A Halfway There Checklist: The Best of the Year So Far

Unless you made the hike to Park City or Cannes, the quality of 2016’s cinematic output may not seem especially encouraging. Look at the year’s highest grossing films and find sequel after sequel, superhero film after superhero film, with original properties coming from the likes of Melissa McCarthy, Michael Bay, and Walt Disney Studios. None of this is new, but the quantity of dreck seems to have tipped the scales in a particularly negative way.  

It hasn’t been all bad though. The past six months have brought new films from Terrence Malick, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Richard Linklater. The old guard of auteurs remained reliable, while new names like Anna Biller, Sean Dunne, Robert Eggers, and Dan Trachtenberg present fascinating curiosities. The following are the highlights, films that standout among the ubiquity of sameness, more often than not offering something new and interesting to say.

Caveat: So many films, so little time. Here are some films that I regrettably was not able to screen prior to producing this list: Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent, Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky, Andrew Stanton's Finding Dory, Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, Shane Black's The Nice Guys, Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's Swiss Army Man, and more. 

Noteworthy

10 Cloverfield Lane
(Dan Trachtenberg)

Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature can be faulted for numerous offenses. It can be accused as a blatant and unnecessary marketing extension of a series that never needed to continue. Or that Dan Trachtenberg, as a novice director, was ill equipped to express the interior terrors of operating within a confined space. That may make 10 Cloverfield Lane something of a missed opportunity, but the final product, with its tacked on ending and all, doesn’t dissuade a viewer’s appreciation for the persuasive performances of its three principal actors. In John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its stageplay roots and rich post 9/11-Trumpian subtext and imbues it with nuance and intelligence.  

The Alchemist Cookbook
(Joel Potrykus)

Another film about confined spaces, though in this particular film we find director Joel Potrykus exploring the caverns of the mind. His lead character, Sean (Ty Hickson) lives in a trailer in a remote forest area, where his day in, day-out includes makeshift science projects, feckless fishing, and binge-eating Doritos. A steady accumulation of details positions the film from the sardonically humorous to something genuinely horrifying. And like Buzzard, Potrykus’ breakthrough film, the sharpness of reality is dulled not just for its main character, but for the audience as well. This is sharp, high-caliber, and insightful filmmaking from a filmmaker who continues to impress.

Chronic
(Michel Franco)

Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco has generated a degree of notoriety though the explicitness of his subjects. Daniel and Ana with its study on incest, After Lucia and the trauma of adolescent bullying, and now Chronic, an examination of a home care nurse working with terminally ill patients. There’s no getting past it: Franco’s a downer. But there’s a psychology in Chronic, an attuned antenna to the detachment that comes with living a tired, monotonous life. Through Tim Roth’s delicately layered and unglamorous performance, Franco excels in conveying the pathology of an isolated loner, removed from the world and perpetually abandoned by people he cares for. It’s a powerful film, with Franco laying on the gamut of pain and suffering to a heightened degree, though it’s because of Roth that the material transcends, inspiring self-inflection rather than pity or disgust. 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
(Werner Herzog)

American cinema often regards technology, particularly the Internet, with a kind of antiquated paranoia, with films like Men, Women & Children and Disconnect projecting commonly misplacing fears of Internet addiction as signaling some sort of cosmic undoing of civilization. It comes with great relief that Werner Herzog’s new documentary on the Internet (its origins, the contemporary results of its cultural dissemination, and its future prospects) is less a condemnation of contemporary technology and more an attempt at understanding it. Constructed as a series of vignettes, Herzog muses on our capacity to interact with technology that grows exponentially more sophisticated even as our culture at times seems to regress.

