Amidst other global hullabaloos, the year hasn’t been especially kind to our treasured movie stars, ending with the deaths of Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher having kicked off with The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie, in January.
With plenty following suit, including Alan Rickman (thanks for Eye in the Sky), it can be easy to lose sight of the joy experienced in cinema, and for me this was a truly joyous year, so much so that whittling down 250+ movies into a top 15 has been especially heartbreaking.
There was a great swathe of wonderful 4-star films this year that didn’t quite make the grade, with 21 4.5+ to choose from, including Elle, Aquarius, Love & Friendship, The Handmaiden, Under the Shadow, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 45 Years and Green Room -goodbye Anton Yelchin, far too soon!
If there were any doubt as to my fully-fledged Francophilia, four French language features make the cut, with six films at least in part in a foreign language. Docos haven’t fared quite as well with me as they usually do this year, though honourable mentions must be made for Weiner, Tickled, Winter at Westbeth, Remembering the Man and Chasing Asylum, which all nearly made the cut. I missed Fire at Sea.
Only one Australian film made the cut this year, which genuinely niggles me, but there it is. Not far of the mark, other than the three docos above, were Goldstone, Downriver and The Daughter. Animations were a bit of a blind spot this year, with The Red Turtle, Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings all yet to be seen. I was really impressed with My Life As a Courgette.
Swelling my heart, it was a magnificent year for queer flicks, with several making my top 15 and there’s a link to my top 11 of the year over at SBS at the bottom. As I go by Australian public releases, including festivals, the staggeringly good Jackie will have to wait until 2017
Enough prattling, here we go.
- The Salesman
Opening with physical destruction as the foundations of an apartment building are torn asunder by adjacent construction, pretty soon the cracks appear in the marriage of two actors performing Death of a Salesman in Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s cauldron-like familial drama. Sparked by a home invasion, it stars Shahab Hossein and Taraneh Alidoosti as a simple life unravels as quickly as Willy Loman’s in Arthur Miller’s great play. At first a tense whodunit, ultimately it’s more about the toxicity of a bruised male ego harbouring barely restrained violence.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman may have convinced with its almost seamless stitching of several extended scenes into an apparent one, but German writer-director Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is the real deal. To this day I am still absolutely staggered that anyone could achieve this in the heart of Berlin, but it’s not just the technical marvel (surely the year’s finest even with Rogue One’s reanimations?) that took my breath away here. Laia Costa and Frederick Lau are dreamy as two strangers falling into each other’s arms in what kicks off as Before Sunrise before jackknifing into a nerve shattering heist thriller. Every second counts in this two hour-plus marathon of emotional intensity and it left me breathless.
In a year that hasn’t been quite as strong on the documentary front as a sterling 2015, there have been several shining lights, not least this incredibly insightful look at the lives of three Palestinian gay men enjoying the benefits of but conflicted by their presence in Tel Aviv. The political is personal, but all of us have more than one identity, layered intricately on top of one another. The complicated cracks in between each persona become exacerbated when the 2014 war breaks out in the midst of Jake Witzenfeld filming.
- Zach’s’ Ceremony
Aaron Petersen’s Zach’s Ceremony tells a vital Australian story. Shot over the course of seven years, it follows young indigenous lad Zachariah Doomadgee, a character and a half, from city to country and back again, Sydney to far-north Queensland, as he prepares for the initiation ceremony that will mark his passing from boyhood to a man. Describing himself as, “not black, not white, sort of in the middle,” it’s not an easy journey, but one that benefits immensely from the guidance (not always welcome) of his tough but affectionate father Alec. An exceedingly generous gift that should be seen by all Australians.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-wining sci-fi novella Story of Your Life by horror movie scribe Eric Heisserer, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has taken this examination of communication and our understanding of time and crafted a film that’s both ethereal and deeply affecting at the human level. The detail invested in the language of the visiting aliens, as Amy Adams linguistic professor and Jeremy Renner’s mathematician attempt to make contact before the world eats itself, is breathtaking. The perfect antidote to the brainless Hollywood blockbuster, I can only hope Villeneuve can bring this sentiment to Blade Runner 2049 and overcome my severe misgivings about his next project.
