I offer below a rundown of my top 20 favourite films of the year just past. I have compiled elsewhere a full, ranked list of pretty much every 2016 feature I have seen. The ranking both there and here is somewhat provisional, until it comes to the top 5 or so; at which point it becomes more or less a lock. I highly enjoyed approximately 50 films from last year, from 51 to ~80 my feelings become quite considerably mixed.
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20. Sully (dir. Clint Eastwood)
As a character study regarding the humble, undesired attention professionalism desires and the readiness of everyday people to act precisely in response to emergency, Sully is truly touching. Beyond that fascinating as a presentation of a post-9/11 American psyche that imagines disaster around every corner and churns over it in its mind.
19. I Am Not Madame Bovary (dir. Feng Xiaogang)
The deployment of the silhouette makes for 2016’s best mis-en-scène, and the wider tale of a woman rebelling and throwing a patriarchal social order on its head as it attempts to respond to her impossible demands is truly remarkable. It doesn’t stick the landing and sides in script, perhaps not as cinema, with the conservatives; but Fan and Feng found a truth and purpose here that is at times startling.
18. Allied (dir. Robert Zemeckis)
One will struggle to find a better directed film from year past. Zemeckis approaches Allied with a sense of purpose and technical skill that is unparalleled, as he successfully weds technique with every narrative movement and expressive moment in story. A simply brilliant revisionist homage to classic Hollywood’s war-time greats.
17. Three (dir. Johnnie To)
I don’t buy what To is presenting here in terms of his wider organising metaphysics of chance, as all he finds here is a universe organised toward the “good”; but otherwise Three boasts some of his most expressive blocking and deftness in wielding tension. The concluding moments weigh the film down, but the shootout is a joy.
16. Trivisa (dir. Frank Hui, Jevons Au Man-Kit, and Vicky Wong)
Hong Kong is a place pining for a past time and utterly afraid for its future, and Trivisa is the expression of this situation committed to film as it relates to both wider society and its cinema. The film refuses nostalgia in its most sentimental mode, for it knows its past was not “good”, it is only worried it was better insofar as it was liveable. A complex and daring film.
15. SoulMate (dir. Kwok Cheung Tsang)
Hollywood doesn’t make melodramas as structurally complex and technically assured as this. In fact, it might be said Hollywood doesn’t make melodramas, full stop. It could learn a lesson, for SoulMate captures the breadth of economic hardship, professional disillusionment, cultural baggage, and emotional drama needed to win people over.
14. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
The beauty Moonlight finds in the passages and moments in between and around the brutality and violence inflicted by wider society is powerful. Jenkins expressive uses of colour and sound (e.g. I’m thinking of when Chiron’s mother, Paula, is seen screaming at him in silence to pulsating reds and blues) and their redeployment throughout was a true standout. I cannot even pretend to have understood what this film may mean.
13. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
Southern Heat, American Manichaeism, the law and the outlaw, stuck between what is needed and those employed to make it impossible. Mackenzie directs with an assuredness immediately visible in sidelong long takes that communicate all the purpose one needs to know these characters have. It’s sobering to see in times of real need, with the added knowledge that no help is coming.
12. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)
The meeting of generations and values and the attempt at genuine communication, learning, and exchange between the two. Structures won’t change soon, as the film’s wrestle with capitalism suggests, even as it hollows those embedded within it out. The deep lessons come in becoming enlivened by those who may still feel and enriched by what they offer. A film about not missing what may be communicated.
11. The Wasted Times (dir. Cheng Er)
Non-linear storytelling like little else, in a tale of the dissolution of all codes in a time of war. Cheng’s direction is astounding at times, peppering the film throughout with immaculate wide and bird’s-eye view shots of exteriors and Shanghai, embellishing a satisfyingly complex and twisting narrative of the fall of a top mafia household under the Japanese occupation. Family, business, love, sex, Shanghai cinema, and crime are all irreparably devolved and The Wasted Times makes it fascinating to behold.
10. Kaili Blues (dir. Gan Bi)
Lost in the corridors of poverty and regret come the dreams of what once was and the fears of what will be. Kaili Blues is a startling, labyrinthine directorial debut that attempts to navigate the fluid particulars of one man’s life in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou. Gan Bi powerfully captures the slipperiness and slippages of the mind’s focus in the film’s visual wrestle to represent a phenomenological experience of time that might be most commonly known in dreams, wherein time may pass slowly yet quickly, or quickly yet slowly. Nowhere is this more clearly or boldly stated than in the 40 minute one-take that lies, as statement, at the film’s heart.
9. Shin Godzilla (dir. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi, and Katsuro Onoue)
A powerful political satire and statement of neo-imperial pretense to democracy that underlines what is surely one of the the most witty and well-constructed “monster” movies in recent memory. Shin Gozilla challenges what has never really been forgotten, nor forgiven, in what has been supposedly forgotten-because-forgiven, and how global conditions—indeed, our ongoing state of emergency—only structure the possibility of repetitions of past crimes and dissolutions of autonomy. A film of alternative answers and new means of operating.
8. Crosscurrent (dir. Yang Chao)
“Defeat samsara, achieves Nirvana and brilliance”, so goes the stated goal of Lupe Fiasco. Yang Chao appears to at least have the first part in mind. In this tale of repeatedly lost and found love on Yangtze River, a young man—through a book of poetry that could, for all I know, be his own poems from a past life—achieves a spiritual liberation in the moment “tears transform to trance”. Crosscurrent is a profound work of finding some neutrality amidst the various “ultimacies” one’s life may become structured around. Shot by Hou Hsiao-hsien luminary, Mark Lee Ping Bin, the images one is treated to here are worth viewing alone, and only serve to strengthen the fascination of the screenplay and direction Chao has provided.
7. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)
The benchmark for all future period adaptations, as it captures like nothing else the quiet, biting, dignified rage that is rightly felt toward a patriarchal order on which one is made to rely but is rightly above. Kate Beckinsale sores in a performance that is ever hilarious, at times melancholic, and often near-inscrutable. Uniquely aware of the question of performance, the cast excellently performs the performances of elites too bored and established to become knowledgeable and only ever fascinated by self-maximising appearances. In Love & Friendship Stillman has wrought an unrelenting work of true brilliance.
6. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook)
A love story that tells of the overcoming of the highly economised and sexualised masculinist oppression. The film’s overlapping story structure isn’t quite as grandiose and complex as The Wasted Times, yet, in its elegance, it achieves a remarkable directness and sense of purpose in its depiction of the romance between its female leads, Kim Min‑hee and Kim Tae‑ri. Indeed, it is these two performances that elevate the film as it evolves and layers their inter-relation, even going so far as to mitigate the structural issues of the male-gaze that could have become (co-)i/mplicit in the camera. Chan-wook directs with a finesse and delicacy worthy of the tale and in a manner that lends a joy to proceedings; which is only fitting for material that, while at times twisted, has a built-in sense of victory that never feels predetermined, but simply, and ultimately, just.
5. Creepy (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
As one of the great living filmmakers, Kiyoshi Kurosawa should always be trusted to deliver; and with his queer symmetries and off-putting close-ups, he does just that in Creepy. It is a film that shocks in the weirdness of where it is willing to go, moving from police procedural to hostage crisis, to in its final moments a story of relationship breakdown like no other. While it lacks the clinical feel and potency of the thematically similar Cure, Kurosawa speaks again to our modern alienations and willingness to foster dependencies, as well as the kinds of work that others take our alienations for and what we can become when we know longer see what we love and the world to which we belong.
4. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Misogyny, Christianity, gaming culture, and more collide in Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, which begins with the coldest of opens in any film of the last year. Sexual violence takes centre stage as patriarchal abuse, past and present, is woven into the fabric of the Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc’s life and the society that surrounds and, indeed, has made her. It is subject matter that is not easy to view, and in lesser hands could even be unwatchable, but Verhoeven and Huppert approach the work as one overrun by the injustices, complexities, and indignities of our own. There is no justification of wrong here, only the sad acknowledgement that we exist as a people who have been deeply affected by and who have irreparably hurt others.
3. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
A beautiful portrait of the simple act and fact of living, of undergoing, processing, and responding to experience. The poetry tells of the more that is implicit in any and all aspects of one’s life, the queer circumstances and meaning that may become observable and even imbued in it all. Paterson is overcome by the sense that any moment and any space is a moment for creativity and enjoyment in a manner that is uneconomisable, even if it in some manner requires money. Driver and Farahani craft a rare dynamic as the central couple who could not be more right in the contrasts they bring to one another; a trait that is echoed with Driver’s Paterson in wider society as he meets diverse people on parallel creative paths, each learn from and give to the other and furnish their experiences respectively. In all, Paterson is an immaculately textured work and a testament to the experience of creativity and the creativity of experience.
2. A Bride For Rip Van Winkle (dir. Shunji Iwai)
The dissolution and reformation of the subject and its desire is a characteristic behaviour of neoliberal capitalism. It is a form of violence like no other, insofar as desire is wholly fitting and right. Yet, desire itself is here made into a telos. Mutually exclusive and competing desires are made ultimate and the actual content of life is erased to make people viable containers for this desire. This is A Bride For Rip Van Winkle. Harrowing in every fluid and aquatic respect, it is a film so very ambivalent to lives it depicts that it should be underestimated how ghastly its profundity is: desire is a defining characteristic of anyone’s life, but when one’s desire has been created and others designed to fulfil, prior to this entire terrain being rewritten and every actor refashioned, existence begins to take on more ambiguous meaning. Existence is the subject matter here, and Iwai knows we may no longer know what it is.
1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder)
The opening moments in Metropolis tell of exactly what this film aims to do: recalibrate what the “superhero” genre is and show what it could become. The film reconfigures its prequel and, further, does the very same with the organising principles (aims toward goodness, attitudes toward knowledge, interpretations of power) and raw material (political impotence, capitalist insidiousness, covert military interventions etc.) of our very lives. Batman v Superman is not simply a film about how we live, but a film for how we can live. It is a film about how the fascism that structures Western life has made the doing of justice impossible and the mystification and obfuscation billionaire capitalists have organised to set mindless hate against those who would seek to do good. It aims to let the refugee speak and asks how many need to die before we recognise, as the film concludes, that we have only ourselves in the face of our enemies and what they hope to unleash.
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Best Supporting Actor
5. Tadanobu Asano, The Wasted Times
4. Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!
3. Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
2. Jesse Essenberg, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
1. Go Ayano, A Bride For Rip Van Winkle
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5. Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
4. Haru Kuroki, A Bride For Rip Van Winkle
3. Fan Bingbing, I Am Not Madam Bovary
2. Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
1. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
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5. Robert Zemeckis, Allied
4. Cheng Er, The Wasted Times
3. Yang Chao, Crosscurrent
2. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Creepy
1. Shunji Iwai, A Bride For Rip Van Winkle