by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Film Year in Review

Top 10 Films of 2016

December 31, 2016

It’s heartening to realize that in a year of seemingly constant death—one in which the passing of great filmmakers was no exception—the best films here seemed intent on never forgetting those losses, to mine the past and the passed for new inspiration in the present, and in movingly reverent ways. Our great new filmmakers looked to the old ones to guide them in their own artistic invention; they focused their films on the exploration and preservation of memory, or on a dense reassessment of a historical record that finds resonance in contemporary times. Our best film of the year even seemed to channel a national feeling of post-traumatic stress into a story of defiant personal strength and resilience. No amount of great films can fill the void left by the late Chantal Akerman, Andrej Wajda, Jacques Rivette, etc. But those highlighted here represent a meaningful extension of that work, a simultaneous reminder of earthly mortality and the cinema’s inexhaustibility. Sam C. Mac

certainwomen10. Always a director of compassionate, deeply human portraits of decent people navigating the currents of their respective worlds, Kelly Reichardt manages to ratchet up raw emotion—without betraying the placidity of her particular aesthetic—in Certain Women, a film that moves through three barely-connected narratives and never surrenders to the verbosity or manipulative tics of most mosaics. Delicate and judgment-free, Reichardt’s latest thematically tethers its disparate parts to a powerfully affecting whole. Concerning itself with the pain we passively inflict on others—born, most often, from the privilege that power, money, even contentment affords—Reichardt charts the connections and consequences of paths crossed by the meek and the strong alike. Easily coaxing performances of great power—and stunning compositions without any semblance of ostentatiousness—the director’s dedicated naturalism allows her audience to feel as freely and deeply as she does about her characters and their lives. And while the film’s trio of codas feel extraneous and the strength of the film’s final third may slightly diminish the power of its precedent segments, the cumulative vision is one of boundless heart and truly remarkable filmmaking. Luke Gorham

cameraperson9. For the full-time artist, there are innumerable wells of inspiration. But in discussing Cameraperson, it may be best to focus on just three: the personal, the political, and the professional. Is director Kirsten Johnson’s film (made up of footage she collected while working as a professional cinematographer for nonfiction feature film directors) the first to study the relation between that trio? Perhaps not. But if there is another film that charts that particular intersection so intimately—in this case, in the manner of a memoir, and one that’s quite literally seen from the first-person—then it is surely foreign to this writer. The first movement here introduces the locales of the films this one pulls from; the next stage introduces subjects that will recur throughout (the labor of child care, state-sponsored actions completed in secrecy, and the systematic oppression of women, to name but three). Those subjects overlap until the filmmaking begins to double as activism (aided most by scenes from Citizenfour and Fahrenheit 9/11). That activism is then interrupted and derailed by a personal tragedy, one which provokes this film’s final movement—which is anchored by footage of spiritual and familial reckonings. What this structure provides is a portrait of psychology in motion, one that’s painted with the images that same mind’s eye took in. This is the almost-inconceivable achievement of Cameraperson: It seems to tell a life story while hardly ever looking at that life directly. Jake Mulligan

cemetery8. In contrast to the wide-open physical and psychological landscapes traversed in his previous film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest, Cemetery of Splendor, more or less restricts itself to a makeshift hospital along the Mekong River. But within this setting, the great Thai filmmaker finds an abundance of fantasy, cosmic import, sly political commentary and unexpected humor. In Apichatpong’s magical-realist world, a mysterious sleeping sickness is less a literal disease than a kind of spiritual purgatory for a bunch of soldiers; psychics act as tour guides to a nation’s troubled history; ancient Laotian princesses suddenly materialize wearing modern-day clothing; and past and present collide in elusive and intangible ways. Apichatpong handles all of this with his usual patience and delicacy—but the long takes, medium shots, and meditative pace don’t preclude a playfulness that makes Cemetery of Splendor as warmly entertaining as it is quietly profound. Stepping into this film is like stepping into a warm bath of contemplation—which is thankfully as cleansing and purifying as it sounds. Kenji Fujishima

moonlight7Moonlight is a kind of memory play, one in which every formal decision made by director Barry Jenkins contributes to the creation of a liminal subjective space closely linked (but not exclusively bound) to one man’s consciousness. The film’s storytelling is linear but elliptical, ruptured by dreams and interludes where time seems to slow down, where image and sound fall out of sync before finding one another again, by years that disappear in the space of a cut. It is a chronicle of the shaping of a man’s identity that somehow seems to explore its own, seeking beauty in desperate circumstances, tenderness in cruelty, and assurance in the unspoken. It’s one of the most radical American films in years; not only formally—with its heightened color palette (those blues!) and expressive lighting (those burnished skin tones!)—but in its bone-deep and boundless empathy, its searching narrative structure guided by gestures and glances as much as major conflicts and events. This approach allows Jenkins and his playwright collaborator Tarell Alvin McCraney, to tell Chiron’s story as a history of touches: a troubled mother’s gentle caress, a father figure’s strong arms buoying him above the surface of the ocean, an unexpected sexual release offered on a quiet night at the beach, and finally a head resting once again on a shoulder it’s been missing for years. Each of these moments are rendered as impossibly vivid as a memory, and they are deeply and immediately felt. Alex Engquist

