Friday, January 20, 2017

Ten Best Films of 2016

1. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, United Kingdom/Belgium)
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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)
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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal/France/Brazil)
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.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016: Lisa K. Broad

1. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
2. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, 2015)
3. Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
4. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015)
5. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)
6. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
8. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
9. Happy Hour (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2015)
10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

2016: Alberto Zambenedetti

1. Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare, Gianfranco Rosi)
2. It All Started at the End (Todo comenzó por el fin, Luis Ospina, 2015)
3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
4. Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
5. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
6. Heartstone (Hjartasteinn, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson)
7. The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (Robert Eggers, 2015)
8. Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
9. Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
10. The Neon Demon (Nicholas Winding Refn)

11. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
12. Notes on Blindness (Pete Middleton and James Spinney)
13. Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
14. Flemish Heaven (Le Ciel Flamand, Peter Monsaert)
15. Paulina (La Patota, Santiago Mitre, 2015)
16. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
17. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
18. Never Ever (À jamais, Benoit Jacquot)
19. Sami Blood (Sameblod, Amanda Kernell)
20. Like Crazy (La pazza gioia, Paolo Virzì)

Alberto Zambenedetti is Assistant Professor in the Department of Italian Studies and the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. He is the editor of World Film Locations Cleveland (2016), World Film Locations Florence (2014), and the co-editor of Federico Fellini: Riprese, riletture, (re)visioni (2016).

Ten Best Films' 2016 Mini-Poll

1. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
59 points (LB, MA, RS)
2. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
58 points (MA, ML, MS)
3. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
51 points (LB, MA, RS)
4. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)
48 points (LB, MA, RS)
5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
27 points (ML, MH, MS)
6. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015)
41 points (LB, MA, RS)
7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
35 points (AZ, MS)
8. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
34 points (AZ, MS)
8. Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
34 points (LB, RS)
10. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
32 points (MS, RS)

11. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
29 points (MA, RS)
12. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
27 points (LB, MH)
13. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
25 points (MH, MS)
14. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
24 points (MA, ML)

Eight years ago, in what has become an annual rite on this site, the first official Mini-Poll was conducted among ten present and former graduate film students in New York and New Haven, with the majority of that group coming from the NYU Masters in Cinema Studies class of 2005. This was not, in fact, the first time that the group shared their picks with each other; one year before, the alumni + shared their choices on Tativille and various other blogs, with three of the Masters group preferring Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, and three more opting for Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as the year's best film. This contentious split helped to inspire the first Mini-Poll one year later. 

For the inaugural 2008 census. there was nothing but agreement, however, with Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale appearing on eight of the ten lists. A mere two years later, David Fincher's The Social Network was cited by nine of eleven besting A Christmas Tale's eighty percent share. Nine would also be the number reached by Terrence Malick's A Tree of Life, though with a twelfth participant in an all-time high for the latter metric. 2011 really was the high point for the Mini Poll, with A Tree of Life also managing the most points (on our not terribly sophisticated weighted scale) in Mini-Poll history. There was both consensus and passion backing Malick's then most recent.

Fast-forward five years, and though Malick has made a very warranted return appearance with Knight of Cups, as the top American vote-getter no less!, the Mini-Poll has basically reverted to its Tativille/Termite Art prehistory, in terms both of a more modest level of participation, and also a lack of anything approaching consensus. No film reached 50% this year, though that has much to do with the differing windows for festival and commercial releases as it does taste. After all, charter participant Mike Lyon cited top vote-getter Cemetery of Splendour on his ballot last year, while second place finisher Toni Erdmann is only now rolling out across the U.S., and won't reach some places until well into the new year. Perhaps the latter might have been a Social Network-scale juggernaut had it been screened to more voters by the end of 2016?

So here we are, seven brave souls and their choices for the best films of 2016. Yet, somehow, the results, as always, are as good as our much bigger survey competitors. For starters there are the seven English-language films that would make an extremely respectable best picture group: Knight of Cups, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Sunset Song, O.J.: Made in America, Arrival, and Hail, Caesar!.The Mini-Poll participants also came together and honored three films from East Asia in our top five, number one Cemetery of Splendour again, as well as two titles from South Korea, Right Now, Wrong Then, and the biggest surprise to me (though I was a fan), The Handmaiden. Finally, there are our four selections from Europe, and all by outstanding female directors, Toni ErdmannChevalier, No Home Movie, and Things to Come. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Contributors: Alberto Zambenedetti (AZ), Lisa K. Broad (LB), Michael J. Anderson (MA), Matt Hauske (MH), Mike Lyon (ML), Matt Singer (MS), and R. Emmet Sweeney (RS).

Postscript: Of those distinguished emeriti whose globe-trotting ways did not allow them to participate this year, I would be remiss were I note to share P.L. Kerpius's rather unconventional choices and Jeremi Szaniawski's more negative than positive assessment of 2016. For Pam the best films of the year were: 1) Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi), 2) Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), 3) Fire at Sea, 4) Fire at Sea, 5) Fire at Sea, 6) Fire at Sea, 7) Fire at Sea, 8) Fire at Sea, 9) Fire at Sea, and 10) Fire at Sea. Sorry, Pam, I'm not counting Fire at Sea nine times, but I would point out that she joins Alberto Zambenedetti in selecting the film as the year's best--so that is something. (Alberto had different ideas for 3-10.)

As for Jeremi, the obvious choice for the year's best was Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, which I concur was a very worthy choice (as is Fire at Sea for that matter). Jeremi also commends the re-released anime feature, Belladonna of Sadness, and Fever Room, which as Jeremi points out, is perhaps more "expanded cinema" than anything else. As for the year's most overrated, the choices were more robust for Mr. Szaniawski: 1) Neon Demon (Windig Refn) 2) Elle (Verhoeven) 3) Zootopia (whoever at Disney did that) 4) Finding Dory (whoever at Pixar did that) 5) Carol (Haynes). As a fan of the film, personally, the dislike for Elle among this year's participants and emeriti--let alone its complete lack of support on this year's poll--is the biggest surprise of all.