IN A YEAR when the world seemed to regress socially, politically, and emotionally, motion pictures evolved. There are entries on this list that would not — traditionally speaking — be called “movies,” due to their length, form, or mode of distribution, but whose ambitions, achievements, and narrative scope are indeed movie-sized. And in select cases, their effects reach beyond that of what we expect from a motion picture, challenging our notion of what a film is and what a film can do. Theatergoing may be waning, but the list below suggests that there’s no dearth of interest and creative energy in a medium barely 120 years old. In 2016, the world may have appeared to move backwards, and we may have lost some of our most beloved artists, but the cinema looked forward, and hopefully the rest of us can follow suit — no matter how much we may have to grit our teeth. Below are my picks for the twenty movies released last year in the United States that challenged us to be better.

 
The Orchard • Chile • 107 min.

The Orchard • Chile • 107 min.

20. Neruda

Dir. Pablo Larraín

Pablo Larraín made two films about influential historical figures this year, and only one of them is good. In his expressive and elegantly pitched look at Pablo Neruda, the larger-than-life poet who wore the adoration of his country like a wedding ring while pissing off fascists with his art, Larraín avoids biopic clichés in a manner reminiscent of driving through a slalom course. By adding a layer of speculative fiction to Neruda’s run from the government, in the form of dim-witted inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), the Chilean director has fashioned a film that arrives at its truthful conclusions through a spirited concoction of history and pure cinematic manipulation. Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a warm, knowing man who understands life’s gravest tendencies, but his wry sense of humor and zeal for life are always just around the corner; Peluchonneau’s doglike pursuit of the poet cleverly masks the existential turmoil brewing inside. This tension, between two men attempting to understand each other, gives Neruda a unique energy, and ironically, the film achieves the imaginative subversion of biopic form that Larraín’s Jackie desperately reaches for. An entertaining movie about art and politics that has a brain in all the right places.


IFC Films • USA • 107 min.

IFC Films • USA • 107 min.

19. Certain Women

Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Over six feature films, Kelly Reichardt has developed a gracefully controlled cinematic style instantly recognizable as none but her own. While Certain Women, which follows the loosely intersecting lives of three women in contemporary Montana, doesn’t quite reach the heights of Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), her new film is another excellent entry into a distinct body of work focused on chronicles of the American female. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer caught in a sticky situation; Gina (Michelle Williams) is a wife and mother who’s trying to build a new house from scratch; The Rancher (Lily Gladstone) is a lonely Native American farm hand who finds comfort in the presence of Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), a lawyer from another town. While each woman has a connection to the others, little effort is made to cohere their stories into a thematically neat package — and all the better, because that would deny Certain Women its immediacy. One could complain that the result feels more like an omnibus of shorts than a feature — especially considering that the final story of The Rancher and Elizabeth is head and shoulders above the previous two in its intermittent flirtation with the sublime, and that Gina’s rather inert second thread is the clear weak link — but again, Reichardt’s unconventional construction is what makes Certain Women, at times, a sight to behold. Gladstone and Stewart produce the most thrilling onscreen chemistry of the year, with Gladstone in particular commanding the movie with her gazes of bottomless longing. As you watch her face speak volumes more than her voice ever could, you feel that rare treat: the discovery of a brave new talent.


Amazon Studios • USA • 118 min.

Amazon Studios • USA • 118 min.

18. The Neon Demon

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Upon first glance, Nicolas Winding Refn’s branding of The Neon Demon’s opening credit sequence with “NWR” could be seen as egomaniacal douchebaggery. But to assume the worst is to miss the point: here, Refn isn’t telling us who made the film, but rather evoking the industry his film so gleefully satirizes. In high fashion, designers stamp overpriced clothing with their own stylized monograms, and Refn wants to show us how that looks on a film that is itself less directed than fashion-designed. Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles seemingly out of nowhere and conquers the modeling scene far too easily; soon, it becomes clear that The Neon Demon is less about Jesse and more about the people she leaves in her wake. Refn extracts powerful meaning from his deeply symbolic images, and by the time Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and Sarah (Abbey Lee) take matters into their own hands, the not-so-subtle metaphor of fashion as cannibalistic emerges in a remarkably nimble succession of WTF moments. Fanning’s performance is a model of quiet ambiguity, and the cinematography, by Natasha Braier, melts right off the screen, even when we’re witnessing something unspeakable. This is a movie you either love or hate, but there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no one but Refn could have made it.