toni6Maren Ade’s three-hour screwball comedy is the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and it’s surely among the funniest German films ever made. The father: a hulking goof fond of deadpan, low-brow pranks. His daughter: a serious, high-ranking consultant. The latter’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, so when dad drops in on her, uninvited, she quickly sends him packing, only for him to return disguised as “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends and coworkers. Toni Erdmann is a symphony of double takes, everyone stunned and charmed by Toni’s oddity, by the mischievous eyeball twinkle that invites us all to play along with his silly games. An escalating series of hilarious and devastating set-pieces, the film impossibly reconciles the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, capturing the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. The greatest love of all indeed. Sean Gilman

happy-hour5Happy Hour is an anomaly—even within the adventurous and idiosyncratic landscape of the international film festival circuit. Its central cast is made-up of nonprofessional participants of acting workshops held by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi in Kobe, Japan, though you’d swear they’d been at it for decades. And then there’s that prodigious runtime—5 hours and 17 minutes, to be exact. These features alone make Happy Hour remarkable, but what makes the film miraculous is how absorbing, and indeed spellbinding, it is. The length is neither a directorial indulgence nor an endurance test; instead, it proves an ideal way to allow the themes and their exquisite emotional resonances to fully stretch and breathe, making this one of the most deeply soul-enriching cinematic experiences of recent memory. Tracking the ebbs and flows of the friendship between a quartet of women in their late 30s, Happy Hour may bring to mind Japanese and French masters—Ozu and Kore-eda, Rivette and Rohmer—but the artistic magic it creates from its intimate and deeply empathetic attention to complex characters belongs to it alone. Christopher Bourne

paterson4. There aren’t many filmmakers out there who seem as dedicated to the art of documenting monotony as Jim Jarmusch. And this is a preoccupation that the director has taken to a new level with his latest film, Paterson, a movie indebted to both the struggle to make something of our lives and the poetical verses they end up entering. Bus driver and New Jersey resident Paterson (Adam Driver) lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani); his dog (Marvin); and a large collection of his own poems, to which he adds to often, especially during his lunch breaks. We see Paterson’s daily routine, the little gestures he does in the morning (waking up slowly, so as not to disturb Laura) and his nightly walk to the local bar. The best thing about Paterson is how the film essentially functions as a great poem: ridged in structure but seemingly free in its verses. There’s a bliss that’s found in exploring the monotony here, and it allows Jarmusch to to craft a simple, yet deeply felt ode to the working man. Sometimes in our lives, the most eventful moments are the most lowkey, and Paterson finds power in reflecting our own personal journeys to this conclusion. Paul Attard

lovefriendship3. It’s fun to think about Love & Friendship as a kind of spiritual sequel to director Whit Stillman‘s The Last Days of Disco. In that film, Kate Beckinsale’s character—an id-like projection of the social scene she dominates—attempts to entice Chlöe Sevigny’s through a kind of witticism hypnosis. But here, Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson is already all the way gone: she’s a pawn (if a willing one) in the schemes of Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon. That’s because the milieu Stillman’s occupying this time is somehow even more facile than that of Disco—and because the director has no sentimental attachments to it, he fully indulges its bitter ironies, expanding our understanding of Austen’s male characters (Susan Vernon’s greatest critics) by subverting high opinions voiced of them with a well chosen moment in which they, for example, denounce the very idea of a woman’s right to cheat like a man does, or to teach school. What this adds up to is Stillman’s firmest and finest social critique, in part because he’s less explicitly enamored with its players and operators. Opposing the ills of the culture that created them, it turns out, is empathetic enough. SCM

oj-made-in-america2. One of the great cage-rattling documentaries, Ezra Edelman‘s 8-hour monument isn’t just the story of one of the most famous athletes in the history of sports—OJ: Made in America is a sprawling journey through a notorious crime, decades of institutionalized racism and misogyny, pop culture, and media hysteria. Put it in the fuckin’ Smithsonian next to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. Candid footage of then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti watching the legendary white Bronco chase, in astonishment, while waiting to be interviewed about successfully arresting the man fleeing his authority on live television is maybe the cinematic moment of 2017. Matt Lynch

elle1. Leave it up to Paul Verhoeven to deliver the most perversely pleasurable and thrillingly unpredictable cinematic litmus test of the year with Elle, his first film in almost a decade (his last of note was 2006’s Black Book). The inciting incident—the CEO of a gaming company, Michèle Leblanc, is brutally raped in her home by a masked assailant—may initially seem like too perfect a fit for the Dutch provocateur, liable to result in empty button-pushing or shallow provocation. And to be sure, Elle is certainly provocative, delivering scene after indelible scene of pitch-black humor, caustic dialogue and unnerving violence – such as the Buñuelian farce of a Christmas dinner party, and the twisted romanticism of a window-shutting scene during a sudden windstorm. But working with a superb screenplay by David Birke (adapted from Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh…), Verhoeven manages to not just provoke, but also deepen and complicate at every turn, piling on the story’s ostensible contradictions and apparent digressions with an unnerving lucidity of perspective. Over the course of two rollicking hours, Elle plunges us into the constellation of forces that define Michèle’s world (anchored by a delectable lead performance from Isabelle Huppert), attempting to answer ‘that most banal and chilling of questions… Why?’ And just when you think that the film has peeled back every possible layer to expose the depths of human desire, a stray line from a minor character manages to reframe all that came before, revealing just how little we truly understand. Lawrence Garcia