Resuming the countdown of my top films of 2016, here are the next five entries on the list. They range from absurd to grounded, bold to restrained, thought provoking to poignant, and all around beautiful. Here’s 20-16:
20. SWISS ARMY MAN, dirs. Daniel Kwan, Daniel Schienert
A ginormous fart joke stretched across 97 mins, the premise of directors Daniels’ Sundance oddity is as bizarre as they come. But amidst the frequent flatulence and bawdy body humor, there’s a warm, beating heart shining brightly. Absurd, laugh-out-loud ridiculous, and strangely poignant, SWISS ARMY MAN is a buddy road-trip comedy and story of humanity wrapped up in a fantastical and musical package that’s unlike any film this year or last.
Stranded on a deserted island and completely hopeless, Hank (Paul Dano) attempts to take his own life. The sudden appearance of a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the beach halts his suicide. Discovering the dead body’s notable ability to still expel intestinal gas, Hank uses the farts to propel him across the water like a jet ski, escaping the island. It isn’t until they’ve reached land that Hank notices the corpse’s other bodily functions are all very much in tact, and can be useful tools in surviving the journey home. The greater realization is that this expired human still has a personality inside, the ability to speak, and maybe even a soul. Naming him Manny, Hank makes the long trek through the wilderness with this human survival kit that slowly becomes his confidant and true friend.
Essentially a two-person piece, one alive and one deceased, Dano and Radcliffe feel like the only possible pair to effectively breathe this weirdness into life. Dano has the perfect mix of insanity and composure that helps us believe in the reality of the totally bonkers feats we are witnessing. Lonely, insecure, and misunderstood, Hank is the type of social outcast Dano is known for portraying, but one faced with the challenge of teaching someone else what it means to be human. Manny is Radcliffe’s greatest departure yet from the boy who lived, and it’s a revelation of the scope of his talent. A performance equal parts committed rag-doll physicality and innocent newborn child, the expanse of Manny’s abilities and the depth of his humanity grow significantly throughout their adventure, which Radcliffe handles with charm and as much plausibility as the material allows. Hilarious and touching in his honesty, Radcliffe has simply never been this enjoyable or remarkable. Take note, because this will be a benchmark of his post-Potter career.
Providing the pulse of this odyssey are composers Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, and it’s an imaginative and innovative score that feels like the voice of the film itself. I’ve already expounded on its merits at great length, but I’ll just add that it’s one of my favorites of the decade so far. Design elements and locations are all truly beautiful, and cinematographer Larkin Seiple captures them in shining sunlight or crackling firelight with rich greens, blues, and earthy tones. As the creators of this insane brainchild, it only makes sense for the Daniels to be the ones behind the camera as well, assuring their crazy visions are fully realized. It takes a certain confidence and uncompromising spirit to create a singular work such as this, and the Daniels have an apparent knack for it. The script features wacky antics and astute observations in equal measure, and, for debut directors, almost all of them land right where they should.
Eccentric, offbeat, riotously funny and unexpectedly moving, it’s a promising start to a hopefully lengthy and outlandish filmography for the directing duo. It isn’t often such abnormal fantasies find a wide audience, let alone come to artistic fruition. Their vivid, if flawed, execution of a genuinely unique idea is an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. And the fact that it offers us a surprising outlet to examine the societal and cultural norms that have been instilled in us is just icing on the cake. Really, it’s about friendship, and it probably could’ve only been made by two really good friends.
19. LOVING, dir. Jeff Nichols
Understated and simply, but effectively, told, the second of Jeff Nichols’ two films released in 2016 is the antithesis of every crowd-pleasing, rudimentary, self-important true to life story of significant figures in history. Dialing back on the social impact, it devotes a majority of its runtime to the real human beings at its core. As a result, LOVING becomes an intimate, quiet, yet deeply felt celebration of a relationship between two individuals whose marriage just happened to make an impact on our world today.