Sundance Selects • France • 102 min.

Sundance Selects • France • 102 min.

17. Things to Come

Dir. Mia Hansen–Løve

Mia Hansen–Løve has quickly and quietly become one of the world’s most reliable creators of subtly observed drama. In her follow-up to Eden (2015), the writer–director tells the story of Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), an established philosophy professor whose husband (André Marcon) suddenly leaves her for a younger woman. Essentially a coming-of-age narrative featuring a woman in her sixties, Things to Come can appear slight on the surface, but that’s the essence of Hansen–Løve’s art: to construct scenes so delicate that the swirling emotions underneath don’t initially call attention to themselves. Huppert’s performance here is galaxies away from her other star turn of 2016, but she’s no less effective; while Nathalie may be soft-spoken, her profound social intelligence and general understanding of the world around her approach similar levels of character mastery. Nathalie’s close friendship with a former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), paints an inspiring picture of inter-generational compatibility — even when Nathalie finds herself at odds with Fabien’s anarchist sympathies — and their rapport forms the fulcrum of the movie. If Hansen-Løve continues to churn out roughly one movie of this quality per year, few in the world will be able to match her consistency.


Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures  • South Korea • 144 min.

Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures  • South Korea • 144 min.

16. The Handmaiden

Dir. Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook, gleeful purveyor of the perverse, hits a new stride in this simmering erotic thriller that he and Jeong Seo-kyeong freely adapted from Sarah Waters’s 2002 Victorian novel Fingersmith. Part East Asian swing at Mulholland Drive, part study of pre-partition Korea during Japanese occupation, The Handmaiden twists and turns like the rest of Park’s movies but hits grace notes rarely seen elsewhere in the cult director’s lurid portfolio. In an early scene, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), con-handmaiden to the elegant noblewoman Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), dulls her madam’s sharp incisors by donning a metal thimble, sticking her thumb in Hideko’s mouth, and gently rubbing away. As Hideko casually sucks Sook-Hee’s thumb while holding vulnerable eye contact, one senses a director known for his pet themes of incest and live-octopus-eating discovering a more delicate means of playing his audience. The three-part narrative, which unspools one way and then twice folds back on itself, serves to remind us why we love thrillers: they’re fun. Nothing in The Handmaiden is profound or subtle, but that doesn’t matter because Park yanks us around in precisely the way he wants, even when he briefly lapses into the indulgent sadist we’ve come to know. A sumptuously mounted, gorgeously photographed caper that oozes sensuality, with the second great Kim Min-hee performance of 2016.


Strand Releasing  • Thailand • 122 min.

Strand Releasing  • Thailand • 122 min.

15. Cemetery of Splendor

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The suggestive, dreamlike cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul reaches an apex in the willfully obtuse Cemetery of Splendor. Tracking a group of soldiers at a hospital in rural Thailand who are haunted by a “sleeping sickness” that conjures visions of past lives, Apichatpong frames the story through the lovely Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), a volunteer nurse who finds solace in the company of these existentially unmoored men. The soldiers’ disease could be taken as a metaphor for Thailand’s relationship to its own past, while Jen, sitting at the soldiers’ bedside and talking to them — with the help of a medium named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) — as they sleep, burrows deep into her own personal history as a byproduct of her excavation of the soldiers’ subconscious. Apichatpong’s shots of color therapy, in which glowing glass tubes of changing hues hang over the men’s beds to ward off reincarnated spirits, was one of 2016’s most original images, and Jen’s realization in the final moments of the film — that she is, indeed, awake — leaves a feeling of unexpected catharsis to this patient, meditative study of consciousness come unstuck. An often opaque but genuinely rewarding film, with the troubled identity of a nation at its heart.


Oscilloscope  • USA • 72 min.

Oscilloscope  • USA • 72 min.

