2016: Top 25 Countdown
By Floyd Rock
The Oscars have come and passed which closes out the awards recognition period of another year in film. I intended to have this up before the Academy Awards but was busy working on another writing project for the last few weeks. Like the previous couple of years I decided to compile a list of the top 25 films which I enjoyed the most or which left the largest impact on me from 2016 (Using U.S. release dates). Though many entertainment outlets have covered 2016 as a weak year in studio output, largely because of a lackluster summer movie season, overall I found a lot of great work to admire. This can largely be contributed to having the most successful effort in the last three years in seeing the greatest amount of films for the year. For 2016 I was able to see in upwards of 140 films from the year and it was harder than usual to select just 25 movies for this list. Those one hundred plus films were first reduced to around forty contenders before needing to eliminate a number of them for the final list. Before getting to the main list I want to acknowledge a handful of those films, to bestow a small amount of attention and recognition upon them, which they greatly deserve.
Among the selection of films that just missed out on making the list are honorable mentions such as Indignation which features a revelatory performance from Logan Lerman, the graceful indie The Fits from newcomer Anna Rose Holmer, the gorgeous and arduous drama Sunset Song from master director Terence Davies, and the workmanlike character drama Sully from Clint Eastwood. Veteran director Robert Zemeckis had his best film in years with the old-fashioned war drama Allied, Kim Jee-woon returned to South Korea with his taut wartime thriller The Age of Shadows, and Jeremy Saulnier followed up Blue Ruin with a vicious and visceral thriller in Green Room. Ciro Guerra explored spirituality and cultural exploitation for greed in duel journeys through the Amazon in Embrace of the Serpent, Andrea Arnold examined the lives of neglected and impoverished youth in American Honey, and Kelly Reichardt depicts the lives of three resolute women in the poetic Certain Women. Lastly, Pedro Almodóvar returns with a lovely melodrama in Julieta, Naomi Kawase finds beauty in the habitual in Sweet Bean, Anna Biller flexes her love of classic cinema with her insightful film The Love Witch, and Whit Stillman makes the sharpest Austen adaptation in decades with the hilarious Love & Friendship.
- The Neon Demon (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Outside of his 2011 film Drive Nicolas Winding Refn’s work has been consistently divisive so it isn’t surprising that his latest film has also been met with such a divided reception. The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a teenage girl who recently moves to Los Angeles in order to make it in the modeling industry. After breakout success Jesse comes face-to-face with the cutthroat nature of her competition, which only gets more twisted and more bizarre the deeper it goes. During a Q&A for a screening of his film Valhalla Rising Refn spoke about his writing process as a kind of “organic screenwriting” in which he builds his films around individual images which he then eventually threads together to form their narratives. This he partially attributes to growing up with dyslexia but also through his self-professed impulse for films which excite him visually.
The Neon Demon as a visually conceived film first is chiefly evident. Its bold, neon, pulsating framing is a hypnotic beauty, even when it’s depicting grotesque actions. Refn captures both the alluring attractiveness of his seedy modeling world with the same unwavering eye as he does the carnivorous industry within it, an industry constantly ready to consume any wide-eyed young girl about to blithely stroll into its clutches. What Refn’s brazen film lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for with its bite and jaw-dropping images.
- Under the Sun (Dir. Vitaly Mansky)
Film documentarian Vitaly Mansky’s latest film is remarkable in its conception. Through negotiations with North Korea’s Ministry of Culture Mansky set out to make a film within North Korea itself. These negotiations lasted for two years before filming even began. The plot of Under the Sun as determined by the Ministry of Culture was to follow a young girl and her family as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union during a celebration on the Day of the Shining Star, a national holiday observing the birth of leader Kim Jong-il. However, the film’s script wasn’t the only aspect over which North Korea’s Ministry of Culture had authority. They dictated everything from locations and what scenes would be filmed, to the casting and cameras to be used, and even restricting Mansky from being allowed to speak directly with any of the people in the film itself.
To circumvent North Korea’s intentions for a straight propaganda film Mansky kept his cameras rolling after his North Korean handlers would declare “cut” for their staged scenes. This allowed his crew to capture not only the scripted scenes but behind the scenes footage of preparations and instructions given to the actors in the film for repeated takes. He and his crew also set up a recording system that would record on two separate memory cards so that after submitting one card to North Korean authorities for inspection and censorship they hid the other before smuggling the footage out of the country. Mansky and his crew’s brave and defiant actions have fashioned a crucial documentary in which the truth lies in the film’s production itself and extending the possibilities of the documentary form to join the likes of maverick filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi, battling against the system and pushing their work to daring heights.
- Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Things to Come is Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature and her first film collaboration with iconic actress Isabelle Huppert. Following her last two films which were coming of age stories, it’s interesting to see Hansen-Løve make a film that follows a woman at a different stage in her life. Isabelle Huppert stars as Nathalie, a philosophy teacher attempting to care for her ailing mother, trying to reconcile her failing marriage, and intending to keep her academic publications in circulation. While Hansen-Løve two previous films, Eden and Goodbye First Love, followed young protagonists struggling through their formative years Nathalie is a woman faced with the collapse of the security she’s found late in life.
By using Things to Come to follow a woman in her late adult life Hansen-Løve’s film feels especially fresh compared to her previous two pictures with exploring new territory for the writer-director, but the film couldn’t entirely come together without the superb performance of the great Isabelle Huppert at its center. Huppert’s turn as Nathalie is a complimentary contrast to her other starring role from last year, her Oscar nominated performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. But in Things to Come Huppert has little to no large moments. Instead it’s a performance built around small motions and cumulative details as she steadily realizes that the life she has known has irreparably changed, showing both how doleful but also liberating that can be.
- Toni Erdmann (Dir. Maren Ade)
Nominated for over fifty awards including Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards Maren Ade’s crowd-pleasing comedy about an estranged father and daughter is the foreign film sensation of 2016. It’s such a hit that an American remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig looks to already be in the works. Toni Erdmann follows Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a grade school music teacher and a bit of a clown and practical joker, who feels his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) has become too consumed with her work which currently involves a potential project in outsourcing jobs and consulting for a German oil company. After Ines spurns Winfried’s attempts to reconnect he persistently shadows her under the fake persona Toni Erdmann, an unconvincing disguise which consists simply of a cheap wig and a pair of false teeth, much to her ever escalating irritation.
While Maren Ade’s lengthy dramatic comedy doesn’t boast many formal flourishes it thrives off exceptional writing and two of the best performances of the year. By playing off of the inherent contrasts in its leading characters’ personalities and propelling the drama through Winfried’s attempts to bond with his daughter Maren Ade delivers uproarious comedy with a rather moving plot. It also offers some of the most unanticipated moments of any comedy of the year and miraculously sustains its near three hour runtime, rare for a comedy.
- Cameraperson (Dir. Kirsten Johnson)
Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson is unique in that it’s a documentary without a central subject. Instead Johnson’s film uses an assemblage of footage shot over the span of her long career as a cinematographer on various projects and combined into a single feature film. Its subjects are as varied as the numerous films she’s worked on, filming in locations all across the globe from Texas to New York, Uganda to Rwanda, Afghanistan to Darfur. From an amateur boxer in Brooklyn to a Nigerian midwife Cameraperson is not only a visual memoir but also a collage of life all around the world and a principle example of how film can be as Roger Ebert once called it “a machine that generates empathy.”
One might think that a film composed in this way, created out of excerpted footage from other movies edited together, would have little meaning on its own but Johnson utilizes these choice clips from her work, many with their own individual significant power, to create a kind of mosaic of people all over the world while even including footage of herself and her own family. Much like a great poet Johnson carefully observes people and the world and with her keen attentive work finds potent material and by joining these moments together reveals deeper meaning of the world at large. Her documentary isn’t simply a memoir of her collected footage but rather it’s a portrait of humanity itself.
- Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larraín)
Jackie, one of two recent films from director Pablo Larraín, was originally conceived to be an HBO mini-series. Not only changing from a mini-series to a theatrical feature the film also replaced actress Rachel Weisz and director Darren Aronofsky, who both left the project after they split up, with Pablo Larraín and Natalie Portman to star as Jacqueline Kennedy. Larraín who was hesitant at first due to little familiarity with Kennedy’s assassination said that he was interested in the project for the chance to make a film from the perspective of a female protagonist. The film follows Jackie Kennedy in her last days as First Lady following the assassination of John F. Kennedy as she attempts to reconcile with her grief while composing herself to face the cameras of the entire nation for Kennedy’s funeral march.
Though Cameraperson constructs a film out of disconnected footage Jackie is a testament to the what editing can contribute to a film with a singular narrative, especially significant in the way Larrain’s film is structured around such a short period of time, moving back and forth between the immediate moments of Kennedy’s assassination and the days which follow it. While Larrain examines notions of legacy and political iconography of a president and the end of an era he utilizes the fragmented structure of his film to reflect the emotional turmoil Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would have been going through, a pain she would with resilient strength refrain from showing to the public.
