As everyone has already noted many times, it was a pretty terrible year all around. As far as movies go, it’s difficult to tell if it was any worse or any better than average. Since I didn’t see as many films as I did during my heyday as a critic (1995-2010) I can’t say anything definite in that regard, though I did make a concerted attempt to see the movies that seemed to matter, and probably because of that effort my list isn’t going to surprise anyone. The usual subjects are present and accounted for. However, because the year was so fraught with drama with respect to international and local news, I derived more than my usual level of enjoyment from the Busan International Film Festival in October, which tends to occupy a kind of oasis in my year free from quotidian cares. The 2016 version benefited from a touch more cognitive dissonance, since the festival itself was hit by a partial boycott owing to the city of Busan’s suit against various festival honchos as political retribution for their showing a movie in 2014 that the mayor didn’t like. BIFF was supposed to be a bust this year, but I had a better time than I’d had there in ages, and mainly because of the quality of the films I saw. I especially loved The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lurid sexual melodrama set during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, one of the purest cinema experiences I’ve enjoyed in some time. But several other Korean films at the festival were also among the best of my year, and so should show up on this list 12 months from now since they are scheduled to be released in Japan sometime during that time period. It is something to look forward to, and that’s an important notion to keep in mind during these dark times. Let’s just hope I’m still reviewing movies in December 2017. At this point, I can’t say for sure.
After the jump is my list of best films released theatrically in Japan in 2016.
1. Heart of a Dog (USA): Laurie Anderson’s essay on death and eternity is visually unremarkable, mostly home videos mixed with prosaic re-creations of situations described and some stock footage. Aurally, it’s hypnotic and immediate. Anderson’s stilted, sing-songy voiceover about the demise of her rat terrier Lolabelle is set against a haunting soundtrack, vivifying stories that, she admits, should be received with a grain of salt since every time you tell one, “you forget it.” Accuracy isn’t the goal; projection is. She imbues specific memories with a Buddhist appreciation for the fragility of life, forging connections (a hawk attacking her dog = 911) that make trauma comprehensible. Feelings, even bad ones, come from understanding where it will all end.
2. Carol (USA): The best thing about Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is its period detail. More than the production design and the costumes, what Haynes nails is the emotional alienation at large in the world depicted: New York City in the early 50s. The romance between a would-be bohemian (Rooney Mara) and an older, jaded blue-blood (Cate Blanchett) is rooted in a context that renders the social entirely personal. Legal niceties are made all the more dramatic by the love that can’t be named, but Haynes avoids the pitfalls that usually attend such anachronistic hindsight. He conveys how people feel in the moment, and while his theme is universal, he understands we don’t think this way any more.
3. The Measure of a Man (France): Worthy of Loach and the Dardennes, Stephane Brize’s portrait of a middle aged family man (Vincent Lindon) struggling to reenter the job market after months of pointless retraining and interviews is so even-handed in the way it presents its distressing truths that the melodrama become momentous as a matter of course. Whether struggling to secure a loan or negotiating the sale of some property, Thierry Taugourdeau can’t help but exude the air of a defeated soul but manages to keep up appearances; that is, until he is compelled to take a moral stand that is both heartening and heartbreaking. In the real world, such acts should mean something.
4. The Treasure (Romania): The caper story is a cinematic cliche, and the beauty of Corneliu Porumboiu’s post-communist scan of a capitalist conceit is the way it adopts caper movie tropes without compromising its unique vision. When two neighbors already living beyond their means scheme to dig up some gold that’s been buried on family property for more than a century, they have to keep it a secret, not only from friends and relations, but from the authorities, who by law will confiscate all of it. The tropes play out but not in the way you think they will, and Porumboiu’s point that life is rigged no matter how well you plan or how hard you work is expertly clarified. Your particular social system could not care less.
5. Syndromes and a Century (Thailand): Made in 2006, this relatively accessible feature by the incomparable Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a veiled memoir about his parents, both physicians who met on the job in a rural Thai hospital. Though it starts out as a standard romantic potboiler, the narrative bifurcates temporally before splintering into a dozen or so equally challenging “realities.” As nostalgia it’s a pleasantly upbeat work that marks the passage of time spiritually, as if the director were charting the changes that would eventually bring about his being. Like Heart of a Dog, it proselytizes for a Buddhist approach to existence, but in a much happier way.
6. 45 Years (UK): Director Andrew Haigh turns the focus of David Constantine’s short story on the female half of a retired English couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. When Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a missive informing him that authorities on the continent have finally found the body of his first fiancee, who died in a hiking accident 50 years earlier, his wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), is forced to reassess half a century of marriage in light of her husband’s unmediated grief. The story posits the old girlfriend as an uninvited ghost who Kate realizes to her horror has been living in their gray farmhouse in secret all these years. Geoff has simply been made to confront how little time he has left, while Kate now understands how much of her past was wasted. Connubial repulsion was never so visceral.