14. The Fits

Dir. Anna Rose Holmer

Like its protagonist, Toni (Royalty Hightower), Anna Rose Holmer’s debut appears small yet packs a wallop. Set almost entirely at a Cincinnati middle school, the film combines aesthetic rigor — via serene cinematography by Paul Yee and a haunting score by Danny Bensi and Asunder Jurriaans — with forceful psychological inquiry. The mind of a young person, especially a girl on the verge of puberty, can be a wild and colorful place, and Holmer provides a suitably hypnotic glimpse of a kid in transition. At the film’s start, Toni is a sworn tomboy who boxes and hangs out with her compassionate older brother, but soon she finds herself drawn to the group of girls who make up the school’s dance team. As she peers at them through cracked doorways, observing practice sessions and wondering what it would be like to be one of them, Hightower conveys a longing that perfectly compliments the fierce physicality of her precocious performance. When girls on the dance team begin to have seizures and fainting spells of a seemingly contagious nature, Holmer is after a deeper truth about adolescence than the obvious allusions to menstruation. Toni and the girls regard “the fits” with a mixture of fear and desire: as much as they’re afraid of possible pain, they’re also keen to feel what the other girls — who survive their spells without harm — are feeling. Changes to the mind, such as the exploding impulse to do what everyone else is doing, are just as significant at that age as changes to the body. Holmer profoundly understands her leading lady, and this understanding, combined with the writer–director’s keen visual eye, imbues The Fits with a novelty that shines brightly.


Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street Media  • USA • 118 min.

Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street Media  • USA • 118 min.

13. Paterson

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch’s ode to the poetry of the everyday through the eyes of an everyday poet forgoes pretension and sentimentality in favor of a passionate yet modest celebration of life and art. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey — just one of the film’s many touches of surreal humor, which also include recurring sets of identical twins and the casting of Moonrise Kingdom’s Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as a teenage couple — who writes simple but inspired poetry in his free time. Together with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), Paterson lives the kind of existence so often overlooked in America: certifiably working-class, with no aspirations to wealth and no expectations for anything more than shifts at work, love at home, pleasure in creativity, and one cold mug of beer every night at the corner bar. Laura forms a stark contrast to Paterson, with her endearingly naïve musical pursuits and constant home makeovers, and that’s part of why they work — she’s open in a way that he’s not, her transparency offsetting, and complimenting, Paterson’s obstinate refusal to show people who he really is. But Jarmusch’s real triumph is how he shifts the couple’s dog Marvin, one of the best screen pets in recent memory, from hero to villain in dilemma that leaves Paterson, for the first time in a long time, truly sad. A careful, intelligent outing from one of America’s genuine auteurs, rendered with trademark cool.


Amazon Studios / Roadside Attractions  • USA • 137 min.

Amazon Studios / Roadside Attractions  • USA • 137 min.

12. Manchester by the Sea

Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

Playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is a graceful study of how a man holds his resolve in the face of steadily mounting tragedy. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) could be seen as the kind of person who would have voted for Donald Trump: a frustrated, economically challenged white male who hates gay people. But assuming this position suggests that Lee blames his troubles on the marginalized Other, when in fact he incriminates no one but himself. After witnessing the devastating event that changed him, we can see why he has retreated, although Lee’s self-punishment features a streak of perversity that largely ignores the role of chance in matters of life and death. When Lee returns to the place of his past woes following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) so he can take interim care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the warmth and humor of his interactions with Patrick challenge Lee to look at himself without wincing. Even when unwanted encounters with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) threaten to dig up old demons, Lee holds steady and looks forward. He’s not a man one can easily like, but a man one can admire — despite his apparent bigotry — for his refusal to be anything but human and his ability to get out of bed in the morning after being dealt cards most people would have rejected. It’s easy to dismiss Lonergan as a crabby cynic, but he’s really a passionate humanist, and after the messy and masterful sprawl of Margaret (2011), he has followed up that definitive post-911 portrait of Manhattan with a tight and focused exploration of grief and love.


Paramount Pictures  • USA • 117 min.

Paramount Pictures  • USA • 117 min.

