We can say this: 2016 was memorable. Aside from a history-making improbability delivered by the Chicago National League ball club in the fall, though, I’m confident most folks are going to look back at the those twelve months of broader global culture — popular, political, and social — with a measure of contempt. The only way 2016 doesn’t stand as a banner year for misery, is if 2017 is even worse. So far, it’s on track.

A year so thoroughly scorched by overwhelmingly miserable news can make the very act of retrospective celebration feel hollow and pointless. And yet here we are.

As usual, a conspiracy of geography and questionable time management has caused me to wait until the day after the announcement of the Oscar nominations to begin the process of counting down my personal picks for the best films of the preceding year. In similarly typical fashion, I begin this process with pangs of anguish of all the widely celebrated films that I haven’t managed to see as I carve my list into digital stone. And yet, I note once again, here we are.

I’m generally disinclined to pronounce trends in a year of filmmaking, sticking with the belief that any pattern seen within a cacophony of disparate artistic voices is more apt to be a projection of the observer than any genuine mystical groupthink. It seemed to me that there were fewer critics than usual excited to leap forward with their theories on the film’s years supposed thesis. I do wonder if everyone’s largely holding fire for now, girding themselves for the welling anxiety of anger sure to seep into the films of the next few years. For the foreseeable future, this may be the last time we’re allowed to think of the movies as a welcome diversion, as just movies. What different levels of import and menace does Captain America: Civil War have with a copyright date of 2017 or 2018?

The ten films that I’ll write about across the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards offer no collective statement. They are unified only by their quality and the pleasure they provided me, even when — maybe especially when — they left me challenged, rattled, spent.

And as this year’s Sundance Film Festival winds down, the countdown fittingly gets underway tomorrow with a title that made its debut during an earlier edition of that wintry cineastes’ paradise.

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