Terrific films, terrible year
Can't include any horror films because to my mind the entire genre has been rendered not only unfrightening but totally redundant by the world's recent turn into fascism. Can't in good conscience include any film that deals directly with aforementioned recent events because 1) there aren't that many and 2) I suspect we need to digest what's happened for a few years before the proper level of disappointment and anger and artistry can be expressed.
Any titles worth noting? Sure--everything from (in ascending order) The Hateful Eight (Tarantino! Finally making something I somewhat like!) to Hunt for the Wilderpeople (fitfully amusing New Zealand comedy) to X-Men: Apocalypse (standard-issue superhero epic I know, but also possibly the last chapter in the saga of Erich 'n Charles) to The Last Pinoy Action King (affectionate tribute to Filipino action star Rudy Fernandez) to The VVitch (okay one horror film, stylish enough that I felt I had to include it) to Heneral Luna (big budget pretty well-made biopic on the Philippines' most volatile general) to Free Range (advocacy film for the raising of liberated poultry) to La La Land (basically New York, New York set in the City of Angels) to Kubo and the Two Strings (passable pastiche of Japanese mythology from Laika Studios) to High Rise (J.G. Ballard in a fairly successful translation to the big screen) to Hail Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen taking on Hollywood, succeeding not quite as well as Spielberg did with 1941 but succeeding anyway) to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (Yuen Woo Ping's underrated sequel to Ang Lee's overrated epic) to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Harry Potter only more twisted) to A Monster Calls (Pete's Dragon but subtler and with real pain) 10 Cloverfield Lane (90% terrifically claustrophobic fallout shelter thriller, 10% so-so monster flick) to 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay's tribute to ghosts, in the Henrik Ibsen sense) to Love and Friendship (my favorite Whit Stillman and second favorite Austen adaptation) to The Lobster (Doctor Dolittle meets 1984) to Hell or High Water (bank robbery as a form of social protest) to The Neon Demon (an or so I'm told texturally authentic if dementedly stylized documentary on the L.A. fashion scene) to Apocalypse Child (like Point Break surfing not as publicity gimmick but as spiritual state of mind).
As for my top twelve--in ascending order:
12. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Kenneth Lonergan's follow-up to his masterful Margaret doesn't have the vision of New York City as Altmanesque (Tati-esque?) opera set, but does evoke some of the earlier film's intense emotional texture. Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler is the terminally stricken central figure in Lonergan's New England drama--call him Lonergan's take on Charlie Kohler, with a bit of Jude Fawley thrown in. The writer-director tells two stories: Lee's damnation (told in unannounced flashbacks) and possible redemption (set in present day). The ending may fail to satisfy some, but like Lee has its own strange stubborn integrity.
11. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, 2015)
In my book Charlie Kaufman's best-ever script and film, mainly because it takes the simplest of his conceits--a man suffering from the delusion that everyone around him sounds and looks like the same person--and weaves a poignant near-love story. The stop-motion puppetry is essential to the film's concept: the fuzzy skin and visible seams suggest not only the indistinctiveness of Michael's fellow men but their interchangeability--one face/person easily substituted for another. With perhaps the most unflinching sex scene outside of a documentary or instructional video (odd that they could get away with this much realism because both figures are puppets)--something Pixar with all its supposed daring would never even try to um touch.
10. Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader, 2016)
And just when you give up and think he's disappeared into the vacuum of his own dark pessimism Paul Schrader comes out with his funniest darkest most pessimistic film in years. This adaptation (by Matthew Wilder) of an Edward Bunker novel only seems like a low-budget Quentin Tarantino ripoff; actually it's Schrader and Wilder schooling Tarantino on what nihilistic criminality really looks like, channeling someone who has actually been there done that. Despite the wild stylistic shifts the no-brakes hamming the outrageous dialogue and violence, what stays with you are the moments of exhaustion, of despair, inspired by having been buried alive in the American prison system. I mean--when Willem Dafoe as Mad Dog marvels with his toes at the wonder of modern carpeting you can't help but ask: what kind of floors did he stand on when he was inside?
9. Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, Lav Diaz, 2016)
Lav Diaz's relatively compact (compared to his other works) noir channels not his beloved Dostoevsky but Leo Tolstoy, particularly Tolstoy's short "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" (one wonders what he might do with lengthier Tolstoy). Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) released after years of incarceration sets out to stalk the man who framed her: the film is both Lav's take on gender politics (one of his more vivid characters is Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz) a willful self-destructive transgendered prostitute) and current events (Horacia's bete noir is the aptly named Rodrigo (Michael de Mesa, complete with Duterte Harry shades), who had her jailed for rejecting his advances).* Winner of the Golden Lion from the 2016 Venice Film Festival.
