2016 was filled with stunning, particularly emotional movies this year. After 2015, the year of the “concept album” film, we enjoyed some well crafted respite with films somewhat less complicated, but which often struck strong tones.
Here are some asides to fill in the landscape; movies like Jungle Book, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and Doctor Strange expanded on the recent trend of hyper kinetic updates to older stories and properties. Herzog landed a low fi hit with his internet exploration Lo and Behold. Cosmos, the beguiling last film from Andrzej Zulawski, suggested European New Wave still has a beating heart. And 2016 even saw a legitimate no-bullshit unpretentious comedy with Lonely Island’s funny-the-whole-way Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Here were some other solid genre films from the year:
A meditative and unshowy story of the immigrant’s plight, which uses the central conceit of deceit to show how wrong it is to assume someone is simple or uncomplicated just because they don’t speak the language proficiently. The smiling foreigner’s grin is often a mask for exhaustion, exasperation, and desperation.
Louder Than Bombs
Joachim Trier’s latest drama is fully constructed, but still manages to keep enough pieces moving to affect a genuine situation in the wake of a mother’s death. This is sort of a classic domino drama with some American Beauty touches, where a sudden death makes everyone realize their idyllic suburban life is fairly unstable. It’s a bit staid in comparison to Trier’s own Oslo, but is nonetheless well done.
La La Land
Not exactly a movie that needs press, La La Land swept in at the end of 2016 as the winning musical with great songs which everyone was happy to see. The main problem with it is of course, is it’s not really a Gershwin style musical with great songs, and the leads are not always winning. Despite that, La La Land is a clever film, preserving Damien Chazelle’s touch for conflicting motivations from Whiplash and bringing it to bear on a modern relationship in Hollywood.
Foreign horror has a particular knack for making you feel comfortable with schlubby townsfolk navigating mildly spooky events, and then unsettling you by left-turning into some deeply unsettling climax. The Wailing is no exception, an exorcism tale set in the backwoods of Korea. The film does something very deliberate, but refuses to be pinned down until the final action, creating a guessing game that disturbs shockingly well, without the crutches of jump scares or nasty CGI monsters.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Kubo never quite strays into a darkness which would benefit it, but it toes the line well enough to intrigue in a distressing tale of a young kid who loses everything from his eye to his home. Kubo is compellingly rendered in metatextual stop motion animation (Kubo possesses a similar power to animate things around him). Using Japan mythology as a backdrop, it is always interesting to look at and puts together a few stunning action sequences.
A meditative paegyn without story or conflict, Jarmusch’s latest finds Adam Driver as a bus driver who also happens to write poetry. That’s it, that’s the movie. It is to Jarmusch’s credit that this film still makes sense, a kind of exploratory bumble through the texture of a slightly odd life, and how someone could harness those idiosyncrasies as fuel for inspiration. It’s not a film you would watch twice, but it’s probably the most relevant movie to your everyday life you’ll ever see. Paterson glorifies life without narrative lies, without sappy pronouncements or overwrought juxtapositions, using only the thread of life itself.
What follows are the films that punched above their weight in 2016. The top ten are:
A notable improvement on Sicario, Villeneuve brings his trademark moodiness to a story with a clear narrative. Although the way all the pieces join together in the end is a little cute, most of the film focuses on the central concept of approaching a truly alien encounter. Years ago Alien dispensed with the rubber suits and obvious Earthly connections to give us something that was hard to predict or understand, a truly xenobiotic menace. Arrival does the same thing but for an alien culture, imagining how the communication gap might manifest. As always, the imagery and soundtrack are effective in Villeneuve’s hands, and Amy Adams makes a good choice here to play her icey academic as a bit of a space cadet, which amplifies the disorientation present throughout the film.
Somewhat presciently, Green Room predicts a kindler, gentler Nazi scum that has wormed its way into a niche in America. A backwoods Nazi cult is shown as a fully functioning organization, obviously run by money but strengthened by propaganda normalized in the friendly neighbor mouth of an amazingly cast Patrick Stewart. They just happens to intersect with a desperate for cash punk band swinging through town (including Anton Yelchin in one of his last performances), the members of which now have the bad fortune to witness shit go down. The resultant violence is again portrayed from ground level by Blue Ruin’s director Jeremy Saulnier, creating a consequence heavy blood bath with poorly defined heroes and villains that emphasizes the conflicts without idolizing the results. Everyone wants to be John Wick, but no one in their right mind would want to go through this.
Direct communication between people often fails, in large part because convincing people to abandon their rationalizations is a much more monumental task than can be accomplished by simply spouting some self evident truths. Mr Erdmann finds himself in just such a situation; he can tell his daughter is unhappily grinding her life away but any advice is obviously deflected (do you listen to your parents??). Flustered, the father finds a solution in no solution; he invents reasons to just kind of hang around, making a hilarious nuisance of himself. Although the subtext of Toni Erdmann is about the right and wrong ways to find satisfaction in life, it also documents the irreplaceable subtle and complex wordless communication that occurs between people when they physically spend time together.
