The 20 Best Movies of 2016
A lot of things have happened in 2016 that brings out our feelings of displeasure. But, movies aren’t certainly one among those. Once again we the movie-lovers had the chance to experience array of rich cinematic works, made across the world. It’s sort of difficult to pick out the ‘best’ from long list of 2016 movies I watched. However, it’s a difficult task I’d very much love to do. The following movies are what I think are the absolutely best movies I had witnessed in 2016.
After the Storm || Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
A Kore-eda movie sort of produces an echo in my mind. I am touched by the bittersweet dynamics of a middle-class Japanese family. I get the film out of mind, and then some time later, something in the reality reflects the existential crisis faced by Kore-eda characters. In a way, Mr.Kore-eda works focuses on echoes of the past. The adult male character — the director’s alter ego — experience small epiphanies about his humble existence. The greatest quality about his films is that you never feel the contemplative portions heavily weighing up on the narrative. Have you seen a person tenderly wrap a butterfly in his/her hands, kiss it on the head, and then release it across the vast expanse of land, watching it with a sense of wonder. Kore-eda movies are equivalent to that vision. Sorry, if I got a bit carried away there.
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After the Storm tells the story of Ryota, a failed novelist, who is working for a shady private detective agency. His gambling addiction eats away the money he has to give to his ex-wife for child support. The great veteran actress Kirin Kiki plays Ryoto’s widowed mother, whose pearls of wisdom and glint in the eye is a wonder to behold. Hiroshi Abe plays Ryoto, who’s basically the wicked version of his character in “Still Walking”. Kore-eda’s supreme subtle approach once again takes us humanely closer to the dynamics of a fractured family. For all its gentleness, After the Storm is one of saddest film of the year with simple truths. ‘Why can’t men live in the present?’ wonders Ryoto’s old mother. I can only utter a sigh as an answer.
Aloys || Dir: Tobias Noelle
Swiss film-maker Tobias Noelle brilliant feature-film debut Aloys (2016) is an intimate portrait of an introvert, who is on the verge of plunging deep into depression. The movie opens in a funeral home with Adorn Aloys filming his father, lying in a coffin. Aloys worked with his father as a private eye. He lives in a towering apartment block and avoids the company of others. His favorite pastime is to film his clients (mostly adulterers), his father and magnesium-deficient cat. Aloys is reluctant to move on. It all changes with a phone call from a woman. It seems like the angelic voice of the woman is going to save Aloys from the pit of loneliness. But, it’s more complicated than that. The mystery caller is as much an anguished soul like Aloys. The adorable quality of Aloys is Noelle’s impeccable visual design to immerse us into the alienated guy’s obscure, claustrophobic universe.
The mystery caller suggests Aloys to phone-walk with her, which is a simple therapy to rehabilitate socially-withdrawn people. The ‘phone-walking’ episodes elegantly move to magical realist territory. The movie is contemplation on how big our inner universe dreams and fantasies could be. It shows how projections of self in fictitious realm are sometimes vital to break out of the isolation and emptiness. Austrian actor Georg Friedrich pitch-perfect performance is a treat to watch. Altogether, it’s a visually sumptuous as well as emotionally engaging study of loneliness in the modern society.
Aquarius || Dir: Kleber Mendenca Filho
Brazilian film critic Kleber Mendenca Filho’s directorial debut Neighboring Sounds (2012) explored the quotidian life of people living in a privileged neighborhood with a narrative proceeding that’s hardly tidy. His works, including the short films, were set in the rapidly ‘developing’ coastal city Recife, situated in the northern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The towering city blocks of Recife are the vital, insentient characters of Mr. Filho’s works. In his stunning second film Aquarius (2016), Filho once gain offers a profound personal portrait which doubles up as a political allegory. In a way, Aquarius is about people who invade and bully their way to get what they want. The parallel for this could be seen in current Brazilian politics. Mr. Filho was very vocal in objecting to the recent impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (who was replaced by acting President Temer).
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The movie tells the tale of an aging widow & music critic Clara. She lives in a beachside apartment in Recife city that’s marked for demolition to make way for a high-rise. The other residents of the apartment complex named ‘Aquarius’ have sold their place and moved out. But, Clara is intent on staying and battling against the ever-smiling, malicious entrepreneurial developers. Director Filho doesn’t use the premise to simply unload his socioeconomic messages. He subtly observes Clara’s casual interactions with sons, daughters, and extended family; her quotidian activities; her desires and fear. We are pulled into the rhythm of Clara’s life, so that we gradually being to worry about her predicament. Once again, Mr. Filho’s unique use of space and sound reminds us of the masterful works from directors Antonoini, Tsai Ming-liang, etc. In Aquarius, Recife itself is a significant character. Sonia Braga’s offers a multifaceted performance as Clara. Apart from Isabelle Huppert’s acting in Elle, this is my favorite female actor performance of the year.
