Friday, January 6, 2017

My Favorite Films of 2016

Before starting, here are the guidelines for enjoying, which carry over from my 2014 and 2015 lists: when applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and in such cases I've pulled excerpts from the published reviews and marked them with quotations. I'm not philosophically attached to the one-week NYC theatrical release rulebook of year-end list-making, per se, but that's the model I've already used in submitting other ballots at the end of 2016, so I've retained it. Had I not stuck with it, I might have included Season 8 of "On Cinema at the Cinema," which in no traditional sense qualifies as cinema but in its totality was the most endlessly giving viewing experience I had this year. Also of note: I've brought back my "Recommended Reading" supplement from last year so as to shed light on some of the best criticism currently being written. In the many cases where I didn't write about these films prior to now, these pieces are especially useful in helping to clarify how I felt about them (though I don't mean to suggest that I necessarily share all the expressed opinions and analyses). You'll see the same publications popping up again and again, but I did make an effort to share the wealth between critics and not over-represent certain writers.

Without further ado, here are my Top 20 of 2016.

20. Love and Friendship (Stillman, US)

In tackling one of Jane Austen's less celebrated novellas, Whit Stillman has once again assembled an ensemble of actors who harmonize fully with his peculiar tonality: old staple Kate Beckinsale (whose performance I briefly celebrated in Slant's end-of-the-year feature), but also terrific newcomers to the Stillman universe like Stephen Fry, Morfydd Clark, and Tom Bennett (who stops the show several times with his grinning moron act). The result is a thoroughly individuated and breathing adaptation, a film that finds a natural marriage of Stillman's never-miss-a-beat verbosity and the knotty discourse of high society one-upmanship.
Recommended Reading: Duncan Gray at MUBI Notebook.

19. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan, US)

It's possible and even likely on first viewing to miss how delicately Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea futzes with its timeline, jostling as it does between protagonist Lee Chandler's (Casey Affleck) past and present—each set in coastal suburbs of greater Boston—without supplying helpful cinematic cues. This is as it should be, given that trauma doesn't situate itself in the mind with sepia tones and a Max Richter symphony applied. Without ever lapsing into histrionics, Lonergan's latest maps out the architecture of grieving by vacillating between mundanity and hardship with an erratic, halting, organic rhythm that borders on the arbitrary. Bonus points for the precise representation of the region's cultural artifacts (like Ipswich and Wachusett Ales, Newbury Comics stickers and Market Basket shopping bags), which is a real tonic after Spotlight. With that said, liquor stores aren't open at 3AM, but I'll let that slide.
Recommended Reading: Michael Koresky in Film Comment (November/December print issue)

18. The Illinois Parables (Stratman, US)

"If it all seems unwieldy, that’s partly the point. The Illinois Parables reflects history’s chaos as well as its repetitions, sneakily exploring how periods of strife and uncertainty often get forcibly resolved by assertions of order from those in power, whether in Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act or the Chicago police department’s cover-up of a dissident minority. That dates and specifics are cropped from the various newspaper headlines only further implies the cyclicality of these events. Illinois may not seem a sensational state, but in Stratman’s telling it’s essentially a microcosm of America."
Recommended Reading: Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot.

17. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany)

Containing a handful of absolutely slam-dunk scenes and the silliest props of the year, the three-hour family comedy Toni Erdmann is a jolly good time at the movies. Unfortunately, it has gradually evaporated from my mind a bit since leaving the theater a few months ago, which is never promising, but I'd be remiss to not honor my ecstatic immediate experience with it. As corporate-climbing daughter and clownish father, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek are deeply in tune with one another, fiercely committed to director Maren Ade's free-flowing, unorthodox scene construction, and brilliant in fleshing out their respective character quirks (so good, in fact, that they disguise the fact that precious few supporting players have comparable dimensionality). I wish Ade took more care in composing her images (the film defaults too often to a handheld, medium-distance anonymity), but her sensitivity to the nuances of the father-daughter relationship, and her refusal to decry or celebrate either character's behavior, shines through.
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Letterboxd.

16. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Having now straddled cinema and installation work for more than a decade, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has developed a particular adeptness at concentrating his aesthetic and thematic ideas into contained set pieces, and Cemetery of Splendor foregrounds one of his most memorable: a homely rural clinic neatly lined with glowing orb sticks that fluctuate neon hues in sync with the REM patterns of the snoozing Thai war veterans situated beneath them. The film's becalming rhythm, too, seems rigged to these mysterious instruments, with Weerasethakul adopting a tempo that qualifies as molasses-like even by his standards. With the exception of these brazenly surrealist props, however, Cemetery of Splendor is largely free of the fanciful gestures—be they genre-based or formal in nature—of the director's past few films. Instead, with only a few brief forays into sublimated fantasy sequences that are barely recognizable as such, it exists in a crawling, numbing present-tense that reflect the clouded state of mind under Thailand's current militarized regime. If dreaming is the only luxury left to the victims of this repressive system, better leave it to the dreamers.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.

15. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, US)

Great journalism or great cinema? I lean toward the former, but if treating O.J.: Made in America as a marathon film is going to be a requisite for granting it the credit it's due, I'm happy to fall in line. Ezra Edelman's riveting investigative saga, divided into five hour-and-a-half installments and released as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, ransacks the multi-tiered complexities and implications of both the public and anecdotal records of O.J. Simpson's notorious murder case in the mid-nineties. As someone who was far too young at the time of this highly publicized media event to register anything that was going on, much of the story recounted by Edelman's film played for me with some degree of suspense (plaudits to the team of editors who sorted through impossible hours of footage and crafted something resembling narrative montage), but the greatest strength of the endeavor is the relentless, undaunted burrowing through the messy history of both Los Angeles-specific and broadly American race and identity politics.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Metrograph Edition.

14. The Treasure (Poromboiu, Romania)

Corneliu Poromboiu's work is an acquired taste, to say the least. But if you can meet him on his uber-deadpan wavelength, The Treasure is his most successful film to date. Dragging out the comically uneventful tale of a pair of penny-pinching Joe Schmoes who hire a metal detector specialist to locate some booty that may or may not be buried somewhere in a nothing plot of land, Poromboiu works in unflashy master shots containing starkly low-voltage mise-en-scène, the better to emphasize the awkward and lugubrious non-progress of his heroes' absurdist undertaking. Aimless doodling this is not, however, as Poromboiu gradually dials in, through the revelation of the nature of the titular treasure being unsuccessfully sought out, a clever subtext regarding the ineffectuality of the Romanian government and the disconnect between its citizens and their collective history. It all fizzles out on the most hilariously counterintuitive music cue of the year: Laibach's rousing and outlandish "Life is Life," which lyrically recontextualizes the preceding happenings with an appropriate smirk.
Recommended Reading: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club.

13. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France)

I hoped to revisit My Golden Days prior to publishing this list but wasn't able to squeeze it in. Had I done so, it might have placed even higher, seeing as it made a very strong impression on me when I first saw it at AFI Fest late last year. I recall that it evoked the high of first love without resorting to screenwriting clichés or trite visuals, that it riffed on the tangled nature of memory and formally reflected that concern in its editing in ways that brought to mind Alain Resnais, and that in its totality it imparted a real sense of the mass and heft of lived experience. It's also the most compelling and resonant use, among what I've seen, of Arnaud Desplechin's particular bag of aesthetic tricks, though I've embarrassingly never caught up with My Sex Life: Or How I Got Into an Argument, the 1996 drama of which this is a spiritual sequel.
Recommended Reading: Jordan Cronk at Sight and Sound.

12. Valley of Love (Nicloux, France)

From its very first image, an admittedly Arthouse 101 Steadicam glide trailing Isabelle Huppert to an as-yet-unknown desert destination while Charles Ives' spine-tingling "The Unanswered Question" floods the soundtrack, Valley of Love announces its pungent balancing act between cool distance and raw emotionality—one that, when nailed just right, typically yields some of my favorite cinema. Director Guillaume Nicloux's smartest decision is the casting of Huppert alongside Gérard Depardieu as grieving divorced parents summoned to Death Valley by the ghost of their departed son, and the act alone of watching them go through the gauntlet together summons up their accumulated screen histories alongside one another in ways that deepen their already superlative turns. The film's surreal premise only builds toward stranger and spookier territory, and ultimately a transcendent climax that just about knocked me out.
Recommended Reading: Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine.