- Crosscurrent (Dir. Yang Chao)
The most obscure film on this list, director Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent competed in the 66th Berlin International Film Festival with Mark Lee Ping Bin winning the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography. The film stars Hao Qin as Gao Chun, a young man helming his cargo ship up the Yangtze River. After his father’s death he follows spiritual tradition by capturing a fish and keeping it on board without feeding it, hoping to set his father’s spirit free while on his travels. Throughout his journey he keeps meeting the same woman (Xin Zhilei) at each port up the Yangtze, the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world. While steering upriver Gao Chun finds a mysterious book on board that charts each port with handwritten poetry.
Yang Chao’s film is most likely the most impenetrable one on this list. At the center of his film is the massive Yangtze River. The river isn’t just a location or simply a means for Gao Chun to travel, it represents much more. It holds significant importance for China historically, economically, culturally, and spiritually. Director Yang interweaves the great significance of the river’s history and its flanking lands with the enigmatic words from the poems discovered in the film and its protagonist’s surreal repeated encounters with a mysterious woman along its shores. It’s an elusive film but it’s also a unique meditative experience and with the great Mark Lee Ping Bin behind the camera is a visually impressive one as well.
- A Bigger Splash (Dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Tilda Swinton returns to work with director Luca Guadagnino after starring in his film I Am Love for his latest ensemble drama, A Bigger Splash. Joining Swinton on the film are Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, and Ralph Fiennes. Guadagnino’s film is based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine and its title comes from a painting by artist David Hockney. Swinton stars as a David Bowie-esque rock star, Marianne Lane, resting her voice and staying with her boyfriend, Paul (Schoenaerts), on the Italian island of Pantelleria. Their vacation is interrupted by Harry (Fiennes), and old colleague and ex-lover of Marianne’s. To their surprise Harry brings along his daughter Penelope (Johnson) whom Marianne and Paul were previously unaware existed. As the few days unravel they clash over the past, envious desires, and personal indulgences as their holiday careens out of control.
Luca Guadagnino’s extravagant style helps underpin the indulgences of the movie’s cast of characters while largely keeping the film from becoming too stagy, making his dramatic battle of four egos feel open and exciting instead of turning into a stuffy bottled chamber drama, likely to happen in less ambitious hands and with a weaker cast. As for the film’s cast it may be A Bigger Splash’s biggest strength. Swinton, silent but assured delivers a perfect performance through body language and expression, Johnson is alluring and goading, Fiennes is a beast, and Schoenaerts is a rock. Their performances complement each other by contrast, the kind of foundation needed for a film such as this, as they are oblivious to the world spinning on around them and compete to destroy each other with their own self-absorptions.
- Mountains May Depart (Dir. Jia Zhangke)
Mountains May Depart is the latest film from leading figure of the Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke. Jia begin work in China as an underground filmmaker approaching subjects in his films which reflect modern changes in China, which he believed were lacking in the previous generation of Chinese filmmakers. It wasn’t until his 2004 film The World that he received state approval. With Mountains May Depart Jia breaks his narrative up into three sections which are set in China in 1999, 2014, and finally set in Australia in the future of the year 2025. The film stars Zhao Tao throughout these different time periods as a woman, who with her son, has her life shaped by the transitional shift of China from the capitalist rise of the late 20th century, with its impact felt for the next couple decades.
Like Jia’s previous film A Touch of Sin splitting Mountains May Depart into separate sections helps keep the film more accessible than earlier work for audiences who may not be accustomed to the unhurried pace of his films. It isn’t surprising that many have found the final third of the film its weakest as it is also the section that features the least amount of screen time for frequent Jia Zhangke actress and wife Zhao Tao, as her performance is much of the center of the picture. With Mountains May Depart Jia Zhangke continues to be the most important auteur covering the lives of people within modern China and with this film’s depiction of the ever increasing modern globalization of the country he has made one of his more ambitious films to date.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)
Ever since their first feature, the Henry Selick directed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, the Portland, Oregon based animation studio Laika has been one to watch, consistently putting out quality stop-animation films. Their fourth feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, is the directorial debut of the Vice President of Animation at Laika, Travis Knight, and their best film since Coraline. Kubo and the Two Strings follows a young one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives in a cave outside a small village with his mother Sariatu (voiced by Charlize Theron). During the day Kubo plays his shamisen (or samisen) and enthralls the villagers with samurai stories while magically creating origami characters with his music to act out his exciting tales. However, if Kubo does not return to the cave with his mother before nightfall his sinister aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) will find him, wanting to deliver him to his grandfather, the dreaded Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), in order to remove his remaining eye. In order to combat his magical aunts and divine grandfather Kubo must set off on his own adventure to find a series of artifacts that would give him the power to defeat them.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Laika’s best film since Coraline would also be their best looking film since Coraline, an incredible feat since their last two pictures certainly weren’t lacking visually either. But they can’t compete with the beauty of Kubo and the Two Strings; with its origami inspired elements, its distinct style, its impressive waters, its invigorating action sequences, and possibly the largest stop-motion puppet ever used in such a film with the creation of a giant skeleton for one of the film’s major action set pieces. But Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t just a pretty movie or a common children’s film either. What sets Laika’s latest film apart are the ideas behind its young hero’s seemingly simple journey. The way the movie presents the power of storytelling and how stories can define the world around us and how memory, of the past and of our loved ones whether still with us or in our hearts, can shape who we are or the person we may become.
- Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir. Hong Sang-soo)
With his persistent output South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has steadily, and deservedly, garnered popularity, particularly within the festival circuit. With at least one feature a year for the last ten years and with several projects yet to even premiere theatrically in the United States Hong is one of the more prolific directors working out of South Korea today and even the world at large. Right Now, Wrong Then which released in the United States last year follows a film director, Ham Cheon-soo (Jung Jae-young), in Suwon to screen one of his films. While visiting a temple he meets a young woman, Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), and after striking up an introductory conversation invites her out for a cup of coffee. After coffee the two decide to spend more of the day together which involves Hee-jung showing Cheon-soo her paintings, going out for drinks, and attending a small gathering for some of Hee-jung’s friends nearby.
While Right Now, Wrong Then features many Hong staples like long conversations, a filmmaker or person connected to the arts, and drinking plenty of soju what’s particularly interesting about this film is when at its halfway point Hong hits the reset button and it starts again, but this time with slight variations. With the two separate halves of his film Hong shows a contrast between conversations which can be shaped around honesty or falsehoods, authenticity or deceit. With such a duel-natured film Hong is able to not only have fun playing with normal conventions of social interactions and self-perception but he’s also able to find profound moments exploring the actions behind these seemingly simple exchanges. Gradually Right Now, Wrong Then shapes into an intricate film on human behavior and relationships as well as succeeding in becoming one of Hong’s most enjoyable films.
- The Red Turtle (Dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit)
Although Studio Ghibli has not produced a film in-house since 2014’s When Marnie Was There following their announced hiatus to restructure after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement audiences are still fortunate enough to see their return through a co-production with Wild Bunch and Dutch director and animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Dudok de Wit’s first feature film, The Red Turtle, is a dialogue free animated picture following a lone nameless man who finds himself stranded on a deserted island. The man continuously attempts to escape the island by building a raft from bamboo stalks but each time fails after encountering a giant red turtle. Though his frustrations mount he is not yet prepared for what he will soon discover about this mysterious creature.
Considering my list for 2015 also featured a dialogue free animated film I would be thrilled if it became something of an annual tradition to be able to include one each year. Though The Red Turtle has the honor of filling that role for last year it’s a very different kind of movie than the sharp visual comedy of Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie. Michaël Dudok de Wit’s short 80 minute feature is instead a penetrating film on man’s connection and communication with the natural world reminiscent of such films as Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. Rather than dialogue the film uses its stunning compositions to enthrall viewers, wrapping them into a captivating pensive film.
- Aquarius (Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s latest film Aquarius met with a fair share of controversy last year during the Cannes Film Festival when its cast held protest signs concerning political unrest in Brazil. More trouble arose when Marcos Petrucelli, who had been vocally critical of Mendonça’s politics, was appointed to the committee in charge of picking the country’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, which some thought was a move made to keep Aquarius from being Brazil’s selection for the Academy Awards. In solidarity for Mendonça other filmmakers withdrew their films from consideration in protest. Aquarius follows the story of Clara (Sônia Braga), a retired music critic and aficionado living in an old apartment building in Recife, Brazil. She is continuously hounded by developers to sell her apartment in the building to make way for new construction on the lot but she refuses. Her stubbornness and resiliency are put to the test when the developers’ tactics escalate to force her out of her apartment, a home in which she values with great importance and sentimental affection.
Sônia Braga is a force of nature in this timely drama as she fights against the cooperate powers that seek to coerce her from her home. However, the film has more to offer than just Clara’s struggle with encroaching gentrification. As a music critic she has a great affection for physical media and owns a beloved record collection. In an interview she talks about a particular record in her collection and explains that the object had the ability to accumulate meaning before even coming into her possession. This is not a characteristic exclusive to vinyl as it extends to the building in which Clara lives, an antique dresser and family heirloom, and even her own body as a survivor of breast cancer. While a cooperate body can only see the dollar value in such objects and even on people themselves Clara repeatedly proves she has no mere price tag and that there’s a deeper value to be found because when these artifacts, or loved ones, or our homes absorb more worth than their material value they become more than just things.
