10. Certain Women
Further demonstrating her dactylitic mastery of the form, writer/director Kelly Reichardt continues her neorealist reconnaissance of contemporary American life with Certain Women. Adapting and interconnecting several short stories from Maile Meloy’s 2009 anthology “Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It”, three women (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Reichardt regular Michelle Williams) in small-town Montana stay the course in separate and interconnecting struggles.
Dubbed by Senses of Cinema scribe Sam Littman as “The poet laureate of the Pacific Northwest”, Reichardt once again proves to be a patient, powerful, and luminous auteur, compassionately capturing the tangled and sometimes torturous emotional expanses –– namely loneliness and bereavement –– via flawed and occasionally Delphic women.
Tiny but imperative victories and workaday tenacity rests at the soft-touch crux of Reichardt’s film, and while some of the ambiguity will estrange some viewers, the frequent flashes of brilliancy and nuance will deeply satisfy the adventurous. This is a measured masterpiece from a refined and elegant original.
Elle details the highs and lows of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), the successful CEO of a video game company as she tries to ascertain the identity of the scumbag who raped her. This is a Paul Verhoeven film after all (think Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, etc.,.), so plumbing transgressive territory is nothing new. Here Verhoeven paints an appalling crime with pitch-black humor, and thankfully rape is never treated as a joke.
Huppert’s brilliant performance is both muscular and emphatic as Michèle is a complex woman, fearsome and no victim, Elle presents a complicated psychological snapshot of a fiercely independent woman in one of the most talked about, flat-out uncomfortable, and absolutely mesmerizing films of the year. Unnerving, awesome, and more entertaining than it perhaps should be, Elle casts a disturbing and efficacious spell.
8. I, Daniel Blake
I, Daniel Blake is an understated treasure from Ken Loach as well as most likely being his valedictory film (if rumors of his retirement are accurate). This unshrinking look at systemic despotism and the real-life desolation it causes is both beautifully observed as well as completely heartbreaking.
Daniel (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old carpenter taken ill and now in need of social assistance. Navigating the red tape and the demeaning adage that everything at the Employment and Support Office is “digital by default” he meets and befriends a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), trapped in the same governmental confusion and trying to raise to young children.
Daniel is something of a saint, and the film, like a modest miracle, is graceful in its identity of form and content and makes for emotional and indispensable viewing.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins, in adapting the marvellous Tarell Alvin McCraney play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” has fashioned a Florida-set coming-of-age odyssey that’s both urgent and gravely moving.
Simultaneously tender and tough, Moonlight brilliantly captures what it means to be a black man in contemporary America as Jenkins details the dysfunction and maturation of a young man named Chiron, a Miami resident amidst the crack contagion era.
Astonishingly brought to life by three different actors during different and defining stages in his life –– Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as a young man –– rarely has an understanding of euphoria, longing, heartache, and grace been so triumphantly shared on screen.
You won’t find the expected stereotypes here, just sensual, expressive, and exhilarative expressions of humanity, black masculinity, and thrilling savoir-faire. Moonlight is pure, full-bloom, high-minded magic.
Aquarius, the second film from Kleber Mendonça Filho, attests a true genius. This mosaic-like Brazilian drama centers on Dona Clara (Sônia Braga, brilliant), a retired music writer in her mid-60s who outrightly refuses a buyout from real estate developers after her Art Deco residence (the Aquarius of the title).
Enough cannot be said of Braga’s unflinching feat of strength as Clara, easily one of the most astonishing performances of 2016. The decades-spanning narrative has Clara overcome breast cancer, raise her children, love and lose her husband, and all the while she maintains and nourishes her love for music. We can’t help but respect and revere her for her tenacity and Braga embodies all of this with an almost mythic fire.
From fragile cool to pitiless intensity, Aquarius is a cerebral and sensual masterpiece.
“I think Paterson is more of a film in the form of a poem rather than a poem in the form of a film.” –– Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a charmer about the everyday delicacy and grace that’s all around us. Adam Driver in the eponymous role is a working-class poet in the small Jersey town that shares his name.
A poetic diary film, the episodic nature of Paterson’s routine––the film occupies a typical week in his life––subtly finds glory in place and person in ways that are truly and understandably profound. Paterson proves that Jarmusch may be some kind of guru; part Zen master and part indie auteur, as he reminds us in his droll and wonderful way that beauty is everywhere.
