Generation Film’s Top 25 Films of 2016
25. Embrace the Serpent– Though it was nominated in last year’s Best Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards, I wasn’t able to experience the engrossing and unsettling artistry of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace the Serpent until early this year. And what’s so surprising about Guerra’s study on the brutish nature of man, and whether the bridge between the primitive world and the modern world is a doomed endeavor, is that a film like this actually exists. It’s a high-concept art film with the gripping tension of a modern thriller, one that tackles numerous subjects relating to the invasion of culture, technology vs. spiritualism, and whether so-called “civilization” means an absence of human natures corruptibility. Presented in seamless parallel storylines and shot beautifully in black-and-white cinematography, Embrace the Serpent has the ethereal tones of Werner Herzog’s earlier work combined with a clever inversion of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! (or more specifically Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). It speaks as a sort of spiritual elegy to lost identity, and this rarity of cinema seeks to challenge the audience’s preconceptions on the supposed enlightenment of modernity and our increasing distance from genuine spiritual connection. Embrace the Serpent is a beautiful, challenging, and engrossing experience through and through, and it leaves an indelible mark once you’ve seen it.
24. Nocturnal Animals– Tom Ford’s second feature film, Nocturnal Animals, could easily be considered a dazzling mess—a film with so many moving parts and tone variations that it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is being said by the emerging auteur. But that’s partly what makes it such an enthralling and absorbing experience. Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, and split into three separate narratives that reflect and obfuscate each other in equal measure, this meta-thriller explores the indulgence of imagination and what we bring along subjectively as readers, viewers, or voyeurs to works of art. Ford has found a distinctive style, one that oscillates between Lynchian surrealism and Kubrickian exploitation, one that never feels borrowed but rather reinterpreted for a particular artist’s vision that borders on malevolence. What’s admirable here is that Ford is dissecting his own hollow privileged world, effortlessly satirizing and tearing down the top echelons of the lonely rich and the pseudo-cultured hacks who determine what’s worthy of societal attention. Their perceptions of the mid-west, their cultural self-importance, and their ultimate emptiness of original opinion and emotional clarity are all on the chopping block, with Ford hacking away at their faulty pillars one exaggerated plot point after another. It’s a devilishly superb and subtle vengeance thriller, one that has deeper significance and power the more you reflect on its intentional vagueness.
23. A Monster Calls– Bordering on overly sentimental melodrama, J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls finds the emerging Spanish filmmaker delving deeper into the divergent styles that have defined his work so far, and attempting to find an articulate balance between them. Combining the gothic fairy tale hauntings of The Orphanage (2007) with the mawkish survivalist realism of The Impossible (2012), the result here is a far more satisfying cohesion of the two that makes for an incredibly touching, and often cathartic, look at grief. Impressively adapted from Patrick Ness’ novel of the same name, the film finds Conor O’Malley—a bullied and artistically-inclined boy “too old to be a boy and too young to be a man”—coping with his mother’s imminent death by envisioning a fantastical creature that guides him through his inner and outer torment. The film cleverly adopts convention, only to twist and defy it with superb parable lessons about inward contractions, the power and limitations of belief, and the difficulty of being honest to yourself and others in the face of the unimaginable. Its artistry is subtler than most, and perhaps lurks in the darkness of its themes and poignant revelations, but A Monster Calls might be the best children’s fable released this year (next to David Lowry’s Pete’s Dragon) showing that potentially maudlin material can hit all the right rhythms and avoid overstatement.
22. Cameraperson– In a year of some beyond interesting documentaries—from the portrait of political collapse in Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s Weiner to Ava DuVernay’s incendiary 13th—the undeniable best has been Kirsten Johnson’s memoir Cameraperson. But it’s more than an autobiographical testament; it’s also a rumination, a treatise, and a presented theory on the art of documentary filmmaking—a manifesto that asserts the importance that behind the lens of the camera is the eye of a breathing, empathetic, and knowing person. Filmed over a period of 25 years and presented through a series of episodic juxtapositions—including many of Johnson’s on-set excursions, from a boxing match in Brooklyn to a centerpiece chapter in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina—Cameraperson explores the relationship between image makers and their subjects. In exploring this relationship the film makes an ethical inquiry into whether the presence of the camera hinders actual objectivity, and contemplates the complex interaction between unfiltered reality and narrative crafting. It’s quite the stunning achievement of the documentary form, where humanity is always present in each of the disparate, almost non-verbal, compilations, no matter how experimental the films direction veers. There are merits to be found in the observational life, and Johnson’s personal reflection touches on a depth of knowledge and an artistic morality that defines that life.
