2016 was a borderline disastrous year for the world. Brexit, the rise of Trump, ISIS attacks, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Zika virus, the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie (not to mention Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, and Anton Yelchin, among many others) cast a pall over our theatres. But filmmakers near and far – from Romania, Brazil, and the Philippines to South Korea, Iran, and Texas – came to the rescue with a bounty of work to distract, disturb, and delight.
American Honey, Aquarius, Being 17, Cameraperson, Don’t Think Twice, Everybody Wants Some!!, Fire at Sea, Graduation, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Kubo and the Two Strings, Little Men, Love & Friendship, The Love Witch, Raw, The Red Turtle, Sieranevada, 20th Century Women, Under the Shadow, Weiner, The Woman Who Left
Top 10 Films
10. O.J.: Made in America
“…that was payback for Rodney King.”
The results of a bloody war among six films for the 10th spot on this list: American Honey was a messily beautiful road trip movie/portrait of youth with a breakout performance and an addictive soundtrack; 20th Century Women, like The Kids Are All Right and Frances Ha, flooded my soul with warmth and light; The Red Turtle was a simple, silent, shattering parable and my favourite animated film in years; with Graduation, Romanian filmmaker Christian Mungiu made it three-for-three with another heartbreaking drama of stunning moral complexity; and The Love Witch was a gorgeous Technicolor throwback and tribute to feminism and 1960s horror (my #11, or an easy top 10 on any other day). But perhaps it’s fitting that I’m going with O.J.: Made in America, a commanding documentary that first depicts tragedy, then encircles psychology, sociology, and modern society.
9. The Wailing
8. The Handmaiden
7. Certain Women
“Of all the evil that I’ve seen, this is the strongest.” “But you must remember the thing in the cellar.” “No one understands what my life has become.”
Cannes’ long-standing tradition of hosting breakout horror hits, no matter how extreme, continued after The Evil Dead sent shock waves through the festival venues in 1982, Martyrs left people open-mouthed in 2008, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (and its synth score) rattled attendees in 2014. Spinning off from The Exorcist, this was a special breed of cinematic monster: unnerving and entertaining, tragic and fearless, touching and scary, brilliantly edited, concocted to make one squirm and writhe and gawk at the beautiful production design on display, The Wailing has haunted me for eight months and counting. I can’t wait to revisit that damn altar or that creepy cave.
Both Hong-jin Na and Chan-wook Park went for broke this year, in ways that nobody else could match. If The Wailing is a horror/supernatural thriller/police procedural/domestic drama/zombie flick that literally shows the triumph of evil (and humans’ inability to comprehend it), The Handmaiden is equal parts costume drama, revenge story, romance, and Hitchcockian puppet-mastery. As delightful and delectable as dark chocolate, Park’s return to form after the less-interesting Stoker somehow manages to indulge in lesbian sensuality and then marry it with female liberation (with help from the Fingersmith source material?). Whatever the explanation, this is twisted, riveting stuff draped in knockout filmmaking.
The first of multiple films on this list that have been downright ignored (see also #5, #3, and #2) or wildly controversial (see #6 and #4), Certain Women has a solitary loveliness that completely won me over on first viewing. Based on a cluster of short stories by Maile Meloy, Kelly Reichardt’s sixth foray into the Pacific Northwest is gorgeously wrought, scored, and written, and stunningly acted by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone, who, as ranch hand Jamie, not only holds her own with some of independent cinema’s greatest, but actually steals the show. The third act is one of the simplest, most delicately effective quasi-romances of the year; the whole film is a quiet marvel by a woman who makes marvels look effortless.
“…the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.” “In this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist.” “Nutjobs, I can handle. My specialty.”
On some level, it’s a crying shame that Jackie was released in the same year as the next two entries. In Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Natalie Portman gives the kind of performance that would have been in serious contention among other competition, but this time, she never stood a chance. No matter: it’s still one for the ages, with Portman capturing not just the mid-Atlantic accent but the soul and fragility of a powerful woman amidst turmoil. She’s in virtually every scene, and carries the film with the force of a hurricane. Elsewhere, Larraín and his gifted collaborators – Stéphane Fontaine (who also shot Elle), Mica Levi (who also scored Under the Skin) – compose an experience that is as affecting, unsettling, and resplendent as anything in 2016.
