Jessica Kiang’s Top 20 Films Of 2016

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I don’t think I’m the only person to have wondered about the usefulness of watching, discussing and writing about film — or any art — when it feels like outside the theater, the sky is falling. Great chunks of catastrophe are raining down from the heavens and I’m pondering crucial issues like the mythology of the “Transformers” cinematic universe and whether there’s any way to use the phrase mise-en-scene without sounding pretentious. At worst, consuming art in times of crisis can feel like falling prey to the narcotizing distraction tactics relied on by The Enemy, and at best a benevolent and slightly fusty irrelevance, like birdwatching or entering the New Yorker caption competition.

I’m also a little embarrassed to have had a year at the movies so wildly out of kilter not just with the general vibe of Oh God Oh God We’re All Going to Die, but also with the lackluster cinematic 2016 that many of my colleagues endured, certainly prior to the Fall awards window. That was a factor of me getting to Cannes, which had the all-round best lineup since I started attending (I got actively worried about the sheer number of A-grades I was handing out), and to Venice where the selection was similarly excellent, as well as to a very solid Berlin, a stronger-than-usual Karlovy Vary, and a terrific Tokyo, the latter two of which I covered for Variety. But that is also what made this list such a pleasure (if also a bit of a bugger) to contemplate — the knowledge that since it’s my personal year in movies I’d get to talk about a few titles that haven’t yet been released and hopefully whet your appetites for them. This timing issue also means that there are some 2016 releases that have cropped up on other lists but that were included in my 2015 roundup, such as “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Cemetery of Splendour,” “The Lobster” and “The Club.

So in the process of assembling my picks, I did worry whether all this frenetic listmaking, this year especially, can really be anything more than rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. But then I think of how each of these films has made me feel and how each, in some obscure sense has improved me, and I realize: they’re not deckchairs, they’re lifeboats.

Click here for our complete coverage of the Best of 2016

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20. “The Shallows”

When it came out, Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark movie was hailed as an unexpected treat: a June release B-movie thriller that was as engaging, lean and lithe as its star Blake Lively, giving the year’s most convincingly physical performance. By the time I actually got round to seeing it (late November) it was still all that, but it also felt almost comically cathartic — all you have to do is recognize that you are Blake Lively and 2016 is the shark. How many of us have felt like that bastard year reared up out of calm waters to maim us, and then left us stranded on a rock within waving distance of safety, aware not just of the desperation but also the sheer absurdity of the situation? The shark then kills every person who offers the hope of rescue or comfort, rather like the way the year devoured so many of the artists whose work we relied on for succor and inspiration. And the only way we could escape was by hiding in a bloom of stinging jellyfish. Ok, so maybe the allegory doesn’t exactly work, but in the most important sense it does: as fireworks flare in the night sky, may you triumphantly impale that godawful year on a big spiky thingie, and may you wash up on the shores of 2017 battered, scarred and pruny but alive, goddammit.

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19. “Graduation”
Cristian Mungiu has an extraordinary talent for making ordinary, completely believable situations feel like gargantuan morality dramas steeped in caustic social critique. Almost lost amid the shuffle of greatness that was the Cannes 2016 lineup, his latest film follows a father’s attempts to game the system on behalf of his daughter — but only just a little, only just this once and for ever such justifiable reasons. Romeo, consummately underplayed to everyman perfection by Adrien Titieni, merely wants to protect his daughter’s scholarship-worthy grades, after she is traumatized following an assault. But the architecture of Mungiu’s film is so grand that this becomes simply the visible stem of a root system of corruption that undermines all of Romanian society. The ultimate irony is that Romeo gets embroiled in the under-the-table, tit-for-tat favor economy he despises specifically to protect his daughter’s chances at a life far removed from such corruption, but in doing so, perhaps compromises that life also. Intimate on an epic scale like an Ibsen play, fatalistic without being nihilistic, “Graduation” feels less lacerating than Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and less austere than “Beyond the Hills.” But that’s only because its concerns are broader, and more cyclical than linear: it’s a brilliant evocation of how picking at a single thread of personal moral compromise can further unravel the already ragged fabric of a whole social system, and of how good intentions pave the way, if not to hell, then to unlovely, inescapable suburban Cluj. [Review]

