It was a far from vintage year for films with fewer stand-outs than in other years but there were plenty of decent movies and a few that bear repeat viewing. My own list is more limited than it usually would be as I left Paris halfway through the year; the range of stuff on show in Hong Kong really isn’t comparable so I missed out on a number of films that most likely would have been included here, such as Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius and Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, to name but four. Expect to see at least one or two of them in next year’s list. Among the films that did make the list, I was struck by the prevalence of comedies. I don’t know if that speaks of a particular trend in international cinema or simply my appreciating that sort of thing more as I get older. Either way, it was a pleasure to see comedy, a genre too often overlooked by critics, flourish in many diverse forms this year. It should also be said that comedy is a far trickier genre to pull off than drama, especially in its more cerebral incarnations. In that respect at least, 2016, an otherwise bleak year, delivered.
1. The Assassin (Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng) –– Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France) 105 minutes
Hou Hsiao-Hsien turned to wuxia for his first film in almost a decade but his attempt is very unlike Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s past forays into the genre, being almost wilfully non-commercial. His regular leading lady Shu Qi plays a feudal-era assassin Nie Yinniang, who specialises in taking out corrupt government officials, in this adaptation of Pei Bing’s 9th-century martial arts story. When one day she declines to carry out a job because her prospective victim’s young child is present, her Machiavellian master, the nun Jiaxin (Fang Yi-sheu) punishes her by forcing her to kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed. There’s not much more in terms of plot and Hou has drained the film of most of the more spectacular trappings of the wuxia genre––while the action scenes are slickly mounted, they are brief and sporadic. It is a slow-burning film that will frustrate many but it is like an alluringly mysterious objet d’art––a work of consummate production values (In the Mood for Love’s Mark Lee Ping Bin excelling himself once again with the cinematography) and it has the strangest entrancing air of calm about it (occasionally punctuated by violent murder). I have seen few films in my life as quiet as this one and it’s one you want to watch again and again and let wash over you, like water lapping on the shore. Hou deservedly won the Best Director award at the 2015 Cannes Festival and his direction is mysterious to the point of being miraculous: how did he get it all so still and quiet?
2. Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) –– David Wnendt (Germany) 116 minutes
In any other year this adaptation of Timur Vermes’ bestseller about Hitler landing in present-day Germany and becoming a reality-TV star might have been no more than a minor diversion, albeit a very funny one. With the election of Donald Trump however (not to mention other advances of the far right in Europe and elsewhere), Look Who’s Back has a striking prescience and now appears to be a lot more than simply a sharp satire on the vacuity of contemporary television. Hitler (Oliver Carsucci) himself and his disorientation in a German society lights years from what he had envisaged are initially a source of mirth –– there are particularly good gags about cereal bars (‘is rationing still going on?’ he asks) and the Greens, whom Hitler sees as the only party with any real commitment to the Heimat. The audience is not let become too indulgent of the humour though and the increasing acceptance of previously taboo jokes and comments will have a disturbing ring to it, as is the manner in which Hitler rises again undetected by a public that can see only irony and absurdity rather than the danger of the secondhand rhetoric itself. The interspersion of documentary-style vox pops with angry populists adds to the unease the film provokes. I’m not sure if Vermes or Wnendt had any particular foresight that everyone else missed but their film does look eerily prophetic now.
3. The Treasure (Comoara) –– Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania/France) 89 minutes
Porumboiu, one of the Romanian New Wave’s finest directors, continues his excavation of the country’s recent history in a literal fashion with this archeological comedy. Costi (Toma Cuzin) is an honest low-ranking office clerk who lives a quiet, and largely contented, existence in his Bucharest neighbourhood. His shifty-looking neighbour Adrian (Adrian Purcacescu) convinces him to go in on an investment to rent a metal-detector and unearth treasure that Adrian’s grandfather, on his deathbed, had told him was buried at the family’s country home. The pair devote a Saturday to the task––being careful to avoid the attentions of the law, as finds that are over a certain value become the property of the State––but they find they need more time than they initially thought. Porumboiu, if you’ll pardon the pun, mines some great humour from the subject matter, and The Treasure resembles both Beckett and Stoppard in its winsome humour (it is particularly surprising how few people have exploited the comic potential of metal-detectors before). It is a further reminder of how fertile a field for exploration Romanian history is (and Romania’s contemporary society too). Another great film by Porumboiu, who seems incapable of making a bad one.
4. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero –– Abbas Fahdal (Iraq/France) 334 minutes
The Iraq war is the source code for much of what has gone wrong with the world in recent years. Any number of things bear the stamp of its baleful influence –– the rise of Donald Trump, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, the creation of ISIS, not to mention a widespread distrust of news and media that has now spiralled irrevocably out of control. The aggression of the US and its allies from 2003 has coloured everything that came after and it is a shocking dereliction (though not such a surprising one) that American cinema has failed so badly to frame the conflict.
Abbas Fahdal, a French-based Iraqi video-journalist, offers a rare glimpse of the Iraqi perspective on the war. His two-part film documents in its first half (‘Before the Fall’) the run-up to the offensive, as his Baghdad family watch with a resigned and cynical eye the impending disaster, while all the time being careful not to say anything, good or bad, about Saddam. The second part (‘After the Battle’) is an ultimately draining account of the chaos that prevails in the wake of the US invasion, as the Fahdal family negotiate with difficulty an increasingly perilous city, with already scarce rations rapidly diminishing and armed gangs prowling looking for prey to finance their nascent cottage industry of kidnapping and abduction. Homeland is a vital historical document, presumably one of the few of its kind, and is a horrendous, if humane, telling of the effects this world-historical event had on one family. It’s a far from comprehensive portrait of a reckless conflict that destroyed a country but at its core is a truthful lode. It is also entirely appropriate that US soldiers are for once presented onscreen as shadowly menacing and really not to be trusted.
5. Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) –– Yeon Sang-ho (South Korea) 118 minutes
Few genres have become clapped out so quickly as the zombie flick and, on the face of it, Train to Busan ought not to buck any trends. There is nothing particularly novel either in its content or its execution (bearing a rather strong resemblance to the so-so World War Z, for one thing) but this rather straightforward tale of a zombie epidemic that stalks a train trying to get from infected Seoul to the safety of Busan in the very south of Korea, has an unexpected, er, freshness. The performances have something to do with that, even when they enliven with brio the hoariest stock characters (Kim Su-an as a kind-hearted eight-year-old who finally gets to bond with her deadbeat corporate dad, played by Gong Yoo; Ma Dong-seok as a resourceful blue-collar tough; Kim Eui-sung as a pantomime-villain chaebol figurehead). It is also due to the brisk direction of Yeon Sang-ho, who brings a wonderful verve to his first live-action feature. And the film delivers in spades the thrills expected from such an enterprise as this without making every concession to the audience – not everyone is going to pull through, regardless of how the film’s various mini-morality tales play out. The film also has a political resonance, the entirety of which will probably only be picked up by Korean audiences, but even those less familiar with the country will get something from it.
6. The Woods Dreams Are Made Of (Le bois dont les rêves sont fait) –– Claire Simon (France) 144 minutes
Claire Simon’s latest documentary is a sympathetic portrait of Paris’ largest public park, the Bois de Vincennes, situated at the city’s easternmost extremity, in the old royal town of the same name. Its 995 hectares draw Parisians for walking, jogging, cycling, picnicking, playing sports, as well as a number of less family-friendly pursuits such as cruising and prostitution. Simon interviews a number of the park’s habitués, such as a Portuguese pigeon breeder, a family of Cambodian immigrants attending a community picnic, a pair of the park’s many streetwalkers, an elderly couple living rough in a tent, a quixotic would-be gay cruiser and, in one particularly bizarre sequence, a voyeur/exhibitionist who reels off the intellectual justification for his activities. There is also an interview with the daughter of Gilles Deleuze, who taught at the prefab university that existed, without legal planning permission, in the park from 1968 to 1976 (these days it is the University of Paris 8, having been transplanted north to St-Denis). Audio of Deleuze’s lectures is laid over the footage of the grassland where the lecture theatres once stood. It’s a reflection of the scope and interest of the film and Simon does justice to what is one of Paris’ most undervalued public amenities, as beautiful and welcoming in winter as it is in summer.
