Film and Television Features

Top films of 2016

Looking back on 2016... we can certainly say that it was a good year to go to the movies... Noripcord's film writers, Grant Phipps and Angel Aguilar have looked back on their own personal years in cinema (and TV)  to pick out the highpoints, and a few of the lows.

Grant Phipps:

1. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

A scrutiny of celebrity culture addiction and a heartfelt examination of the legacies of racism, misogyny, and disenfranchisement in America, Ezra Edelman's seven-and-a-half-hour documentary frequently defies belief in its flurry of ironic revelations. In its comprehensive five-part construction, Made in America initially builds upon Orenthal James Simpson's career as a young star athlete, his shirking of racial identity, and the careful maintenance of his public image at any cost, including the sacrifices of other black men and women. This proves to be devastating in the most haunting way imaginable during his infamous murder trial, which mutated into The Johnny Cochran Sideshow of contentions between police and the Los Angeles community that had little to do with the very damning and surmounting evidence against his client. In the end, director Edelman asks viewers about the nature of justice, as Errol Morris once did in The Thin Blue Line (1988), proving the essential worth of the documentary format as an aid in confronting necessary truths to prevent recurring tragedy. Sadly, prior to one of the most vile Presidential elections in American history, even Edelman's valiant efforts to expose the birth of "infotainment" and fake news here were usurped by insidiousness of modern media and an electorate who chose to normalize sociopathic behavior. We can't say we weren't urgently warned.


2. Louder Than Bombs (dir. Joachim Trier)

The latest elegiac and resonant psychological drama about a fractured New York family reeling from the loss of their renowned photographer mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a masterpiece of empathetic storytelling from Norwegian director Joachim Trier. Whereas Oslo 31 August (2011) was almost entirely constructed in the illusion of real-time progression, Louder Than Bombs, his first English-language film, returns to the nonlinearity that propelled his first French New Wave-inspired Reprise (2006). In those nine years, Trier has cultivated a literary style and a steadier hand under the influence of more spiritual world cinema in order to realize an ensemble film that feels more like a quiet character study- perhaps accredited to its deconstruction/reconstruction of the history and memory of a loved one. In the place of overly plotted Hollywood beats are visually astute scenes that feature tender conversations between distant brothers, father and son, ex-boyfriend and girlfriend, or a simple crush (most sincere of all). Inclusive narrative energy is largely harnessed in Isabelle's famous war-weary photojournalism that reinforces the film's persistent reminiscences and achronological associations. By paralleling his own craft with photography, thus magnifying the interdisciplinary relationship, Trier further muses on the fascinating philosophical traditions of Resnais and Van Sant.


3. Kaili Blues (dir. Bi Gan)

This challenging and invigorating feature debut from twenty-six-year-old phenom Bi Gan is simultaneously an elliptical trip through memory and a real-time familial investigation across the diverse landscapes of China's subtropical Guizhou province. While aspects of this impressionistic detective fantasy may feel arcane at first, its immediacy and beauty are more cogent when dissected into vignettes, voiceover poetry, and embedded cassette recordings in ex-convict and medical practitioner Chen Sheng (Yongzhong Chen)'s search for his nephew Weiwei, who's been sold to pay off the debts of his half-brother Crazy Face (Lixun Xie). If Bi loosely borrows a sensibility from the StrugatskysRoadside Picnic (1971) sci-fi novel (and this film's literal title translation of " biān yěcān"), it seems more than serendipitous that Kaili Blues would spiritually conjure Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), which shares the same source text. An overarching shape-shifting mysticism involving phantom trains, doppelgängers, and chalk-drawn clocks instigating time travel, are met by a nomadic existential pontificating that may be observed in Linklater's Slacker (1991). The sincere attention to the intersections of culture, art, and cinema is lovingly demonstrated in the film's synchronicity, which defines its resonance as a whole.


4. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

If Barry Jenkins' long-awaited return to cinema isn't quite a panacea to the seemingly ever-mounting devastation of 2016, Moonlight can be commended for its perfect casting and forthright depiction of male sexuality. What may be plainly viewed as an alternate coming-of-age version of Boyhood (2014) emerges as a more composed narrative in three parts that are assigned to the main character's identity, whether self-assumed or imposed upon him (little, Chiron, and Black). Jenkins' lens always cuts through the noise and pain of the broken home in Liberty City, Florida, that engulfs the reticent boy with only hints of solace in the reflective words of adoptive street-tough father-figure Juan (Mahershala Ali). Eschewing stereotype, he's both a distinctly positive influence and indirect burden on the stability of young Chiron's home life with a drug-addicted birth mother. From the film's opening, a winding pan into Chrion's childhood, to the unshakable stillness of its final moments as an adult, this very real world is haunted by dreams of inadequacy and institutional oppression. But the possibility of compassionate redemption lingers, delicately evoked in classic R&B song, riveting dialogue, and the restrained, amorous glances between two men in an Eastside Miami diner.


5. Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson)

At once like a candid home movie and formal lesson in the art of filmmaking, Kirsten Johnson's collage-like documentary is comprised of unused and re-contextualized footage from the last twenty-plus years of her illustrious career. This is best exemplified in interviews where the cinematographer-director is occasionally heard coaching subjects to reveal their darkest truths; and, in a sudden inversion and reciprocation, Johnson becomes most emotionally affected by her subjects spilling their hearts in the rawest, most intimate format. And while clips undulate from war-torn solemnity to the globe's natural wonders, the humanistic editing catches memorable moments of enlightenment and joy in light of tragedies perpetuated throughout history and current events where Johnson herself has intervened in small but essential ways. In jumping back and forth between continents, the epicenter of Cameraperson is really a childhood home in Washington State that houses the memory of her Alzheimer's suffering mom, Catherine Joy. In the film's increasingly fond tribute to the inspirational life of a late mother, it becomes an earnest companion to Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie (2015). If one photo is worth a thousand words, are these moving images worthy of 24K(fps)?


Best actress: Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Best actor: Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash)

Most underrated performance: Sarah Gadon (Indignation)

Best original score: Mica Levi (Jackie)

Best use of licensed music: American Honey

Best cinematic prop: Cornel's metal detector (The Treasure)

Biggest surprise: Beyoncé's visual album, Lemonade

Most frustrating viewing experience: Cosmos

Most inconsequential and weightless film: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Essential animal rights allegory: The Lobster


Angel Aguilar:

1. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)

Hell or High Water isn't a political film, but it captures the rural discontent that put Donald Trump in the White House. The American Dream has gone sour for Toby Howard (Chris Pine), whose farm is about to be foreclosed by a Texas bank. Late on his alimony and in need of quick cash, he enlists his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) in a scheme to rob the bank's branches to pay off the debt. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, the Texas Ranger who is hot on their trail. Just weeks from retirement, Hamilton savors every step of the chase until tragedy turns it into a personal quest. The fenced-in lives of the characters, blinded by rage and desperation, seem to be at odds with the open-spaced Texas landscape.


2. Our Little Sister (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Belatedly released on these shores last summer, Hirokazu Koreeda's film still left an indelible impression compared to edgier art films. The story is about the strong bonds of affection connecting three sisters, who all live under the same roof. The eldest, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), has assumed the roles left vacant by their absent parents. Family dynamics are put to the test when the sisters travel to the country for the funeral of their father, where they meet their teenage half-sibling. In spite of the family's dark history, they decide to take in their orphaned sister. Koreeda eschews overtly dramatic action and fast cuts, focusing instead on nuanced performances that reveal inner conflict without the need of excessive dialogue.


3. Sing Street (dir. John Carney)

Like The Commitments, Sing Street portrays Dublin's music scene in the 80s, but John Carney's vision is more personal. There are some autobiographical elements in the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager who's trying to stand apart in a school where individuality is frowned upon. His vague yearnings for love, sex, and freedom come into focus when he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a streetwise girl who's completely out of his league. The overwhelming feeling of first-sight love spurs Conor to lie about needing a model to star in his band's videos, though he isn't even a musician. The bold lie gives us a first glimpse of a driven, crafty young man ready to take on the world. Using all available hooks and crooks, Conor's shameless audacity gets him a band and a set up to woo the girl. However, finding his own voice will be a lot harder than getting in tune.


4. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

This well-crafted work is divided in three chapters, the first two depicting the childhood and coming of age of Chiron, a shy, withdrawn kid living in a Miami housing project where all dreams are negated. Bullied since childhood and belittled by his mom, this hostile world forces him to erase all traces of his personality. In the third chapter, Chiron has become a stranger to himself. Nicknamed Black, Chiron is now a callous drug dealer, all emotions smoothed out. A call from a friend, the love of his life, stirs feelings in him that had been buried deep since high school. There isn't a false note in director Barry Jenkins' approach to the story. He doesn't get ahead of his main character, keeping in step with Chiron as the revelations play out.


5. Florence Foster Jenkins (dir. Stephen Frears)

Nicholas Martin's brilliant script is based on an historical footnote. He mines comedy gold from it, not by drawing cartoon figures but by fleshing out his main characters. Stephen Frears brings the script to life with precise comedic timing, getting the most of his dream cast. Meryl Streep shines as the titular character, a patron of the musical arts who dreams of singing opera at Carnegie Hall although she's actually an awful singer. When the opportunity comes up, her loving husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) does everything in his power to avoid the trainwreck. The comedy roster for 2016 was hobbled by stereotypes and formulas; the depth and originality of this film trumped them all.


Worst film: The only amusement found in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stops with its title. Those looking for zombie-slaying fun should look elsewhere. Dull dialogues, lifeless performances, and jerky action scenes point to the fact that this production was taken over by the walking dead.   


Most disappointing film: Suicide Squad and the Justice League are strong DC Comics franchises, but the films produced this year failed to capture the magic. Of the two, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice tips higher on the disappointing meter, stinting on the superhero match we all wanted to see. Director Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job because his brooding vision and leaden hand weigh down on a story that demands verve and a sense of humor. Go watch Captain America Civil War instead.