The story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial union was the basis for the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the film opens on the face of Mildred (Ruth Negga) as she reveals her pregnancy to Richard (Joel Edgerton). It’s a soft, intimate, moving moment that is a beautiful introduction to the tone of the film as a whole. Both joyous at the news, they decide to get married, but given Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, they drive to Washington D.C. so they can wed officially in 1958. Shortly after their return to Virginia, Mildred’s family home is raided in the middle of the night, and the Lovings are arrested for breaking the law. After eventually pleading guilty, they’re sentenced to a year in prison is suspended, provided they never return to Virginia together for at least 25 years. Leaving their families and livelihoods behind, they move to Washington, but their eventual return leads to a historic appeal to the federal Supreme Court.
At its core, the film is about Mildred and Richard, their sincere love, and their modest, unassuming life together. It’s hard to imagine the roles inhabited more perfectly than by Negga and Edgerton. An Irish actress known primarily for her work on stage and television, Negga is an absolute revelation here, and one of the most notable breakouts of the year. Mildred is initially soft-spoken, simple and subdued, yet with a dignity and strength that lies unspoken beneath. As they become distanced from their home, and she grows more frustrated with the injustice they’re experiencing, her vigor and determination become the the fuel for taking action. That this journey tracks realistically, yet never over-played, is in thanks to Negga’s restrained but powerful portrayal, and her uncanny ability to reveal so much through her deep and expressive eyes. Edgerton has never been better, matching Negga at every turn. Richard is a very straightforward, simple-minded, reserved, self-conscious, yet deeply feeling individual, and Edgerton interprets him with sensitivity and honesty, quite literally becoming the man himself. The film rides on the close bond of their relationship, and together they masterfully breathe life into the picture. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jeff Nichols film without Michael Shannon, and his cameo as Life magazine photographer Grey Villet is another little treasure.
In his career so far, Nichols has displayed uncommon patience, care, and compassion for his subjects, and his methods make for an atypical, but perfectly fitting treatment of the material. It’s clear Nichols is far more interested in the Lovings as people rather than their place in history, and it makes for a refreshing, toned-down, focused portrait that feels as if you are embracing them, close enough to hear their hearts beating for each other. This is helped along by Nichols’ screenplay which allows the Lovings to live before us, authentically and truthfully, with no obvious agenda, lesson, or parallel attached. Regular Nichols collaborators Adam Stone and David Wingo create images and music of hushed beauty that gently compliment the performances and direction.
Seeking neither to educate or be a soapbox, LOVING still instills empathy and hope through a tender, achingly human story of a truly powerful love between two human beings. Heartfelt and earnest on every level, it reminds all of us of what we are capable of at our best, as a nation and as a people, and how our ability to understand and feel for one another is our greatest strength. In the name, in the story, in the people, it is the love that is perhaps the quietest, but it shines the most brilliant and the brightest, touching each of us at the core of our humanity.
18. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, dir. Jeff Nichols
Minimalist mystery and subdued spectacle mark Jeff Nichols’ first true exercise in genre, a tribute to Spielberg and Carpenter-esque 80s sci-fi that is still grounded in the filmmaker’s trademark restrained style. The first of two directorial efforts released this year, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is right at home amongst Nichols’ meditations on the nature of familial relationships and the bonds that tie us together while feeling dazzlingly new. Haunting and beautiful, it’s a treat for anyone who loves to be swept up in an intriguing narrative.
Shrouded in the cover of darkness and ambiguity, the film opens with just enough unanswered questions and visual hints to hook you in as two men and a young boy race down the highway, cutting the lights and with only night vision to guide them as the terror of possible pursuit looms heavy in the air. It isn’t until much later that we learn most of the truth behind why these men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are on the run with a boy, Alton (Jaden Lieberher), who may or may not have been kidnapped. Slowly revealing connections to a religious cult in rural Texas and perhaps even the FBI and NSA, the story builds slowly but surely on the idea that Alton is gifted, paranormally, and how his fate is significant to the world at large. To say more would spoil the thrill of embarking on the journey of discovery yourself.