Arrival || Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Ted Chiang is one of finest writers of contemporary science fiction. His protagonists are not just masculine figures saving the world through fist-fights; they are wonderful, humanist thinkers. So I was excited to see how the protagonist of his novella ‘Story of Your Life’ named Louise Banks fares on big-screen adaptation. I must say that Denis Villeneuve has done pretty excellent job on that front. The opening scenes demonstrate how ‘Arrival’ is different from regular alien-invasion tales. Director Villeneuve as usual goes to strongly register the emotional core in the opening scenes, conveying the beauty and sadness in Dr. Louise Banks’ life. Arrival is the story of a mother, a linguist (Banks played by powerful performer Amy Adams) brought in by the military to try to communicate with the aliens, who are hovering in a spacecraft above the fields of Montana.
As in Sicario or Prisoners, Villeneuve sets up intense set-pieces as well as explores the odd psychological effects of the actions. The scenes leading to the first alien meeting are masterfully visualized. There are heavily interpretative political and social metaphors; nevertheless what I liked about Arrival is its contemplation on the idea of language. Language, which is destined to bring together thinking creatures, yet poses words that are at times impalpable and leads to misunderstanding. There are few tidy, resolved elements which didn’t work for me. But, Villeneuve has circumvented a lot of generic elements that I could accept few of those crowd-pleasing aspects. Arrival is an emotionally stirring, sobering sci-fi tale for our world’s turbulent times.
Cemetery of Splendor || Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a spiritually concerned film-maker, whose works distinctively explores human memories and feelings. All of his movies are abstract pieces, constructed around a narrative structure that is virtually impossible to be confined within a synopsis. He turns the screen into a space for deep meditation. Like the director’s previous masterpiece Syndromes and a Century, Cemetery of Splendor is set in a country hospital (a placid sanctuary unlike city hospitals) that once was a school. The patients of the hospital are wounded soldiers who are all afflicted with unexplainable sleeping sickness. In order to appease the agitated dreams of the men, healing lights are placed around their bed. In this place of sleeping soldiers, a psychic woman helps soldiers to communicate with their family members.
In order to intake the nuanced beauty of this Thai director’s visuals, you got to try and sync yourself with very hushed rhythm of the narrative. Those who aren’t aware of Weerasethakul’s movies would be taken aback by the way he blends in mystical elements along with coarse, overtly erotic tone. As always, present and past, or dead and living are positioned together in the surrealistic movie atmosphere. This is a fine example of relaxed film-making, breaking through cinema’s normality with a magical quality. Cemetery of Splendor is not just a somber reflection on life. There are also playful and gentle touches, like the erection joke or visual of beautifully arranged neon sleeping tubes. Buddhist spiritual ideas, Thai folklore, and the political convulsions play a vital role in shaping the abstract narrative. You would find it immensely boring, if you are unable to give yourself to the atmospheric stillness.
Certain Women || Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt’s movies belong to indie cinema’s sub-genre called ‘mumblecore’, which derives its influence from Neo-realism, employing naturalistic acting and improvised dialogues. Her directorial efforts don’t boast any overt political, social or gender commentary. Yet her films tracking down the lives of marginalized characters are more profound than the works of film-makers who potently sum-up their messages. In her latest film Certain Women, Reichardt examines the quiet desperation of four independent females through the trademark hushed, sublime visual language. Based on the American writer Maile Melloy’s short stories, Certain Women tells three very loosely connected tales of four women, living in the oft-forgotten American Midwestern region. Each story is moody and very quiet. The four women (played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone) live in and around the small town called ‘Livingston’, in Wyoming.
There’s possibility for drama in each of the chapters, but Reichardt concentrates on the multitude of inexpressible sorrows. I always feel that the director’s style of keeping the shots run for extra 10 or 20 seconds allows us to share the space with characters than watch their life unfold in fleeting snapshots. I love how Reichardt doesn’t take up any agenda or spill out messages through the characters. The women or men in her films aren’t representatives of something. They are just fellow human beings, feeling similar sort of existential crisis. The understated performances in Certain Women are totally enthralling to watch. Lily Gladstone makes an excellent debut as Jaime, a ranch girl with an unrequited love. Look at how she expresses hope, despair, shame, and agony. She takes the power of the restrained aesthetics to whole new, affecting level.
Fire At Sea || Dir: Gianfranco Rosi
Italian film-maker Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary features transcends a barrier existing between documentary and docu-drama. He offers intimate portrait of subjects who are either social outcasts or pushed to occupy the periphery of socioeconomic circle. In his recent Golden Bear winning documentary feature Fire At Sea, Rosi to picturesque small island town ‘Lampedusa’, situated half-way between Tripoli and Sicily. He spent a year in Lampedusa to weave a distinct perspective on the islander’s life that’s part anthropological and part spiritual. Rosi’s central subject is a smart, curious 12 year old boy Samuele. Lampedusa also happens to the town to have witnessed the passage of at least 40,000 refugees, fleeing from their respective nation’s civil war and famine. And, at least 15,000 refugees attempting the journey have died. Fire at Sea could be mistaken as a well-chronicled study of refugee crisis. It is primarily about Samuele and life in the island.
