Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)
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I, Daniel Blake

 

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I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

 

The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film I, Daniel Blake.

Any one of us sitting in those theater seats could have been in the same situation as the movie’s titular character. Many of us have probably experienced more or less the same sort of disgruntled and rejected responses from government personnel when trying to be nice. Loach is clear in his message. People are tired of bureaucratic regulations on the middle and lower classes ability to earn. They’re tired of being underpaid for jobs. They’re tired of red tape barring them from basic human necessities like healthcare and education and food. They’re tired of feeling like everyone in a power position doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether they live or die. The companionship between the Daniel Blake and Katie, a single mother of two young children, signals a response of the populace in the face of neglect. Take care of each other because who else is going to? At the same time, however, even pooling together resources from several people isn’t enough to create more than the sum of its parts when they live under a system which is built to undermine those who are least fortunate. The film is filled with many sentimental and heartaching moments, typical of Loach’s regular plea to his populist/socialist audience, but they are built as moments of desperation rather than as some sort of narrative ploy. Before we see Katie sneaking a handful of crushed tomatoes at the food bank only to sob, embarrassed at how low she has fallen, we see her giving up her portion of dinner to give her children extra while she goes hungry… night after night.

Unlike many other films depicting one individual’s violent frustration with fascist corruption, Loach resists the urge to throw his character over a cliff, a la Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Instead, Blake’s frustration comes in waves, and his affable yet stern demeanor is all the more frustrating for us. We want to be good, decent, happy, and compassionate people, but even the most joyful must draw a line somewhere. Like a carrot dangling from a stick, there are several false moments of hope which alleviate Daniel Blake’s urge to succumb to vigilante status. That is, until one seminal moment where he spray paints his name of a federal building. But even here, we see him with a grin, shrugging, and chuckling. The heartache of neglect is that when government turn Kafkaesque there are a few who, sure, take it to the limit and look for blood. But most of us are Daniel Blake, most of us can’t do anything but laugh at the ridiculousness of how our countries operate. We can’t do anything except seek attention to our plight. As in the letter reads at the end of the film, “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, no more, no less.” If only we were all seen that way.

2015 Capsule Reviews Part IV

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Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

It’s hard to judge this movie on cinematic terms because the issue and topic it deals with is such a devastating one and has such dire sociological and theological implications that it engulfs any dialogue of artistic merit with dialogue on social consciousness, faith, and morality. It’s really the perfect kind of “Oscar” movie because its contribution is towards a social discussion and making a “statement” which people can gravitate towards. It means that the movie is able to skate to victory on its mere competency. As certain critics have pointed out, it’s “just good enough” for the Academy Awards Best Picture, and when the topic of choice is so timely and the story one of triumph against evil, whatever flaws it may display cinematically and by form or structure in making its argument will be set aside and excused for the importance of its ability to make something horrifying accessible. We don’t nitpick a spotlight story on ISIS for its grammatical errors and questions about its rhetoric, and we don’t care of Spotlight’s level of artistic merit so as long as it gets its all important message out clear and light enough to carry and hold with us.

 

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

The cliché “the higher they rise, the harder they fall” is a single sentence explanation which is supposed to be tacked on to every celebrity story like that of Amy Winehouse. We’ve heard it before and we will hear it forever. But Kapadia, with this documentary, attempts to examine the reason for the fall, what is the force of gravity which accelerated Winehouse from the tops of music stardom straight in a grave underneath the ground? Well, there isn’t a single reason, and like physics problems, Amy’s fall is acted on by a number of forces, those trying so desperately to hoist her up (her friends) and those accelerating her decline (media, critics). The “saddness” that we keep hearing about celebrity drug problems and their eventual deaths such as in Amy is not simply due to an addiction, but to the fact that it is never taken with the sort of grave seriousness that other diseases are. We see clips of comedian making fun of her, ripping her for her appearance, juxtaposed with images of her crumbling mentally and physically under the stress of her life. It’s not simply a mechanism of the media but of society as well. Our immediate reaction to celebrities expressing disatisfaction with their life is to ridicule them for feeling so because of their immense wealth, legitamizing the notion that money does by happiness of all accounts.

 

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

The whole experience is very off-putting and that’s what makes Queen of Earth a fascinating drama. It’s entire duration evokes a sense of dread within you, and its horror is manifested in our own feelings of embarassment, frustration, betrayal, and lonliness. These are human emotions but they are what makes us afraid and what eventually, if we let them fester, can make us go insane. I would say that Queen of Earth is a psychological horror film in the same way that Charlie Kaufmann’s Synechdoche New York is one, where the central characters undergo an emotionally churning chapter of their lifes which makes them fear their own existence. The sequence where Catherine has a complete psychotic meltdown at the gathering of her friend’s house is similar to Caden being confronted with his stage cast and crew finally asking when the hell their production is actually going to be finished. It’s a realization of all out failure by Catherine, and having the last support beams of her sanity knocked to the ground. It’s horror without ghosts and demons… it’s the horror of realizing how vulnerable she is all of a sudden. A queen stripped of her throne.

 

Addicted to Fresno (Jamie Babbit, 2015)

Scripted incredibly amateurishly, with comedy which forces itself through sexual frustration and cursing. It’s the middle-schoolers brand of jokes with everything spelled out at the end and characters regurgitating information that in real life, they would simply already know and is useless information to us anyway. I’m not sure what Jamie Babbit is getting at with her film career, but even her so-called “cult” classic But I’m a Cheerleader was not shy on its heavy-handed symbolism, obvious in its construction and again, spelling it out every bit of commentary it chooses to make just to make sure we “get it”. Well, Jamie Babbit, if you had any semblance of an imagination, we would have gotten it simply through implication.

 

A Hard Day (Seong-hoon Kim, 2015)

Korean mainstream cinema is something I would recommend to a lot of my American friends because it is directly influenced by style and narrative structure of Hollywood’s mainstream cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which works on its own parallel plane only borrowing off the most rudimentary and simple of cinematic technique from Hollywood’s popcorn cinema, the Koreans go all out dedicated with a replica of which 99% of the DNA is the same. Seong-hoom Kim’s A Hard Day could easily be made into a decent Jason Statham January thriller and its cheesy but believable conundrum of a cop who accidentally commited a hit and run and now has to try and cover it up is ripe for directors to experiment with editing and tension building. Its this type of inspired, light-and-airy popcorn material, with ample cheese melted on top that delivers enough to pass the time while still being respectable. If you’re just lazing around on a weekend afternoon and need to kill some clock before heading out for the night, watch A Hard Day.

 

The Duke of Burgundy

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The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2015)

It isn’t a coincidence that many movies that deal with very troubling psychological themes have characters who collect and/or study moths. There is the surface-level creepiness of moths, the fear that they instill in us with their unpredictable flight patterns and ugly thick hairy abdomens and menacing wing decorations. They are in all accounts the sociopathic, obsessive, and much maligned cousin to the majestic, dreamlike butterfly. They help make accessible the darkness in mood and theme of pictures dealing with mental tugs-of-war. But the most obvious connections the moth motif delivers is the obsession with light. While butterflies are associated with their pollination and dispersal of seeds of flowers, a wholly serviceable and normal natural function of their species, the moth is obsessive, entranced and hypnotized by light. This obsession provides no ecosystem service in this regard, and even further, it can kill the moth, but that trans exists and it is inescapable. It’s beyond the moth’s psyche and physical control.

Similarly, here the characters in Peter Strickland’s wildly inspired and thoroughly surprising film The Duke of Burgundy are encompassed in a sexual and passion-filled existence that borders on the brim of tumultuous self-destruction. Cynthia and Evelyn are in their own world, entranced by all the facets of erotica that exist in the bubbling relationship of two lesbian lovers. To dub The Duke of Burgundy an “erotic film” would be to do a disservice to its cinematic complexity and vision as well as the viewers expectations. The movie has all the essences of erotic cinema but it only leaves them at their base individual elements; sly looks, eyelashes, curves, submissiveness, dominance, body fluids, underwear, skin, locks, chains, ropes, leather, velvet, candles, lips, and heels. The movie is a red velvet cake deconstructed into its raw ingredients with Strickland’s camera and the sexuality comes in notions and gestures, relationship politics and human emotion rather than pure sexual acts to elicit heat in the viewer. Don’t expect Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty here.

Strickland is an interesting filmmaker and this movie by him is by all means the most incredible surprise of a film that I came across all year. It is so inspired, so filled with little moments of pure cinema, the kind you know came from years of Strickland’s self-reflection of his own tastes and his own strengths. You see the extensive play with editing of Stan Brakhage, the sensual surrealism of David Lynch, and lighting and cinematography usually associated with Jane Campion’s movies. It’s a unique blend and Strickland manages it beautifully and his characters, two lesbian lovers role-playing, experimenting, and feeling each other’s vibe to ignite a new fire in their waning and wanting sexual relationship, are manifestations of our own desire to rip away from routine and boring rituals and search feverishly for a new enchantment, a new adventure, a light at the end of the tunnel… a light we flutter towards even if it hurts us. In the end The Duke of Burgundy stirs emotions and mixes inspirations into a captivating blend of surreal erotic ingredients within an emotional romantic thriller.

Oh, and please, add Peter Strickland to the company of Ben Wheatley, a guy I’ve called one of the most rocking filmmakers of this generation (and director of the best horror film of the 21st century so far), and you’ve got British indie-cinema with a bright, bright future.