Counterintuitive though it may be, I expected to embrace Pablo Larraín’s take on one of America’s most popular First Ladies (see above); I was more skeptical of his unusual portrait of the famous Chilean poet-diplomat, and worried about his intent to do both back-to-back. Against the odds, Larraín pulled off both, and Neruda is simultaneously a tribute to a fascinating artist/activist (“Tonight, I can write the saddest lines…”) and a successful cinematic experiment. Gael García Bernal receives another jewel of a role in Oscar Peluchoneau, and Larraín and DP Sergio Armstrong achieve exhilarating formal heights. With his Oscar-nominated No further augmenting an impressive résumé for someone barely 40, Larraín is destined to be one of the greats.
My review of Elle, coming soon.
3. Things to Come
1. Toni Erdmann
“To think…I’ve found my freedom. Total freedom. It’s extraordinary.” “Without love, what reason is there for anything?” “You have to do this or that, but meanwhile, life is just passing by.”
My review of Things to Come, coming soon.
My review of Paterson, coming soon.
Toni Erdmann exploded at Cannes the way few films, even masterpieces from established auteurs, explode at the most prestigious festival in the world, with critics hailing the “German comedy” as groundbreaking. Its eventual (shocking) lack of recognition for lesser fare has only served to cement its reputation as the truly unmissable film of 2016. Hilarious, poignant, absurd, thought-provoking, performed to perfection by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and capped with a memorable, impromptu Whitney Houston rendition and one of the best nude scenes of all time, Maren Ade’s ode to wigs and workaholism is the rare accomplishment that can be almost all things to all people. It’s bound to be embraced by all who love great cinema.
A & S Year-End Awards
Picture: Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, and Michael Merkt, “Toni Erdmann” (runner-up: Joshua Astrachan and Carter Logan, “Paterson”)
Director: Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann” (runner-up: Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” and “Jackie”)
Actor: Adam Driver, “Paterson” (runner-up: Do-won Kwak, “The Wailing”)
Actress: Isabelle Huppert, “Things to Come” and “Elle” (runners-up: Natalie Portman, “Jackie”; Sandra Hüller, “Toni Erdmann”)
Supporting Actor: Gael García Bernal, “Neruda” (runner-up: Billy Crudup, “Jackie” and “20th Century Women”)
Supporting Actress: Tae-ri Kim, “The Handmaiden” (runner-up: Greta Gerwig, “Jackie” and “20th Century Women”)
Original Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch,“Paterson” (runners-up: Mia Hansen-Løve, “Things to Come”; Guillermo Calderón, “Neruda”)
Adapted Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt, “Certain Women” (runners-up: Chan-wook Park & Seo-kyeong Jeong, “The Handmaiden”; David Birke, “Elle”)
Editing: Marion Monnier, “Things to Come” (runner-up: Sun-min Kim, “The Wailing”)
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine, “Elle” and “Jackie” (runners-up: Chung-hoon Chung, “The Handmaiden”; Sergio Armstrong, “Neruda”)
Score or Soundtrack: Mica Levi, “Jackie” (runner-up: Yeong-wook Jo, “The Handmaiden”)
Foreign Language Film: Mia Hansen-Løve, “Things to Come” (runners-up: Paul Verhoeven, “Elle”; Pablo Larraín, “Neruda”)
Documentary: Ezra Edelman, “O.J.: Made in America” (runner-up: Kirsten Johnson, “Cameraperson”)
Most Promising Filmmaker: Hong-jin Na, “The Wailing” (runner-up: Michaël Dudok de Wit, “The Red Turtle”)
Breakout Performance: Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women” (runner-up: Sasha Lane, “American Honey”; Zoey Deutch, “Everybody Wants Some!!”)
Spotlight Award: Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” and “Jackie” (runner-up: Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, “Certain Women”)
2017 Most Anticipated
As usual, 2017 looks overstuffed with promise: Arnaud Desplechin (“A Christmas Tale”), Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”), Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure”), Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan”), Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”), David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”), Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Edgar Wright (“The World’s End”), Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”), Tomas Alfredson (“Let The Right One In”), Bong Joon-Ho (“Snowpiercer”), and Joachim Trier (“Oslo August 31st”) will be releasing projects, and Danny Boyle returns after 21 years with T2: Trainspotting.
2017 is also the year of long-awaited reunions: between Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and Oscar winner Brie Larson (“The Glass Castle”), between Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and Julianne Moore (“Wonderstruck”), between Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) and Elle Fanning (“The Beguiled”), between Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) and Colin Farrell (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), and between Paul Thomas Anderson (“Inherent Vice”) and Daniel Day-Lewis. But the best news of all? Michael Haneke (“Amour”) is directing Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant in “Happy End”.