7. Everybody Wants Some!! –– Richard Linklater (USA) 117 minutes
Linklater, more often a director of instinct than intellect, is generally at his best when he tackles seemingly more frivolous subject matter. Everybody Wants Some!!, his first film since his biggest hit to date, Boyhood, takes us back over somewhat familiar ground. Or so it seems. The semi-autobiographical account of a college baseball team (who knew there was such a thing as college baseball?) in Texas in 1980 has more than a whiff of Dazed and Confused about it. You even find yourself doing a double-take wondering if some members of the young cast are the same in the two films, made 23 years apart. Such is the ease with which Linklater conjures his world and the seamless fashion in which he enacts his drama. There is something infinitely persuasive about the texture of Everybody Wants Some!! that makes it compelling viewing. While clearly fictive, his scenarios are at the same time convincing in a way that few Hollywood films are. It is testimony to his actors and his own directing of them that the film’s diegetic universe is at once tangible and credible. An example of the film’s success is the night club scene, something that is rarely done with any persuasiveness in cinema – Linklater’s club scene is vibrant, pulsing and, most significantly of all, populated by people who are there to have a good time, which you imagine those involved in its making were themselves having. Like Dazed and Confused before it Everybody Wants Some!! is a wonderfully warm and funny film, and a reminder that inconsequential films can sometimes turn out to be cinematically the most substantial.
8. Slack Bay (Ma Loute) –– Bruno Dumont (Germany/France) 122 minutes
Bruno Dumont, a filmmaker whose career to date has been characterised largely by a po-faced aesthetic, tries his hand at big-screen comedy for the first time, following the success of his relatively humorous TV series Ptit Quinquin. It is also only the second time he has worked with name professional actors (the first time was in Camille Claudel 1916, featuring Juliette Binoche, who reappears here). The result is a surprisingly masterful broad comedy of the sort that would be difficult to pull off for even the most seasoned of comics. The Van Peteghems (Fabrice Luchini, Valérie Tedeschi-Bruni and Binoche) are a ‘prominent family of the Lille bourgeoisie’ holidaying on the northern French coast, oblivious to how much their obnoxiousness riles those around them. They are equally oblivious to the rather anti-social nature of the Bruforts, a local family of impoverished mussel-pickers, whose eldest son, the enigmatically named ‘Ma Loute’ has designs on the Van Peteghems’ androgynous niece. The film veers between slapstick and Brechtian agitprop with a Heath-Robinson zaniness underpinning everything. It looks like it could fall apart at any minute, like Luchini’s wind-powered motor-contraption, but Ma Loute (I can’t bring myself to call it by its limp English title) is a brilliantly surreal and daft curiosity that sits very well alongside Bruno Dumont’s more serious work.
9. In Jackson Heights –– Frederick Wiseman (USA/France) 190 minutes
Queens may have provided us with the next president of the United States but the borough, with a few exceptions such as the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America and Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, has been largely ignored by the movies. Frederick Wiseman’s 41st film is another exception and takes a look at the Jackson Heights neighbourhood in the northwest of the borough, just south of LaGuardia airport. A little over three hours long, In Jackson Heights unfolds in typical Wiseman style, at a leisurely pace, with no voiceover, intertitles or explicit narration – it tells its story by observation and to-camera interviews. We sit in on conversations in old folk’s homes, birthday parties of local dignitaries, prayers at a mosque and meetings at a Jewish Community Centre. We see hair being cut, tattoos being inked, animals slaughtered at a halal butcher’s, punters dancing to Saturday night salsa and the local Colombian community celebrating their team’s wins at the 2014 World Cup (the population of Jackson Heights is about 60% Latino). The neighbourhood was also a pioneer of official support for gay rights following the homophobic murder of a local man, Julio Rivera, in 1990. But the area is beset by familiar problems: gentrification and rising rents, which are pushing longstanding small businesses out of the frame. Wiseman documents everything with an apparent impassiveness, letting his subjects have their say. While some might say the portrait of Jackson Heights it presents is unduly utopian, the film, as ever with Wiseman, is unfailingly engaging. Its director is now 86 years old and shows no signs of letting up in his industriousness. Long may he continue.
