AC: While some continue to ring in the death of cinema (I enjoyed A.O. Scott’s take on the matter), I found 2016 to be filled with a plethora of transformative work in both fiction and documentary. I watched more repertory films than usual this year, and one of the most engaging cinematic experiences I’ve had included attending the Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum. I’m a bit embarrassed by the lack of foreign language titles on my list, but after perusing the films I saw while working as a projectionist at festivals, English language films dominated most of what was programmed. I’m looking forward to “officially” kicking off 2017 with the Sundance Film Festival to find more films to bring to New Orleans.
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins
I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about Barry Jenkins’ stunning work, but I’m glad I can contribute to the love this film so clearly deserves. Jenkins upends cinematic expectations throughout this quietly powerful story, and his ensemble cast plays every scene with such force. Once that final scene cuts to black, I felt so emotionally wrecked, but wanted to experience it again immediately.
The Fits – Anna Rose Holmer
It’s difficult to imagine capturing the complexities of pre-adolescent girlhood, but director Anna Rose Holmer delivers a film that examines the struggle some young girls face when navigating burgeoning gender expectations. With the camera mostly trained on Toni (played effortlessly by emerging talent Royalty Hightower), the film centers on her world in the community center: from boxing with her brothers, to joining the drill team, to grappling with what it means to experience “the fits” that the other girls succumb to. The crescendo to the film’s final act is deeply affecting and brings me to tears every time I watch it.
Cameraperson – Kirsten Johnson
Using her own footage from numerous projects, including Citizenfour, I Came to Testify, and Fahrenheit 9/11, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson crafts a personal portrait of working as a documentary cameraperson. Johnson’s footage is captivating, but the editing is key: Johnson pulls together seemingly disparate footage to demonstrate the complicated and sometimes ethically fuzzy situations she shoots, while drawing in pieces of her home and family life.
The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has shown in previous films that his view of humanity is quite bleak, and The Lobster is no exception. His scathing indictment of how we construct relationships and our individual identities is uproariously funny, and the cast delivers each absurd line (“If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children; that usually helps”) with the perfect deadpan delivery. Colin Farrell is at his best here, and John C. Reilly’s lisp and physical presence heighten the absurdity.
The Illinois Parables – Deborah Stratman
It’s not often that an experimental film tours major film festivals, so I was delighted to see Deborah Stratman’s latest offering screening at Sundance, the Berlinale, True/False, and the like. This meditation on history feels crucial in this current moment, and Stratman’s chapters of Illinois’ various historical events shows how vastly different stories create a nuanced whole. Stratman’s sound design is so incredible here, and her own footage works beautifully with the archival footage she manipulates.
Peter and the Farm – Tony Stone
This film caught me by surprise: there’s no good way to write an adequate description that doesn’t simplify the emotional complexity of subject Peter Dunning. Following Peter as he performs work on his farm, we come to discover how his dream of owning a farm has spiraled into heavy drinking, deep depression, and isolation. The film punctuates some of the darkness with moments of humor, including instances where Peter brings the filmmakers into the film. There’s a particularly poignant moment when Peter expresses that he thought he could invite the filmmakers over as friends rather than to get more footage, which highlights the complicated bond they have with one another. The camerawork here is gorgeous, gliding over every beautiful nook and cranny of Peter’s decaying farm.
Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt
I’m a huge fan of Kelly Reichardt, and her latest drama offers more of the slow burn that I adore from her. Told in three interwoven parts, Reichardt focuses on small-town Midwestern lives of three women trying to figure out their own happiness through misery. The pastoral imagery of a northern winter is at once gorgeous and emotionally cold. Laura Dern and Michelle Williams once again deliver effortlessly powerful performances, but Lilly Gladstone is particularly noteworthy as a stable woman who falls for the instructor of a legal class (played by a delightfully anxious Kristen Stewart).
Embrace of the Serpent – Ciro Guerra
Perhaps the most mesmerizing film I saw in 2016, Embrace of the Serpent is a stunning tale of imperialism, personal journeys, and spiritual realms. The black and white cinematography is a gorgeous choice, and director Ciro Guerra’s casting of indigenous people bolsters the authenticity of life in the Amazon. Jorg Bijvoet descends into madness so effortlessly as German scientist Theo that ones wonders how much of it is acting within the intense rainforest setting.
Behemoth – Zhao Liang
Filmmaker Zhao Liang deftly uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as the backbone to this tragic environmental documentary. Tracking the industrialization of China into Mongolia, Liang follows the complete destruction of the mountains and the devastating human toll that inevitably follows. Liang has an incredible eye: his panoramic shots of the coal mines and the long takes of the trucks crawling along the barren landscape would make André Bazin weep. In uncertain political times regarding the environment, this film feels particularly urgent and deeply worrisome.
The Love Witch – Anna Biller
A caveat here: this is an imperfect film, and I found the last third to be a bit of a slog. That said, The Love Witch is a film for feminist cinephiles, and director Anna Biller demonstrates her keen knowledge of sexploitation films and sexist tropes to make a film that’s bitingly critical of the hypocritical expectations placed on women. Shot on 35mm and meant to mimic the look of 3-strip Technicolor films of the 1940s and 1950s, The Love Witch is uniquely lush and shows off the gorgeous costuming (which Biller made herself). Not only is the film wickedly funny, but it also demonstrates a striking intelligence that indicates a long career for Biller.
Films I haven’t seen yet that would most likely make my list: Toni Erdmann, Things to Come, The Eyes of My Mother, Paterson