of Katwe will be available for purchase online on Jan. 10 and on Blu-ray on Jan. 31.
20. Sing Street
John Carney, the writer and director behind two of my favorite music-heavy movies (2007’s Once and 2013’s Begin Again) added a third to that list with Sing Street, an absolutely jubilant musical comedy about Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a Dublin teen who transfers from a private school to a public school and finds it hard to make friends. He falls in one-sided love with Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a model who lives across the street from his school; in an attempt to spend time with her, he asks her to model in a music video for his band...which doesn’t exist. He sets out to form one and discovers quite a lot about himself in the process. Sing Street's young actors are unwaveringly charming, the script is full of richly relatable teenage emotions, and the movie features the catchiest original song of the year in “Drive It Like You Stole It." —J.W.
Where to see it: Sing Street is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
21. Southside With You
This film about Barack Obama’s eventful first date with Michelle Robinson succeeds in large part because writer-director Richard Tanne doesn’t treat the duo as the larger-than-life figures they are today, but as the average Chicagoans with above-average aspirations they were in 1989.
The smart script offers glimpses at the social, economic, and political imperatives that would come to define the Obama administration, but never forgets that this is a romance and continues to reveal deeper layers of their love story as the film plays out.
Then there’s the acting. Parker Sawyers captures the effortless confidence Barack exudes and Tika Sumpter delivers the best work of her career, nailing Michelle’s awe-inspiring competence, fortitude, and vocal intonation. They make it easy to fall in love with the film. —J.W.
Where to see it: Southside With You is available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
22. Train to Busan
Dare you to find a better zombies-on-a-train movie this year, or, frankly, ever. Yeon Sang-ho's film is a mixture of horror, brutal action, and dark comedy, following workaholic divorced dad Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) as he escorts his daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an) from Seoul to Busan on the high-speed train to see her mother for her birthday. Little did he know that the undead apocalypse would get in the way.
While Train to Busan rarely pauses to catch its breath once its horde of flesh-hungry infectees show up, it also manages to sketch out its group of desperate survivors — selfish businessmen, working-class couples, baseball players, and elderly sisters — with admirable efficiency, allowing them to be more than just zombie fodder. Packing a streak of class commentary alongside the impressive set pieces, Train to Busan is the kind of drama that, fast zombies aside, does George A. Romero proud. —A.W.
Where to see it: Train to Busan is available for rent and purchase online.
23. Under the Shadow
Under the Shadow is a horror story in which fears of the supernatural and fears of an all-too-real war intertwine seamlessly. It's a Babadook colored not just by depression but by dread about the future for its female characters in a country that's taken a seriously conservative turn; and it's also a Devil's Backbone in which a mother and child are isolated in a place of stress rather than a group of orphans. Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War of the '80s, Babak Anvari's directorial debut finds Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in a city under attack after Iraj (Bobby Naderi), the family patriarch, is drafted to the front.
Dorsa becomes convinced the two are being haunted by a djinn, while Shideh has plenty of more tangible anxieties when an unexploded missile lodges itself in the roof of the family's apartment building. Anvari builds a claustrophobic nightmare out of inventively spooky visuals, but his film's scariest moment is all about the mundane. When a terrified Shideh runs out into the street with Dorsa, fleeing something dark in the night, she's arrested by the morality police for being improperly dressed. It's the kind of restriction final girls of the past never had to worry about. —A.W.
Where to see it: Under the Shadow is available for rent online, and will be out on DVD on Jan. 10.
Cuban drag performers take center stage in this touching father-son story that finds a quiet honesty in artists who live out loud. Héctor Medina plays Jesus, a young hairdresser who is honing his lip-synching skills when his father, former boxing star Angel (Jorge Perugorria), is released from prison and instantly forbids him from entering the drag club where Jesus performs.
While that lack of understanding certainly reinforces their fractured relationship, their differences never actually divide them. Jesus continues to provide for his father, a drunk incapable of getting a job, through extreme means.
Viva does take an unnecessarily saccharine turn in its final act, but it’s already more than earned the right to intentionally pull on the heartstrings by that point. This Spanish-language Irish drama was shortlisted for Best Foreign Film at the 88th Academy Awards — and it's worth finding out why. —J.W.
Where to see it: Viva is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for rent and purchase online.