11. Everybody Wants Some!!

Dir. Richard Linklater

No other filmmaker seems as content to just hang out with his characters than Richard Linklater. The American master’s follow-up to Boyhood (2014) is not only the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused (1993) that we all hoped for, but also a distinct and often dazzling individual work on its own terms. Jake (Blake Jenner) steps in for Dazed’s Pink as the athlete through whose eyes we’ll absorb a colorful world, and this time around he’s a freshman baseball player at a Texas college in 1980. (Everybody Wants Some!! could foreseeably take place just as the kids of Dazed are graduating high school.) Jake is something of a neutral presence, a nice vanilla white boy who doesn’t have to try too hard to make friends and fit in, and all the better: his thin characterization brings the merry-go-round of charismatic jocks, drifting stoners, and magnetic young women to the foreground. Finnegan (Glen Powell), Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), and Dale (J. Quinton Johnson) stand out amongst the bros for their diverse charms, while Beverly (Zoey Deutch) steals scenes as her romance with Jake blooms just before classes start. The film’s loose yet temporally confined structure allows every guy and gal to roam free and play, and the party-never-stops vibes are infectious without ever feeling overdone. Like its prequel, this is destined to become a cult classic for its entertainment value, understated cinematic merits, and endless rewatchability. It’s also the best American party movie since Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007).


Sundance Selects  • Romania • 89 min.

Sundance Selects  • Romania • 89 min.

10. The Treasure

Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

Corneliu Porumboiu’s quiet, ironic study of human folly expertly distills lofty themes of greed and economic desperation into 89 compact minutes that are initially misleading in their sparseness. When Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) asks his neighbor Costi (Toma Cuzin) to help him find buried treasure in the Romanian countryside, the exchange is filmed in a trademark Eastern European long take that frames both men in profile. This combination of frank dialogue and observant, detached imagery is often repeated throughout The Treasure, and taken together, Porumboiu’s sharp compositions yield a complex rumination on the narrowing opportunities of a disappearing middle class. As Costi and Adrian toil in a garden with a metal detector, one wonders what the gods have in store for them: gradual realizations of their own stupidity, or sardonic confirmation of their fanciful hopes and dreams? Porumboiu gifts the men — one who barely supports a wife and child, another who’s three years behind on his mortgage payments — a potent combination of both that reads as a sly examination of recent Romanian history. Costi and Adrian may as well be digging through the past, and what they find under the dirt is beyond what they imagined. A clean, chiseled, and smart film that adds one more exemplary work to Romania’s glittering national cinema.


Broad Green Pictures  • USA • 118 min.

Broad Green Pictures  • USA • 118 min.

9. Knight of Cups

Dir. Terrence Malick

Over seven narrative feature films, Terrence Malick has developed a radically expressive cinema often imitated but never successfully replicated. Following the formally straightforward yet philosophically rebellious triumphs of Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), his magisterial return to filmmaking after twenty years in exile, The Thin Red Line (1999), signaled the experimental direction of his future efforts. Post-The Tree of Life (2011), Malick has made two extremely personal, avant-garde essay films: the beautiful but limp To the Wonder (2014) and now Knight of Cups, a return to form that takes its place among the great movies about Hollywood and its insidious pull. Rick (Christian Bale) is a successful screenwriter caught between the prospect of selling out and doing things his own way, while simultaneously navigating troubled relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley), father (Brian Dennehy), and a stream of women demanding something more from him than aimless complacency. Malick’s images, sounds, and cuts — set entirely, for the first time, in a contemporary metropolis — have a dance-like quality, washing over the viewer in a phantasmagorical rush rife with metaphor and meaning. The director’s new wave of autobiographical narratives probably aren’t for anyone but his die-hard fans, and his critics will undoubtedly treasure moments that verge on self-parody (at one point, Rick’s brother pumps his chest, looks at Rick, and says, “I just wanna feel something, man!”). But for us believers, each new film by this man who has cemented an unprecedented position in American cinema — the ability to attract major stars to play in essentially scriptless tone poems, and somehow get them financed — is an experiential delight. With Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, and Imogen Poots as the sequence of partners whom Rick can’t bring himself to love.


Grasshopper Film  • South Korea • 121 min.

Grasshopper Film  • South Korea • 121 min.

