Sure, I remember whole movies. But when I think back over a year's worth, certain scenes – moments – stand out more than entire films. Here are 10 from 2016 that I now carry with me.
20th Century Women: Dorothea (Annette Bening), a single mother in 1979 Santa Barbara, Calif., invites people to dinner: her boarders William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig); her son's crush (Elle Fanning); assorted strangers. On this night, Abbie announces that she has period cramps. The table falls silent. Abbie challenges them: Why be offended? It's just menstruation. "Say the word," she urges. "Menstruation." I don't know how writer/director Mike Mills did it, but this scene is riveting. Like the movie itself (it opens in January), it's both lived-in and fresh. I predict drama schools will add it to their syllabuses, and rooms full of students will chant: "Menstruation."
American Honey: Star (Sasha Lane) recently joined a ragtag crew of teenagers who travel middle-America by minibus, peddling magazine subscriptions under the gimlet eye of Krystal (Riley Keough). The bus passes Kansas City, Mo. The kids – hard-partying, undereducated – cluster by the windows. "I've never seen so many tall buildings in one place before," one says. This movie about boredom is anything but boring, because it stays alive to its characters (mostly played by amateur actors), kids who don't even know what to yearn for, other than Something Else. Watching it is the closest I've come to understanding how Donald Trump happened.
A Bigger Splash: Rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is resting her voice on a gorgeous Italian island with her gorgeous boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) when trouble arrives: Harry (Ralph Fiennes), her former manager and lover, and his minxy daughter (Dakota Johnson). During a drunken night, Harry puts on the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue, and gets down. What Fiennes does with his body here is a lot. In fact, it's everything. Those finger snaps, hip twirls and head jerks contain everything good and bad in Harry: charm and fun, insecurity and desperation, pain and anger. He doesn't just disrupt – he detonates.
La La Land: Spoiler alert: In a swoony montage, we see what might have been, if Mia and Sebastian (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) hadn't had to choose between love and ambition. This candy-coloured confection of a film is adorable, but this sequence makes it moving. It reminds us that the greatest romances (Casablanca, The Way We Were) are the unfinished ones, and that bittersweet tastes more satisfying than saccharine.
Loving: In 1960s Virginia, Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) gets a phone call. Her attorney, who has argued her case before the U.S. Supreme Court, tells her she won: Her biracial marriage is now legal across America. She thanks him and hangs up. I love this scene as much for what it's not as for what it is. There's no big courtroom speech. Quiet characters don't suddenly take verbal flight. Its power is its simplicity. The Lovings' life was its own example. Go see it.
Maggie's Plan: Academic colleagues Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and John (Ethan Hawke) chat in her apartment. She tells him about her mother. Somehow we know she's told this story before. But suddenly, to her surprise, she's crying. John's face caves in: He's in love with this woman. Though it's been months since I've seen it, I can still feel how the temperature changes in this scene. There's only one thing better than watching two people fall in love, and that's seeing why they fall. Their vulnerability is sexier than any sex scene, because they're emotionally naked.
Manchester by the Sea: Former spouses Lee (Casey Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams) meet on the street. The weather is raw; their emotions are rawer – it's like the air hurts their skin. A tragedy has split them apart. She wants to forgive him. He won't let her. He doesn't want to be forgiven. This is a prime example of why sometimes, one scene is enough. The story not only hinges on it, the whole movie is distilled in it. I'm convinced that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan hired Williams just to play this one scene, and that getting to play it is the reason she agreed.
Toni Erdmann: Ines (Sandra Huller), a driven businesswoman, has been hounded by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) – he thinks she's lonely and needs to loosen up, but his efforts exasperate her. He lures her into an intimate family party, people who are strangers to her, and traps her into performing a song to thank them. Tentatively, she launches into The Greatest Love of All. But with each note, her fury and conviction grow, until she's belting to beat Whitney Houston. This is one of those scenes where a movie that (to me) has been lagging unexpectedly lifts off. You realize, "Oh, this is where they've been heading." Everything clicks into a new position – before this scene, and after. Plus, Huller really goes for it.
The Witch: In the unforgiving woods of 17th-century New England, a family banished by Puritan society struggles to survive. But their sense of being cursed feels very real. So does the presence of the supernatural. When fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) insist that their goat, Black Philip, speaks to them, we're 100-per-cent sure he's the Devil. This movie is a beautiful art object. The costumes, performances and dialogue are all of a piece, and they spin such a miasma of dread that recalling it now, I'm dazzled, but I'm also mentally putting my fingers in my ears and repeating "NA NA NA" to make it go away.
Paterson: Paterson (Adam Driver) kisses his wife goodbye and goes to work, driving a city bus in Paterson, N.J. As he drives, we hear the words he's thinking, about a box of matches. These words appear on-screen, and we understand he's composing a poem. "We have plenty of matches in our house," he begins. The words stop when he's interrupted, and begin again when they can: "Here is the most beautiful match in the world…so sober and furious and stubbornly ready to burst into flame." This is my favourite film of 2016 – that's why it's out of alphabetical order. (It arrives in Toronto in February.) It's as close to a poem as a movie can be. It does what all brilliant art does, but so modestly and gently: It urges us to witness and remember the ineffable beauty of ordinary life. It creates a feeling I wish I could live in. My New Year's resolution is to try.