- Certain Women
One of American cinemas unsung heroes, Kelly Reichardt’s movies deliver emotional intensity with subtle heft. Certain Women’s triptych is strongest with its final pairing, with newcomer Lily Gladstone a revelation as her farm hand experiences an unspoken sexual awakening on being accidentally thrust into the wake of Kristen Stewart’s all-but oblivious young lawyer. Laura Dern also excels in a legal drama of a different kind in the film’s opening sequence, amore overtly humorous misadventure with Jared Harris’ obsessive client. While the bridging story with Michelle Williams is almost too restrained, half the beauty of Reichardt’s work, and this film in particular, is what it leaves you contemplating long after.
- Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)/Closet Monster
A quick look at this list would be enough to prove that I am, guilty as charged, a Francophile. With that said, it was Christmas come at once to see this passing of the baton of sorts between queer French luminaries André Téchiné (Wild Reeds) in the director’s chair and Girlhood director on co-scripting duties. Hugely benefitting from its spectacular Pyrenees setting, this bruising tale of repressed sexuality and clashing teen male testosterone soars on the backs of its two young stars Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila. When the latter’s Thomas tells the former’s Damien, “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you,” it, and its unguarded delivery, swirling in confusion, just might be the line of the year.
Ok, ok, I’m cheating a little here to sneak in 16, because I am weak, but Canadian writer/director Stephen Dunn’s shimmering debut Closet Monster, winner of Best Feature at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival, is a natural fit and well-deserving. Connor Jessup is an enticing lead as the closeted teen tormented by Cronenberg-like body horror dreams after witnessing a homophobic murder as a kid. Bearing one of the years best soundtracks, it crackles with teen spirit and looks divine.
- I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach and collaborator Paul Laverty have distilled the human face of swingeing austerity into a primal howl against injustice with this clarion call of a movie. Led by a proudly droll performance by stand-up comedian Dave Johns as the man valiantly trying to work and being punished for his own ill heath by an unbending system that sets people up to fail. Hayley Squires, as a half-starved single mother driven to desperation in a food bank in the year’s most painful scene, is majestic too. And yet, amidst the misery, there is also hope, determination and a peculiarly British bleak sense of humour.
- The Neon Demon
One of those movies that has critics at endlessly entertaining loggerheads, for me Nicolas Winding Refn’s outré satire of LA more broadly and the fashion industry specifically is frankly hilarious and sickly gorgeous. Elle Fanning is brilliant as the ingénue who unblinkingly turns to the dark side in this ridiculous bitch-eat-bitch world, with Karl Glussman’s thankless snapper a mere stepping stone along the way, in karmic revenge for Love. Also fantastic are the chameleon-like Jenna Malone as a possible ally, effortlessly securing the year’s most shocking scene with a bit of mortuary who hoo, and Australians Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as mortal side-eye and boob enemies. It’s OTT, wonderfully so, with a throbbing soundtrack to match the Devil Wears Prada-inflected giallo.
- The Childhood of a Leader
In a year of remarkable debuts, director Brady Corbet’s alarming The Childhood of a Leader, co-written with Mona Fastvold, seems to perfectly encapsulate the insidious forces arising in 2016. Positing the rise of Franco/Mussolini-like despot in the immediate aftermath of the earth-shattering Great War, we are invited to ponder the nature versus nurture debate, privy to the brattish behaviour of an incredible Tom Sweet as an Omen-like spoiled child and his execrable parents, played by Bérénice Bejo and Liam Cunningham. From the outset, we’re thrust on edge by Scott Walker’s menacing overture, and by the time that final shot confirms suspicions even as it melts minds over close, but unreal history, we’ve been treated out a straight-out-the-gate epic gloriously captured by cinematographer Lol Crawley.
(Note: this was reviewed glowingly at the Sydney Film Festival and has been at the top of my list all year, long before my Lowdown stable mate purchased the distribution rights for Australia.)