21. Midnight Special– No one captures contemporary Americana like Jeff Nichols, and this year saw the prolific filmmaker bring us two exemplary works of varying consequence: the quiet, reserved civil rights portrait contained in Loving and the masterfully enigmatic parable of parental responsibility in the science-fiction genre piece Midnight Special. Both have their admirable merits, but it’s the latter that captures a cinematic wonderment with its steady momentum, perpetual sense of mystery, and a surprising minimalism in every sense of the word. Its plot reads like a typical blockbuster—a child with special abilities and his protective father are on the run from both the government and an apocalyptic cult who want the boy for their own various reasons—and even though it has car crashes, shoot outs, and bursts of dazzling effects, it never feels grandiose. It’s Spielbergian—with its references to both E.T.- The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—and yet defies the sentimentality that defines Spielberg’s works, being plainspoken with the fantastic and intimately knowing its metaphors. What’s always distinctive about Nichols’ works is that characters are front and center, and his characters in Midnight Special are defined by what they can’t understand—a fear and/or faith in the supernatural or the unknown. But ultimately, it’s about the fear and faith contained in the love of a father, turning this science-fiction genre film into a story of parental perseverance, sacrifice, and reluctant abdication.
20. Hunt for the Wilderpeople– Gently absurdist, simultaneously sweet and subversive, and idiosyncratically charming, Taika Waititi’s adventure comedy romp Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most fun you would have had at the theater this year, had you been fortunate enough to see it. Returning to his sensible, small-scale productions of the awkwardly charming Eagle vs. Shark (2007) and the coming-of-age reflection Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople has Waititi at his very best, merging warmth, hilarity, and introspection in equal measure. Though most of the film’s façade strikes a familiar note—the cantankerous adult that reluctantly bonds with adorable kid subgenre—Waititi strips his familiar tropes from cliché, finding originality in its personable characters and delectable wit. While the characters seemingly have no real use for each other, the film finds a humorous balance of mild hostility and equally mild affection between them, a quality that heightens the film beyond superficial sentimentality and familiar formula. But what’s truly perceptive about the film is its ability to tap into the logic, fragile thought process, and delicate emotions of a child, and its that honest blend of cockiness and fear that makes protagonist Ricky Baker such an infectious delight. It’s a last hometown hurrah for Waititi before he enters the blockbuster Marvel machine behind the helm of Thor: Ragnarok, and it feels loving in its portrayal and hopeful that he will return to it.
19. The Witch– With each frame of writer-director Robert Eggers’ The Witch there’s an evocation of oppression, both of the human variety and the demonic. Starting off as a production designer, and fashioning a debut script from court records and historical documents, authenticity seems vital to every inch of his work. His debut feature film is an elegant period-piece, about the dissolution of a puritanical Christian family and the horror of possession at the center of it, and the detailing of the stark chiaroscuro interiors, the old-fashioned puritan clothes, and stiffened antiquated dialect make the historical feel otherworldly. That’s the secret to the film’s creeping under the skin power—the realism that can be felt in its surroundings makes the surrealism of its horrors palpably known. It’s a sophisticated, minimalist execution, one that invokes a mixture of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman if they both collaborated on a remake of the medieval and delirious silent feature Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). But The Witch is a personal auteur statement of arrival, one that is meticulously crafted and purposefully set to fully realize a particular time and place, free of postmodern political and cultural accretions. It’s a work of horror in its most artistic form, a vivid portrait of theological paranoia, irrational suspicions, and the self-fulfilling horrors in believing in them.
