10 exceptional movies coming in 2016

<i>The Witch</i>

The Witch

A new year is upon us, and with it the promise of yet more movies. As stuffy prestige pictures expand into wide release and the studios dump their least promising fare into multiplexes, fret not as you look toward the next 12 months of moviegoing: As always, a bevy of exceptional films awaits if you know where to find them.

1) Cemetery of Splendour

Apichatpong Weerasethakul rightfully won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his last feature, the dreamy Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The Thai auteur (affectionately known as Joe) makes his return with another intermingling of our world and that of the spirits, this one centered around a widespread ailment whose primary symptom is seemingly benign: sleep. The same is unlikely to befall anyone watching Cemetery of Splendour — though tranquil, Weerasethakul's work is so alluringly strange that it's more likely to cause you to sit in rapt attention.

2) Certain Women

Michelle Williams collaborates with writer/director Kelly Reichardt in the cerebral filmmaker's latest, which debuts at Sundance in a few short weeks. Little has been revealed about the plot other than a logline describing the intersection of three lives in middle America, but Reichardt and Williams have yet to lead us astray: Wendy and Lucy and especially Meek's Cutoff are both excellent. Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart are also in the cast. Certain women indeed.

3) Chevalier

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour

Along with fellow countryman Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari has helped put contemporary Greek cinema on the map. In her droll follow-up to Attenberg, six men on a fishing trip turn their attention away from catching the big one and toward a misbegotten competition to crown "the best in general." They evaluate one another's every action, from IKEA furniture-building ability to seafood recipes to (what else?) penis size, many of them crumbling under a level of scrutiny that this new addition to the Greek Weird Wave withstands like a champ.

4) Disorder

Home invasions and war-induced PTSD have rarely been melded into as tense and breathless a film as Disorder, Alice Winocour's thriller set on a luxe estate in France. Winocour (who also co-wrote Mustang) directs Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger with a mix of cold precision and understated tenderness that's rare in this genre or any other. Here's a near-guarantee: The first thing you'll do after watching it is listen to Gesaffelstein's mesmeric electronic score, which hums ominously throughout and adds layers of meaning to an unexpected, altogether perfect final shot.

5) Embrace of the Serpent

Strange things tend to happen when explorers make their way down uncharted rivers, and so it is in Ciro Guerra's hallucinatory dramatization of two expeditions into the Amazon. The natives are justifiably skeptical of their European guests — this remote area is said to produce yakruna, a mythical plant with curative properties, calling the scientists' motives into question. As with most outsiders, they're quick to exploit this edenic land but slow to understand it.

6) Knight of Cups

Terrence Malick, whom you may recognize from such transcendent masterworks as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, has once again deigned to grace us mere mortals with his elusive directorial presence. The enigmatic filmmaker's latest concerns a disenchanted screenwriter (Christian Bale) navigating the Hollywood dreamscape and all its superficial vagaries. This being a Malick picture, awe-inducing imagery and philosophical voiceover are as much a certainty as polarized reactions. His movies certainly require you to give yourself over to them, but doing so is akin to cinematic enlightenment.

7) The Lobster

Speaking of Lanthimos, the Greek writer/director somehow landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film despite Dogtooth's ungodly disturbing content and pitch-black sense of humor. (Not that it wasn't well-deserved. If you haven't already seen that singularly original comedy, drop everything and watch it now.) His English-language debut delivers on its bizarre (even for Lanthimos) premise: Colin Farrell stars as a recently single man who, like all uncoupled folks, must report to a seaside hotel and fall in love within 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. It's every bit as dark and hilarious as that description makes it sound, but also subtly insightful about the nature of romance and coupledom.

8) Sunset Song

A new Terence Davies movie is always cause for celebration, doubly so when advance word is as enthusiastic as it is for Sunset Song. An adaptation of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, it tells of a Scottish farm girl coming of age on the eve of World War I. Davies, like Malick, has a deeply poetic sensibility. Whether in Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Deep Blue Sea, his arresting images glow, practically daring you to look away.

9) Tale of Tales

Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality), another European filmmaker shooting in English for the first time, delves into the fantastical with a crisscrossing exploration of three fairy tales lifted from Italian folklore. Though uneven, Tale of Tales is uniquely ambitious — everything from its unruly structure to its increasingly strange subject matter bears the mark of a director expressing himself as idiosyncratically as he knows how. In addition to the likes of Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly, the ensemble cast features a lovesick ogre, a dog-sized flea, and an imposing, oddly majestic sea serpent as porcelain-white as another famous leviathan.

10) The Witch

If we're lucky, we tend to be blessed with one or two genuinely stirring horror movies a year. The Witch (subtitle: A New England Fable) is unlikely to be bested in 2016. Set at the edge of the woods, where a family of god-fearing Puritans has been banished by their former village elders, this 17th-century chiller understands that less is more when it comes to showing its eponymous conjurer. Witches may be spooky in their supernatural unknowability, but they've got nothing on the kind of small-minded ignorance and fear that still persists centuries later.