It’s time once again for that hallowed, year-end tradition of comparing cinematic apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, pears, peaches, and kiwis. Two notes:
- You know as well as I do that Silence would have factored into this list if I had had the patience to wait and see it before publishing this. Be that as it may, now I get to watch it and judge it on its own terms, rather than in terms of which of these 10 movies it might displace.
- If I were to try to summarize what drew me to each of these movies, I would propose that it’s a shared quality of deep listening or attentiveness. What I mean by that exactly I leave for you to ponder as you read my list.
Mountains May Depart
Dir: Jia Zhangke
Every year since I started publicly sharing my favorite films of the year (2011), I’ve bestowed upon one lucky movie my “Pleasant Surprise” award. This year though, since there were so many pleasant surprises, I'm inaugurating a new award: the “You Tried!” award for the film that I love in spite of the fact that it just doesn’t work. There’s no better way of explaining Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, a three-part, melodramatic epic partly in the vein of Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) that boasts a fabulous performance from Zhao Tao; an iconic Pet Shop Boys needle drop; and a third act that goes completely off the rails. Much as I’d like to believe the ending is some sort of metaphor for the direction Jia thinks his country’s headed, there’s something inexcusably awful (albeit hilarious) about lines of dialogue like: “Sure, you’re my real father, but it’s like Google Translate is your son!”
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Dir: Stephen Cone
If this movie were less pimply and pubescently awkward (it’s only director Stephen Cone’s third film), I might suspect it of being driven more by a political agenda than an artistic and empathetic one. As it is, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a tactful and incisive movie about the pettiness and unexpected perils of poor Christian formation for gay Christians—and the people who are supposed to be walking the road with them. The spirit of Jean Renoir is alive and well with Cone, who does justice to every member of his perfectly-cast ensemble and stages his characters and scenarios ever-so-carefully to avoid coming off as judgmental. Cone knows, like his moviemaking idol put it in The Rules of the Game, that “everybody has their reasons.” His view of the world is curious and empathetic enough to see the best in the players on either side of the cultural fault lines, though how to make peace between them eludes him still.
Dir: Anna Rose Holmer
I already wrote about how this movie is hard to describe in words because its fundamental language is rhythm and motion. Well, uh, at risk of proving myself right here, and for lack of having the chops to explain this movie to you through interpretive dance: The Fits is a kinetic and surprisingly rapturous first feature. I’m glad to see that it’s built such a solid following in the months since its summer theatrical debut, and at a crisp hour-and-ten-minutes long, I’m hopeful that more folks will give this little movie that could a chance.
Love and Friendship
Dir: Whit Stillman
“Facts are horrid things!” is the 2016 motto we all deserve. Lady Susan is the role Kate Beckinsale, much to I think everyone’s surprise, has long deserved. And Whit Stillman, that oddly charming old white guy with a knack for socioeconomically aware dialogue and clandestinely critical humor (“So these are the results of an irregular education,” “Well it is our religion”) is the satirist Hollywood most certainly deserves. My one misgiving about the film is that Stillman isn’t as good a director as he is a slinger of barbed dialogue, as was clearly evident by my watching Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility one day later; a lesser Austen adaptation to be sure, but one whose images have a real gravitas and beauty about them.
Manchester by the Sea
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan
I laughed, I cried, I felt my stomach turn to jello when [REDACTED]. As if there were any doubt after Margaret that Kenneth Lonergan is our greatest working American screenwriter, he returned in fine form to prove that even a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker can show some empathy for the fine folks up north in Massachusetts. Among other things, Manchester is unquestionably the best Boston-area movie I've ever seen. Ty Burr, writing for the Boston Globe, sings the movie’s praises better than I could hope to: “a handmade human tragedy about the kind of people you see at the supermarket needs to sneak up on you if it’s to work its magic. Even if it’s a masterpiece.” Is it one? Well, we still have seven movies to go—let’s find out if we can’t do even better!
Dir: Kirsten Johnson
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has spent her life filming documentaries for other directors (if you’ve seen Fahrenheit 9/11 or Citizenfour, that was her handiwork) and spending time with the most broken among us, whether that be domestic abuse victims in the U.S. or the survivors of the Bosnian War overseas. In Cameraperson, Johnson assembles unused footage from all of her previous projects into a memoir of sorts. The film flips, with minimal onscreen direction as to what or who we’re seeing at any given moment, between scenes of a labor ward in a third-world country, high-security military compounds in the Middle East, descendants of Bosnian war survivors, home videos of her family in the rural Northwest, beautiful works of nature caught fortuitously on camera. Through Johnson’s eyes, we get a complete and moving picture of a woman’s life, and of so many other lives in between.
