Friday, February 24, 2017

Taking On 2016 - Top Films

Okay, it is finally that time. The year has, almost two months in, officially come to an end. At least in regards to cinema. Not counting, of course, a ton of foreign films that will have to be 2017 films for my list making purposes because distribution of them is kind of shitty or whatever, but at least I saw a lot of things. There's an entire list on Letterboxd of all the things I watched from 2016 (triple digits!), and of course I recently ran through my top performances. But now with the Oscars coming up in just a couple of days, well, it seems the best time to look back and get to thinking of what truly was the best of the best in the year that was.

10. Moonlight

What most struck me about Moonlight was the scope of the film, focusing on three key developmental points in a man's life as he grapples with both his sexuality and the circumstances of the world around him. It's really easy to fuck up a film like this, to make it too on the nose or lean too heavily in manufactured drama, but what is so impressive is the restraint shown. Letting the smaller moments take on just as much meaning as the larger ones, and using all of this to give us a better understanding of a very complex central character.

9. Tower

Generally it takes a lot for a documentary to make my list, because I know how much I value strong fictional works, but from the very beginning I was pulled in to the recreation of the world in Tower, an animated documentary about a college shooting in Texas. A situation that is still very much relevant in today's society, blending animation with actual footage from the time creates a chilling effect.

8. Toni Erdmann

The buzz of Cannes (and thought to be the Palme favorite before I, Daniel Blake took the award, a groaning affair of a film that would settle on the opposite end of this list.), I had only a rough idea going in of what was exactly going to happen in this one. Not having experienced any of Maren Ade's movies I was even more unsure of what I would get, but ultimately what I found was a sharp comedy, but an even more resonant family drama. There's so much that happens below the surface, relationship dynamics that are heartbreaking at times as it grapples with the idea of growing. It's funny, but the powerful performances, the emotions between a father and daughter who are very much in different places in life, are truly impressive.

7. Silence

Scorsese's latest might be his most complex in years, which I suppose is little surprise when you're taking on almost three hours of Catholic fathers spreading their religion in Japan when the government had strictly outlawed any practice of Christianity. The attempts to stay hidden, the brutality that comes to those who stray toward the path of Christianity, and even the spots of humor all coat what I am almost sure is the most complex film I watched this year. The frame composition, the script, and the reflections on faith provide a starting point, but there's so much to analyze that a paragraph simply is not enough time.

6. The Edge Of Seventeen

There was a point in time where I felt like I had possibly overcome my weakness for the coming of age film, but then here comes The Edge Of Seventeen to pull me right back in. There's a huge focus on Nadine as a central character, and as a study of her it makes for a really strong teen dramadey. But there's so many smart things the script does, and Kelly Fremon Craig's work with the camera subverts our expectations, not only when it comes to friendship, but also when Nadine finds herself in what are framed as potentially dangerous situations. I attempt to avoid spoilers, but there's one in particular with Woody Harrelson's character that is just so masterfully done that, even while thinking back to it, I'm still hit pretty hard.

5. The Handmaiden

When the Cannes lineup from last year was announced, one of my most anticipated films was Park Chan Wook's return to international cinema after the fairly strong Hitchcockian Stoker. I've been a huge fan of all of PCW's films, and seeing him get back to a more twisting narrative that doesn't abandon the gothic sensibilities he has undertaken between his last film and Thirst is a thrill from start to finish.

4. Paterson

Poetry! There's a lot going on in Paterson, a slice of life look at the relationship between a man and a woman that is so much more than that reductive description, but what I loved most about this film was how it showed off the production of poetry. You get the same thing repeated, different fragments being constructed and put together, and just like poems in general when you revisit them or reread them you can find so much more. Driver is also, predictably, great, and seeing Jarmusch revel in the scenery of New Jersey is surprisingly striking. Profoundly beautiful. Poetic.

3. The Mermaid

The year's best comedy comes from Stephen Chow, and though he remains behind the camera rather than in a featured role, his sensibilities are all over this film. The 3-D was also really impressive, but the physical comedy is once again incredibly funny. The scene with the police where a mermaid is being described, and they jokingly make different incorrect drawings stands right alongside so many of Chow's other great comedic moments in his career.

2. The Neon Demon

Part of me really does feel bad that I'm putting so many Cannes films on this list because it seems so generic, but when you have something as arresting and entrancing as The Neon Demon, well, I don't know how you have a list without it. The critique of the fashion industry is not entirely new, but the twist that Nicholas Winding Refn puts on it turns it more in to a warped fairy tale. Elle Fanning at the center brings a powerhouse performance that meshes with the visual style of the film, and as the energy ramps up, so too does her role, until it all explodes in a way that only Refn can manage.

1b. Manchester-By-The-Sea

In most years, Lonergan's latest would stand firmly at the top of my list, but this year it will share the honor. Still, that takes nothing away from this remarkable achievement. I want to be wary with spoilers, so I'll speak as broadly as possible, when I say that the way grief, loss, and ultimately a lifelong depression that could eat away and come to define us can be so all encompassing. This film hit me emotionally on a number of occasions, and you can combine that with a strong visual style that doesn't exactly capture an 'everyman's' America, but one that is instantly recognizable, and echoes the chilled despair, and moments of brief healing, at the film's core.

1a. The Lobster

Just as was the case at the halfway mark, and at this time last year after seeing it at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos's English language debut has itself firmly anchored at the top. I felt like I shouldn't count it, and if you want to ignore this pick and name Manchester-By-The-Sea the year's best, I won't object, but each time I rewatch this one I find more to love. The comedy hits harder, the satire is biting but does not lose the heart to make it at least a little muddy depending on the lens through which you view it, and damn is it visually stunning. I wrote before that it has hints of Brave New World and 1984, and that becomes even more apparent the more time I spend with it, though much more the former than the latter. The world sucks you in with conformity, prescribing happiness and making characters believe that. You see this surrender, even from many of the most callous characters, and it asks us to ask what is innate and what is socially crafted. Simply one of the best films I've seen in recent memory.

Once again, you can see a list of everything I've watched (including smaller reflections and reviews for a lot of other things) over on Letterboxd, as well as all the things that I will watch in 2017. I'm not sure how I'd rank the year as a whole, but looking back at this list, and at things that narrowly missed the cut, damn does it seem strong. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments! And thanks for reading, as always.

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2017 Richard James Thorne

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