18. Sing Street– Perhaps, some would argue, this spot should have been reserved for Damien Chazelle’s ode to musicals of the past in La La Land—a charming, highly technical edifice of homage and replicated themes from the musicals of Jacques Demy, Vincente Minnelli, and Stanley Donen. But the superficiality inherent in La La Land lacked the immersive soul that defined an overlooked musical this year, one that deserves more recognition than it’s receiving: John Carney’s testament to creative individuality, familial influence, and young love, Sing Street. Like all of Carney’s films—from the low-budget Irish musical Once (2007) to the mostly charming tale of creative rejuvenation in Begin Again (2013)—Sing Street is about troubled outsiders finding transcendence in the world of music, this time following the boisterous pop-stylings of a 1980s Catholic-school garage band’s road of trial-and-error in discovering their musical identity. With each song there’s witty references to the synth-pop heroes of the time, coupled with outfit regalia changes to match, emphasizing that our influences mold, evolve, and adapt us to the world around. It’s homage where homage is used as a tool to propel the characters in a forward direction, and it’s all done with a beguiling modesty that also possesses strong characterization and playfully infectious songs. Sing Street plays like a sweet radio anthem in your desperate times, an ode to “finding happiness in the sadness,” and demonstrates that music, art, and creativity allows us to dream bigger than where our current place might exist.
17. Silence– Martin Scorsese’s passion project adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence is an impressive saga of martyrdom, Judas-like betrayal, and faith, all powerful concepts that are rarely, if ever, handled with grace or honest admiration in the world of cinema. It’s a difficult film to swallow—an endurance test of cruelty, suffering, and ambivalence, all captured with the disconnected God-view cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto to accentuate the powerlessness of its protagonists. At the center of it all is the emaciated Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit from the colony of Macau looking to find the truth on whether his mentor Father Ferreira denounced his faith in public amongst the persecuted Catholics of Japan. To be fully human or to be fully saint-like are themes that mimic Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Rodrigues encapsulates that perfectly in his yearning to be like Christ and his reactionary judgmental subjectivity that voices disgust for situations and characters, especially the embodiment of all sinners Kichijiro (“not worthy of being called evil”). But while Rodrigues sees his calling as redemption, he’s put through a mock passion to become a parody savior where others are forced to bear his cross, pushing him to doubt his faith in the midst of God’s silence to suffering and forcing to ask the question if faith lies in your words, your actions, or inside your heart. Silence may not uncover the ultimate truth, but it proves that venturing the possibility of its answers is always worth seeking out.
16. Krisha– Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha might be one of the most uncompromising and gut-wrenching debuts to ever grace the silver screen. It’s a familiar tale—a home-for-the holidays psychodrama involving a black sheep’s return to the family fold during a contentious Thanksgiving dinner—and yet the entire film defies convention. It’s a raw, intimate, and disturbing portrait of self-destruction, or rather the cycle of self-destruction wrought on generation after generation, with all its emotional turbulence being captured through probing and observational camerawork that darts, plunges, retreats to paint its portrait. Though easily comparable to the realism of John Cassavetes, Shults’s film also has a nightmarish dreamlike quality that would be on par with the surrealism of Terrence Malick (whom Shults has worked with before), that is, if Malick decided to make a family horror drama. At first, the chaos of Krisha seems practically uncontrollable—a psychotic symphony of subjective opinions, damaged emotions, and personal grudges that becomes more unhinged as it goes along—and yet, Shults maintains a delicate precision throughout. It’s an oddly funny yet perpetually distressing expressionistic tour de force that signifies a bold artistic statement from a filmmaker willing to take on the risk of exploring deep psychological torment and layers of character. Here’s hoping the studios don’t grab him before he gets to make his next auteur statement.
15. Everybody Wants Some!!– Underneath the superficial, borderline homoerotic, and jovial broletariat antics of Richard Linklater’s time warp hangout film Everybody Wants Some!!, there’s transcendence to be found—a light on its feet metaphysical contemplation that provides unforeseen depth in the balance between commonplace earthly desires with profound retrospective meaning, always finding the humanity that drifts between them. That might seem a bit much to grant a film that follows skirt chasing, freshmen hazing, and machismo Olympiad competing baseball players in their week before school starts, but once personalities start to form and the insightful banter starts to land, we begin to realize there’s much more to it. It’s mostly a film about transition—how the big ego stars of the small pond begin to become less important once they integrate into a larger world, and in doing so must inevitably find themselves beyond their interests and talents. It’s an incredibly human, almost autobiographical, portrait of young adulthood, one that doesn’t ignore the primal, basic pursuits of young men, but also shows how hollow and limiting those can be. Ultimately, Everybody Wants Some!! feels like a celebration of memory, a nostalgic romp that’s funky, a tad aimless, and appropriately juvenile, where a nascent sensitivity and self-discovery eventually emerges in its depiction of insouciant college age exuberance.
