It’s the second to last installment in the countdown, and we’re coming ever closer to revealing my favorite film of 2016. But for now, here’s the next 5. All late year releases that premiered to early critical acclaim at Cannes and Venice, the wait for them seemed at times unbearable, but the results were so gratifying. One of them became the early favorite for most controversial, only to see another one of these claim that title once the target formed on its back. Two different cinematic poems, one in striking genre and another in subtle everyday, and a cross-country trek for the senses that moves at the speed of life round out the remainder of this entry. Here they are, 10-6:
10. ELLE, dir. Paul Verhoeven
With perhaps the most unsettling opening to any film in recent memory, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven kicks off his most significant film since the 90s, and maybe his darkest and most complex effort yet. Seriously twisted and brutally provocative, this revenge thriller-psychological drama-dark comedy-character study is packed full of unsettling ideas and uncomfortable realism. Featuring a no holds barred, tour-de-force performance from Isabelle Huppert, ELLE is designed to shake you to your core, upending your sense of comfort by shining a light on some of the darkest corners of the human psyche.
A cat watches, blankly detached, as a woman, Michele (Isabelle Huppert), is violently raped by a masked assailant. Following the horrific act, the attacker exits, Michele cleans up the mess left in its wake, sarcastically chides the cat for not defending her, and continues moving on with her life. We later discover her reluctance to report the crime to the police is the result of a troubled history with law enforcement due to traumatic events in her childhood. Her day-to-day life is filled with constant struggles, including contentious relationships with her male subordinates at the video game company she heads, her mother’s relationship with a male gigolo, her inability to connect with her son, her affair with the husband of her best friend, a growing infatuation with a neighbor, and an upsetting past that continues to haunt her. When her assailant begins to harass her through creepy and disturbing text messages, Michele becomes mistrustful of all the males in her life, fearing any one of them could have been under the mask. Her quest to uncover their identity, and to take control of the relationships in her life, leads her down crooked paths filled with dangerous confrontations and eventual empowerment.
To say this film belongs to anyone outside of Huppert is a lie, as this is the kind of raw, uninhibited, immersive, multifaceted, and commanding performance that transcends any picture. 2016 was a banner year for the French actress whose credits include over a hundred appearances on screen, starring in two very different films about women at a specific turning point in their lives, the other being Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME. And while both share a strange amount in common, her work in ELLE brought forth the lion’s share of accolades, and rightfully so. Very few actresses would have had the daring and unwavering talent to dive unflinchingly into such caliginous depths and come out the other side strikingly transformed. Michele is a strong, independent, sharp, hardened woman whose assertive nature clashes with the men in her life who seek to possess, own, control, and dominate her. And beneath that exterior, there’s a sea of pain, regret, sadness, frustration, confusion, and trauma that’s swirling, breaking through every so often. She’s a woman who is still mysterious and impenetrable to the audience, a trait that makes her actions all the more intriguingly human as we’re never quite sure what she’s thinking, how she’s feeling, or what she might do next. The way she copes with each encounter is perplexing and fascinating at the same time. Huppert is engrossing in every moment, with biting wit and humor, unapologetic sexuality, lurking curiosity, psychological and physical scars alike, and unwavering perseverance.
In the darkness of this narrative, Verhoeven has very minimal interest in the identity of the assailant, instead giving primary focus to the enigmatic persona of the title. Michele isn’t just captivating because of how she handles the aftermath of her rape, but how she moves through a male world so intent to oppress her, use her, and break her for its pleasure. It is through her conflicted relationships that we see her eventually discover the power within her, her unwillingness to be controlled, and her own agency. So it isn’t merely a story about Michele, it’s also an examination of dominance and submission, the dynamics of power, sexual and beyond, and how those manifest themselves in relationships and human beings, men and women alike. Verhoeven’s commitment to this reflection is bold and harsh, but never indulgent or titillating. Giving it weight is David Birke’s intricate and complex screenplay, which, in the hands of the wrong performer or director, might have collapsed under the immensity of material, but instead provides numerous and surprising instances for alarming action and troubling insights.
