Best Films Of 2016 Countdown

by on January 5, 2017

In some ways, film provided for this writer a respite from 2016’s continual air of death and horror.  For this atypical year’s countdown, documentaries and feature films were broken down into separate categories.  A number of worthy documentary features came out this year, and it felt unfair to limit the best film countdown to just three documentaries.

  1. Best Documentaries 

Several documentaries which screened this year but missed making the final cut proved unfortunately timely.  Shimon Dotan’s “The Settlers” showed the Israeli settler movement amounted to religiously motivated criminal land grabbing.  Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi’s “Among The Believers” disturbingly left the impression Pakistani radical Islamists and American radical Christian fundamentalists were soul brothers.  Penny Lane’s “Nuts!” showed Americans’ insatiable appetite for entertaining fraudsters existed long before Donald Trump.  Deborah Esquenazi’s disturbing “Southwest Of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” told the story of four Latina lesbians who were falsely imprisoned during the last gasp of the 1990s’ Satanic ritual abuse panic.  Keith Maitland’s “Tower” used rotoscoped recreations to grippingly re-tell the story of America’s first mass murder in a public place.

And now the documentary list:

TEN.  The Return—Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s award-winning documentary followed the attempts to implement California’s Proposition 36, which allowed for re-sentencing and even release of non-violent prisoners incarcerated under state Three Strikes law.  Ex-lifers Kenneth Anderson and Kevin Bilal Chatman provided the film’s heartbreaking emotional center.  Their struggles to re-integrate into society dramatized the difficulties in ameliorating a punishment system that prevented ex-prisoners from putting their pasts behind them.

NINE.  Million Dollar Duck—The world of competitive duck stamp painting became something engrossing in Brian Golden Davis’ Slamdance award-winner.  Part of the film’s charm came from learning the backstories of some of the competitors (e.g. genial competition with a blind painting dog).  But the gorgeous representational duck paintings and the climactic selection competition provided their own pleasures.

EIGHT.  Off The Rails—Adam Irving’s documentary touchingly used an apparently trivial true crime to talk about America’s failed criminal justice system.  Asperger’s syndrome sufferer Darius Mc Collum has been an admitted repeat offender.  But his crime was safely driving buses and trains for New York City for years despite not being an official MTA employee.  Constant confinement was shown to be a waste of Mc Collum’s incredible knowledge of the MTA system.  Sadly, MTA management won’t hire him.

SEVEN.  Above And Below—Nicolas Steiner’s beautifully off-kilter documentary offered portraits of five people living physically and spiritually above and below “normal” American society.  The subjects ranged from a geologist on a Mars training mission to a sometimes combative homeless couple living in Las Vegas’ drainage tunnels.  Physical bleakness and oddly beautiful moments co-existed in these lives on society’s edges.

SIX.  The Other Side—Roberto Minervini’s documentary offered a frequently discomforting fly-on-the-wall portrait of a poor Louisiana rural town’s residents.  After being immersed in this world of strip clubs, home drug cooking, and right-wing militia training exercises, the film would leave the typical Beyond Chron viewer aware of the yawning gap between liberal and conservative America.

FIVE.  Hypernormalisation—BBC documentarian Adam Curtis has a gift for turning seemingly unconnected historical events into unexpected and penetrating narratives.  His new film, available in bootleg form on YouTube, looked at how the oversimplified worldviews peddled by the powerful enabled their unstoppable political control.  Material ranging from a Barbara Mandrell song to the “poor man’s atom bomb” underscored the social vulnerability created by these flawed worldviews.

FOUR.  Jackson—The struggle to keep Mississippi’s last abortion clinic open provided the backdrop for Maisie Crow’s powerful 360-degree examination of America’s abortion wars.  The abortion providers were far from pro-life activists’ hysterical caricature as modern medieval torturers.  But Crow’s greater accomplishment was allowing viewers to understand the motivations of someone who worked for a crisis pregnancy center or sought out that center’s services.  That knowledge made crisis pregnancy centers’ deliberate fraudulence far more deplorable.

THREE.  13th—Ava DuVernay’s Netflix-streamed documentary earned its righteous indignation at the historic injustice perpetrated by the slavery-ending 13th Amendment to the U.S, Constitution.  Thanks to an amendment loophole, criminal convicts could turn into de facto slaves.  DuVernay doggedly followed the loophole’s dark ramifications into such troubling areas as the prison industrial complex, ALEC, and lifetime drug imprisonment.

TWO.  Kate Plays Christine—Robert Greene’s documentary/investigation was the superior film this year about Christine Chubbick.  Actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s investigation of Chubbick’s tragic life felt more insightful and honest about the reporter’s suicidal motivations, thanks to interviews with Chubbick’s former co-workers and even a gun store clerk.  Greene delivered both an engrossing study into an actor’s research process and a commentary on people’s fascination with Chubbick’s suicide.

ONE.  I Am Not Your Negro—2016’s essential documentary of the year showed a new generation the timelessness of James Baldwin’s passionate writing.  Director Raoul Peck used Baldwin’s proposal for his uncompleted final book “Remember This House” as a starting point for linking the writer’s words on American racial relations to the nation’s still ongoing struggle for racial justice.  Baldwin’s musings on the assassinations of three civil rights leaders whom he personally knew provided the structure for Peck’s showing how Civil Rights era struggles continued today in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Peck created a rousing and renewing rebuttal to the open racism sanctioned by Trump’s election.

  1. Best Feature Films

               It’s somehow appropriate that this year of cultural horrors also saw some strong non-Hollywood horror films appear in theaters.  Besides Yeon Sang-ho’s Korean zombie apocalypse “Train To Busan,” there was Isaac Ezban’s semi-political Twilight Zone-like tale “The Similars.”  Sophie Takal mined Hollywood competitiveness to chilling effect in “Always Shine.”

Outside of horror, Hong Sang-soo once again found entertainment in mixing heavy drinking with men and women behaving badly in “Right Now, Wrong Then.”  Pixar managed to make “Finding Dory” utterly touching while slowly revealing the absent-minded title character’s backstory.  The most inventive remix of 1960s pop culture imagery came in Lewis Klahr’s short film collection “Sixty Six.”

And now the feature films that made the Best Of list:

FIFTEEN.  Embers—If being able to remember made us human, were we still human when we can no longer remember?  Claire Carre’s post-apocalyptic ensemble drama dealt with this question as human survivors lived with the after-effects of a planet-wide Alzheimer’s-like plague.  The film found small signs of hope even among the ashes of human civilization.

FOURTEEN.   The Eyes Of My Mother—Nicolas Pesce’s debut centered around 2016’s most chilling anti-heroine, a woman with a disturbing fascination with human anatomy.  How her fascination played out in physically and socially isolated circumstances was suggested by such creepy details as her plastic-wrapped freezer packages.  Black and white photography magnified viewer unease.

THIRTEEN.   Paris 05:59: Theo And Hugo—Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s film could be summarized as “like Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy but with hardcore gay sex.”  Yet the gay sex in question only served as the titular couple’s initial screw cute.  What charmed the viewer more was seeing the duo wander Paris’ night-time streets verbally feeling out each other’s emotional attractiveness and neuroses over STDs.

TWELVE.  April And The Extraordinary World—In this French animated steampunk adventure, the Franco-Prussian War never happened.  Famed French cartoonist Jacques Tardi designed the look of this alternate world, which had both ecological devastation and scientific progress halted at the late 19th century level.  Talking cat Darwin proved a scene-stealer.  The film’s entertaining anti-authoritarianism distinguished the film from American animated twaddle.

ELEVEN.  High-Rise—Starting with a nonchalant dog barbecue, Ben Wheatley electrically adapted J.G. Ballard’s tale of class warfare and social breakdown in a high-rise apartment building.  Tom Hiddleston played witness to the slowly accelerating toxicity of this mini-society’s slide into civilized savagery.  Despite setting the film in some vaguely 1970-ish period, the film’s concerns spoke to today’s economically unequal world.

TEN.  Certain Women—Kelly Reichardt’s new film adapted three loosely-related stories by Maile Maloy.  Its titular heroines knew what they wanted, but weren’t necessarily sure about their chances of success.  Michelle Williams and Laura Dern did fine work, but Lily Gladstone stole the film in a performance dripping with unstated lesbian desire.

NINE.  The Memory Of Water—Trigger warnings may have become a subject of conservative derision.  Yet in seeing how architect Javier and freelance translator Amanda dealt with a mutual tragedy, Matias Bize’s powerful drama showed how triggers recalling the separated couple’s tragedy wound up scoring their emotional wounds raw all over again.  Bize’s refusal to traffic in cheap uplift perhaps accounted for U.S. distributors’ avoidance of his films.

EIGHT.  Chevalier—Male competitive narcissism got some very well-deserved ridiculing courtesy of director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s low-key comedy.   Six well-to-do vacationing men decided to engage in trivial contests to determine who among them was the “best overall.”  The absurd degree with which they sought to distinguish themselves in cleaning the ship, for example, discredited the idea that male competitiveness was ultimately good.

SEVEN.   Happy Hour—Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi turned the crises of four Japanese female friends approaching middle age into the stuff of literary cinema.  Like the classical music providing dramatic accompaniment, the film’s 5 1/4 hour running time delivered ample opportunities to find and develop themes and variations in these women’s lives.  Moments ranging from divorce court testimony to listening to someone’s stomach helped create a detailed mosaic of these characters’ lives as they slowly changed.

SIX.   Arrival—Linguistics may seem an unlikely engine for dramatic conflict.  Yet director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” managed that trick by hinging the possibility of interplanetary war on understanding the nuances of an alien language.  By doing so, this film liberated the science fiction film genre from its action-adventure straitjacket and allowed it to tackle intellectually and emotionally complex themes.

FIVE.  Neruda—Gael Garcia Bernal’s police inspector provided narrative voiceover for Pablo Larrain’s anti-biopic of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.   That made sense as Bernal’s cop led the Chilean government’s police pursuit of the Communist senator and bard.  Yet Neruda’s amusing non-elusiveness and the cop’s occasional bumbling hid a very playful conceit concerning the power of storytelling and storytellers.

FOUR.  Manchester By The Sea—Kenneth Lonergan’s moving blend of tragedy and humor starred Casey Affleck in an amazing performance as a janitor who’s unexpectedly saddled with the guardianship of his dead brother’s son.  Affleck’s Lee touchingly struggled to juggle his obligation to his dead brother with ever-present guilt over the traumatic incident that forced him to leave the titular town.  Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife had far too few scenes, but her performance stood out.

THREE.  Aquarius—Sonia Braga gave a star turn as Clara, an ex-music critic determined to stay in her memory-filled apartment complex.  Her fight against a particularly oily developer using increasingly foul means to force her out would spark cheers from embattled San Francisco renters.  But director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s larger aim was to celebrate a rich culture and way of life increasingly undermined by developer avarice.

TWO.  Elle—Paul Verhoeven’s thriller gave actress Isabelle Huppert the opportunity to deliver the year’s best lead actress performance.  Doing effortless thespic dances around both the Virgin and the Whore stereotypes, Huppert’s Michele refused to strictly act like a traumatized rape victim.  Instead, as she flirted with a handsome neighbor or argued with her mother, the home sexual assault became yet one more headache in a life marked by a traumatized childhood.

ONE.  Moonlight—Director Barry Jenkins’ amazing triptych drama followed a young black gay man’s struggle over years to define and accept both his masculinity and his gay desire.  By seeing lead character Chiron at three different points of his life, this powerful play adaptation conveyed a painful sense of the difficulties of answering these concerns in the absence of sympathetic peers or father figures.  Filled with painful ironies and unexpectedly blissful moments, Jenkins’ film suggested that Chiron might not find the Answers he seeks but he might find some useful hints on the way.

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