YEAR IN REVIEW: Lena’s Top Ten Films of 2016

la-la-land-2“But now it’s 1979, and nothing means anything, and I know you less every day.” – 20th Century Women

This is a stranger time to write a summation of a year than I’ve experienced before. Before it seemed like such a clear and simple task, discussing how the mutual themes emerging through my favorite films mirror my own personal experience of the year. Most times it has something to do with desire and identity, emphasizing my tendencies to reach for the stars only to crash hard against the pavement, or the ways in which my identity is gradually unfolding with each new challenge. The films I saw back then become so ingrained in my memory of those years. And then I’d pursue a lengthy Top 20, highlighting all the film I couldn’t bare not to mention.

This year both is and is certainly not the same. We’ve lost a lot this year, in ways too crushing and devastating to avoid, but I’ve also recognized something I’ve lost that I recognize many less privileged people have never really had to begin with: an unwavering, confident belief in a future.

People tend not to worry about what they feel they don’t need to fight for, and I’ve noticed myself crafting those illusions to preserve a false feeling of security. “It’s not the end of the world,” I recall more than one person saying, and that may be the case for them. As a queer and proud trans-woman who’s seen dozens of other trans-women killed this year, I’m less sure of it for myself. For muslims, people of color, and other visibly divergent minorities, it’s a more prescient everyday threat. For millions of people, it is the end of the world. For the most privileged people, to quote Xavier Dolan’s white-family-gathering misfire, it’s *only* the end of the world.

The inclination to ignore death and trauma in order to go about our more mundane lives is an instinctive survival reflex. I admit, it’s a rough fucking job to shoulder all the pain in the world, but as films like ArrivalCameraperson and Manchester by the Sea show, it’s a worthwhile struggle. We cannot manufacture a false vision of the world that makes it easier and less complicated to go on, at least not without losing touch with what we find beautiful about the world. It’s those complexities, flaws and mistakes that not only make life worthwhile, but make the cinema an artifact worth investing in. It’s not a tool of fantasy or escapism, but of empathy and connection, at least when best utilized.

certain-women-2Each year my list includes films I’ve seen on the festival trail that have yet to release in the U.S.. In the past that’s been because I see this list as more of a personal diary of my year. It’s still that, and there’s a reason that endurance and resilience is a theme in this year’s list, but for the first time in my life I’m afraid that if I don’t honor these films now I may never be able to. It’s not particularly what most people, myself included, want to think about, but what good is having these experiences if we don’t respect how transient and potentially finite they are?

It’s stranger to experience a culturally distressed year when my own life has become increasingly more stable than it was at the start. I went from placelessness and isolation to some sense of financial and social security within a community of people. I hope 2017 will continue that upward personal trajectory, but also won’t let that blind me to the serious troubles set to face our country, not to mention our world, over the next year.

In cinema, too, it seemed for the longest time to be a slow year in film. I felt certain than my top 10 would be made up solely of fall films, and yet I saw a startling number of my favorite films this year before the fall festivals. In drafting my top ten list this year, I was delighted to surprise myself with some inclusions, as well as dismayed by some exclusions. (I need to see 20th Century Women again to see if that markedly privileged, but incredibly warm, family portrait endures.)

I notably have yet to see Assassin‘s CreedI Am Not Your Negro, Live by Night, The Love WitchSilence and a great deal of other films missed over this distracted year, but it feels like time to complete this particular annual tradition. So, without any more fussiness, let’s close this year out on a reasonably positive note!

Lena’s Top Ten Films of 2016

kubo-and-the-two-strings10. Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)
Focus Features | 101 min.

It may be only the 2nd best Japanese fable about a moon princess escaping the patriarchy and thriving in the joys and pains of mortal life, but Kubo and the Two Strings is perhaps the first American film to capture the attentive visual grace of Studio Ghibli. Within minutes the intimate artists at Laika manage to break our hearts and cement us in a world of grand fantasy and immense loss, where the thrill of adventure and storytelling is embittered by the trauma and tragedy that instigates it. The monstrous villains aren’t instinctive monsters, but jaded, embittered family members, twisted and dehumanized by their prejudice and contempt for what they don’t understand. The heroes aren’t flawlessly skilled icons, but mentally and physically broken people striving to keep themselves together, not to mention each other. There’s no victory without immense pain & loss, but what sets Laika apart from the more superficial animators at Pixar and Dreamworks is that they respect that pain as inextricable from the minor-key moments of joy that make up our lives.

henry-gambles-birthday-party9. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Dir. Stephen Cone)
Wolfe Releasing | 87 min.

I’ve seen Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party more times than any other film on this list, partly because of convenience – it’s a brisk 85 minutes easily spent on Netflix – but also because its irresistible cascade of conflicting beliefs and desires is so densely woven that there’s plenty more emotions to discover on repeat visits. At the birthday party of a closeted gay Christian teen with god-like taste in music, the swimming pool is both a place of profound sexual congress and a battlegrounds for the future of teen identity politics. Desires are met and denied in every exchange between this vast network of characters. Nobody feels like a vague sketch, and each holds a complex ideology and outlook on the world they live in and the exhilarating generational changes happening around them. It’s not utopia, and one character’s self-destructive experience in an awkward social environment pushes that home, but for several fleeting moments, the emotional intensity of this experience is cinematic heaven.

toni-erdmann8. Toni Erdmann (Dir. Maren Ade)
Sony Pictures Classic | 162 min.

Nobody wants to see their father or daughter in such a scaldingly honest light as Maren Ade shines on her leads in Toni Erdmann, an epic behavioral comedy that delights in stripping away the roles, layers and clothes of family, corporate hierarchies and our often ganglier, insecure identities. It is the story of a dad’s horrifying miscalculation of a practical joke, done either to erode the suffocating psychic distance between him and his daughter or to pull her out of the cold, joyless stupor her life’s seemingly settled into. It’s the story of a daughter struggling with her identity being pinned down both the patriarchal figures in her private and professional lives, but also finding intense release in letting go of logic and responsibility for the sake of her own self-esteem. It’s a rich, complex and politically disarming work that felt particularly heartbreaking in a year where this writer’s own relationship to her father eroded. One should want a father that cares this much, if not quite this humiliatingly.

jackie7. Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larrain)
Fox Searchlight | 99 min

Over his first five films, Pablo Larrain has staked his claim as the most fascinating political filmmaker working today, so it’s a disarming surprise that his first examination of American politics is all about celebrity, glamour and artifice. A beautifully elusive character study of a character undergoing a unique and discomfiting experience of a natural tragedy, Jackie takes its subjects self-constructed myths about her husband’s legacy and finds room to both validate and question her motives in how she preserves JFK’s memory, not to mention her mental state. Inhabiting, and startingly vacating, a role of intense cultural expectations, Natalie Portman makes no easy or clear assumptions in depicting the interior life of someone intensely conscious of her every expression, decision and statement, as well as the historical implications therein. As a portrait of how grief seems to obliterate the life and identity of the grieved, Jackie is an entirely startling voyage into new territory for Larrain.

the-lost-city-of-z6. The Lost City of Z (Dir. James Gray)
Bleecker Street Media | 140 min.

It seems like the further James Gray goes back, the closer he gets to the beating desire that drives us today. A feverishly gorgeous migration epic of an entirely different breed from his last film, the final shot of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z affirms it in retrospect as a clear companion to The Immigrant. As much in dialogue with history, but heightened by an obsessive fantasy, Gray’s latest transforms from a tale of class resistance to amazonian adventure to WWI epic to a wrenching tale of father-son survival. The Lost City of Z is a quest, both narratively and visually, for attainable, but arduously achieved, beauty, its every character striving for a world of independence, respect and equality. Some are destroyed in the search. Some become embittered to it. Some are worn too thin by life’s circumstances to pursue it any longer. Some are too constrained to participate in the search at all, with Sienna Miller finally subverting her oft-inhabited role as worried wife. It’s an obsession, but not a toxic one. The closing shot preserves its purity as an ideal to fight for.

la-la-land5. La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
Summit Entertainment | 128 min.

“Will it always be like that?”
“I think so.”

On paper La La Land sounds like an overly precious disaster waiting to happen. A nostalgia-fueled musical throwback of vibrantly bright lights and colors about two young, beautiful people seeking love and success in the eponymous city of broken dreams, from the restless director of Whiplash, no less. Within moments, though, La La Land dispels any and all fears of a trite, irritating affair, soaking us in the intoxicating glow of a gloriously choreographed spectacle. Damien Chazelle’s electrifying energy is unmistakable, but there’s a restless heart to this film that validates his most ambitious formal gestures, from a long-take opening number that turns the scene from Godard’s Week-end into a unifying expression of dreams and desires to an intriguingly rigorous shot-reaction-shot confrontation between Emma Stone’s aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling’s principled jazz pianist. It’s the ecstasy and acuity that sets the veins ablaze, but it soon gives way for a mournful elegy of the special things too few people make time for. There’s a route to revival, but there’s plenty compromise and misdirection on the way. That’s part of the joy of it, though, knowing that your vision will change in new and exciting ways you can’t foresee.

the-eyes-of-my-mother4. The Eyes of My Mother (Dir. Nicolas Pesce)
Magnet Releasing | 76 min.