Perhaps the most controversial film of the year, ELLE uses its cold, unrelenting viewpoint to provoke, alarm, and upset. Yet it is also perhaps a necessary rude awakening, one that pierces though us, searingly illuminating that which we refuse to acknowledge or come to terms with. Bolstered by an assured hand behind the camera and an arresting masterclass in front of it, it’s an experience that’s difficult to sit through, and even more difficult to shake. Unwilling to let us off the hook, it blurs the lines between black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, until that which we deny or ignore becomes undeniably clear. It makes us feel sick, but maybe it also leaves us feeling a little enlightened.
9. PATERSON, dir. Jim Jarmusch
Master of the mundane and unexceptional, Jim Jarmusch has created another ode to the beauty found in the simple and ordinary. The prosaic becomes poetic in PATERSON, a film that moves with the speed of a peaceful creek, its rhythm and steadiness indicative of the quiet, soft beating heart at its core. As contemplative, reserved, and calmly observant as its subject, it finds it has much to say if given the chance and the patience. Structured, yet ever changing, it resembles a poem itself, a work of art that uses very little to say so much.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a creative type whose erratic aspirations shift from day to day, and their dog, Marvin. Everyday, Paterson drives his bus route, listening to the passengers engage with one another, and silently absorbs the world around him. He walks home, shares dinner with his wife, and takes a grumbling, dogged Marvin for a walk. He ties Marvin to a post outside a local bar, has one glass of beer, and chats with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), about life and love and the famous people of Paterson. Then he walks Marvin home and goes to sleep. Sometime during his day, he finds the time to write poems in the notebook he always carries with him. Observations of the average and commonplace in his poetry are indicative of the great writer and artist he has the potential to be, yet he keeps them primarily to himself. And every day he repeats his routine, with the unpredictability of life mildly varying the pattern of his existence.
With such a gentle and mild approach, it requires an equally tender lead performance, a challenge that Adam Driver rises to with aplomb and remarkable subtlety. Driver has recently stepped into the spotlight in more mainstream fare, particularly his villainous turn in the most recent episode of the Star Wars saga, but this showcases his immense range, his unique presence, and marks a place for him among the finest actors of his generation. Paterson is soft-spoken, reserved, and stoic, projecting a sense of peaceful contentment with everything surrounding him. Yet, there are moments where there appear to be some chips in that layer, and an insecure, worried, and sometimes lost individual peeks through. In those instances where the surface briefly collapses, Driver is most fascinating, communicating a wealth of words while saying none. As his wife, Farahani is delightful, sweet, encouraging, warm, and funny. Laura is an interesting flip side to Paterson, artistic yet unfocused, constantly changing her creative outlets and modes of expression. One day painting her clothing, the next day a singer, and the next making pans of cupcakes to sell at a bake sale, she’s always attempting something new. Her artwork may rely on black and white, but Farahani makes her wonderfully colorful. Their relationship is lovely, a pair of souls that truly compliment each other. Special mention must be given to Palm Dog award winner Nellie, whose performance as Marvin is essential to the film’s narrative, and provides one of its most hilarious payoffs.
It comes as no surprise that in a film about a writer, the screenplay is a winner. Jarmusch has created a poem of the day-to-day, an examination of repetition and variation. Using a week in Paterson’s life to establish structure, familiarity, and character, the dawn of each new day feels like the start of a new stanza, an opportunity for new experiences and expressions. The frankness of this depiction of his routine existence is almost meditative and soothing. Cinematographer Fredrick Elmes creates gorgeous frames that find beauty in the ordinary, like sunlight hitting the sleeping forms of a married couple every morning, or the way the glinting world passes by the windshield of a bus, or the solitude of a waterfall where two people meet. Everything from the costumes to the set decorations to the music seem designed to evoke the unembellished richness of the standard and ordinary. Edited with extreme care by Affonso Gonçalves, every day is given its necessary length and time to breathe, never overstaying its welcome. Surely guided by Jarmusch behind the camera, it always feels watchful and present and never intrusive or judgmental. It just moves naturally, and we can’t help but move along with it.