8. Right Now, Wrong Then

Dir. Hong Sang-soo

World cinema’s auteur of repetition gives his signature formula — Man, usually a filmmaker based on himself, meets Woman and promptly falls in love with her — a metaphysical twist in this sweet and probing romantic comedy. When Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) bumps into Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) while killing time the day before he’s scheduled to screen one of his films at a small-town institution, he’s instantly drawn to her. But of course, he’s a married man, and both would-be lovers grapple with the moral implications of their attraction. Hong’s audacious move is to divide the film in two and show Ham and Yoon’s first meeting and subsequent hang-outs in two different versions that play like alternate-reality versions of each other. There’s no clear pattern to the divergence between the two stories: some things happen the same way, others don’t, and both end in physically different but thematically consistent ways. Ham’s time in Yoon’s town is limited, and the director suggests that the pair, however easy their banter and effortless their chemistry, are doomed in every timeline. A finely judged study of possibilities.


Warner Bros.  • USA • 112 min.

Warner Bros.  • USA • 112 min.

7. Midnight Special

Dir. Jeff Nichols

In his fourth feature since Shotgun Stories (2007), Jeff Nichols demonstrates once again why he’s one of the most versatile filmmakers to emerge in the past ten years. The science-fiction whatsit Midnight Special, about a superpowered boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run from the government with his father (Michael Shannon), registers as the Arkansas native’s most austere and controlled work to date. Even while determined to make a genre film and borrowing liberally from Carpenter and Spielberg, Nichols manages to fill Midnight Special with the uniquely Southern soulfulness that’s become his hallmark. (There’s a reason that Sam Shepard, reigning poet of the South, shows up here and in nearly every Nichols joint.) The writer–director hints at a grand mythology behind life on this earth — and possibly beyond — through evocative imagery but rarely upstages the poignant family drama at the film’s heart, yielding an exceptional entry into the American science-fiction canon that, unlike most contemporary movies about the unknown, graciously respects its audience. With Adam Driver as a government agent who helps Alton’s father return the boy to his rightful place in the world.


HBO  • USA • 65 min.

HBO  • USA • 65 min.

6. Lemonade

Dir. Beyoncé Knowles & Kahlil Joseph

Make no mistake: Lemonade is a movie, more so than most movies. After massaging our ears for nearly twenty years, Beyoncé continues to boldly reinvent herself with each new project, and Lemonade appears to be the culmination of a vision that’s been maturing and growing inward since the release of her last visual album, Beyoncé (2014). The star’s latest audiovisual experience makes the political personal and the personal political, merging a deeply felt and sometimes shockingly frank confrontation of her husband’s infidelities with moving tributes to the continuing struggles of black women. Critics weren’t wrong when they likened Lemonade’s poetic voiceovers and lyrical structure to the work of Terrence Malick, but while the singer and her team may well have looked to certain directorial giants for inspiration, comparing her work here to that of an old white man betrays the experience of watching a beloved African-American entertainer engage her racial and sexual identities. Beyoncé and co-director Kahlil Joseph work with a posse of other talented directors and cinematographers to craft a collection of striking images that jive with the singer’s performances, such as when Bey dons a yellow dress to match the sunny tones of “Hold Up” while gleefully smashing car windshields with a baseball bat in protest of Jay Z’s alleged adultery. Here, the image identifies a mischievous streak in the song we might not otherwise catch, and moments like this are frequent in Lemonade: unexpected flashes of inspiration that briefly throw us off balance before sweeping us off our feet. A monument in the art of music film, with the finest and most arresting cinematography of the year.


Sony Pictures Classics • France • 130 min.

Sony Pictures Classics • France • 130 min.

5. Elle

Dir. Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven is one of those filmmakers you can’t pin down until you see everything he’s made. Having only watched RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), and Starship Troopers (1997), I can begin to identify a filmmaker — who skips from small European exercises to big, glossy Hollywood productions and back again — concerned chiefly with the most intelligent method possible of “fucking shit up.” In his latest concoction, Elle, adapted by David Birke from Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel Oh …, Verhoeven brings that sensibility to the European Arthouse Film, and by casting the reigning queen of that sector, Isabelle Huppert, the Dutch provocateur signals that he’s going for all or nothing. Following a successful CEO named Michèle (Huppert) who, in the opening scene, is raped in her kitchen by a masked intruder, Elle defies categorization and undertakes a grotesque but illuminating exploration of desire rarely attempted since another Huppert special, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). As the movie twists and turns through a series of sly fake-outs before arriving at the alternately disturbing and darkly funny truth, we realize that no one but the great Frenchwoman could play Michèle, whose ruthless quest to shove aside her victimhood is expressed by the actress’s complete mastery of her own face, and also that few but Verhoeven can balance perversion and subversion so delicately. Elle is at once a feminist triumph, an erotic thriller, and a screwball comedy of manners, anchored by a performer who, at 63, remains at the absolute peak of her powers.


A24  • USA • 111 min.

A24  • USA • 111 min.

4. Moonlight

Dir. Barry Jenkins

I haven’t seen Barry Jenkins’s beautifully titled feature debut, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), but word on the street suggests that there’s a massive evolutionary leap from that film to Moonlight. Themes of black identity in contemporary America may be common between the two, but while watching Moonlight one understands the conjecture that Jenkins and his collaborators have spent a great deal of time and thought making the film feel “different,” not just from the director’s past work but from most other movies being made in America today. While heavily influenced by East Asian masters like Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the film carries an extraordinary sense of detail with regard to texture, color, and the sweaty atmosphere of Florida that only someone like Jenkins — who grew up there — could possibly express. Beneath that surface, the three-part narrative, skillfully adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is a model of economy that trusts the viewer to fill in gaps that are less necessary than spectral. Watching the closeted Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) grow from boy to teen to man in this mythical vision of an American South abandoned by the rest of the country is both heartbreaking and uplifting, buoyed by the influential presence of Juan (Maharshala Ali), who departs far too soon but whose wise gaze seems to follow Chiron’s subsequent journeys. It remains to be seen if Jenkins can maintain this level of artistic inspiration, but for now we can savor this near-masterpiece, surely one of the most important and original American movies of the 2010s. With Noamie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addled but ultimately loving mother; Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and the silky André Holland as Kevin, Chiron’s lifelong crush; and multi-hyphenate savant Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan’s partner and Chiron’s surrogate guardian.


Undistributed  • Japan • 317 min.

Undistributed  • Japan • 317 min.

3. Happy Hour

Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Jean-Luc Godard once described Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar(1966) as “life in ninety minutes,” and I would go so far as to assert that Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour is life in 317 minutes. If Andrei Tarkovsky sculpted in time with rigorously composed images, then Hamaguchi does the former yet remarkably avoids the latter: the cinematography of Happy Hour is sloppy, unlit, at times borderline amateurish. But focusing on issues of traditional cinematic technicality avoids the point of Happy Hour, which is to painstakingly build and observe a world of people, feelings, and experiences that a movie of traditional size could scarcely achieve. While charting the friendship of four thirtysomething women in modern Japan, Hamaguchi creates a rich tapestry of lives beset by rotten marriages, isolated children, midlife crises, and sexual blunders whose collective power is only fully appreciated after sitting through all five hours and reflecting back on the film’s sheer narrative breadth. Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), Jun (Rira Kawamura), Fumi (Maiko Mihara), and Akari (Sachie Tanaka) are all in transitional phases, finding support from one another even as they forge fiercely individual stories for themselves in a world largely indifferent to their whims. (Each actress arrived at her performance through an extensive series of pre-production workshops with the director — unsurprising, given the uncanny feel for inner life on display.) Hamaguchi and co-screenwriters Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi have proved that in some cases, more is better, and, simultaneously, that less is more. On paper, Happy Hour looks like a slog of domestic melodrama and low-budget aesthetics. In reality, there are few films that reach this level of emotional intelligence and raw power.


Sony Pictures Classics  • Germany • 162 min.

Sony Pictures Classics  • Germany • 162 min.

2. Toni Erdmann

Dir. Maren Ade

Maren Ade’s long and winding comedy epic transcends its sparse logline — aging father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) plays practical jokes on his corporate-consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) to help her rediscover a sense of humor — and reminds us that laughter can be profoundly transformative. Winfried’s absurd antics, featuring wigs, costumes, fake teeth, and an alter-ego named Toni Erdmann who stalks Ines both at work and at play, succeeds in affecting a woman whose surrounding world of men in suits seems to give her no option but icy resolve. Ines, ever intelligent and cunning, eats these men for breakfast but risks losing her soul in the process, and her father’s pranks help her see that she can break the glass ceiling in other ways. With only her third feature-length outing, Ade has fashioned a humanist masterwork from a script built essentially from a series of comic set-pieces strung together like beads on a string, one given cohesion by the aching melancholy that forms the movie’s heart: an attempt by two people to reconnect while they still can, before one of them lapses into lifelong hollowness and the other withers away for good. The process of finding that image buried under a carousel of gags makes Toni Erdmann a rare film, one that asks us to not only laugh and look deeper, but also to look deeper and laugh.