7. Room (USA): In the course of a single afternoon, the world view of five-year-old Jack expands immeasurably, a situation that director Lenny Abrahansom and the actor portraying Jack, Jacob Trembalay, must convey in a convincing fashion for this movie adaptation of Emma Donogue’s extraordinary novel to make any sense. Abrahamson can do only so much visually with a collision of consciousness that’s entirely internal, but through the person of Jack’s mother (Brie Larson) we have an idea of how his mind operates, because she has been the sole shaper of that mind due to their awful, isolated circumstances—her and television. Room addresses the way media affects perception, but it’s facile to call the story an indictment of media prerogatives. It’s more than that, and Trembalay deserves the credit for making it work, even if Larson was the one who won the Oscar.
8. Spotlight (USA): As much a portrait of a community in denial as it is a taut journalistic thriller, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner presents its heroes as conflicted activists. It takes a newly transferred Jewish editor (Liev Schreiber) to set the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team on to a monumental story that’s been sitting under their noses for years: priests who sexually prey on children. The team’s head (Michael Keaton) must square his professional ethics with his loyalty to the Church and to his city, which to him are inseparable. Tom McCarthy’s dry direction and anal attention to the way the story developed in real time derails the dramatic momentum, so you admire the movie for its integrity at the expense of the kind of thrills you expect from a good detective yarn.
9. Song of the Sea (Ireland): Folk legends are tragic by definition, which is why Disney sticks to fairy tales. Tomm Moore’s animated version of a famous myth about a little girl who is half-human, half-seal updates the tale to modern Ireland, where Saoirse discovers her birthright as a kind of hyperactive action hero. Banished by her hard-hearted grandmother from her coastal idyll to the big city, Saoirse makes her way back to nature and on the way encounters witches, sea gods, and a comical trio of musicians. The digressions come fast and hard, but the plot is less important than its evocative spirit of wonder, and Moore comes as close as any Western animator ever has to the unfettered, animist sensibility of Hayao Miyazaki.
10. The Shallows (USA): The simple premise and small cast of this nail-biter would peg it as no less frivolous than any other shark movie, but director Jaume Collet-Serra steers our attention away from the maneater toward the thing that matters: Nancy (Blake Lively), who seeks out the favorite Mexican surfing spot of her mother as a means of coping with her death. Collet-Serra doesn’t downplay the corniness of the premise, but uses it to explain Nancy’s will to live after she finds herself stranded and injured on a tiny outcropping in the middle of a cove as a shark circles her hungrily. Suspense, as it were, is for chumps, and Collet-Serra isn’t interested in grabbing you by the throat. He wants to show how a resourceful and intelligent human being deals with a terrible situation, up close and personal. Survival is sexy.
–Omar (Palestine): Whether you approach Hany Abu-Assad’s film as a love story or a double-edged analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it never fails to surprise. When Omar (Adam Bakri), a Palestinian baker, allows himself to be used by Israeli intelligence to catch the killer of a soldier, he risks losing his fiancee or his good name in the settlement, and it’s difficult to decide which is worse.
–Zootopia (USA): The closest Disney has come to the conceptual sophistication of the Pixar films, this fable about a “post-predator” society where animals of all species live in harmony has much to say about our own “post-racial” situation, but does so with a winking sense of humor that isn’t above using blatant stereotypes to make its points.
–Citizenfour (USA/Germany/UK): Laura Poitras’s documentary captures a figure changing history before our eyes. As much about its own process as it is about Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. government spying on its own citizens, the movie is almost too self-aware for its own good. Thank goodness Snowden is articulate and photogenic.
–Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (USA): Purposely circumscribed in terms of biographical detail, Alex Gibney’s documentary charts the ascendancy of JB and his signature sound within the larger context of the social environment that produced him, so while we learn little about his drug problem, his women problem, and his loss of originality after the mid-80s, we understand his relevance to world culture and get plenty of rare concert footage that proves it night after night after night.
–Son of Saul (Hungary): Formally audacious and thematically provocative, Laszlo Nemes’ debut scurries relentlessly around Auschwitz-Birkenau, taking the POV of a Sonderkommando (laborer-inmate) as he disposes of corpses and seeks a rabbi to say kaddish over the body of a boy he thinks is his son. That’s enough substance for ten Holocaust films, and if Nemes seems to be biting off more than he can chew, his impulsive style eschews sentimentality by default. Exhausting, to say the least.