Why a top 10 list of movies? At its best, the top 10 list introduces a reader to a movie they’d either never heard of or never watched. Hopefully, it can convince the reader to seek it out for themselves. It should reflect the writer’s individual temperament — their tastes, subjective yet informed. It should get people to revisit works that they’ve otherwise forgotten, especially in a year as chaotic as 2016.
With that in mind, here are 10 of my favorites of the past year. (With a bonus five!) These are works that have stayed with me long after I’ve seen them. They haunt my bones, delight me in tough times, and should inspire all of us with their artistic insights.
This rich anime from Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”) is now my favorite Studio Ghibli film. It was released in Japan in 1991, but it was never released for theatrical distribution in North America until 2016. It remains my most treasured theatrical experience from this year; I went to see it three times, each time feeling as if I was burrowing deeper and deeper into Takahata’s plush blanket of memories and time slippage.
“Only Yesterday” is remarkable for its vivid rendering of process, the quotidian, and the mundane in a Japanese girl’s childhood. From periods to sibling squalors to grade-school crushes, “Only Yesterday” is sculpted from the moments of our lives that are raw, naked, honest, and patiently observed. The movie grinds to a sublime stop in order to watch a Japanese family learning how to cut a Hawaiian pineapple. Watching “Only Yesterday” is to be reminded of one of the many crucial goals in life — to be a continuously better person than you were in the past or are in the present moment — and of the inability to live up to that expectation. It is unsentimental, sparse and deeply personal.
Kelly Reichardt adapted a series of short stories by Maile Meloy to craft this river-like miracle of Acting and Setting. Alongside “Love & Friendship,” it sports the year’s best ensemble, from Laura Dern as a disrespected lawyer to newcomer Lily Gladstone as a rancher who’s Jeanne Dielman’s lonely cousin. This brown-heavy tale of woe and despair in a Montana town is radical for several reasons. Besides respecting the weirdness of the most microcosmic details — an untucked Laura Dern shirt, the ginger, exacting way Kristen Stewart slices her burger with a dull diner knife — Reichardt digs deep beneath a thing’s surface to uncover the disharmony of the world, an unsettling American loneliness. It has a tough and total understanding of drab folk in a drab world that moved me to tears.
The sheer originality of Beyoncé’s 65-minute “Lemonade” blows most of this year’s so-called “movies” out of the water. Hardly any hold up to “Hold Up,” in which Beyoncé smashes the male camera gaze with glee and abandon. Her missive to Black Womanism was widely heralded when it whisper-dropped this past April. It’s a work that serves as a crucial blueprint for future musical cinema — a nimble harmonizing of spiritual montage, liquidy camerawork, and crisp POC formations akin to the revolutionary accomplishments of Richard Lester in the 60s (“A Hard Day’s Night”) and Julie Dash in the 90s (“Daughters of the Dust”). Beyoncé dismantles canons, assumptions, seemingly sturdy grounds.
A postmodern work of our times. Slick jewel tones, earworm tunes, a cartooning of the cushier sections of LA, and two charmingly self-absorbed millennials (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, never better) who dream of being The Next Big Thing are just some of the tools Damien Chazelle uses to both embrace and critique the #aesthetic moment. But aside from being a smart send-up of today, “La La Land” is also a depressingly cynical elegy to several deaths: of American film musicals, of a unified movie experience, and of the ideal romantic connection. See it now in theaters if you haven’t yet (I’ve seen it six times already, and it grows in complexity each time).
If you speak Spanish and are willing to dive into the deep end of some funky experimental cinema, seek out “Santa Teresa & Otras Historias,”* a travelogue/film essay/murder mystery loosely adapted from the epic Roberto Bolaño novel “2666” (2004). Dominican Republic-born filmmaker Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias centers his wildly non-narrative whatsit around a fictional border town in Mexico (Santa Teresa — or Juarez, thinly disguised), plagued with rapes, femicide, misogyny, a drought of religiosity, and a wave of serial-killings that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Latinas. Santos Arias tells this story in disturbing, non-sign-posted images: real-life postcards of skeletonized, decaying female corpses with no identities, the grooved-in mountain caves where women go missing, girls chasing each other down ghostly outdoor alleyways.
By telling his story in such alienating non-linearity, Santos Arias gets on the level of something like Doris Salcedo’s “A Flor del Piel” (2012-13), another work which disrupts the viewer’s tradition perception of art forms. Both Salcedo and Santos Arias aim to reorient the way we grieve or pay tribute to a fallen person. It’s all to convey the horror of a situation, as well as to give a tragic event its proper artistic due. Experimental cinema as urgent social critique.
* I say “speak Spanish” as a necessity, since the only copy of the film I found has no English subtitles. Despite what any devotees of Pure Cinemah will tell you, the Spanish voice-overs provide a crucial context for the images that gets recklessly lost if you can’t understand what’s being said. (And you should; most of the voices recite Bolaño’s rich prose.) Available to view on this festival website: http://margenes.org/component/k2/item/2738-santa-teresa-y-otras-historias-film.html.
Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-epic of faith and the effects of European colonization in Japan is a rarity: a really challenging beast of cinema that’s been gifted a major studio release. Scorsese has been developing this adaptation of Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel since the early 1990s — and the wait has paid off. To stay with a film for so long means to obsessively re-think each and every one of its characters, its plot-beats, its implications. Such a care to detail shows in every one of Scorsese’s powerful widescreen shots, the cinema-scope of his Christian-Buddhist-exisentialist images: alterpiece-like tableaux, a ma aesthetic present in the chillingly empty soundscape (“Johnny Guitar” wind currents), and brutal divides between two hopelessly untouching colors that scream with Mark Rothko’s existential dread.
“Silence” follows Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Portuguese priest who makes it his personal mission to plant the seeds of Christianity in Japan. Half fancying himself as a Jesus-ish figure of salvation and martyrdom, he is captured and forced to watch other Japanese Christians enduring the most heinous of tortures. Endo’s and Scorsese’s work is an exacting study of Rodrigues. Here is a man who must maintain his belief in Universal Brotherhood and survive with his faith in the Christian gospel intact. Yet here also is a man who is completely oblivious to his destructive, colonialist, and potentially foolhardy presence in Japan.
As with the best of Scorsese’s films (“The King of Comedy,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Age of Innocence”), “Silence” is a maddeningly ambiguous film. He doesn’t let you know which side he falls on — if there’s even a side we’re supposed to fall on, which I’d argue is far from the point. It should be hotly debated, and in circles that extend beyond those of Christian faith. For this is not just a tale which tracks the triumphs of personal faiths, but a sweeping and slamming critique of Westernization and the limits of belief. It’s a revelation of the ideology that goes behind a spiritual connection.
Another LA movie, cut from the same cynical, frozen-city silk as “La La Land.” This splintered, plotless wonder sees Terrence “Tree of Life” Malick externalizing his personal tragedies and careerist seductions into a Godardian cinematic odyssey. It’s about the spiritual death of cinema, and its potential for Phoenix-like resurrection. Let the images flow through you, for they carry significance that goes beyond words and programmatic, Hollywood plots.
A gloriously misanthropic work (the key Greek word being “anthropos” — i.e., man) that has sent the film world in a tizzy over its Isabelle Huppert-played heroine, a video-game-exec who is raped and continues on with her working life, secretly plotting her revenge against the assaulter. Huppert is what keeps Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch shenanigans in check and tempered. Yet their aim is far more serious, far more socially committed than what first greets the eye. “Elle” is a responsible film in which rape culture and misogyny is shown up for how much it has pervaded Western culture and basic ways of thinking. Verhoeven’s sense of tonal control never descends into the chaotic frenzies of his illuminating “Basic Instinct” or “Showgirls.” With age, Verhoeven has (weirdly enough) dialed down, entering an elegiac late-Pedro Almodovar mode (see: the muted melodrama cool-kick of “Julieta”) where the attacks against society are mightily nuanced.
“Elle” is a carefully worked-out proof, a film that traces themes of contemporary relevance via a delicate negotiating between the ethical and the politically naughty. Now, we need to be more woke and on-the-alert than ever. Verhoeven and Huppert’s movie will turn out to be one of the cultural objects that will help us get there…
…as will Whit Stillman’s acidic adaptation of a little-known Jane Austen novella. Kate Beckinsale is the bored Lady Susan and Chloë Sevigny is her bemused girl-friend. Hipsters with casual confidence, the ladies do little to hide their contempt of their high patriarchal English society, using wit to entertain themselves in the dullest of situations (and fend off the dullest of dullards, viz. a Monty Python-like hijacking of the film by the whip-smart Tom Bennett).
“Love & Friendship” adds yet another exciting, delirious personage (Beckinsale’s scheming Susan) to the sparkling Stillman oeuvre of cloistered club wits, Barcelona haters and dance-crazy college preppies. Wonderful oddballs, all. His is a cinema in love with the spoken word, how words can be used to gain the upper hand in a society where a surface identity boxes a complex person in. (Chris Eigemen is more than his pocketbook, Lady Susan is more than her dashing feminine looks, etc.) Stillman’s laid-back style — never flashy, never ostentatious — prizes the well-written comeback. As such, it is a film with the air of Ernst Lubitsch elegance and the sharpness of a Billy Wilder/Chuck Jones gag.
“Sunset Song” is a huge achievement for Terence Davies, the British director whose films include the brutally personal landmarks “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1989) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992). “Sunset Song” — about a Scottish woman’s attempt to maintain her humanity and sanity amid World War I tragedy — features Davies’ trademark humanism in full effect, channeled through stunning Scottish landscapes, a performance (Agyness Denn) for the ages, and Davies’ treasured themes: patriarchal brutality (abusive fathers), feminist resilience (battle-axe mothers), artistic escapism (through Scottish folk tunes), and the strength culled from loneliness when the world has seemingly given up on you. All are channeled through Davies’ steady hand — a director whose sensibility is as aged, knowing and assured as Chaplin’s was in his late-period masterworks (“Limelight,” “A Countess from Hong Kong”).
And five other 2016 greats:
- “The Edge of Seventeen” (dir. Kelly Fremont Craig)
- “The Love Witch” (dir. Anna Biller)
- “Hail, Caesar!” (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
- “Sully” (dir. Clint Eastwood)
- “Julieta” (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected].