2016 was a stunning year for film as awe-inspiring visuals lit up living rooms, bijous, drive-ins, and multiplexes the world over. Taste of Cinema’s tireless and exciting search for the most visually exquisite films of 2016 was no easy charge, though several films stood out straight away. The assembled list presented here offers up films of dazzling depth, stirring symmetry, gorgeous framing, and assured grace.
20. Endless Poetry
A far-cry from the midnight mayhem of El Topo and Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Endless Poetry is an overlong vanity project––the operative word here is “endless”–– that will appeal to fans of the 87-year-old provocateur filmmaker and perhaps no one else. That said, the genius lensing of cinematographer Christopher Doyle is a huge boon to the picture, and combined with colorful costumes from Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, pretty much saves the film entirely.
As always for a Jodorowsky film, there’s a wealth of striking visual imagery––a piano is pulverized in a brilliant slice of Marx Brothers-like mayhem––and oddness abounds. Endless Poetry is set in the Santiago of the 40s and 50s, and the period details of this poetic fantasia have many splendid moments.
There’s also a dwarf dressed as Hitler, a dancer forever in a tutu, a Mexican Wrestler in love with a contortionist, and other colorfully OTT caricatures which pair well with the explosions of color and creative set designs. Jodorowsky has always been a strong visual stylist, the lack of meaningful content is severely kneecapped by his narcissism, but what sights!
19. Nocturnal Animals
This neo-noir revenge thriller from Tom Ford––based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan”––was the rightful recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. Buttressed by a powerhouse performances from Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, Ford’s nimble direction is also amped up considerably from Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, We Need to Talk About Kevin).
The artfully climactic West Texas ambience helps capture the barren romanticism in what’s a multi-layered, multi-storied chronicle of corruption that furthers the offbeat visual and anecdotal style Tom Ford has shown in his previous work, A Single Man (2009).
18. The Love Witch
This richly textured and colorful excursion from Anna Biller was filmed like a 1960s Technicolor fantasia on 35mm. A horror-thriller about a modern-day occultist, The Love Witch stars the exceedingly watchable Samantha Robinson as Elaine, the eponymous witch.
Biller’s Goddess-level production design, set decoration and costumes make for a candy-colored combination that feels like the camp horror of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and the high-minded melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
Paired with the stellar lensing of DP M. David Mullen (Twin Falls Idaho), this merging of melodrama, feminist film theory, sexploitation, and old Hollywood euphemism unfolds like an addictive––I’ve seen it three times already and can’t wait to watch it again––artful, nasty, nostalgic lovemaking from a transgressive parallel dimension. The Love Witch is a feast for the eyes and a banquet for the medulla oblongata. To miss out would not be wise.
17. Cemetery of Splendor
Set somewhere in Thailand’s northeastern province of Isan, where an ancient royal cemetery is being disturbed by developers is this graceful, haunting, and chimeric drama from writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives).
While Cemetery of Splendor hit the festival circuit and several foreign territories in 2015, it wasn’t released in North America until 2016, hence it’s inclusion here. This gently hypnotic spectacle, gorgeously lensed by Diego García is a compelling, doleful, unhurried, and otherworldly merger of magical realism and agitprop as it quietly critiques Thailand’s current political free-for-all and militaristic past. As an artistic elegy, few films can match Cemetery of Splendor.
The late Polish firebrand Andrzej Żuławski (he passed away in February, 2016), whose unmistakable brand of WTF exorbitance, as in his extreme psychodrama Possession (1981)––is on vibrant display in Cosmos, his valedictory film.
A surrealistic discombobulation of great beauty and even greater confusion, Cosmos is a bucolic fever dream of pure poetry. Dream logic dominates this messed-up movie, adapted from Witold Gombrowicz 1965 prize-winning novel of the same name, as a storm of histrionics, and mental strain dominate this unclassifiable arthouse odyssey.
Julia Gregory’s intricate editing compliments André Szankowski’s fine cinematography making Cosmos a fitting, fucked up and funereal swansong from a cinematic legend. This is a film that Żuławski fans will be discussing and exploring for a very long time.
15. The Neon Demon
The showers of neon and the astounding lights and shadows captured by the sensational cinematographer Natasha Braier in Neon Demon recalls the gleefully insane spectacle of Dario Argento and DP Luciano Tovoli’s 1977 classic of enticing terror, Suspiria.
As polarizing as writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives) gets, Neon Demon is his obeisance of giallo cinema with satire, savagery, and arthouse horror heavily in the mix. This alternately sensual and eerie film unfolds with the right amount of hallucinatory expression in a tale of beauty-obsessed exploitation.
Call it pretentious and call it indulgent––it’s both of those things and more––Neon Demon is also pretty, unflinchingly gruesome, and purposely provocative. This is a film you’ll either love or hate but it’s opulent and alluring visuals are astonishing.