Louder than Bombs
(Joachim Trier)

Joachim Trier’s new film is not the revelation that something like Oslo, August 31st (his previous film) was. But Louder than Bombs, his English-language debut, possesses all the raw elements that one associates with a director of Trier’s standing. The picture unnerves in its refusal to adhere to any linear narrative logic, shifting in perspectives and moving from past and present, reality and fiction. And with a cast that includes one of the planet’s greatest living actresses’, Isabelle Huppert, along with Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg, the film’s spotty dramatics (the transition from Norwegian to English is not without some rough patches) are realized with genuine insight.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
(Nicholas Stoller)

Those who have suggested that Nicholas Stoller’s socially conscious Neighbors sequel is the summer’s heir apparent to Gregory Jacob’s Magic Mike XXL are greatly exaggerating its altruistic qualities. And that’s not to mention the quantum leap between Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh’s formal craft to that of the blandly innocuous (though an improvement from its predecessor) of Stoller et al. Yet the film is an improvement from its predecessor for simply possessing the virtue of acknowledging women on a college campus and the impossible situation that so many of them find themselves in: insofar as to what their sexual responsibilities are in a culture that critiques their every gesture. Not that the film ever really examines that concern. The five writers associated with the film are more concerned with a good “bag of dicks” joke. But I laughed, so I’m part of the problem.

The Neon Demon
(Nicolas Winding Refn)

“Straightforward” may not be the first word to describe Refn’s cinema, but it’s among the chief narrative characteristics of The Neon Demon. The opening hour of the film is steeped in the familiar: Jesse’s  (Elle Fanning) arrival to L.A., her ascent in the fashion industry, and her subsequent decline. Yet less A Star is Born, more Showgirls, Refn indulges in his brand (a “NWR” is monogrammed through the opening credits, while “Nicolas Winding Refn” presents The Neon Demon with Amazon Studios) of neon sleaze, perverting every frame and mutating the familiar and rote into something eerily pulchritudinous. Much of it is on the nose, to be certain, but I suppose it’s all in the presentation: an early conversation between Jesse and a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) is shot with adjacent mirrors, the images reflected, two, three times over in a sort of kaleidoscopic suggestion of tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Recommended

De Palma
(Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

Capital A Advocacy may prohibit Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma from ever becoming more than a fan letter to one of America’s best filmmakers, but this essay documentary satisfies even the most casual of De Palma acolyte. Shot mostly in medium close-up of the director with intercutting scenes from his filmography, we gain access to a contextual layer of administrative and personal details behind each film. Like with any documentary of this type, some films are highlighted more than others (it would have been interesting to hear more about Femme Fatale or Passion, for example). Despite this minor issue, the film’s value is in how it strips away the glamour so often associated with filmmaking, highlighting how a man as logical and straightforward as De Palma found himself running the circus that is each new film.

Green Room
(Jeremy Saulnier)

About a half-hour into Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, where the cumulative details of adolescents moshing in the least local of locals (a skinhead roadhouse/venue in rural Oregon) takes shape, the sensory details signal a film that runs on some pretty heavy fuel. That is, of course, before the tempered siege of violence has reached a rolling boil; before the red laces, the snarling dogs, the microphone feedback, or, eventually, the shotguns. The series of calamities that prompt Green Room’s excesses in lacerating violence is realized less like the hardcore and punk tracks that ornate the film’s soundscape, and more like a symphony: a sonata-allegro opening, expelling necessary plot and character elements rapidly, paving the way to a thoughtful and carefully-orchestrated vision of sinister purpose.

Hail, Caesar!
(Joel and Ethan Coen)

Hail Caesar!.jpg

I’m reminded of a line from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, where Hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell) advises Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) that being bounty hunters, as it were, was not supposed to be easy. Major Marquis Warren’s blunt reply addresses the other side of that proposal: “Nobody said it's supposed to be that hard, either”.  You’ll find a character combating with that logic in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) functions as the fulcrum to a series of PR catastrophes, attending to the concerns of Capitol Pictures as if handling God’s work. Work, of the capital W variety, often gives people purpose and for Mannix that purpose is questioned when a lucrative new offer is presented to him. For a film about attempting to ascribe meaning to life, Hail, Caesar! produces skull-clutching existential spasms. Yet I confess that some of the film’s more comedic elements don’t quite register – I get more humor out of the Coens within a context of suffering rather than an overtly comic one, e.g. A Serious Man > The Big Lebowski. That said, even minor Coens is worthy of recommendation.

