It's been clear for some time that the major Hollywood studios have basically gotten out of the high-quality serious film business, but this year offers the most conclusive evidence yet: Of the 19 films I consider the year's best, just one, Silence, enjoyed the backing of a big studio, and only then because “Marty” had paid enough commercial dues to finally make a dream project dating back 26 years. Yet even then, 20 — count 'em, 20 — producers and executive producers were needed to cobble together the financing.
The result of this paucity of Hollywood prestige projects is an open field for independents, foreign directors, documentarians and otherwise little-known filmmakers to grab the spotlight in a way unimaginable just a few years back. Put another way, if, a year ago, a crystal ball had revealed that front-runners for top awards in 2016 would include names like Barry Jenkins, Raoul Peck, Ezra Edelman and Maren Ade, most locals would have reacted with blank stares.
On the flip side, if anyone had told you ten months ago that Nate Parker and his The Birth of a Nation would be in contention for precisely no awards, you'd have called them crazy. In my three decades of attending the Sundance Film Festival, I had never witnessed a reception for any film as rapturous as the one accorded this one, which scored a zeitgeist bull's-eye and looked poised to march all the way to the Dolby Theater on February 26. Well, we all know what happened there, as Birth became a non-film no one wants to talk or even think about.
Of my 19 picks, all but one (the late-arriving Silence) debuted on the festival circuit (six in Cannes, four at Sundance), four are documentaries, four were directed by women and only one (La La Land) was actually shot in Hollywood. The two best films I saw at festivals this year that have yet to be released domestically were Cristian Mungiu's Graduation (Bacalaureat), due out early next year, and my Sundance 2016 favorite, German director Nicolette Krebitz's Wild, which seemingly remains without a U.S. distributor.