Whatever the hell Martin Scorcese’s been smoking these days, I’m not having any of it. Spouting untruths like a proclaimer of gospels, he righteously preaches “Cinema is gone!”, after which millions of over-stressed celluloid fanatics faint in unison. Who doesn’t love Marty, he’s a messiah of cinema, but to erroneously claim that great filmmaking have long forsaken our parched lands and then declare moments later that he hasn’t seen many films as of late is a bit like saying the crops are dying when you’re not actually in the farm but out there making a religious epic called Silence, which I haven’t seen so no judgements on that.
Sure, 2016 wasn’t exactly annus mirabilis in cinema (but pretty much annus horribilis everywhere else, especially on the political front, where the human capacity for idiocy has been demonstrated in astronomic proportions). Marty obviously hasn’t seen past the mountain-pile of Hollywood garbage produced this year and dig out the 24-carat Verhoeven, Park, Ade and Almodovar, to name a few. Cinema isn’t dead – it’s the major studios that are dying, their dinosaur models slowly being overrun by new-found digital breeds like Netflix, Amazon Studios and more. In fact, great films are doing well and unassumingly thriving away from the lazy, bog-standard blockbuster audience, finding triumph among the more perceptive demographic.
So scroll down to find out the twenty five films of the past year that burned up our screens and shone the brightest against the alleged demise of the art-form. I admit, somewhere deep down in the precipice of my soul, I’ve hitherto surreptitiously wished that 2016 was just a minuscule glitch in the Grand Mainframe of the Universe, nothing but a short blip in Human History. But thanks to these films below that did their damnedest to somehow scintillate, inspire and lift us all out of our collective human misery, and above all, proved that Art is truly vital in these dark, dark times. Cinema is alive, as long as we allow it to continue being a medium to provide enlightenment in a time when our so-called leaders are taking away our liberations, our freedoms, our human right of expression.
But first – here’s my annual video mood-piece to get you into the groove of things.
Fire At Sea
dir. Gianfranco Rosi, Italy
Meryl Streep’s Berlinale jury awarded this the Golden Bear in 2016, and it’s not difficult to see why. Fire At Sea is the most urgent and vital documentary of the year, capturing the brutal realism of the refugee crisis that’s besieging the European continent as of late. There’s no preachifying here. Filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi uses his camera along with its most primal purpose, to observe life and death in the Lampedusa island along the Sicilian coast, a windswept topography that play host to the wave of migrants fleeing from war. Rosi documents as well as strategically exploring the little lives of the island’s residents and bring them in context to the heart of the matter – the myopia of our daily existence compared to the human catastrophe happening right in front our eyes. A scene in which a doctor articulates the sheer devastation of his profession, seeing death as part of a daily grind, brings a forceful, impassioned cry against all our obliviousness.
Quand On A 17 Ans
dir. André Téchiné, France
André Téchiné’s long and distinguished career as a purveyor of intimate, sensitive French dramas is distilled in this understated coming-of-age film Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17), which roughly retreads the themes he’s achieved cinematic perfection with in Les Roseau sauvages (Wild Reeds) more than two decades ago but achieves nothing less than an equally compelling and complex work. Here, unspoken youthful desires simmer and boil, as two disparate boys wrestle with hormones and conflicting emotions against the backdrop of the Pyrenees. Téchiné, ever the naturalist, captures the swell of life, longing, youthful love, as well as death and grief in near-sublime intricacy, allowing characters to go through prisms of human emotions making it urgent and believable. While the two young actors Klein and Fila both excel in making the force of attraction convincing, it’s Sandrine Kiberlain who will break your heart as a compassionate mother – full of love and yet full of grief, her howl of loss will tear you into pieces.
dir. Karyn Kusama, USA
“Dinner party gone wrong” diorama seem to be a prominent theme in 2016 cinema, and that’s no less scrupulously depicted than in Karyn Kusama’s latest feature The Invitation, a film that’s sure to bring up anxieties in future dinner parties, especially if the ones involved have tangled relationships or when weird strangers start turning up. Pitched like a thriller, Kusama carefully avoids the pitfalls of a genre exercise and serves up a truly unnerving portrait of domestic terror so plausible that it feels like a cautionary tale, more than anything. It may not have the dearth of complexity in the screenplay department, but Kusama wrings every suspense, twitches every nerve and gives us startling red-herrings (especially Logan Marshall-Green’s mentally fractured protagonist) and unhinges all screws loose in this Hollywood hills party to ultimately blow us away in one of the most unsettling final shots in horror cinema.
