The Best Movies of 2016

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10. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids: A kinetic and properly cinematic treatment of the concert experience that largely ignores the clichés of the genre — an overvaluation of audience perspective, irrational movement, frenetic cutting and an overstuffed setlist — and considers the texture of each of JT’s songs before execution, bringing them to fruition with exuberant camera movement. Like Demme’s Stop Making Sense, it’s set in a tightly sealed world, refusing reality at every turn and deploying every tool at its disposal to move towards unalloyed joy, jouissance. Timberlake’s performance as a smarmy ladies man doesn’t quite couple with his popstar faux-gratitude (the “I love my fans” kind, complete with incessant bowing), but in a moment during ‘Mirrors’ you can just glimpse his eyes well up with tears, and that unspoken journey to humility is a better arc than Doctor Strange‘s and Deadpool’s combined. It’s an antidote to a cloudy mood, and this year I needed it.

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9. Elle: Part pastiche of French mystery-farce, part psychological rape revenge whodunnit. Elle makes little sense as an in-his-prime Paul Verhoeven picture, which is why many looking for the camp retro-futurism of Robocop and Starship Troopers walked away slightly puzzled. But as a sly undermining of the righteous, unprovocative liberal feminism of our times, it’s a hoot. Isabelle Huppert’s performance — snippy, brash, questionable — is a triumph because she refuses to betray her character’s psychology as easily as we have come to expect from film characters. Without the clarity of black-and-white moral absolutism, Elle challenges us to figure her out, and Huppert never once lets us win.

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8. Happy Hour: It’s incredible how impatient general audiences can be with films pushing two hours and yet how eager they are to engulf the latest senselessly confusing Netflix hype series as soon as humanly possible and without interruption. Six hours in front of a screen is what it is, right? What distinguishes the mediums? Who cares? It’s the quality of the material that matters, and though Happy Hour offers more questions than solutions to this conundrum of medium specificity, with its long-winded episodic structure and truculent characters and insoluble diversions, the provocation it offers by existing in its full form couldn’t feel more timely: the five and a half hours it takes to unfold are essential to its story, about four women who learn the value of drifting from predestined pathways, making mistakes, being imperfect, being messy. Happy Hour feels nice and neat until it spills over and sprawls. And if the length intimidates you, just think of it like TV— if you can tell the difference, that’s the point. [My review at 4:3.]

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7. Neruda: Considering that it’s a playful anti-biopic that’s as much fiction as fact, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda still manages to convey more about its subject than most standard December-January historical dramas, including his own upcoming Jackie. As Neruda, Luis Gnecco is as iconoclastic as the role demands, but it’s his fictional counterpart, a dim police detective portrayed with a confident stupor by Gael Garcia Bernal, who lends the film its complexity. It’s about Neruda only abstractly. More specifically, it’s about how the goose-chase to define our historical figures gives them the power to manipulate our perceptions about who they are—Neruda’s ego spins its own heroic yarn and we buy it. The film is cowardice, artifice, a big fib. All movies are.  

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6. Kaili Blues: Fluid motion, ancestral disconnection and the slippery mechanics of time all play a part in Bai Gan’s searching first feature, which is the best sci-fi film of the year by a wide margin. The staggering forty plus-minute take at its centre is reason alone to seek it out, if only because it differentiates itself from the planned showiness of Birdman-style tightrope walking by daring to run off course, and for its boldness to be occasionally dull. Bonus points for its gentle incorporation of pop music. Available for free on YouTube.

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5. Cameraperson: Every scene of Kristen Johnson’s offcuts-as-memoir documentary collage acts as a small provocation about the ethics of filming — and watching — real life.

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4. Personal Shopper: Olivier Assayas has been taking bold stabs at postmodernity for decades now, but Personal Shopper represents something of an apex — a two-hander in which one of the leads is a phone number of indeterminate origin, where rapport takes place through iMessage, and where fascination blooms from the simple act of watching someone particularly unremarkable move through the modern world, texting a ghost and watching videos about Hilma af Klint on YouTube. The ghost has the easier role, and as Maureen, a personal assistant to a barely-seen celebrity, Kristen Stewart brings her own distinct modernity to a difficult scenario, performing quiet psychological torment without a scene partner. Her tics, her tense comportment and her private, inward-looking impressionism all reflect the anxiety of a person being watched, but there’s an inflection of doubt to her scrunched, moody demeanour; the feeling that the strange interlocutor, her terroriser, could be someone she loves.