Dir: Radu Jude
I’m not entirely convinced this movie wasn’t just some apparition that blew into town with a tornado in mid-February, to be seen by my eyes only before disappearing from the face of the earth. Be that as it may, Aferim! is a glorious Romanian western that’s also a father-son road trip movie, ethno-religious farce, scathing critique of its country’s faulty historical memory, and fashion show for avant-garde headwear. And, to top it all off, it was shot in black and white, on 35mm film, for that extra-special glow that all the finest westerns of old used to have. Even if this movie was just a dream, it was a darn good cinematic one.
Dir: Barry Jenkins
What hasn’t already been said about Moonlight? Maybe all that’s left to say is that it’s, simply put, a special movie, and the only one I saw in theaters twice this year. (Actually, make that the only movie I’ve seen twice in theaters in the past five years.) This movie says a lot with very little, steadily gaining confidence as it goes before culminating in a final thirty minutes that had me on the edge of my seat. A director who can wring that much dramatic tension out of two friends (or lovers? not that it defines these men if they should love one another) sharing a meal at a diner is clearly worth his salt, and I for one am very excited to see where Barry Jenkins goes next.
Cemetery of Splendor
Dir: Apichatpong (Joe) Weerasethakul
By the point in this film when an enlarged amoeba crawls across the sky, you have either long since fallen asleep or you have let Joe’s eerily soothing crash course in deep listening and quiet cri-de-cœur against the tyrannies of the Thai government hypnotize you. I found myself in the latter camp.
Dir: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Somewhere in the last couple of years a bunch of film critics, presumably young ones, got it in their heads that “important” movies have to be slow, austere, pared down of any of the traditionally entertaining elements of a movie, and preferably without any music. Aquarius is none of those things while still being one of the most important films of the year. (It comes to Netflix January 13th and you will be sorely mistaken if you think I won’t send you all a reminder on the day of it’s arrival.) Besides its swing-for-the-fences performance from Sonia Braga, an international treasure unjustly forgotten for too much of her career, it also features the single greatest Queen needle drop in the history of cinema.
Dir: Maren Ade
No ifs, ands, or buts about it: Toni Erdmann is an utterly bizarre movie. It’s also an extraordinarily well-observed movie and one of two perfect films I saw this year. It takes some kind of genius to stage an impromptu performance of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” at a Romanian Easter egg-dyeing party and have it resonate powerfully backwards and forwards across the film, while also provoking the second-biggest belly laughs anyone could hope to have at the movies this year. It takes an otherworldy genius to follow that scene up with the single most hilarious scene anyone could hope to experience at the movies this or any year. Toni Erdmann opens nationwide in late January, and I’d be lying if I said you can hold off on seeing it until it shows up on streaming services; this is one you’ll want to share with as large an audience as possible.
Things to Come
Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve
Perhaps I was destined to fall in love with a French film about a 62-year-old philosophy professor. I want to hold onto the renewed attentiveness to the world around me that I took with me from the theater and walk around with it forever. Barring that, I want to curl up inside this movie and live in it, not simply for its warmly photographed surfaces (manmade and natural), but also for its beautiful posture toward all of life’s joys and tragedies—and, as the pileup of catastrophes to beset Isabelle Huppert’s otherwise fulfilled character very finely indicates, life’s full of the both of ’em. Just like in Elle, for which she’ll be more widely recognized this awards season, Huppert pulls off the challenging feat of making us believe in the possibility that a woman like this (in this case, a woman who has spent a lifetime cultivating the life of the mind and choosing somewhere along the way to cede her hopes for leading radical change to the less flattering job of teaching young people how to think themselves) might really exist, behave, respond, and listen the way she does from one unexpected turn in the road to the next. Without Huppert in the starring role, this movie would have been a pale shadow of itself. What we have instead is, if you’ll excuse my picking the low-hanging fruit, my Platonic ideal of a film.
Other Strong Contenders: Everybody Wants Some!!, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Loving
Movies I have left to see: Silence, Certain Women, Paterson, Julieta, The Love Witch, Hidden Figures, O.J.: Made in America
Sorry, I just wasn’t in the mood to see: The VVitch, American Honey, Nocturnal Animals, 20th Century Women, Rogue One
Movies I’m excited for in 2017: Zama, Personal Shopper, The Salesman, The Unknown Girl, Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Princess Cyd, Okja, Wonderstruck, PTA’s fashion movie, Twin Peaks (shush, it totally counts)