There are easier to stomach queer parables out there, but none is as totally blind-siding as the one Nicolas Pesce makes with The Eyes of My Mother, a psuedo-horror vision that actively does the unthinkable and conjures up empathy and understanding for an ostensibly demented murderer. Without giving away the devastating surprises in store, this story of a girl’s… let’s say “unconventional upbringing” immediately confronts us with gruesomely horrifying, yet oddly majestic, imagery before gloriously upending its terrifying atmosphere with intimacy and unnerving empathy. This is less a horror story than a heartrending tale of loneliness and unconventional identity. Slowly we find our own obvious preconceptions of morality fading away as we come to understand the desires of lonely Francisca (Kika Magalhaes, a profound revelation) and how her terrifying encounters have shaped her warped ideology. Never does it become a depiction of madness, though. This is simply the story of a girl who learned a very particular version of love and pleasure, and how the world would rather stigmatize her than work to understand her. It’s a gripping, beautiful tragedy of woman looking for love in the most incredibly wrong places.

the-handmaiden3. The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)
Magnolia Pictures | 144 min.

Speaking of finding love and desire where you don’t expect it and find difficult to trust, The Handmaiden pulls off an astonishing feat at the close of its first act, successfully pulling the wool over our eyes and pushing us to question, and even mourn for, everything we thought we knew about the romance we thought we were witnessing. Park Chan-wook’s latest and best feat of fetishistic delirium, The Handmaiden subverts what could have been a simpler story of romantic duplicity into a multi-perspective investigation of how that deception and duplicity heightens the arousal and paranoia of queer desire. Complaints about the invasive male gaze seem irritatingly simplistic in a cinematic lesbian trash novela such as this, especially when the sexual tastes and appetites here are so exhilarating and often hysterical. As deliciously twisty a ride as this is, though, Park loses touch with the audience’s perspective, not to mention their own desires and reservations. As one characters says late in the film, it’s all about how the story is told.

things-to-come2. Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Sundance Selects | 102 min.

In Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema, a minute’s screen time can make a seismic difference. No moment, fleeting as they may seem to be, is dispensable or insignificant, and a lifetime can flash by in a second. When we first see Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come, she’s already experienced a lifetime of struggle and accomplishment, both personal and academic, and yet the comfortable definitions of her life are about to change. In the same way that the passage of time robs the main character of his opportunities in Eden, Huppert’s Nathalie reacts to the sudden changes and recontextualizations of her life with remarkable patience and understanding. Suddenly vacating the role of wife, mother and daughter, Nathalie is free, but she takes that freedom steadily in stride with a somber understanding of everything she’s lost and all the things she’s learning she can’t change or have. In a year where all of us have had to cope with surprises and tragedies we could neither avoid or change, Things to Come is an immensely reassuring breathe of fresh air, reminding us that there’s plenty of happiness and validation to be had in a life without those typical sources of structure.

certain-women1. Certain Women (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
IFC Films | 107 min.

“I’m just fine. I’m just fine.”

At this point I’m so in the tank for Kelly Reichardt’s reserved, but immaculate style that I know before seeing it that I’ll love whatever she makes. What I don’t know is precisely what I’ll love about it which, in the case of Certain Women, happens to be her crisp portrait of agitated feminine struggle. Like the natural landscapes erected around and through them, these frustrated, put-upon women are resilient and gorgeous in defiance. Every shot here feels deeply, empathetically considered, even as the characters keep their own emotions restrained. The first act is a darkly, tensely funny depiction of how experienced women are ignored and directed when men ignorantly feel it suits them. The second is practically an adaptation of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run starring Michelle Williams, struggling to find the perfect emotional tenor to appeal to a standoffish man in a business transaction. (She turns out a little more successful in her endeavor)

While those sections feature women playing against sturdy, obstinate men, though, the third act subverts that by playing between two women, each gathering a different experience of their briefly collected relationship. Kristen Stewart is heartbreakingly honest about her confused and understandably reluctant feelings, but Lily Gladstone’s the one who packs a massive emotional punch, her quiet eyes conjuring desperate longing and blindsided rejection. Even outside a patriarchal complex, clear and honest communication is hard to come by, and the final frames of this film reveal both the positive and negative outcomes of each woman’s endeavors.

And there that is. And for all of you release calendar purists, my Top Ten U.S. Releases:

#1. Certain Women (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
#2. Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
#3. The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)
#4. The Eyes of My Mother (Dir. Nicolas Pesce)
#5. La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
#6. The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
#7. Jackie (Dir. Pablo Larrain)
#8. Toni Erdmann (Dir. Maren Ade)
#9. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Dir. Stephen Cone)
#10. Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)

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