The 20 Best Movies of 2016: A lot of things happened in 2016 that brought out our feelings of displeasure. But movies aren’t certainly one among those. Once again, we movie lovers had the chance to experience an array of rich cinematic works worldwide. It’s difficult to pick out the ‘best’ from a 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 absolute best movies I witnessed in 2016.

After the Storm || Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Best Movies of 2016

A Kore-eda movie sort of produces an echo in my mind. The bittersweet dynamics of a middle-class Japanese family touch me. I get the film out of my mind, and then sometime later, something, in reality, reflects the existential crisis faced by Kore-eda characters. In a way, Mr. Kore-eda’s works focus on echoes of the past. The adult male character — the director’s alter ego — experiences 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.

Similar to 20 Best Movies of 2016: The 50 Best Films of 2016

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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 are 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 again takes us humanely closer to the dynamics of a fractured family. For all its gentleness, After the Storm is one of the saddest films 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

Best Movies of 2016

Swiss filmmaker Tobias Noelle’s 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 his 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 as 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. Thephone-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).

Similar to 20 Best Movies of 2016: 20 Must-See Documentaries of 2016

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.

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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.

Related: Every Denis Villeneuve Film Ranked

Cemetery of Splendor || Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cemetery of Splendor

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a spiritually concerned filmmaker, whose works distinctively explore human memories and feelings. All 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 sicknesses. In order to appease the agitated dreams of the men, healing lights are placed around their beds. 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 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

Certain Women

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 filmmakers 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 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

Fire At Sea

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

Hell or High Water

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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

Homo Sapiens

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

I, Olga Hepnarova

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.

Kaili Blues || Dir: Bi Gan

Kaili Blues

Twenty-six year old Chinese film-maker Bi Gan’s feature-film debut Kaili Blues (aka ‘Lu bian ye can’) is a mesmerizing existential journey. What if you got caught in some other person’s unconstructed dream space (aka limbo), watching him wade through lost time and lost memory? You receive a meditative, inscrutable experience like Kaili Blues. Director Bi Gan has worked at a gas station. He got a rock-buster license to be a miner. But, his stint as a wedding videographer and passion in poetry writing gave him the film-making intent. The long-wide pans, the ceremonious free movement of the camera, and the cyclical sense of time seems like a reminder of a poet approaching the cinematic language with a distinct eye.

Kaili Blues is the tale of middle-aged doctor Chen. He has opened a clinic in the city Kaili, from the inheritance money received from mother. Kaili, the sub-tropical region, is filled with dilapidated housing complexes and foggy surroundings which gives the first hint of an unconstructed dreamy habitat. Chen’s only solace, apart from the clinic, is his 10 year old Weiwei. When Chen’s apathetic younger brother packs off Weiwei to Zhenyuan village, in the care of a mobster boss, the doctor decides to bring him back with him. In his trip to Zhenyuan, Chen passes through a mystical town called ‘Dangmai’, where Chen’s memories and dreams start to mingle. In a breathtaking 41 minute single-take shot, we witness the diversified lifestyle of the people, living in astoundingly beautiful Dangmai. Without the help of dialogues or conventional narrative, Bi Gan uses brilliant cinematic language to uniquely express the painful memories of a redemption-seeking man.

La La Land || Dir: Damien Chazelle

La La Land

A traffic jam is a place where we see surging tensions and frustrations. Director Damien Chazelle sees L.A. traffic jam as a brightly colored atmosphere for staging an astounding song-and-dance number. He visually realizes it, evoking the long-lost exultation of witnessing a brilliant old-school musical. Chazelle’s Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling musical “La La Land” is a throwback to yesteryear Hollywood musical that doesn’t waver from the realities of present. Stone plays aspiring actress Mia and Gosling plays struggling jazz musician. They fall in love, while also looking out for satisfying artistic achievement in their life. The movie faces a lot of challenges, in the form of tone or the danger of referencing too much of old musicals. Director Chazelle elegantly scuttles these possible pitfalls, turning La La Land ultimately to be its own, distinct work.

The superb pair Stone and Gosling look more like human beings on-screen than as ‘stars’. They make up for their minor defect for singing & dance by exhibiting enormous bundle of charm and energy.  Apart from being a wonderful tribute to old musicals, La La Land is also a love letter to the city of Los Angeles city itself. Chazelle visualizes the city as something that could be both romantic as well as lonely. All in all, it happened to be the film that was worth all the pre-release hype. Thank you, Mr. Damien Chazelle, for giving us a chance to witness this most thrillingly alive movie on a big screen.