What is Star Wars exactly? Is it Jedi and Deathstars? Or is it the dirty cantinas and smugglers? Rogue One tweaks the balance towards the guerrilla camp, away from the shiny bombastic prequels (and galaxy destroying Force Awakens of last year) and towards a mercenary rebel squad trying to get their hands on the death star plans pre-New Hope. All that Force stuff is still in there, but when a death star fires or a lightsaber is lit up in Rogue One, it presents as a force of nature, a sight to behold. Rogue One is a triumph of framing; the myth is much more powerful when experienced from ground level instead of up in the clouds. Paired with some surprisingly bold narrative choices, this pre-sequel film absolutely justified itself.
Manchester By The Sea
Overly constructed dramas are rarely surprising. Manchester By The Sea tweaks the formula by hiding the dramatic turn for most of the film. We see a broken man and a joyful man, and try to connect the dots between. It’s a tear jerker, but it does it without being overly maudlin. Core to the film is Casey Affleck’s performance as subdued taciturn townie, a man without ambitions or interest. Perhaps Manchester’s greatest strength is it eschews easy answers in response to dramatic speeches. Even when issues get out into the open, vast gulfs remain. Sometimes the best we can hope for is that time will heal some wounds.
Hail Caesar, the latest Coen brother tentpole, could clearly be seen as a sort of followup to (the magnificent) Barton Fink, moving a few rungs up the ladder to watch Brolin’s man-of-action studio head. However this time the Coens are operating with the zany filter again, evocative of Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother Where Art Thou. They portray the day to day of a WB-type Los Angeles movie studio in the 50’s as a hyperactive mess, always two mistakes away from spinning out of control because of problems with scandals, tabloids, crazy actors, and of course, communists. Not exactly weighty or hilarious, but crazy entertaining, Hail Caesar’s period comedy is a strong Coen film which obviously would qualify it as one of the best in any given year.
Hell or High Water
If you asked me whether Pine’s coiffed shoulders could support a down and dirty west Texas rural drama, I would have maybe asked you to sleep on it before calling the financiers. It turns out though you just need to splash a little dirt in his face and suddenly he becomes a very effective farm kid, piercing eyes suspiciously surmising everyone outside his wounded troubled family. That said, the show is easily stolen by his brother, played by Ben Foster, a live wire who facilitates the pair’s entry into good old-fashioned bank robbing. Briskly paced and mostly unsentimental, Hell or High Water is a tale of backs up against the wall in baren Texan badlands, a western refreshingly updated for the age of mortgage hustles and banking crashes.
The latest from Scorsese, Silence is a dense meditation on the nature of religion. Andrew Garfield nails the role of an overly earnest missionary, sent into the sealed land of Japan from Portugal to proselytize and search for a missing brother. Scorsese did not attempt to make a last Emperor / Shonen foreign tourism film though, instead he depicts Japan as rural and brutal. There’s not a single establishing shot of a city, or full dressed ornate armor, or random interior feast, none of the trappings that you might expect. Even though the film lavishly drinks in nature and the pain/ambivalence on the faces of the many people in it, it is an oddly spare thing. Garfield’s priest is trying to live like Christ, helping people in the face of a silent god by bringing them teachings which historically have earned them torture and execution. The tension inherent in such a task is easily ignored from the bastions of faith, but working in the fields of men it begins to tear the young priest apart. Silence is a rare film, capturing the gravitas of a philosophical problem without the crutch of plotted construction (in comparison, consider how Ex Machina’s conclusion turns on several specific events happening). It just puts the people together and goes from there.
Maybe the tone poem to end all tone poems, Moonlight is a sensual experience. There’s a scene in there, just a man teaching a kid how to float in the ocean, that is nearly wordless but nonetheless conveys an almost overwhelming sense of place and time. Moonlight hops through the effaced young adulthood of Chiron, a young man in a screwed up environment that isn’t built to deal with the hyper masculine bullshit that his surroundings are infected with. Things get better, things get worse, but key events get rosily illuminated in the glowing cinematography, all mellow vistas and big emotive faces filling the screen. The triumph of Moonlight is to make you feel sensitive to people that are enveloped in harsh gritty trauma, people you wouldn’t even begin to try to understand on an emotional level if you saw them on the street. Chiron is a lost face among many but his experience is still personal, Moonlight makes it still matter.
You know what, screw your tone poems! The best movie of the year is the too-clever-by-half Lobster, a big artificial screed against the hypocrisy of relationships by the master of satire, Yorgos Lanthimos. Colin Farrell falls afoul of the Relationship Bureau and has a fortnight to find a new mate or get turned into a damned animal. Like all great satires, the Lobster uses its plotty twists and turns to blast open all the crap that is so sacred to our mental coping mechanisms, we can’t even talk about it. A maze that Farrell cannot escape, The Lobster shares a perch with Brazil in observing the struggle for control over everything, even minutiae, that seems to overwhelm our attempts to not be lonely. Loaded up with great actors and shot with full commitment, The Lobster presents an emotional dystopia that we seem to gladly be inflicting on ourselves, a pressing painful need to commit to coupling or damned isolation, and most importantly suppress our instincts in the process. Lanthimos takes the double edged sword of society and presses it into our skin, making a mark with the best movie of the year.
Originally published on Synthetic Error August 11, 2018