ESPN Films  • USA • 467 min.

ESPN Films  • USA • 467 min.

1. O.J.: Made in America

Dir. Ezra Edelman

In the world of movies, timing is everything. 2016 saw a resurgence in attention to the Trial of the Century, and in the case of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the fact that just over ten years have passed since Orenthal James Simpson’s acquittal for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson is woven into its form and function. With Simpson in jail for an unrelated crime and the benefit of hindsight, Edelman cannily frames the saga as if it were a mythologized fantasy begging for a set of analytical eyes. The sociopolitical climate of the case becomes a microcosm for the history of racial tensions in the United States, with Edelman spending the first two hours of a nearly eight-hour runtime establishing the context of law enforcement’s tortured relationship with the African-American community. During these moments, which send us careening from the Watts Riots to Rodney King and back to Simpson with astounding fluidity, it becomes clear that O.J.: Made in America is aiming for something quite different from recent, trendy crime documentaries like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer.

Edelman’s film is also a study of celebrity, and through a series of stunning interviews cut with eerie archival footage, the director sculpts a hypnotic profile of this strange and inscrutable man, someone who, like the strange and inscrutable man we’re about to name as our next President, consciously exploited the support of a large community of disillusioned Americans and made them think it was all about them when it was really all about him. (Shiver as you watch O.J. lower the American flag in his yard a second time for the cameras.) Here was the first black man in the history of our country who appeared to transcend the stigmas raised by the color of his skin, a man once beloved in a way that few black Americans will ever experience. And just like that, he fell, and was a black man once again, not least because he probably murdered a white woman — an image that has pop-cultural roots back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and beyond.

Even when we do finally get to the crime, its gruesome details, the Great White Bronco Chase, and Johnny Cochran’s bitterly ironic antics, O.J.: Made in America has already begun working a rare magic: a patient accumulation of information and emotion that leads to revelation and, eventually, profound catharsis and insight about Who We Are. This is the best and most complete portrait of a nation since Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), all the more illuminating in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Watching Edelman’s more-than-a-movie, we ask ourselves, “How did any of this happen?” After November 8, 2016, many of us were posing the very same question. ★


Honorable Mentions

Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho), 20th Century Women (Mike Mills), Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman), 13th (Ava DuVernay), Indignation (James Schamus), Little Men (Ira Sachs), The VVitch (Robert Eggers), Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore), Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz), Always Shine (Sophia Takal)

 

Filmmaker of the Year

For breathing life into narrative cinema

For breathing life into narrative cinema

Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann)


Actor of the Year

For being the best Actress in the world

For being the best Actress in the world

Isabelle Huppert (Elle, Things to Come)


Rising Star

For being good at everything

For being good at everything

Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Hidden Figures)


Breakthroughs

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Royalty Hightower (The Fits), Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight), Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)


Nice Try

La La Land (Damien Chazelle), Jackie (Pablo Larrain), American Honey (Andrea Arnold), Krisha (Trey Edward Shults), Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)


Blind Spots

The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon), Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson), Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson), Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi), Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier), Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante), Kaili Blues (Bi Gan), Little Sister (Zach Clark), The Love Witch (Anna Biller), Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro), Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello), No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman), The Other Side (Roberto Minervini), Sunset Song (Terence Davies), Three (Johnnie To), The Wailing (Na Hong-jin), Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg)

 

Bonus

Series of the Year

What Kind of IPA do you have on tap?

What Kind of IPA do you have on tap?

Atlanta (Created by Donald Glover)


Series Episode of the Year

Oooooh, Heaven is a place on earth

Oooooh, Heaven is a place on earth

Black Mirror 3.4 “San Junipero” (Created by Charlie Brooker & Annabelle Jones, Directed by Owen Harris)


Album of the Year

It’s hell on Earth and the city's on fire / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

It’s hell on Earth and the city's on fire / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

Blonde (Frank Ocean)

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