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3. In Jackson Heights: Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour documentary might be the most important film of the year, in that it offers a glimpse of what’s actually at stake for the properly marginalised in this year of political reckoning. It’s coruscating representation of diversity aside, it’s the way Wiseman wields his camera and edits this patchwork of experiences into a cohesive whole — gliding in and out of buildings, with the street as a sort of brilliant vestibule — that’s so impressive, as inventive and masterful now as he was when he started making films in 1967. No other film this year undulated with this much richness and compassion. [My review at 4:3.]

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2. Everybody Wants Some!!: I wish I lived in a world where I could enjoy Richard Linklater’s mocking sociological study of alpha male competitiveness without being labelled a bottom-feeding misogynist, but that’s sadly not the case. For some, Everybody Wants Some!! represented some kind of political failure, a preposterous conclusion predicated on the idea that movies — delicate, collaborative and equivocal as they are — exist as little more than personal ideological litmus tests. In actual fact, Linklater’s movie, as frivolous and surface-level delightful as it is, had more to say about the pitfalls of masculinity than any other film this year. Perhaps in 2017 critics should spend less time dismissing films and their fans at the slightest whiff of the problematic and more time considering film art in its full capacity to express often conflicting feelings and ideas. Put down the sledgehammer and let’s conduct our critical discussions with some semblance of civility. [My review at 4:3.]

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1. Toni Erdmann: There’s a patient, rewarding exhilaration in Maren Ade’s collision of Hollywood comedy conceit and realist film style, accumulatively a masterclass in spontaneity and comic escalation. It’s a delicate comedy premise that might not have held together were it not for Sandra Hüller’s shamefacedness, her capability to perform prickliness and pure mortification not as a gag but as an invitation for us to feel genuine pity for her. I can’t quite put into words the experience of Toni Erdmann — it’s unexpectedness, the depth of its empathy for its characters and its strange structure that starts small and crescendos to a finale that’s equal parts Capra, Farrelly and Ozu. It’s a tower of a movie, with distinct comic set-pieces as its bricks, pity as its mortar and an abjectly human, cottage-raised heart that it digs deep, and for a long time, to find.

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Honourable mentions and also rans: Bastardised nativity play-cum-screwball The Son of Joseph; Being 17, Andre Techine’s tender reframing of masculine brutality and passion; Terrence Davies’ Sunset Song, about land and love; Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, which continues to grow in my mind; Anna Biller’s majestic The Love Witch; The Death of Louis XIV, a tragicomedy in which the antagonist is rot. The year’s best blockbusters came out of Asia, with Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid and Yeon Sang-Ho’s simple but thrilling Train to Busan, and so did the best outright melodrama, with Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. I’d trade up the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe if it meant that Hollywood started producing enjoyable schlock like The Shallows en masse. Lost and Beautiful, one of very few tolerable examples of pseudo-documentary film style, might have figured in my top ten had I not missed the first ten minutes of it, but I’m excited to revisit it properly. And, finally, in a year of political bubble-bursting, Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side was a poke I’m not sure I wanted, but certainly needed.

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Best performances: Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann); Isabelle Huppert (Elle); Agyness Deyn (Sunset Song); Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper); Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby); Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, Sachie Tanaka and Rira Kawamura (Happy Hour); Samantha Robinson (The Love Witch); Sonia Braga (Aquarius); Lily Gladstone (Certain Women); Hayley Squires and Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake); Kathryn Hahn (Bad Moms); Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising); Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul); Gael Garcia Bernal (Neruda); Jean-Pierre Leaud (The Death of Louis XIV); Makis Papadimitriou (Suntan and Chevalier); Helmut Berger (Helmut Berger, Actor); Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann); Corentin Fila and Kacey Motten Klein (Being 17); Tom Bennett (Love and Friendship); Jonas Bloquet (Elle).

A Plan With a Man

 

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Maggie’s Plan, derided in certain circles as hipster drivel for the intellectually conceited, is a textbook modern screwball, and a very good one at that. Working gleefully with archetypes—adulterous professor John (Ethan Hawke); his stern, academic wife Georgette (Julianne Moore, with an accent!); and the anxious, child-yearning younger woman who catches his wandering eye, Maggie (Greta Gerwig)—and taking full advantage of certain preconceptions about the way men and women in affluent liberal society interact, it sets in motion a familiar plot until the wheels fall off. When they do, director Rebecca Miller puts Maggie in control and turns a sly trick on the Plan’s befuddled man amidst the bouncing pins and springs. He’s played by Ethan Hawke with the daft, heartbreaking sincerity of a Pixar animal, and though he begins as a  romantic diversion for Maggie, our real protagonist, she’s happy to take a backseat in the latter half of this breezy movie while he, to frustratingly little avail, works through his marital and professional complications.

There’s nothing funnier to me, at least in romantic comedy, than a flailing man. Even better if he’s flanked by two powerful women, and even better still if they’re the cause of his strife. It’s perhaps an easy liberal feminist punchline, but Miller has the patient, sturdy hand for calculated screwball, and works through the situation from a place far-removed from her endgame (years, in fact), reconfiguring this fickle love triangle a few times before it clicks into place. As for powerful women, she’s got two of the best. Julianne Moore isn’t just good here, she’s terrifying — an ice pick wagered on snowflakes, cutting through anxious, marshmallow-soft romcom situations with a brutal coldness. Most directors want Moore to scream and cry, and since she’s an icon of melodrama, who can blame them? But how clever of Miller to strip her of her trademark, lip-quivering vulnerability and turn her into a burgundy dagger. In one scene, shortly after offering a hot beverage with the warmth of a snow cone, she cuts off a hunk of butter and plops it into a blender of coffee, relishing control over its violent blades and practically driving a terrified Maggie out onto the sidewalk. Moore gives us a thousand and one of these comic microaggressions, certainly too many to enumerate here — it’s as good a straight comic performance I’ve ever seen from her. As for the ambiguity of her accent, surely a boon for dissenters to hang their criticisms on, well, mystery accents are practically native to the genre.

I’ve thought that Greta Gerwig, with her intoxicating blend of anxious idiosyncrasy and sheer screen-flooding presence, might have been a sort of millennial screwball heroine since around Frances Ha. She confirmed that with gusto in Mistress America, which earned its stripes as the best screwball of the last decade on the back of her astonishing vitality, but failed to tell us whether she could really portray the maturity that her eternally childish, complicated characters seem to be edging towards. I think Maggie’s Plan, which sees her in a steady job and, gasp, parenting, is evidence of an evolution. Gerwig can’t be accused of having range, but who needs range when you’re practically a one-woman genre? It’s no accident that the best films by the directors she works with star her — her filmography could almost be read as a lineage, a single character (or character type) graduating into adulthood. Gerwig’s unsteady waddle, the way she splays her hands while talking, rotating them as she struggles to articulate something, her over-pronounced voice and her statuesque, almost Garbo-like facial structure — these are qualities that define the films she stars in, signposts of her actor-auteurism, surely to the chagrin of a quiet minority of detractors who view her as a plaid caricature of a millennial.

Maggie’s Plan is no work of subtle, artful comic genius, nor does even attempt to bend its whitewashed fantasy world of ficto-critical anthropologists, Zizek fanboys and artisanal picklers towards anything resembling reality — but that’s what makes it a screwball comedy. In its own confected world of autumnal fleece and shared book manuscripts and academic conferences, just like the champagne balls and hotel living of yore, it uses a caricature of contemporary affluence as a backdrop for topical interplay between men and women, and its to Miller’s credit that she wields this self-awareness to achieve a sketch of modern relationships that’s purposefully and nimbly mechanical, but still warm and spirited.