After spending 300 hours watching movies this year and whittling everything down to a list of the best, patterns are bound to emerge. 

As 2017 looms like a vast unknown, what unites many of my picks are the themes of isolation and identity. Characters struggle to be seen or find their voice. Sometimes, that isolation curdles into something horrific. Elsewhere, it takes an outside force to show the way.

Every now and then, we can step out of our own personal bubbles and share something moving with an audience of strangers. Always, and even more so in uncertain times, art saves. 

Here are my shining cinematic moments of 2016. Enjoy.


1. La La Land  

A movie that made my soul leap and had me smiling from its audacious opening, La La Land is a musical that flirts with nostalgia, but never fully succumbs. With power couple Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, director Damien Chazelle presents a love story about being true in a town built on fantasy. This is a romance in a minor key that leaves you whistling a happy tune — nice trick, that. 


2. Moonlight

"What's a faggot?" 

It's an uncomfortable question coming from a kid and one that falls like an anvil onto the dinner table. It's up to Juan, a sensitive and street-wise hustler, to explain to young Chiron in Moonlight. A story told with three different actors portraying a young black boy at different ages, the film explore his search for a place within a culture built on bravado. It's ambitious, poetic and with the ending of the year. 


3. Arrival

Actress Amy Adams and director Denis Villeneuve are the double threat at the heart of this year's enigmatic alien encounter. More Memento than E.T., Arrival is a film to savour, puzzle over and dissect. Credit goes to Montrealer Villeneuve for having the courage to leave spaces in the story for the audience to explore.


4. Anatomy of Violence

Deepa Mehta's Anatomy of Violence uses improvised and workshopped performances to peel back the layers of neglect that led to the 2012 gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi. It's not so much an explicit recreation, but rather an actor's dramatization of events that turned forgotten men into monsters. Brave, bold work on both sides of the camera. 


5. Sing Street

I saw Sing Street twice; maybe three times. It's hard to be sure, after the Glasner family put the movie soundtrack on heavy rotation. Like a Mini-Pops versions of The Commitments, Sing Street employs '80s pop as a lifesaver for an awkward Dublin kid swooning hard for a pretty gal and dealing with conflict at home. There's a John Hughesian earnestness to Cosmo's quest that sticks in your head long after he croons his last song. 


6. Cameraperson

A late contender, but what an atomic bomb of art from cinematographer and documentary-maker Kristen Johnson. Drawing from her 25 year-long career, Johnson juxtaposes seemingly unconnected moments with wit and an eye for empathy. Cameraperson isn't random; like a Jackson Pollack painting, pull back and you see the bigger picture of this life, told one splice at a time.


7. Manchester by the Sea

If Moonlight is a movie about an ending, Manchester by the Sea is all about That Scene. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams play exes who meet on the street. Small talk is made. A voice cracks and time stops. This is a film about an unbearable burden and also the performance Affleck has been building to his entire career. 


8. Midnight Special

Director Jeff Nichols released two wildly different films this year: Loving, a slow-paced story about a real-life interracial Virginia couple, and Midnight Special, a movie about fast cars, cults and a boy with glowing eyes. The latter is a lean, mean, storytelling machine at its heart about a father learning to let go. 


9. Deadpool

It may be a Golden Age for geeks when it comes to super heroes, but the spandex crowd has been begging for a kick in the butt — and the Merc with the Mouth was just the guy to give it to them. It's a bit sad that Ryan Reynolds's best role in a decade involved putting on a mask, but his take-no-prisoners playfulness made Deadpool rule. 


10. Demolition

Jean-Marc Vallée, another great Montreal director, quietly released this gem of a film in the spring. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition is a tale of grief that crackles with charisma. Like Fight Club, Demolition is story about re-evaluating everything, but Tyler Durden never swaggered like this.