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The Dissenter’s Top Films Of 2016

Editor's Note

Like many others, I enjoy the annual ritual of making a list of my top films from the past year. I selected films which made me feel something extraordinary and left an impression on me. I also selected films I thought pushed boundaries.

I have been doing this since I started publishing “The Dissenter” column in 2011. As with previous lists, the films are not ranked in any order. It is not “The Dissenter’s Top Films” because I picked ten films that are not on anybody else’s year-end list. Some on the list are probably on several year-end lists.

If I introduce a few readers to one great movie they never heard of or remind them of a film they did not get to see from this year, then this list was worth putting together. —Kevin Gosztola

The 13th

Director Ava DuVernay lays bare the structural racism of the carceral state in America that is built upon a legacy of slavery. The film centers on the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. That exception has been seized upon by the country for well over a century to keep black people from achieving equality, justice, and full emancipation.

The film offers a brief overview of recent presidents and how their administrations created, fueled, or reinforced policies of mass incarceration. It highlights the pressure against imprisonment while demonstrating the many ways in which private companies aim to profit off a caste of citizens. Incorporating leading voices, like Michelle Alexander, no film was as relevant and important in 2016 as this film.

The Arrival

This exceptional, cerebral science fiction film works on multiple levels. It has an element similar to the classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), in that the aliens appear to challenge the human species to reconsider its militaristic ways. Separately, it is a captivating mystery, with a linguistic professor (Amy Adams) brought into military operations and tasked with figuring out why the aliens are here on Earth.

Director Denis Villeneuve creates a kind of anti-“Independence Day,” proof things do not need to blow up constantly for two hours to keep an audience engaged. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer crafts a script that is essentially a puzzle viewers are invited to solve. Whether they do or not, it is almost guaranteed those who see the film will want to watch it one more time to see if they can pick up on details missed.

Captain Fantastic

I experienced periodic moments during the final months of the presidential election, where I felt disconnected from everyone. It was  like I was outside a cave, and all I wanted was for people to stop watching the images projected on the wall and come out and join me. That is probably why I found this film about a father (Viggo Mortensen) building a utopian existence removed from American society so cathartic.

On top of that, the writers conjure an infuriating dilemma and raise the stakes to nearly impossible heights. They use the family to turn a mirror on civilization and give viewers the joy and excitement of watching characters figure out how to maintain their lives without sacrificing their learned political values.

Don’t Think Twice

“Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.” Director Mike Birbiglia says that is a thought that came to his mind when he was writing this film about an improv troupe that faces the closure of the theater, where they have performed countless times. They face life and the choice of holding on to aspirations or putting those aspirations on hold forever to focus on making ends meet.

The film relies on a concept developed by Del Close called “truth in comedy” to communicate the honest reflections of characters and show the fallout of success on the ensemble. There is a liberating aspect to the story in that sense that it shows creative exploration and struggle can be just as, if not more, rewarding than making it big as a star on a popular show like “Saturday Night Live.”

Hell Or High Water

Director David Mackenzie’s film is a heist story that incorporates some conventions of western movies while at the same time saying something quite profound about the scourge of capitalism. As Toby (Chris Pine) says, “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” So, he sets out with his brother (Ben Foster) to rob from the very bank that is threatening to foreclose on his property all so he can ensure his children will not be poor all their lives.

The brothers may be involved in a crime spree, and yet there is a sense throughout the film that the bank is the purveyor of far worse violence against communities. It is also set in Texas, and I believe this is one of the first films to truly show what can happen when just about every person has a permit for a concealed weapon. Plus, it has some great gallows humor.

Manchester By the Sea

Part of me thought I would find the magnitude of praise from critics undeserving, but I quickly realized I was wrong to prejudge this film. It has one of the best scripts of any film this year. It worked me in every way that it could, making me feel sad, reminding me of what it is like to grieve, while at the same time milking those moments of bittersweet joy in the aftermath of a family member’s death, as you figure out how to continue on with life.

While it revolves around a tragedy, I laughed quite a bit. I even wondered if I was supposed to laugh hard at times. However, if you’ve recently experienced intense grief, perhaps, you are hyper-sensitive to all the little details and can see humor amidst the gloom and sorrow of this fantastic film.


The film’s cinematography and multi-faceted story are transformative. It infuses a kind of poetry into the raw experience of growing up black in America. It deals with the culture of masculinity, the idea that black men cannot show their feelings as they experience pain or suffering. It involves the stigma of being a gay as a young black man. And the story highlights what it is like to learn to love others and respect yourself, particularly when society regards you as disposable.

The structure is a simple triptych that shows us three chapters in the life of a character, but the simplicity seems to bolster the performances of the cast. Through this film, director Barry Jenkins artfully makes the political personal and shows with this machine of empathy that black lives really do matter.


National Bird

Sonia Kennebeck’s powerful documentary gives voice to people on both sides of a Hellfire missile. It highlights officers from the drone program, who the United States government will not hesitate to silence if possible. It also challenges the way in which the drone program normalizes and makes war permanent.

The film moves viewers to consider whether it is right to punish officers involved, who cannot bear the sins they committed and dare to speak out so they may heal themselves. This power to kill is a power President Donald Trump inherits, and he will have not only this regime but a regime for crushing anyone who sounds the alarm and questions the morality of government policy as well.

Pervert Park

Swedish filmmakers Frida Barkfors and Lasse Barkfors profiled multiple people in a trailer park in Florida setup to help sex offenders return to society after prison. It unflinchingly challenges the dominant view of rehabilitation and whether these people should be defined by their crime for the rest of their lives.

Each of the people profiled committed horrible acts. They admit this on camera, but they are also damaged people. They want help, however, they feel stigmas and fear talking about what has happened to them. That sets a cycle in motion that may go on for generations. If it makes viewers uncomfortable, it should. No one wants anyone to be able to rape or assault a child again, but no one should want to push carceral policies that compound the depravity either.

White Girl

First-time director Elizabeth Wood developed this film about a white college girl (Morgan Saylor) in New York City, who strays into the world of drug dealing and hooks up with a drug dealer. It is inspired by some of Wood’s own experiences, and while reviews mostly focused on the sex scenes, it is much more than a party movie. Wood injects social commentary into the story by highlighting the difficulty people of color have obtaining and affording a lawyer, who will represent them, after the drug dealer she falls for is entrapped and jailed. She creates raw scenes that amplify the viewers’ sense of the girl’s naivete and the lack of understanding of her privilege in the world. Saylor also puts so much into the film that it truly is a remarkable career-defining performance.

Honorable Mention:

Imperium • Miss Sharon Jones! • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story • Snowden

Films I Wish I Had Seen Before the Year Ended:

Fences • Hidden Figures

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."