All week long we are taking a look back at the year in film. Yesterday’s discussion of cinematic trends can be found here.
Q: Going into a new year, we all have the films we are eagerly anticipating, but when we look back twelve months later it’s often the surprises that stick with us, the films we knew nothing about or didn’t expect much from that end up making the biggest impact. What film(s) snuck up on you this year, be they works by first-time directors or someone you wrote off long ago, that you will cherish in the years to come?
Sue Lonac: Anna Rose Holmer’s narrative directorial debut The Fits came out of nowhere this summer and still has me thinking. Based loosely on an inexplicable real-life case of teenage mass hysteria, the film is intensely mysterious, meditative, and arresting in its imagery. The POV is that of its tween lead (the letter-perfect Royalty Hightower), so her limitations of understanding are also ours. As a result, the surprises are genuine surprises, arriving quietly and suddenly and at first noticed only out of the corner of the eye. The film also has the most hypnotic closing I can remember seeing in years–a long, trance-like tracking shot supported by utterly haunting music. I still have unresolved (in a good way!) questions about the ending, which asks about the extent to which we can will ourselves into experiences that are either transcendent, or pathological, or both. The film also made me think about what the lives of older girls looked like to me when I was the age of the lead, when I wasn’t yet fully socialized into femininity, with all the limitations, distortions, attractions, abilities, and terrors that becoming feminine involves. Holmer and her lead capture the pure and astonishing power of a not-yet-feminine girl in a way that I had never seen on film before.
Evan Morgan: For those of us who remain willing inmates of the asylum that is film twitter, it’s perhaps increasingly difficult to be surprised by much of anything these days, given the deluge of insta-reactions, backlashes, festival dispatches, and so forth. No 2016 film reaped more attention in that regard than Toni Erdmann. After five months of post-Cannes hype, nothing seemed less poised to deliver surprise than Maren Ade’s singular comedy. And yet when I saw it at VIFF, the film’s precisely calibrated crescendo effect hit with full force, building and building to a cathartic closing sequence that had the audience yawping at the screen and cheering with truly spontaneous joy. That a packed house with a game crowd offers the potential for shared cinematic bliss inaccessible from your couch shouldn’t count as a surprise, but in 2016 it might. The audible love in that room was an offer of thanks to Ade for managing to make the most fundamental pleasure of moviegoing feel new again.
Ryan Swen: Many films were a surprise to me this year, but I’m fairly sure that the only films I saw that were just as a surprise to others as they were to me are Cameraperson, with its near-Sans soleil levels of humanism and empathy, and The Edge of Seventeen, the film I laughed at the hardest, cringed the most during, and yes, related to the most.
Sean Gilman: I don’t know that anything really surprised me this year. I didn’t believe an actual movie could be made out of the Sully story, but it might be my favorite post-Unforgiven Clint Eastwood film. The slate of Canadian cinema at VIFF this year surprised me in how good it was. Especially the films by Sofia Bohdanowicz. I’d like to see some of these make it to screens here in Seattle, I think the Film Forum would be a perfect venue for them. I’m also surprised that Anna Kendrick’s been in so many movies this year and so many of them are so bad.
Q: In 2015 our consensus pick for best film of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. We don’t cover many big blockbuster films on the site since they get enough coverage as it is but we all still see a fair share of big budget tentpole movies (except for Melissa, who is an inveterate snob), so now is your chance. Which blockbusters busted your block this year?
Evan Morgan: Unfortunately my audience was significantly thin for I Am Not Madame Bovary, consisting of myself and a phlegmatic couple watching in stoic repose behind me. Not exactly the ideal sounding board for Feng Xiaogang’s brand of droll bureaucratic comedy, but perhaps they too were dumbfounded into silence by the film’s utterly distinctive mise-en-scene, which encloses the proceedings in silhouette and laterally tracks Fan Bingbing’s human wrecking ball as she tears through the delicate dioramas of Chinese politics. Feng’s a wildly popular filmmaker in mainland China and I Am Not Madame Bovary expectedly blitzed the local box office, and yet in this abysmal year for Hollywood product it seems impossible that formal ambition of the sort displayed by Feng and company can co-exist with the demands of mass-market appeal. It’s a reminder (along with Johnnie To’s Three and Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid) that Chinese language cinema currently produces more aesthetically challenging blockbusters in a 12-month span than Hollywood can manage in twice that time.
Japan, Korea, and India all beat Tinsletown at its own game too. Shin Godzilla is the monstrous twin of I Am Not Madame Bovary; both envision their countries’ respective politics as benign but ineffectual bureaucracies, crumbling and rendered useless in the face of pathogens they can neither understand nor reject but which they surely helped create. The story of our times, I’m afraid.
Less explicitly concerned with the present is Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows which, like many other recent Korean blockbusters, is haunted by the afterlives of the Japanese occupation. More classically constructed than either I Am Not Madame Bovary or Shin Godzilla, Kim’s spy movie boasts the single best set-piece of the year, a frenetic cat and mouse game set aboard a moving train, allegiances shifting more quickly than the blurred terrain outside. I tend to find Korean genre cinema overblown and its operatic tendencies rather juvenile (hi Park Chan-wook!) but Kim shows a master’s touch here.
Finally, it’s worth highlighting the profoundly modular relationship Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has with its chosen genre, the romantic melodrama. Director Karan Johar selects, seemingly at random, an assortment of recognized building blocks (will-they-won’t-they romantic tension, queer coding, immediate onset fatal diseases) and sets out to arrange them like an unfinished Rubik’s Cube. Superficially it resembles a million other weepies but on closer inspection something is subtly out of order, the pieces never quite snapping into place. Whatever generic game Johar is playing can’t diminish the emotive power of Ranbir Kapoor’s tears, however.
Melissa Tamminga: Mike, you will be happy to know that my inveterate snobbery will remain intact since my favorite blockbuster is the Chinese one Evan mentions, The Mermaid, that Chow-zany romp with a singing scene with roasted chicken that rivals the most deeply involving singing of Sunset Song. (And I would like, at this point, to blame my snobbery on Sean, who makes me pay attention to Chinese movies.) Still, I fear my snobbery may lose a few points if I say I quite enjoyed Ghostbusters. (Although, hmm, perhaps that didn’t reach “blockbuster” status?) The discussion surrounding it was tedious in the extreme, but I appreciated going to a mass-marketed film that gave me a taste of what it might be like to live in a world where a major film features women in significant roles and doesn’t rely on a love story to drive its conflict/action. It was, on many levels, a merely mediocre film (though I’m always happy to spend time with Wiig, Jones, McCarthy, and McKinnon), but so are Marvel films, and yet we get them, one after the other after the other, relentlessly. Do I dare dream of a world where the films at the box office – good, bad, mediocre – are peopled by women as much as they are by men?
Sue Lonac: I normally adore blockbusters but I was really disappointed this year. As much as I love the Marvel cinematic universe, Tilda Swinton, and trippy mysticism, I just couldn’t get behind Doctor Strange. It was just Iron Man with scalpels.
Sean Gilman: What have come out are an endless supply of the same blockbuster product Hollywood’s been taunting us with for almost a decade now: bloated superhero origin stories, dark reboots of Valuable Intellectual Properties and the lazily half-written, half movies that pass for comedies, exploiting the likability of SNL alums and Anna Kendrick and making even the weirdest vulgarities seem utterly banal. I think I managed to sit through only a couple of Hollywood “blockbusters” this year: Doctor Strange and Ghostbusters. At least Michael Bay’s 13 Hours was more memorable in its mediocrity. So yeah, I’ll echo Evan and Melissa and assert that the best blockbusters of the year came out of Asia: The Mermaid, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, Call of Heroes and The Age of Shadows.
Ryan Swen: Does Sully count? Nothing else rose above the level of “mostly interesting”, my irrational but fading fascination with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aside.
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