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18. “American Honey”
Andrea Arnold‘s blazed, propulsive, sun-flared reverie is not a film of particularly deep philosophy or even social comment (though its scrappy locations do sometimes lend it a Robert Frank-esque vibe of marginalized Americana). But there were few other films this year that matched the 2 hours and 43 minutes of “American Honey” for sheer, giddy, cinematic experience. There’s a lightning-in-a-bottle quality to Arnold’s filmmaking here (captured in Robbie Ryan‘s remarkable, deceptively loose and freewheeling Academy ratio compositions) that is simply intoxicating, and that does an extraordinary job of capturing a thrummingly alive, choral impression of youth — a concept which, more even than the rivetingly watchable Sasha Lane, is the true star of the film. In fact, it’s so much about youth, so much an expression of an absolutely futureless now that it’s almost painful to watch it from an older vantage point: it operates as a vivid visceral recollection of how it felt to be young, to find your tribe, to fall in love, to expect the exhilaration of the moment to last forever. As a result it doesn’t really linger in the mind, it’s a firework of movie that expends all its energy as you’re watching it, and leaves you only with the almost physical sensations it inspires: sense memories of a warm night breeze on your bare shoulders or the smell of cigarette smoke on the wind. It is ephemeral, but so is youth and that is both its tragedy and its beauty. [Review]

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17. “Tempestad”
It would be easy to leave this off this list and give the spot to some better-known title — Tatiana Huezo‘s film is a little-seen documentary that debuted in a Berlinale sidebar all the way back in February and has yet to pick up distribution. But its embers still glow, and its aura of hard-won, beautifully presented, desperately sad wisdom has stayed with me despite there being little echo-chamber buzz. It’s a dual portrait documentary, that mines two extremely specific, personal stories of kidnapping in Mexico — one from a victim, one from the mother of a still-missing daughter (mom is a circus clown, no less) — that somehow together form a sweeping, rending, very human lament for the disappeared, in a country where such disappearances are commonplace and often ignored or even sanctioned by corrupt, colluding authorities. But even more extraordinary than the bones of the narrative, is the quietly dazzling way Huezo interrelates the two women’s separate stories (one told only in voiceover, the other on camera) and how cleverly she structures this full-to-overflowing film around absence. It’s haunting, poetic and deeply moving, less a traditional documentary than an meditative essay on how loss can haunt your life, told by one who has lost, and one who was lost, and it culminates in perhaps the most remarkable final shot of my year at the movies. [Review]

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16. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
I honestly can’t fight my way through the thicket of ironies that surrounds the fact that the last big-screen image of Carrie Fisher before her death was a vision of Princess Leia, CG-ed back to her most iconic, youthful incarnation, uttering the word “Hope.” I can’t even work out if it’s a beautiful grace note or a wild absurdity or both at once — but any of those options would I think be an appropriate memorial for such a bright, complex, witty woman. What I do know is that ‘Rogue One’ meant more to me than any ‘Star Wars‘ film released during my adult lifetime, and more to me than probably any blockbuster should, to the point that half the problems that other critics have with the film I see as positives. Yes, the characters are sketched in, but that simply makes this a portrait of collective, boots-on-the-ground bravery rather than the same old individualist messiah myth that almost every space opera/superhero movie riffs on. And while I do wish that not all the antagonists and all the ship’s crew aside from Jyn had to be men, still collecting all this around a central female character who is not overridingly kick-ass or supernaturally gifted is its own kind of progress. I liked “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” just fine, but mostly on behalf of the kids the in the audience who get to grow up with heroes who don’t all adhere to the same cookiecutter white-male template. I loved ‘Rogue One’ all for me, because it tells the adult me that true heroism exists in scrappy acts of fealty and friendship and defiance, a moral that is not just inspiring, but attainable.