Relying on the compelling quality of human interaction rather than flashy effects, Nichols has assembled a fine ensemble filled with returning and new faces alike. Staples such as Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, and Bill Camp are welcome character actors on their second collaboration with the director, and all lend different colors to the antagonistic forces. Adam Driver is a welcome addition, injecting humor and curiosity in the right doses, and Kirsten Dunst does some beautiful work with a fine role that grows in significance and emotional weight towards the film’s conclusion. Lieberher, no stranger to commanding co-stars having created great chemistry with Bill Murray in ST. VINCENT, feels right at home here, enigmatic and touching in equal measure. Edgerton’s taciturn and reserved Lucas feels like a worthy companion to his role in LOVING, with depth and complexity to be revealed. Michael Shannon feels like a good luck charm for Nichols at this point, and for an actor notable for his reticence and intensity, he’s surprisingly the heart of the film. As a father figure willing to do anything for his child, Shannon finds impactful and eloquent beats that connect to us all in their startling honesty.
In this chase film meets supernatural thriller, it is the mystifying and perplexing secrets that keep the drive and rush alive. As a writer, Nichols doles out reveals in just the right amount to keep us knowledgable yet still guessing. And while the challenging ideas and mysterious concepts may not land with an ending we’re accustomed to or expecting, the true payoff is in the human dynamic, and the relationship between parent and child. For those on board for the meditative, insightful quality, the switch in focus feels fresh and rewarding. Accompanied by noteworthy excellence in all departments, adding meaningful touches throughout, there’s enough to admire on every level.
Though it may leave you searching for answers to countless questions, it is the film’s soul that will continue to grip your heart. Examining the fears, trials, joys, and heartbreak of parenthood through the abstract lens of the unexplainable and the transcendental is a stunning metaphor for the human condition. There aren’t many mainstream genre films that regularly leave you ruminating on the reflection of your own life and experiences on the screen, and that’s what makes this particular one special, even if it never quite reaches beyond its earthly roots.
17. THE LOVE WITCH, dir. Anna Biller
Like a lost 1960s Technicolor melodrama gem uncovered as a perfectly preserved time capsule of a bygone era, save for the modern vehicles and phones, THE LOVE WITCH is a sumptuous visual dessert that bites back. Anna Biller’s second feature film finds her in supreme command of her craft and personal style, solidifying her a much deserved place in the realm of auteurs. Executed to startling authenticity to the edges of the frame and beyond, mostly by Biller herself, its sense of cheesiness and camp accompanies a thoughtful and necessary conversation on female sexuality and feminism as a whole.
Fleeing San Francisco and the death of her husband under questionable circumstances, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), retreats to the gothic Victorian apartment of her friend and fellow witch, Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), who has left it furnished for Elaine to feel right at home. In her search for love, Elaine gets straight to concocting love potions to accompany her “sex magic”, and soon catches the eye of a teacher named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise). Taking a trip to Wayne’s cabin, Elaine uses her potions and magic to seduce him, but the adverse effects prove detrimental to the relationship and shockingly fatal to Wayne. As Elaine seeks to cover up her accidents and pursue romance, it leads her down a dark and bloody trail as her choices start to catch up with her.
With such attention to detail, the material requires a complimentary presentational and stylistic tone of acting, and Biller has a cast that’s positively game with the perfect look to match. Leading the way is Robinson, looking as if she was lifted straight out of the period to make this film with the assistance of time travel. Her performance is the centerpiece, blending style and exaggerated performance with clever and unexpected emotional truth, terrifying and sympathetic in equal measure, a challenge that could have easily slipped into trashy parody were it not for her excellent acting chops. Other performers delight as well, particularly Parise as the infatuated, ridiculous, and eventually literally lovesick Wayne, or Laura Waddell as Trish, a friend of Elaine’s whose blissful naivety leads to a lurking jealousy. All around, it’s remarkable how specific and impeccable each portrayal is.
Taking on an Orson Welles level of creative control, and then some, the picture is truly Biller’s first and foremost. Acting not only as writer, director, editor, and producer, but also as the hand behind the production design and costumes, Biller’s mastery of all aspects is awe-inspiring. As a result, the film feels entirely in her voice, a type of artist driven project that could only exist outside of the studio system with total freedom of expression. Aided by gorgeous, luscious cinematography by M. David Mullen on 35 mm, it’s a feast for the eyes, but even more so for the mind. Using the subject of a witch and a female perspective, the film deconstructs and dissects intensely problematic male gaze, oppression, objectification, and underlying misogyny, and, in turn, how that shapes women’s own understanding of their sexuality, fantasies, freedom, and independence. Packed with such questions and insights, it transcends tribute and spoof to become something else entirely.