Liza, the Fox-Fairy
(Károly Ujj Mészáros)

The self-conscious Liza, the Fox-Fairy operates under a fairly shaky premise. We find Liza (Mónika Balsai), a lonely caretaker and Japanophile, contending with the immediate death of her client and her subsequent attempts to acclimate with the outside world. Imagine Being There as realized by Kristen Wiig and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Károly Ujj Mészáros is a gifted stylist, and given that this is his debut, it’s an all the more impressive exhibition of reworking a tired narrative and enlivening it. My initial skepticism of the film’s process – of its overt attempts to flatter its audience for being aware of the conventions its poking fun at – are remedied through Balsai’s touching performance. This is the kind of film that could easily be led astray by cynicism, by ridiculing its central character’s loneliness and making it the object of humor. But Balsai’s delicacy amid all of Mészáros’ eccentricities goes a long way in instilling Liza with a real sense of pathos and humanity.

Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman)

A prominent bishop dressed in gardener’s garb is curtly dismissed from attending a stuffy socialite party in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That same bishop, however, is greeted openly when he returns to the door, this time dressed in his formal clergy attire, recognized as an integral component to this exclusive society. Entry to the hegemonic elite is often a matter of looking the part. That just about sums up every Whit Stillman film, dating back to his 1990 debut Metropolitan to his new film, the exceedingly clever Love & Friendship. Exposing the superficialities of the privileged few is among the chief thematic liquors in Stillman’s bitter cocktails and his new film is no different. Here, he attends to those concerns with a businessman’s acumen, with the title’s ampersand functioning as a signpost for what’s to come: compassion and cordiality are treated with cutthroat disregard, where climbing the social ladder requires the sharpest and most stubborn wit.

The Love Witch
(Anna Biller)

What could’ve been a jejune exercise in replicating stylistic tropes of the Argento/Bava variety is given serious consideration through Biller’s distinct auterist command - beyond functioning as writer and director, she also edited, designed the film’s costumes and sets, and composed the score. Set in a small California town, the film sees Elaine (Samantha Robinson, seemingly plopped out of Elisabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and placed here) utilizing her womanly wiles and the dark arts to bag a man. Concocting potions and devising wicked schemes to realize her fantasies, she’s left disappointed by men and their submissiveness. The feminist polemic here is simple yet effective, with Biller’s panoply of stylistic tricks accumulating in a significant way. Not merely content with being a simulacrum of 70/80s exploitation films, Biller repositions and re-contextualizes the narrative through a distinctly feminist lens.

The Measure of a Man
(Stéphane Brizé)

Stéphane Brizé’s affecting feature about a middle age man’s obsolesce won Vincent Lindon a Best Actor award at Cannes, but it’s Brizé’s subtle direction for The Measure of a Man that really should be highlighted here. In a film about a man coping with the loss of his job and the subsequent changes that come with the contemporary job hunt, Lindon captures all the anxieties and self-doubts that are associated with this daunting search. But it’s in Brizé’s direction that we navigate how the details of his search and his subsequent service sector employment take upon a cumulative aspect of fatigue and desperation.

The film positions Thierry (Lindon) as somewhat unpleasant, not mean-spirited but focused – a straight-faced, no nonsense, and simple man. Or that’s how his immediate colleagues and strangers perceive him. Composed of just a handful of scenes, Brizé will often position Thierry against the hostility of workplace politics or the drudgery of a Skype interview with scenes of his wife and handicapped son. Brizé emphasizes a stationary and grounded Thierry in scenes where he’s combating relentless antagonism – often seen statuesque when confronted with harsh criticisms or contending with a stubborn customer. The camera and Lindon move breathlessly within sequences that include his family; he is often seen dancing with his wife. These gestures may seem obvious but their affect results in an undeniable vision of the acrimonious capitalistic society that Thierry inhabits, and the refuge that family can provide.

