The 20 Best Movies of 2016
Kaili Blues || Dir: Bi Gan
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
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 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 which 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.
Love & Friendship || Dir: Whit Stillman
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
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
For the past decade or so, Romanian film-makers are consistently making grimly realistic films about overwhelming apathy, spreading throughout the 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 film-maker Cristian Mungiu 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 latest film is set in the similar environment of hopelessness. The characters in Mr. Mungiu films never emit a cry of despair, even in the worst circumstance. May be they know well that nothing could wake the 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 for his daughter. The girl has already received scholarship to study psychology in UK. All she needs to do is to keep up the grades in the upcoming final exams. But, Mr. Romeo’s dreams about 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 awarded for immersing yourself in the story. Adrian Titieni has done a remarkable job in playing the flawed central character Romeo.
The Handmaiden || Dir: Park Chan-wook
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 perturbing tale of love and double-crosses never loses sight of its humanistic core, unlike the film-makers’ last few works. Set in the Victorian era, Fingersmith looks like a classical tale with formal constraints. Park Chan-wook changes the setting to Japanese occupation of Korea (in 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 the 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 of an elaborate scheme designed by conman (Ha Jung-woo), who calls himself as 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 which kind of refects the Korea’s status under Japanese powers. From a figurative and literal perspective, the narrative is brilliantly twisted. 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.
The Wailing || Dir: Na Hong-jin
Korean film-makers have perfected their skills in two things: to efficiently mix together genres; and in creating impeccable visual designs to portray disorder or chaos. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing aka Goksung only proves that nobody can beat the Korean film-makers 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 wife, daughter and a condescending mother-in-law. Few days after the murders, another family faces the same fate and the killer happens to be 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.
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 bible (as the opening bible verse state about the doubts Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection), eastern occult practices and other western religious symbolism. These elements are mixed together and co-exist to interpret upon 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 Witch || Dir: Robert Eggers
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 seeping atmosphere of dread and paranoia rather than giving jump-from-the-seat easy scares. The movie opens on one cold, grey day in 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 small baby. Their neatly divided religious belief of good and evil implodes the familial harmony from within.
For a debutante director, Eggers shows 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 community relates feminine power to darkest power possesses enough relevance not only to the Salem Witch-hunt era, but also the present.
Toni Erdmann || Dir: Maren Ade
Half-way into German film-maker 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 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. May be 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 the way she finds unexpected truth, sadness, and joy in less dramatic situations. Contradictory feelings beautifully flow through each of the movie’s scene. For example, there was this umitigable 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; visuals that’s alternatively flows 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
Vetrimaran’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 ‘Cinema for Human Rights’ Award from Amnesty International, Italy. Visaranai also won three National Awards and became India’s official choice for Oscars (it didn’t make the final round of selection). The film tracks down horrible turn of fate for four downtrodden, homeless Tamil laborers, working in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur. They are arrested by local police on suspicion that they are connected with a burglary 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 which treats humans as pawns, waiting to be sacrificed. There are 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 few at the top-level could become a kind of dragnet, razing the innocent victims, occupying the lower rungs of 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.