After another year of 200+ new releases, one of the pleasures I take is reflecting on everything that I watched and creating a list of essentials. These feelings are subjective and ever-changing, so if I were to revisit this list in five years, having re-experienced some of these films and caught up with others I missed, it might look completely different.
Much was said a few months back about this year’s dire blockbusters, and documentary filmmaking hasn’t been as potent in 2016, but it has been a terrific year in other areas. Take animated films and horror films for example. Not only in terms of box office success, but the depth of inventive and high-quality releases. When you explore the list below you will notice there are several representatives from those genres. A few other obscure facts about the list: ten films screened at the Sydney Film Festival, five are written and directed by female filmmakers, four are divided into chaptered sections and three had first-run availability on Netflix.
The rules: simply, everything knew I saw in 2016 that had a release date somewhere in the world in the vicinity of 2016. Some of these films had a late 2015 U.S release, others have screened only at international film festivals. All were accessible (via an Australian theatrical release, film festival, SVOD service or TVOD service) to me in 2016 in one way or another.
Of course, I didn’t quite get through my watchlist. Some films I missed or didn’t get the chance to see include Tower, Camerperson, Things to Come, Neruda, Sunset Song, The Love Witch, One More Time With Feeling, My Golden Days and Evolution. There are also some films releasing in Australian cinemas in January and February that are amongst the awards discussion that I have not yet seen. These include Moonlight, Lion, Manchester By the Sea, Fences, Silence, Hidden Figures and Patriots Day.
I apologise for the erratic lengths of the commentary. Some of these films I had written about already – so my thoughts, in often quite lengthy detail, had already been published. Others I was wracking my brain to find the words to describe how they made me feel. After the jump, check out my list of honourable mentions and 25 Favourite Films of 2016.
Honourable Mentions that just missed the cut (in loose reverse order of preference):
Train to Busan, Suburra, Indignation, The Meddler, Experimenter, Boy and the World, Sherpa, Loving, Arrival, The Red Turtle, Chasing Asylum, Pete’s Dragon, Your Name, Eye in the Sky, Under the Shadow, I, Daniel Blake, The Witch, Paterson, Sully, Edge of Seventeen.
25. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi continues to grow more confident with his filmmaking. He’s becoming such an international sensation he has been given reigns to the next Thor movie. Hunt For the Wilderpeople, a run-away box office success here in Australia (it played in cinemas for three months!) and one of the year’s best-reviewed films worldwide, is not only Waititi’s best looking film, but has close-to the best use of montage this side of Edgar Wright. Is it his most quotable? That mantle still goes to What We Do in the Shadows, I think, but this has some hilarious lines. Young Julian Dennison (who is going to be huge, and if you haven’t seen a Kiwi film called Shopping I urge you to check it out) and a grisly Sam Neill make a perfect mismatched pair. The soundtrack is sublime and it also pretty well nails the balance of that dry, goofy Kiwi humour with deceptively dense and moving drama.
24. Being 17 – Veteran French filmmaker Andre Techine (Wild Reeds), working in perfect complementation with his co-writer Celine Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood), has created an unforgettable portrait of the volatile emotional unpredictability and urgent thrills of first love. It details in fluid and authentic intimacy life on the cusp of adulthood, as the awkward adolescent emotions of desire, angst and grief boil together; and the violent confrontation of those feelings towards a person you are deeply are attracted to, but can’t find the way to express it. Individually outcasted classmates Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) don’t get along, and their violent sparring betray repressed feelings neither of them can articulate nor deny. Thomas lives in the mountains with his adopted parents; tending to the farm of a morning and making the hour and a half journey to school every day. Damien lives minutes from school with his parents. When his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a doctor, is called out to Thomas’ home she discovers his mother is pregnant and ill, and taking a liking to Thomas and wishing to help him with his grades, invites him to stay at her home. But, as the incidents between the pair increase in severity and the sexual tension erupts and they find mutual comfort in one another. With the chaptered trimester structure Being 17 has substantial thematic heft, with great care shown for every character; including Damien and Thomas’ parents. The technical details are faultless and the performances from the young leads incredibly brave. Stunning Pyrenees landscapes through a bitterly cold winter and the thawing summer to follow, provide a beautiful backdrop, too. The tension between Damien and Thomas is palpable. I have never seen this sort of muscular flirtation portrayed on screen before. The twist in emotions – when the boys eventually let their feelings out, having bashed the repression from each other’s systems – is genuinely overwhelming.
23. Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt, the director of Meek’s Cutoff and Old Joy, speaks my language. Certain Women is made up of a trilogy of short and loosely-connected stories (based on Maile Meloy’s) that offer a hypnotic, understated and beautifully filmed (on 35mm) study of the everyday, and three independent small-town Montana women living in states of unfulfilment. A viewer will naturally seek a link between the stories but Reichardt keeps them elusive and speculative. The first is about a lawyer (Laura Dern) who is tasked to diffuse a hostage situation involving a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), the second features a married couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros), who encounter friction as they try to persuade an elderly man to part with his stockpile of sandstone so they can build a fence for their dream home. The third story – the strongest and the most emotionally impactful, for me – benefits from outstanding work from Lily Gladstone as a ranch hand who forms an attachment to a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart, also terrific), who has been making a four hour drive into her local town to teach a twice-weekly adult education class. Each of these stories possess an undercurrent of dramatic friction; relationships on the verge of combusting, the characters taking chances, contemplating the morality of their decisions, and having to live with guilt and regret following others. This film’s pacing and threadbare plotting won’t be for everyone but no one can deny Reichardt’s ability to wring every ounce of beauty out of the landscape, and using her pared-back, observational style and quiet, enthralling pace to build a stirring tapestry of human experiences (not only with each other, but with the animals in their lives) that seem small, but have an enormous bearing on their lives.
22. Green Room – What struck me most about Green Room was that I believed everything that I was watching. The plausibility of the situation, the character’s identification with their threat, and the decision-making. It all has conviction. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, in a big jump up from his debut Blue Ruin, has created a terrifyingly intense and violent film of shocking realism. It is a clash of survival instinct on bloody overdrive versus clinical business preservation as a punk rock band, after witnessing a murder, find themselves imprisoned in a nightclub by a clan of neo-Nazis. I left the cinema hailing the chameleonic Imogen Poots, but on re-watch I observed that everyone is delivering exceptional work. The late Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, and a pair of did-you-know-they-were-Brits Callum Turner and Joe Cole.
21. Son of Saul – This technically audacious and emotionally gruelling début feature film from Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, was awarded Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. A horror film above all, this courageous work depicts two days in the life of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners enlisted to assist with the disposal of gas chamber victims for meagre rations – at one of the Auschwitz concentration camp crematoriums. While Nemes’ camera rarely strays from an aggressive close-up of Röhrig face and body, we still bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and Saul’s role. What he encounters on his mission – to find a rabbi amongst the newly herded prisoners willing to assist him bury the body of a young boy – is very confronting cinema. As he attempts to carry out this impossible deed of moral redemption, some of his fellow workers are planning a rebellious uprising as the Sonderkommando is set to be liquidated. Tension mounts as he repeatedly turns on them and focuses his energy on saving this boy’s body from the flames. The bold aesthetic choice to reduce the frame (a 1:1 squared ratio) restricts our breadth of vision, but amplifies Saul’s claustrophobic existence. These takes are long – involving hundreds of extras, impeccably researched and designed sets, and choreographed planes of action. With such a shallow depth of field, everything in the foreground – the actors’ scorched, dirt-chapped faces most notably – is where all the emotional drama is projected. Nemes offers us the context, but resists going for gratuitous shock value, sharing the chaos through this individual’s struggle. Most of the truly horrific acts take place in the deep background out of focus, or off camera, by their Nazi overseers. So, I took Nemes’ approach to both serve to amplify Saul’s resolve, and express the Sonderkommando’s strict moral alienation.
20. Love & Friendship – Oh, what fun. I have never read a Jane Austen novel – I still have not seriously considered her work ‘essential’ reading, which is, no doubt, ignorant on my part – but this pitch-perfect cinematic treatment makes wonderful use of her glorious language. There are so many lines I want to steal and use here. Kate Beckinsale – perhaps never better? – is radiant as the flirtatious Lady Susan – but the fine supporting cast (led by a miraculous scene-stealing Tom Bennett) are often howlingly hilarious. Its playfulness and razor sharp wit takes a few minutes to acclimate to, but once you find the wavelength it is all splendidly entertaining; a cheeky romantic caper that in-turn catches one easily off-guard with its deftly sweet touches.
19. The Little Prince – It is still hard to fathom that The Little Prince was given worldwide exposure on Netflix. I wish I had seen it in a cinema, but it is comforting to know that so many people can experience the magic of this beautiful and heartbreaking film. I was mesmerised by the stunning blend of animations, and overwhelmed by the film’s affecting, multi-layered themes. Plus that voice-cast is perfect. The film relays the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved 1943 novel using stop-motion animation, framing that with a computer-animated story of a young girl who meets the novel’s now-elderly narrator, an aviator who recounts his meeting with the Little Prince as a younger man. Fascinated by the aviator’s story, and repressed by the ‘life plan’ set out by her mother, she begins a quest to seek out the Little Prince for herself. The results are…profound.
18. Chevalier – The latest film from Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) is a very perceptive, funny and efficiently scripted satire of masculinity, male competitiveness, the fragility of ego and insecurity. It is a very unusual movie, but the hilarious premise is played with such a deadpan wit that the often-alienating ‘Weird Wave’ humour cuts through consistently. Six men on a fishing holiday aboard a luxury yacht decide to pass the time by playing a game to find out which amongst them is the best man ‘in general’. The game is called Chevalier, and in addition to competing in challenges individually selected by the men (including the measurement of penis sizes and the swiftness of putting together IKEA furniture) a completely arbitrary point system is created to judge how the men carry themselves in every aspect. This includes how they wear their hair, what they eat for breakfast, their sleeping method, what their cholesterol levels are, amongst many others. The men challenge one another, make inquiries about their relationships, and simply observe, jotting down notes as they go. All of the actors are fantastic, but what I especially liked was the film’s construction; the editing between the group interactions, and the more private moments with the men as they express anxiety about their fractured masculinity. While the challenges could have been relayed one after the other; we aren’t even sure how to differentiate a ‘challenge’ from general attempts to show off and demonstrate skill. It is a technique that keeps it gripping, and ever-evolving, before reaching its ingeniously open conclusion.
17. Zootopia – In March this was the first big surprise of the year to date, and it remains so. We knew absolutely nothing going in, and this ignorance is something I hope to replicate in the future. What a treat. Visually, the world of Zootopia is incredibly inventive and detailed, but when paired with a feisty, determined female protagonist, an unexpectedly meaty police procedural plot and a timely pro tolerance and racial harmony message this is about the best Disney have come up with in a long time. It is actually more likely to keep the adults gripped than kids, but it is so cute, colourful and funny that it will surely be a hit with the little ones time and again. Jason Bateman, who voices wily fox Nick Wilde, is the standout from a stellar voice cast. I was in awe for weeks that it existed, and I remain amused that one of Disney’s non-tent-pole releases (they distribute Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars films, people) remains their runaway top release. By far the best movie released this year to make a ridiculous amount of money.
16. Sing Street – John Carney (Once and Begin Again) has become the master of the romantic-musical-dramedy, and his irresistible latest film Sing Street, his most personal – mined from his own experiences as a youth – is a charming feel-good portrait of ’80s Dublin. With a truly awesome nostalgic Brit-pop soundtrack, likeable, engaging performances from the young cast and a poignant examination of teenage romance, brotherly love, and the power of music to provoke creativity, unite, define, rebel and change your life, Sing Street is a joy to behold. With his parents struggling to remain a civil household, and forced to downsize amidst Ireland’s crippling recession, middle child Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself relocated from the comforts of his private school to a tough inner city public school. After summoning the courage to talk to the beautiful and mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he ends up inviting her to star in his [non-existent] band’s music video. With this newfound inspiration he convinces budding entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan), multi-instrumentalist Eamonn (Mark McKenna), and several other schoolmates to form a band. For Conor music serves as a form of self-expression, an opponent to the conservative authoritarianism and dreary future he and his schoolmates are facing, but also becomes the catalyst for his first experiences with love. The terrific Jack Reynor portrays Conor’s older brother Brendan as a smart-mouthed but stand-up guy who suppresses mild bitterness to wholeheartedly support his younger brother. He harbours disappointment that his hopes and dreams have never been realised but offers wisdom as Conor’s closest creative alliance. What I loved about Sing Street was that it offered an affecting look at how people’s lives lead them away from their dreams, and how they find a way to live with that. Sing Street record their music videos in back alleys, costumed and made-up, their instruments are adorned with makeshift props and their practices are done in the Eamonn’s living room. It is this daggy amateur inventiveness that hooked me and makes Sing Street an authentic, sweet-natured tale of music’s life-saving abilities.
15. High Rise – We watched this on VOD back-to-back. It finished, and we immediately started it again. This pretty much says it all. I’d say this is now my favourite film from Ben Wheatley – he made the soul-scarring Kill List and the trippy A Field in England – and his adaptation of J.G Ballard’s provocative novel is a scathing, ugly and anarchic microcosm study of class warfare. It has an exemplary cast – including Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans – and offers up an audio-visual tag-team bombardment of pleasures. I could watch this again for the cinematography and the use of music. But, the mad story serves as a completely gripping dismantling of the human psyche, as we are aligned with affluent residents rapidly descending into chaos in the face of failing infrastructure, conflicting egos, and socioeconomic tensions.
14. Kubo and the Two Strings – A stunner. Laika Studio’s (Coraline and ParaNorman, also great) finest and most intricately crafted and jaw-droppingly animated film to date finds a delicate balance of being a thoughtful, intimate and emotionally acute mature-age fable and a funny and courageously challenging kid-friendly adventure. The voice-cast – yes, considering the Ancient Japanese setting, they perhaps shouldn’t have been so ‘white’ – do a terrific job. Matthew McConaughey, especially, is a revelation. This is a film that celebrates the power of storytelling – told through oratory, origami and songs – and the virtues of the textures capable with stop-motion animation. Basically, this film, due to Laika’s obsession with details and tech advancements, makes you feel like you have been sucked into a classic fable – one that has been passed down through the generations, and you have been entrusted to share with the next.
13. The Wailing – The latest film from Na Hong-jin (The Chaser and The Yellow Sea) is certainly not for the faint-hearted, or the easily-distracted. This unforgettable and emotionally draining South Korean [kind-of] horror mixes a potent cocktail of small-town mystery, collective paranoia, spiritual manipulation, and…various otherworldly elements and is extremely intense and unpredictable for, like, the last two hours. It went down a path I never expected, and there are fusions of editing with music that took my breath away. The narrative gets a bit unwieldy, sure, but I can’t gripe about something that goes all-in with this many interlocking ideas. It raises a tonne of initially headache-inducing questions that have since settled into some satisfactory order, and part of the fun is throwing around theories. Phwoar, what a film.
12. 13th – One of the few docos this year to be seriously morally troubling, and provoke a deep emotional impact, is Ava Duvernay’s (Selma) tremendously crucial film. The testimonials are riveting and the data is shocking – evidence of a pipeline of decisions from top-tier U.S government that has effectively continued to perpetuate slavery through the mass incarceration of black people. But it also has plenty of stylistic flourishes, and interesting visual aids to assist the processing of information, and leave a viewer hurting as a result of its revelations.
11. The Hateful Eight – The first half = perfection. The second half = problematic, but still amazing filmmaking. This is the only film on this list that I watched more than once in the cinema. Both viewings, back-to-back evenings, were in the glorious but limited 70mm run. The second of which included Tarantino, Russell and Jackson present for a Q&A. With the overture and the interval included, I can’t imagine watching it any other way. The Hateful Eight depicts a frontier where the ability to spin a yarn is as essential to survival as the gun in your holster. Who the heroes and villains of this film are we don’t know for a long time. There ultimately are no heroes, just bad men (and women) and worse. As the characters, within the claustrophobic confines of a cabin (made to look exceptionally larger than it really is), tell their stories, we learn that things aren’t really what they seem. With nods to The Thing (Tarantino has declared the paranoia and sense of alienation depicted in that film heavily inspired him, not to mention the impact of Ennio Morricone’s chillingly ominous score) and a touch of Agatha Christie, he establishes a diverse line-up of individuals trying to deceive one another. Rather than being embodied by a creature, they are individual products of their rotten world. Multiple viewings is essential, because you can have a different experience based on whose perspective you assign your attention to, and there is a wealth of subtext – ideas about patriotism, racism and the moral and legal questions about unprovoked killing that cut through to today. This is Tarantino’s most political film; claiming that whatever racial harmony between white and black people that Americans accept is only as real as they believe it to be. It is a ferocious, nasty piece of work, but a bold and [relatively] mature offering from Tarantino meant to agitate and divide. You just can’t look away from these giant faces. The universally brilliant cast is led by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walt Goggins and Samuel L. Jackson.
10. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids – The only thing I didn’t love about this jaw-dropping concert film was that it ended. It is a celebration of perfectly executed artistic collaboration from the master of the concert film, Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, THE concert film). The music is fantastic, but the light show, the set shifts and the sheer audacity of such a choreographed performance will blow your mind. JT is the ultimate entertainer (FutureSex/LoveSounds is a dance-pop masterpiece), but we learn – and JT through this charismatic leadership about the stage, and Demme with his sweeping, floating, tracking cameras, take every opportunity to highlight the talents of the Tennessee Kids – that this is the work of hundreds of people and thousands of hours of planning, building, practice, and precision. This is more than a concert film, I feel like it is a moment in time – a document of entertainment of the highest level, where a live performance can be captured and preserved at the rare level of high art.
9. Midnight Special – If it wasn’t clear before 2016, Jeff Nichols is a wonderful filmmaker. While his other release, Loving (a beautifully understated true-life drama that landed an Honourable Mention and comes out in Australian cinemas in March), is the one likely to gain awards attention, few films transported me the way Midnight Special did. It felt like a film plucked out of the ’80s, with old-fashioned sensibilities. This warm, sincere and credible family drama with a sci-fi twist earns an enormous emotional payoff with a thoughtful build-up, and sparse use of visual effects. We are dropped into this world, in the middle of the central group of characters fleeing a motel. Why are they running? We don’t know, but Nichols trusts his ideas and because we’re so confident in his storytelling abilities we know that the pieces will gradually come together. The performances are all perfect – the father/son bond between Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher will leave you in tears – but I still can’t go past Joel Edgerton’s quiet, stoic turn.
8. Mustang – We’re getting into the elite stuff now. In the breathtaking and bracing French/Turkish feminist drama Mustang the performances from co-writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s striking and fiercely resilient young female cast are inarguably tremendous, and possess extraordinary range, but, for me, it is the assertive direction that is the film’s most exciting trait. On the last day of school in a remote village in northern Turkey, five energetic, free-spirited orphaned teenage sisters splash around on the local beach with their male classmates. Their innocent games catch the eye of a nosy neighbour, who reports what she considers to be their illicit behaviour to the girls’ over-protective grandmother and domineering uncle. The family’s overreaction results in the confiscation of all ‘instruments of corruption’ like phones and computers, and the girls are forced to become prisoners within their own home. They must endure daily lessons from neighbourhood elders to prep them and keep them pure for their subsequent arranged marriages. In the bittersweet developments; which depict these young women clinging to the fleeting freedoms of childhood in hopeful and inventive ways, but always flirting with the wrath of the family regime, they find their resilience surrender one at a time. Mustang explores what its like to be a young woman in a conservative Turkish town, the unity of sisterhood, and subversive efforts to maintain a grasp on independence and seek empowerment while navigating adolescence. For a film about the preservation of female agency amidst a strict, hypocritical patriarch-ruled household, this film aligns us with their voice; positioning them as a single unit and as the central narrators of this story. We feel their suffocation, understand their frustrations, empathise with their self-destructive urges, and experience their uplifting embraces of freedom every step of the way. As sweet as it is enraging – this very impressive film is firmly in opposition to perverse puritanism, offering a rebellious social critique, and functioning as a dramatic escape-thriller, while spotlighting the arrival of both an exciting new voice in European cinema.
7. Steve Jobs – With a distinctive three-act structure Steve Jobs takes a viewer behind the curtain of Jobs’ world to reveal the man’s insecurities, the flawed and fractured relationships that defined his character, and the brash, ruthless decision-making that attributed to his success with Apple. It details the minutes leading up to the tech-landscape defining 1984, 1988 and 1998 product launches, subverting common rules of the biopic with a shifting association of form with time, and attention to specificity and the fleet-of-the-moment. The script is very Sorkin-y but it zips along at a breakneck pace (you’d never guess it clocks in at two hours) fueled by the increasingly emotional exchanges between the characters as Jobs grapples with his past failings and their influence on the possibility of future success, as well as the repercussions of past decisions that he finds resurrected at inopportune times. At each of the launches Jobs has a series of appointments with people in his life – a host of characters that make up the heart and soul of the Steve Jobs machine – and Apple’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) offers timely support and guidance, while fussing to make sure that Jobs is prepped for his presentation. As Jobs traverses the labyrinth of backstage hallways he deals with unexpected presentation issues, paternity claims, ultimatums, and dissatisfied former colleagues, running the gauntlet between the comforts of the stage where the illuminated screen and charismatic oratory can mask his various stresses, and the anxiety-stifling atmosphere of his dressing room where he is forced to face his problems head-on. It is Fassbender, present in every scene, who commands the screen, contradicting Jobs’ egotistical narcissism with a twinkly charm and a carefully hidden vulnerability. Winslet is assigned spectacular style by the costume department but makes her mark through her unique pathos and admiration for Jobs in order to overlook his flaws and cultivate the best of his abilities. Michael Stuhlbarg adds ever-reliable support, while a late heated stand-off between Rogen and Fassbender featured amazing work from both men.
6. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie’s absolutely cracking thriller has one of the year’s finest screenplays, from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). It is character-attentive and smartly establishes a layered socio-economic backdrop for the sheriff/outlaw confrontations. This may be Chris Pine’s finest work to date, and he and Ben Foster (typically compelling as a scumbag) are perfectly convincing as brothers, while Jeff Bridges has understandably attracted awards attention for his entertaining, but melancholic turn as an intuitive but burned-out sheriff. It consistently surprises in its non-conformity to crime thriller conventions, is note-perfect with its humour, densely populated with potent commentary and features a haunting score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. This is a 21st Century western with a bleak realism, that wears the quirks of the everyday with a dusty pride.
5. Jackie – Features some amazing work from Natalie Portman, but this is a just a marvellous film across the board. It has only continued to appreciate in my mind, because there is just so much to process. Chilean master Pablo Larrain (No, The Club and Neruda – which I was so sorry to miss this year) has established himself as one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers, racking up essential work at a prolific pace. Here, he tackles one of the darkest periods of U.S history – the assassination of JFK. But more specifically, it chronicles the aftermath experiences of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as she tries to find the strength to be there for her children, and simply go on, while preserving her husband’s legacy within the White House. The consistently breathtaking Super 16mm cinematography, the deft editing that plays with timelines in clever ways, and Mica Levi’s oppressive score creates an unusual, disorienting whirlwind of public grief, responsibility and legacy. This is more than a biopic, it is a historical document that feels previously canned and hidden away; released to remind us that in a world of unforgiving public scrutiny the power wielded to influence history is often out of love, duty and necessity.
4. Chi-Raq – This was the first great film I saw in 2016. And the fact that I saw it so long ago means that it is tough to put the words together. Chiraq is destined to provoke. It is timely, unique, furious, colourful, hilarious and brutal, while consistently enthralling and surprising. It is a verse drama with musical numbers. It addresses with full-throttle vigour not just America’s gun problem, but the primary instrument of said destruction – the rotting institution of maleness. One should never ignore a Spike Lee movie, but this is especially true when he is this angry. And if Teyonah Parris wasn’t already a star after Dear White People…she is now. All I can say is to seek out and behold this vital film.
