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Zhuo-Ning Su’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Written by on January 7, 2017 

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We all experience drastically different film years. For simple logistical reasons, this Europe-based reviewer has yet been able to see Moonlight, Jackie, Silence, Fences, Lion, I Am Not Your Negro, 20th Century Women and – alas, our collective top film of yearManchester by the Sea. Understandable, then, that my perception of 2016 at the cinemas wouldn’t quite align with that of my colleagues.

Based on the 281 films watched (yeah, this reviewer really gave 2016 its chances), it’s not been the most exciting year cinematically. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of good-great movies were released or screened at festivals these past 12 months – the final list-making proved just as difficult and arbitrary as always. But from the Spotlight-led Oscar season to an edition of Cannes that crowned I, Daniel Blake, accompanied by the overall weak turnout of Chinese-language cinema we’ve gone on about, there did seem to be a shorter supply of instant, unequivocal masterpieces.

That said, it would be a lie to say 2016 didn’t award us with hours and hours of thrill, joy, tears and introspection at the movie houses. For that, and for the stupendously varied forms of artistic expression witnessed, I stay ravished, humbled and grateful.

Here’s my two cents on the most memorable/accomplished/vital works of cinema from 2016.

Honorable Mentions

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10. Little Men (dir. Ira Sachs)

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For all its airy, crisply translucent imagery, this Brooklyn-set coming-of-age story really excels in finding the gray areas and articulating obscure, ambiguous emotions. What’s the right thing to do in an unfortunate housing situation with no bad guys? How to name those scary new feelings that turn boys into little men? With utmost care and sensitivity, Sachs traces inner stirrings almost too delicate for words to build living, breathing, aching characters big and small. Through them we fall in love, have our dreams crushed, remember how we became adults by learning to hide our disappointments and how, secretly, we’re still waiting for someone to call us bluff.

9. Kékszakállú (dir. Gastón Solnicki)

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In a year somewhat short on groundbreakers from experimental cinema, Solnicki’s operatic, radically loose portrait of teens trapped in limbo stood out. The scenes, if they can be called that, are minutely styled and observed, wholly self-centered snippets of life unrelated to one another. The way they deny any attempts at reconstructing a narrative confounds and grates but somehow also mesmerizes and feels tremendously, inexplicably liberating. Composed with spellbinding exactitude, it’s best to just give oneself over to these 72 very strange minutes – and be amazed by how even the cooking of an octopus can look so damn meaningful.

8. The Red Turtle (dir. Michael Dudok de Wit)

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Telling a Genesis-like story about the circle of life sans dialogue, Dudok de Wit’s animated stunner is a masterclass in saying more with less. Plot elements are reduced to those covering the core of the human experience, articulated perfectly through looks, sighs and an abundance of empathy. The exhaustive sweep of 3D imaging is replaced by the simple, charming strokes of hand-drawn pictures as words are scrapped to make room for your eyes and heart to roam. Accomplished in its restraint and expressive prowess, this profoundly moving ode to life illustrates, despite what this ever more divisive world would have you believe, how much we all have in common.

7. Sieranevada (dir. Cristi Puiu)

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People keep opening and closing doors behind them in this vast, deceptively cluttered moral drama set around a bourgeois family dinner in Bucharest. The technical mastery involved is obvious, seeing how the camera fluidly captures everything from room to room without missing a beat. But it’s only after you’ve settled into the film’s aggressively talky setup that its allegorical ambitions manifest themselves. Puiu orchestrates characters, spaces and storylines with level-headed conviction, never forgetting to let the debates take center stage. Even when their full implications don’t immediately come to those of us less enlightened, it’s exciting to be exposed to such an intricately built maze of reason.

6. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

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Leave it to Verhoeven to bring trashy back. The Dutch provocateur considers the psychology of sexual assault and is not shy to let ridiculously inappropriate scenarios play out. Anchored by Isabelle Huppert’s fearless, peerless performance as a victim-turned-predator, whose every verbal retort or facial reaction could trigger nervous laughing fits, the farcical revenge drama hits all the trickiest, most delicious notes between tasteless mockery and feminist propaganda. Ultimately the film might be too conventionally structured to be called high art, but as a jaw-dropping exercise in high-wire camp it’s unforgettable.

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