Premiering out of competition at last February’s Berlin Film Festival, A Quiet Passion was almost singular this year in its concern for the inner life of its protagonist. This heartrending Emily Dickinson biopic, starring Cynthia Nixon in a career-best performance, was also the year’s most bitterly–and courageously–personal piece of auteur filmmaker, an emotionally overwhelming confessional object from Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives; Sunset Song), the greatest poet of the British screen since Humphrey Jennings.
Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
After a virtuosically choreographed, pre-credits long-take that ranks among the year’s most exceptional sequences, Romanian master Puiu sets up inside a Bucharest flat, his camera moving from room to room as he maps a cavernous domestic space, complicated familial relationships, and the history, politics, and religious attitudes of the post-Communist nation. The director’s darkly comedic reinterpretation of the chamber drama feels sui generis, even as it proves to be the natural extension of the occluded, outside-the-threshold aesthetic of his 2010 feature Aurora.
Nocturama (Betrand Bonello, France/Germany/Belgium)
Too controversial, seemingly, for Cannes, this immensely immersive fiction of an intricately plotted Parisian terrorist attack, and its symbolically meaningful dead-time aftermath, is real-world relevant filmmaking done in its provocateur-director Bonello’s inimitable, de-contextualized way–as the film’s memorable lip-sync set-piece suggests. In a French film industry that often seems incapable of escaping the lures of nostalgia, the invigorating Nocturama feels as of our world as any film this year.
Few films in recent years have achieved the degree of critical consensus surrounding Toni Erdmann, a film that seems to have been loved by absolutely everyone (except for Cannes’s George Miller-led jury). Ade’s third feature ups the cringe-factor of her less unambiguously comedic, though every bit as sharply observed Everyone Else, and brings gross-out humor worthy of the Farrelly brothers, before shifting into a surrealist register that culminates in the most spectacularly costumed–and un-costumed–set-piece in ages.
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, United States)
One of Jarmusch’s most moving films, Paterson unfolds over the course of a single week in which mundane routine gradually breaks down, giving way to profound personal crisis by week’s end. At the center of it all is poet-bus driver Paterson (an exceptional Adam Driver), one of many twins–he shares his name with his hometown–who populate the Ohio-born director’s decaying, if warmly rendered working-class, Rust Belt setting.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany/Belgium)
Covered by the gloss of bourgeois sophistication, Elle is down and dirty Verhoeven schlockery at its core, a rape-trauma narrative that replays the opening violent act from multiple angles, and in a mature video game that provides a platform for the director's taste for low-grade special effects. This is exceptional visual storytelling that pivots around one of the year's great performances, the legendary Isabelle Huppert in the more florid of her two roles on this list.
Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, Romania/Germany)
Horizontal and bedridden as tuberculous tears through his body, Emanuel spends his days and nights in a Black Sea sanitarium in this exceptional example from Romania's most eclectic auteur. Emanuel's wheeled cot, framed perpendicularly to and diagonally from the camera, provides the visual focus for many of the film's sculptural frames–as well as a site for the sex and Nazi-era politics that distinguish this celebrated, semi-comic adaptation.
Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mysteries (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
History, legend, mythology, and fiction all meld together in a single story world in Diaz’s mammoth, slow-cinema novelization of the years surrounding the Philippines’ struggle for independence. Sculpting time–eight hours worth–in exquisite, high-contrast black-and-white, Diaz grafts the myth of cinema’s concurrent origins onto this new direction for one of world cinema’s most unique artists.
Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
At some point you would have to think that Hong will exhaust his signature story line, that he will no longer manage to make new his biographical template of artists, women, awkward conversation, and copious amounts of alcohol. Yourself and Yours confirms that we are certainly not there yet: borrowing his conceit from That Obscure Object of Desire, Hong’s looser, if even more emotionally satisfying latest turns, freshly, on the both/and possibilities of its storytelling.
One of the stronger provocations to debut in 2016, this Pasoliniesque Locarno premiere combines its autobiographical interests in bird-watching and the filmmaker’s sexuality with a Roman Catholic-inspired stations-of-cross-style narrative, where the film’s ornithologist is tested as much sexually as he is spiritually. Adding the AIDS subtext of To Die Like a Man, and its final-act transformation, The Ornithologist is a signature and very personal achievement from the Portuguese auteur.