Melissa Anderson’s Top Films of 2016: From New Releases to Repertory Programming
Illustration by Shawna X
In a profile early this year, the novelist Dana Spiotta told the New York Times, "That's seductive, being paid attention to." Several of the films below — those that seduced me — feature pivotal scenes, whether at kitchen tables, in diners, or at outdoor eating spots, of one character raptly listening to the other. These were some of the simplest moments onscreen but also the most transporting, dramatizing qualities that are now endangered resources: compassion, curiosity, humility.
1. Moonlight. Love between black men — whether carnal, paternal, or something else — is explored with specifics and expansiveness, not foregone conclusions, in Barry Jenkins's wondrous, superbly acted second film.
2. Toni Erdmann. Social studies at its finest, Maren Ade's piquant dissection of father-daughter bonds and the sinister banality of corporate consultancy meticulously lays bare the comedy of mortification.
3. O.J.: Made in America. Assiduously researched and seamlessly assembled, Ezra Edelman's nearly eight-hour documentary about the disgraced football star is also a treatise on race, celebrity, the pathologies of sports culture, and the criminal justice system — it is, in other words, a potent précis on this country's past half-century.
4. Happy Hour. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's spellbinding epic, centered on a quartet of female friends in their late thirties, reveals the latent drama in the most seemingly mundane moments.
5. Fort Buchanan. The first feature from Benjamin Crotty, a riotous military-spouses comic melodrama, is as indebted to the Lifetime channel as it is to French auteur cinema. It also announces the writer-director's wholly distinct sensibility: playful, fruity, mercurial, sexed-up.
6. Sunset Song. At once solemn and lusty, Terence Davies's adaptation of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel depicts, with typical steely compassion, human fragility: the slow corrosion of bodies and minds wrought by the brute indifference of nature or war — or by the cruelties inflicted by spouses and kin.
7. No Home Movie. Chantal Akerman's tender, at times deliberately agonizing portrait of her endearing, fragile mother stands as a wrenching summa of the most prominent themes explored over five decades by the monumental filmmaker, who died in 2015, a year after maman did: filial devotion, exile, evasions, appetite, and interior spaces, among so many others.
8. Certain Women. Each of the three discrete vignettes in Kelly Reichardt's lucid page-to-screen transfer of a 2009 collection of short stories by Maile Meloy incisively probes loneliness — most movingly in the final chapter, between Kristen Stewart's adult-ed teacher and Lily Gladstone's crushed-out ranch hand.
9. Cemetery of Splendour. The latest sensory delight from Apichatpong Weerasethakul allegorizes the history of Thailand as deepest REM slumber, as comatose soldiers are hooked up to glowing neon light fixtures to help them have "good dreams." This is a film about unconsciousness that always stirs to life.
10. Elle. Paul Verhoeven, making his first narrative feature in a decade, may be credited as the director of this constantly bewildering, obsidian-black comedy about a video-game exécutrice who gets revenge — sort of — on the man who rapes her. But the film would be an obscenity without the authorial stamp of Isabelle Huppert, its indomitable, hyper-alert star.
Other treasured titles, in alphabetical order:
Bad Moms, if only for Kathryn Hahn's performance and Christina Applegate's ISIS joke (directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore); Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari); Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater); The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer); For the Plasma (Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan); In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel); Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar); Neruda (Pablo Larraín); Neither Heaven nor Earth (Clément Cogitore); Summertime (Catherine Corsini).
Best revivals/repertory programming:
1. "An Early Clue to the New Direction." Spanning decades, nations, and genres, this revelatory survey, which ran at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, reminded viewers of the abundance of lavender screen imagery, not all of it ghastly or baleful, that preceded the insurrection of 1969. The FSLC series was the capstone of a year filled with illuminating retrospectives dedicated to excavating homo lives and history, which also included, to single out only a few, Anthology's tributes to Curt McDowell, Tom Rubnitz, and Lionel Soukaz, and the U.S. premiere of Hervé Guibert's Modesty, or Immodesty (1991), at Light Industry.
2. To Sleep With Anger and Daughters of the Dust. These indispensable works from the 1990s, both digitally restored, are by two of the most distinguished alums of the L.A. Rebellion movement, a constellation of black auteurs who studied at UCLA Film School between the late 1960s and late '80s. Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger (1990), set in a solidly middle-class home in contemporary South Central L.A., sharply explores city versus country, old ways versus new, kin versus kin. Some of those themes are also taken up in Julie Dash's immensely sensuous Daughters of the Dust (1991), a nonlinear tale of past, present, and future, and a film that abounds with stunning motifs, the iconography seemingly sourced from dreams as much as from history and folklore.
3. Born in Flames and Regrouping. Lizzie Borden's landmark radical-lesbian-feminist sci-fi vérité from 1983, Born in Flames, now looks better than ever, thanks to the restoration efforts of Anthology Film Archives, where the director's rarely shown first film, Regrouping (1976), a chronicle of a women's collective, also screened. Essential studies of opposition, both were balm in this miserable year; invested as they are in plotting how to bring down the patriarchy, maybe they also offer an early clue to the new direction.
4. "Maggie Cheung: Center Stage." One of the most radiant performers of the past thirty years is also one of the most diverse: Cheung has starred in wuxia marvels by Johnny To; meta-movies and melodramas by Olivier Assayas; and languid, oblique romances by Wong Kar-wai. The actress, whose last major role dates to 2004, has rarely, if ever, been saluted as extensively as she has been in Metrograph's twenty-film retrospective. The series exemplifies the commitment of the Ludlow Street theater — which has greatly reinvigorated the city's repertory scene since opening in March — to disinterring titles too little seen, reminding audiences of the unlimited pleasures of adventurous, unpredictable programming.
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