Related: Slightly Overrated Films – La La Land

Love & Friendship || Dir: Whit Stillman

Love & Friendship

Author/film-maker Whit Stillman’s movies are about the educated upper class youngsters (the 1 percenters), starving for love and caught in between the transitional phase of social changes. Mr. Stillman’s astute observations or non-judgmental gaze makes these an astounding comedy of manners. In his fifth film “Love & Friendship” (2016), the director has left the contemporary youngsters to narrate a story about hermetically sealed 18th century upper class Britons. The rapid dialogue delivery (some of the dense, witty dialogues demands a second viewing) plus philosophical calmness, sense of irony may not be preferred by lot of casual moviegoers.

Adapted from Jane Austen’s lesser known novella, “Lady Susan”, Love and Friendship tells the tale of Susan Vernon (brilliantly played by Kate Beckinsale) whom the 1790’s British woman calls upon ‘a very accomplished flirt’. She has been recently widowed and now forced to bank on the kindness of men in her social circle. Lady Susan has to put forth her manipulating skills at work to gain a permanent, sophisticated place for herself and young daughter Catherine. This is a wonderful movie about ambitious & powerful women, playing a subtle game to keep their place in a chaotic society, governed by men and their strict rules. The narrative is full of great, introspective lines – many are straight from the text and some are deliciously penned by Stillman. Look out for Tom Bennett’s wickedly performance as Sir James. It’s one of the best characters in costume dramas.

Neon Bull || Dir: Gabriel Mascaro

Neon Bull

Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull boasts vignette kind of film-making, which by being meandering and lyrical actually deepens our understanding of the characters or their socioeconomic afflictions. The narrative is set in the impoverished Northeast area of Brazil. The protagonist Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) is a hulking rodeo guy, who is good at designing alluring outfits for women. He works for rodeo sport event. The bulls are pushed into ring where two riders atop exotic horses, attempt to bring it down, by ripping off the bulls’ tail tussles. The other important members of the traveling rodeo are: Galega (Maeve Jinkings) with whom he alternately bonds and fights; and her precocious pre-teen daughter Caca (Alyne Santana).

In Neon Bull, there’s not a single close-up and by stepping back, he allows the characters the much-needed space to calmly show us who they are. Minute by minute, we just observe the replicated life details of impoverished humans who face dearth of professional opportunities. By doing so, the existential trappings and bodily desires of Iremar or Galega resonate with us. It is a movie of small moments and small gestures, but it slowly rolls around to pass upon a remarkably arresting movie experience. Mascaro’s intention is not to tell a story or construct a character arc and so the dialogues are not expository.

Gabriel Mascaro’s film is not just about the unceasing tensions that exist between country and the rapidly developing towns, but also tracks down the conflict between bodily desire and emotions. There are some provocative sequences in the film that focuses on bodily activities. Exploring the space and intimacy between different human or animal bodies is one of the predominant visual flourishes. The 32 year old director exhibits amazing control over the obscure material, whose tenderly humane and matter-of-fact erotic themes could have easily devolved into exploitative territory.

The Graduation || Dir: Cristian Mungiu

The Graduation

For the past decade or so, Romanian filmmakers are consistently making grimly realistic films about overwhelming apathy, spreading throughout modern societies. They include the distinct Eastern European brand of dry humor to incisively comment on the bureaucratic indifference & corruption of moral boundaries. Romanian New Wave filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s last two acclaimed features were about good individuals who, in order to achieve something, twist a little of their morals. The consequence pushes them to confront different forms of cultural, social, and political ills. Mungiu’s latest film is set in a similar environment of hopelessness. The characters in Mr. Mungiu’s films never emit a cry of despair, even in the worst circumstance. Maybe they know well that nothing could wake their fellow humans from their arid state.

The Graduation tells the story of Romeo Altea, a middle-aged doctor and a respectable member of society. He lives with his daughter and wife in a sparsely-furnished apartment. The doctor wants to give the best education to his daughter. The girl has already received a scholarship to study psychology in the UK. All she needs to do is to keep up her grades in the upcoming final exams. But Mr. Romeo’s dreams about the future get jeopardized one day. He is forced to walk on a figurative tightrope to make moral compromises which may or may not worsen his situation further. Although there are few elements distinct to Romania, the narrative on the whole, is a subtle take on human nature and on the endless moral dilemmas we face.