11. Elle (Verhoeven, Germany/France)

A woman gets raped in her home, but instead of reporting her trauma to the police, she partakes in her own form of unorthodox vigilantism, which ultimately involves toying with the whom she happens to be attracted. This is the jist of Elle, a jet-black comedy and discomfiting morality tale that validates once again the perversion, daring and sophistication of Paul Verhoeven's vision, which has long displayed a fascination with the dubious means of rebellion taken by victims against their oppressors. (Black Book, Verhoeven's turbulent WWII masterpiece, is a striking cousin to Elle in its central theme and its half-wry, half-grave tone.) Equally crucial to the film is the slippery genius of star Isabelle Huppert, who turns in a performance that withstands any easy actorly tricks to inhabit the mind and body of a person who can't be adequately pigeonholed as either victim, debauchee, or Strong Female Lead.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope.

10. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, South Korea)

Slyly winking at the now-universal notion of Hong Sang-soo as the most repetitive filmmaker in the world (a party line obligatorily rehashed in nearly every article on the director), Right Now, Wrong Then goes ahead and plays pretty much the same hour-long movie twice, back-to-back, and it's as good a movie as any Hong has cooked up: a film director (Jae-yeong Jeong, squirm-inducingly funny) meets a girl (Min-hee Kim, a model of grace in fielding her co-star's buffoonery) in a town he's visiting for work and they strike up a series of conversations over a long afternoon of wandering and an even longer night of soju ingestion. In adopting this bold structure, the film becomes many things: a playful actor's exercise, a hilarious comedy of manners, a demonstration of the crucial distinctions in effect between subtly differing directorial choices, a self-reflexive examination of Hong's own art, and a uniquely microscopic study of one-on-one communication and the myriad possible ramifications of intonation and body language.
Recommended Reading: Roger Koza at Cinema Scope.

9. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi, Japan)

"Hamaguchi arranges most sequences around a handful of static, roomy medium shots that subtly suggest emotional dynamics through camera and actor positioning; several scenes around a dining table demonstrate how much the director is able to express, how much latent energy he brings to the surface, merely through who's in and out of the frame. In an excruciating trial scene brimming with the defense's implicit sexism, Hamaguchi develops his shot choices around the axis of Jun's head, keeping her central as the dehumanizing processes of the court play out in the distant background. The use of pillow shots and choices of placid interstitial music reveal Hamaguchi's kinship to Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but the film's formal DNA bears more traces of Eric Rohmer, who was similarly expert at orchestrating extensive dialogues with a minimum of overt directorial statement."
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Cinema Scope.

8. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, US)

"Balking at this rosy depiction of young ids cut loose will be tempting for some, but this is clearly a case of a filmmaker so in love with a milieu (Linklater's been angling to make the film for years, after all) that he's willing to see it only in its best light. Everybody Wants Some!! abounds with lucid details that register as sense memories of the era: a deadpan cutaway to a taxidermied fox on a bar wall, a sensual close-up of cannabis being siphoned onto rolling paper, or a match cut that segues from a baseball about to be struck by an axe to a pool ball moments before being hit by a cue. Linklater delights in emphasizing the period's gaudy exhibitionism and its mainstream intellectual and pop-cultural touchstones: he substitutes macho dudes into the typical girls-getting-ready-for-a-night-out montage; Carl Sagan and Jack Kerouac books adorn the frat living room; and Van Halen LPs and VHS recordings of Twilight Zone episodes fill bookshelves." I also praised Glen Powell's performance in Slant's end-of-the-year feature.
Recommended Reading: Richard Brody at The New Yorker.

7. Sunset Song (Davies, UK)

Dubbed Terrence Davies' "most conventional" effort and yet still unlike anything else being made today, Sunset Song tells the modest tale of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a Scottish lass raised by an iron-fisted patriarch in the lead-up to World War I, in concentrated chunks of time demarcated by the poignant ellipses that are Davies' stock-in-trade, each temporal gap cumulatively amounting to an affirmation of life's diurnal disappointments. It's profound, universal stuff distinguished by a supremely sure hand behind the camera, which here operates in grounded, painterly portraiture and a compositional sturdiness indebted to classical Hollywood melodrama with its unified treatment of bodies and space (because it's set against a comparable backdrop and I wrote about it this year, think The Quiet Man but in 70mm 'scope). That Deyn blossoms as a performer throughout her character's chronological trajectory adds a fascinating wrinkle; Davies is capturing the soul of a character and an actress.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Artforum.