Not many can harness the plain and normal without eventually trying an audience’s patience, but Jarmusch is clearly in a league of his own. Thoughtful and introspective, its wisdom flows through it like slowly cascading water we can bathe in if we allow ourselves to. It feels like watching life itself unfold, so much so that when it inevitably ended, I wished I could continue to sit there watching the days of Paterson’s life slip by, seeing how he changed and how he stayed the same. It feels like a piece the titular bus driver might have written about himself, an understated but astute reflection on what makes him, and all of us, human. It’s never too late to appreciate the world around you, and never too late to start over or try again. There’s always the dawn of a new day.
8. AMERICAN HONEY, dir. Andrea Arnold
An odyssey of youth and freedom captured vividly in intoxicating and breathtaking images, AMERICAN HONEY is a three hour road trip through the heart of the United States and the soul of a young woman. Ever the bridesmaid yet never the bride on the croisette, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s latest brought her a third Jury Prize at Cannes back in May. Swapping her native UK for a glimpse at the American heartland, Arnold’s trademark style translates effortlessly to the rolling plains and inherent poverty of our nation. Intimate, free-flowing, and evocative, it’s an unshackled, wild, propulsive, moving breath of life.
We are introduced to Star (Sasha Lane) as she rummages through a dumpster, attempting to find something that could pass as a meal. A young teenager, she’s charged with caring for two children while their mother spends her days and nights away and their father gropes and fondles Star while the kids play outside. When she locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) dancing with a group of rowdy teenagers to Rhianna’s “We Found Love” in the checkout lines at the local K-Mart, she can’t help but feel drawn to him. Running into each other in the parking lot outside, Jake offers her a job if she will come with them to Kansas the next morning. Though initially declining, Star sees this as a chance for escape, no matter where it might take her. Joining up with Jake and the gang, she finds herself now part of a crew that travels across the country selling magazine subscriptions to whoever will buy them. Her ineffectiveness as a salesman draws the ire of Krystal (Riley Keough) who heads the sales group, but Jake insists on taking her under his wing and showing her the ropes. Still Jake and Star’s immediate attraction to one another leads to an intense and tempestuous relationship that ebbs and flows throughout their journey, eventually turning problematic with unexpected consequences down the road.
Arnold is known for casting complete unknowns she happens to pluck from obscurity, such as the incredible Kate Jarvis in FISH TANK or James Howson in WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and Sasha Lane is her newest revelation. Arnold supposedly discovered her on spring break, and what a find she is. Lane has an inextinguishable spark, a fierce spirit, and uncommon ease on camera. Her interactions and confrontations happening onscreen feel alive like they’re happening for the first time, and while much of that can be attributed to direction, it’s a challenge for any performer to pull off effortlessly, newcomer or veteran actor. And she manages to find the naivety, the impulsiveness, the infatuation, the heartbreak, the instability, the loneliness, and the reckless abandonment that define that period between childhood and adulthood. The film is Star’s film, and Lane is captivating from the start. Equally as impressive is Shia LaBeouf as the charismatic, dangerous, wild, and untamable Jake. LeBeouf has never been this alive onscreen before, never this fully realized or present. Though giving off an air of calm and cool collectedness, he’s a tattered and rough individual, and his need for affection and approval, as well as his fear of losing it, betray a wounded soul. The chemistry between Lane and LaBeouf is instantaneous and electric, and the way their personalities and bodies connect has a palpable energy as if hormones are flying everywhere every time they share the frame. Other members of the cast impress, particularly Keough as the manipulative and commanding Krystal, and their screen presence and personality is a testament to Arnold’s knack for casting off the street.
