2016 Top Ten
Notes on my own favorites.
I've tried to keep the blurbs here mercifully short. Much of what there is to be said about these ten films has been rounded up in their individual entries, so what I'm offering here are a few modest notes, minor addenda.
1. Toni Erdmann. The brilliance of Maren Ade's screenplay lies in its eventual revelation that Ines (Sandra Hüller) is just as full of surprises as her prankster father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek). Not the song, not the party, necessarily, but more the complexity of her unhappiness and the tiny acts of revenge she takes on herself for giving in, bit by bit and on a variety of fronts, to the indignities she sees as the price of the ticket she's bought. Her resignation is most explicit when she snarls at Winfried in the backseat behind a company driver: All your generation-of-68 dreams were dashed long ago, snap out of it.
When Toni Erdmann left Cannes empty-handed, it oddly became a sort of underdog to be championed throughout the rest of the year. Yes, it runs two hours and 40 minutes, critics seemed to be saying, but there's no fat to trim (true), and trust me, you'll have a blast: It's hilarious. Well. It has its hilarious moments, but for the most part, a wrenching melancholy drives one cringe to the next. Toni Erdmann is a comedy only in that it ends with a (well-earned) reconciliation—a happy end for precisely two people, no more, but also no less.
2. Paterson. If there's a theme running throughout these ten—there isn't, but if there were—it's a sense of place. Jim Jarmusch has an uncanny ability to create a world in which all the physical attributes are recognizably "real" even as the rhythm of that world is slightly skewed. And skewed just right. Casting Adam Driver seals the deal. Greatest line reading of the year? "I don't like you, Marvin." I disagree with those who argue that Laura is reduced to kooky and instead worry a little more about that touch of Zen at the end. Still, Rian Johnson sums it up best for me: "I could have watched 12 more hours of Paterson. Wanted to stay in that world."
3. Certain Women. By the time I caught up with Kelly Reichardt's best film yet—and in my book, that's saying something—I couldn't help but watch it through the dark veil of this year's election results. In Montana, Trump scored almost twice as many votes as Clinton. Do we see that in the desperate straits Jared Harris's character finds himself in? In Kristen Stewart's classroom (Lily Gladstone excepted, of course)? That aside—please!—no other film this year took me back to the States so completely. And with such quiet vigor, too. Also: Laura Dern.
4. A Quiet Passion. Who'd have guessed that this year would bring us two great odes to American poetry? Or that both would so richly conjure full worlds in honor of poets who so rigorously reined in their lines? The first, Whit Stillman-like half is merely delightful, but the second is profoundly disturbing (in all the right ways) as a reckoning of the cost of staying true to oneself without compromise. And what a master Terence Davies is. Some of the sequences here are the most beautifully shot not only this year, but in many.
5. Things to Come. More books. First, though, it's unfair to both Mia Hansen-Løve's film and Paul Verhoeven's Elle that one is nearly always mentioned in the same breath as the other, but there's no way around it, what with Isabelle Huppert reigning over both with such absolute authority. And in both, Huppert's persona doesn't so much evolve as gather yet more strength and solidity. Kneecapped from all sides, her Nathalie and Michèle both reassert control over their own lives and Huppert makes it an exhilarating watch—twice. I prefer Hansen-Løve's milieu, for starters, but also the knottiness of Nathalie's relationships—with her mother, husband, student, everyone.
6. Elle. But I also recognize Verhoeven's directorial chops. I like Adam Nayman's term, "glossy, Buñuelian quasi-realism." Verhoeven's reshuffling of life-long obsessions, the seemingly inextricable tie between sex and violence, the danger inherent in religious faith and so on is, in Elle, both thrilling and confusing. Mind game of the year, hands down.
7. Cameraperson. The year's smartest, most apt title. Kirsten Johnson's exploration of two halves of the compound noun, perpetually separating and rejoining, not only makes for one of the freshest movies about movies in years but also emerges as an emotionally complex personal essay.
8. Everybody Wants Some!! How do you follow up on one of the greatest trilogies in American cinema and a twelve-year marathon? Richard Linklater lets off steam with a deceptively breezy "spiritual sequel" to yet another landmark, Dazed and Confused (1993). Few handle the dynamics between individuals within a clan quite like Linklater. Tight shots, tight pace, tight slacks.
9. Havarie. Don't let anyone tell you about this, one of two films Philip Scheffner had at the Berlinale this year. See it cold, if possible. The simplicity of the visual concept contrasts with the intricately layered soundtrack to create the most potent portrait of "the world right now" I saw this year.
10. Son of Joseph. You know, on this one, I'm going to cede the floor to Nick Pinkerton, who nails it when he notes in his Sight & Sound review that Eugène Green's films "give meaning to the notion of ‘seeing the good in people’—throughout them you will find characters wearing an expression of tender happiness that makes it seem as if the bearer is in possession of a wonderful secret they’re bursting to share—which is at the very core of The Son of Joseph."
Honorable mentions. I, David Hudson, do not begrudge I, Daniel Blake its Palme d'Or. Paul Laverty's screenplay may shout here and there, but Ken Loach tones it right back down, honing the focus on the self-contained performances of Dave Johns and Hayley Squires. With Ted Fendt's Short Stay, it's back to that sense of place motif, here made all the more tactile by his decision to shoot on 16mm (and blow it up to 35mm). And never has the "give 'em enough rope" strategy been more successful than in Vitaliy Manskiy's Under the Sun.