Alexander’s Top Ten of 2016

14 Feb

What makes one year better than the other regarding the movies? There was an awful lot of complaining regarding cinematic landscape of 2016, and yet there’s no shortage of titles to rank and categorize. As if a nation of people were shocked that Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, and Batman V. Superman sucked? Well if Hollywood lets you down look elsewhere, South Korea continues to lead the charge with new and exciting films, mainland China introduced us to Bi Gan, Isabelle Huppert headlines two masterpieces with Elle and Things to Come, Toni Erdmann was a worldwide sensation and a new Star Wars movie! All in all, I’d say 2016 was awesome.

Honorable Mentions: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Green Room, Toni Erdmann, Things to Come, Train to Busan, Creepy, Arrival, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Hail Caesar!, Hidden Figures, Certain Women, American Honey, Julieta, Aquarius, Kaili Blues.

10. The Wailing

With the exception of The Witch there weren’t too many high points for American horror films, (I remember laughing my way through The Boy this summer) but between The Wailing, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Creepy, and Train to Busan – 2016 proved it was a pretty solid year for Asian Genre films. Na Hong-jin’s epic anarchistic horror movie is an ambitious and certifiably scary and occasionally funny (intentionally so, an important distinction in horror) chiller revolving around a provincial town under the malevolent threat of a virus related string of possession murders and the bumbling yokel cop who’s helpless to solve the case. Na Hong-jin’s film is stuffed with macabre imagery, social allegory, and an exorcism scene that rivals anything dreamed up by William Friedkin. Visceral, intense and fearlessly gross, The Wailing is an unpredictably twisted treat and recalls a certain Hawksian sense of humor, an original for sure.

9. Cemetery of Splendour

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour is a somnambulant dream logic meditation on Thailand’s political and religious landscape through the makeshift veteran hospital where soldiers are experiencing a strange sleeping sickness where they lapse in and out of a comatose state. If all of this doesn’t sound like heady enough, the schoolhouse turned hospital happens to be the burial site of ancient kings and infantrymen, who could be recruiting the unconscious soldier, thus explaining their affliction. The lofty, barely visible logic of it all sounds ridiculous. However, Cemetery of Splendour isn’t the whimsical think piece based on the description but the paired down magical realism and political layering is smooth, freewheeling, and casually surreal. There’s an abundance of philosophical boundaries to dissect, but some stones are better left unturned, there are areas to Cemetery of Splendour I don’t understand, and I’m fine with that, it’s the mysterious implacability of the film that’s enthralling.

8. The Witch

There’s something special brewing in this film; robust and assured, smart, succinct, and above all scary. The Witch is a unique tale that takes a mythical subject (like witches) seriously and contextualizes the reality of settler life recalling a period when casual conversation was (with all the “thees thous and hithers”) surpass what we accept as literary prose. Egger’s film has the regal atmosphere of The Crucible with the theological dissection if Ingmar Bergman’s cinema had a penchant for modern defeatism. Brilliantly cast and acted, with relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy stealing the show with a stately cherubic and sinisterly foreboding screen presence. Kate Dickie, a hardened looking rafter of puritanical mores with unique, defining features that have the mysterious allure reminiscent of Shelley Duvall’s enigmatic appeal. The grizzled baritone of Ralph Ineson won’t soon leave you, it’s so distinctive it becomes a character in itself, he brings the dialogue to such colorful life with poise and power.

The Witch straddles the line of a sobering supernatural procession and succeeds on every front.

7. Moonlight

We are always yearning for realism in movies, while Moonlight might not be what we think of regarding verite cinema but Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight feels more “real” to me than anything I’ve seen in years. It brings us into the life of Chiron, his growth articulates the indecipherable ordinary pains we endure while growing into the lives we think we want. As I regularly champion the auteur theory sometimes it’s a relief to shirk it, throughout Moonlight I wasn’t thinking about the context of Barry Jenkins or the themes in his work – it was purely about the movie in front of me, the characters and everything that makes it tick. Moonlight takes it’s own path through narrative development; moments large and small bear significance to the life of Chiron and nothing else. The trifecta of actors who bring the protagonist to life are marvelous, and Mahershala Ali is unforgettable, so is that steely blue nightlight; something I believed to be restricted to the films of Michael Mann but feels all the more compelling in this mosaic of emotional tumult.

6. The Handmaiden

Some directors grow, but Park Chan-wook has evolutionary growth spurts, and if it takes another three years for a feature from South Korea’s frontrunning modern directors then so be it. There’s an edge to Park Chan-wook’s work matched by an irreverent humor that coats the sometimes audacious sex and violence making the sumptuously erotic material smooth, urbane and even beautiful. Every facet of  The Handmaiden, its themes, style, and story are pregnant with detail, with a film is so richly executed it feels as if Park Chan-wook was in love with The Handmaiden. Breaking down historical melodrama, it sounds like a heaping mess of contradictions and indulgences, but we’ve ushered through this labyrinthine saga, and every beat is laden with double crosses, lavish symmetry, fetishistic detail, pulpy sex and torturous violence. I would like the think that this would transform Park Chan-wook from “the director of Oldboy” to “the director of The Handmaiden.”

5. La La Land

Damien Chazelle loves music, after watching the colorful splash of La La Land, I think it’s safe to say he loves making musicals as well. It feels like the contemporary musicals we are sporadically graced with come from those whose love for music, doesn’t extend with the same enthusiasm to the actual musical genre. As much as I admire All That Jazz, Chicago and Sing Street, these films are restlessly at odds with themselves as revisionist interpretations, as if filmmakers are sure that a full-blooded musical won’t connect with a modern audience?

Damien Chazelle takes the best of what inspired him and pours it over the contemporary Los Angeles landscape with Gosling and Stone’s glistening charm at the top of this dreamy love letter to all things singing and dancing, what could go wrong with La La Land?

What makes this film great is everything you’ve already heard, but its strength lies in the uncynical tone and tangible sense of whimsy through genuine adornment for the genre. Chazelle is channeling filmic progenitors; Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, and Vincent Minnelli extending to the pastel-hued style of Jacques Demy, but La La Land is all Damien Chazelle.

4. Jackie

The surfeit slew of biopics have long since descended into self-parody, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie breaks every informal rule in this department with a beautifully realized non-linear narrative and metaphysical framework. It’s sleight of hand placement of time in this plethora of emotional highs and lows evoke a palatable but moody document of personal loss – it’s as if we were so devastated by the loss of John Kennedy no one had time to console the one who loved him the most.

But this isn’t an attempt to decode the titular character, but more of an elliptical montage of personal reconciliation in the wake of great personal loss.The miracle of Jackie is the ability to contextualize the lyrical notion of sorrow, you can’t place, or name it but it resurfaces (like most painful memories) in lucid gasps of recollection. Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable composition regarding the psychology of mourning.

Lorrain and Portman (who shines among this brilliant cast) hit a vein that bursts with life and death, Jackie is a soulful dirge to a woman’s strength to endure the tragedy of her husband’s death, maintaining a public profile while a grieving nation is looking over her shoulder.

3. Elle

I initially resisted seeing Paul Verhoeven’s latest movie for two reasons; the first was that I’m a fan of the director, the second came after learning what Elle was about. The film was declared a rape-revenge movie, an unappealing sub-genre I tend to avoid, knowing that Verhoeven is anything but shy regarding sex and violence, the notion of him exploring sexual violence gave me pause, but I underestimated Verhoeven, and Elle was immediately one of my favorite films of 2016. Verhoeven and Huppert reshuffle the deck, scrambling the subversive with the comedic, dramatic conventions become stepping stones for droll ironies, and every character is carrying a loaded pistol with six chambers of subplot, and yet it’s a controlled sense of madness with an airy laissez-faire tone to match. Isabelle Huppert is a marvel, and this might be a role she was born to play. Frequently coined as an “ice queen” Huppert’s Michele is fearsome in the workplace, a powerful woman, who’s unsentimentally shrewd in business as she is in life. Huppert’s been a marvel since the seventies and is assuredly one of the hardest working actors, emitting sexy, bad-ass femininity, every step of the way; 2016 has been a good year for her.

2. Our Little Sister

Three sisters; Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika invite their fourteen-year-old half sister Suzu move in with them after the death of thier estranged father in this beautifully realized family drama from Hirokazu Koreeda.

The director’s style has a keen awareness for the minutia of life, the moments we don’t talk about but never forget, Our Little Sister feels light as a feather, and yet dramatic gravitas arrives through the subtleties of casual acquaintance.The illuminating factor of Koreeda’s direction is his ability to channel sentiment and meaning whether it’s a familiar ritual like, say eating a meal together, or something culturally specific like initialing plums with a wooden dowel when the sisters are carrying on the tradition of making plum wine.

The seasons, the town, the diner, their house, the plum trees, are vital to the stories casual milieu when the narrative comes to a close we don’t want to part from the community of Kamakura. It’s just as essential as the bond we form with Sachi, Yoshino, Chika, and Suzu.

Our Little Sister is evidence of Koreeda’s distinctive voice becoming more refined and purposeful; his mounting volume of work indicates we are in for more greatness.

1. Silence

Whenever I air my admiration for Martin Scorsese (which is often), I feel like it’s important to include his work as a film preservationist along with his career as a director. He directs movies, and at the risk of sounding corny, the movies of his life direct him too, and it’s this informed modernist aesthetic that makes him a such a diverse screen artist.

A spellbinding and at times, frustrating experience, Silence dissects a complicated subject and story, in technical and literal terms, after all, we can explain and synopsize the film but how does one tangibly convey theological despair, what does “faith look like?

Well, in 1988 it looked like Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, and with 28 years passing the almighty has been metaphysically reshaped. Sure this was due to the source material, but you can’t help but draw some connections to the symbology of Christ and the ramifications it plays in the film.

You can trace the tepid Catholicism of Mr. Scorsese from the opening shots of Mean Streets through almost the entirety of his filmography, but Silence is a career affirming summarization with the scope and psychological specificity. Scorsese’s rumination of religious themes (except The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun) were through his various fictions, where violence beget redemption; usually coupled with his protagonists skewed perception of the American endeavor.

Scorsese’s violence Is unadorned, sure his gangster stories are littered with gushing blood squibs, but he’s not an American brutalist shaking down history or religion to exploit his bloodlust (Mel Gibson?). Torture and murder play out with unnerving naturalism, it’s simplistic and all the more disturbing for playing it straight, without turning a blind eye or a deaf ear.

Garfield and Driver are magnificent, but what impresses me more is the Japanese casting. Tadanobu Asano (as “the interpreter) who’s earned the informal moniker “the Johnny Depp of Japan” since his cooler-than-thou style in the early 2000’s with Sharkskin Man and PeachHip Girl, The Taste of Tea and Vital. The later, directed by fellow Silence co-star and director Shinya Tsukamoto;  but it’s the ubiquitous Isao Ogata, as the Inquisitor Inoue, a squeaky malevolent and amphibious adversary, he’s terrifying. And so is the whole of the film, Silence is a chilling and challenging experience that is unforgettable.

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