We are officially halfway through 2016, and one thing is certain: this has truly been an abysmal year for cinephiles. Aside from the smattering of superhero movies (BvS, X-Men: Apocalypto), needless sequels (Now You See Me 2???), and other miscellaneous garbage (Hardcore Henry anyone?), but in the past six months we’ve also lost the tremendous talents of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Vilmos Zsigmond, Douglas Slocombe, Jacques Rivette, Andrzej Zulawski, Robin Hardy, Michael Cimino, and Abbas Kiarostami. Truly an astounding lineup of artists, each having carved out their own indelible niche in the history of cinema. But I’m not here to mourn. I’m here to be your Glimmer Man of hope, so here is my list of not ten, but ELEVEN of the best films I’ve seen released this year so far, each coming from filmmakers who are keeping the spirit of cinema alive and well.
The central conceit is relatively mundane: plant auteurist filmmaker Brian De Palma in a chair and have him reminisce about this oeuvre for the span of 100-odd minutes. But what an oeuvre! Fewer things have been as exciting as watching De Palma exuberantly recount his formative years in the industry, his successes, his failures, and the friendships and relationships he’s forged throughout decades of work (including the formation of a sort of directorial Rat Pack, which also included of Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola). The formalist director also discusses his frequent homages to Hitchcock and how he the master has informed much of his work, citing clips from all of his films as examples. The design of De Palma is simple but the content is extraordinary, and as soon as it ends you’ll want to re-discover his filmography all over again.
There are films about punk rock, and there are films that are punk rock. Green Room is the latter. After the release of his 2013 feature, Blue Ruin (which was a complex and masterful take on hackneyed revenge sub-genre), director Jeremy Saulnier emerged as a talent to watch, and Green Room reaffirms these claims, with Saulnier delivering one of the most intense and gripping pictures of the year. A taut, visceral siege-thriller, Green Room follows punk rock band The Aint Rights (led by Anton Yelchin, who also tragically lost his life last month) as they play and become trapped at a venue owned and operated by a gang of neo-Nazis, the leader of which is played with an understated ruthlessness by Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart. What follows is a bloody, terrifying genre-exercise, in which arms are mangled, bellies are slit open, and throats are ripped out by vicious attack dogs. It’s never an easy sit, but under Saulnier’s command, Green Room is a consistently enthralling one.
If you were to stack up all of the films released this year, I doubt none would be as emotionally devastating as Krisha. Guided by the influences of Kubrick and Cassavetes, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budgeted yet striking debut is a force to be reckoned with, one as wild and untamed as the leading lady in the picture. The film stars Schults’ real life aunt Krisha Fairchild as Krisha, a tragic and psychologically disturbed woman whose histories of traumatic events threaten to destroy a family reunion on Thanksgiving. Shults is marvelous at mining tension out of such small-scale familial confrontations, leaving little room for the audience to breathe until the feature eventually (and inevitably) explodes into chaos.
I don’t think anything has made me laugh out loud harder this year than watching Colin Farrell kick a child in the shins. That sight alone is worth the cost of admission to The Lobster, a poignant and darkly comic tale about the fundamentals of relationships, and what it means to fall in love. As trite as that premise may sound, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos adds enough of his own specialized brand of idiosyncratic flourishes to the proceedings, resulting in one of the most unique and brilliant features of the year. Colin Farrell portrays a man named David who, after being dumped by his wife, must check into a hotel filled with single people for the purpose of finding a new soulmate. The residents of the hotel are given 45 days to fall in love with someone else, and if they fail, they’ll be transformed into an animal of their choosing (in Farrell’s case, a lobster). When taken at face value these details are completely absurd, but the story itself is beautifully told, and under all of the oddities there is no doubt that this is a picture that is undeniably human.
LOUDER THAN BOMBS
Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier has always produced remarkable work. Between his brilliant, Scandinavian New Wave debut Reprise and his morose, drug addict follow up Oslo, August 31st, Trier has always sought the heart of humanity from even the darkest of places. His latest film (and, coincidentally, his English language debut), Louder Than Bombs, is a tremendous successor to his latter to efforts, and arguably his greatest achievement as a filmmaker to date. Detailing a family (including Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg, whose performance is a considerable palate cleanser to whatever he was doing in BvS) recovering from the loss of its matriarch (Isabelle Huppert), Trier’s work is wholly ambitious and spectacularly humanistic, and one I hope to revisit again and again.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
I’ve never been the greatest admirer of Whit Stillman’s work, but who knew that he and Jane Austen would be a match made in heaven? Adapting Austen’s novel, Lady Susan, and reteaming with his The Last Days of Disco leads Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, Stillman crafts an exquisitely terrific period piece about the duplicitous affairs of, well, love and friendship. Certainly one of the more memorable Austen adaptations to hit screens lately, Love & Friendship also features a return to form for actress Kate Beckinsale (it’s nice to see her in something of merit these days) and a scene-stealing Tom Bennett as the lovably daffy Sir James Martin (worth seeing for him alone).
It’s always nice to see Greta Gerwig in something these days. Her most recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha and Mistress America, have been met with much acclaim, and now the release of Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan forms a terrific trilogy of feminism and existential crises, cast against the backdrop of present-day Manhattan. As Maggie, a 30-something teacher who finds her life grow more complicated after trying to start a family on her own, Gerwig is simply phenomenal, and owns the whole film in her charming performance. Highlights also include Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as her pessimistic married friends, Ethan Hawke as the "ficto-critical anthropologist” Maggie falls in love with, and Julianne Moore as his eccentric and intellectually brilliant wife.
With Sing Street, director John Carney (Once, Begin Again) delivers what is easily his best and most pleasurable work yet. Featuring probably the best soundtrack of the year so far, culling hits from the likes Duran Duran, The Cure, and The Jam, as well producing original music from the titular band-within-the-film, Sing Street is a joyous affair, never missing a beat in its spirited step. An ode to creativity, music, childhood crushes, and, most importantly, the powerful bonds of brotherhood, Sing Street perfectly encapsulates that feeling one has when you hear a great song for the first time and it makes you want to change your life. The performances are great, the songs are great, the whole thing is great. I still find myself humming “Drive it Like You Stole It” to this day.
If nothing else, Sunset Song is the most breathtakingly beautiful film of 2016, if not the most quietly affecting. Actually, there’s plenty to recommend in Terrence Davies’ latest film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (often heralded as the most important work of Scottish fiction). Shot in 65mm, often through gorgeous fields of wheat, the splendid grandeur of Sunset Song is almost too much to handle. The cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day, Davies’ film is extraordinarily lyrical and tragic in equal measure. Performances are excellent across the board, including a wonderfully naturalistic, star-making turn by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn, and an incendiary supporting role by Peter Mullan, as her father.
Filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s work has impressed me so far, with films like the serial killer procedural The Chaser and the epic crime actioner The Yellow Sea, but he means business with his latest outing, The Wailing. The film follows an increasingly bizarre and gruesome series of events in a quite Korean town following the arrival of a strange Japanese visitor, and the restless copy in charge of the investigation finds that his family is caught in the middle of it all after his daughter shows increasingly disturbing signs of a demonic presence. A stunningly crafted and sincerely creepy film, The Wailing surpasses all other “possession” films released over the past 10 years. The film’s centerpiece, an elaborate exorcism sequence, is a stupendous and incandescent series of events that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Last year, I raved about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, having declared it to be the best horror film in recent memory. This year, Robert Eggers’s The Witch makes a claim to the genre throne, and is indisputably the apex of this year in cinema so far. Set against a heavily wooded farmland in 17th century New England, The Witch paints an austere portrait of a family ravaged by an evil lurking in the woods. Immaculately constructed with painstaking detail (Eggers has really done his homework here), and featuring performances worthy of fire and brimstone amongst the entire cast (seriously, there’s not a single bad apple in the bunch here, but the standouts are Anya Taylor-Joy and a goat named Black Phillip), The Witch is a haunting, evocative motion picture, guaranteed to leave you rattled to your very core.