- Things to Come (L’Avenir)
The complex aftermath of rape in Paul Verhoeven’s confrontingly humorous Elle rightly has everyone talking about leading lady Isabelle Huppert, and as much as I adored its bonkers examination of violence and sexuality, for me her most arresting performance this year was in Mia Hansen-Løve’s effervescent Things to Come. Steeped in philosophy but far from stuffy, Huppert’s Parisian professor finds herself re-examining life, love and family with an admirable resilience that avoids the usual cinematic contrivances and deploys her quietly assured strength. Happiness comes from a place of self-validation, something we do not see anywhere near enough in female-led films. Bonus points for a sort-of Juliette Binoche cameo.
- Little Men
If Love is Strange felt a little stilted by an unlikely set-up and a lack of focus, then Ira Sachs far more subtle love story between two young boys whose friendship is more solid than the concerns of the parents who feud above them was a truly magical New York story. Michael Barbieri is one of the year’s most impressive newcomers as the working class aspiring actor Tony, all confident swagger beyond his years, who easily forges a close bond with the far shyer, bookish middle class boy Jake (Theo Taplitz). Viewed from their perspective a squabble over rent that rends their respective families is foolish, though Sachs refuses to vilify the adults in a decidedly real movie that’s all the more beautiful for its harsh truths.
- The Fits
It is rare that a film that, at least on its surface is so intimately concerned with the art of dance, conveys quite so perfectly the physicality of the medium. Nor has a star been more appropriately named than the incandescent Royalty Hightower. Writer/director Anna Rose Holmer’s dazzlingly economic debut feature The Fits sees Hightower as Toni, a young woman whose identity transcends rigid notions of feminine and masculine as she flits between the world of boxing and Beyoncé-like dance routines. Conveying so much with a paucity of dialogue, even then largely mumbled, it felt like a rule breaker in so many ways even as it wore its DNA with pride. With a John Carpenter-like score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the mystery of a fainting epidemic evinces the spirit of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, both in its suggestion of the supernatural and the burgeoning of female sexuality.
Todd Haynes’ impeccable period drama Carol, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name (originally published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Salt) opened the year in style as my first five-star movie. Adapted by Highsmith’s close friend Phyllis Nagy, Rooney Mara is sublime as ambitious dreamer Therese whose life is opened up in myriad ways unimaginable following a fateful department store meeting with a similarly magnificent Cate Blanchett’s eponymous upper class lady. Divine performances are immortalised by cinematographer Edward Lachman’s portrait-like framing and Carter Burwell’s longing score. Nothing I’ve seen this year so expertly conveys love without words as that final dining room scene, with the finale all the more staggering given the time in which the source was written.
- It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la Fin du Monde)
Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s latest fraught family melodrama has come in for a lot of stick form critics for that very season, which strikes me as rather odd, given that’s kind of what he does best. So far it’s only appeared at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and despite all the bashing it has received, it is without doubt that film that floored me most in 2016. Catching it with my good friend and fine fellow film critic Mike Scott, we both fled silently, unable to speak, and I spent a good ten minutes shaking and crying in a fire exit in a laneway beside the State Theatre. Adapted form the stage play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Gaspard Ulliel’s pained performance as a wayward son returning home with news of his own impending death is a heart-breaker bursting full of what’s left unsaid and riven with the weight of self-guarded queerness. But it’s Léa Seydoux’ abandoned sister that steals it, with fine performances from Vincent Cassel, Nathalie Baye and Marion Cottilard too.
Honourable mentions: Spotlight, Chasing Asylum, Rogue One, Weiner, Microbe et Gasoline, 45 Years, Hail Caesar!, The Daughter, Eye in the Sky, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Wait, Chemsex, Remembering the Man, Departure, Loev, Grandma, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Green Room, The Nice Guys, Under the Shadow, Goldstone, Tickled, Swiss Army Man, Aquarius, Apprentice, Viva, Winter at Westbeth. The Handmaiden, Notes on Blindness, Heart of a Dog, Love & Friendship, Land of Mine, Sunset Song, Neon Bull, Diamond Island, Personal Shopper, Elle, Sierranevada, Life Animated, Suburra, Paris 05:59, Christine, Toni Erdman, The Rehearsal, Endless Poetry, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Saving Face, La Belle Saison, Hell or Highwater, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Cafe Society, Barash, Sand Storm, American Honey, The Family Fang, A United Kingdom.
Also check out my favourite queer movies over at SBS Sexuality
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords