Saturday, January 7, 2017

Best Films of 2016

Despite in so many ways 2016 being a terrible year--especially with our recent election results--it was another strong year for movies. All talk of the impending death of the cinema is clearly exaggerated. Here are my favorite films of the year:

1. Moonlight. A heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful coming-of-age story of a gay black man. Its formal innovations with several beautifully composed and stylized point-of-view shots perfectly enhance the story and theme. Matching the beautiful visuals are superb performances. Every one is a work of wonder. The film tells its narrative episodically and elliptically in three chapters where we see the protagonist as a boy, a teenager, and a young man. This is a film that will be watched and discussed in film studies classes for years.

2. O.J.: Made in America. A powerful, detailed, nearly 8-hour documentary on the trial of the century and the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson but also a history of institutional racism in Southern California and an examination of the failure of the American dream. We learn that O.J. was a man who chose to assimilate into the privileged white Brentwood society and cared much more about fame and money than his race or his family. We also hear and see video recordings that document the institutional racism of the LAPD. The film clearly shows how the police discriminated against African Americans and how the justice system favors not only white police officers but also famous rich people. Another major revelation is that the jurors either ignored or brushed off the overwhelming evidence of O.J.'s history of domestic abuse. This seems to suggest that the jurors, and by extension Americans, blamed the victim not the perpetrator. Finally, we are reminded of the egregious mishandling of evidence by the LAPD and how the prosecution lost its case partly because of the stupid decision to have O.J. try on the famous leather glove. (streaming on Hulu)

3. Son of Saul. I sometimes wonder if there have been too many Holocaust films--especially considering the relative dearth of other historical films on, say, American slavery or genocide in Cambodia. But two of the best films in the last couple of years (Phoenix and Son of Saul) have been films about the Holocaust, which tells us that there is still more to say about the Shoah. (I do look forward to more films about other historical eras, though). The Hungarian film Son of Saul is told entirely from the point of view of a Sonderkommando, a member of prisoner work group usually comprised of Jews. In the film, after other prisoners have entered the gas chamber, the protagonist and others check clothing for valuables and then discard the dead bodies. The protagonist discovers a boy who miraculously survives the gas chamber (at least temporarily) and the protagonist begins--for a reason that is never given--a quest to find the boy and give him proper burial rights. This is a totally original and emotional film that gets at the complexities of life and death and one man's attempt to control something in a world where nothing is in his control. And the semi first-person perspective places us in the middle of the dark, brutal, incomprehensible environment.

4. The Lobster. A dark allegorical satire that comments on and mocks social expectations regarding marriage and the necessity of having relationships. The Greek director Lanthimos has previously taken on other big topics like dealing with the aftermath of death and coming to terms with the absurdity of family relationships. But this one is the best that I have seen of his. The Lobster tells the story of a man whose wife has recently left him. He joins a comically absurd dating program at a hotel resort that has strict consequences for those who don't pair up with people after a given time. They also go on hunting parties where they find and shoot single people, and single people are not allowed in town. It's one of the strangest movies I have seen. And it's hilarious. (steaming on Amazon Prime)

5. Cemetery of Splendour. A film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (don't ask me how to pronounce his name). Like all of his films, Cemetery of Splendour ruminates serenely on the past and the way the past impacts the present. No one makes films like Weerasethakul. They are strange and surreal works of art.

6. Arrival. I was taken aback by this science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve.  His other films (Sicario, which was one of my favorite films from 2015, Enemy and Prisoners) have been very dark--hopeless even, but Arrival is refreshingly optimistic. The way that Arrival depicts the language of the aliens is both beautiful and completely original. Ultimately, the film emphasizes the importance of countries working together to solve major world problems. Unfortunately, the real world seems to be going in the opposite direction. One major plot point made no sense to me, but I still really enjoyed the film.

7. Manchester by the Sea. Unlike The Lobster, Manchester is one of the saddest movies I have ever seen. A powerful and moving story about loss and the difficulties of moving past grief. Everyone has commented on Casey Affleck's performance as an emotionally scarred loner--and rightly so--but Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges are just as good. I felt the music was a bit heavy-handed in a few spots, but this was a minor problem in an otherwise superb story.

8. Love and Friendship. An excellent and hilarious adaptation of Jane Austen's posthumously published epistolary novel Lady Susan, written when Austen was in her late teens. Unlike her other novels, Lady Susan features an amoral and scheming protagonist, one who only cares about acquiring a wealthy husband for her daughter and an even wealthier husband for herself (she is recently widowed). Kate Beckinsale is perfectly cast; she's a pleasure to watch and plays Susan with great aplomb. I had a small problem with Chloe Sevigny's casting as Susan's American friend; Sevigny is too modern an actor to perform in an Austen adaptation. But the film--directed by Whit Stillman best known for his Austen-inspired heavy-dialogue romantic dramas from the '90s Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco--is well worth the time. Even the opening title and closing credits are funny. (steaming on Amazon Prime)

9. Kubo and the Two Strings. A stop-motion animated film set in an ancient fantastical Japan. So many animated films look exactly the same. Even Pixar's high-quality films don't have much variation in visual style. But Kubo tells a compelling story and it is visually distinctive and original. The all-white cast somewhat mars the film and I suppose that some might charge the film with a kind of cultural appropriation, but it does feature a cockroach samurai, so that sort of makes up for it. 

10. Embrace of the Serpent. A poetic black and white film that tells the story of two European scientists in search of a rare healing plant in the heart of the Amazon. It's the story of the impact of colonialism.

11. The Witch. A supernatural horror film set in the Puritan era. What is most interesting about this film is the attention to period-era details--the King James English, the 17-century sets, the austere Puritan clothing. It's obviously a fictional film, but it probably captures what most people actually believed at the time about witches and the power of evil. And it features an evil black goat.

Others films I really liked: La La Land (I especially liked Emma Stone), Gleason (a moving documentary about a former NFL player who gets ALS), Dheepan (a French film about Tamil refugees who emigrate to France with fake identities), The Treasure (a Romanian film about a family man who searches for buried treasure), Deadpool, Hell or High Water (smart bank heist film that is also a commentary on the polarized economy), Green Room (a punk rock band plays for a white supremacist club and bad stuff happens), Keanu (Key and Peele's epic action film about rescuing a really cute lost kitten from gangsters), I Am Not a Serial Killer (a strange film about a teenage sociopath who hopes he doesn't become a serial killer), Midnight Special (directed by the director of Take Shelter and also starring Michael Shannon, it tells the story of a boy with supernatural gifts trying to flee from a religious cult and the federal government)

Still trying to decide if I liked Nocturnal Animals, and I wish I could have like Terrence Malick's hyper-arty Knight of Cups more than I did.

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