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Michael Snydel’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Written by on January 5, 2017 

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The dominant conversation about film in 2016 was its impending end. Just about every sphere of the cinematic world from filmmakers to established critics to loudmouth pundits had a doomsday proclamation about film, conflating national anxiety and middling blockbusters with far-flung conclusions. With the year in the books, it’s pretty easy to disagree with them. And I say that even as I diverge with public opinion on some of the biggest films of the year – Jackie, La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea, etc.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my favorite experiences with film this year were less my most-anticipated than the ones that defied easy description. They weren’t always my favorites but films like The Love Witch, Lemonade, Operation Avalanche, Kate Plays Christine, and Aferim! were welcome reminders of the myriad ways that film could feel strange and new – and in the case of two of those, a hell of a good time to discuss on the podcast.

By the same token, my top ten aren’t necessarily the best in my opinion, but the choices that made me think the most about my own relationship with film, and how my expectations could be subverted. Finally, there’s many films that couldn’t fit on my list but a few of my most painful omissions are Indignation, Viktoria, A Bigger Splash, Edge of Seventeen, Mad, The Salesman, SPL 2, and Only Yesterday. And finally, for a bit larger survey of my 2016 opinions, here’s a vague ranking of the 183 new releases I saw this year.

Honorable Mentions

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10. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)

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Another one that I wrote about back at the beginning of this year, and one that coincidentally deals with some of the same tensions between modernism and traditionalism of Kaili Blues. Ciro Guerra’s film is an expansive, hallucinogenic journey across time, but also an unexpectedly moving consideration of personal biases and how different cultures interact with each other.

9. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

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Kelly Reichardt’s films have often been about quiet anarchy, characters who hardly ever thrive, but have a codependent relationship with rebellion. They’re naturally gravitated to being outsiders, to living off the land, and finding peace in their own isolation — even as they silently curse the stars for their loneliness. Certain Women is then appropriately defiant in Reichardt’s filmography, allowing the women at the center of each of these anthology stories to finally be given some catharsis. The film itself is likewise exceedingly generous, offering some of the best performers of this generation (and the next) an opportunity to no longer wander, but to be heard.

8. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

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I wrote the review for this one back in March, but Bi Gan’s debut is one of those films that’s gradually glommed onto my brain for the remainder of last year. A meditation on the cruel passage of time, what’s lost in the process, and the haunted imprints, Gan’s film very slowly inures viewers to its singular view of time and space until its mingling of the real and unreal is only natural. Told with an eye toward visual poetry over narrative coherency, Gan’s film casts a gentle spell, wrapping up the viewers in a soothing fog where time and place are irrelevant, and even our most dreaded ghosts can be a comfort.

7. Cameraperson (Kristen Johnson)

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There are individual images and sequences from Kristen Johnson’s autobiographical bricolage that have stuck with me all year, and yet it still feels nearly impossible to describe the film’s pleasures in words. Culled from decades of B-roll from Johnson’s work, she builds a narrative of her life arranged in a way that feels both totally incidental and carefully crafted. The imagery can range from little more than footage skirting along the edge of a market to the first breath from a newly birthed infant, but there’s no sense of internal hierarchy. All of it is placed side by side as an overwhelming mass, and the only possible response is submission.

6. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

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There were other films that I laughed more at this year, but there were none that made me think more about the existential terror involved in the mechanics of comedy. The ingenuity of Maren Ade’s deeply ambitious comedy/corporate satire is less in the specificity of the jokes than how they’re being told and delivered. Ade’s formal prowess easily upstages nearly every major comedy director working now, bringing a building scale to compositions in ways that, yes, recall the Jackass series in their move from the mundane to the absurd. The difference is that Ade doesn’t count even after the maximum amount of discomfort has been wrung out of the situation. Instead, the film just lingers on the central father/daughter relationship until it moves from yuks to a telepathic emotional connection. At nearly three hours, Toni Erdmann is undeniably intimidating, but its length is paramount to its success, agonizing over every aspect of their family relationship until paralyzing fear and begrudging admiration are nearly one in the same.

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