TB: Perusing this list, I notice how many more narrative films I enthusiastically included. After recent years in which it seemed that documentary film was somehow ascendant, this year contained so many great narrative films of all kinds that I couldn’t finish narrowing down my short list. So here are my top nine, offered with gratitude and excited anticipation of next year’s filmmaking.
The Greasy Strangler – Jim Hosking
The Greasy Strangler is despicable, bizarre, and disturbing. Arguably, its story doesn’t do anything particularly new, and it ends in a blizzard of misogynistic nonsense. But it’s got a real sensibility: it’s extremely funny, and uses its own familiarity as a clever plot driver. At its heart, it relies on the same things other great films do – interesting, thoroughly fleshed out characters and the relationships between them. And then it gleefully distorts those elements beyond all reasonable boundaries. As a bonus, it’s probably the most quotable film of the year, which I think goes to show something about the importance of script in film storytelling.
Ma – Celia Rowlson-Hall
Ma contains exquisitely fluid movements, and densely symbolic imagery, and fresh storytelling, reframing the story of Christ’s birth as a mostly dialogue-free Western. Rowlson-Hall is best known as a dance choreographer in Girls and for music videos, and also plays the title role in her feature film directorial debut. One of her goals is to find intersections between artistic modes – like dance and film – and as a filmmaker, she’s fascinatingly intuitive. She blends mesmerizing movements with playful editing that takes the story into surprising places, crafting one of the most visually memorable films in recent memory.
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins
Moonlight was the best film of the year – the most powerful, the most cohesive, the most stylistically coherent. Upon its release, it felt like Moonlight was a film of the moment, focusing on a young black male growing up queer and confused in Miami, but happily, critics and audiences are recognizing that it’s an exceptionally well constructed film, with all of Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking choices building toward a single insistent thesis. Jenkins’ direction is so meticulous that the restrained performances of his leads, initially appearing one way, reveal more and more layers on repeat viewings. The story likewise reveals its roots as a play, adding even more depth. I’m already anxious about how it will fare in the major awards, because the film itself is simply undeniable.
Neruda – Pablo Larrain
Pablo Larrain is already one of the world’s great filmmakers, telling stories about his country with urgency, complexity, and incredible style. In late 2016, he released not one but two biopics, including his highly lauded English-language debut, Jackie. But his goal with Neruda is to capture the spirit of a poet and diplomat whose story, to a Chilean, could not be more familiar. The film follows one episode of Neruda’s life, as he attempts to leave the country to escape political turmoil while a government agent (a tragically bewildered Gael Garcia-Bernal) attempts to stop him from doing so. Decadent, hilarious, and foreboding, the film ultimately builds to a sublime extended climax that’s one of the most poetically moving filmed sequences I’ve ever seen, affirming the triumph of the transcendent over all that tries to suppress it. It’s to the credit of Neruda and Larrain that this triumph comes as an affirmation instead of a surprise.
Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Løve
Isabelle Huppert is amazing to watch as a late-career professor whose steady family and professional lives begin to crumble, leaving her with an uncertain future. On one level, Huppert is clearly the auteur here, inhabiting her character with her untouchable skill while Hansen-Love lets her do her thing with this picaresque middle-age story. But the younger director’s sensibility is subtle and smart enough to allow Huppert to do her thing – Hansen-Love understands the depth and individuality found in this everyday scenario, and the collaboration between the two women is what makes the film work.
Cameraperson – Kirsten Johnson
I love when a film completely blindsides you, and I was one of the many people who went into a viewing of Cameraperson with no idea what be going on, and left totally stunned. The film is basically a travelogue, with Johnson – a veteran documentary camera operator – combing her archives for some of her favorite footage. At first, you’re not sure where it’s going, but you’re slowly drawn in until it’s as if the film has its own gravitational pull. Johnson’s film blooms into something far beyond the content of its footage. In a perfect world, Cameraperson would be shown to all aspiring filmmakers and all aspiring travelers, to tip them off to how sublimely beautiful and tragic and complex the world can be, and to show them that it is actually possible to live in and capture it.
In Pursuit of Silence – Patrick Shen
Humans have always recognized that quiet and silence are inherently valuable, bringing us closer to solitude and centeredness that, in the present day, feels harder and harder to obtain. Shen takes a multilayered approach, documenting seekers, spiritual orders, scientists and historians, and even musicians who understand, practice, and seek the unique value of silence. It’s all upbeat and fascinating, until the film periodically empties itself in quiet transitional sequences that transfixed large audiences at the festival where I saw it. It was moving to see such interest, since the film could be seen as a manifesto masquerading in its own way as a fascinating, highly informative documentary.
Suited – Jason Benjamin
This is an endearing documentary that benefits from showing, not telling. Suited follows a young tailor in New York who specializes in formalwear for non-gender- and body-conforming individuals; during fittings, several clients tell of their difficulties in looking their best and feeling confident in personal and professional settings, their stories revealing frustration, shame, and outright discrimination. There’s a power in film to reveal to you what other individuals are experiencing that you could never experience yourself; Roger Ebert called movies “machines to generate empathy.” I’ve never experienced the despair expressed by some of the subjects in Suited, but there are scenes in which clients are, for the very first time after years of feeling hopeless about their own bodies, trying on formalwear that fits them just as they desire. Without any effort, these scenes reveal the depth of hardship in a person’s past and the joy of the present, and I continue to savor this film for that reason.
Arrival – Denis Villenueve
Despite some Hollywood corniness tugging at its edges, Arrival is suspenseful, brainy, and lyrically beautiful. It begins by turning a classic science-fiction premise on its side –aliens wouldn’t speak human languages, so how would humans figure out how to talk with them? – and then tweaks another classic trope, desperately seeking cooperation in order to avoid a climactic battle. Amy Adams is a hyper-talented linguist tasked with communicating with the alien visitors, who have uncertain motives. In order to do so, she has to both learn and teach, employing the most basic skills of her profession in an atmosphere of great pressure. Although it’s based on a short story, Arrival plays with time in a uniquely cinematic way that I found fascinating. Regarding the current state of the world, the film leans toward a position of patience and openness that’s refreshingly optimistic.