A candy-colored, carefully crafted throwback, THE LOVE WITCH couldn’t feel more immediate than it does at the moment. While notable for its immaculate artistic homage to numerous influences, it warrants a recommendation for its bold, innovative, and powerful feminist treatment. Here’s hoping Biller not only continues to create daring, stylish and challenging films that channel her point of view, but that she also inspires countless other young women to own their own narratives and inventively tell their stories the way they deserve to be told.
16. THE HANDMAIDEN, dir. Park Chan-wook
An intricate puzzle whose rules and boundaries morph and change repeatedly might be the appropriate metaphor for Park Chan-wook’s twisty and twisted latest. Part romance, part revenge thriller, part comedy of manners, part period drama, this dark, funny, sexy, fascinating, and empowering story shifts gears repeatedly and efficiently throughout its near three hour runtime. Quite simply, THE HANDMAIDEN is Park at the top of his game, as a director and storyteller, and his proficiency and mastery are abundantly and delightfully clear. Melding painterly images with head-spinning reveals, it’s one of the most gratifying films of the year.
In 1930s Korea, a young and fiery pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by a slimy con-man, posing as a Count named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become the handmaiden of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is niece to rich book collector (Cho Jin-woong). Fujiwara’s complex scheme involves Sook-hee leading Hideko to marry Fujiwara, but also to insanity, as Fujiwara may then obtain her uncle’s wealth. Things become more complicated when Sook-hee’s affection for Hideko grows slowly and believably into infatuation and emotional attachment, eventually leading to a drawn out sexual release. Increasingly conflicted, Sook-hee’s journey comes to choosing between fulfilling her task or following her newly discovered feelings for Hideko. But then…the story changes, and changes again, drawing us further into the dark and mysterious depths of the human psyche.
With its ever-changing perspectives, each is well-carried with distinct specificity by the members of the cast. Kim Tae-ri is lovable as the spirited, but perhaps naive Sook-hee, and she handles her transition from frustrated to lovesick with subtlety and charm. Kim Min-hee is equally compelling as Hideko, a quiet, curious, and troubled figure who may hold untold cold and hard depths. Ha is cocky, confident, smooth, charming, and walks the line between believable con-man and believable fake Count with ease. And, finally, Cho is cruel, calculating, controlling, perverse, and sick as Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki. Amidst the varying directions of narrative, these four performances are rock-solid and riveting from second to second.
Everything is rarely what it seems to be, and it’s a thrill to be thrown into it blindly, unsure what awaits around each corner and turn, because Park is leading us with assurance and glee. The reveals are astounding, both narratively and artistically, a complete marriage of all elements to create the perfect payoff. The compositions of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon are breathtaking to behold, as are exquisite costume designs by Jo Sang-gyeong. Kouzuki’s estate feels as intricately laid out as the story itself, unveiling new passages, corridors, and rooms along with each new discovery, thanks to jaw-dropping production designs by Ryu Seong-hie. Piecing together this jigsaw are editors Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-beom, a monumental task handled with striking flair and precision. Park conducts it all, along with us, the viewers, creating a dynamic and arresting symphony of surprises.
Packed to the brim with secrets and shocks galore, to say more about its treasures and frights would most likely ruin your enjoyment. THE HANDMAIDEN is a film to experience with as little foreknowledge as possible, rewarding the patient viewer swept up in its delicious manipulation and careful plotting. A story filled with unspoken desires and concealed feelings, its empowering nature shines through in its conclusion as what was once disturbing and traumatizing has been reclaimed for its true purpose, and becomes part of a celebration of happiness and love, hidden no longer. Arousing and satisfying, it’s one of the best foreign language films of the decade so far.
That’s it for entries 20-16. If you missed the first post, entries 25-21, give it a read, including what films just missed the cut. And, again, be on the lookout for the next installment, 15-11, coming your way soon! Thanks for reading.