With narrative looseness and almost private immediacy, Arnold has a singular artistic voice. Her interests lie in the moment to moment, the intensity of indescribable fleeting feeling, and capturing it in a way that makes the audience feel present, close enough to feel as if they’re sharing that moment with the person on screen. Her eye places us directly in the moment, and her ability to make a film a sensory experience on multiple levels is unparalleled. Just using images, you can almost feel the hair blowing in the wind brushing across your face, or the heat of the midday sun, or the grass cushioning your back. This is, of course, in thanks to her collaboration with longtime cinematographer Robbie Ryan. On their fifth effort together, they seem to operate as one organism, completely in touch with the other’s sensibilities. Shot in their typical Academy ratio, they allow the characters to be the focus rather than let them become swallowed by the vast world they’re in. Ryan’s camera lingers close to his subjects, moving freely about them, almost breathing with them. It’s hard to find a word other than intimate that so accurately describes their aesthetic approach. Ryan manages to capture the stunning beauty and harsh poverty with eye-popping colors and unflinching realism. And while she jumped the pond for this endeavor, this feels very much in line with Arnold’s previous thematic threads that ruminate on the perils of the lower class, feelings of isolation, and the desire to break free.
Fluid, transportive, and inimitable, this wandering visual journey moves to the beat of the energetic and impassioned souls at its core. Arnold has encapsulated the youthful sense of limitless possibility and exhilarating uncertainty in a portrait of a young woman who longs to be free from all that holds her back. With an expertly compiled soundtrack, mesmerizing performances, and gobsmacking camerawork, it’s an experience for all of the senses combined. There is quite simply no other filmmaker like Andrea Arnold, and her career continues to provide us with remarkable and essential studies of women, young and old, celebrating their individuality, spirit, and beauty, inside and out. AMERICAN HONEY is a tribute to all the Stars in our lives, echoing their joyous cries of liberation into the wind.
7. LA LA LAND, dir. Damien Chazelle
Dreamy, luscious, melodic, and stupefyingly pretty, this resurrection of old school Hollywood style found admirers and detractors in mass. Like a strange cousin to his debut film WHIPLASH, directing wunderkind Damien Chazelle’s newest film echoes a similar interest in the lengths we’re willing to go to pursue our dreams, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to achieve them, though with decidedly less tension and turmoil than its predecessor, and an ample helping of sadness and regret. A story of a relationship, two artists, one city, and the passions that keep them all moving, it’s a modern movie musical miracle. Like the classics of the genre, LA LA LAND applies lovely aesthetic choices and homages and swelling compositions to heighten the expressions of emotion, lifting us to float on air like we swear we do when we fall in love.
Set against the picturesque backdrop of Los Angeles, the film opens with a carefully choreographed song and dance sequence that’s a demonstration of dazzling camerawork, and an encapsulation of the narrative to come. Then, amidst this endless and maddening traffic jam, two aspiring souls cross paths, yet with all the meet-cute that road rage allows. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress on her way to another on-camera audition, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist wallowing in the thankless job of playing holiday tunes at a local restaurant. After honking and shouting at each other, their days are no better. Mia’s experience auditioning is lousy, but while out on a stroll away from a party, she hears the sound of a beautiful melody coming from a restaurant. Going inside, she witnesses a frustrated Sebastian being fired for refusing to play his assigned music, and though she tries to compliment him on his moving composition, he brushes past her rudely. It isn’t until she finds him playing with a 1980s tribute band at another party that the two are allowed their first chance to engage. Insistent that they feel no connection at all, their attraction is almost instantaneous, and they’re soon embarking on a romantic relationship. But while their encouragement of each other to achieve their goals and dreams seems to initially be the added motivation they need, when it comes to choosing between those dreams and their relationship, their happiness becomes more difficult to maintain.
Chazelle has cited Gosling and Stone as being the closest onscreen couple to the old Hollywood pairings of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers, and for good reason. This being their third outing opposite each other, their chemistry fizzles and crackles on screen, bolstered by a natural back and forth, give and take, that feels like music and dancing itself. And they’re indisputably stars, their incredible wattage always apparent yet never blinding. Gosling has recently begun cashing in once more on his inherent coolness and effortless ease, drifting away slightly from the more brooding, haunted work of some of his iconic roles, and this is the perfect stage for his charisma. Sebastian is an opinionated, stubborn, and somewhat conceited type, but he’s also funny, charming, intensely passionate, and the way his interactions with Mia seem to melt away his exterior pride reveal an empathetic soul beneath. And Stone turns in one of the finest performances of her career, and among the year’s best as well. Mia’s conflict and struggle seems more central to the film’s narrative than Sebastian’s, and Stone plays her arc with heartbreaking emotional truth and fearless commitment. Stone has always been goofy, winning, and hugely likable in the past, but I don’t feel she’s ever been this vulnerable before, even in her Oscar nominated work in BIRDMAN. She’s opened and bloomed to a new level of uncovered depths of feeling and expression, and her performance of a song towards the film’s conclusion is revealing, uplifting, and devastating all at the same time.
