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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.]
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.
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.
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).