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15. “20th Century Women”
If you have a talent for making movies about sentimental people in sentimental situations that are not of themselves sentimental but compassionate, bittersweet and funny, you’re probably Mike Mills. His follow-up to “Beginners,” which detailed a late-life coming out and the way it impacted a father/adult son relationship, is ostensibly a more familiar story of motherhood and a young man’s coming of age. But Mills infuses the screenplay with such minutely personal detail, and then his superb cast bring their idiosyncratic characters to such thrillingly holistic life, that it feels completely fresh: an almost painfully affectionate portrait of a remarkable yet ordinary woman tussling with the challenges of raising a son in the late 1970s. Drenched in California sunshine, peppered with choice soundtrack cuts and adorned with an especially outstanding supporting performance from Greta Gerwig (whose first name I always mistype as “Great” then briefly consider leaving that way), still there’s nothing that can take the film away from Annette Bening, whose performance is itself radiant, emitting pulses of warmth and light. Equal parts graceful and baffled, and eternally engaged not just emotionally but intellectually in the project of raising her son to be a good man, Bening’s Dorothea is a profoundly beautiful, three-dimensional character, a moving, empathetic, clear-sighted tribute to Mills’ own mother that, if she was anything like Dorothea, could only have made her burst with pride.

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14. “Elle”
There was a brief period in the late 1980s/early 1990s when the subversive and sensationalist tendencies of impish Dutch director Paul Verhoeven temporarily aligned with prevailing Hollywood tastes. Or at least, he managed to smuggle his provocative agenda into genre films that were then sold as mass-market products, gently but irrevocably corrupting malleable young minds via VHS (for which: thanks, Paul! xx). But for a much longer period he’s been on the outs with the Hollywood establishment, so much so that you could have imagined that his first feature in a decade might be a kind of “hey, remember me?” calling card, an indication that’s he’s around, and still willing and able to play that game. But instead, he gives us “Elle,” a snapping, snarling, ferocious, gleefully “problematic” thing that, as both he and star Isabelle Huppert have said repeatedly, could never have been made in America with an American actress. You can see why: this is a film that uses a graphic rape scene as grist for light social satire and a witty investigation into the contradictory and sometimes self-destructive patterns that inform erotic desire. Slick, boisterous and in deeply questionable taste it also boasts the key Huppert performance in 2016, The Year of Huppert: even if it’s not the absolute best film she was in (see below!), only she could have made it what it is, and negotiated such a fraught role with such lightness and well, sass. It was very marginally let down for me by an ending that didn’t quite feel like it had the courage of the rest of the film’s dangerous, borderline offensive convictions, but perhaps that’s just a factor of how brilliant the rest of it is, this very funny film about a powerful, weird woman who dares not have her rape be the thing that defines her into victimhood. [Review]

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13. “La La Land”
Happily it seems like general audiences have ignored the crashingly predictable critical backlash against Damian Chazelle‘s modern musical (it’s almost like Film Twitter squabbles hardly matter in the real world!) and treated themselves to this cathartic, candy-colored daydream. I realize this leaves me in the mortifying position of actually liking the Best Picture Oscar front-runner, but it can’t be helped, I was charmed to a kind of swoony dizziness by the invention and affection on display in Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash,” and would have happily dived right back into that world after it ended had I been able to. It is slight in terms of plot, to be sure, but the greater project is the communication of a manifesto I could not have believed in beforehand: that life is, in fact, a musical, you just have listen for the melodies and notice when you fall in step with the cosmic choreography. In a way it’s a more impressive feat of universe-building than ‘Rogue One’ or any Marvel movie has achieved, as this is not a simple what-if, this is a sincere attempt to inject elements of melancholic, true-feeling reality into the musical form, while also mining the musical form for its magic, to sprinkle over reality. It puts forward a new way of looking at life, and the struggle for creative fulfillment that is both inflected with sadness and yet infectiously hummable. There are those who disparage its dreams-come-true side, but the narrative never suggests that there isn’t a cost, and what other conclusion could Chazelle come to, as a young director with two low-budget indies under his belt who was suddenly given the chance to realize his risky, ambitious, (relatively) expensive dream project in a form that had been unpopular for decades? “La La Land” is a dream come true. [Review]

