Paul Verhoeven's 'Elle' takes risks that American films won't

Isabelle Huppert stars in Elle.

It's been a bleak year for a lot of things, and particularly for cinema. This is the year when moviegoers paid for our refusal to deal with past traumas in tears, and I for one am glad for it. These are my favorite motion pictures of 2016.

5. Elle

From director Paul Verhoeven (the man who brought us Robocop and Total Recall) comes this bizarre, genre-defying film about a wealthy woman in France (Isabelle Huppert) who suffers a brutal rape in her home while her cat watches. This was supposed to be an American production, but all of our best actresses declined the role. And why? Because the heroine doesn't react to rape the way polite, empowered American women are supposed to. I'm including this picture because it's sexy and entertaining, but mostly as a plaintive call: More gutsy films in 2017, please!

4. Moonlight

Moonlight follows the evolution of a young man growing up in the Miami projects and the people he meets along the way who help to shape his identity. Three different actors depict the hero in three distinct acts that play like linked short stories. Moonlight makes my list because I can still taste the way each movement makes me feel: Exhilarated, sure—but more than that, profoundly melancholic and lonely.

3. The Witch

Remember way back in February when I lost my mind over this brilliant film about a puritan family that absconds to the woods in an effort to serve its master more faithfully, only to fall apart and turn on each other? Not just the most inventive and frightening horror film of the year, The Witch delves into religion and the supernatural in authentic and thought-provoking ways.

2. The Arrival

In this stark and haunting masterpiece, aliens strangely hover in 12 mysterious pods all around the world, and the people of Earth are pretty shaken up about it. One of the pods touches down in Montana (what!), and so the U.S. government sends a team of scientists to try to communicate with the beings inside. The Arrival delivers the usual alien encounter tropes—the bellicose leaders assume malevolent intentions, while the scientists are all, "They've only come to teach us"but nestled inside that predictable framework is a human story, equal parts intelligent, moving and unpredictable. This is science fiction at its best, and quite possibly the only love story of 2016 I managed to fall for.

1. Manchester by the Sea

In a year defined by chaos and heartbreak, nothing hit harder than Kenneth Lonergan's crushing story about a man coming to grips (or not) with a series of ordinary family tragedies. If this doesn't win an award for best original screenplay, then I don't know what awards are for. It's not easy to capture the messy and convoluted nature of lives this complicated, but Manchester by the Sea manages to make every one of its plot lines and characters feel tragic, funny and painfully real.

My other favorite films of the year are:

6. Hell or High Water

7. Nocturnal Animals (currently playing at the Roxy)

8. Don't Breathe

9. Certain Women

10. The Lobster

As for my least favorite filmgoing experiences of 2016, I had the worst time at these two, both of which received mostly positive reviews from other critics: The Man Who Knew Infinity, an uninspiring biopic featuring a boring mathematician, and The Lady in the Van, about an old British woman living in a pompous writer's driveway.

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