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.
Belladonna of Sadness
Osamu Tezuka's 1973 astonishment gets a loving restoration and hopefully, a whole new cult following. A ravishing mixture of witch craft and psychedelic freak outs, Belladonna of Sadness is the kind of audacious experiment that just doesn't get made anymore; a whirlwind of hand-painted picture scroll-style animation, bursts of color, and free-jazz prog rock compositions. You'll never look at moth-winged penises the same way.
Rabin, the Last Day
Amos Gitai's sprawling hybrid documentary is as much about the unending cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence as it about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Meshing archival footage with actors in key roles, the film is a slipstream of historical information and blurred memory which reveals how corruption, fear, and violence have corroded Israel from the inside out. Essential, timely, and unforgettable.
Paul Verhoeven's brilliantly subversive Elle sees the great Isabelle Huppert playing a woman of a certain age who desires sex and will go to some very disturbing places to get it. However, the film really isn't about sex at all, but emerges as a dark comedy about female dominance and the eradication of the male's need for control. As such, it's a pointed satire of the dreaded "victim narrative", and sees one of our most shrewd provocateurs back in top form.
Land and Shade
The tale of a shattered family struggling against the marches of capitalism, Caesar Acevedo's stunning debut draws power through painterly compositions, hushed performances, and immersive sound design. The landscapes, which in one bravura sequence shows an entire sugar cane field engulfed in flames, seem to entrap the characters, who toil endlessly to maintain their dwindling way of life. Powerful, meditative cinema.
Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest masterclass in "slow cinema" takes place inside a Thailand hospital where a mysterious sleeping illness has gripped the population of soldiers. It's a singular achievement; odd, comic, banal, resistant to narrative structure, and yet, strangely moving and attune to its characters desire for transcendence.
Of Men and War
Delicately following the lives of several war combat veterans inside a Nevada, California health facility over the course of six years, Laurent Becue-Renard's staggering documentary is one of the rare examples of the observant camera and subject becoming one unifying vision. Though sprawling at 142 minutes and tough to watch at times, Of Men and War is also a sobering examination of the resilience of the human spirit.
Embrace of the Serpent
Ciro Guerra's extraordinary combination of historical fact and mystical folklore intertwines two stories seeking to expose the horrors of colonialism, and in the process, charts a Colombian version of Hearts of Darkness. A striking vision of paradise lost lensed in gorgeous black and white.
An absolutely transfixing piece of work about a lonely Tibetan shepherd who wanders valleys both literal and spiritual, Pema Tseden's Tharlo is the year's most Zen-like, powerful film. Visually austere, narratively languid, and ethnographically compelling, this is a snapshot of a culture we rarely get to witness, with Tseden proving himself to be an emerging master of his craft.
Kate Plays Christine
Robert Greene's astonishing faux-documentary follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she researches the role of real-life TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself live on air in 1974, and emerges as the year's most thematically dense experiment. That the film itself eventually becomes an exploitative stunt is one of the more galvanizing examples of Chubbuck's own warnings of "blood and guts journalism." Herzogian, multi-faceted, and supremely humanist.
Martin Scorsese's deeply personal and formally breathtaking passion project is not only the year's greatest artistic achievement, but also easily the director's best film since 1999's Bringing Out the Dead. Two young Jesuit missionaries infiltrate Japan in 1639 where widespread torture and execution of Christians is taking place, and what follows is a picture flowing from Scorsese's heart and soul. Silence represents a culmination of the director's life-long struggle with his faith, and a masterful tackling of complex questions regarding devotion, madness, and salvation. After the puerile macho nonsense that was The Wolf of Wall Street, it's good to have Marty back.
Other favorites that just missed the list:
Kill Zone 2, Loving, The Treasure, Demon, Manchester by the Sea, For the Plasma, Do Not Resist, Little Men, Cosmos, Homosapiens