Three
(Johnnie To)

The simplicity of Johnnie To’s latest is that its plot can be reduced to a sentence: a cop, a criminal, and a neurosurgeon come to a violent moral reckoning within the confines of a hospital. But for those familiar with To’s cinema, simplicity in plotting is augmented by heightened formal aptitude. Taking the concept of an “operating theatre” in a completely unique direction, Three is highlighted by its sense of confinement. Few directors rival To when it comes to staging an action sequence, but what makes Three so impressive is how the film is largely rooted in its stageplay sensibilities. It’s a film that balances its dramaturgy, it’s intricate web of moral and ethical deliberations, within a confined milieu that will eventually be the setting for a violent shootout. I’ve always been impressed with To’s capacity to move between drama, comedy, and action with such deftness; Three possesses all three qualities, sutured within an economical 90 minutes.

Trump Rally
(Sean Dunne)

For someone who was around for Donald Trump’s ill-fated Reform Party bid back in 2000, his subsequent return, this time running as a Republican, seemed like another example of history repeating itself. The megalomaniac will run his course through a few months of campaigning and fizzle out. But he didn’t. Sean Dunne’s documentary, Trump Rally, takes place during that strange period in American history where Trump’s campaign was turning into something dangerous, during a campaign pit stop at Las Vegas’ Southpoint. His rhetoric was finding an audience and that audience was growing, exponentially. Winning the Republican nomination was still an uncertainty, but there was a degree of anxiety simmering from political parties and the media. And while Dunne’s cultural snapshot may seem tame compared to what we now know about Trump supporters and their violent proclivities, this remains a vital cultural document that reaffirms that this is truly a nation divided.

Weiner
(Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

To paraphrase Martin Amis, New York City is full of short stories, long stories, epics, farces, sitcoms, sagas, and squibs, walking round hand-in-hand. What happens to Anthony Weiner during his 2013 NYC mayoral campaign is, no lie, all those stories and more. This post-pubescent politician, caught messaging women under the alias Carlos Danger, was shamed and ousted as a congressman, only to have the controversy reemerge during his new campaign. Weiner’s self professed capacity to “fuck everything up” wouldn’t be so interesting if Weiner himself weren’t such an agreeable figure: the former congressman’s political worldview mirrors my own. While Josh Kriegnman and Elyse Steinberg don’t do anything especially interesting with the documentary form, it’s Anthony Weiner who emerges as a vital voice and perpetually interesting character, one who blurs the line between politician and celebrity. 

Highly Recommended

Everybody Wants Some!!
(Richard Linklater)

As with much of Linklater’s oeuvre, the lingering concern remains that of time. Whereas these concerns were much more overtly realized in Boyhood and the Before trilogy, Everybody Wants Some!! is so relaxed and unconcerned with anything beyond its characters’ next stimuli that it may come across as slight. That’s simply not the case. Casual asides and rejoinders expose a film that is so acutely aware of the passages of youth, of existing in the here and now, along with a keen awareness of what it means to live in the there and then. As Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) is exposed for falsely enrolling in college during the team’s first practice, we are casually reminded of what brought him and all these baseball players together in the first place: their perceived athletic talents. Talent is its own exception and while the college experience is one to be treasured, your failure to capitalize will see it recede into your periphery. Not to suggest that the film is some kind of bummer, but rather to say that like with many of Linklater’s studies on time and its passing, the results are often quite bittersweet.