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12. “The Wailing”
Na Hong-jin is a director I only came to recently, catching up with his previous two excellent films “The Yellow Sea” and “The Chaser” immediately prior to going to Cannes where “The Wailing” would be premiering. In the event, clashes prevented me from seeing it while there, but I can’t help but wonder if that might have been for the best: watching it months later in my living room, with all the lights on, on a small screen, was as unheimlich an experience as I care to handle — it’s possible I’d have lost it completely in a theater. It’s the weird, oddly structured, stop-start story of a genially bumbling policeman (a brilliantly hangdog Kwak Do-won) who gets embroiled in a potentially supernatural string of inexplicable, grisly murders, before whatever-it-is seems to afflict/possess his doted-upon young daughter. It is funny and gruesome and very scary in unique combination, a beguiling mix of bawdy, banal and batshit crazy, a police procedural that also operates as a fully-fledged horror. And while there’s not a second in which it feels like Na is in anything less than total control, the sense of danger you feel as a viewer, in that you’re watching a film that does not adhere to traditional narrative rules, is almost palpable — yet that constant wrong-footing, and those disquietingly irregular rhythms are also was makes for one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. [Nik’s review from Cannes]

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11. “The House Of Others”
I didn’t cover the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for The Playlist but for Variety, so there are a couple of discoveries from there that I haven’t had a chance to talk up in these hallowed pages. Top of the list is Rusudan Glurjidze‘s loosely autobiographical film from Georgia — actually her debut feature, which is astonishing given the immense control and maturity of execution. It’s an opaque, hard-edged but atmospheric quasi ghost story set in the evocative surroundings of a small cluster of houses in the war-ravaged Georgian countryside that were hastily abandoned by their occupants, fleeing the oncoming troops. A short time after the war, a family moves into one of the houses — still furnished with the previous owner’s abandoned belongings — but as though the walls and fields and orchards hold on to the memory of those whose home it really is, they find themselves ever so slightly haunted. There are mysterious neighbors, illicit trysts, puppy love, a figure in black who might be a literal ghost and even an undercurrent of repressed sexual hysteria, and the film’s elusive, elliptical storytelling, and often enigmatic dialogue is certainly not for the impatient. But the stark, pictorialist beauty of the images, that often resemble the compositions of a Dutch master, only lit in the half-light of a dull, misty day is breathtaking. Here the eloquence is that of the camera (stunning work from DP Gorka Gómez Andreu) which communicates Glurjidze’s themes in frames of exquisite perfection and gentle moves away from the action of the scene, as though every moment were an ending, and every shot a eulogy for the vanished. [My review for Variety]

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10. “Neruda”
It’s hard for me to name a director whose current form I admire more than that of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín: bucking every “cinema is dead” and “the world is shit” 2016 trend, he released three films this year and every one is brilliant (the sole reason he’s only on this list twice is that his other 2016 title “The Club” premiered in Berlin in 2015, and was my third favorite film of last year.) Even more impressive, given the Fassbinder-ish level of productivity, is just how very different each of these three films are from one another: “The Club” is mordant, austere and angry, “Jackie” (see below) is brittle and moving, while “Neruda,” his tribute to the Chilean poet, politician and Nobel laureate, is tricksy and mischievous and, of all things, zany. With something of the manic, caper-movie energy of “Pierrot Le Fou” and the meta hi-jinks of “Day For Night” (a Godard title and the Truffaut film that Godard fell out with Truffaut over — Christ, even these meta references are meta), the film is chaotic and inventive and impossible, zig zagging more ideas and experiments into every scene than most filmmakers manage in a trilogy. In one way it does resemble “Jackie,” though: it’s about as far from a traditional biopic as can be imagined, with Gael Garcia Bernal‘s dogged, Chandler-esque policeman, a man with monumental daddy issues who fears he may himself be fictional (which of course he is) becoming as much a player as the tubby folk hero (perfectly played by Luis Gnecco) who is his quarry. It could all be insufferably show-offy if Larraín didn’t so frequently pause to wink at us through a silly sight gag or some anachronistic back-projection or the arch humor of the pathos-laden, poetically hardboiled voiceover. I seldom feel the urge to rewatch even my favorite films — the best ones continue to nourish on a single viewing, I find — but after my first time with “Neruda” I really felt like I’d only seen half the film, it is that replete with ideas and jammed with jokes. [Review]

