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Mahershala Ali and Jaden Piner in Moonlight (2016).

David Bornfriend

In a year bookended by two much-hyped additions to the Star Wars canon, it was the small, independently minded one-offs that will be remembered. In the world of film, 2016 seemed filled with such contradictions, paradoxes and impossibilities; it was the kind of year in which the only comedy of note was almost three hours long – and German!

In truth, the studios' great tent poles don't hold up that much canvas these days, and 2016 was not a good year for the literary classics, the sequels or the revivals on which Hollywood now places so much of its artistic and commercial faith. Following on 2010's hallucinogenic Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton stepped back into a producing role on a remake of Alice Through the Looking Glass and the results were confusing and ill-conceived.

Meanwhile, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a cash-grabbing attempt to expand the Harry Potter franchise beyond its original characters, was poorly reviewed, and the remakes of Ben-Hur and Tarzan were laughable. And, at the literary end of the spectrum, neither Ewan McGregor in American Pastoral nor James Schamus directing Indignation managed to figure out what it is that makes Philip Roth a great writer. Only Disney's The Jungle Book provided any evidence that CGI can actually remake classic movies for the better.

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On a fraction of the budgets with no special effects, it was the independent filmmakers who reminded viewers that what animates the movies is not a parade of breathtaking technology or talking animals but rather the human heart. In that regard, American cinema had a particularly fine year. With odd lights of humour streaked through a heartbreaking tale, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea eschewed all the obvious sentimentality as it followed a traumatized Boston janitor returning to his hometown to look after an orphaned – and randy – teenage nephew. Jim Jarmusch's Paterson featured a bus-driving New Jersey poet in a quietly quirky reflection on the quotidian and the sublime. And, in a tender yet continually surprising coming-of-age story set in the drug-infested Miami of the 1980s, Barry Jenkins's Moonlight examined the construction of the African-American male with intelligence and heart.

There were numerous admirable African-American films and performances in 2016 – the screen version of the August Wilson drama Fences; the human-rights story Loving; even The Birth of a Nation, the Nate Parker slave-rebellion movie that got so bogged down in contemporary scandal – but it is the excellent Moonlight that should guarantee there will be no #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2017.

Female protagonists were also much more visible this year, from the bedroom to the boardroom, but the movies still struggle mightily to get comfortable with strong women. Why oh why, in an era when women's voices are now much lower, was Natalie Portman encouraged to mimic Jackie Kennedy's painfully dated fluttering tones? And who would want to ever meet the ball-breaking ladies who inhabited Equity and Miss Sloane? Or, a more difficult question, who would ever behave like the unusual protagonist of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, the controversial French film in which Isabelle Huppert starred as a woman playing a cat-and-mouse game with her rapist?

Still, some women proved mighty inspiring. My favourite films of the year included Park Chan-wook's overstuffed melodrama The Handmaiden, an erotic tale of lesbian revenge set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. There's also a treat to come when Mike Mills's 20th Century Women gets wider release in January; Annette Bening offers a penetrating performance as a not-entirely sympathetic middle-aged mother confusedly parenting her teenage son.

And Asghar Farhadi followed his hit film A Separation with another fascinating look at Iranian marriage; in The Salesman, an actress has to re-examine her relationship with her husband after a stranger attacks her in their new apartment.

All three of those films were directed by men: if female characters often drove the action in 2016, female directors still make up a shamefully small minority. One powerful exception emerged at Cannes last May, when the German director Maren Ade treated audiences to her comedy Toni Erdmann. It's a two-hour-and-42-minute extravaganza of family dysfunction in which the audience lives out a young businesswoman's embarrassment minute by excruciating minute as her prank-playing father disrupts her life and her career.

The Canadian director Xavier Dolan also made a splash at Cannes in 2016. Always a polarizing figure, he divided critics with It's Only the End of the World, a French family drama worthy of Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams, yet went on to win the festival's second prize, the Grand Prix. Adapted from a French play, the film suffers from the kind of claustrophobia often created when theatre transfers to film, but it is also filled with outstanding performances of searing pain from an all-French cast playing one very unhappy family.

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Dolan was the one Canadian auteur on the horizon this year; otherwise, the domestic industry sidestepped the paradoxes of 2016 to remind viewers of an enduring home truth: Canadians make great documentaries. Nettie Wild's Koneline: Our Land Beautiful matched startling images of Northern British Columbia with an admirably open-minded account of the dilemmas posed by gold mining in the area. Tiffany Hsiung's The Apology revealed the inspiring resilience of Korea and Indonesia's so-called comfort women still seeking compensation from Japan decades after their wartime sexual enslavement. And Hugh Gibson's The Stairs, about recovering addicts in Toronto's Regent Park, proved the hard-hitting Canadian doc tradition has been successfully passed on to a new generation.

Have I missed anything? Of course, I have: About 500 movies opened commercially in Toronto in 2016. David Mackenzie's dark contemporary western Hell or High Water, Damien Chazelle's crowd-pleasing revival of the movie musical La La Land or Denis Villeneuve's rethink of the sci-fi genre, Arrival? All of them are titles I am hoping to squeeze in over the holidays.

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