The Woman Who Left
dir. Lav Diaz, Philippines
It’s perfectly acceptable to say that it’s hard-fucking-work to sit your ass through Lav Diaz’s latest misery-fest The Woman Who Left, which clocks in at about four hours, one of the briefest magnum opuses in his body of work filled to the brim with time-busting, ass-numbing longueurs. While the world succumbs to a short attention span, it’s a challenge to give one’s full undivided attention to a stark, black-and-white portrait of human miserablism and systemic corruption, but once again, like Norte, the End of History before this, Diaz has proved that such mammoth cinematic endeavour isn’t without rewards. This bleak but powerful drama about a wronged woman’s pursuit of revenge against the perpetrators for her imprisonment is a riveting watch – a lesson in slow-burn filmmaking that takes its characters into a Sisyphean journey, arriving at a destination that offers neither social justice nor human solace. If anything, this is a prolonged howl of anguish, fury and contempt against the ruling class in the Philippines by those who are wrongly condemned and exploited.
The Age of Shadows
dir. Jee-won Kim, South Korea
Throughout this list, you’ll notice South Korean cinema was on fire last year. Along with The Wailing and The Handmaiden, Jee-won Kim has given us a labyrinthine and unabashedly entertaining work of pure cinema in The Age of Shadows. Undoubtedly one of the fiercely edited movies of the year, the film’s 140-minute running-time fly by with such thrilling consistency, staging chase sequences with alarming dexterity that’ll put any Hollywood-produced espionage movie to shame. Kim lends exquisite period detail to every scene, with colonial Seoul preened to dangerous perfection in every corner. This is perhaps the most engrossing resistance movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, exhaustively laying out a complicated plot to and deliver it with both precision and satisfaction. The train sequence alone is worthy of your admission.
dir. Barry Jenkins, USA
Far too few films have deconstructed black masculinity as it were an armour against a brutal sociological construct. In this case, Moonlight should be praised for having the temerity and intelligence for laying bare what it means to be homosexual and black in contemporary America. Barry Jenkins’ three-act melodrama encompasses three vital periods of its protagonist’s conflicted life, and while the middle chapter borders of the cliché (drug-addled mum, teen bullying), it finds quiet beauty and poetry in others. Undeniable in its beauteous aesthetics and thoughtful study on the ‘alpha male’, it somehow lacks the cathartic power to truly elevate this into the pantheon of great cinema. Jenkins does achieve one ravishing scene though: an aching Wong Kar Wai-esque diner scene near the film’s end that’s as tender and moving as any best moment captured last year.
Manchester By The Sea
dir. Kenneth Lonergan, USA
Trust Kenneth Lonergan for delivering the kind of devastating, lump-in-your-throat drama orchestrated to excavate your soul. While his latest Manchester By The Sea is no Margaret-level masterpiece, it’s thrumming with pain and heartbreak at its core, studying grief and human healing that Lonergan is so adroit at observing, pitting every day life against a gargantuan tragedy that could bury people in all their lifetime. Yet what seems like proper grief-porn on paper is actually lifted by a few lighthearted moments onscreen, as Lonergan etches a web of familial relationships and all their relatable, existential messiness. All actors give credible performances but it’s really buoyed up by a strong Casey Affleck, whose incongruous pain is even made more affecting by his everyman character’s inarticulacy.
dir. James Schamus, USA
Bless James Schamus. He’s been around the Hollywood business for nearly a lifetime, and it took this while to take the directorial seat in this adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about the malaise at the heart of America. His work in Indignation is so classically refined you’d forget it’s a debut, crafting scenes that, while not taking the air out of you in its most compelling moments, breathes with devastating intelligence. It tells a coming-of-age tale that, while familiar, nonetheless surprises with such searing honesty, navigating the grounds of religious and institutional repression of 1950s academia as the sexually inexperienced Marcus (a terrific Logan Lerman) battles pedagogy and intellectual hypocrisy. Roth’s words are truly given real bite here, with the screenplay lashing out like whips, most especially a showstopping scene where Marcus verbally duels the school dean Caldwell about the nature of social control.