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9. “The Age of Shadows”
The Koreans basically killed it in 2016, with Na Hong-jin‘s “The Wailing” (see above), Park Chan-wook‘s “The Handmaiden” (see honorable mentions) and Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” (note to self: see “Train to Busan”) all regularly turning up on year-end round-ups. But for me the cream of the crop, perhaps surprisingly given it’s the one that broke through least, is Kim Jee-woon‘s utterly spectacular, ravishing spy thriller. The unique factor here is not the convoluted plot, involving double agents, a rat in the gang, a shipment of explosives and something about black-market artifacts, nor the somewhat cursory, archetypal characterization, despite a typically excellent turn from Song Kang-ho as the conflicted Korean policeman in the employ of the occupying Japanese authorities. It’s not even the luscious period photography that renders 1930s Korea in the rich, noirish compositions of “The Third Man“‘s Vienna. It is simply the level of directorial attention lavished on every single scene: “The Age of Shadows” is a movie without filler, as though every single moment were the one that director Kim had summoned this entire movie into being to shoot. And whether it’s epic wide shots of black-clad soldiers flowing across rooftops like liquid, or the urgent exchange of information in a quick look between conspirators, or the tension-building staccato scenes that explode into crisply choreographed violence, it’s as though Kim Jee-woon spent years on a mountainside learning to hone the mystical arts of genre filmmaking just so he could not only make “The Age of Shadows,” but also make it spool out like silk — almost insultingly effortless. [Review]

Cristi Puiu's 'Sieranevada'
8. “Sieranevada”
What madness is it that Cristi Puiu‘s bustling, brilliant “Sieranevada” is still without U.S. distribution? Perhaps it’s the combination of the words “three hours long” and “Romanian family drama” and “largely set in one cramped apartment” that cools a buyer’s ardor, but Puiu’s film is so much brighter, messier, livelier than the image those phrases might summon. It’s the story of a rambunctious extended multi-generational Romanian family, fraught with personal grudges and political divisions, coming together to mourn the passing of patriarch Emil, in a weird ritual that his widow has devised that involves an empty suit of clothing, a priest who is constantly delayed and immense tables groaning with food that no one’s allowed touch however hungry the bickering and waiting makes them all. It’s a film alive to the chattering absurdity of family, in which the large ensemble cast hits not one single false note between them in communicating their characters’ relationships to one another, their histories, resentments and shared in-jokes. It’s almost impossible not to recognize elements of your own family get-togethers in this one, be it ever so ritualistically removed from your experience — perhaps that is a factor of the kind of exasperated affection with which the camera, the only silent observer of this hubbub, seems to view these funny, flawed people. In fact, as time goes by (and it flies along), you might start to suspect that sense of warmhearted, melancholy watchfulness actually derives from Emil himself — maybe his ghost or his echo, or maybe that empty suit really did summon his spirit to return — looking on with a heart full of love, irritation and regret, at all this gorgeous life going on without him. [Review]