The design elements are immaculate on every single level. The boldly colorful yet simplistic costumes, rich in primary colors, and the stunning production designs achieve the right height of fantastical. Justin Hurwitz’s songs and orchestrations are wholly original, moving, grand and intimate, catchy, and memorable, perhaps soon to be iconic. They are as much the film’s story as the dialogue, carrying the emotional thread to the end. Linus Sandgren’s camera is a dancer on its own, dizzyingly free and untethered. In the wideness of the frame, Sandgren allows us the opportunity to show the full bodies in motion, almost mirroring their steps. And his unique lighting choices amplify the feeling of a moment, isolating or highlighting, providing a theatrical weight the material and characters desire. And the use of long takes and tracking shots allow us to focus on the movements and expressions themselves, uncut and magically mesmerizing. Chazelle clearly loves to swim in the style, yet he does so with purpose and effectiveness. Front-loading the film and relationship with these flourishes serves to highlight the way in which we romanticize our infatuations and the indescribable feelings that flow through us when we fall in love, but then he slowly strips them away, revealing the reality and complications that set in following the honeymoon period. These instances express emotions in a realm beyond words but that instantly resonates and grabs hold of you. And Chazelle is never interested in the simplicity of joy or sadness, but rather the way in which they occur simultaneously, confusingly, painfully, and truthfully. The nature of conflicting sensations seems to be at the heart of his work, and the heart of humanity, highlighted gorgeously in the film’s final montage.
Love it or hate it, LA LA LAND is at once a tribute and an original creation, and, in my opinion, a rare triumph. Injecting liveliness, inventiveness, and blissful loveliness into a genre in need of revitalization, it’s a redefining hallmark in the realm of movie musicals. But for all its eye-popping visuals and abundant pleasures, at its core there’s a brutal reality. It’s one that’s a gut punch for anyone who has loved and lost, tried and failed, chosen and regretted. To dismiss it as escapism denies the power those reflections have to conjure up our past, to squeeze our hearts, and to cause our souls to ache. That is our humanity, our flawed and messy nature painted in cinemascope. That to be human can be splendidly transcendent and unexpectedly agonizing at the same time is about as truthful as it gets.
6. ARRIVAL, dir. Denis Villeneuve
Exploring such vast and immeasurable concepts as time, communication, and loss, French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama is insanely ambitious but still manages to surpass all expectations to become something else entirely: a moving portrait of motherhood. Adapted from a short story written in 1998, this feature length mind-bending, heart-stopping, soul-piercing visual and mental feast is the perfect match for Villeneuve’s tendencies towards pervasive tangible mood, unconventional imagery, and haunted characterizations. Simplistic, intelligent, immersive, and everything else a good genre exercise should be, it’s the most groundbreaking, heart-shattering one in recent memory, sure to go down among the greatest in sci-fi.
In a tragic prologue and encapsulation of human life, we are introduced to Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a mother who watches her child grow up, only for her daughter’s time to be cut short by cancer. Louise is a linguist, a professor at the local university, and one day her lecture is interrupted by a national and global emergency. Twelve extraterrestrial objects of unknown origin have appeared across the world with mysterious intent. Soon, Louise finds herself courted by an Army Colonel (Forrest Whittaker) to become part of a task force set up to attempt communication with the aliens aboard the spacecrafts, and determine their purpose on Earth. Whisked away by a helicopter outside her home in the middle of the night, she finds herself paired up with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as part of the team that will seek to establish a dialogue with these other beings. Outside a military camp set up in Montana, they enter one of the floating ships, and in a chamber separated by a clear barrier, they make contact with two heptapods, floating squid-like creatures who helm the vessel. They soon discover that the circular black mists they excrete are the heptapods’ form of written language. With tensions rising in other nations and pressure from the military to take action, Louise and Ian race against the clock to analyze and decipher the symbols before it’s too late. But in the process, there might be more knowledge these creatures can share with them, knowledge that might upset their understanding of existence as a whole.
