Many would agree that 2016 was a terrible year in general, and I don’t need to explain why. It is strange to have to admit, then, that it was a great year for film. Here is a list of my favorites among those I managed to see. Some of the movies are technically from 2015, but they didn’t make it to my neck of the woods until the following year. Rankings are of course highly subjective, so I dispensed with numbering.
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho).
A widow in northeast Brazil is pressured to sell the beachfront apartment where she has lived most of her life, by a real estate company that wants to build a huge development. But they don’t realize the kind of stubborn, defiant, and resilient person they’re dealing with. This struggle, which would announce itself as the “message” of an ordinary film, is here just the frame for a rich portrait of a woman’s life and experience, her ideals, passions, mistakes, her bonds with family and friends, and the sense of home with its sights, sounds, and precious objects. Sonia Braga gives the kind of late-career performance that most stars would die for—Clara, her character, is someone you could easily know, real in her imperfections, yet with an extraordinary, compelling personality. And Braga is magnificently there on the screen, beautiful and without pretense.
The paradox of Aquarius is that its very specificity, the care which it bestows on each character as an individual, allows it to encompass wider issues without having to preach or be explicit. Clara stands for art, intelligence, honesty and lack of phoniness, ownership of one’s own life and body, and the freedom to be oneself. All this in contrast to the dull and insensitive quest for profit at all cost on the part of the real estate company, and by extension, the social and political order we face today. I love how this movie is anchored in the experience and lives of ordinary people, and at the same time expresses the spirit of resistance that we now need so much.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins).
An extraordinary three-part portrait of growing up black and gay in a poor Miami neighborhood. Each part is a penetrating glimpse into the pain and discovery of three different times—that of a boy, a teenager, and a man, and with three different, excellent actors playing Chiron, the main character. Marvelous work by Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and the mesmerizing young Alex Hibbert. Here’s a film that shows us much more than we’re used to seeing, revealed through bodies and faces and the silences between words more than the words. Jenkins lets us grow along with and into the people in his story, with each period of life a new discovery. The third act is a masterpiece of emotional suggestion and restraint, and Trevante Rhodes is a revelation here as Chiron the man. We’re fortunate that such a personal and uncompromising film has reached such a wide audience. Patiently observant and visually gorgeous, Moonlight takes nothing for granted in its commitment to honesty and the quest for connection.
Things to Come (Mia Hansen Løve).
Another film with a powerful woman at the center, this time a French woman played by Isabelle Huppert, a supremely confident philosophy professor in her 60s, whose marriage, work, and family suddenly start to fall apart all at the same time. Huppert is magnificent, in a performance that impressed me much more than her more flamboyant turn in Elle, which is getting more attention. This is that rarity, a film of ideas which never becomes abstract. The director has mastered the balance of distance and emotion, insight and mystery, as her main character adjusts her vision to encompass mortality—brave and resolute yet with a sweet aura of sadness, she endures. A film for grown-ups, Things to Come asks, what are we to make of the rest of our lives?
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra).
This one flew under the critical radar. It’s the story of a shaman on the Amazon River who agrees to help a German ethnologist find a rare medicinal plant. The voyage is beautiful and terrifying, but Guerra ingeniously interweaves a later story, of the same shaman thirty years later, once again helping a scientist, this time an American, who seeks the same goal, on a journey that reveals deeper truths about good and evil. Shot in crisp black & white, the film takes the Indians’ point of view, and their experiences being enslaved by Europeans in their greed for wealth in the rain forest. In a film of such historical and political resonance, it is remarkable that the meaning sought and achieved in Embrace of the Serpent is one of dream and vision.
Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda).
Kore-eda tells stories of ordinary people’s daily lives, often emphasizing children, their relationships with parents and each other, and their efforts to get by on their own in the world. In this film, three adult sisters welcome their 14-year-old half sister into their home, and the movie follows about a year in their life together. They each have distinctive personalities: what drama there is springs from the emotional burdens of the overly responsible eldest sister (Haruka Ayase), but there’s no plot in the usual sense. We just watch the development of intimacy between the three young women and their new sister Suzu, played by the luminous Suzu Hirose. I felt not a single moment of boredom or impatience with this film, only joy and a strong awareness of love as a real force in our existence.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt).
The theme is loneliness, the kind that might not even have a voice, but is there nevertheless, silently revealed through commonplace action and gesture. There are three stories of women living in Montana. In the first, Laura Dern plays an exhausted small-town lawyer who finds unexpected courage in the midst of a crisis involving a disturbed client. In the second, a woman (Michelle Williams) trying to build her dream house has prickly interactions with her husband and teenage daughter. Finally, a horse ranch caretaker (Lily Gladstone) gets a crush on a visiting night class instructor (Kristen Stewart), but doesn’t know how to express it. Everything in the film seems real in a way you don’t usually see in a film. That’s the peculiar genius of Kelly Reichardt.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer).
The sole point of view in The Fits is that of an 11-year-old girl named Toni, and played by an impressive newcomer with the wonderful name Royalty Hightower. Toni is quiet, serious, athletic, yet introverted. She joins a competitive dance troupe at the local community center, and does fairly well, although she’s challenged by the feminine rituals and behaviors evidenced by the older girls. Then the girls in the dance troupe start to have, one by one, strange seizures or fits where they writhe on the ground and have trouble breathing. The film creates a strange mood, a haunting sense of isolation, Holmer is interested in evoking that ungrounded feeling of adolescence: not knowing what life is about but having to act like you do—and in doing so, she has created a powerful and unsettling work of art.
Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante).
In Guatemala, a Maya Indian girl (Maria Mercedes Caroy) is betrothed to the foreman of the coffee plantation on which her father works, a union that is meant to benefit the family. Unknown to them, she prefers a local youth who is planning to steal back into the U.S., where he has been before. As trouble descends on the girl, her mother (Maria Telon) is revealed, unexpectedly, as her indomitable ally, and the story becomes a remarkable account of loyalty in the midst of hardship. The fine, vivid cinematography, by Luis Armando Arteaga, makes the beauty and the hardness of the country real for us. Ever present, but never overemphasized, is the exploitation that rules the world in which Guatemalan peasants struggle to live.
Jackie (Pablo Larrain).
Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy during the terrible four days in 1963, between the assassination of her husband and his funeral. This is presented in a manner completely alien to what we are used to seeing in a biographical film. The camera follows her closely throughout; we’re not given the standard idea of a public persona, but of this particular woman in what amounts to complete isolation. Lorraine unsettles the viewer by combining exact period accuracy with a dread-inducing, claustrophobic style. The musical score by Mica Levi is dark and hypnotic. And Portman is astonishing—this is no mere impersonation, but a performance of intense interiority.
Fences (Denzel Washington).
The best play by August Wilson, one of America’s greatest playwrights, vigorously directed by Washington, who also plays the lead role: Troy Maxson, a passionate and voluble ex-baseball player who has a dominating presence wherever he goes. His outsize ego, his obvious virtues and strengths, along with the weaknesses he tries to hide, overshadow the feelings of others to the point where he forces them, inevitably, to rebel. The supporting players are marvelous, especially Viola Davis as his suffering wife. But Washington’s performance is the thing. He laughs, argues, rages, and mourns to the very top of his range—I think this is the greatest work of his film career.
This was such a good year for movies that my B-sides are, for the most part, as excellent as an average year’s top picks:
Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson).
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin).
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu).
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan).
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone).
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos).
Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov).
Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman).
The Love Witch (Anna Biller).
For 2017, I would gladly trade a mediocre year in film for a better year in general. But of course that is only a fantasy. Too many losses to list, but I’ll just mention seven directors whose work I have admired: Hector Babenco, Michael Cimino, Curtis Hanson, Abbas Kiarostami, Jan Nemec, Jacques Rivette, and Andrzej Wajda.
I’ll see you at the flicks!