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The Best Films of 2016 (So Far)

Written by on June 28, 2016 

Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

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Dozens of films try to copy the Coens every year, and yet no one ever comes close. They have developed such a delicate, fluid witches’ brew of talent behind and in front of the camera, and a writing style that’s consistently funny and melancholy (often at the same time), that it seems impossible to replicate. Hail, Caesar! is a film that could only ever be made by the Coens. Just as the brothers themselves love to present dialectics about the duality of triviality and seriousness, so, too, does Hail, Caesar! constantly skate back and forth between feeling slight and monumental. – Michael S. (full review)

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)

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With a relatively small theatrical roll-out earlier this year, it’s likely you haven’t heard of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, but Stephen Cone‘s drama is one of the best films of the year thus far. Authentically capturing a conservative upbringing and the repression therein, it takes place over one day as we follow Henry (Cole Doman, in a wonderful break-out performance) and his group of friends — as well as adults from the local church — as they skirt around trauma, burgeoning sexuality, and more. Directed with a level of intimacy and emotional truth by Cone simply not present in most dramas — regardless of budget — it’s an essential watch. – Jordan R.

In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel)

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While fitting snugly in the overall cohesiveness of Philippe Garrel’s filmography, In the Shadow of Women nevertheless feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, the 2013 critical hit Jealousy. Garrel’s latest is also shot in black-and-white, kept within a similarly svelte running time (73 minutes), and its pared-down story of marital infidelity again takes the jealousy intrinsic to adult relationships as its primary theme. In the Shadow of Women revolves around Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau), a married couple living in a run-down Parisian apartment and struggling along as documentary filmmakers. The strain in their relationship is apparent from the outset and both soon embark on individual affairs. The contrast in their respective motivations – Pierre’s is physical; Manon’s is emotional – and reactions upon learning of the other’s unfaithfulness – Manon is understanding; Pierre is seething – lays bare the asymmetries in their marriage, forcing a confrontation with truths hitherto swept under the carpet. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

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At its heart, Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a meditation on the struggle between traditionalism and modernism. Through the story of one man’s journey through Chinese cities — Kaili to Zhenyuan — Bi focuses on characters who lament the people and ideas that they’ve lost as the world’s changed around them. But this is not just another screed against contemporary life; it finds a cruel beauty and gentle soul in the transition between elemental landscapes and the unfinished, industrialized future. And there’s personal serenity for some of these characters in being able to leave behind their old lives. – Michael S. (full review)

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

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You know the deal: “Late” Terrence Malick — a period that ostensibly begins with The Thin Red Line and truly begins to bloom, stylistically speaking, once Emmanuel Lubezki came aboard for The New World — looms too large to simply divide cineastes into “pro” and “con” camps, instead fueling debate about anything that could remotely be considered “cinematic,” and perhaps whatever else a person feels like fitting into their argument. Knight of Cups was far from an exception; rather, it broke that chasm open only further, and at this point there may be no turning back to the consensus masterpieces of the ’70s. That our own review, published out of Berlin last year, couldn’t settle in one camp and, almost 18 months later, we place it here should be sign enough — and we (or at least I) get it. But most criticism seem feeble when facing this movie’s grandest moments, which can render our contemporary world’s most banal components into something altogether new — has a drive down an L.A. street ever felt so majestic? — just as its reaches towards pathos reveal an eye for experiences far outside the hermetic world of Christian Bale‘s central character. (Claims of sexism are especially strange when the most piercing sequence is couched firmly in female perspective and experience. It’s almost as if considering this possibility is harder than simply pointing towards nudity as proof-positive of one’s “misogynistic impulses.”) Knight of Cups is not Terrence Malick’s best film — it might even trail behind To the Wonder for me — and that’s fine. An artist daring to go further into the depths of human feeling and coming out with something new should never be considered a failure. – Nick N.

Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)

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Though writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults hardly turns the dark family drama genre on its head, Krisha compensates with exceptional acting and an infectious atmosphere of dread. If the bare bones of cliché are there simply so that artists can pack on their own meat, then Krisha Fairchild surely makes the most of the provided opportunity. Though I increasingly grow perturbed over “raw” performance in modern film that is maybe / sort of just misery porn, her three-legged-dog embodiment of Krisha’s mounting desperation is undeniably riveting. She attempts to tamp down her neuroses the same way she keeps her medications in a lockbox, but her every attempt to reach out to estranged siblings and in-laws and such is hobbled by the fear (or maybe resigned knowledge) that she will be rebuffed. – Dan S. (full review)

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

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The eminently idiosyncratic films of Yorgos Lanthimos revile the societal constructs that stifle and pervert human interaction. In laying bare these structures’ inherent hypocrisies, the films exaggerate their logic to absurd extremes, with conformity’s noxious ramifications always at the crux of Lanthimos’ critique. His exceptional breakthrough Dogtooth eviscerated the institution of the modern family, representing it as emblematic of society’s greater normative oppression. Dogtooth’s similarly incisive yet less warmly received follow-up Alps exposed the pretence fundamental to the forming of social identity. His newest film, The Lobster, takes on the rigid preconceptions surrounding relationships. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

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Master of poisonous tongues and vicious schemes in the world of the rich and the poor, Love & Friendship is perhaps writer/director Whit Stillman‘s most potent mix of comedy and social commentary. He’s got Jane Austen to thank, whose novella ‘Lady Susan’ serves as the inspiration for this tale of Lady Susan Vernon (a pitch-perfect Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a flirtatious reputation, determined to well re-marry well at whatever the cost. Often laugh-out-loud funny and downright mean at the same time, Stillman is in top form here. – Dan M.

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)

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While I’m waiting for Jeff Nichols to make a truly great film — Take Shelter comes awfully close — Midnight Special is another calling card for his welcome brand of patient, well-crafted mythic filmmaking. This time taking the form of a sci-fi thriller, his first studio effort certainly features his largest scope yet, and while there’s a number of remarkable setpieces (one at a gas station comes most to mind), it’s once again the emotional catharsis he builds that is the most effective element. Midnight Special won’t be like any other alien feature this year, and it’s all the better for it. – Jordan R.

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

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Though vastly more moderate than its predecessor, the ultra-violent A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart continues the director’s move away from the extremely measured, observational style that characterized much of his earlier work. Even as his narratives have become more charged, however, Jia’s thematic focus has remained constant and Mountains May Depart offers his latest reflection on the momentous societal changes that have swept over China as a result of its entry and ascension in the globalized world economy. If A Touch of Sin expressed Jia’s rage at the contemporary impact of capitalist progress on Chinese society, Mountains May Depart is his lament over the direction in which it is headed. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

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