8. The Handmaiden (Agassi, Park Chan-wook, 2016)
Park Chan-wook's latest (about a beautiful con artist sent to work as personal maid to an equally beautiful heiress) feels as if Agatha Christie had used her famous three missing days (when she dropped out of public view after quarreling with her husband) to collaborate with Anais Nin on an erotic thriller--which Park in turn has adapted into a Korean film. Told in three acts with each succeeding act subverting and expanding the meaning of the previous, this is Park at his most entertainingly perverse.
7. Mike Nichols: American Masters (Elaine May, 2016)
Elaine May's affectionate tribute to her one-time comedy act partner is also the slyest of satirical jabs, using Nichol's own words to weave an intricate noose with which she hangs him. The documentary reveals not exactly a mediocre artist (though May includes clips of a parody acceptance speech accusing him of just that) but an extremely intelligent filmmaker who exploited topical subjects to great commercial and critical (if not exactly artistic) success. "They loved the ass off this guy!" someone declares at one point, a statement which when you think about it functions as both lovely compliment and withering condemnation.
6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Barry Jenkin's three-part film about a young man growing up fearful and alone in a neighborhood few Miami tourists would ever dare visit functions as both harrowing bildungsroman and sensitive portrait; angry accusation and mournful dirge; despairing cry and declaration of hope. You've just been both guided and warned.
5. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
Chantal Akerman's final film intercuts long lingering looks at landscape with a leisurely if detailed interrogation of her mother during the last months of the latter's life. Sounds unpromising but the film is actually a gorgeous experience, the final interview--just as the mother's health was failing--quietly devastating.
4. Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)
Best comic-book movie of the year (the film was adapted from a popular manga). Hirokazu Kore-eda's delicately shaded comedy may sound too benign and idealistic for superhero fanboys but underneath all the incessant good cheer is a persistent suggestion of melancholy: of a young girl forced to function as parent and caretaker of her irresponsible father; of three half-sisters with differing problems, desires, and ways of dealing with their dad-deprived lives; of a community that often confronts the undelicate fact of death with uncommon grace and humor.
3. Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, Ciro Guerra, 2015)
Think Aguirre the Wrath of God meets 2001: A Space Odyssey and then chuck the comparison off the boat: the various plot similarities don't quite evoke the smoldering anger and austere black-and-white beauty of the film. The narrative runs in two streams: Karakamate (Nilbio Torres) takes dying ethnographer Theo Von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) up the Amazon river in search of a cure (a rare but fictional flower); thirty years later an older Karakamate (Antonio Bolivar) takes botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) up the Amazon again, in search of the same flower. Young or old Karakamate serves as skeptic and antagonist to both Westerners, questioning their actions, testing their resolve, digging into dragging out and passing judgment on their ultimate intentions.
2. Cemetery of Splendor (Rak Ti Khon Kaen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
The film--about a woman (Jenjira Pongpas as Jen) who cares for soldiers inflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness--is quietly funny, profoundly sad, mysteriously beautiful. One of the soldiers (Banlap Lomnoi, as Itt) wakes and goes with Jen on the occasional date; on one of their assignations they wander a forest as seen through the eyes of Itt looking out in turn through the eyes of a third person (long story). The result is a complex multilayered sequence showing the magic behind the reality and the metaphor behind the magic: the sleeping figures are the dozing Thai public, unaware (or unable to care) that their democracy has been replaced by a military junta.
1. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz, 2016)
As if one major work a year weren't enough Diaz had to give us two, and of the two this is the massive heedlessly weighty historical masterpiece: about a dozen characters fictional and non-fictional in at least three storylines, all set during the crucial Philippine Revolution. Lav dives into both historical and mythical roots--why the Philippines is as troubled as it is, why we can't seem to move forward, why the ordinary Filipino seems to insist on lying dormant in the midst of so much turmoil--suggesting along the way that art is our possible salvation. Trite I suppose, but when delivered in Lav's deliberate tone at Lav's inimitable length it's a mesmerizing exhilarating experience, one that won the 2016 Berlin Film Festival jurors' vote for the Silver Bear, and mine as film of the year.
0. Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976)
Which doesn't necessarily mean the end of the list: the year also gave us back Mario O'Hara's masterpiece digitally restored, its emotional sweep and heroic modesty sweeping all other competition under a rug. Watching this forty-year-old picture yet again I realized that the story of Rosario (Nora Aunor) struggling to survive under Japanese Occupation--those three unspeakable years when God was said to have turned His face away from the Philippines--this out of all the titles in 2016 directly addressed our times: as that lonely voice of defiant constancy in a world gone completely mad.
* (O and that bit about not choosing films that reflect contemporary politics? Wrong about that. Sorry.)
First published in Businessworld 1.5.17