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The 20 Most Visually Stunning Films of 2016

09 January 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis

ryan-gosling

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

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

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

cemetery-of-splendour

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.

 

16. Cosmos

Cosmos

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 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.

 

 

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  • Vincenzo Politi

    Just came back from the cinema, where I watched Jodorowsky’s Endless Poetry. I am in tear, I fell sad and happy and alive. This is a marvellous movie! How can you say it lacks meaningfulness? It is simply beyond me…

    • D Train

      I saw it recently too and I HATED it. Just a masturbatory vanity project. Some great visuals but it was so preachy and didactic and just endlessly massaged Jodorowsky’s massive ego. Rubbish!!!!

      • Vincenzo Politi

        Oh myyyyyy… It is really true, then, that we live in a world without poetry! I personally find it absurd how people can say that Jodorowsky’s movie is “masturbatory, preachy and didactic” while praising Terrence Malick, the most overrated and hollow director in the history of cinema, who is basically re-doing whatever Tarkovsky did 50 years ago, but in a more “Hollywood-esque” style; or while granting ‘cult’ status to Nicholas Refn, who has actually been heavily influenced by Jodorowsky, so much that he has thanked him in the ending credits of BOTH Drive and Only God Forgives. (And Jodorowsky thanks him back in the documentary “My Life Directed”). “Endless Poetry” is surrealist for sure, yet accessible (all the “symbols” are actually pretty clear and straightforward) and it is staged in many parts as a theatrical pièce. The narrative structure is also very clear: the movie has the rather classical structure of the “Bildungsroman”. And yet people find it too obscure and difficult to follow? Honestly! As for Jodorowsky’s “massive ego”: he is totally non-mainstream, his last two movies have been crowd-founded, they costed approximately 3 million dollars (which is NOTHING for a 2 hours movie with such astonishing visuals) and they have been both received by universal acclaim (they both hold 95% at Rotten Tomatoes). You may not like it, but at least try to understand before criticising in such a derogatory way and at least show a bit of respect for an independent artist who has been pursuing his projects in total creative freedom for decades.

        • D Train

          Malick never once appeared in any of his films and looked directly down the barrel of the lens and said how tortured an artist he was, which is EXACTLY what Jodorowsky does in Endless Poetry, THREE times.
          Also Jodorowsky’s view on suicide and trauma is a slap in the face to people who’ve suffered emotional pain through such anguish (I work as a mental health counsellor in a clinic that sees lots of PTSD and suicide loss survivors).
          So yeah, pretty valid to have issues with an arrogant chauvinistic filmmaker who’s career is that of a provocateur.
          Jodorowsky sucks and Endless Poetry is a colourful bore that no doubt triggers a lot of people.

          • Vincenzo Politi

            Malick never appears anywhere, but so what? It’s not like appearing or not appearing is a parameter to decide whether a movie is good or not! If a movie is about the development of a young and tormented artist, what do you expect the movie to tell you, exactly? At least, in the case of Endless Poetry, you know what the movie is actually about, unlike Malick’s movies, which are just a series of random images populated by male characters immersed in very deep thought and the rare appearance of angelic women (talking about chauvinism), with some cryptic voice-over and then, all of a sudden, you see fish swimming in the sea or the Big Bang. Nice. As for the “slap on the face”: a work of art must be a slap on the face, it must make you question things, make you feel pain even. Do you want a work of art to tell you what is going to please you or to conform with your experience? Still, while Endless Poetry enjoys the critical acclaim from professional movie critics, your “criticism” is just an unsubstantiated rant as endless as Jodorowsky’s poetry. Have a nice day.

        • christoofar

          Not “people”, just one person.

  • Pablo Iranzo Duque

    An intelligent and well written list!

  • D Train

    A wonderful list. Loved American Honey and Embrace the Serpent!!’

  • Vincenzo Politi

    I have seen how you have replied to other people in this website. You are only capable of being sarcastic or insulting when you don’t have any argument at all. You must be 12 years old or something. Please, do not answer to my posts ever again, thank you.

  • colonelkurtz

    As interesting as the film was, American Honey is not what I would consider visually stunning—cinematography of photographic interest. It’s camerawork fits the style and visuals work, but beyond the fascination of poor white America most of us don’t see, the visuals by themselves don’t wow me nearly the same way as the visuals of La La Land or Handmaiden did (to name a couple others from the list). Nonetheless, good list.