14. The Handmaiden– Minimalism has never been associated with the works of Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook, a filmmaker who has always pushed the boundaries with an abundance of outré gore and gaudy style that’s meant to highlight the world’s cruel nihilism (or his own). And while there’s still cinematic indulgence to be had with his latest The Handmaiden, it’s an indulgence of a different variety—the sumptuous, classical aesthetic of a Victorian romance. Park’s perversity remains, but it’s hiding underneath a lush romance adapted from Welsh author Sarah Waters’s ambitious 2002 novel Fingersmith. Moved from its original setting of England to the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, The Handmaiden is a teasing, erotic fantasy about an heiress, her sadistic uncle, her devoted maid, and the rake at the center of it trying to pull off an elaborate con. Park has turned his latest work into an emporium of visual delights, so ravishing to the senses that you might lose yourself in it and forget to notice its clever twists and subtle revelations. And even though The Handmaiden, in all of its opulence, feels extreme, it’s meant to act as a sleight of hand toward its underlying commentary on cultural assimilation and psychological torment. It’s surprising that the master of art-world gore created the year’s most irresistible romance, but whatever the reason it has come to us it’s assuredly a restrained, exquisitely sensitive, and liberating piece of cinema.
13. 20th Century Women– With 20th Century Women, writer/director Mike Mills has immensely polished his adopted filmmaking style that defined his second feature Beginners—a sort of diaristic collage of messy memory and the significance that particular events have on shaping our lives and perspectives. Mills has removed the cutesier elements that weighed down his last feature, and has embraced the purity of an autobiographical recollection that seeks to explain the extraordinariness of the mother who put an imprint on him. It’s a touching, expansive, and fictionalized coming-of-age story of a modern man, influenced here by the diverse and eclectic personalities of women that surrounded him: Abbie, the punkish photographer recovering from treatments from cervical cancer; Julie, a love interest that feels too close to engage in the act of sexual intimacy; and, of course, Dorothea, the larger-than-life mother who desperately wants happiness for her son. Mills’s approach to memory has a conversational feel to it, an almost loose and casual depiction that resonates with authenticity. Reflecting on the impact of his mother, Mills has crafted a loving tribute that is utterly infectious, and pays homage to the bygone era that his mother enshrined. It’s messy, nostalgically bittersweet, and utterly charming, which is precisely what occurs when we look back on our own moments of influence.
12. Moonlight– It’s been seven plus years since director Barry Jenkins gave us his exquisite debut in Medicine for Melancholy (2008)—a heartwarming and visually gorgeous portrait of class and race—and his follow up, Moonlight, was well worth the wait. Three actors, three ages, three moments of time, one soul: Barry Jenkins’ sensitive coming-of-age drama follows the life of Chiron and how momentous events, people, and circumstances create a whole person in spectrum. Even though it’s based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film itself is like a visual poem—a lyrical dream written in light, music, and vivid human faces. A chief concern here throughout the episodic chronicles of Chiron is the concept of manhood, or perhaps the limitations and expectations society, family, and outside influences have on our preconceptions of manhood and the damage it can wreak on self-discovery. And though there’s tragedy in witnessing a bullied boy eventually come to deny his identity and become a quiet man hiding in the darkness, there’s beauty in its open-ended hopefulness that even in the darkest of nights there’s light to be found under that shining moon. Moonlight opens a window into another person’s intimate consciousness, an agonizing process of doubt, love, and ultimately hope, which is a cinematic gift and privilege to be experienced.
11. American Honey– Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, her first feature set in the United States, is a relentless free spirit of cinema—a nomadic and rambling epic of a road film that probes the state of contemporary youth and illuminates the vital role their ignorance, foolishness, and idealism play in shaping our national American character. It’s also, sad to say, one of the few raw, naturalistic, and genuine coming-of-age tales about teen-age girls on the verge of womanhood, making it something purely distinctive thanks to Arnold’s unconventional and honest lens. The film follows Star, a neglected and abused youth travailing the Midwest with a ragtag group of teenage magazine subscription conmen (and women), catching her at her shining brightest moment of troubled purity and blind recklessness before she bursts and falls into the rigid responsibility and monotony of adulthood. American Honey is a film that could have verged into exploitation, or even lecturing moralism, but maintains a fearless sense of nonjudgmental admiration for its protagonist and her traveling cohorts. Our youth are the “invincibles,” too busy feeling, singing, and dreaming to really consider anything beyond the moment, and Arnold’s film is an ode to their idealistic fervor. To really appreciate American Honey you must surrender to the film’s anarchic vision and boisterous spirit, which is the only way to discover its full of life consciousness.
10. The Red Turtle– The story of how Oscar-winning Dutch filmmaker Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle came to fruition is about as fascinating as the one told on the screen. It took 9 years of preparation, collaborative writing (with top French screenwriter Pascale Farran), and detailed animation from the Japanese artists and team at Studio Ghibli (under the supervision of legendary Isao Takahata), making it the first Ghibli created animated feature directed by a European outsider. And the results are a beautiful balance of allegorical fantasy and the vividly real hardships of reality. Presented mostly without any dialogue, The Red Turtle is part Robinson Crusoe, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013), and a dash of imaginary parable, one that speaks towards the very nature of existence as it pushes deeper and deeper into an ethereal realm. It maintains Studio Ghibli’s ability to be simplistically elegant, a style that has always been able to speak toward profounder truths, which is a visual grace that pulls us in with each image being more lusciously beautiful than the next. Ultimately, Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle is a presentation of the cycle of life, and just like life’s ebb-and-flow it’s an experience to submit yourself to and be pulled by its narrative tide. In doing so you will have embraced a new fable that seems as though it has existed for eons, and made pure through generations of retelling.
9. Love & Friendship– Chronicler of privilege and social hierarchy eulogizer Whit Stillman was destined to tackle the formal theatrical bravura of 18th-Century Jane Austen. His signature erudite whimsy and comedy-of-errors delight has always been suited for a bygone era (alongside the likes of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde), and his take on Austen’s little-known epistolary novel “Little Susan” is perhaps the best Austen adaptation ever conceived. By draining out the romance, Stillman is able to focus on the devilish pragmatism and economic classism that pervaded the social norms at the time, with a contemptuous protagonist who embodies the worst of it. Kate Beckinsale gives an astonishingly underrated performance as Lady Susan Vernon, an attractive, clever, acid-tongued troublemaker who is admirably indefatigable, who becomes the main attraction as she charmingly bulldozes through 18th-century propriety. There’s a lack of deft plotting and emotional complexity that defined Austen’s canonical masterpieces, but what remains is a sumptuous feast of character, snappy dialogue, and a layer of bemused, acidic humor that could be the equivalent of a seven-course meal of desserts. While there’s a bit of Stillman’s recurring themes—that of disconnection in his naïve, hyperarticulate character’s philosophies and their intractable emotions—Love & Friendship is more a world where ideas matter less than manners, with the vanquisher being the one with the least permeable of masks. To be summarized in one phrase: Love & Friendship is an utter delight.
8. Hell or High Water– Following up on his sensationally jittery and unflinchingly brutal Belfast prison family drama Starred Up (2013), Scottish director David Mackenzie has turned his outsider sensibilities toward a decaying corner of American society: the open ranges, empty streets, and deserted diners of the midland West. Filmed with a perceptively patient touch and a skillful, offbeat execution, Hell or High Water is a heist movie disguised as a western; a contemporary western, where the expansive, deserted settings feel frozen in time, but the economic stagnation feels hauntingly relevant. The script, written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), is filled with humor as dry as the dusty plains in its setting and morals that are unfalteringly grey, revealing character and exposition through dialogue that has a verve and shrewd texture. On the surface, there’s nothing necessarily new—scheming bank robbers with relative morals and personal justifications are being chased down by committed uniformed men in a high-stakes cat and mouse game—but it’s the details and the layers underneath that give the film its engrossing attributes. It’s in the moments between the heists and the investigations that are central to Mackenzie and Sheridan’s interest, where both pairs of men and each of their plights are studied with a sort of faded melancholy. It’s a crime thriller that is at once relaxed and urgent, making it an unforgettable fatalistic western for the modern age.
7. Elle– To describe Elle as an excruciatingly brutal and elegant black comedy would be the definition of understatement, mostly because it begins with the antithesis of humor: the violent rape of wealthy, middle-aged Parisian Michèle, as her black cat watches ambivalently as the horror unfolds. Most films would venture the traumatic aftermath of such an event with reflections on alienation, which is far too simplistic for Danish provocateur and gonzo craftsman Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker who has consistently merged dark satirical wit with a taste of exploitation in sex and violence. Instead, the multiple sexual assaults in Michèle’s life become minor inconveniences in her busy schedule, leading us into a meticulously constructed maze of ambiguity that twists our assumptions and expectations at every possible turn, with results that are riveting, lurid, and black as pitch. It’s a character study in the unconventional, and it all comes together in the indelible self-assurance of Issabelle Huppert’s performance. It’s a marvelous and intuitive display of contradictions without the explicit acknowledgment of them, forcing us to invoke sympathy and equal disgust for a protagonist that is just as sociopathic as her assaulters. For Verhoeven, nothing is more subversive than pleasure, and the film gracefully ponders the contradictions of being empowered by violence while also being traumatized by it, something that makes Elle one of the most corrosive and challenging pieces of art in a long while.
6. Arrival– Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an enigma, mostly because it’s hard to conceptualize how he was able to jumpstart, pioneer, and create such a heady, high-concept, old-fashioned science-fiction adaptation in the modern state of Hollywood. But here it exists—a profound puzzle of concept, relating to intricacies of language and the need to understand via communication, delivered with the filmmaker’s notorious symphonic pacing that carefully integrates heart-wrenching poignancy into its cerebral design. Villeneuve is a brooding tease of a filmmaker; anyone who has experienced Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), or Sicario (2015) knows how seductive his invitations to unfamiliar worlds can be and how he divulges sparing details slowly in order to ultimately discomfort his audience. The twisted plot machinations and the astute attention to detail of Arrival mimics his previous work, but the revelation at its heart is far more soulful than his typical dour filmography. Underneath the ominous tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unsettling score (that modulates from atonal unease to swelling awe), the foggy grey color-palette of Bradford Young’s glowing cinematography, and a moody conceptual atmosphere, there lies a human heart and a story of strength in embracing the sadness to come. Arrival is more than a high-concept science-fiction reflection, it’s a science-fiction parable, one that embraces the idealistic hopefulness of diplomacy and understanding.
5. Jackie– No other filmmaker’s year has been as extraordinary or impactful as Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who has released not one, but three films in one year: his expose on guilt and denial in The Club; the biopic thriller Neruda, about Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda; and, arguably his best this year, the intimate portrait of grief in Jackie. As unsettling as it is unconventional, Jackie seems like an intrusive visitation on a woman during the most private of tragedies: the death of a husband. Larraín masterfully probes that thin line between the public and private and how it impacted the psyche of the very woman at the center of it all, as she became for the public in her private tragedy an embodiment of grief, a symbol of strength, a tower of dignity, and, most of all, an architect of political theater. In the center of Jackie is a refined, pitch-perfect performance from Natalie Portman, whom Larraín insisted play the role if he were to take on Noah Oppenheim’s brilliantly structured script, and the result is anything but mimicry or shallow impersonation. Jackie is an intruding masterful work that reflects on the population’s desire for legacy, and how Jackie Kennedy, in her most painful of moments, became the mythmaker that created a shining legacy that otherwise wasn’t there. What is reflected on and becomes undeniably true is that the stories we tell ourselves are more real than the disappointing realities that exist.