A Bigger Splash
dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy
While we all mourn for the sheer lack of a golden-hued Alain Delon in swimming trunks in this remake of La Piscine, Luca Guadagnino must be grateful for having the one-of-a-kind Tilda Swinton looking gorgeous as fuck in A Bigger Splash. She’s the centrepiece of this frivolous foursome which makes up the tangled mess of relationships that is Guadagnino’s sun-soaked, sexed-up Euro-holiday movie. Taking all the erotic tension from Jacques Deray’s cinematic forebear, Guadagnino amps up the sexual shenanigans (cue Ralph Fiennes chewing every scenery is one of his brashest, most unhinged performances) and hold it against the scalding resonance of recent social affairs. A Bigger Splash ultimately comments on the privilege of class and celebrity status, simulating a kind of debauchery that would look ashamedly trivial in the middle of the one of the worst human crises in history.
dir. Tom McCarthy, USA
Like The Revenant, Tom McCarthy’s drama Spotlight seemed to have dimmed its shine after being garlanded an Oscar, but re-visiting this have lost none of the lucid filmmaking employed to give us a no-frills, unpretentious ensemble piece, celebrating good old investigative journalism as much as lamenting the hypocritical ill that is the Roman Catholic church. Take this is a safer, awards-friendly, less shattering cousin of Pablo Larraín’s magnificently explosive The Club, Spotlight gives us the All The President’s Men of church paedophilia cases with the clarity of a clarion call. Don’t mistake its lack of showmanship for blandness, McCarthy deliberately sets aside directorial style to hone a storytelling piece about real-life heroes who all refuse aggrandisement in favour of instilling change in a society marred by institutional sexual violence and moral bankruptcy through a medium often overlooked or undermined today – truthful, honest-to-goodness journalism.
dir. Cristian Mungiu, Romania
Cristian Mungiu’s been a stalwart purveyor of morally complex social realist cinema since the dawn of the 21st century, and his latest Graduation continues his hot Romanian New Wave streak. Where he excoriated religion and post-Ceaușescu politics in the Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, he turns his eye to the new Romanian middle class and the influencers that run society. In trademark Mungiu, Graduation mercilessly charts the whirlwind anti-odyssey of a father and surgeon who abandons a moral stance and goes through lengths to pull whatever strings for her daughter’s educational advancement. This has one of the year’s best screenplays, patiently exploring its characters’ private dilemmas, confusion as well as ill-advised judgements, while allowing mysterious events play in the backdrop of the questionable dealings. Windows break, car smashed, daughters get violated, and we’re left without any suspects. Must we blame the lower class perpetrators or should we point fingers to those who rig the social system? Graduation defies easy answers, and all the more compelling for it.
dir. Trey Edward Shults, USA
Hell hath no fury than a middle-aged, alcoholic woman scorned and rejected. So goes Krisha‘s driving narrative, Trey Edward Shults’ excoriating dysfunctional family drama that spans an entire Thanksgiving day spent in the ninth circle of the abyss. What begins as a well-intentioned homecoming and family gathering becomes a discombobulating depiction of domestic discord that’s savagely funny, if it weren’t extremely sad and desperately neurotic. Shults risks the movie by casting family, his aunt Krisha Fairchild, who goes full Gena Rowlands on us and gives us a batshit, off-the-wall performance that’s both scabrous and heartbreaking. Krisha is a broken woman aware of her flaws and genuinely longs for acceptance from a family who constantly rejects her, despite her futile attempts. In mirroring her mental and physiological breakdown, Shults dazzlingly employs the use of framing, aspect-ratio and colour grading to reflect the shattering states of a woman in decline.