10. Things to Come (L’Avenir) –– Mia Hansen-Løve (France/Germany) 102 minutes
Isabelle Huppert’s proficiency as a comic actress has not exactly been unknown to the world, having been seen from time to time in films as varied as Hal Hartley’s Amateur, Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, Serge Bozon’s Tip Top and David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees but it was a surprise to see those comedic chops being put to use in quick succession this year. All the more so that none of the films in question, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Pascal Bonitzer’s Tout de suite, maintenant and Mia-Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, are comedies in the strictest sense of the word. The latter is probably the best of the three and the best showcase of Huppert’s own talents. Loosely based on the divorce of Hansen-Løve’s own parents, Things to Come tells the tale of philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux, whose husband (Andre Macon) leaves her for a much younger woman. Nathalie finds her feet after what is initially an unexpected setback and, much as Juliette Binoche does in Three Colours Blue, finds a direction for her life, even as it means dealing with a strangely indifferent daughter (Sarah Le Picard) and a neurotic elderly mother (the brilliant Edith Scob). Hansen-Løve, directing her fifth feature, still aged only 35, has matured into an astute director of family dramas but this film has a lighter touch than before, not least due to Huppert, who shambles elegantly through things, with her a permanently bemused air and an expressiveness that sees off all setbacks.
11. Love & Friendship –– Whit Stillman (Ireland/France/Netherlands) 92 minutes
Whit Stillman’s comedies are often a bit too mannered for my tastes but his adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan was one of the most pleasing surprises of the year. A wonderfully wry comedy that is one of the few screen adaptations to fully capture Austen’s humour, it benefits in particular from a grandstanding performance by Kate Beckinsale in the main role of Lady Susan Vernon, “the most notorious flirt in all of London”. Stillman also reunites her with Chloë Sevigny two decades on from The Last Days of Disco, one of the most inspired pieces of self-referentialism in recent cinema.
12. I, Daniel Blake –– Ken Loach (UK/France) 100 minutes
Loach’s second Palme d’Or drew grumbles from some but the powerful tale of a stricken Geordie carpenter enduring the hell of a punitively Kafkaesque benefits system is one of his best films. Stand-up comedian Dave Johns gives a game performance as the titular Dan, who is messed around by a willfully obdurate bureaucracy enacting Tory dogma. There are moments when the film lurches into overly-familiar territory but Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty are a well-oiled machine, adept at fashioning a singular tale that is representative of the ordeals thousands have faced under an uncaring system. Excellent political cinema and a profoundly moving film.
13. John From –– João Nicolau (Portugal/France) 95 minutes
João Nicolau comes from the same stable as Miguel Gomes and there is a similar playfulness to his second feature, an off-beat comedy about a bored teenage girl, (Julia Palho) who gets on the nerves of her parents and everyone else in the Lisbon tower block she lives in. She also develops an obsession with a Polynesian exhibition at the local arts centre (whence the title comes), which gives rise to some quirky Rivettian set pieces. A languid unassuming film that is a welcome addition to the pantheon of films about the dog days of August.
14. After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku) –– Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan) 117 minutes
The incredibly prolific (and unerringly consistent) Koreeda serves up yet another family drama, with feckless fathers once again at the centre of things. In this case, there are two––Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a perennially blocked novelist and gambling addict, who is perennially destined to disappoint his young son, and his recently deceased father, whose own gambling habit squandered the family wealth. Ryota now hangs around the family home, hoping to persuade his mother (Kirin Kiki, who also played his mother in Koreeda’s Still Walking) to part with a supposedly valuable family heirloom. The film is structured around the typhoon of the title, which draws most the cast under the one roof. It gives the film a slightly stagey feel but Koreeda keeps things cinematic and real.
15. Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)/Yourself and Yours (Dangsin Jasingwa Dangsinui Geot) –– Hong Sang-soo (South Korea) 121 minutes/86 minutes
Another prolific Asian director, Hong Sang-soo, came out with two new films this year, each one representing a further detour into experimentation. Like most of his films, they resemble one another. In Right Now, Wrong Then, a boozy arthouse film director courts a young artist in two different scenarios, each time with different results. Yourself and Yours is on the other hand a variation on Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, in which a young couple decide to go on a break, the woman disappearing and being replaced by an identical woman (played by the same actress) who acts very differently, flummoxing all around her. As ever, Hong’s films have an enigmatic core buried at the centre of a comedy of manners, and what at first seems straightforward is a good deal stranger.