Mr. Mungiu beautifully studies how a little deviation from the moral, idealistic path will entangle us in a vicious web of deceit. It’s a slow-burn drama like all of the director’s previous films. Yet, you will be immensely rewarded for immersing yourself in the story. Adrian Titieni has done a remarkable job of playing the flawed central character Romeo.

The Handmaiden || Dir: Park Chan-wook

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Provocative Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook is back with his sumptuous imagery in The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Water’s 2002 novel Fingersmith. More importantly, a perturbing tale of love and double-crosses never loses sight of its humanistic core, unlike the filmmakers’ last few works. Set in the Victorian era, Fingersmith looks like a classic tale with formal constraints. Park Chan-wook changes the setting to the Japanese occupation of Korea (in the 1930s). Within the formal narrative structure of classic period drama, the provocateur zeroes in on the ferocious sexuality lying beneath. Traumatic past and bold individuals standing against their fate are vital, recurring themes in Chan-wook’s movies, which happens to resonate in Handmaiden too. Similar to the novel, the movie too has a twisted structure, where successive scenes or chapters bring a new perspective to the scene that previously unfolded.

The Handmaiden is the tale of love between Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and crafty young girl Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri). Sook-hee is a pawn in an elaborate scheme designed by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) who calls himself Count Fujiwara. The plan is to seize Hideko’s sizable inheritance before her rich, perverse, and obsessive book dealer, uncle Kozuki, catches hold of it. Hideko lives in a very beautiful mansion. Alas, she’s like a bird in a golden cage; the status that kind of reflects Korea’s status under Japanese powers. From a figurative and literal perspective, the narrative is brilliantly twisted. In the sex scenes, too, the women’s passion seems to break through the rigid rules set by men, which often leads to twisted positions (again, both metaphorically and literally).

The trademark stylized violence of Park chan-wook is nearly non-existent in the film, although the emotional violence is so palpable to weave a disturbing effect. The dynamic, arresting cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is a treat to experience. On the whole, The Handmaiden is an elegant Gothic masterpiece about oppression – masculine as well as colonial.

Related: Every Park Chan-wook Film Ranked

The Wailing || Dir: Na Hong-jin

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Korean filmmakers have perfected their skills in two things: to mix together genres efficiently and to create impeccable visual designs to portray disorder or chaos. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, aka Goksung, only proves that nobody can beat Korean filmmakers in these aforementioned skills. The story takes place in a small Korean town, where in a seemingly random crime, two people are stabbed to death by a fellow family member. The protagonist is an inept, awkward police sergeant named Jeon Jong-goo. He lives with his wife, daughter, and a condescending mother-in-law. A few days after the murders, another family faces the same fate, and the killer happens to be a fellow family member. Talks of a fearful foreign demon rapidly spread throughout the small town. Jong-goo is disturbed by nightmarish visions, and his little daughter starts to behave in a strange manner.

The majority of the terrifying set pieces in The Wailing are covered with ambiguity. Even when the truth comes to light, we are left with unanswered, nightmarish questions. There are some brilliant references to the bible (as the opening bible verse state about the doubts Jesus’ disciples had after his resurrection), eastern occult practices, and other western religious symbolism. These elements are mixed together and co-exist to interpret the meandering madness, although we never latch onto a precise answer.  The intertwined narrative and thematic weight doesn’t affect Na Hong-jin’s ability to conjure visual thrills. Bone-chilling is the apt word to describe the film’s disconcerting final act. All in all, it’s rare genre work to have intricately examined humans’ unquenchable doubt and fear.

The Wailing is featured in our list of The Best South Korean Movies of the 21st Century

The Witch || Dir: Robert Eggers

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Robert Eggers’ feature-film debut, The Witch: A New-England Folktale, belongs to Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” territory or Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” or Grimm’s tales, to recall an older reference. It’s a horror film that goes for a seeping atmosphere of dread and paranoia rather than giving jump-from-the-seat easy scares. The movie opens on one cold, grey day on a New England plantation in the year 1630. The family of William faces a trial for violating a doctrine set by their Puritan Church. William, his wife, and five children are cast out of the town. They set up a farm in an isolated place near the dark, towering forest. The disorder commences with the disappearance of the family’s tiny baby. Their neatly divided religious belief of good and evil implodes the familial harmony from within.

