Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2016

I've put off posting my favorite films of 2016 too long. The laziness must end before 2018!

Last year saw Hollywood studios determined to push ever onward down the same well-rutted road despite record-setting financial failures. The curtain of generic superhero uniformity still smothered the multiplexes, but it was pierced here and there by little stabs of originality through which hints of a more complicated moral universe flickered. A serious renewal in terms of substance, style, and structure has yet to emerge, but maybe there's hope.

More exciting is the huge number of debuts and breakthroughs in 2016, with major new voices both inside the US and abroad. I call out a few below. My picks are all over the place, and I struggled to spot a pattern. Maybe the only thing they have in common is an ability to sustain deep and opinionated conversations. In a time where the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s have escalated to all-new heights, perhaps that's the best gift cinema can give us.

So without further ado, my top 20 of 2016 (counting down, of course):'

20) Chevalier

Six Greek men on a yacht obsess over who is best, competing in a bizarre tournament with dubious criteria ranging from how you look when you sleep to building IKEA furniture. A snapshot of contemporary masculinity in self-defeating crisis. Bonus trivia: Chevalier joins K-19: The Widowmaker, The Descent, and The Women (1939) among films featuring exclusively a single gender, but directed by the opposite gender.

19) The Wailing

South Korea's underrated Na Hong-jin serves up a long, dark, and enigmatic horror-mystery about a an ineffective cop investigating a local outbreak: a feverish rash that culminates in violent insanity. He tracks down a Japanese hermit who's either perpetrator or protector. Demons plague the hills. Doubt plagues his heart.

18) Elle

Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a no-nonsense video game designer who has a complicated response to being raped during a traumatic home invasion. Huppert's icy intensity sells a role that should be completely ridiculous; she's the daughter of a serial killer as just one barely-relevant aside. Veteran director Verhoeven learned French in order to direct her.

17) 20th Century Women

Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig are the 20th century (1979, to be specific) women of the title. Collectively they turn in one of the most likable ensemble performances of the year. They shape the life of well-meaning Jamie, based on director Mike Mills as a teenager, who's unfortunately the official "center" of a film that barely needs him. Fortunately the sensitive and funny script rescues this from becoming just another good-guy-coming-of-age nostalgia-fest.

16) Eye in the Sky

The ethics of drone warfare play out via a joint UK-Kenyan anti-terrorist operation. A tense, well-cast, and extremely topical thriller that lives a second life in the debates you'll have afterwards.

15) O.J.: Made in America

A hugely-compelling 467-minute documentary, complete with historical context and in-depth cultural analysis, on orange juice production and distribution in America.

14) Moonlight

A coming-of-age triptych following one man's early life and first love, with sexual identity, race, and poverty not giving him any easy breaks. Moonlight is a cultural milestone, an underdog award-winning masterpiece, and a beautiful heartfelt story. Best of all, every indication is that director Barry Jenkins is just getting started.

13) The Fits

Toni is an 11-year-old boxer who decides to go in for dance. She watches the older girls: their physical confidence, their tough talk, their feminine sexuality. When an epidemic of unexplained fits creeps across her school, she watches that too. Inspirational sports/music movies take place on the surface, where we literally see and hear everything. The Fits is something else. It operates underneath.

12) The Handmaiden

Sarah Water's Dickensian novel about British con artists, lesbian lovers, and rare books is transposed to 1930s South Korea. This is the sexy, twisty, period piece thriller you didn't know you needed!

11) La La Land

You saw it. You have a strong opinion. It made me smile all over the place, and I hate smiling, so save your "overrated" and "they can't sing/dance" stuff for someone else.

10) Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, the master of rural noir, my favorite micro-genre, mixes in some sci-fi and road movie to deliver Midnight Special. Two men transport a messianic telekinetic child to a mysterious rendezvous point in the Southern swamplands, while pursued by the NSA and a cult. Dusky cinematography and an accent-infested cast also help.

9) Hell or High Water

Speaking of rural noir! Wikipedia also calls this a "neo-Western" which will do equally well. See this for Jeff Bridges doing full-on Jeff Bridges. Or in case you were ever thinking of robbing a bank in West Texas (TLDR: everyone has a gun). Music by Nick Cave.

8) The Salesman

Every film by Asghar Farhadi is gold. His territory is the precise elevation where the moral high-ground shifts beneath you, and the rockslide starts to gain momentum. In The Salesman, a couple move into a new apartment. Off-screen, Rana is surprised by an unexpected intruder. Her husband, Emad, struggles to understand what happened, why, and who to blame. Like Farhadi at his best, there are no clear, easy answers.

7) The Witch

A stubborn Puritan exile homesteads his family in a godforsaken New England meadow circa 1600s. When their newborn disappears, the patriarch suspects a supernatural threat, and consumed by mounting paranoia, turns on his own daughter. Who'd have guessed that the year's most harrowing horror film would be delivered in difficult-to-decipher but utterly rich vernacular dialog?

6) Jackie

Jacqueline Kennedy (portrayed by Natalie Portman) recounts her days in the immediate aftermath of her husband's assassination. Putting Pablo Larrain, a politically-minded Chilean, at the helm of a Kennedy profile is bold (US - Latin America relations being what they were), and partially accounts for the depth and ambiguity rarely seen in patriotic biopics. The formal rigor of the compositions, editing, and sound design are highlights. Discordant music breaks the hermetic seal.

5) Toni Erdmann

So very good, and yet hard to classify or explain. A futile and useless summary: unhappy businesswoman is visited by prankster father. Only slightly better: a character-driven cringe comedy woven from criss-crossing contradictory emotions. Perhaps I had better pitch it based on its unforgettable dinner party scene or as a modernist family drama sustained with wry humor for almost 3 hours primarily on the painfully honest non-chemistry of two non-heroes. Director Maren Ade is another talent to watch.

4) Arrival

Towering black extraterrestrial ellipsoids position themselves around the globe. Governments scramble to understand the technology, the intentions, and, most critically, the language of these cryptic visitors. The US military tasks a linguist (Amy Adams) to make meaningful contact. This is the type of ambitious, cerebral, and yet supremely entertaining genre film I miss. A master class in the possibilities of visual storytelling. Denis Villeneuve may be my favorite director at work today; but can he pull off a Blade Runner sequel?

3) The Lobster

Imagine a European hotel where you can stay for 45 days. You must either fall in love with another guest or be turned into an animal of your choice. You can hunt loners, vagrant forest-dwelling locals, to extend your time. David (Colin Farrell) is shy, lonely, has poor eyesight. If cupid does not intervene, his chosen animal is the lobster. You need a taste for dark, imaginative, deadpan comedy to enjoy this, but if that's your thing, you're in for a very rare treat.

2) Manchester by the Sea

Lee (Casey Affleck) inherits custody of his brother's son, teenager Patrick (much-lauded newcomer Kyle Chandler), much to their mutual chagrin. As they bond, they slowly open up. We see the still-raw nerves of Lee's broken past and Patrick's inarticulate hunger for guidance. An uncompromising depiction of grief and getting by, one day at a time. Writer-director Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) is 3 for 3 in my books.

1) The Forbidden Room

What is this? Your grandpa's old instructional bathing tapes? A recovered crooner-era music video about brain surgery and pygophilia? Why is squid theft the greatest crime? How can a saplingjack (an apprentice lumberjack) just "shows up" aboard a submarine deep below the ocean surface? Are those lithesome skeleton women secretly perpetrating insurance fraud? Can perusing even "The Book of Climaxes" tie this mess together?

Canadian experimental pioneer Guy Maddin segues with unpredictable dream logic between dozens of sparkling interlinked stories, depicted in an encyclopedic array of silent and early sound era techniques complete with artful deterioration and distortion. What is it? "Dreams! Visions! Madness!" Not for all tastes.

Some honorable mentions: Victoria, 13th, Don't Breathe, Nocturnal Animals, Zootopia, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Dheepan, Don't Breathe