16. 45 Years –– Andrew Haigh (UK) 91 minutes
Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to Weekend is a sort of updated version of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, with the gender roles reversed. Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney) are preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when a letter suddenly disrupts things. It’s from Switzerland, informing Geoff that the body of Katya, a lover of his youth, has been finally recovered decades later from the mountain where she died. Geoff continues to give undue attention to the matter and his insensitivity grates on Kate. Haigh’s adaptation of a David Constantine short story is a fine study of grief and loss, and is probably one of the most persuasive onscreen portrayals ever of the crushing desolation of amorous rejection.
17. Memories and Confessions (Visita ou Memórias e Confissões) –– Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal) 73 minutes
Manoel de Oliveira passed away in 2015 at the age of 106 but he left one last surprise, this autobiographical essay, filmed in 1982 and, one single screening in the early 90s aside, unseen until after his death. Memories and Confessions is set almost entirely in de Oliveira’s own home and, given he was at the time 76, it was probably intended as a testament. He reminisces about his childhood, the troubles with the family’s factory that followed the fall of Salazar and his own stop-start attempts at filmmaking that only really took off in earnest when he reached his sixties. The fact de Oliveira would live for another 33 years, making at least as many films, gives this film an even more curious air.
18. Maggie’s Plan –– Rebecca Miller (USA) 98 minutes
Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is a more adventurous Greta Garwig vehicle but I have put Maggie’s Plan in here because it has a whole complement of brilliant performances in addition to Garwig’s Maggie. She has made the terrible mistake of having children with Ethan Hawke’s self-absorbed n’er-do-well writer John (Ethan Hawke) and tries to get him and his ex-wife, the icily imperious Danish academic Georgette (Julianne Moore) back together. It’s a splendidly entertaining film with Moore particularly hilarious in a role that provides an amusing counterpoint to her Oscar-winning turn in Still Alice. Also great are Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s well-meaning but hapless friends.
19. Elle –– Paul Verhoeven (France/Germany/Belgium) 130 minutes
Verhoeven said he wouldn’t have been able to make this adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… in Hollywood and he was probably right. If anything, it is a bit surprising this tale of a middle-aged rape survivor, played by Isabelle Huppert, who plots revenge, has not been more controversial (though that may just be because it has yet to be released in English-speaking countries). In any case, Elle is a worthwhile addition to the Verhoeven canon, a broadly stroked portrait of a woman taking justice into her own hands. Huppert is once again superb.
20. Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) –– Makota Shinkai (Japan) 105 minutes
Makota Shinkai’s fifth feature, adapted from his own novel of the same name, was the smash hit of the year in Japan, becoming the country’s fourth largest ever grossing film and the most successful anime film ever worldwide. It tells the tale of a fortuitous body swap between two teenagers, a small-town girl, Mitsuha, and a Tokyo boy, Taki. An extra variable in the mix is their respective timelines are out of sync and when Mitsuha disappears suddenly, Taki goes off in search of her. It is impossible not to draw comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki but Shinkai’s film is on a different metaphysical plane (and concerns itself with older children). It’s a film that is at turns beautifully wistful, shocking and has some of the best animation you’ll see all year.
Also worth a look
The Big Short –– Adam McKay (USA) 130 minutes
Mistress America –– Noah Baumbach (USA) 84 minutes
Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren) –– Jia Zhangke (China/France/Japan) 131 minutes
Spotlight –– Tom McCarthy (USA) 128 minutes
Mysterious Object at Noon (Dokfa nai meuman) –– Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand/Netherlands) 83 minutes
Nahid –– Ida Panahandeh (Iran) 105 minutes
Room –– Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada/USA/UK) 118 minutes
Midnight Special –– Jeff Nichols (USA/Greece) 112 minutes
Merci Patron! –– François Ruffin (France/Belgium) 84 minutes
The Ardennes (D’Ardennen) –– Robin Pront (Belgium) 96 minutes
Eva Doesn’t Sleep (Eva no duerme) ––Pablo Agüero (Argentina/Spain/France) 85 minutes
Green Room –– Jeremy Saulnier (USA) 95 minutes
Julieta –– Pedro Almodóvar (Spain/France) 99 minutes
99 Homes –– Ramin Bahrani (USA) 112 minutes
Évolution –– Lucile Hadzilhailovic (France/Belgium/Spain) 81 minutes
Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) –– Gan Bi (China) 113 minutes
Volta à terra –– João Pedro Plácido (Portugal) 78 minutes
Zootopia –– Byron Howard, Rich Moore (USA) 108 minutes
Anomalisa –– Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson (USA) 90 minutes