4. American Honey
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey seems to move from one desultory random moment to the next; arranged with radiant, tantalizing possibilities, and unsettled questions. A rambling masterpiece, this is both a road movie, and a coming-of-age odyssey of singalongs that is both luxurious to look at and dazzling to contemplate.
Sasha Lane shines as Star, an unfettered 18-year-old, she escapes her abusive scumbag father and joins a mysterious young man named Jake (a shockingly good Shia LeBeouf), whom she had a chance meeting with. Soon Star hits the road with Jake and other teens; a tattooed and glitter-bombed crew who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door as they zigzag across America.
When we first meet Jake he seems to move with an unpredictable and meteoric energy, like he could just leave the scene or even exit the movie altogether on a whim, if he wanted. And by the end, this meteoric energy has moved on to Star in some sort of cinematic transmigration. And that’s American Honey; a narratively audacious, picaresque pageant of youth, exhilarative spectacle and aspiration.
3. Toni Erdmann
Awash in humor yet punctuated with pathos, astonishing German writer/director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a pièce de résistance and the funniest film of 2016.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an aging bohemian with fondness for elaborate practical jokes. Also a divorcé and retired music teacher, Winfried is distressed following the death of his dear little dog, Willi, and decides to visit his estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a workaholic corporate hot shot living in Bucharest.
Winfried, donning a bad wig and false teeth creates the ambitious persona: ‘Toni Erdmann’, life coach. Will his spontaneous visit bring a holy mess to his daughter’s world? Of course.
Toni Erdmann has a lot on its mind, and Ade is a director of great intelligence who is well versed in brupt instants of audience blindsiding and many modes of humor from gross-out gags to surrealist circumvention.
A dazzling comedy of modern life’s illogicality, Toni Erdmann is proportionately disarming and charming and is also perhaps the most ambitious film of the year.
2. The Love Witch
“I’m the Love Witch, I’m your ultimate fantasy!” coos Elaine (Samantha Robinson, excellent), in the throes of passion to one of her doomed suitors in Anna Biller’s amazingly audacious film. Elaine is the come-hither antihero of The Love Witch, she has an eye for style and a desire for danger and her quest to find the man of her dreams might backfire if she doesn’t ease up on all the misplaced magick.
Biller’s film is a Technicolor melodrama that’s deliciously transgressive and decidedly dangerous as it explores the antiquated avenues of 60s and 70s melodrama with a splash of sexploitation and all with glossy contemporary embellishments such as stylized feminist subversion, whip-smart visual savvy––Biller production designed the film with Goddess-level detail––a fitfully nostalgic soundtrack (Biller pops up there, too), stunning costumes (Biller’s work, again), and a variegated yet delightful script (yup, you guessed it, Biller wrote it). If The Love Witch doesn’t build a strong case for auteur theory perhaps nothing will.
Ravishing, stylish, playful, and perverse, The Love Witch feels like an enchanted artifact from some distant, far more sophisticated and all round cooler place.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an ecstatic and otherworldly experience; extraordinarily romantic, deeply moving, and filled with buoyancy, and wonder. A bridge between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and the profound yet fable-like speculative writings of Ray Bradbury, PKD and Ursula Le Guin, Arrival is a richly rewarding pièce de résistance.
Eric Heisserer’s script faithfully adapts “Story of Your Life”, a 1999 piece of award-winning short fiction by Ted Chiang, about linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who reluctantly heads an elite team of investigators after a dozen monolith-like spaceships touchdown in seemingly random locals around the earth. As panic spreads amongst the populace and nations tremble at the possibilities, Louise’s team hustle to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials.
Arrival is an intelligent, spry, and cerebral coup de pop cinema with the look and feel of a big-ticket extravaganza with mass appeal, yet it’s smarter than any popcorn film you’re likely to see.
Adams is astonishing in a gracefully calibrated lead performance, boldly articulating the poetic grandeur that Villeneuve aspires to and achieves. Adams makes love and loss both sincere and elegantly substantiated, making sure that Arrival dutifully earns each tear you’ll shed by its impelling and stunning finale.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.