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7. “Toni Erdmann”
Perhaps the greatest film ever to fully capture the liberating potential of social awkwardness, Maren Ade’s bizarre and deeply funny “Toni Erdmann,” tells of straitlaced corporate lackey Ines (a brilliant Sandra Hüller) who is thus enlightened, though in her case it comes via her bearish prankster father’s alter ego, a pair of false teeth and a certain green-frosted French Fancy. A highly original and skewed look at a monumentally idiosyncratic and yet ultimately completely relatable father/daughter relationship, the film is a delight, full of moments of transcendent surreality that are all the more powerful, and often hilarious, for being so ruthlessly bedded down in the banal. Peter Simonischek plays Ines’ father Winfried, a man who, on his strained weekend visit with her in Bucharest dolefully announces to a table of her clients that he likes “to make jokes.” But where most of us have suffered through enough of our fathers’ bad puns to regard that as a fairly benign characteristic, in Winfried it’s almost pathological, and frequently inappropriate. And so there’s a certain logic at work when, suspecting his daughter’s repressed misery, he stays on in Bucharest, affects a weak disguise and the fake name “Toni Erdmann,” reintroduces himself to a horrified Ines and proceeds to make her life infinitely better by making it temporarily much, much worse. With two or three of the funniest scenes of the year, and also the most sublime, silly yet rousing rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” ever captured on camera, “Toni Erdmann” is eccentric, unique and the only time in 2016 that my heart was slightly broken and then serially repaired by a scruffy man in a bad wig and joke dentures, who doesn’t at all remind me of my own father, and yet kind of does. [Review]

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6. “One More Time With Feeling”
If there is any human experience that, in being almost beyond the reaches of human comprehension, therefore by rights could be almost beyond the purview of art, living through the death of a child might be it. I can only imagine that in a similar situation I would lock myself away from the world and hole up in a cocoon of misery. But then I am not Nick Cave, and do not have the astounding facility for un self-pitying, meditative self-examination, even at this most difficult and tragic time, a quality proven by the very existence of Andrew Dominik‘s beautiful completely devastating black-and-white documentary. Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” hovers around the number one spot for my personal films of the century, and I am a Nick Cave fan anyway, which makes this project a collaboration toward which I would always be well-disposed. But even I was not expecting the sheer intricacy of emotion and intellect and artistry on display, from the silky 3D camerawork to the clever, simple and lovely staging of the musical sections. It’s ostensibly a document of Cave recording his (superb) album Skeleton Tree, singing words he wrote before the death of his 15 year-old son Arthur, just a few months after that tragedy. But really it’s a portrait of grief — not resolved, not cathartic but real, and raw and examined as honestly as I have ever seen in a film. It is an act of the most extraordinary bravery to try and connect with people this way — to try and report to the world from inside a loss so profound it makes you, as Cave says, a stranger in your own skin — but it’s also, on Dominik’s part, a beautiful act of friendship, which is all anyone can offer the inconsolable. [Review]

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5. “Jackie”
It’s genuinely odd to me that “Jackie” is emerging as an Oscar contender, because the mythmaking Oscar version of this story is not what Pablo Larraín delivers in his English-language debut. Instead “Jackie” is about that very practise of mythmaking, about the lie of celebrity and the self-conscious fabrications of fame. Natalie Portman‘s itchy, mannered turn is perfectly suited to this meta project of deconstruction (though again, I’m surprised at how much awards traction she’s getting given Hollywood’s fondness for naturalism and this role’s lack of it). Portman’s own fame and performance is layered on top of the fame and performativity of Jackie Kennedy herself in ways that makes even the most expected biopic beats (interviews with a journalist; a confession to a priest; even a drunken dressing-up montage) sing with an unexpectedly discordant, atonal energy (brilliantly embodied in Mica Levi‘s score). Standard biopics, even the two good ones, tend to be shrouded in reverence for their subjects and polished to a smooth, gleaming, period-accurate sheen. But “Jackie” is a sharp-edged bundle of razor wire dialogue and flashing shards of mirror and artifice that forcibly remind you that you’re not watching the real thing — it’s at best a refracted, distorted reflection, and a partial one at that. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t dazzle — Larrain’s thrilling filmmaking intelligence lends flares of brilliance to this clever, difficult investigation into the myths that Jackie created about Camelot, and the myths we’ve since created about her. [Review]

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4. “Arrival”
It’s not often that a Hollywood film really surprises — it is a risk-averse industry town that would rather tweak a formula than roll the dice on a something new, or potentially difficult, or hard to market. But so much about Denis Villeneuve‘s “Arrival” surprised me — the somberness of the tone; the arcane linguistics theories put forward to support its central thesis; the unabashed interest and respect it has for its central character (beautifully, quietly played by Amy Adams) a woman whose emotional sensitivity is accorded as much importance to the story as her intellect. Most of all I was surprised by the whole third act that, as a fan of science fiction in general I felt followed through on its tantalizing sci-fi premise in a more comprehensive way than almost any other film in recent memory. There are formulaic elements, to be sure — the whole middle section feels a little overfamiliar in its sabotage plot and international politicking, but the real core of the film is the hugely ambitious, far-reaching and gravely beautiful idea that, as a species, we might someday be able to transcend the mess we’ve made, and evolve beyond our current states. It gave me a peculiar sense of calm optimism for the distant future, even if the immediate short term seems bleak. I said up top that these films were my lifeboats, well, “Arrival” is a lifeboat rendered as a spaceship, hovering overhead, buoyed up by the belief that we will one day move beyond our worst impulses, beyond the artificial frontiers we create and beyond time and death itself. In 2016, which often felt like a trudge through an ankle-deep sludge of time and death, “Arrival,” simply, gave me hope. [Review]

O.J.: Made In America
3. “OJ: Made in America”
Months after devouring all 467 minutes of Ezra Edelman‘s monumental ESPN-funded documentary I still have not quite finished processing everything it has to teach us about race relations, celebrity and ego in contemporary America. Watching its five parts back-to-back felt like witnessing the grandest classical epic unfold in real time before your eyes, like witnessing the events that Homer jotted down in The Odyssey or that Sophocles would turn into “Antigone.” This is a colossal film, not just in runtime and breadth and exhaustiveness, but in terms of its importance for understanding that what America is today has its roots in divisions that plagued society long before Orenthal James Simpson threw his first football. Most impressive is the twofold focus: on OJ as a towering figure made of equal parts talent, charisma and egotism, a supremely gifted and charming man who believed that his exceptionalism put him beyond the rules that governed ordinary men (and certainly ordinary black men); and on OJ as a puppet, the crest of a wave not of his making, a symbol of an America divided by the very racism he believed he transcended. In the crucible of OJ’s spectacular rise and dangerous, precipitous, lethal fall Edelman reads the entire recent history of the United States and it’s as gripping as any thriller and as primal as any Greek tragedy.

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2. “Things to Come”
If there’s a problem with Mia Hansen-Love‘s “Things to Come” it’s this: it’s perfect. And it has the kind of fine-boned perfection that tends not to provoke as much visceral reaction, and therefore noise, as imperfection, especially as there are always those who will interpret a quietly rapturous response as a lack of urgency. But “Things to Come” is urgent, in fact it’s a vital picture, a hopeful portrait of how to approach even the direst of life-stage setbacks (here the end of a decades-long marriage) with humor and spirit and grace. Personifying all those characteristics, of course, is Isabelle Huppert in her approx. 64th great performance this year — here she plays philosophy professor Nathalie, the mother of two adult children, who separates from her husband in a typically undramatic yet brilliantly observed scene. It’s the way Hansen-Love threads together the often oppositional forces of life, beds the drama down into anti-drama and Ikea bags and the way Huppert negotiates even the character’s trickiest turns with agility and a gleam in her eye that makes “Things to Come” so special, and I’ve a feeling that in the near future we’re going to need all the examples of how to face an uncertain future, in which circumstances beyond our control are having irrevocable effects on our lives, that we can get. Self-care has become something of a buzzword of late and perhaps that’s Nathalie’s most admirable trait: the ability to continue to like herself, and trust her independence, despite adversity. If recent events have left you feeling despairing, bitter or fearful, the best revenge on them is living well, and this lovely, wise film shows us how we might do just that. [Review]

moonlight
1. “Moonlight”
I don’t understand by what alchemy Barry Jenkins‘ quiet, deeply moving film can continue to gain in power and beauty long after you watch it, but it does: it’s a film I loved immediately but in the days and weeks since, it has, without my even really noticing, accumulated. Perhaps it’s the liquid smoothness with which it unfolds, the way time seems to lap lazily around its ankles, like time can when you’re little (or Little) before a cut so quick and seamless that we scarcely register we’re in another moment, and not just another verse of the same sad, sweet song. Perhaps it’s that while you watch you’re slightly bewitched by the lovely way the music complements these fragile, wary characters, or how the three central performances from Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes meld into a single choral whole in that one expression of naked unsureness on Black’s face in the bright light of his friend’s kitchen. Actually I think it’s that the film is made up of such fine-edged slivers of intimate insight that you scarcely even notice the lacerations they’re leaving across your heart until it’s a few days later and you suddenly bleed out thinking about Mahershala Ali’s Juan teaching Little to swim. Or maybe it’s just that we grow towards kindness the way plants grow toward light, so the expansion we feel is the not movie at all, it’s us, becoming bigger, kinder people for having watched this little miracle of a film. I made the slightly facetious claim earlier that all of these films had in some way “improved” me, but I say it here with absolute sincerity and a restored conviction in the power of cinema that no other 2016 title has quite instilled: “Moonlight” makes us better people. If only there were some way of putting it in the drinking water.

Honorable Mentions

This list absolutely killed me to draw up — that’s how a good a movie year I had — and if I thought anybody would have the patience to read it, I’d have gone up to 25, maybe even 30 titles. For those curious, my 21-25 picks would have been: 21. Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”; 22. Japanese sci-fi/bodyswap animation “Your Name“; 23. Karyn Kusama’s terrific little thriller “The Invitation“; 24. Jeff Nichols‘ lovely, quiet “Loving“; 25. Laika‘s beautiful and moving “Kubo and the Two Strings“; with Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea,” Park Chan-wook‘s gorgeous “The Handmaiden“; the as-yet undistributed “Japanese Girls Never Die” by Japanese director Daigo Matsui which I reviewed for Variety and two Chinese films that I also covered for Variety — “The Summer Is Gone” and “Underground Fragrance” — bringing the tally up to 30.

I could go on, so I will — I also really enjoyed and heartily recommend Kleber Mendonco Filho‘s “Aquarius“; Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach‘s “De Palma“; totally bonkers Iranian film “A Dragon Arrives!” from director Mani Haghighi; heartfelt, funny, profane Irish movie “A Date for Mad Mary“; Turkish director Reha Erdem’s sorrowful little fable “Big Big World“; weird German psychosexual drama “Original Bliss“; Whit Stillman’s delightful “Love and Friendship“; promising Aussie debut “Hounds of Love“; Amat Escalante‘s divisive Venice title “The Untamed“; the Daniels‘ surprisingly affecting quirkfest “Swiss Army Man“; Kelly Reichardt‘s triptych “Certain Women,” Dan Trachtenberg‘s deeply enjoyable “10 Cloverfield Lane“; Taika Waititi‘s charming “Hunt for the Wilderpeople“; Ira Sachs’ terrific “Little Men“; Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s beautifully played “After the Storm“; Chad Hartigan‘s undervalued “Morris From America“; Danish pregnancy horror “Shelley“; and Antonio Campos‘ “Christine” which featured the best performance that seems to consistently slide off the register in this crazy competitive year for female performances, from Rebecca Hall.

I haven’t yet seen “Silence,” “I, Daniel Blake,” “Moana,” “Under the Shadow” or “The Fits,” among many other titles, but believe all the people who have told me that I should.

I am, as ever, tortured by the certainty that I’ve left something stellar off by mistake, but for the time being, that’s it. Thank you for reading — not just this beast but throughout 2016. As you probably know, since May we’ve been a wholly independent entity, which is exciting but also perilous, and we appreciate your visit more than ever — please don’t be a stranger in 2017. We promise to be good. Stay warm.

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