2016 was a disastrous year for the human race. The litany of reasons for this; both personal, political, societal, and on a grander scale, are immeasurable and would be redundant to recount here. Still, there were films released. American cinema (particularly major studio releases), continued to flop around in the gutter of crash commercialism, and aside from a notable few exceptions, represented the worst of us. On the other hand, foreign films and documentaries flourished; showcasing a wide range of experiences and viewpoints which reinforced the daring artistic creativity human beings are capable of. There were tales of war-torn trauma, political upheaval, Eastern mysticism, paradise lost, deconstructing exploitation, and the triumphant return of a master. Though not the most inspiring year for cinema overall, the list of films here showcases that glimmer of hope we all cling to. That film can move and change us. That they have an important place in the culture, even as their light continues to dim. Long live the films. May they never die.
Playful, humorous, and moving, Nanni Moretti's take on cinema, acting, and love is personal filmmaking of the highest order. The story of an Italian director (Margherita Buy) tackling a big-budget production while trying to control an out-of-control actor (a wonderful John Turturro) as her mother is lying at death's door, seamlessly moves between emotions and tones before arriving at a final indelible image. Bravo.
No Home Movie
Late Belgian director Chantal Ackerman's poignant tribute to her mother, a Polish Auschwitz survivor who died in 2014, doesn't seek to deconstruct or subvert the home movie format. Rather, it fully embraces its shaggy aesthetic, offering an observational video essay capturing small moments and seemingly inconsequential activities. Funny, candid, and surprisingly powerful.
The Other Side
Roberto Minervini's loosely structured hybrid of documentary and staged faux-realism is the year's most disturbing political movie. Focusing on poor citizens, drug addicts, war veterans, and anti-government extremists in Louisiana, the film takes on the feeling of evocative horror and strange beauty as it charts the lives of those society has given up on.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest has the outward appearance of a horror film, but plays more like a disturbing comedy of manners with elements of domestic drama, detective procedural, and psychological thriller. A masterful slow-build featuring a scene-stealing performance from Teruyuki Kagawa as the "creepy" neighbor in question, this is a graceful, tension-filled piece of genre-shifting.
Avishai Sivan's mediation on religious ritual, tradition, carnal desire, and Kafka-esque black comedy is the rare film which completely immerses the audience inside its tonal grasp. No matter what allegorical messages are formed, there's no denying Tikkun hangs just outside our ability to understand, kind of like religious mysticism itself.
Eisenstein in Guanajunto
Peter Greenaway's take on controversial Russian director Sergei Eisenstein is an ambitious mixture of audio and visual experimentation. As an odd footnote in Eisenstein's career post Battleship Potemkin, the film essentially riffs on notions of art, sexual identity, and bombastic artificiality. Meanwhile, Finnish actor Elmer Back delivers a theatrically powerhouse performance in the central role.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller writes, directs, edits, and designed the costumes for this singular 1950s Technicolor/ 1970s Italian horror pastiche, which provides layers underneath the artifice deconstructing gender roles and the fear of female sexuality. As a spell-casting witch driving a red convertible, Samantha Robinson is arch perfection in the title role; cannily distilling Biller's notion that homage can indeed be fetishized to the point where it becomes something vitally new.
Is Na Hong-Jin's remarkable film a horror vehicle? A murder mystery? Domestic kitchen sink drama? Detective story? Supernatural thriller? The brilliance here is that it could be labeled all of these things, and often in the very same scene. Horror bleeds into farce. Comedy joins hands with tragedy. Domesticity splinters into the mystical and unexplained. At 156 minutes, The Wailing is slab of visceral genre-blurring maximalism work which Na renders with a deft sense of control.
Valley of Love
Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu play heightened versions of themselves in Guillaume Nicloux's tender and enigmatic film about loss, separation, and regret. Taking place entirely in California's Death Valley as the two former lovers chart the path of their estranged son's recent suicide, Valley of Love unfolds like a cringe-drama before dovetailing into gut-punch poignancy, with two legendary actors putting on a clinic in understatement.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's shrewd documentary about controversial director Brian De Palma uses a very simple conceit; De Palma himself talking directly to camera, and then unspools a cinephile's dream. Cutting between footage of his entire filmography in chronological order and humorous anecdotes, the film is both a touching tribute to one filmmaker's specific contribution to the art form as well as a pleasurable sensory experience as only the medium can provide.
Shot in pristine black and white with locked down cameras held mostly at a distance and structured like a classic Western, Radu Jude's Aferim! is a complete original. As a vision of the morally corrupt region during the Ottoman Empire, the film is distinctly critical of a particular time in history, but also just as often uproariously funny. Think John Ford by way of a vulgar Romanian road movie.
Right Now, Wrong Then
Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has made a densely rewarding take on the idea of reality vs. wish fulfillment under the guise of the structural replaying of a romantic fling. The story of a film director meeting an aspiring painter and admirer is shown twice, but neither perspective is without complication, leading to a film of various emotional layers conveyed with startling observational specificity.
A young intellectual attempts to break free from the Catholic Church in Federico Veiroj's ironic drama, which moves gracefully from existential darkness to satirical whimsy without missing a beat. It's like a Coen Brothers movie filtered through Luis Bunuel, with nonsensical dogma placed up against daydreams about nudist colonies and gorgeous Madrid architecture. A meandering, off-beat gem.
Lorenzo Vigas's From Afar tells a complicated queer love story which buries its themes within the socioeconomic gap between older men and adolescent street punks. Much is communicated with very little dialogue and deep focus cinematography, with every glance and gesture signaling hidden desire and the pitfalls of infatuation.
The Academy of Muses
Jose Luis Guerin's meta exercise about a male University professor teaching a course about the power of the muse in art and literature attended entirely of women, is shot like a flat TV documentary with countless scenes of academic debate and philosophizing. However, there's an intellectual thrill to the material here, as well as a streak of wry humor, which makes the film bracing in its anti-aesthetic and provocative as a gender examination.