“A little formalism takes you away from history, but a lot of formalism brings you back to it.” –Roland Barthes

At various points during 2016, many of us have tried to keep our eyes fixed on the movie screen. This hasn’t been about escaping from the increasingly ugly spheres of politics and society, and if that were the intention, it certainly hasn’t worked. Some of us, after all, engage with cinema as part of our jobs. That’s not to say that such engagement is devoid of pleasure—far from it—but it tends to be something other than distraction.

The screen is almost always a transactional space, where artists use images and sounds to explore certain aspects of the broader world. Audiences in turn engage with that critical media practice, and with the people who make it, and hopefully an enlightening exchange takes place. As far as distraction goes, it’s usually the rancor from outside the theater that distracts us from the screen, and can make it difficult to concentrate on the subtle gestures of fine art.

We have done our best to be good watchers this year, to examine a large selection of the year’s experimental film and video in terms of beauty and astonishment; social and political acuity; the growth and development of significant individual careers; and the exploration of new potentials within the medium. This is work that managed to cut through the noise, and rose to occasions that neither the films’ makers nor their viewers could possibly foresee.

025 Sunset Red (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain)

Can autobiography be intersectional? Much like her previous film, We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning, Lertxundi’s newest work begins from the self and works outward, examining the vagaries of personal history with the scrutiny one might bring to any other text. Here, the artist considers the multifaceted legacy of her father Roberto, who served as a Communist Party politician in Spain. The film’s title, “025 Sunset Red,” is the paint-pot designation for the saturated color of deepest memory. (M.S.)

AS WITHOUT, SO WITHIN (Manuela De Laborde, Mexico / U.S. / U.K.): Sculpture and cinema dovetail to disorienting effect in this breakthrough work by the young, Mexico City-born artist Manuela De Laborde. Comprised of silent, color-saturated shots of a variety of small props and objects superimposed in depth-defying displays of dramaturgical ingenuity, the film’s perspective shifts from extreme closeups of these oblong, handcrafted models to distanced angles revealing the artist’s studio-bound setup. Contrasting observational, installation-like backdrops with surface textures resembling lunar terrain or an alien environment, De Laborde conflates approaches in a manner appropriate for an artist whose work has consistently migrated between cinema and the gallery. From a purely formal perspective, the film is a subtle, beautiful example of the transformative properties of light and space, object and camera; adjust to its wavelength, and it has the power to turn material reality into something strangely exotic. (J.C.)

Ears, Nose and Throat

Ears, Nose and Throat (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S.): A tribute to Decarrio Antwan Couley, the filmmaker’s cousin, who was senselessly murdered by a one-time friend. Everson’s film consists mainly of eyewitness testimony from one Shadeena Brooks. (The killing took place on the sidewalk in front of her home.) As she describes Couley’s final moments, mostly spent attempting to defuse the situation, we see Brooks undergoing an examination of her vocal chords and, near the end, a hearing test. Did the situation around her leave its mark on her body as well—lacerating screams, eardrum-damaging gunshots? And what sort of mark does Brooks’ testimony leave on us? (M.S.)

Élysée (Laurent Grasso, France): The elite corridors of power are seldom seen by most of us. Are potential leaders ushered into those sacred halls and then formed by them? Laurent Grasso’s Élysée is an intense study of the intimate connection between governmental power and the spaces afforded to it. Using a gliding camera in extreme close-up, Grasso shows us the décor and design of Salon Doré, the presidential office of the Republic of France. Situated on the second floor of the Palace Élysée, the French equivalent to the Oval Office is remarkable not just because of the tradition it embodies—the room has served since 1848—but also because that tradition seems less a faît accompli than a pleading claim. Grasso shows us the trappings of bureaucratic government as it strives for the royal self-evidence of yesteryear. (M.S.)

Glide of Transparency (Betzy Bromberg, U.S.): As Los Angeles artist Betzy Bromberg’s output has slowed over the years, so has the scope and ambition of every new project expanded. Glide of Transparency, Bromberg’s third feature (and first since 2011’s landmark Voluptuous Sleep), is a three-part, ninety-minute meditation on the texture and tactility of the natural world. Shooting on luminous 16mm, Bromberg frames impressionistic images of flora (mostly filmed in and around her home and garden) with monumental intimacy, capturing the curve of a flower petal or the contour of a leaf in painterly strokes—familiar environs rendered in abstract depths and pastel tones. Accompanied by ambient noise, droning strings, and filigrees of piano, Bromberg’s compositions blossom in an air of suspended reality, caught halfway between a lucid dream and a utopian vision of everyday life that exists just outside the realm of consciousness. (J.C.)

If You Can’t See My Mirrors, I Can’t See You (Alee Peoples, U.S.): Two friends share stories while Peoples explores the basic principles of the film frame. And if you think that’s the extent of it, then you haven’t yet experienced this L.A. filmmaker’s unique take on the world around us. Peoples is a beacon of understatement, her films welcoming the wackiest elements (skydancers, mall fountains, noisemakers) only to mute them to the point of bone-dry comedy. She can make cypress trees dance in the sky, produce a perfectly sculpted shot of a railroad crossing sign coming down in front of a mediocre town mural, and still bulldoze through a canyon with a pair of red and blue punch-balloons. All the clichés of Greater L.A. are putty in Alee Peoples’ hands. More, please. (M.S.)

Indefinite Pitch (James N. Kienitz Wilkins, U.S. / Germany): At once the simplest and most labyrinthine experimental short of 2016, this nearly unclassifiable first-person essay by New York’s James N. Kienitz Wilkins is a high-wire act of precarious narrative choices and formal economy. Framed as a recollection of a fictional movie pitch in which Wilkins narrates the details of a failed industry encounter over a succession of back-and-white still images of coastal New Hampshire, Indefinite Pitch moves lithely from parable to comedy to meta-commentary on its own utility as a piece of digital media in an era of Vimeo links and barely-veiled corporate arts ventures. Over the course of an increasingly humorous and dizzying twenty-three-minute spiel, Wilkins manages to put nearly everyone up for incrimination, including himself. Perhaps the film’s irony and piercing tone would be less welcome if its message weren’t so timely and incisive, but it’s safe to say Indefinite Pitch says more about the current state of cinema than any think-piece could ever hope to. (J.C.)

Luna e Santur (Joshua Gen Solondz, U.S.): One of the year’s most rapturously beautiful films, and also one of the most confounding, Solondz’s Luna e Santur is both a materialist experiment and a kind of religious trance film, bringing symbols of faith together with those of superstition and psychotronic ecstasy. In the intervals of a pounding flicker, we see activity in a room: two figures cloaked in white sheets, eyeholes cut out as if they were Halloween ghosts. In between, we see a third figure in black, apparently clad in a chador. The ghosts seem to be assailing the Shia in some undefined manner, but due to the flicker and other material “interference” (paint, scratches, sprocket holes), no clear activity is visible. None, at least, until the chador-figure is gone and the ghosts begin wrestle-fucking. Like an unholy rite involving Kenneth Anger summoning the spirit of Paul Sharits, Luna a Santur is some truly singular eyewash. (M.S.)

Old Hat

Old Hat (Zach Iannazzi, U.S.): On a frame-by-frame basis, there may not have been a more pictorially pleasing work all year than Old Hat, by the young San Francisco-based filmmaker Zach Iannazzi. Composed of a variety of archival images patterned alongside newly shot urban and rural landscape footage, this brief 16mm work operates primarily—but not solely—as an index of warm, nostalgically loaded images. Bookended by a series of tranquil, seemingly disconnected scenes of nature and suburbia, the film hinges on an extended montage of rapid-fire images that suggest Jonas Mekas’ expatriate home movies as much as Bruce Baillie’s San Francisco symphonies or Robert Beavers’ phenomenological tableaux. Between regenerative pauses of black leader, memories of both personal and historic import flash forth from each successive image; indeed, it’s a work as attuned to the past as it is curious about form, function, and the continued capacity of the moving image. (J.C.)

Where the Chocolate Mountains (Pat O’Neill, U.S.): Los Angeles veteran Pat O’Neill’s first all-digital work (and first feature in over a decade), is, after a fashion he helped pioneer throughout the 1970s and 1980s, both a conceptual gambit and a technical tour de force. Predicated on the mystery of the Chocolate Mountains, a range that’s essentially hidden in plain sight, and used by the U.S. Navy and Marines as a testing ground for all manner of aerial weaponry, the film finds O’Neill’s advances in optical printing and collage reaching new levels of intricacy, creating a sense of urban unrest through scorched-earth imagery and infernal overtones. It’s his darkest, most harrowing experiment to date, playing something like a guided tour through a photo-negative version of the outer reaches of the California deserts. In a recent conversation about his move to digital, O'Neill commented in spirited and only semi-sarcastic fashion: “Oh, it’s a whole new world!” The same might be said for this strange and invigorating trip into the unknown. (J.C.)

Honorable Mentions

Answer Print (Mónica Savirón, U.S. / Spain)

A Brief History of Princess X (Gabriel Abrantes, France / Portugal / U.K.)

Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Germany / Austria)

The Illinois Parables (Deborah Stratman, U.S.)

Reichstag 9.11 (Ken Jacobs, U.S.)

Reluctantly Queer (Akosua Adoma Owusu, U.S. / Ghana)