A film written and directed by a black man (Barry Jenkins), adapted from a play by a black man (Tarrell Alvin McCraney of Steppenwolf Theatre), and focused on three stages in the life of a gay black man (Alex Hibbert in childhood, Ashton Sanders in adolescence, and Trevante Rhodes in adulthood) qualifies as exceptional for those reasons alone. Factor in Jenkins's visual poetry—the color blue is almost a character—and the experience becomes transcendent. A haunting piece of high art, this drama moves beyond narrative, loosely connecting key events and leaving broad swaths of the protagonist's journey to the imagination. Cinematographer James Laxton (Youth
) renders Miami a wonderland of magic and danger, and the nuanced performances of the leads—plus André Holland (Cinemax's The Knick
) as the hero's complicated love interest and Naomie Harris as his drug-addicted mother—provide the honest emotion needed to ground the operatic material. With Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe.