Hurt and healing, dependency and recovery; these were the subjects of my favorite films from 2016, a year where cinema was not simply art or entertainment, but a form of sustenance, a means to keep on keeping on. But if these films are of any value, it’s because they’re more about feelings than answers, less about advocacy than about therapy.
Knight of Cups
No American narrative filmmaker working in the last decade has expanded the possibilities of cinema more than Terrence Malick. His films Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and this year’s Knight of Cups have pioneered a whip-whirling montage aesthetic while articulating a vacuity begotten by most mainstream cinema: an isolation from what is true in our materialistic, postmodern hell hole.
A lonely, retired, and divorced man adopts a silly eponymous caricature to sabotage his daughter’s corporate lifestyle, inserting humour and humanity into a one-percenter world completely absolved of those two things. Defying categorization or even mere description, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is familiar in concept, but miraculous in execution; schematic in narrative, but inventive in structure. It’s also just really, really funny.
The latest film by Kelly Reichardt — perhaps the most overlooked American filmmaker working today — is a collection of three stories revolving around women in a small Montana town. Each character carries with them an abstracted history only made visible through gesture. There’s no backstory to any of these characters, no exposition of how they got to this point of estranged melancholy, but without being able to pinpoint exactly why, we feel their plight and we sense their desires and displacement.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name could very well be one of his finest films. Following a Portuguese priest in 17th century Japan where Christianity and its practices are outlawed, Silence is both Christian art and a deconstruction of it, a film to challenge the faithful and the faithless.
Manchester by the Sea
Lee Chandler faces Job-level tragedies in Manchester by the Sea, a film which isn’t about endings or resolutions, but intersections and interruptions. Instances where petty trivialities get in the way of catharsis: a cell phone buzzing at a funeral, a gurney that won’t fold properly into an ambulance, or a conversation about Star Trek immediately following a visit to the morgue. Kenneth Lonergan’s anti-three-act structure takes Chandler’s grief seriously, denying any simple narrative of recovery, and recognizing that things will never be the same.
Our Little Sister
The simple and optimistic cinema of Hirokazu Koreeda is easy to write off as fantasy, not because it feels dramatically contrived or farfetched, but because the filmmaker whole-heartedly believes in the perseverance of human goodness — even while in less-than-ideal circumstances. About three sisters who adopt their half-sister following their estranged father’s passing, Our Little Sister interrogates inner turmoil with generosity and kindness.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel is a fantastical and whimsical immersion into another world. A simple film about family and friendship, here is one of the few Hollywood films of the year to have sincere, classicist values.
Little Men traces the doomed friendship of two boys divided by race, class, and their parents’ dispute over rent. Ira Sachs’ film is The 400 Blows relocated to a gentrifying New York City, turning a political issue into sophisticated, balanced drama.
20th Century Women
A montage of memories, Mike Mills’ new film humorously and poignantly recounts an ideological divide in a family during the late ’70s, and a boy’s coming of age at the center of this conflict. Negotiating between his mother’s first-wave feminism and pragmatism and his generation’s radical politics, 20th Century Women is more than a collections of indie-oms, but a perceptive inquiry into how the historical period we’re born into shapes our individual values and identity.
Ashley McKenzie’s emotionally devastating and formally inventive debut feature is the fragmented story of a Cape Breton couple on the methadone recovery program. Werewolf is a part of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, which comes to The Cinematheque at the beginning of January.