4. The Salesman– Human nature has been an integral part of the artistry of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, or rather how character changes through rippling effect of uncontrolled incidents rather than through revelation or influence. All of his morality plays, from the disappearance tragedy About Elly (2009) to this Oscar-winning submission A Separation (2011), deal with reactions to events and how those events shape the characters’ choices. Much is the same with his masterful drama The Salesman, where a violent incident occurs off-camera and proceeds to haunt its characters throughout the film’s running time and quite beyond. All of the film’s circumstances seem quite mundane on the surface: two married actors, currently in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” move into a new home recently vacated by its previous tenant who has also left quite a few of her belongings locked in a private closet. But underneath it comes a drama that parallels Miller’s own work, where defined masculinity, rigid family roles, and a placement of blame slowly begins to erode the couple’s relationship. With The Salesman, Farhadi is proving to be on the same dramatist level as Elia Kazan, a filmmaker who brings to life topical subject matter through sharp, intimate acting and a mildly sensationalist presentation.
3. Manchester By the Sea– Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is, undeniably, one of the most devastating character studies to ever be accomplished in film, and it’s a miracle it exists after the drastic setbacks his last messily ambitious project Margaret (2011) suffered to get released. Lonergan is a master of anomalous subtlety, where small inconveniences seem to have profound consequence and meaning to his characters, but still finds room to contemplate the larger tragedies of life. Manchester By the Sea is almost operatic in its delicate chronicle of grief, which follows isolated handyman Lee Chandler (played with astounding internalized emotion by Casey Affleck) and his inability to take on the responsibility of taking care of his nephew because he can’t forgive himself. Utilizing a sophisticated flashback structure, one that seems as fluid and sporadic as memory can be, Lonergan delivers one devastating revelation after the other with harrowing results. Manchester By the Sea is a remarkable film about the practicalities of disaster and the weight of guilt, and asks if anyone could truly live with themselves if they felt responsible for a tragedy. For all its sadness, Lonergan makes his film a beautiful and revealing portrait of individual desolation that is observed through a place of care and affection, which makes its vague and practically unresolved ending so powerful.
2. The Lobster– Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might be the current master of high-concept, pitch black, utterly weird comedy, an attribute that he has regularly explored in his previous two features Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). For some reason placing society’s mannerisms, prejudices, and tokenism instincts under a blackened lens seems to make everything a lot clearer. That’s what Lanthimos achieves in his first English speaking outing with The Lobster, which certainly follows his deadpan sensibilities that drips with blood-soaked absurdism. But underneath the strangeness there lies a glowing human heart. Set in a dystopian society where singletons are forced to choose a partner within 40 days or else be turned into an animal, Lanthimos is reflecting on society’s monogamous attitudes and relationship demands with a biting sense of satire. Though acerbically melancholy, The Lobster nonetheless maintains an inviting and humorous attitude towards its immensely preposterous fictional world that’s pure tongue-in-cheek storytelling that places an unflattering mirror towards how we live and love versus the struggle for individual human identity. It’s an ambitious, thoroughly strange, yet incredibly moving romance that horrifies through sheer suggestion and the creation of a world that, while alien, doesn’t seem all too unfamiliar. It might be one of cinema’s acquired tastes, but for those willing to expand their visual, cinematic, and storytelling palette there are rewards to be found underneath the layers of weirdness.
1. Toni Erdmann– There’s no other film in existence that is like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann—a devilishly silly and thoroughly poignant three-hour father-daughter farce that swings wildly between lowbrow idiocy and incisive social commentary. It’s a defiant rebellious statement against the standardization of life, for both the characters (against the conformity of corporate monotony) and for Ade as a stylized filmmaker as well (against expectations and typical conventions placed on the medium of cinema). It absurdly follows the misadventures of Winfried, a clumsy and unshaven music teacher who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ines by invading her life through pranks and improvised identity. While that might seem relatively straightforward on the surface, Toni Erdmann cleverly integrates complex character interactions with existential ponderings on the meaning of modern life. Ade packs into each frame illuminating philosophical ideas, a multitude of three-dimensional characters, and snippets of piercing societal observation that it’s impossible to place the film in some definite genre category. It’s part psychological character study, part strained intergenerational drama, and part absurdist slapstick satire. While within the film Winfried seeks to break Ines out of her habits of complacency, Ade is doing the same for us—challenging us to alter our rigid perceptions and renew our faith in what might be possible in the world of film. That in itself is a creative miracle, and should be embraced without reservation.
Honorable Mentions: A Bigger Splash, Dheepan, Green Room, The Love Witch, Swiss Army Man, Things to Come, La La Land, Tickled, Weiner-Dog, and Julieta.