2016 is now officially in the fast lane toward its end. I wanted to come up with my list of the movies that have most impressed me and discovered that very few films released this year have really impressed me. But then I realized that there were more than a few I had seen last year that were only released this year. This has helped my ability to come up with a list, but 2016 has not been a great year at the movies. Film Art created for the television is slowly taking over. Here is a list of the movies that really held my attention so far this year. Please note that I am not listing in any particular order and that these are my personal opinions. None of my opinions are connected with any distributor, film festival or artist. These are my thoughts and mine alone.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch works on both literal and metaphorical levels. It is also fairly flawless in execution, style and complete formation. Repeated viewings only further enforce its power. This is a masterful bit of Art Horror that aims far higher than being scary. Taking itself seriously, The Witch weaves a story that is as simple as it is complex.
On one level this is a straight up horror film. Jarin Blaschke’s camera work is fully intertwined with Eggers’ vision. The entire cast is exceptional. The sense of dread never lets up, but the implications of what we see come to a sharp tipping point. More than a film about evil taking over the lives of supposedly devout family of settlers, The Witch is a very dark contemplation on both the repression and oppression of women. In many ways this film points toward a parable regarding empowerment. This is an empowerment that is as grim as it is magical.
Many horror fans have expressed displeasure over this movie. For some it just isn’t scary enough, but for many of us it is chilling to the bone. Highly literate, creative and a brilliant use of a low budget — The Witch is something altogether new. A rare feat within the realm of horror filmmaking, this movie has a wider wing span.
Brady Corbet proved his skill as an actor quite a while back. He has been working since he was a child. Over the course of the last several years his career’s focus has been a bit off the grid comparatively speaking. He has worked for some expertly talented directors over better financial and fame-oriented jobs. This year he made his directorial debut and his choices as actor make perfect sense. I suspect Corbet was learning how to make films that strive to do more than simply entertain. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the most impressive actor-to-director debuts I’ve ever seen.
There is nothing “safe” about The Childhood of a Leader. This unusual film is masterful and keenly tuned into Auteur Theoretical Filmmaking. Just as it disregards filmmaking predictability, it shuns the idea of subtly. Audacious in what it pursues, The Childhood of a Leader is not aimed at the cineplex and is not concerned with the possible difficulties it might offer members of the audience. The goals and stakes are high from beginning to end. Corbet and co-writer, Mona Fastvold, are smart enough to keep the proceedings minimal in the visual sense. There are no signs of low budget film present. Corbet has wisely invested his budget where it will benefit the highest yield.
Scott Walker was secured as the film’s musical composer and his skills / work are utilized to maximum impact. Corbet has applied the same level of trust regarding cinematography and editing. Both of these essential elements are applied with deceptively simple approaches. Lol Crawley and David Jancso bring forward their finest work. The same can be said for every artist Corbet has secured both behind and in front of the camera. And no artist involved is required to color within the lines. If there are a few cracks from strain, these flaws are minor and easily forgiven.
Do not be fooled by the impressive scoring, cinematography, editing and various styles of acting. This film’s impact is not owed singularly to any one artistic aspects. The real power belongs to a director who is unafraid to allow his excellent players the opportunity to bring forward their best respective games. Corbet confidently conducts every aspect of this movie for his orchestrated gut punch. This is artistic collaboration at its best. The Childhood of a Leader comes close to perfection. Intense, passionate and memorable — Childhood builds scene upon scene achieving a pure cinematic crescendo. It is sublime and totally apocalyptic.
This study in sociopathic tendencies pushes us toward a culturally shared visceral nightmare. Corbet’s film arrives at a time that makes it all the more potent. For whatever reason, IFC did very little to promote this challenging film. This is not an easy movie. It requires attention and thought, but it never bores. There is most certainly an audience for films this amazing. If you did not have the opportunity to catch it during its brief appearance on cinema screens, seek it out now. It is currently available via VOD. I’ve seen it twice and I can’t wait to see it again.
Unlike many of my friends / associates, I have never been all that excited about Matteo Garrone’s work. I’m embarrassed to write that I passed up the opportunity to see his latest, Tale of Tales. This was my loss. I so wish I had experienced this strange film on a big screen.
Matteo Garrone’s film is adapted from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, but is unfolded in a confoundedly unique manner. I always got the sense that Garrone’s visionary sense was unique, but I had no idea he was this imaginative. Surrounded by only the finest of artists, he has concocted something unexpected and unforgettable. Fantastical, gothic, dark and often disturbing — these are not the sort of “fairy tales” one would tell a child.
The presentation is “adults only,” but the lack of “lessons” or “moral points” are completely childlike. When one thinks back to the fairy tales shared with us as children, we often only remember the scary or darker details. As a child the moral compass is only starting to form. The level of experience is too limited to fully grasp the philosophical. The same can be said of this Tale of Tales.
Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography here is more reminiscent of his earlier work under Ken Russell’s tutelage. Images of spaces, faces and reveals convey levels of absurdity, passion, curiosity and awestruck attention. Garrone’s film is as grotesque as it is beautiful. As provocative as it is innocent. These tales are largely unknown to American audiences. Garrone delivers them with a giddiness that is contagious.
IFC did not do a great job with theatrical promotion and I skipped the short opportunity to see it because it felt like it was going to be a low-rent copy of Terry Gilliam.
It wasn’t and it isn’t.
It received a very limited run, but is now available from the folks at Shout! Factory on DVD/Blu-ray. Tale of Tales should not be dismissed or ignored. See it.
Oscilloscope Laboratories put forward a great deal of care and time in the promotion and release of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. It was thanks to this that I made the effort to see the movie. I was also more than a little curious to see where ARH would take the audience. One of the most fascinating films in years, The Fits does not fit easily into a category and simply refuses all labels. The film’s promotion gave very little away regarding The Fits. It was not the movie I was anticipating. How often does that happen after we see a distribution company’s trailer?
The Fits is essentially about a young girl slipping into young adulthood, but it would be misleading to limit it to “the coming of age” troop. There is absolutely nothing expected about this movie. When I sat down to watch it for the first time it turned my expectations inside-out. Anna Rose Holmer’s film follows an eleven-year-old girl, played with disarming realism by Royalty Hightower, as attempts to shift her attention from the boys’ side of a community center to enter what she perceives as the magical other side. The girls’ side of the community center is focused on team spirit dancing.
Suddenly the tomboy desires to be a member of an all female dance team. More than a little unsure of herself and the young women who she knows occupy the thoughts of the boys with whom she has always played, Toni must decide if she has what it takes to fit in with this feminine bunch. This is a visual and auditory film experience. The dialogue is limited, but when we are allowed to hear what Toni hears it is crucial information.
“One more week, ladies!” a woman coach announces to the young women. Adults do not figure into Toni‘s perception of her world. They are not yet key players, but Toni hears the adults when it is required. The marker of a week becomes an important tracker within the film’s story. Toni’s decision to attempt to assimilate is crucial. ARH never demonstrates the least amount of bombast or over-statement of actions, but we understand that Toni’s every movement is a key predictor to her future.
Paul Yee’s camerawork is tight and fluid all at once. Composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, provide the film with a hypnotic musical score. Anna Rose Holmer, like Brady Corbet, is unafraid to share the glory. I point this out because the collaborative element of filmmaking seems to be once again slipping away from many film productions. ARH fully utilizes all artists involved to spark her film into life. The Fits does not merely spark to life, it is almost a living organism unto itself. What happens in The Fits is not a totally unique turn, but the way in which the film’s dance moves are constructed / conveyed is jaw-dropping.
A child’s attempts to join a dance team form into something that edges well beyond any expected boundary. Often disturbing, mysterious, strange, sensual and magical — The Fits is cinematic poetry. Many cringe at the intermingling of words like cinema and poetry. This mashup has become over-used, but never has the concept fit better than attributing it here. Anna Rose Holmer did not need a big budget to make her movie breathe, throb, squirm and float magically to life. This movie never falters in its movements toward alchemy. The Fits is not a movie that a film lover can afford to miss.
Jeremy Saulnier’s film manages to establish all characters with minimal screen time or information, but this does not mean that we do not know these characters. Green Room speaks to Saulnier’s ability as an exceptional storyteller who can put forward all required quickly thanks to the way in which he writes and shoots. We know everything we need to know about the members of a desperate and rag-tag American Hardcore band within less than ten minutes.
Green Room‘s horrors come fast and are packed with surprisingly intense cruelty. Even more surprising is the fact that this film is perversely fun but never lacking in realism. Green Room takes itself seriously. When our messy heroes decide to piss off their Fascist audience by crashing into a wicked cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” the comedy of the moment is stained with the menacing reality of their situation. It is difficult to articulate why this movie is so much fun, but sick fun it is. Alia Shaukat, Patrick Stewart, Imogen Poots and the late Anton Yeltsin deliver top tier work for this twisted cinematic adventure. Always pushing past the normal boundaries of the exploitation genre, Green Room is close to brilliant.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is another movie that cleverly pushes beyond the horror exploitation genre. This is a highly effective example of not only great storytelling, but the power of tight cinematic construction. Kusama has mastered the basics of movie making to a point that she manipulate all of them to create something exceptional that in the hands of another filmmaker would play as tired or even predictable.
The Invitation never pushes itself so much that the low-budget is reflected and Kusama is not aiming to re-invent the wheel, but she adheres to smart editing, clever writing and talented actors to create an expanding element of suspense, dread and fear. As the movie leads into what appears to be The Dinner Party from Hell, we become invested and ultimately shocked. What probably should have been a mediocre film has been transformed into a highly entertaining and mesmerizing exercise in cinematic horror. I feel this is one of the best films we will see this year.
Mickey Keating is all of twenty-five years of age and he has already accomplished more than most film artists can muster in an entire career. It is still unclear if he plans to move beyond the horror film genre, but it does not really matter. Having been mentored by the great Larry Fessenden, this filmmaker has already cemented a place among horror fans. Keating made two films for 2015 release. The first, POD, is an exceptional cinematic brew of paranoia and human horror. The second film did not actually secure a release date until 2016 and it is one of the most impressive films of the year.
What Keating’s Darling lacks in originality is made up for by stylization and expertly modulated cinematic manipulation. Intended as much as an ode to the great psycho-dramas of the 1960’s/1970’s as full stand alone movie, Darling is so well made that it manages to morph itself into something borrowed but very new. This slow-burn psychological horror movie transcends extreme budgetary limitations and pulls the audience into a hypnotically disturbing ride into madness.
Filmed in simplistic video black and white, Mickey Keating sets the mood immediately and is unrelenting in holding us there through to the film’s final image. Sean Young makes a brief but memorable appearance that allows Keating to establish everything in a matter of a few minutes. Clearly inspired by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Ingmar Bergman and more than a little Robert Altman — Keating’s cinematic exorcise demonstrates not only his knowledge but his resourceful skills. The young director is having a blast and so does his audience. Though it should be pointed out that this fun comes with more than a little white-knuckle suspense, tension and horror.
Mac Fisken’s cinematography is meticulous and easily recalls a sort of mashup of Gordon Willis, Gilbert Taylor and Sven Nyqvist. Yes, you read me right. Fisken manages to recreate visual suspense intermingled with beauty. Valerie Krulfeifer’s editing is a perfect match for Keating’s odd retro-horror stylings. Fiona Ostinelli’s musical score is equally effective. But the key collaborating artist is actor, Lauren Ashley Carter. In the film’s title role, this actor’s babydoll eyes and on-screen presence manage to not only win us over — she is able to spin these aspects on a dime. While we do like her — she is also able to repulse us. This actress literally haunts the screen.
Unconcerned with plot, Darling has only two true goals: it wants to get under the skin, but then it intends to imprint into our brains. It achieves both. Low-fi but exceptionally crafted from all perspectives — Darling signals that Mickey Keating is playing for keeps. His second film of this year is currently in cinemas. Carnage Park has a bigger budget than both POD and Darling and it is a solid horror film, but it lacks Darling‘s power punch. I walked out of Darling a fan.
There was no way Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise would match the media promotion that launched it. I knew that going in, but I was under-whelmed with this adaptation of JG Ballard. Impeccable production values, cinematography and exceptional performances — High-Rise should have worked, but it fell short. So to speak. Ballard’s High-Rise is a complex and dated novel. It might not have helped that Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley opted to keep it all grounded in the original time period. The smart use of Thatcher’s infamous speech at the close was a good one, but it came a bit late into the film’s game.
The mixing of satire with dark comedy loses focus. This could largely be related to the fact that the punch of the story has lost much meaning some 40 years later. Ballard’s ideas rooted in that decade often feel more “twee” than “provocative.” There is not enough context to understand why “we” are in the 1970’s. Without directly mooring Ballard’s ideas to the 21st Century, much of what he was thinking feels flimsy within the trappings of Wheatley’s chosen genres of satire and comedy. It is also hard to fathom the task of capturing Ballard’s novel in a 2 hour movie. The actions in High-Rise move far too quickly to really understand.
It’s as if the pears sold on the shopping floor are ripe one minute and then rotting the next. The building’s descent into madness and chaos is presented here as an extreme switch. Wheatley does not give the movie enough time to chart the plot’s key initiative. The actual connection of the doctor’s professional life to the new place he inhabits is never fully formed. I find it hard to understand why we even needed to follow the doctor’s fall into professional lethargy. I was also confused by the excessive use of Hiddleston as a sex object. I have no problem with it, but I do not understand why this was important. And worst of all, the connections between the residents is never fully fleshed-out. These people are over-sexed but it is not presented in the appropriate context. It is a hazy mess of societal revolution, sexual perversity and insanity.
High-Rise is flawed, but credit must be given to an independent film that strives to be this ambitious. High-Rise attempts to do so much. Sadly most of these attempts are simply out of reach. Or maybe I’m mistaken. It is quite possible that Ben Wheatley might be ahead of the curve. My opinion regarding High-Rise might shift as the years go by. I know my opinion has improved with only four viewings. And I’m certain I will be watching it again. When I take into account that I have seen this film five times, I feel obliged to include it in my list.
No one can complain that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster isn’t a unique. Lanthimos addresses some of humanity’s deepest concerns and challenges by use of a Surrealistic bit of Existentialism gone to Absurdist artistic gestures. The most surprising aspect of The Lobster is that is intentional not funny. It is also not limited by what might seem like a One-Joke Idea. Loneliness, isolation, desperation and the craving for meaningful connections are never treated as comical. While there are comical elements to the situations, this is a dramatic film. The situation is a result of societal judgment. A judgement that lands these lost souls to a last resort to secure a life partner or face being turned from human into an animal. For the most part, this situations are rendered relatable. Colin Farrell delivers his best on-screen performance as a recently jilted man who doesn’t seem to be able to find his footing in life. He is the sole reason this film resonates so well. He is a sort of “Every Man” who has gotten lost in the shuffle of his life.
“He didn’t burst into tears and he didn’t think that the first thing most people do when they realize someone doesn’t love them anymore is cry,” Rachel Weisz’s emotionlessly blunt narration tell us. It is up to Farrell to provide the emotional resonation. And he does. It will be interesting to see if the Hollywood Power Elite choose to allow him an Oscar nomination. He does deserve it.
As this story of uncomfortable misfits attempting to attract a partner, or remain human or live as hunted loners — The Lobster lulls us into thinking that things just might work out. Lanthimos’ isn’t going to let anyone off easily. Our protagonist is not exactly the kind fellow you might expect. He, too, is capable of extremes to avoid a great deal. David can be cruel and he often feels little to no pity for others. In many ways, David is the ideal protagonist for The Lobster. The film’s resolution offers a truly sharp edged view of what we are willing to do for love — perhaps even a delusion of love. The Lobster offers no comfort or easy outs.
The film’s first act is amazing. The second half becomes a bit sluggish. And the Michael Haneke -ish ending note is not the surprising gut-punch that Lanthimos was most likely going for, but it does make a point. It is a memorable film. My main objection to keeping this film as one of my favorites is that it ultimately disappointed me. In comparison to both Dogtooth and Alps, The Lobster seems weak. I list it here because it does stand out as one of the better films of the year. If this 2015-intended film had actually come out last year it would not have made my list. The Lobster feels like a bit of compromise. Lanthimos can do better. And he should.
The year is not done and my list of favorites could change, but I somehow doubt it. I do have high hopes for Isabelle Huppert’s collaborations with both Paul Verhoeven (Elle) and Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come) Both have some strong buzz, but this sort of buzz has been off before.
Time will tell. And I’ve a growing worry that Snowden is destined to fail. I hope I’m wrong. But of the films listed for release between now and year’s end, this was the one that seemed the most exciting.
We will see…
Matty Stanfield, 9.9.2016
I’m an idiot who often attempts to do too many things at one time. In the above blog post I wrote, “But of the films listed for release between now and year’s end, this was the one that seemed the most exciting.” This is a major error on my part.
In that sentence I was referring to Oliver Stone’s Snowden. I have a roster of upcoming film releases. I track film releases with this roster. I had printed an updated roster this past Monday. As I marked the upcoming films that I am waiting to see, I marked Elle, Things to Come and Snowden. I somehow failed to mark a fourth film that I am very eager to see.
Anna Biller is a Film Artist I’ve been following since the late 1990’s when she made a short entitled, Fairy Ballet. Back in 2007 she made a brilliant feature film, Viva, which remains firmly imprinted in my psyche. Never one to compromise her vision or voice, I was worried that it might take a long time to have the opportunity to see her latest film, The Love Witch. The media industry of the 21st Century has never been more hostile toward original visionary work than it is right now. But there are still a few distributors who are more interested in quality than major studio concerns regarding conforming to concepts of mainstream appeal — Oscilloscope Laboratories demonstrated their savvy when they secured distribution rights for The Love Witch!
What really puzzles me about my error in not only marking but mentioning the inevitableness that I will love Ms. Biller’s new film is that I’ve been following this film so closely over the last several months. D’oh!
But Anna Miller’s The Love Witch is a film that is destined to make my list for Favorite Films of 2016. And, no, I am not headed into the cinema with anticipations that will fail to live up to the work on the screen. Ms. Biller is one of those filmmakers who consistently manage to construct work that entices me.
So for the record, I’m very excited about this upcoming film. I apologize for failing to mention in my initial post. A note of thanks to Dave for the call!
M. Stanfield, 9.10.2016