I’ve put together one of these lists for each of the past four years, and now it’s late December so I’m at it again. Below lies an alphabetical overview of the older movies that jolted me out of my jaded cinephile stupor in 2016. It includes some film noir, a few silents, and several exquisite oddities from around the world. These films contained performances that moved me to tears and laughter, courtesy of actors like Jean Seberg and Charles Lane; Reese Witherspoon and Ray Milland; Laura Dern and Anton Walbrook. (Along with Judy Davis, Tony Curtis, Jennifer Jones, Richard Farnsworth, Arta Dobroshi, and Jason Holliday.) I’m eager to revisit each of them in the years to come.
The Boat (1921) · Bonjour Tristesse (1958) · The Boston Strangler (1968) · Breakdown (1997) · A Bronx Morning (1931) · Deadline at Dawn (1946) · Death Is a Caress (1949) · From Beyond the Grave (1974) · From Morn to Midnight (1920) · Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) · Germany Year Zero (1948) · Gerry (2002) · Gone to Earth (1950) · Good Morning (1959) · Happy End (1966) · Harlan County, USA (1976) · Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) · High Tide (1987) · How Do You Know (2010) · Inherent Vice (2014) · Innocence (2004) · Jewel Robbery (1932) · Ladies They Talk About (1933) · Letter Never Sent (1959) · The Lickerish Quartet (1970) · The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993) · Lorna’s Silence (2008) · Messiah of Evil (1973) · Mildred Pierce (2011) · Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) · News from Home (1977) · Over the Garden Wall (2014) · Parting Glances (1986) · Penda’s Fen (1974) · Polyester (1981) · Portrait of Jason (1967) · Præsidenten (1919) · The Queen of Spades (1949) · Safety Last! (1923) · Sidewalk Stories (1989) · Smooth Talk (1985) · The Straight Story (1999) · Street Scene (1931) · El Sur (1983) · A Taste of Honey (1961) · The Thief (1952) · The Trust (1911) · The War of the Roses (1989) · What Happened Was… (1994) · Wings (1927)
Riveting maternal melodrama in the tradition of Mamoulian’s Applause or Sirk’s All I Desire. Judy Davis, stifling laughter, stifling sobs, plays a mess of a woman hanging from showbiz’s bottom rung. When she falls off, her car broken down, she’s stranded in a podunk coastal town. The slinking, bobbing camera surveys her inner and outer lives as she builds a relationship with a teenage girl, neither one initially aware that they’re mother and daughter. Establishing shots, mindful of lines and angles, gorgeously frame a shabby landscape of eateries, auto shops, and trailer parks. The grit of the town gets under High Tide’s fingernails. Emotions rise, as do ecstatic crane shots; the climax delivers a wallop. The plot wends around the vagaries of love.
Haven’t seen this since early childhood! It’s structured like a savanna Bambi, with the trauma of a parent’s death bisecting its coming-of-age story. But the emphatic vastness of The Lion King’s canvas makes its forebear look like a modest romp through the forest. Propulsive set pieces through gorges and caverns alternate with gaudy musical extravaganzas. In the rough Hamlet xerox of a plot, the “circle of life” finds its nexus in Simba’s royal birthright. Absent is any of the moral uncertainty that afflicted the Prince of Denmark; instead, Claudius is rewritten as a feline Hitler whose overthrow literally restores leaves to dying trees. Simba’s lingering guilt over his dead father? Exorcized by his submission to destiny. This onus on Simba to reclaim the throne frustrates me, and the story feels as if any ruffles have been smoothed out to yield an epic that’s beautiful but dull. (Even five jokey sidekicks can’t fix that.) I love the depiction of animal movement, though, especially during “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Wordless cartoon sloshing around a woman’s psyche while she’s in the throes of depression. Contrasts motion with stasis; sets muted grays and browns against deliriously heightened yellows. The loose story’s a nocturnal fantasy of a figurine coming to life, then taking its owner on an odyssey through nested metaphors. Instead of dialogue, eloquent sound effects and a jazz score modulate the mood. Given the subject matter and Pitt’s refusal to indulge in cliché, its 24 minutes make for a rough watch, but they culminate in a flood of catharsis.
Screwball romance divided along class lines; rapid-fire shtick as corny as anything on vaudeville; show tunes à la Cole Porter; and scimitar-wielding Arab caricatures so broad the Fleischer Brothers would balk: this is Depression-era entertainment reconfigured for the 1990s. A dash of postmodernism, maybe, and a sprinkle of riot grrrl, but the foundation is sturdy, old-fashioned, aggressively ingratiating itself to the audience. The showmanship is especially evident when the film bends toward magical fantasy, whether under the earth or into the sky. Every act of sorcery is animated with bountiful imagination, lit up in the blues and golds of a desert night. (I’m curious whether Jafar’s climactic exertions of power were meant to be tinged with eroticism, or if that’s just me. His transformation into a phallic cobra, all that bondage… and hardly anybody wears a shirt in this movie. Sex and spectacle in the exotic east: very Cecil B. DeMille!)
What can you say about a movie that was discussed to death months in advance of its release date? How about this: it’s an unwieldy new piece designed to fit into a preexisting whole. For roughly the first third of its run time, it’s a nifty space chase carried by fresh faces. As soon as they run into Han Solo, though, the plot starts acting as if it has obligations to meet. Like it’s your mom and she’s dragging you along to IKEA and the fabric store but letting you play with your action figures in the car. We zip from this planet to that planet, checking in with the villains every half-hour or so; sometimes there’s a pause to crack jokes or gape at funky alien designs. The Force Awakens is a very acceptable solution to a set of very tight storytelling constraints. Whether that makes it a good movie depends on whether you regard those restraints as intrinsically positive.
In the hands of most artists, this would play as stale melodrama. Its romantic triangle would succumb to moral binaries. But P&P were not most artists, and in their long joint career, they rarely left a binary intact. Nature vs. civilization, paganism vs. Christian orthodoxy, woman vs. man: the rapturous visual storytelling in Gone to Earth complicates every single one of these seeming dichotomies. The developments in Hazel’s magical life are not weighted strictly toward “good” or “bad.” Instead, they’re built up out of hills, trees, tightening two shots, passion-twisted faces, and a palette of Technicolor excess.
In this film’s cosmology, heaven and hell are not abstract destinations but immediately within reach, and Jennifer Jones plays Hazel as a girl-turned-woman who’s too aware of their proximity for her own good. The knowledge is in her voice, iffy accent or no. It’s in the squiggly cursive handwriting on the farewell note she leaves her husband: “I am a bad girl.” And it’s in the shot that gazes up at her in her yellow dress from deep within the Chekhov’s abyss before rotating to watch a stick plummet deeper still into the darkness. Powell and Pressburger knead a wealth of unspoken implications into an image of a simple Shropshire well.
Here’s what I missed most from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt while watching this adaptation: (1) the lengthy opening portion of the novel detailing Therese’s drudgery at Frankenberg’s before she runs into her dream woman and (2) the hotel-hopping game of cat and mouse the couple later play against the private detective employed by Carol’s vindictive husband. Compressed versions of both remain in the film, but only as narrative ligaments, helping push the story into its next act. Much as I adored these bits on the page, though, I still appreciate the necessity of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s cuts, not only for the sake of time but also because they sharpen the film’s focus. For Carol really isn’t about working retail while pursuing your vocation in your off hours, nor is it even slightly a paranoid thriller. From stem to stern, on every level of craft, it’s an evocation of the soul-deep yearning these two women have for one another.
What is it like to be one whole cleft by circumstance into two aching halves? As it turns out, it’s like gazing out of windows at the snow globe of wintry Manhattan or receiving a call you have to drop while anxiously clenching a cigarette. It’s trying to carve out a sliver of space for you and your beloved within doorways and hallways and hotel restaurants; it’s encoding your love into a glance or gesture only she will be able to decipher. As with Haynes’ other period melodramas, the costuming and set design in Carol act not as value-neutral recreations of ’50s style, but as essential aesthetic components of Carol and Therese’s relationship. Every item in Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe—gloves, earrings, nail polish, fur coat—has been selected and shot with the knowledge that a woman’s self-presentation can function both as a tool and as a trap.
(In this respect, and in the consistently off-center framing, Carol reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series. It’s an impression bolstered by Therese’s passion for photography; by Haynes’ actual collaboration with Sherman on her feature Office Killer; and by the haze of self-conscious old movie glamour that hangs over this movie.)
“The city” is an overwhelming subject, especially for a ten-minute silent short. Leyda wastes no time. His dizzying montage zips from mass transit to shop windows to kids playing in the street. Across this whirlwind tour of the borough, the filmmaker slyly draws visual patterns out of public phenomena. The weaving diagonals of fire escapes and elevated train tracks; the aerial trajectories of pigeons and stray newspapers—they make the Bronx morning seem like a series of abstract compositions just waiting to be caught on camera.
A single joke that’s all build-up, build-up, build-up, then wham! Absurd proto-feminist punchline! Running half a reel, this splits its time between three gullible suitors and the female trickster who promises each one in turn her hand in marriage. As she hurries to hide the rings she’s been given and prepare for the next beau in line, the story plays like a preemptive spoof of the still-nascent romcom. The men’s pantomimed proposals are just as broad as the looks of shock they plaster on their faces when their phony fiancée reveals her charade. The woman breaks the fourth wall in every other shot with a cocky grin. She’s sharing a conspiratorial laugh with us, her audience, at matrimony’s expense.
Lucky coincidence that I should watch this so soon after both Carol and A Bronx Morning. Together, the three films measure out myriad angles of approach toward a pair of shared subjects: Love and The City. News from Home is roughly as far from the former film’s classical melodrama as it is from the latter’s montage. Akerman’s tack is minimalism, as she juxtaposes voiceover readings of her mother’s letters from Belgium with footage of New York streets and subways. So simple, conceptually. Yet every word she speaks in her mother’s voice and every avenue her camera traverses deepens the trans-Atlantic story she’s telling. She’s never explicit about anything, never tells the viewer how to feel, but even so News from Home broke my heart; is still breaking it a couple days later. I think it’s because of Akerman’s conspicuous absence—because I can glean the outline of the artist as the “you” in her mother’s letters, as the eye taking up space in the middle of these subway cars, the camera-eye with which bold commuters will sometimes exchange a glance. Between the audio and the images of News from Home lies this woman who’s invisible, dislocated, lonely; who’s a daughter, a foreigner, and a human being.
Year-end lists are arbitrary, reductive, and tedious. This one’s mine! I’ll start by rattling off my loose, alphabetical #25-11: Approaching the Elephant, Brooklyn, Buzzard, Crimson Peak, The Forbidden Room, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure, The Look of Silence, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Mend, Mistress America, Queen of Earth, Shaun the Sheep, Tangerine, and Timbuktu.
The following movies didn’t receive theatrical distribution this year, but (1) Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake was released online by the BBC in January; (2) the neo-noir music video Bitch Better Have My Money, co-directed by Rihanna and the filmmaking team Megaforce, premiered on YouTube in July; and (3) Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard-Passage #14 may have played at festivals in 2013 and ’14, but I caught it at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this past March. All three stretch the definition of “2015 cinema,” but all three also struck me as abrasive, essential experiences.
Ten runner-up performances: Jason Bateman, inverting his “nice guy” persona in The Gift; Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash, playing another of the unkempt women who define Diablo Cody’s patchy oeuvre; Blackhat’s Chris Hemsworth, using the whole of his Norse god bulk for brooding and grief; Rinko Kikuchi, holding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter together with sheer conviction; Sidse Babett Knudsen, playing submissive in The Duke of Burgundy with both emotional delicacy and sexual vim; Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, bouncing off one another through the thick and thin of a friendship in Tangerine; Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, so inviting even as he gives away so little; Michael Stuhlbarg, showing once again what character acting is all about as an Apple second banana in Steve Jobs; and lastly Taika Waititi: goofy and benign even as he leads a ring of bloodthirsty vampires in What We Do in the Shadows.
Every year I name a Best Performance in a Documentary. The past winners have been Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter), Anwar Congo (The Act of Killing), and Actress star Brandy Burre. This year, the award goes the pseudonymous Adi Rukun in another Joshua Oppenheimer movie, The Look of Silence. Just behind him, though, is 11-year-old hellraiser Jiovanni in Approaching the Elephant.
If, for some reason, you want to read more of my opinions on the year in film, I voted in the Village Voice and #12FilmsaFlickering polls. I also provided a couple of suggestions for MUBI Notebook’s annual collection of “fantasy double features.” And now, with all that preamble out of the way, onto my list proper:
As so often tends to be the case, the best movies this year have roots deep within the past. About half the entries here are period pieces, with Hou’s wuxia epic reaching back the farthest. The Assassin is a window (a 1.37 : 1 window, nearly as square as the movie that tops this list) into Chinese high society over a millennium ago. It’s steeped in their candlelight and draperies, their reds and greens, the sounds of their birdsong and whistling wind. The camera—often patiently static, sometimes subtly panning—tells the story of political negotiations robed in protocol. It tells of Shu Qi’s title character and the choices she confronts: to engage in or refrain from violence? When she does act, Hou invests her swordplay with just as much visual and moral weight as her placidity.
The mediocre Uncertain Terms benefits from a murderer’s row of young actresses, the finest of whom is Tallie Medel, her eyes wide with searching intelligence and a desire to be loved.
In Inside Out, Richard Kind voices a near-forgotten imaginary friend with all the pathos of an obsolete vaudevillian.
The surfaces in which this film is tightly bound are often patterned after the cycles of English folk horror stories and Italian gialli released throughout the 1970s. From the dusty oranges and browns to the ethereal score, the slow zooms, and the motif of fluttering moth wings, The Duke of Burgundy evokes a rustling unease. Yet its point is not strictly to induce shudders, nor to pay homage, but to relate a romance of utmost tenderness. Its Möbius strip structure doesn’t point toward nihilistic gloom; counterintuitively, it demonstrates how relationships (kinky lesbian relationships especially) can break and mend. Strickland musters all the opulently sinister excesses at his disposal for the sake of vulnerability and sexual candor.
Eva Green gives a wordless performance in The Salvation that goes miles beyond the film’s assemblage of western clichés. She speaks volumes with her imperiously furrowed eyebrows alone.
Maximizing his limited screen time in Brooklyn, Emory Cohen uses his voluble body to suggest a boy who’s slightly embarrassed over how in love he is and fundamentally decent enough to make this young woman a good husband.
Every shot held, every line delivered, every gesture made is suffused with pain. It’s pain that perhaps, as Costa’s waking nightmare of an art film suggests, an odyssey through dilapidated corridors and panes of shadow might help to exorcize. The ensemble’s wanderings and their monologues are informed by Portugal’s colonial relationship to the actors’ Cape Verdean homeland, and this dense context renders much of the loose narrative opaque. But even watching it with nil knowledge of Lisbon’s political history, the hoarse voices of the dispossessed are nonetheless haunting as they echo throughout an architectural embodiment of memory.
With her open, expressive face, Lucy Owen holds her own against the swaggering man-child leads of The Mend, her emphasis on how wearying it is to be a kill-joy mom.
Kevin Corrigan is essential to the off-beat romantic comedy of Results with his willful, full-bodied schlubbiness.
You have infinite options if you’re trying to tell someone’s life story. Most filmmakers limit their toolboxes to just a few. But as this sardonic spin on the timeline of Stanley Milgram’s career unravels, Almereyda employs increasingly unorthodox methods. Blatant rear projection, nested fictions, and narration out of the subject’s own mouth turn the practice of social psychology into a clever visual game. The fallout from Milgram’s work as his findings became common knowledge ends up as fodder both for wry jokes and hard-nosed intellectual investigation.
Jessica Chastain takes charge as a spaceship captain in The Martian, but she might be even better when she drains herself of empathy to play a gothic villainess in Crimson Peak.
Benicio Del Toro takes to moral ambiguity like a pig to shit in Sicario, lurking laconically over the shoulder of Emily Blunt’s naïf.
This sick joke slasher movie may be full of hysterics and gory revenge, but deep within it lies a simple curiosity about online ephemera. The substance of its Macbook mise-en-scène is forum posts, Facebook messages, and Skype windows. All the detritus that’s supposed to vanish when you hit “delete” or click “X” is the accrued material of Unfriended’s single 80-minute shot. Every dumb high school grievance typed out in iMessage or captured on a webcam turns into a matter of life or death. It’s a metaphor-rich ghost story written with keystrokes and blood.
Casually wielding her sex appeal, Jada Pinkett Smith becomes the focal point of every shot she enters in Magic Mike XXL. Yet she’s never stingy about ceding attention to those around her; she knows she doesn’t need our love, though she’ll accept it if we insist.
Louis Negin slips between half a dozen personas across The Forbidden Room’s many vignettes, his weathered face and hammy line deliveries suited to every chapter of its film-historical phantasmagoria.
A real historical event—the double suicide of an ailing housewife and famed poet—marks the end point to this tragicomedy of manners. But Hausner’s deadpan style deflates the act of any romance that might be read into it. Instead, she foregrounds the tedium of the participants’ bourgeois lives; the dreariness of the décor that engulfs them; and the petulance of Heinrich von Kleist, who initiates the pact. Within Amour fou, shaped by its compositional rigor, lies a whole regimented microcosm of 19th century German society, laid out like a lifeless diorama.
Charlize Theron instantly entered the action heroine pantheon for her work in Mad Max: Fury Road, not merely for how she fights, but also for capturing the look of a woman who’s lost it all, come out alive, and kept on driving.
No matter how dubious its politics or plotting may be, The Hateful Eight makes an excellent showcase for Samuel L. Jackson, with his scarf-wrapped bravura and his unrivaled mastery of Tarantino’s linguistic gambits.
Among the most primal of cinema’s pleasures is the sight of a sweaty, beautiful man dancing. Valentino knew it, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit knew it, and Gregory Jacobs—picking up as director where Steven Soderbergh left off—knows it, too. A veritable model of narrative economy, Magic Mike XXL dispenses with anything that might get between its audience and their ecstasy. Its road movie bacchanal climbs state by state through the Southeast, pausing only for terpsichorean pit stops scored to the likes of Ginuwine, the Backstreet Boys, and an a cappella Bryan Adams cover. Even when the music’s over, pleasure remains the subject of discussion between the troupe of self-described “male entertainers” and the women they entertain. Like Aristotle, Mike and his boys wonder, “What is the good life?” They may not find it, but it’s pretty hot watching them search.
Bel Powley’s voiceover and tentative flirtations in Diary of a Teenage Girl contain so much of adolescence: the belief that you already know everything; the overwhelming desire to know more.
Henry Cavill may not be a bona fide movie star just yet, but in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he gives a full-on, old-fashioned movie star performance. He makes “making it look easy” look easy.
Whereas Magic Mike XXL is rich with pleasures, the Safdies’ gutter-level addiction chronicle is rich with miseries. Not unlike Horse Money, it’s a movie that mixes and matches its fictions and realities into a patchwork of caustic realism. It lopes from one desultory episode to another as a woman named Harley tries to finagle some change, her next fix, or a bed for the night. No judgment here; just behavior, existence, survival in front of the camera. No “descent” into degradation, no platitudes, no contrived shot at redemption. Just poor decisions made while trying to undo poor decisions from three cycles back. It’s life, and it’s miserable.
Sartre may have written that “hell is other people,” and R. Crumb may have quipped that “hell is also yourself,” but Elisabeth Moss, queen of the close-up in Queen of Earth, says, “Guys, fuck off. Hell is me.”
Ventura, the star of Horse Money, somnambulates through the ruins of the past in dirty pajamas, wearing a hard lifetime on his body and in his eyes.
This postwar pulp tragedy follows the straight line of an absurd con game in which a woman must pretend to be herself. Every implication arises from that premise, and each new revelation tugs on another as they amass in a lurid daisy chain. Past intersects with present like needle pulling thread; Hitchcock crosses paths with Fassbinder; gaze is met with unseeing gaze. Countries, marriages, human beings: any whole that’s come asunder, says Phoenix, must first endure fire if it’s going to be rebuilt.
Phoenix star Nina Hoss keeps the whole precise construction from toppling with her post-traumatic mask of a face, first shrinking into her own body, then growing into herself anew.
Meanwhile, Joshua Burge plays a different species of bird as Buzzard’s scavenger anti-hero, all bug eyes and shit-eating grin.
A military officer drags himself across a blazing landscape where he does not belong. Time and space reveal themselves to be more malleable than was once presumed. Old relationships untangle and new ones form; obscured trails become harder to follow. But water keeps flowing, grass keeps growing, and rocks are worn by rain and wind. An inexact synopsis, perhaps, but that should at least get across the thrust of this sublime, oneiric movie.
Arielle Holmes goes beyond the pale in Heaven Knows What with her irascible, bullshit-free, and stubbornly human performance. The fact that the film is based on her own experiences is incredible, but appreciating her work onscreen doesn’t require that knowledge; the proof is in the bitter pudding.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram in Experimenter as no hero, but actually sort of an asshole. He’s smug, impatient, yet persistently curious about the workings of the human mind, and this nuance sells the man’s accomplishments far better than any sugarcoating could.
[Movies I have yet to see include Anomalisa, Arabian Nights, Carol, Chi-Raq, Creed, 45 Years, In Jackson Heights, and Son of Saul.]
This is my fourth consecutive year assembling such a list. It’s a mere roll call of titles, not necessarily a work of actual film criticism, yet for me the viewer it’s an exceptionally gratifying exercise. It reminds me of countless hours spent lounging around on my couch and wondering, “What will this movie be like?” then giggling in delight when it turns out to be a masterpiece. I discovered three great films of 2007, delved further into international art house cinema, and turned up some new favorites that I’d never really heard much about. And oh, the performances! Kathleen Byron and John Gielgud; Kinuyo Tanaka and Ivan Mosjoukine; Sheryl Lee and John Travolta! (Molly Shannon and Aldo Ray; Ruan Lingyu and Olivier Gourmet…) In a couple weeks I’ll start on 2016, but for now I’d just like to scan this list, remember, and smile.
All I Desire (1953) · Bed and Sofa (1927) · Black Narcissus (1947) · Blood and Black Lace (1964) · Le bonheur (1965) · Borderline (1930) · Le brasier ardent (1923) · The Cranes Are Flying (1957) · David Holzman’s Diary (1967) · Dishonored (1931) · The Dying Swan (1917) · Edvard Munch (1974) · Face/Off (1997) · Favorites of the Moon (1984) · Fear (1954) · Le fils (2002) · Flowers of Shanghai (1998) · The Goddess (1934) · Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) · Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) · Home of the Brave (1986) · The House of Mirth (2000) · Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) · I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) · In the City of Sylvia (2007) · Je, tu, il, elle (1976) · The Ladies Man (1961) · Leave Her to Heaven (1945) · The Life of Oharu (1952) · The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) · The Man Who Sleeps (1974) · The Marriage Circle (1924) · Memories (1995) · Men in War (1957) · My Brilliant Career (1979) · Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) · A Page of Madness (1926) · Poetry (2010) · The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) · Providence (1977) · Rocks in My Pockets (2014) · Smiley Face (2007) · Tiger Tail in Blue (2012) · Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) · Touki bouki (1973) · Twelve Monkeys (1995) · Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) · Two for the Road (1967) · War of the Worlds (2005) · Year of the Dog (2007)