Surely it has not been long since you last overheard a discussion or came across a loosely formed thinkpiece in your social media timeline that has tread upon the idea that movies are dead. Maybe the words “irrelevant,” “over-long,” or “expensive” are used, and if the state of movies were contingent on the box office receipts of major studio tentpoles in 2016, a reasonable argument could be formed in support of this stance. Certainly the emergence of television in its many forms has contributed to this viewpoint, with viewers attracted to the forms of storytelling the medium can provide. However, when storytelling is mentioned in relation to TV—at least in terms of its mass appeal—what is really meant is plot. Of course, by sheer economies of scale, television has the capacity to deliver more plot to be consumed, and the discourse around TV (recaps, binge-watch distribution, water cooler talk) is constructed to cater to this aspect. Where this grants an opportunity for film is in presenting a storytelling experience that acts on more levels than plot in a way that cannot be found elsewhere, and all of the movies on this list do just that. The stories they tell go beyond the conventions of plot and capture an honesty and authenticity that remains valuable in our culture.
That seems like a silly point to raise, but if the past year taught us anything, the truth and how we perceive the truth is still important. And by extension, 2016 was an exemplary year in non-fiction filmmaking. For as much as cinema has shifted in relation to other media in the past 10-15 years, the gains in documentary prove more than hopeful, and as we continue to grapple with how current events and our recent history inform who we are as a nation, it will be interesting to see how film fulfills that growing need. You will find a couple of the year’s finest examples from a deep field of documentaries below.
For the first time in the few years I have published a year-end list, two films share the top spot. On the surface they do not have a lot in common, but they both share incredible depth. The rest of the bunch is a diverse group, but after my foreign-heavy list from a year ago, this list shows a resurgence for American films. Hopefully these movies will encourage you to head to your local theater the next time you have a free weekend, and maybe it will give you a few more options to seek out beyond the films celebrated on Oscar Sunday.
10. Knight of Cups
As Terrence Malick continues to venture down the rabbit hole of free-standing imagery and the thoughts it associates, the director’s impulse to contrast the personal and the ethereal has—if you can believe it—condensed in scope. Though there are similarities between Malick’s cosmological meditation The Tree of Life and his latest, Knight of Cups, the director’s gaze has shifted from celestial design to an ideology rooted in humanity. Christian Bale’s wandering screenwriter is often seen looking aimlessly beyond the people and places in his immediate surroundings, but he does not seek to understand his place within the vast universe. Instead, he struggles to find what moral reckoning, if any, will beset him in a society whose cultural and normative structures bring him less and less comfort. Setting the film mostly in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles is appropriate, with a cast full of stars (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas among others) given no more superiority from Malick’s camera than the ordinary people and homeless populations that enter his frame. If Knight of Cups is Malick at his most opaque, it is also him at his most inviting—at least in his last few films that are similarly fragmented. “Remember,” Bale’s character repeats throughout, not just for him to be reminded of his purpose, but for us to acknowledge that the narratives on which we set ourselves some time ago are not perfect and may no longer apply.
9. Sunset Song
Even though Sunset Song features countless beautiful landscapes of Scottish countryside, the rolling fields and hills never stretch far enough, and thus the film shares quite a lot in terms of mood and claustrophobic domesticity with director Terence Davies’ other films. Based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song follows a young Scottish girl’s (Agyness Deyn) coming-of-age under a tormenting and abusive father (Peter Mullen) and through familial loss and growth. When her father finally does pass on, her hope is renewed by the chance to start her own family with a strapping young fellow (Kevin Guthrie) from her local village, but then World War I approaches and overshadows any joy from her new circumstances. As much as the premise may suggest a quaint period piece, it is directed in a way that indicates anything but pleasantry. The beauty of our natural world is put in contrast with the destructive and selfish tendencies passed on from one father and husband to the next. At the center is Deyn’s marvelous performance as a woman of the land who understands that patriarchy is just as easily swept away by the winds of time, and it is to her credit that Sunset Song, no matter how dreary, still can be seen as a celebration of life.