The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos)

Unlike Lanthimos’ breakthrough film, Dogtooth, The Lobster is most notable for bridging the passage between passive and involved viewing. Both films are fundamentally shocking in their examinations of human behavior, but The Lobster’s satirical deconstruction of the pangs of relationships and the delusions we subsist on in order to make sense of the world register as vitally True. In Lanthimos’ candid approach, where every character speaks in a blunt and forceful manner, there’s a genuine sense that you’re peering into a kind of warped mental experience had by someone struggling to make sense of relationships and a culture that complicates them. It’s daring and unspools the anxieties and hesitations of meeting someone better than any other film I can recall.

Sunset Song
(Terence Davis)

When it comes to Terence Davies, I have more or less engaged with his work from a distance, often admiring the form of his films but never quite penetrating their icy surfaces. The Long Day Closes stood as the single outlier to that rule. Well, that was until Sunset Song, which may very well be his best film to date.

Exquisitely composed with a rigid attention to detail (as is the case for all of Davies work), what makes Sunset Song so remarkable is that amid the decadently constructed frames resonates an emotional center that motivates all of the picture’s actions. It’s purely visceral, in what’s a film structured around Chris’ (Agyness Deyn) coming of age in Scotland during the early 1900s. Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of the same name, Davies’ contains the sweeping melodrama to Chris, where her ascent from adolescence to adulthood is rife with paternal abuse and death, matrimonial bliss and despair. Davies clearly unites the melodramatic discord that Chris experiences with the land she tills; the two absorbing the punishment of its inhabitants while resolutely enduring. And much like John Ford’s How Green is My Valley, the steady accumulation of details that unite the land with its inhabitants reveals something of cosmic significance. Gorgeously photographed by Michael McDonough, Sunset Song is Davies’ magnum opus, a singular work of purity and sincerity.

The Witch
(Robert Eggers)

The terror found in Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch is of a feminine persuasion. It is a film concerned with what a young woman represents in society, about that young woman’s abject objectification, and about the dangers of misplaced masculinity. The Witch is also, commendably, a film about its milieu, with Eggers detailing 1600s New England as an alien terrain, akin to the black void that consumes its inhabitants whole in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. And it is Glazer’s film that bares an immediate kinship with Eggers’ work, exhibiting a thematic bloodline on the fear of femininity and its hostile repercussions.

Essential

Horace and Pete
(Louis C.K.)

My natural inclination tends to be the same when approaching any new piece of media: I’m here to be in charge of a movie or television show, submitting my entertainment dollar for something that will regurgitate the same tired but comfortable lallations of moral truths. Something that surprises me, something that challenges and even reshapes my worldview, are anomalies, those rarities that are so often in the moment indescribable. All you know is that it’s authentic and true and has touched upon every one of your nerve endings.

To clear the air: Horace and Pete, a web series that can be purchased on Louis C.K.’s official website is the single best piece of media I’ve consumed over the past six months. It’s stripped of any semblance of irony, detached from contemporary fashions of quote unquote naturalism, sincere and thoughtful. It’s a statement on aging, on the biological handicaps that haunt every one of us, and a bitterly sharp commentary on living in the here and now, along with the there and then. C.K. creates a bona fide masterpiece here, in something that is both an extension of his work on Louie as well as a commentary on the restrictions that contemporary “Golden Age” television has on an artist of his magnitude. It’s lightning in a bottle. 

Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s cinema, particularly those films produced within this decade, place unusual demands on a viewer. With a relaxed obligation to plot (something that could be considered threadbare in The Tree of Life to nil in Knight of Cups) and an experimental sophistication that rejects traditional formal notions, the apostasy from the Church of Malick seems to be increasing in membership with every passing film. Those who maintain a rigid allegiance to his earlier films, Badlands and Day of Heaven, will likely have continued doubts of Malick’s visionary gifts with Knight of Cups. But those who have accepted and embraced his new visions of distorted realities, spiritual crises, and existential anxieties in The Tree of Life and particularly To the Wonder will be further moved by Malick's continued expressionistic experimentalism. Knight of Cups is a canonical work that further solidifies Malick’s position as the most significant figure in contemporary American cinema.