dir. Houda Benyamina, France
You’re forgiven to think that Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood was the best portrait of Parisian inner-city, girl-as-gangster coming-of-age movie of recent years if you haven’t clapped eyes on Houda Benyamina’s exhilarating Divines, a film that everything Girlhood wanted to be but fell short of its punches. It takes cinema verité seriously, depicting that hard-hitting ghetto life with such alarming sense of socio-political awareness and full of its grasp in understanding teenage female camaraderie. Benyamina’s crime drama may feel a little overfamiliar when navigating its drug-dealing aspects, but it truly delivers when it’s juxtaposing the complex heroine Dounia’s moral odyssey against the poetic-romantic possibility of a clean, honest life. One moment it wrenches you with its gut-punching reality, and then totally lifts you up with beautifully executed scenes of hope and optimism. The imaginary Ferrari ride on an empty parking lot as the two friends palm imaginary money is one of the most inspired movie moments of 2016.
La La Land
dir. Damien Chazelle, USA
Damien Chazelle, bless him, has flung, pirouetted and jazzed his new feature all the way into crowd-pleasing triumph that it’s nearly impossible to fault anything without being prompted with a “go fuck yourself, you cynical bastard” admonition. His retro-inspired musical La La Land sends a soaringly beautiful ode to the dreamers and soul-searchers of the Hollywood boulevards, paying nods to the MGM musicals of its heyday, the cinematic chansons of the Nouvelle Vague and to Scorcese’s flawed but riveting New York, New York. But what’s even more wondrous, it’s totally drunk and intoxicated with Jacques Demy’s masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that Chazelle lifts the entire narrative backbone and appropriates it to this tale as old as time: star-crossed lovers sing and dance their way into each other hearts until reality grabs hold of their lives. It’s a familiar song, alright, but one you can’t stop listening to, featuring the career-best performances from both Stone and Gosling.
Knight of Cups
dir. Terrence Malick, USA
Some would argue that Terrence Malick has now approached self-parody (a director can only use so much of the same trick until it gets old quickly). But no matter how frequently he uses contemplative voiceovers and places characters staring into the horizon, Malick achieves in a single shot or a whispered line a complete understanding of existential despair or nature’s grace that many directors will forever attempt to achieve and yet fail. Knight of Cups continues the ‘unbearable sadness of being’ theme evoked in his previous works Tree of Life and To The Wonder, and it perfectly sums up the emotional and spiritual bankruptcy of human existence, with it comes the pain of being alive. Eschewing linear narrative, Malick creates a tone poem out of the allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress, portraying a man wearily stumbling through a hedonistic and stupor-fuelled LA life, losing his purpose amid life’s many distractions. It’s Malick’s way of basically putting – someday, one way or the other, we, too, shall find ourselves lost and it’s films like Knight of Cups will hopefully give us solace.
dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, USA
It seems that as the year wore on, The Revenant has been reduced to a showboating, Oscar-baity picture, most memorable for Leonardo DiCaprio’s much-ballyhooed Best Actor win. I’ve seen this during the earlier part of 2016, and even until now, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s meditation on Man’s place in the frozen West has etched stark, chillingly ontological images into my head. If anything, The Revenant restores cinema as a medium of experience more than anything else. You may condemn its bare-boned narrative, but in the context of this survivalist tale, Iñárritu and cinematographer Lubezki’s approach has all the purity of vision and majesty of old-school moviemaking that’s hardly done these days. It’s as though Malick, Tarkovksy and Herzog all went into the frozen frontier and made a primordial epic about the paradoxical beauty and inherent brutality of both man and nature – and the blood, guts and sheer violence that taint the Grand Order of Things.
dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil
Certainly the fiercest crusade against gentrification in cinema of 2016. Beneath Kleber Mendonça Filho’s discerning portrait of ageing and human perseverance lies a ferocious, sharp-witted and blazingly compelling advocacy against the seemingly unstoppable force that is capitalism. Aquarius is a film that blends the personal and political with such heart-rending fervour, illustrating a radical woman’s fight for self-preservation as well as respect for historical significance. That as soon as an arrogant real estate company begins making inhumane, if not illegal, moves to force Sonia Braga’s retired music critic Clara out of an empty building and out of her apartment, where she survived breast cancer and her husband’s demise, we’re shown that this savage corporation has messed up with the wrong woman. In a few of the year’s most dazzlingly inspiring sequences, Braga pours red wine and dances to Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls to outmatch an orgy party upstairs and ultimately unleashes the corporation’s own medium of destruction in their own territory, an act of vindication worthy of a standing ovation.
dir. Hong-jin Na, South Korea
Diabolical horror only really achieves its maximal potent force when its left undefined and unrestrained. Such is the approach of this incredibly protean South Korean import that it defies linear explanation, let alone easy genre categorisation. But practically put, absolute shit hits the proverbial fan in The Wailing, where all fucked-up things befall in a rural Korean village that includes demonic possessions, mass murders and supernatural activities. This is a film that manages to blend in a cinematic pot of various genres that are not mutually exclusive to each other, the police procedural, supernatural horror, black comedy and savage socio-political satire. It builds such an intense crescendo of dark humour and heart-stopping terror, with its last 40 mins or so sustaining a theatrical cardiac arrest unit. And yet, none of it is explained, which makes it even more frightening. It’s as if director Na Hong-Jin took the premise of Park Chan-wooks’s great police procedural Memories of Murder, opened the gates of hell and rained all existential darkness on it, giving us one of the most truly disturbing arthouse horror films in recent memory.
Things To Come
dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, France
Fast-becoming one of Europe’s most distinguished contemporary auteurs, Mia Hansen-Løve gives us her best work to date, this understated, quietly assured and sublimely wise portrait of middle-age life. Aside from presenting us with another Great Huppert performance, Things To Come is truly sincere about its subject, portraying life’s personal tribulations and philosophies without over-dramatising it. Hansen-Løve adroitly locates her central character’s moments, even the most emotionally draining ones like a breakdown of a long-term marriage and a mother’s death, with such genuinely emphatic temperament and graceful observation instead of resorting to full-tilt melodrama where directors of lesser talents would immediately exploit. A scene in a bus where Huppert breaks down in tears is made more deeply affecting because it’s so relatable and real. A few people would argue that Things To Come is one of the Frenchiest French films ever made, with characters walk, eat, drink wine, talk about philosophy, art, death and life, and I’ll argue that until one day you’ll experience a breakdown of life – may it be marriage, relationships, profession, etc., you’ll remember this film for its honest and beautiful ways of finding happiness deep within your self.
dir. Denis Villeneuve, USA/Canada
In a year of turbulent global politics and pressure-cooker international crises, Denis Villeneuve gives us this piece of sci-fi escapism that holds an illuminating mirror to how we live as a human race. That our militarised governments are fallible to annihilating any foreign entity seen as invaders, here is a film that shows our collective inability to learn and transcend beyond our own little, selfish conflicts. So much of Arrival – from its heartbreaking use of Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight on its prologue and epilogue bookends to its deconstruction of language, the supreme importance of communications and excoriating human realpolitik – work as grand, lamenting aria where Amy Adam’s thoughtful, broken yet headstrong Dr. Banks orchestrate the music of linguistics that could prevent our world from implosion. This is a sci-fi that goes beyond its initial whiff of post-Nolan Hollywood blockbuster into something more existentially profound, placing the cerebral and emotional into a deep well of cosmic perception that time is only a human construct. What we have is now, and the experience of being alive is the best we could ever have as a species.
The Neon Demon
dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, USA/Denmark
Plenty have groaned and harrumphed over Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest jaw-dropper, most likely to do with the fact that the Danish filmmaker has long given up giving any damn to our expectations. The Neon Demon is perhaps the most Refn film of them all, terribly unconcerned with lip-smacking audience satisfaction but rather fulfilling the director’s own brand of artistic audacity whilst waving two middle fingers to yawn-inducing conventions. This Giallo-inspired haute couture horror works as a demented satire on the beauty-obsessed fashion industry as well as a toxic, fucked-up fairy-tale. It’s one of the darkest, most depraved films made about L.A. and fashion, for that matter, and while Refn may not sell himself well in the business of screenwriting, he redeems his glory in some of the most outrageous scenes every committed to cinema – strobe-filled, diabolical images that need to words and burn directly into your retinas, searing into our brains.
dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain
Almodóvar’s career has been rocky with his last few films, to say the least, but any word of doubt against the Spanish maestro’s renowned panache is put to silence mode in his latest Julieta, his throwback to the women’s picture where the director shines the brightest. Taking Alice Munro’s source material, Almodóvar conjures Great Cinema out of the Art of Cinematic Storytelling in this classically pitched story of love and loss, patiently peeling the three-decades worth of guilt and regret through exquisitely executed flashbacks (a narrative device that, when used clumsily, could bury a movie). It’s one of his very finest works, an achingly told melodrama par excellence, mapping a woman’s tragedy from past to present with utmost skill of a true master, gracefully yet devastatingly revealing the ways in which empathy of our human errors can pave way for the road to repair and healing of all our existential pains.
dir. Paul Verhoeven, France
Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert give no fucks whatsoever to all your preconceived notions of how a woman should respond to sexual assault. Their dynamite collaboration has given birth to Elle, a blistering, fiercely unsentimental portrait of a woman’s refusal to play the victim in a rape incident. What seems like a button-pushing provocation (or purely made to piss off prudes) shores up debate-worthy issues of female sexuality, complexity, empowerment and the human ability to persevere despite all of life’s clusterfucks. That the female protagonist of Elle, the outwardly cold yet inarguably intelligent Michèle, defies what society considers ‘normal’ behaviour when she deals with rape the way she knows how is worth the attention. It’s a ferociously black character study that both the director and the actress plumb to exceptional depth, not caring what they find beneath the façade of people. That takes certain courage – and for that, the magnificent Huppert deserves a standing ovation for truly steering Elle into a cinematic territory where taboo does not exist.
dir. Park Chan-Wook, South Korea
Park Chan-wook does not disappoint. Not only he has compellingly transposed Sarah Waters’s source novel Fingersmith into 1910s colonial Korea, but he has also given us one of the most unapologetic, breathtakingly bold films of the year, packing exquisite storytelling nuance and world-class filmmaking craft in one head-spinning, jaw-dropping, one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. It’s a full-bodied piece of gothic noir melodrama that’s so magnificently composed that nearly every frame is a masterclass in mise-en-scène, matched with a deliriously twisty narrative that’ll have anyone squirming into their seats. And that’s before Park serves up some heady erotica, depicting scenes of female lovemaking that, to place in context against film’s sadistic, repellent male oppression, becomes gloriously, cathartically, unabashedly romantic. Basically put, The Handmaiden flipped my head seven ways to Sunday, made my brain cells do pirouettes, put my sweat-glands to proper workout and inspires all of us to stick two sodding fingers to the overruling patriarchy.
dir. Maren Ade, Germany
My greatest cinematic experience of 2016, hands down. This two-and-a-half-hour German tragicomedy may seem like a hard sell at first, but there is no other film in the last calendar year that seared through my little human existence aside from Maren Ade’s magnificently heart-swelling, superbly calibrated comedy of human dysfunction. The fact that Toni Erdmann is the only film in recent memory that made me guffaw with fits of laughter in between snots and floods of tears made this truly a memorable film-going experience, while sat along with a theatre audience who are, more or less, equally swept with utter joy and sadness. For Ade’s stroke of genius is in understanding the human pain beneath’s life’s funniest ironies, transforming slapstick into something quite profound and heartbreaking. What initially plays like an arthouse take on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa becomes a sublime dissection of modern loneliness, corporate estrangement and father-daughter relationship that’s truthful and achingly sad. One beautifully observed scene leads to another, as a lonely father sweeps into Bucharest to save the one family link left in his life, his deeply unhappy, super stressed-out daughter drowning in the mad, dehumanising, corporate-ridden world. It shouldn’t work, but miraculously, it does. And the comic creation that is the titular Erdmann becomes the quintessence of life’s greatest rebellion against tribulations – humour. It’s an awe-inspiring reminder to all humanity to stop being so goddamn serious all the time. We only have one life, so let’s laugh at all its weird, wondrous glory.
View the full Top 50 list on my Letterboxd page here.