3. The Childhood of a Leader – I can still remember the experience of watching this at the Sydney Film Festival. How could I forget? I didn’t know what I was in for, even when festival director Nashen Moodley introduced it as an “ambitious, stylish and very unusual historical drama”. This is a perfect description. As an actor, the 28-year-old Brady Corbet has displayed a taste for working with master filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas and Lars Von Trier, so after a decade of what seems to be grooming from some of the world’s élite directors he has been given the opportunity to produce and direct one to rival them. It is always exciting when a film can take you aback, and offers such a whirlwind of intellectual and sensory impact. There isn’t so much as a plot, but a very focused study of several incidents in his the seventh year of a young boy’s (Tom Sweet) life, while living in France in 1918. He throws rocks at parishioners, refuses to eat his dinner and parades around the house naked when his father (Liam Cunningham) is conducting a meeting with high-ranking government officials. These involve everyone present in the child’s life, and influential developments such as his father’s involvement with the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother’s (Berenice Bejo) increasingly callous fight for power over the household. What he witnesses shapes his beliefs and builds a terrifying ego. The time period, the ending of the ‘Great War’ and the events directly preceding the Treaty of Versailles, is clear, but this is a Fascism origin story with roots tied to France, Germany and the U.S.A. There is so much to absorb from the visual details; and even fleeting blink-and-you-miss-it references that gain meaning the further you step away. The cinematography by Lol Crawley, using 35mm film, is amazing; a visually appealing work of great timing, grace and spatial precision, often operating on strict vertical or horizontal planes. Scott Walker’s blaring, discordant orchestral assemblage feels like a hard punch to the face – a punishing assault that could potentially send you running for the exit if it weren’t so unusual. The performances are strong; Bejo, and Robert Pattinson (in only a few key minutes of screen time) especially. This is a surreal, provocative and visionary film of immense confidence.
2. Aquarius – Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s (Neighbouring Sounds) study of history, memory, family, class and modernity is an outstanding an truly resonating piece of cinema ruled by a fierce, complex performance from Sonia Braga. Set and filmed in his native town of Recife, Filho’s film has huge scope; projecting through Braga’s character a national fear of change. 65-year-old Clara is a 17-year widow and a retired music journalist. Intelligent and stubbornly independent, she lives in a seaside apartment building called Aquarius. She is the last remaining resident – outside of her sanctuary it is ghostly and deserted – and the surrounding apartments have been acquired by a company with development plans for the site. After politely refusing to sell, the company’s attempts to coerce her into doing so becoming increasingly aggressive – and as we explore her rich and fascinating private and family life – she finds herself in an escalating war to keep her home. Clara is romantic for the past and the tangibility of objects – she has an extensive vinyl collection, which has the ability to send her back to a past time and place. By knocking down the Aquarius apartments, generations of history would be destroyed. Gentrification works its way into the apartment block like a cancerous tumour. Clara, having battled and defeated breast cancer (though not without side effects) is determined to win this fight also. With an incredible soundtrack – which complement Clara’s self-empowerment and liberation – and an observant eye for visual details, this is a gift for the senses. With Clara, Braga has created one of the most interesting and complex female characters to grace the screen this year, and Aquarius has an astute understanding of time and place, as well as Brazil’s rich history and the effects of modernity.
1. Toni Erdmann – Could the near three-hour Germany comedy that generated so much buzz, but was awarded nothing (!), at the Cannes Film Festival live up to the hype? I still don’t know how this worked so well – it is all just so unusual – but it’s a masterpiece. I didn’t have a clear #1 for most of the year, but this ended up being the one that I thought about more than any other. Maren Ade’s wonderful film portrays a sweet, heartfelt, honest and completely engrossing father-daughter relationship, headlined by a pair of wonderful comic performances. Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a now-retired music teacher with an ailing mother and a recently deceased canine companion, is living with the regret of not seeing enough of his busy daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a management consultant in Romania, advising a company how they can increase profits by laying off workers. Winfried, seeing right through Ines’ feigned happiness and declared contentedness – he believes she has lost her ‘humour’ – decides to make a surprise visit to Bucharest, intruding into Ines’ life at every opportunity. Sporting a terrible suit, crazy wig and hideous false teeth as his alter-ego, life coach “Toni Erdmann”, he bombards her, and her colleagues and contacts, with a barrage of jokes and strange gags, creating bold and provocative situations to challenge Ines. The key to this film’s success, I think, is its sweetness – it loves the characters, and convinces you to love them too. To tell her frequently hilarious and tremendously moving story Ade does whatever she wants, and it is glorious to behold.