6. Cosmos (Zulawski, Poland/France)

Andrzej Zulawski's swan song achieves something rare in the cinema, even by his idiosyncratic standards: it cultivates a sense of total anything-goes unpredictability for the viewer on its tonal and narrative terms, which, in theory, is a dead zone for artists because it can enable a certain indulgent aimlessness. In Zulawski's unusual case, Cosmos becomes a summation of his longstanding artistic practice and his view of the world as a bewildering thing with only illusory frameworks of order and meaning. The film's also one of the most energizing septuagenarian works I've ever seen, with a liberated use of style and language (something I touched on over at Slant in an appreciation of the film's funniest scene) and a truly mad sense of humor. Godspeed in the afterlife, Mr. Zulawski.
Recommended Reading: Ela Bittencourt at Brooklyn Magazine, and Glenn Kenny in the Blu-ray liner notes if you can get a hold of them.

5. Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan)

That Creepy comes so close to being a standard police procedural/boogeyman narrative makes its grace notes all the more striking. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses genre trappings as window dressing—basically, as a vehicle to get to the uncanny. It’s conceptually analogous to the way David Lynch's films operate, only Kurosawa prefers to downplay his transgressions, whether in his subtly unnerving staging—like how Teruyuki Kagawa’s expertly played psychopath is first introduced in the distant background of a wide shot, awkwardly placed in shadow behind a bush—or the nearly imperceptible deployment of special effects, be it speed-ramping or wind control. The film’s terrifying subtext—that the further we immerse ourselves in the routines, duties, and social rituals of urban life, the more we lose sight of morality—comes packaged in the form of a logic-obstructing nightmare, one in which, as in Fritz Lang’s cinema, we're made acutely aware of the system of one's downfall.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.

4. Certain Women (Reichardt, US)

Blurb written for Slant's end-of-the-year feature. Also rhapsodized in the same space on the film's most memorable scene.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot.

3. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France)

"With help from a bone-dry Louis Garrel voiceover narration, In the Shadow of Women unfolds with storybook simplicity in detailing a particular episode of marital dysfunction. But if its structure has a brutal, compressed logic, its individual chunks of time are dense with discomfort, with paths left unexplored and instincts left un-acted upon. (The total absence in the last twenty minutes of Merhar's character's mistress, for instance, is meant to sting in ways that complicate the ostensible uplift of the resolution.) Garrel is prodding at the distinction between lived experience and the recitation of stories about our own lives; indeed, that's the discrepancy behind the film's best laugh-out-loud punchline."
Recommended Reading: Jonathan Romney at Film Comment.

2. Silence (Scorsese, US)

I briefly considered letting this just rocket to the top of my list in a matter of one afternoon, but the other films in its company have stayed the course for much longer this year. Still, Silence is a scorching and troubling work of art from American cinema's pre-eminent maestro, and I suspect it will only grow on repeat viewings. My friend and fellow critic Jake Mulligan noted that the film is for the Mizoguchians among us, and while the influence is certainly felt in the provincial Japanese locations, with their swells of gloomy fog, and the many instances of casual cruelty in highly formalized milieus, it's fair to say Scorsese is synthesizing (without ever "quoting") a number of non-American directorial disciples not typically associated with his usually brash style—Dreyer, Rossellini, and Mizoguchi's contemporary Kurosawa among them. There's an enormous amount to say about this film, but for now, what's most remarkable on first viewing is how committed Scorsese is in denying any instruction on How to Feel or Who to Side With in the film's dialectical sparring of Buddhism and Christianity. Even and especially during moments of great strife and horror, the camera is stubbornly even-tempered, making us complicit in the agonized non-participation of Andrew Garfield's childlike would-be Messiah.
Recommended Reading: Bilge Ebiri at The Village Voice.

1. The Other Side (Minervini, US)

"As a piece of somber political filmmaking, The Other Side is, despite its exposure of such self-ruinously un-American acts as bigotry and disrespect for the presidential office, about as quintessentially American a text as one could hope for in today's divided union. It proposes that any effort to unite must begin with compassion and a willingness to dig for the human foundations of troubling ideology, even if those energies finally bang up against insurmountable moral resistance."
Recommended Reading: Cristina Álvarez López at Fandor.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Alchemist Cookbook, Allied, Cameraperson,Fire at Sea, Hail, Caesar!, Homo Sapiens, Indignation, Knight of Cups, Louder than Bombs, The Love Witch, Moonlight, Mountains May Depart, The Shallows, Short Stay, Sully

Blind Spots: Aquarius, The Fits, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, Kaili Blues, Kate Plays Christine, No Home Movie, Things to Come, The Thoughts That Once We Had

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