For a debutante director, Eggers shows an acute eye for perfectly setting up atmospheric dread, reminding us of masterful earlier works of Ken Russell, Michael Haneke, Kubrick, and Von Trier. Although the old Christian hegemony happens to be the predominant theme, the brilliant formal structure of the shots dares us to imagine the wickedness rather than blatantly show it.  I was fascinated by how Thomasin’s suffering becomes a representative of the era’s beliefs (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” asks tempting Black Philip to Thomasin). The easier nature to blame everything on women or the manner with which the community relates feminine power to the darkest power possesses enough relevance not only to the Salem Witch-hunt era but also to the present.

Related: All 15 Anya-Taylor Joy Movies, Ranked

Toni Erdmann || Dir: Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann

Halfway into German filmmaker Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, I was anticipating for this big reveal. For those who don’t know, the film is about the relationship between an estranged, working daughter Ines and a lonely trickster father, Winifred. Winifred assumes a bogus name and a job title (life coach) to often drop in on his daughter and her rigid social circles. The interaction between the father and daughter is filled with deadpan comedy and intense, inscrutable emotions. So, we wait for some reason for this estrangement. Maybe a childhood trauma or a terminal illness. However, there’s none of that. It kind of gives a universal feeling where we get estranged from our loved ones just because there’s nothing common between us.

I may have made Toni Erdmann to sound like just another restrained comedy/drama. But what makes Maren Ade’s 162-minute movie a magnum opus is how she finds unexpected truth, sadness, and joy in less dramatic situations. Contradictory feelings beautifully flow through each of the movie’s scenes. For example, there was this unmitigable sadness in Ines’ singing scene.  The entire last-hour stretch was unprecedentedly funny and oddly humanistic. Maren Ade stated in an interview that she shot close to 100 hours of footage, shooting different versions of each scene (after improvisation and rehearsals). What the director might be after isn’t total perfection, but the shackle-free spirit and visuals that alternatively flow with love and misery. Sandra Huller provides a gut punch in the movie’s emotional moments and was endlessly fascinating to watch in the quiet moments. Toni Erdmann gracefully wears the tender, melancholic, and absurdist layers to be one of the most painfully true family dramas in recent years.

Visaranai || Dir: Vetrimaran

Best Movies of 2016 2

Ve trimaran’s Visaranai (aka Interrogation) is partially based on auto-driver turned writer Mr. Chandrakumar’s disturbing memoir ‘Lockup’. It was screened at last year’s Venice Film Festival and won the ‘Cinema for Human Rights Award from Amnesty International, Italy. Visaranai also won three National Awards and became India’s official choice for the Oscars (it didn’t make the final round of selection). The film tracks down a horrible turn of fate for four downtrodden, homeless Tamil laborers working in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur. Local police arrest them on suspicion that they are connected with a burglary that happened in a higher official’s house. The inspector surely knows that the four Tamils didn’t commit the crime. Alas, he inflicts different forms of torture to make them accept the crimes since there isn’t enough time to capture the real ones.

In a parallel narrative track, an honest police officer from Tamil Nadu plans to kidnap a corrupt auditor before he surrenders in Guntur court. Of course, this isn’t the tale of honest police saving the unfortunate from corrupted ones. It’s a blistering look at an apathetic system that treats humans as pawns waiting to be sacrificed. There are a few inorganic, contrived elements in the narrative, but for the most part, Visaranai subtly provokes feelings of fear, helplessness, and righteous fury. The film distressingly showcases how the corruption of a few at the top level could become a kind of dragnet, razing the innocent victims and occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Visaranai is a gritty thriller as well as a thought-provoking social drama.

Notable Omissions: Thithi, Elle, American Honey, Your Name, and Julieta.

I am hoping to watch these promising 2016 movies in the following year:

Moonlight, Paterson, 20th Century Women, Manchester by the Sea, Paradise, Sieranevada, Silence, Neruda, Nocturnal Animals, The Salesman, Endless Poetry, and I, Daniel Blake.

Related: The 10 Best Films Of 2016


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