Since I don’t see enough new movies each year to justify a top ten list, I thought it’d be more fitting to put together a diary entry of sorts to close out the year 2016.
A lot happened in 2016 – personal and otherwise – but I didn’t sit down to watch many movies. At least, not as many as I did in 2015. And, that is perhaps my first observation about 2016. There just didn’t seem to be as many films that I wanted to see. Last year saw three of my favorite working directors release mid- to late-career masterpieces (The Assassin, Cemetery of Splendour, Taxi), which served as my favorite films of the year. I rediscovered the works of Tarkovsky and tracked down a lot of Hou films I had missed. Overall, in film at least, 2015 was greater than 2016.
Thus, it would only stand to reason that some of the most exciting filmic moments happened outside the confines of the traditional theatrical release. The most unexpectedly cinematic film of the year wasn’t really a film at all, but rather a “visual album” from one of the music industry’s most enthralling artists. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is not only a great pop album, but its accompanying short film/extended music video/visual essay is great art indeed. A team of directors seemingly channeling Terrence Malick creates an arresting collage of images that serve Beyoncé’s overall themes of beautiful black femininity and personal redemption.
The best film released in 2016 that I saw would have to be Kirsten Johnson’s staggering Cameraperson. With “leftover” footage culled from other documentaries that she worked on as cinematographer, Johnson crafts an unusually personal memoir with her camera pointed everywhere but on her. The film, then, is one of indelible images – two Bosnian children fiddling with an axe, a newborn baby taking its first breath and granting us relief, heart-wrenching shots of Johnson’s own mother suffering from dementia, and, of course, those fumbling hands of a young woman on the verge of a major life decision.
The year’s most pleasant surprises came in the form of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and Albert Maysles’ final film In Transit. Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation ditched the hyper romance that previous filmic versions of her famous works have zeroed in on in favor of the author’s wit. The film, then, is quite hilarious with two head-turning performances by lead Kate Beckinsale and scene-stealing Tom Bennett as the ridiculous Sir James Martin.
Maysles’ surprisingly moving documentary In Transit chronicles the journeys of different passengers aboard the Empire Builder, one of America’s great train routes. Unfamiliar with Maysles’ work, I was struck by the light-hearted humor and tenderness with which he captures his subjects. The film is both a heart-warming portrait of everyday people and an ode to the great American landscape.
The biggest head scratcher of the year was Hong Sang-soo’s lauded Right Now, Wrong Then. I caught it at the Milwaukee Film Festival a few months ago and was as equally bedfuddled as the impatient audience I watched it with. A lot of film critics and fans of the idiosyncratic, highly prolific director claimed Right Now was a good entry point into his work. If that’s the case, I won’t be quick to hunt down his other difficult-to-find films or queuing up for his latest. Apparently, boredom is a sin that cinephiles don’t like to talk about, but I will freely admit I am one not immune to it.
For films released prior to 2016, my favorite discoveries of the year were Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage which surprisingly served as a gorgeous period drama, a self-reflexive exercise in debt to Kiarostami, and a vehicle for one of cinema’s finest performers to give her finest performance to date. Maggie Cheung was a magnetic presence throughout. I also explored Lubitsch further than Trouble in Paradise, which I already knew and loved. Both The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be were incredibly hilarious and winsome. I had the pleasure of watching Satyajit Ray’s final film The Stranger – another late-career delight. And, finally, I got around to exploring the Dardenne brothers’ catalogue having only seen The Son. While that film remains their opus in my mind, I was particularly struck by The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night.
My favorite rediscovery of the year would most certainly have to be Syndromes and a Century. Before 2016, I would have placed it below Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in some crude ranking of the filmmaker’s works, but after three (!) re-watches this year it’s skyrocketed to the top of my favorite Weerasethakul films. There’s so much nuance, subtle humor, and beautifully ambiguous metaphor that I think I could get something different out of it with each subsequent viewing. It’s a film I’ll never tire of.
Exploring the canonized films of revered filmmakers Agnès Varda and Jim Jarmusch would sadly constitute the year’s biggest disappointment. Aside from the excellent Cléo from 5 to 7, I found nothing particularly remarkable in Le Bonheur or Vagabond. Unfortunately, it’s kept me from digging further. Someday I hope to get around to The Gleaners & I. The same can be said for Jarmusch’s classic output. His minimalist, proto-hipster take on what would become “indie” cinema truly aroused little to no feeling in this viewer. I don’t remember a single shot or memorable moment from either Stranger Than Paradise or Down by Law. The mid-90s cult hit Dead Man faired a bit better. I was at least interested from start to finish. This doesn’t bode well for my current interest in Paterson – what critics have been hailing as another non-urgent masterpiece.
The year’s most interesting pairing would have to be seeing Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time followed by Damien Chazelle’s hyped La La Land only a few weeks later. While I certainly appreciated Demy’s subversion and fitting adaptation of the American musical, Umbrellas just wasn’t for me. Musicals are a hard sell for this cinephile to begin with, so an entirely sung film with few melodies and no eye-popping dance numbers wasn’t likely to win me over. Enter La La Land, a film unabashedly inspired by Demy’s classic. Chazelle is a determinedly competent filmmaker, but like Whiplash his latest future Oscar winner left me wanting more. As one critic put it, the stakes of the central relationship that pits romance against artistic integrity are shockingly low in comparison to the grown-up decisions the characters make in Umbrellas. It’s a valid point. One film, though bursting in Technicolor with each line sung, is more grounded in reality than the other. La La Land is just that: a trip through some imaginary land where things look and sound nice, but you’ll probably forget about them a day or two later.
The film I am still processing months after my first viewing is Malick’s derided Knight of Cups. Most critics wrote him off as a self-parodying hack after the release of his seventh feature. And, while my loyalties remain with one of my favorite filmmakers, his latest did leave me a bit conflicted. How can one top The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life? In short, he probably never will. But, To the Wonder showed promise with possible new directions for the visual storyteller. Knight of Cups does the same. Malick forces conventional narrative as far into the background as it will go, emphasizing his Lubezki-shot visuals and voiceover contemplation. There are moments of rapturous beauty throughout, but as a whole the verdict’s still out for the abstract Knight of Cups.
In 2016, the limitations of my small-town cinephilia were felt more than ever before. I still haven’t seen Aquarius, Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, No Home Movie, Silence, or Toni Erdmann. And, while it’s foolish to try to assign significance to any given film before one sees it, it’s difficult to reckon with the reality that most of my (likely) favorite films of 2016 will be viewed for the first time in 2017.
And, finally, 2016 will sadly be remembered for the passing one of the medium’s greatest artists. Though he’s gone from this earth, his works will live on as long as people still care about cinema. RIP Abbas Kiarostami.