Films of this type are rarely notable for their complexity of character and fully fleshed out humanity, but as technically marvelous as the craftsmanship is, the performance by Amy Adams alone might be reason to give it a watch. Having turned in her most lauded work in supporting roles, here’s a leading one for her to own and shine in. This is an intellectual, philosophical head trip, and Adams shoulders the responsibility of carrying that in a portrayal filled with intelligence and quiet strength. But the film is more than that, and its emotional beats succeed because of the truthful layers of wonder, empathy, sorrow, and hope she instills in Louise. The grief of having lost a child is felt in waves throughout, with each flash of time spent with her daughter registering in Louise as if shaking her whole body. Of course, it’s important to note that for much of the film’s runtime, Adams is acting opposite nothing, and still manages to be mesmerizing and moving. Fraught with carefully placed reveals, the arc of Louise’s personal journey brings each to an appropriate landing in the mind and heart of the audience. With stillness, curiosity, resolve, and compassion, she becomes a unique and understated hero, and the emotional core of the story. If Adams hasn’t burst your floodgates by the heartrending conclusion, you might just be lacking a soul.
Villenueve has carved himself a niche with his uncommon sense of the mysterious and foreboding. From the very beginning of each of his films there’s something instantly present that sends goosebumps down your spine. You may never know exactly where its going, but you have no doubt the director is driving it forward towards a conclusion slowly with assurance and purpose. Like a sequence of shots, his structural aesthetic seems to start wide and push the audience closer and closer to the characters and conflict until we are right next to them, almost inside of them by the film’s ending. His most gorgeous moments are always the ones filled with apprehension, suspense, and impending doom. He always pairs himself with top of the game directors of photography to create that mood, this time swapping out regular Roger Deakins for up and coming prodigy Bradford Young. The starkness and minimal quality of the material and approach seem to land right in Young’s sensibilities. Playing primarily in shadowy silhouettes and eventually moving closer to the light, the images mimic the journey. Every light source seems expertly placed and chosen. Villenueve has no interest in making something flashy, and Young’s earthy eye goes a long way towards making the ethereal feel grounded while still being disorienting and unsettling. Part of that comes from how it’s pieced together as well. Steve McQueen’s editor Joe Walker did pulse-pounding work on Villenueve’s SICARIO, and is back for another stellar go around. A tricky beast to wrangle, the narrative requires flashbacks and just the smallest trail of breadcrumbs to lead to its twist, and Walker doles them out effectively while still being mystifying and puzzling. Of course, an enormous credit is due to screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s expansion of the source material, and his specifically laid out roadmap of plot and character reveals, providing just the right amount of science and pathos yet never becoming exceedingly verbose. And composer Johann Johannsson’s score blends the ambient sounds of the world with the chords of the heart to dazzling effect. Always assembling as much talent behind the camera as in front, Villeneuve draws it all together to engrossing effect.
Perplexing yet accessible, this transportive sci-fi matches striking, palpable atmosphere with enthralling ideas, lifting our souls off the ground and breaking them wide open in the process. Featuring career best, moving work from Amy Adams, and understated perfection on every level, ARRIVAL might be Villeneuve’s most optimistic examination of humanity yet, if not his most complex and mature. Exceeding expectations and shattering convention, it takes brave steps to move from the epic to the personal, altering our perceptions of time and space in the process. And for all its mind-blowing, heart-stopping shifts, its focus is simple and internal. The story of one woman’s journey towards acceptance, it resonates strongly with anyone who has struggled to come to terms with loss, change, and the direction of our lives, as we all find ourselves doing at one point or another. That makes it a universal experience, but also a personal one, and strangely poetic.
And that’s it for films 10-6. Only one more post remains in the countdown, but you can always refresh yourself on the previous 20 films leading up to the final 5. What will be the top ranked films of 2016? Be on the lookout later this week for the answer. And, as always, thanks for reading!