Cemetery of Splendour
One could close out 2016 the same way Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Though, it has mostly been the worst of times: Aleppo, ISIS, Russian hacking, Pulse nightclub massacre, the Bastille Day attack, Bowie/Prince/Kiarostami RIP, Jo Cox and Brexit. Oh, and The President-elect is a hateful and ignorant opportunist who has conned millions of people into thinking he knows what's best for our future.
With so many terabytes of negative energy streaming through our social media feeds and television channels it would be easy to dwell on all the bad that has defined 2016. But we must not forget about the good that has transpired across the globe. Think of Michelle Obama's inspiring and badass oration or the heroic work done by the White Helmets in war-torn Syria.
Also, think of the year's best films. They remind us of our capacity for curiosity, critical thinking, diversity, wonder, empathy, and compassion. On the small screen, Beyonce's luminescent full-length visual album Lemonade (HBO) fits that bill and then some. It explodes with the kind of defiance, resilience and determination we'll all need in the years to come. Ava DuVernay's stirring documentary 13th (Netflix) traces the evolution of black disenfranchisement in America with intelligence, wit and necessary fortitude. And then there's the pure kinetics of Jonathan Demme's concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Netflix), the true musical of the year (eat it, La La Land).
Plenty of essential films also made their debuts theatrically, and the following is an attempt to subjectively justify my naming them the "best," whatever that means. Before we get to the list proper, though, a few words on some worthy honorable mentions.
Clint Eastwood's stoic Sully, Martin Scorsese's beguiling Silence and Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea could form a timeless crisis-of-faith trilogy. Johnnie To's magnetic Three, Jaume Collet-Serra's dazzling The Shallows and Alice Winocour's bruising Disorder are each immersive psychological thrillers about the elemental nature of stress.
Jim Jarmusch's serene Paterson and Anna Rose Holmer's spirited The Fits show the enigmatic artistry of daily life. Words are weapons in Corneliu Porumboiu's scathing The Treasure and Whit Stillman's acidic Love & Friendship. Rhythmic cycles of emotion and politics define Jia Zhang-ke's Mountains May Depart, Rémi Chayé's Long Way North and André Téchiné's Being 17. Finally, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and Andrew Ahn's Spa Night exemplify a beautiful openness toward complicated and shifting notions of identity.
And now, the best films of 2016:
10. Things To Come: Who needs sex or marriage when you've got Certified Copy? That's the type of head-scratcher Isabelle Huppert's recently divorced philosophy teacher contemplates in Mia Hansen-Løve's intellectually stimulating charmer that comes of age, again and again.
Everybody Wants Some!!
9. Everybody Wants Some!!: The past is never past, especially for director Richard Linklater. His wonderful semi-sequel to 1993's Dazed and Confused is melancholy and woozy, in love with the drunken present but deeply aware of sobering adulthood looming on the horizon.
8. Aquarius: Director Kleber Mendonça Filho recruits Sônia Braga to take the path of most resistance in this hypnotic character study about a music critic caught in a war of attrition with corrupt land developers. Termite art at its finest.
7. Elle: Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert's brilliantly fucked up anti-thriller eviscerates all sense of convention and patriarchal dominance. Revenge is a dish best served often and scalding hot.
6. Certain Women: Three stories, four women, and a mountain range of unspoken heartache. Kelly Reichardt's latest drama tenderly adheres to life's pronounced rhythms that continue whether we like it not. Anchored by Lily Gladstone's quietly assured performance, the film poignantly taps into the familiar space between panic and relaxation where most of us reside.
5. OJ: Made in America: Originally released by ESPN for television, this sprawling 8-hour documentary was given a theatrical release in the United States, making it eligible for this list. Ezra Edelman's meticulous and expansive journalistic endeavor reveals the DNA strands of race and celebrity running perpetually antiparallel in America, and how the rise and fall of football legend O.J. Simpson intersects with them both. No historical stone goes unturned, no story ignored, no voice is silenced.
4. Toni Erdmann: Maren Ade's unclassifiable film clocks in at 162 minutes, but it's a seamless breeze of a movie, skewering corporate value systems by stripping them of their power through comedy. Peter Simonischek's well-meaning buffoon employs elaborate jokes and costumes to save his workaholic daughter (Sandra Hüller) from a life of unhappiness. When you're handcuffed to madness it's hard not to smile.
3. Right Now, Wrong Then: Two great films in one? Or one great film split in two? Either way, Hong Sang-soo's biting, experimental and daring comedy emphasizes the importance of details—in narrative structure, language, miscommunication and romance. Jung Jae-young's brazenly funny performance hints at the ache of a man who's become quite friendly with regret.
2. Knight of Cups: Many have decried Terrence Malick's So-Cal odyssey as self-indulgent, but to do so misses the point entirely. Through the eyes of a winsome screenwriter (Christian Bale) tremors of memory and heartbreak reverberate outward into the natural world, causing earthquakes both literal and stylistic. Confessions linger on the tongues of dispossessed souls yearning for something beyond the artifice of their surroundings. Amazingly, the final crescendo proves transcendence to be entirely attainable. That kind of optimism is invaluable.
1. Cemetery of Splendour: In a year defined by chaos and despair, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's meditative masterpiece quiets life down to a blissful lull. The radical act of listening and remembering opens up corridors of time and space. Sleeping soldiers lie under neon green lights, playful goddesses walk the earth, and voyages through time are a common occurrence. Nothing may be what it seems, but everything is in perfect harmony.
And that's it folks.
Certain Women: Kelly Reichardt’s drama with Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams features three different stories about women facing transition in modern Montana. Opens Friday, Dec. 30, and screens through Thursday, Jan. 5, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Mother (Ema): Estonia’s official selection for the 89th Academy Awards is a darkly comic crime mystery about a mother tending to her comatose son after he is suspiciously shot. As his acquaintances stop by to visit, each reveals aspects of that threaten to complicate the investigation. Opens Friday, Dec. 30, and screens through Thursday, Jan. 5, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.