In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Adam Driver plays Paterson, a man whose daily routine is laid out to us in intimate detail: he wakes up, goes to work as a bus driver, writes poetry in his notebook over lunch, has dinner with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani), and at night walks his dog to a local bar to unwind over a pint. We see this routine over the course of a week, and therefore we are keenly aware of what is and is not “out of the ordinary.” We are also aware of the rhythms of how Jarmusch frames certain moments, and thus we react when something is presented to us in a different way than the day before. Rhythms is an appropriate word because the sequences in which Paterson writes poetry (though they do carry some repetition) are outwardly the most escapist aspects to the film, and poetry becomes the device which frames how Paterson views the community around him (in a city also named Paterson). Therefore, coincidence is no longer an anomaly but a rhyme (such as the recurring motif of twins throughout the picture), and the poetry in Paterson’s life rings as genuine as the words scribbled on the pages of his notes. There is plenty more to be said about his wife’s eccentric creative outlets and the mystery of a tipped-over mailbox, but Paterson is first-and-foremost a film about existence and experience—no matter how ordinary—and the beauty that comes with it.
On one hand Cameraperson is a fascinating assortment of moments, places, and people from a handful of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s long history of projects—cut together in a way that is at first perplexing but over time becomes infinitely rewarding. We begin with a shepherd in Bosnia, then cut to a nurse delivering newborns in a Nigerian clinic, then to a group of West Texas prosecutors going over the details of a brutal murder by white supremacists, then to many other locations and points in time, including Johnson’s own mother battling with Alzheimer’s and her two adorable children. These dissociative instances develop their own language and logic in how they are sequenced as a whole to great thematic and narrative effect. On the other hand, and where I think it will be revisited time and time again, Cameraperson is also a crucial document of authorship in non-fiction film. Johnson recognizes that her subjects affect her just as much as the presence of a camera affects them, and she approaches this push and pull with remarkable precision. We are made aware of her interaction—and sometimes intervention—in what she is recording, and her work reminds us that while the preservation of history is important, a voice to give that history meaning is still needed.
6. O.J.: Made in America
If O.J.: Made in America is indeed as sweeping as its nearly eight-hour running time suggests, then it does so with more than just a broom. Ezra Edelman’s documentary is not an achievement simply because of its investigation into the infamous 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. It stands out because of the broader context it includes, connecting a trial that many see as a singular and self-contained event in our nation’s history to a greater continuum—of deep-seeded racial tensions in Los Angeles (and our nation at-large) that span far before Rodney King and persist even beyond Simpson’s 2008 conviction and sentencing of 33 years in prison. That this painful narrative intertwines with another quintessentially American tradition—that of celebrity—gives the multiple layers of this story that much more immediacy, and Edelman makes a painstaking effort to frame familiar parts of Simpson’s fall from grace in new ways via details we have not heard before. These revelations bring about a collective complicity because this film is not just a story about one man. It is the story of America.
5. Toni Erdmann
An early scene in Marin Ade’s Toni Erdmann is one we have seen countless times before: an estranged father (Peter Simonischek) catching up with his career-focused daughter (Sandra Hüller). They inevitably reach a juncture of recounting momentous occasions where one of the two was not present. However, it does not escalate into a shouting match nor an exchange of snarky retorts. Instead the two subtly—and sincerely—acknowledge each other’s disappointment, but nothing suggests that any behavior will change. This scene can be easily cast aside, but because it comes off as genuine, we are calibrated to the surprising hilarity that ensues. The ridiculousness of the father assuming an alternate persona and following his daughter on one of her business trips is not lost on us, but it is also not questioned. We connect with these loosely framed but deeply formed characters in such a way that we are also attuned to the challenges of a young woman navigating a male-dominated business. The praise belongs to Hüller and Simonischek, but also Ade, for generating such empathy and for engineering one of the most intelligent comedies in recent years.
4. The Handmaiden
For a movie about con artists and sexual enslavement, among other things, The Handmaiden still oozes with charm, though it is of the darkly funny variety. This can largely be attributed to the seemingly effortless way director Park Chan-wook deploys his craft in service of a tone familiar to his past films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. A considerably loopy plot is at play here as well, about a man (Ha Jung-woo) posing as a count to scheme the inheritance away from a legitimate countess (Kim Min-hee). He enlists the help of another woman (Kim Tae-ri) to aid in his plan, but what he did not expect to happen was his accomplice and the countess to fall in love. This development takes numerous twists and turns and involves other colorful characters (especially a perverted book collector with an ink-stained tongue), but in combination with Park’s formidable technique, the plot of The Handmaiden privileges the female perspective, a rare occurrence in Korean cinema (and America for that matter). This point-of-view evokes ideas of authenticity, trust, and a desire for freedom, and they are all deployed with enough whimsy that they do not become stale. Therefore, The Handmaiden works on us in our hearts despite the appeals to our heads. Ultimately, we are the ones who have been conned.
3. The Lobster
Given the markedly un-commercial premises to his films, director Yorgos Lanthimos will likely never be a household name, but one might wonder how many more films it will take until cinephiles refer to his aesthetic, and other works of a similar nature, as Lanthimosian (credit to Matt Zoller Seitz). The Lobster is the filmmaker’s English language debut, but it continues a strong tradition of examining ordinary people bumping into—and then working to stay within—increasingly bizarre social barriers and constructs. In Dogtooth it was a pair of misinformed daughters kept from the world outside their well-protected home. In The Lobster, a recently divorced man must quickly find another spouse before he is turned into an animal. Colin Farrell makes for a compelling schlub, but he also serves as our window into an intriguing, yet also horrifying, simulation of human interaction. That is not to say The Lobster is self-serious, because it may be Lanthimos’ most morbidly comedic effort. From an eerie hotel for making couples to a group of anti-establishment singles hiding out in the woods, our dopey hero finds that neither end of the spectrum has a good grasp on relationships or marriage. What is it that attracts us to one another, and whom do those reasons serve? In the hands of a non-Lanthimosian director, we might not find the answer believable, but to Lanthimos himself, the paradox of love seems perfectly plausible.
1. Silence (tie)
What is it about Martin Scorsese’s Silence that makes me think this film will be revisited long after anyone cares about who received a little gold statue this year? Is it the plight of Father Rodgrigues (Andrew Garfield), who cannot reconcile if his missionary efforts in 17th century Japan are divinely endorsed or spiritually vapid? Is it the way Rodrigo Prieto’s camera fuses the anguish and ecstasy of Japanese Christians being crucified in a roaring ocean? Or is it the director himself, who toiled for thirty years to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel into this deeply felt work of considerable technical virtuosity? The answer is likely all three of these but also in conjunction with the many other aspects that both stand out and stand in unison with Scorsese’s vision. Consider Issey Ogata’s turn as a master manipulator and pragmatist, whose methods to eradicate Christianity are as fiendish as they are informed, or Yôsuke Kubozuka as the wayward sinner Kichijiro, whose longing for absolution is continually derailed by his own accord. Silence does not treat them as lesser-than, but rather it questions all sides of the debate and offers little resolution. What it does provide, however, is expression: of faith, of defiance, and of love, taking consequential action and attempting to derive its intent. This could be said of all Scorsese pictures, but here it directly stares down what has always been on the director’s mind and is unafraid of what it finds.
1. Moonlight (tie)
I have already written at length about why Moonlight is a perfect film for this moment and the ways it speaks to specific aspects of our world as we now see it, so I am inclined to opine here as to why this film is not just for our time, but for all time. Maybe because this could be the launching-off point for a long and storied career for director Barry Jenkins, whose vision brings Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play to life in cinematography, sound, and editing. Perhaps we will remember Moonlight as the emergence of Hollywood’s next great actor. The film offers plenty of choices (such as Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, or Trevante Rhodes). But most probably (and surely most conservatively) it is how these come together to weave the ambitious life journey we see onscreen. We will look back at Moonlight when the injustices it portrays are toppled and when we are aghast that they still exist. We will look back at its immense generosity and tenderness, both from director to subject and from character to character. And we will look back at scenes like the one pictured above, when our young protagonist, Chiron, learns to swim, or when he is a grown man at a diner reconnecting with someone who is more than just an old friend. Moonlight manages to define without being defining in that Chiron comes to understand how the world defines someone like him, but he (and Jenkins) resist allowing the exuberant and gut-wrenching events we witness from defining who he is. The world needs Chiron, just more than he needs the world.
A subversive throwback to the espionage romantic dramas of yore, Robert Zemekis’ Allied; My favorite animated film of the year, the stop-motion epic Kubo and the Two Strings; The stunning visual companion to one of Beyoncé’s most defiant albums, Lemonade; Robert Eggers’ chilling first feature, the meticulous puritan horror film The Witch; A darkly hilarious snapshot of classic Hollywood, the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!; Kenneth Lonergan’s solemn but honest portrayal of grief in a small New England community, Manchester by the Sea; The quietly ferocious debut of Royalty Hightower in Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits; One of the boldest American independent releases in recent memory, Anna Biller’s ode to 1970s erotic thrillers in The Love Witch.