What Rosi wants to show is the existence of a quotidian reality (in the coastal town) alongside horrendous reality (a few kms into the sea). In the interview to Guardian, Rosi recalls the day he showed the film to 1,800 Lampudesans, in the town’s main square. Rosi says, “Many people were so moved by the movie, and they were crying, and they said they didn’t know about all this.” Parallels could be drawn for this dichotomy all over the world. The director could be decried for not making a strong political statement on the refugee crisis. But, there’s no need for statement when Rosi travels with dehydrated, thin refugees, dragged off overloaded boats by European coastal guards. The distressing images appeal to our basic humanity; not to the set of ideals we possess. The existential crisis of the boy Samuele and the refugee’s struggle for existence is visualized as an elegiac poem. Fire At Sea calls for the awakening of our collective conscience; it puts a humane face to a desensitized tragedy.
Hell or High Water || Dir: David Mackenzie
David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016) has themes and moods of the heist/thrillers or crime/dramas, made in the 70s. It seems to be a marvelous hybrid of Peter Yates’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), Don Siegel’s “Charley Varrick” (1973), Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972), and Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974). And, Hell or High Water could have easily turned into a gross imitation of those old American movies, spewing out the same stock themes. But, the reason why it is considered as one of the best American films of the year is because it sharply captures the real human emotions and the distinct, present-day regional attributes (of West Texas). There’s a deeply contemplative political layer beneath the narrative surface, which is keyed in a subtle, non-judgmental way.
Hell or High Water is set in American South riddled with humongous debt-relief billboards, junkyards, abandoned strip malls & houses, and oil drilling rigs. The tall, shiny new buildings of the banks convey lot about the places which were left out during their government’s mad dash for flabby economic growth. The narrative is about two bank-robbing brothers – Toby (Chris Pine), the man with a plan and explosive Tanner (Ben Foster) – who wants to carve a bright future; break away from the ruination caused by personal flaws and grim socioeconomic developments. The robbers are pursued by a grizzled Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) on the cusp of his retirement. Director Mackenzie and writer Sheridan’s economic, political critique are well-defined, steering clear of the temptation to be didactic. The existential anxiety, sense of emptiness these people confronting for decades in these gray, urban landscapes is flawlessly dwelt upon.
Homo Sapiens || Dir: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
What will the earth bear when our human race has perished from the surface? It’s the central question raised by Austrian film-maker Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s serene, yet painful documentary Homo Sapiens. The documentary hasn’t got the thing mentioned in the title. Mr. Geyrhalter has traveled all over the world to film a haunting array of abandoned human constructions. The shots are static and the building comprises of everything from Fukushima to crumbling roofs of theaters, apartment complexes, railway stations, etc. Despite the extraordinarily framed static shots of ruin, we may wonder why 90 minutes? Why not just 15 minutes to convey this very simple theme? For many, this may seem like the cinematic equivalent of watching the paint dry. Nevertheless, I found this documentary to be a beautiful, prolonged mediation on the post-human world.
The dilapidated buildings without the presence of humans seem to be ridiculous, irrelevant structures, erected on the surface of a different planet. Director Geyrhalter perfectly captures the eerie, surrealistic nature of these giant, complex structures. Each of the visual composition brilliantly mounted; it’s pervaded with mystery and a sense of desperation. The journey through the post-human world becomes more fascinating when we leave the urban spaces to wilder places. We contemplate on how fragile our race is, yet how arrogant in rebuilding the planet for our sake. The other interesting aspect of the documentary is the capture of sound. The Earth atmosphere is filled with loud, different sounds – from birds to rustling of trees – as if the nature is triumphantly celebrating human race’s destruction. Homo Sapiens is an essential dystopian vision of the souvenirs we leave on Earth.
I, Olga Hepnarova || Dir: Tomas Weinreb & Petr Kazda
On July 22, 1973, twenty two year old Czech girl Olga Hepnarova (living in capital city Prague) drove her company’s truck into a calm crowd waiting for tram, killing eight people and injuring twenty. At trial, she pleaded guilty and requested a death sentence. She was hanged on 12th March, 1975. Olga goes down in Czech history as the last woman to receive capital punishment. Czech film-makers Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s in their directorial debut titled I, Olga Hepnarova vividly chronicles Olga’s gradual alienation from the apathetic society. The directors don’t coverup the fact that what Olga did was unforgivable and impossible to justify. Nevertheless, they don’t cast out the 22 year old girl’s action as simply an act of a monster. The film takes an intimate look at Olga’s psychological issues, boosted by abusive childhood and society’s treatment of her homosexuality.
Polish actress Michalina Olszanska (“The Lure”) offers a haunting performance as Olga. Michalina brilliantly captures Olga’s character’s frustrated physicality and emotional nature using minimal movements. The directors apply Bressonian techniques, placing us in the narrow viewpoint as experienced by the central character. The luminous monochrome palette adds a lot to the movie’s drab atmosphere of dirty corridors & crumbling buildings. What I liked about the film is the effort to dig deep into the emotions rather than providing a very factual account of the horrific event. It was unsettling to look at the close-up shots of Olga’s piercing gaze, which intensifies along with loveless, stiffened atmosphere. The film does lose its profound approach in the last 20 minutes or so (although the final shot was so haunting). However, it is a very good study of an ostracized woman.