- The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Lobster is the new film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, probably best known for his bizarre drama and critical breakthrough Dogtooth. With The Lobster Lanthimos makes his first English language film with production shooting in Dublin and other locations filming in or around County Kerry, Ireland. In The Lobster Colin Farrell stars as David, a man whose wife recently left him and must stay at a peculiar hotel until he’s able to find a new mate. David has 45 days to find himself a woman to start a new relationship before he is turned into an animal. Residents at the hotel however can extend their deadline by hunting and tranquilizing single people who live defiantly in the nearby woods. David’s reintegration into couples society is further complicated when he meets a nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz) from the group of singles living out in the woods and he soon finds that the singles have their own set of authoritarian rules over the freedom to make his own dating choices.
As unconventional as that plot summery sounds it’s rather surprising that The Lobster is actually more accessible than Lanthimos’s 2009 film Dogtooth, but they both share similar elements. Both films follow people who are restricted from leaving their residency and both films have individuals under strict authority and rules for which they must abide while living in that residency. The Lobster is an absurd satire on relationship taboos and expectations both while it dedicates screen time to David’s stay at the hotel and while he’s out in the woods. With his deadpan dark humor Lanthimos has delivered another brilliant unique film. It serves to prove Yorgos Lanthimos as a distinctive voice whose future work should be met with great anticipation.
- My Golden Days (Dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
Ever since first seeing his film A Christmas Tale I have made it a point to take notice of French director Arnaud Desplechin. My Golden Days is interesting in that it’s actually a follow-up to his 1996 film My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. Frequent Desplechin actor Mathieu Amalric returns to reprise his role of Paul Dedalus for My Golden Days. In the new film Amalric’s Paul is stopped and questioned during international travel and told that another man has stolen his identity. This incident and investigation causes Paul to reflect upon his childhood, upon a trip to the Soviet Union while in high school, and chiefly upon his young impassioned relationship as a teenager with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), the first love of his life.
Though the film features Mathieu Amalric returning My Golden Days primarily relies on its young cast, Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther and Quentin Dolmaire as a young Paul, both to the best of my knowledge in their first feature film roles. While in the present day Paul reflects on whom he has become, differentiating himself from the impulsive boy of his past, the bulk of the film spends its time on that significant moment in his life as a teenager. It’s a wonderfully nostalgic poignant film evoking the likes of past French masters of cinema like that of François Truffaut or Éric Rohmer. The touching and tumultuous young romantic relationship makes Desplechin’s film seem misleadingly slight but with a little prying there’s a lot to discover about youth, identity, and discovering turning points in one’s life.
- Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins)
The confusion during the finale of the 89th Academy Awards shouldn’t diminish this remarkable film from talented director Barry Jenkins. While working on several short films following his first feature in 2008 Jenkins tapped Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue for his next film which would eventually become Moonlight. The film is split into three time periods and Jenkins, a self-professed lover of foreign films, attributes its structure to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times. Though Hou’s film is split between three love stories set in different eras Jenkins uses the structure of his film to follow the same boy as he grows through adolescence into adulthood. Moonlight follows Chiron (Ashton Sanders), referred to as nicknames “Little (Alex Hibbert)” and “Black (Trevante Rhodes)” in segments as a child and as an adult, as he struggles through crises of sexuality and individuality with mentorship from a local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) while his mother (Naomie Harris) deals with her own drug addiction.
Like Jia’s Mountains May Depart Jenkins’s film uses its three part structure to jump through specific moments in time for its principal character. Jenkins follows Chiron through his most formative moments as a boy and as a teen as he searches to define who his is and the man he will become. The film focuses its attention on the expectations of masculinity and Chiron’s struggles over understanding his sexuality in the face of misguided perceptions and demands made of manhood. Jenkins does a marvelous job investigating the film’s difficult subject matter and with his careful delicate direction makes an honest, relatable, and humane film rather than one that falls to typical indie genre clichés. Moonlight is one of the best dramas of the year and deservedly earns its critical praise and accolades.
- Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a project he has been trying to get off the ground for over two decades. Many people associate Scorsese with mobster films like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed but with notable films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun Scorsese has also been drawn to spiritual films as well, not surprising as he has proclaimed his admiration for films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis and Jean Renoir’s The River. Silence is adapted from writer Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel which has previously been adapted to film by director Masahiro Shinoda. The film follows two Jesuit priests, fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), from Portugal who travel to Japan in search for another priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), to confirm if he had renounced his faith while under torture from the Japanese. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan they find a country with authority hostile to their faith. The two find conflict in the strength of their convictions faced with the suffering of the Japanese Christians who follow them and whether their missionary work to proselytize Japan’s people could be causing more harm than good.
If films like The Last Temptation of Christ didn’t fully express Scorsese’s attention towards religion it’s also particularly revealing that at one time he initially desired to take up the faith himself and become a priest before he pursued a career in filmmaking. As father Rodrigues in Silence Andrew Garfield delivers the much stronger performance between his two faith driven roles from last year. At nearly three hours the film’s runtime gives substantial time for the weight of Rodrigues’s internal conflict to build and overwhelm him and the film does a fine job of pitting his devotion against the possible realization that his presence may be causing more harm than good. Rodrigues must come to terms with whether his piety is truly a means of sacrifice or perhaps an illustration of his own vanity.
- 20th Century Women (Dir. Mike Mills)
Director Mike Mills follows up his 2010 film, Beginners, with a semi-autobiographical influenced ensemble picture set in California during the late 1970s. Mills draws in part on his own childhood growing up in California and is particularly inspired by his own mother. 20th Century Women stars Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, a teenager growing up in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), raising Jamie as a single parent and concerned for him as he enters his defiant years, enlists the help of a tenant (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s close friend (Elle Fanning) to keep an eye on him as he transitions through teenhood. The film also uses its supporting cast to tell a variety of compassionate stories of individual people working through significant moments in their own lives as well.
Though 20th Century Women is a thoughtful astute film it’s the performances from Bening, Gerwig, and Fanning which fully bring it together. They each supply their roles with such genuine feeling and depth that they’re able to tie together a narrative which may otherwise come off as disjointed, turning a contemplative film into an empathetic one as well and that’s where the film really shines, with its wealth of empathy. It’s about a young woman and her struggles with cervical cancer. It’s about a teenage girl who hides her vulnerability behind her cold demeanor. It’s about a mother striving to understand her teenage son and her son wanting to know more about his mother, both obstructed by generational gaps and blind spots. It’s about the struggle every person goes through to figure out their lives and it helps with a little more compassion, a little more understanding, and little more humanity from those around them. The world is just one big car fire and we’re all just trying to make our way through it together.
- Paterson (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)
With his last two films, last year’s Paterson and 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, long time indie auteur Jim Jarmusch may be entering yet another peak period by making his best work since 1995’s Dead Man. In Paterson Adam Driver stars as a bus driver working in Paterson, New Jersey who oddly enough shares his name with the city in which he lives. When he is not at work observing the conversations of his passengers or chatting with friends at a local bar he passes his days at home writing poetry and spending time with his buoyant wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her ill-behaved dog Marvin. For the poetry in Paterson Jarmusch called upon the work of poet Ron Padgett for contributions.
In Jim Jarmusch’s latest film he approaches the peace found in the contentment of being. Driver’s Paterson is not a man of many complaints and while he holds little material wealth he’s satisfied in his affections of his loving girlfriend, with talking to friends at the local bar, and expressing himself through the art of his poetry. Paterson, keeping his work in a singular small book, writes more for himself and for his own well-being than anything else, an art perhaps at its purest. Jarmusch’s film is a thing of beauty as it takes an art form and its middle class protagonist and presents them without conceit and without condescension. Paterson is one of Jarmusch’s most tranquil films and among his best.
- Manchester by the Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Before writer and director Kenneth Lonergan began work as a screenwriter he got his start in the theater as a dedicated playwright. In the late 1990s he wrote the script for the gangster comedy Analyze This and the following year directed his first feature with You Can Count on Me. With his second directorial effort, Margaret, Lonergan went through an arduous post-production which resulted in legal battles and a lengthy delay of distribution for the film but his work on it likely lead to reteaming with Matt Damon for the production of his latest film, Manchester by the Sea. Damon originally brought the idea for the film to Lonergan to write while presumably Damon would direct and actor John Krasinski would star but due to scheduling conflicts Damon and Krasinski would eventually drop out from directing and starring, leading to Lonergan coming in to direct his own script while Casey Affleck would be cast to star in the picture. Manchester by the Sea follows Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, named legal guardian to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after Lee’s brother Joe passes away. Lee is reluctant to take on the responsibility of guardianship as the film begins to reveal his troubled past when he once lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.
Lonergan’s latest film shows that he’s grown a definitive and distinct control over writing for film as opposed to writing for theater. He directs his superb cast through nuanced performances where dialogue may only consist of a few words rather than a few sentences and he has a way of shaping small gestures and observations, which normally would be absent from more artificial Hollywood movies, into more meaningful and impactful moments in the film’s drama. Though a heartwrenching film Lonergan has infused it with a surprising amount of comedy which serves to heighten it by humanizing its characters. It’s an uncommonly genuine film about tragedy and loss. With such honesty it suggests that there are never easy answers or swift recoveries when we mourn but with the support from loved ones we can begin to cope one new day at a time.
- The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)
The Witch, from writer-director Robert Eggers, is one the most notable feature directorial debuts in years. During production Eggers was insistent on making the film as authentic as possible by shooting with natural light and candlelight while indoors, by using genuine terms and language of the period, and finding remote locations for filming. Eggers disappointingly had to settle with shooting in Canada however, rather than the desired authenticity of New England for tax incentive purposes. The Witch follows a 17th century New England family who leaves their Puritan church community over a disagreement with the interpretation of the New Testament. The family decides to set up house and farm far from the Puritan settlement near a forest out in the woodlands of New England. After their youngest child, baby Samuel, goes missing the family begins suspecting that the dark powers of witchcraft are plaguing their lives and they lay blame upon their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).
The fact that The Witch is Eggers’s feature directorial debut is simply remarkable. Everything from its period dialect to the design of its production, from its performances – even those of its child actors – to its compositions seem so self-assured that one would assume it’s the work of a veteran filmmaker with several features under his belt. Not only is The Witch a disturbing horror picture, both psychologically and of more imminent horrors, it also addresses themes of flawed religious authority driven by fundamentalist paranoia which serves to enhance both the movie’s drama and its terror. Not only is The Witch one of the best horror movies in years, it’s also one of the smartest. It’s able to elevate itself above typical genre filmmaking to establish itself as one of the best films of the year.
- Cemetery of Splendor (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
There may not be a more deservedly celebrated filmmaker who began their feature film career post-1990s than Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Since his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, Weerasethakul has made over a half a dozen feature films and won numerous awards including the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Besides feature films Weerasethakul’s prolific work extends to numerous short films and various art installations. His latest film, Cemetery of Splendor, follows Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) a volunteer at a clinic focused on observing a handful of Thai soldiers who have succumbed to a mysterious sleep sickness after excavating a patch of nearby land. Jen, while watching over the soldiers begins to bond with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the patients. As the film progresses it begins to blur the lines between dreams and waking-life to reach a kind of in-between state while Weerasethakul explores the history, spirituality, and politics of his home country of Thailand.
If there’s a film that could give Crosscurrent any competition as the most elusive on this list it would be this latest work from Apichatpong Weerasethakul. When I first saw one of Weerasethakul’s films I had a difficult time approaching it. He dives right into the natural and spiritual history and culture of Thailand, a subject with which I had no familiarity, and crafts these initially slow surreal films with deep layers. But Weerasethakul is the kind of filmmaker whose films continuously inform each other, with each work revealing more about its artist and thus making it easier to approach the rest of his filmography. Cemetery of Splendor is fascinating in its study of dual states; of sleep and wakefulness, of the past and the present, of death and life, and of the spiritual and the physical. Perhaps without the balance between these states the world cannot function as it should, as further depicted in Jen’s difficulty to walk without the aid of crutches because she suffers from a condition in which one leg is shorter than the other. With Cemetery of Splendor Weerasethakul has crafted yet another multifaceted film where its deepest riches may take many viewings to fully unearth.
- Hail, Caesar! (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
For Hail, Caesar! the Coen brothers reunite with numerous actors (Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johannson, George Clooney, and Frances McDormand) while joining a number of Coen first timers (Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Alden Ehrenreich, and Channing Tatum) for an ensemble project they have had on their minds for over a decade which was formerly set to star George Clooney as part of a 1920s theater troupe preparing for a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Also returning to work with the Coens is long time collaborative cinematographer Roger Deakins after being absent from their previous film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), inspired by real-life Hollywood fixer of the same name, who spends his working days righting the ship for a 1950s film studio. Mannix’s problems range from issues as small as arguing with prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) about casting B-western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in Laurentz’s period drama to the massive trouble of discovering what happened to star actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) after Baird disappeared from set. With Hail, Caesar! the Coen brothers are able to compose a thoughtful and pleasurable film around two of their favorite subjects, their love of movies and philosophical musings.
At Capitol Pictures Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix bustles through film sets, phone calls, and casting and production issues while dodging gossip columnists and devoting all his time and energy to the enormous beast that is a major Hollywood movie studio in the 1950s. Through Mannix’s work the Coen brothers peer into studio life and through his commitment and reflections they scrutinize ideas on finding purpose, both on the film’s religious rumination and through the passion of finding dedicated work. Like Mannix explains at one point in the film the movies themselves, the ones they produce at Capitol Pictures, can be an outlet for audiences for information, uplift, and entertainment and this is why the Coen brothers are so well equipped for producing such a versatile film. In Hail, Caesar! they run through a variety of kinds of pictures being produced on their fictional studio lot. Channing Tatum dances his way through a Gene Kelly inspired musical number, Alden Ehrenreich rides through a B-western before being gloriously miscast in an elegant drama, and Scarlett Johannson straps on a fish ass for a sequence that seems straight out of Mervyn LeRoy’s Million Dollar Mermaid. While the Coen brothers fashion their unique brand of comedy around some of the absurdities of the old Hollywood system they clearly understand the power these kinds of films and cinema history have. Much like the variety of film productions glimpsed in the movie the Coen brothers are able to assemble a film that’s more than just the sum of its parts. It’s a comedy, it’s an epic, it’s a noir, it’s a musical, and it’s more. Hail, Caesar! isn’t just about the movies, it is the movies. To put it simply, it’s a Coen brothers film.
- The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)
After venturing to the United States for his first English language feature Stoker director Park Chan-wook returned to South Korea to make the sexually charged adaptation of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, The Handmaiden. Park lifts the story, originally set in Victorian era Great Britain, and places it Japanese-occupied Korea during the early 20th century. The film follows Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young woman from a family of poor con artists recruited by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) who goes by the moniker “Count Fujiwara” to pose as the new maid for a Japanese heiress in order to swindle her out of her inheritance. The heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is haunted by the death of her aunt and their scheme is to deceive her into marriage with Fujiwara and then have her committed to an asylum. However, the course of their plans starts to shift as Sook-hee begins to care for Lady Hideko and becomes reluctant to follow through with their arrangement.
With The Handmaiden celebrated provocative auteur Park Chan-wook has made a contender for his best film yet. Park’s latest film is as stylish and kinetic as ever and the way he shifts and repositions his narrative multiple times consistently defies expectations. But even though he continuously pulls the wool over our eyes every new revelation from deception is rewarding. Actresses Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee do an excellent job walking the line between the film’s exploitative fantasies of sexuality and the liberty the two women find in the pleasures and affections of one another. Park, continuously pushing the boundaries of good taste, may have as all-embracing a perception of sex as anyone with his film portraying both the sadistic controlling fetishization of it used to subjugate the two leads to the wonderful freedom they find in each other’s bed.
- Our Little Sister (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
With the release of Our Little Sister last year in the United States, another film already completed, and a new one in production I could get use to frequent work from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda who has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. Selected for competition at the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival Koreeda’s Our Little Sister serves as yet another superb familial drama from the director known for films such as Nobody Knows and Still Walking. Koreeda again explores fractured family relationships, this time adapting the serialized manga Umimachi Diary. The film follows three sisters who meet their teenage half-sister Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose) at their father’s funeral, having not seen him in 15 years after he walked out on their family. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the eldest, invites Suzu to live in their family’s home with sisters Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) much to the displeasure from some of their other family members, who see Suzu as an extension of her father’s betrayal.
On the surface Our Little Sister appears to lack an urgent conflict propelling its drama passed their father’s infidelity and abandonment but this act, which happens long before the film even begins, plants its seeds for this rich emotionally complex film. In the garden of the house where the sisters live is an ume tree, sometimes called a Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, and by steeping its fruit in alcohol the girls continue a family tradition of distilling umeshu, a kind of Japanese liqueur which each girl marks with their own initials. This tree and this tradition are at the center of the themes Koreeda explores in his film. This tree, like a family, is a large ever changing and ever growing organism with its branches jutting out from its core bearing new fruit and new life but with its roots firmly planted to thrive for generations. In the face of the indiscretions of past generations Our Little Sister permeates with the optimism that can correct those mistakes, reform bonds that were broken, and find tremendous value even in an act of infidelity as it was such an act which gave them another sister, strengthening their family rather than weakening it. Koreeda’s film is warm and forgiving, delicate yet complicated, and at times bittersweet but comforting. It’s a film of small pleasures and of great consequences, showing moments of shared intimacy but also reconciling with lose and mortality. It’s a film about life, both in its simplest and most complicated manner, and it’s yet another work which proves Koreeda to be one of the finest filmmakers in the world today.
© FLOYD ROCK, REEL FILM TOME, 2014-2017.
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