Best Films of the Year – 2016
A little behind in some ways. Still haven’t seen the likes of Tony Erdmann or Moonrise. I live in Tokyo, after all, which is always a little behind.
A little ahead in other ways. I get to go to film festivals. I track down filmmakers who interest me and make sure I see their work.
And I saw a lot of good films this year. Some, that have made the general best of lists, I liked. I actually really liked The Man in the High Castle – the first season. But apart from just liking films, I’m always looking for the ones that excite me, challenge me, make me stand up and salute and keep me interested in the art and the edges of cinema. These are the ones that make my own best of list.
It’s been a great year.
Herewith is my somewhat obscure list of my favorite films of the year. All very much worth tracking down, seeing, living with, remembering.
Bad Black (2016)
I was introduced this year by Miguel Llansó to Isaac Nabwana’s Who Killed Captain Alex, his 2010 calling card that introduced him to world via youtube. The delirious mix of no budget production, over-the-top action and cheesily transparent computer-generated effects – all with the icing-on-the-cake of a benshi-like “video joker” in the form of VJ Emmie, giving commentary, shout-outs, promotions and hilarious asides over the whole thing. Captain Alex was great. The question was: Where would Nabwana go next? He’s made many a film, most unavailable since Captain Alex. Bad Black, though, played Austin this year. And what a film. His filmmaking prowess, already steady, has leaped and bounded. The agency of his critique and exposure of life in the slums of Kampala more pointed. His filmmaking even more delirious and joyful. Word up is he’s made at least a couple new films since the September premier of Bad Black and started production of a TV serial. I can hardly wait to see them.
Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016)
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz’s meditation on a key moment in Filipino history rides the line of late Carl Theodore Dreyer, Miklos Jansco, and Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. The black and white cinematography is mesmerizing. The 8 hours of screen time reveal an almost clinical focus on the time, the people, the events and the myths that make up a key moment in the history of an uprising against colonialism that continues to haunt Diaz – and his intrepid viewers.
Nuestra amiga la luna (2016)
Our Friend the Moon
Velsco Broca’s welcome return after a long absence finds him pushing his vision in new directions. The film, ostensibly a reflection on the 3rd century Gnostic text The Hymn of the Pearl at first viewing seems less accessible that his Echos der Buchrücken trilogy. But the images sear. Parts of it look like long lost outtakes from Renoir’s The River. Other parts go to some sort of Gothic otherworld. The parable of the pearl, the elusive and ephemeral treasure of this world is given a transcendent and mysterious take through Velasco Broca’s fecund imagination.
Qingshui Li De Daozi (2016)
Knife in the Clear Water
Xuebo Wang was the producer of Pema Tesden’s Tharlo. Behind the camera for the first time he takes a bit of Tesden, with his look into the little seen corners of China’s minority communities. But he also shows his own complete vision, less reliant on making the viewer feel like an outsider, marveling at this strange place in China, or pounding on big thematic tropes. Instead he brings a profound humanism to the story of an old man facing the end of his life. The film is almost ethnographic, concentrating on the rituals of life, the steady beat of it ebbing from a man’s very full life. Beautifully shot in 1:33 (just like Diaz’s and Velasco Broca’s films!) it acts like a window on a different world while highlighting the intimacy of a singular drama.
Lampedusa in Winter (2015)
I have yet to see Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the other, more famous film on the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa, but if it’s half as good as Brossman’s take, it’s probably all right. Lampedusa in Winter is a pretty classically structured documentary. But what stories! What people! Between refugees, fisherman, the mayor (one of the most honest and embattled politicians ever seen on film) and a host of other good people stuck between a rock (the island of Lampedusa) and a hard place (the machinations of the government, industry and the horrific detritus – manifesting itself in boatloads of desperate refugees) of globalization, the film shows a very human and clear-headed take on the human condition circa 2015.
Gust Van den Berghe
Tondo-riffic! Gust Van den Berghe’s sly parable on the bringer of light/evil into the world is presented in a rigorously and beautifully composed round frame. The conceit works! The beguiling frame limits the viewer’s vision like a telescope, focusing on faces, feelings and philosophy with a clinical and purely voyeuristic gaze. Somewhere up in heaven B Traven and Bunuel are having a good laugh at what Van den Berghe’s showing them.
The Other Side (2015)
Roberto Minervini’s harrowing document of life in the hinterlands of East Texas and Louisiana shows why Trump won. It may be America’s most important movie of 2016, dissecting and exposing what’s at the rotten core of America with unrelenting and troubling honesty. Not a pleasant experience, but necessary viewing. Minervini, who’s been making fascinating, but uneven portraits of lumpen America, finds his dark center in the swamps of drugs, guns, patriotism and sentimentality that informs how fucked up much of America is.
Noite Sem Distância (2015)
Night Without Distance
A formalist romantic, Lois Patiño takes his austere vision to explore the borderlands of Galicia and Portugal – the myths, the people, the economy of smuggling. Midnight is exposed, dare I say magically, through the entire film being shown in negative. What was in the shadows becomes the objects of focus, chimeras of the night are made perceptible. The sheer beauty of the images, the beyond Bresson narrative and directorial methodology, bring a sense of transcendence to Patiño’s continued exploration of the landscape and how humans relate to it.
Pow Wow (2016)
Rob Devor got lost somewhere on the way to Vernon, Florida. But he found himself in the Coachella Valley, where he met a mess of folks who make up a richly-textured collage of of a place caught in a world of betweenness. Between the desert and the golf course, between a Fordian steamrolling of manifest destiny over the wilderness of the western landscape and the native Americans who originally conquered it. Tell them Willie Boy was there. And Shecky Greene too.
Heart of a Dog (2015)
Lolabelle, Laurie Anderson’s rat terrier (played by a number of stand-ins and seen in real documentary footage) is the focus and the metaphor for Anderson’s meditation on loss – the dog, the victims and survivors of 9/11, Lou Reed, America. Her abstract sensibility, her way of making connections, spoken with her steady, familiar, transfixing voice, provide a contemplative balm for the losses we all feel. The visuals, the anecdotes, the meditations and the music come together brilliantly, reminding me that Laurie Anderson’s art, which has alway had a bit of a veneer of art damage pop superficiality, has always been, and has gotten even more, profound.